Why Clyde's is closing and what comes next for the Lakefront in Columbia
All of us have our stories and memories from Clyde's. After all, it's been there for 45 years. It's almost as old as Columbia itself. And for decades, it really was one of the only places in town to host a party or celebrate a special occasion. Maybe working at Clyde's was your first job or where you hosted one or a dozen celebrations, or just your go-to place to catch up with friends or grab a burger and beer before a concert at Merriweather, but for whatever the reason may be for you; Clyde's was uniquely special to everybody here in Columbia. Clyde's will not be forgotten and its closure is about as sad and disappointing of a restaurant closure that a Colombian can imagine. It's a venerable institution that will create a void that cannot be easily replaced. So, how did we get here and why did it close? And more importantly, what comes next?
Why Clyde's is Closing
First, after being one of only a few restaurants downtown for decades, in recent years, Clyde's suddenly had a lot more competition. Seasons 52, PF Changs, and Maggiano's opened at the Mall in 2014. Uncle Julio's, Bonchon, Shake Shack, and Cured/18th and 21st all opened in 2018. Clyde's was no longer the only game in town. And while Clyde's certainly has the nostalgia factor and incredible lakeside location, I don't think the upscale saloon-inspired food at Clyde's was the reason that people kept coming back. Their tried and true menu remained more or less the same year after year. Second, the coronavirus crisis has put a tremendous strain on all restaurants, especially large restaurants like Clyde's that are meant to host patrons at their restaurant, with very little takeout and delivery business.
But the primary reason that Clyde's closed was that Clyde's changed ownership last August shortly after the death of John G. Laytham, the co-owner and chief executive of Clyde's Restaurant Group. Laytham joined Clyde's as a dishwasher in 1964 and over his 55 year career helped build the company in a $135 million-a-year operation with 13 restaurants in the DC area, including the original Clyde's in Georgetown, Old Ebbitt Grill, and The Hamilton. Laytham was described as a visionary and creative genius who helped oversee Clyde's expansion, including the opening of our Columbia location in 1975. For over 30 years, Laytham worked closely with Clyde Restaurant Group President Tom Meyer, who joined the company in 1983. Together, they also operated the Tomato Palace for 25 years adjacent to Clyde's before replacing it with the Soundry in 2018. Opening of the Soundry was a passion project for Meyer, who loved music, and described opening the venue as "one of the coolest things he has ever gotten to do." It is clear that Meyer and Laytham were very much committed to Columbia. The same cannot be said for the new ownership group.
A year after the Soundry opened, Laytham died. Then, in August 2019, Meyer sold Clyde's Restaurant Group to Graham Holdings Company, an Arlington company with a $1.8 billion market cap and no ties to the Columbia area or prior experience in the restaurant industry. Graham Holdings is a diversified conglomeration best known for owning the The Washington Post before selling it to Jeff Bezos in 2013. In their 2019 annual report, Graham Holding admits their skepticism and questions the durability and earning power of restaurants. It seems their acquisition of Clyde's was more about acquiring the iconic Old Ebbitt Grill, the oldest restaurant in Washington with a century and half long history of serving presidents, politicians, A-list celebrities, and tourists alike across the street from the White House. It's one of the top 10 highest grossing restaurants in the country. Clearly, they did not have nearly as much commitment to our outpost of Clyde's and may not have ever wanted it all, given its location 30 miles away from it's DC restaurants. Old Ebbitt Grill and the rest of their DC restaurants are mightily struggling as they face the economic realities of COVID, but it is telling that the Columbia restaurants are the only closures they have made.
Increased competition and the coronavirus pandemic certainly have contributed to the closing of Clyde's of Columbia and The Soundry, but I believe that their closures can primarily be attributed to the new ownership group.
What comes next?
So, there you have it. That's the story behind Clyde's closing. But, the question remains, what comes next for Columbia's Lakefront. Currently, there are four restaurant spaces at the Lake; the two in 10310 Wincopin Circle that Clyde's and The Soundry will be vacating; and two next door at 10315 Wincopin Circle, the former home of Lupa's and current home of Sushi Sono. Once Clyde's and the Soundry close next month, only one restaurant will remain open; Sushi Sono. But the future for Columbia's Lakefront is not quite as bleak as it may seem.
In the short-term, the Clyde's space offers hands down the best space for outdoor dining in all of Columbia. There are thousands of square feet of outdoor space between the patio, gazabo, and pedestrian sidewalks, all overlooking beautiful Lake Kittamaqundi. In the age of coronavirus, getting a temporary tenant into this space as soon as possible after Clyde's closes next month would make a ton of sense in order to take advantage of the the rest of the summer and fall season. Some tables, a few kegs of beer, and snacks are all what is really needed for a temporary "beer garden" concept. Hopefully, one of our fantastic local breweries has the entrepreneurial mindset to pursue this idea.
In the medium term, 10310 Wincipin Circle (known as the Teacher's Building because the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association was one of its first tenants) is one of the premier locations at the Columbia Lakefront. It's easily accessible, right next to where all the Lakefront community events and festivals occur, and adjacent to the brand new, amazing already built but not yet open, Millie Bailey Park. Redeveloping Columbia's Lakefront is a major part of the planned 30 year master plan for transforming downtown Columbia, but there are no plans to renovate or update the four-story Teacher's Building. That's because the plan governing downtown Columbia requires this building to be no more than 4 stories. Accordingly, it simply is not economical to replace one four story building with another. Instead, Howard Hughes Corp, which owns this building, will likely be looking for a new restaurant tenant.
In the long term, there are huge plans for the future of the Columbia Lakefront. These plans are still moving forward in spite of the pandemic and there is much to be excited about. Howard Hughes Corp plan for the Lakefront include a new "wellness district", towering glass office buildings, new retail and residential structures, and urban pathways and parks. In the age of coronavirus, bringing in health and fitness-related tenants, such as medical offices and services like chiropractors, nutritionists, and other integrative medicine tenants, seems like a winner. I also think that a dense walkable urban style destination built in a suburban environment with plenty of parking that does not rely on public transit is exactly the the type of development that will be successful in a post-Covid world. Once fully built out, the Columbia Lakefront will be immense and add a lot more density, housing, and connectivity, which will certainly help drive patrons to its tenants. Just check out the below rendering (with labels) of what the Lakefront development will look like at full build out.
The former site of the now demolished American Cities Building to be replaced by a new mix-used development and connection to the Mall
The Teacher's Building, home of Clyde's. This will remain.
The Exhibit Center, which currently holds Sushi Sono, is planned to be replaced by a three- to four-story building with a mix of residential, retail and office uses
Whole Foods and new Millie Bailey Park, just below
Current luxury apartments with ground floor retail and future home of Grill Marx.
Another new mixed use development building will replace current parking garage
The Mall in Columbia
The Sheraton, currently being renovated
Planned new construction
Merriweather Post Pavilion, Merriweather District development, and planned New Cultural Center
(not picture) Out of frame to the north is plans for 1 Sterrett Place Tower, to be built behind the Exxon station. This will be a huge 200,000 square foot glass tower that is supposed to have a significant fitness component, including outdoor yoga deck, medical tenants, and signature restaurant.