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Omar Popal – The Urban Escape Artist
In a city full of go-getters Popal and his sibs have built an empire by asking folks to slow down
As a refugee child, Popal grew up in hotels. Years later, his front row seat to hospitality is paying off, one crepe and coffee at a time. We caught up with Popal, the co-owner of Malmaison and Café Bonaparte in Georgetown and Napoleon in Adams Morgan, to get his observations on local neighborhoods and his own enterprises:
Your particular brand of magic: creating the neighborhood meeting place. Why does the café concept work so well in Washington, DC?
OP: You could almost make the argument that there is a lack of them, perhaps? But I think it’s a form of escapism as well. I think our venues allow for that. What’s fantastic about our venues is that they do cater to each neighborhood while still being unique in their own right. Having bounced around the world, living in hotels as a family of refugees I think it was important for us to create little moments that touch peoples' lives, as other moments have touched ours.
We don’t approach the café business from a financial perspective: “What can we do to make money?” It’s more of an emotional perspective. These are our lives so how do we surround ourselves with beauty? Hopefully our places are beautiful enough that they enrich other people’s lives too.
People have a certain idea of what the Georgetown is like: a historic, little village in the city. What have you discovered about this neighborhood? What is something you know about Georgetown that most people wouldn’t know?
OP: I love the C&O Canal. It’s completely under used. There’s a path and you can go from one side to the other. I really love how many important people reside here in Georgetown but you’d never know. And I love how the neighborhood is bookended by two universities: Georgetown and George Washington, so you always have this young, trendy generation coming through, and that keeps the stores pushing the envelope with what they’re offering. You have this wonderful old-meets-new.
And, it’s great when the weather’s nice and people are taking advantage of the little parks and paths and waterways, especially near Malmaison where the old Key Bridge used to be.
And what about Adams Morgan?
OP: Adams Morgan has a different flavor. For me, it’s a lot like New York. You have these young families just starting out, a wonderful park, and it has that New York-y downtown vibe. Sure, on the weekends and at night it caters to a younger crowd, but things are changing. There’s a new hotel coming in and it is so centrally located to everything else: it’s walking distance to Dupont Circle, to the restaurants on 14th Street and U Street, and all the amenities you need are there. We have a Safeway, Harris Teeter and there are little mom-and-pop stores that give the neighborhood character.
When you have friends come to visit, where do you take them?
OP: When people come to town, a lot of the hot spots are the museums, of course. But I try to expose them to the hidden little gems: where the locals go. That’s what everybody wants to experience while they are traveling. There are lines of people outside Georgetown Cupcake, which is fine, but there’s also Baked & Wired.
My friends usually end up coming to one of our three restaurants. If they’re doing some shopping in Georgetown, Café Bonaparte for the afternoon, for dinner: Malmaison and to experience something a little different later on: Napoleon’s basement Champagne lounge.
Who’s your coolest all-time diner?
OP: Robert Duvall having dinner in the back of Café Bonaparte with a group of friends. We’ve had so many celebrities come through but I particularly remember that because of how fond I am of “The Godfather.”
What do you think makes DC Cool?
OP: DC's cool because of how well-educated the people are: they understand and appreciate, and have such discerning taste that you can’t but just do things right. That allows you to be really boutique-y and specific because people understand. It’s not always “spaghetti and meatballs.” It’s a small city so it allows things to spread by word of mouth.
What’s your perfect day in DC?
OP: My perfect day is escaping to the National Gallery of Art and reading a book in one of the atriums that connect the galleries, where the fountains are. Then, lunch at a little café where the coffee is great and the juices are fresh. That would be my day. The evenings? I’m always at the restaurants.