Washington’s long summer days invite us to linger over a book, and maybe enjoy a drink and a snack at one of the city’s hundreds of sidewalk cafés. Ubiquitous today, it wasn’t until 1961 that DC became host to its first sidewalk eatery, Bassin’s, at 14th and E Streets, NW. From 1959 to 1961, Bassin’s owner Harry P. Zitelman successfully battled city officials for permission to open an outdoor café. If you enjoy dining al fresco during Washington’s sultry summers, then you will agree that Zitelman’s victory is your victory.
Max Bassin opened his eponymous restaurant in 1939 at 1347 E Street, NW, in partnership with his wife Sarah and her brother Harry Zitelman. Bassin and the Zitelmans were all children of Jewish immigrants who had come to Washington in search of educational and economic opportunities. Bassin’s was primarily a lunch spot, offering corned beef sandwiches, hot dogs and other typical deli fare to workers in nearby federal and press office buildings.
In 1949, Max left the business to focus on real estate ventures. Joined by their brother George, Harry and Sarah launched an effort to remake Bassin’s into a landmark destination for politicians, journalists, entertainers and tourists based on the restaurant’s proximity to newspapers, federal offices and several theaters including the National and the Warner.
Over the next decade, Bassin’s expanded into adjoining storefronts, adding dancing, concert and lounge areas on additional floors. A small bar area catered to journalists and had a teletype in the corner so they could keep eye on breaking news. In 1959, Harry had the idea of introducing sidewalk dining to recreate the ambiance of European cafés. At the time, though, DC’s zoning regulations probited restaraunts from offering sidewalk service.
Why Would Anybody Want to Eat Outside?
Over the next two years, Harry led the charge to promote sidewalk seating at restaurants. Reception of the proposal was cold among some in the public. For example, Gwendolyn Cafritz, a prominent social figure and Jewish philanthropist, told The Washington Post, “Washington is just perfect the way it is. I don’t think the tempo of Washington is suited to sidewalk cafes. Nobody would have time to sit in them.” Leonard Carmichael, secretary of the Smithsonian, told The Post that he “enjoyed looking at sidewalk cafes in Spain and Rome, but I’m not sure I would enjoy them in Washington.”
The city’s Board of Commissioners (similar to a city council) rejected Zitelman’s request, citing Prohibition-era laws banning the consumption of alcohol in public. Even when Zitelman proposed selling only food, Commissioners balked. In a Commission meeting in February 1961, many argued that sidewalk cafes would lead to crises in sanitation, public health, public safety and street crime. The Washington Post featured a satirical sketch (right) illustrating these issues.
However, Chief Commissioner Walter N. Tobriner dismissed these concerns, arguing “anything which would enhance the innocent enjoyment of Washington…should be allowed.” The proposal faced little opposition at a public hearing the following June, and, ultimately, the hesitant officials relented.
The Zitelmans opened “The Sidewalk at Bassin’s” on August 8, 1961, though the restaurant only won permission to serve alcohol in the sidewalk café the following year. Less than two years later, DC boasted at least 20 restaurants offering sidewalk service. Today, there are hundreds.
All About the Atmosphere
Zitelman intended for “The Sidewalk at Bassin’s” to reflect the cosmopolitan and international character of life in Washington. The restaurant’s advertisements played up this quality. Although Bassin’s continued to offer a delicatessen menu, its atmosphere was characterized by panache and the feeling of being abroad. The Washington Post shared that with the opening of The Sidewalk at Bassin’s, “Washington instantly acquired a more sophisticated air, as more than 500 would-be boulevardiers crowded Bassin’s outdoor tables.”
Like so many bygone downtown establishments, Bassin’s struggled to bounce back following the 1968 riots. Harry and his siblings sold the restaurant to a Vietnamese family in 1976, and a fire gutted the building in 1978. It was demolished a few years later to make way for a new building. In spite of Bassin’s demise, a 1979 historic buildings survey from the Department of the Interior labeled the building “Bassin’s Restaurant.”
If you find yourself whiling away a summer afternoon at your favorite sidewalk café, take a moment to toast the memory of Bassin’s.
Top photo: Sidewalk dining area of Bassin’s Restaurant at 1347 E Street, NW, Library of Congress, 1970s.