Eric Hilton's experiences over the past two decades have made him the ideal business man for D.C.
From entrepreneur to DJ to Grammy nominee, Eric Hilton wears many hats. In D.C., he’s known for helping build a hospitality industry dynasty consisting of several successful bars and restaurants in the area with business partners including younger brother Ian Hilton. Internationally, he’s known as one half of Thievery Corporation, the electronica-rooted DJ duo who earned a Grammy nod in 2008 for their album Radio Retaliation. For the Rockville, Md. native, the transition from one medium to the next has been a slow burn that’s made him quite observant about the city, its changes and what those changes mean for artists.
A veteran of D.C.'s nightlife scene, Hilton cut his teeth as a DJ around the city prior to opening or investing in a string of successful bars and restaurants. His segue from music junkie to businessman began in 1995 when he opened Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) with fellow investors. It’s there that he met friend and collaborator Rob Garza, the other half of Thievery Corporation. Though the lounge has been praised in the nearly two decades since its inception, part of its legend is its strict door policy—an exclusive "fuck you" to the average partygoer. However, Hilton says this is a fallacy.
"We got this really bad rap when we opened Eighteenth Street Lounge, which is a very unpretentious place," he says. "We kind of wanted to keep it hush hush for our friends, but once you were in, it was like a house party. I think that rep stuck with us for a little while." Relaxed settings have actually been a common theme at Hilton’s establishments—something he takes great pride in. "I like places that aren’t pretentious," he elaborates.
Given the laid back nature and stellar music at the various venues he’s behind, many assume there’s a direct correlation between Hilton’s success in the hospitality and music industries. According to Hilton, this is a misconception. "They’re completely separate," he explains. "I already opened [Eighteenth Street Lounge] and was DJing there, and we didn’t release our first record until a year and a half to two years after the lounge was open. I just never quit my day job, basically." That ability to straddle lines has been instrumental to Hilton’s success.
Powered by ESL, Thievery Corporation’s popularity, and intrigued by the prosperity of D.C. restaurant magnate Joe Englert, Hilton and his business partners sought out D.C.'s historic U Street Corridor, an area he was drawn to for its potential. This led to the birth of Marvin on Northwest 14th Street, followed by its neighbor, the Gibson, and Patty Boom Boom around the corner. American Ice Company, Brixton and Satellite Room soon followed, each in close proximity. The most recent additions, El Rey and Marvin’s other neighbor, Den of Thieves, both opened last month. Hilton was attracted to the sector because, well, it was available.
I basically just came in here finding abandoned buildings. Marvin was an abandoned building. American Ice Company—abandoned building. El Rey was an open lot. Brixton was an abandoned building...When you see abandoned buildings in an area that really should be more vibrant, it’s kind of a no-brainer.
"I basically just came in here finding abandoned buildings. Marvin was an abandoned building. American Ice Company—abandoned building. El Rey was an open lot. Brixton was an abandoned building," he says. "When you see abandoned buildings in an area that really should be more vibrant, it’s kind of a no-brainer." All are unique in their own right, but Marvin is the rara avis of the group.
"I hate it when people call it 'Marvin’s,'" he says jokingly of the Belgian-influenced restaurant and bar he opened in honor of native son, Marvin Gaye. "It’s a tribute; the man does not own the restaurant."
Inspired by Gaye's period of exile in Belgium, Marvin is considered the flagship of the dynasty Hilton has helped forge since its opening in 2007. 2014 marks an important year for Marvin, as what would've been Gaye's 75th birthday falls on Apr. 2, a day after the 30th anniversary of his murder. Marvin celebrates the legend's birthday annually, and though Hilton is tight-lipped about the details, he hints that this year's event is going to be slightly different.
"We always have this band from Virginia Beach come up that actually has some people in it that played with Marvin Gaye. [This year] we’ll also probably have three or four really good DJs that night playing Marvin-heavy playlists," Hilton reveals.
But that’s one of my favorite things about D.C., too—you do get this refresh of people with different administrations and even different Congresspeople. I do like that; it doesn’t get too stale with the population.
According to Hilton, both the restaurant's name and concept are as much an ode to D.C.'s history as they are to Gaye himself. "A lot of people at the time knew that Marvin Gaye was from the city and even went to Cardozo High School and, for me, when this restaurant opened, it was the blossoming era of people appreciating D.C. history and trying to figure out who's from here a little bit more beyond Duke Ellington. Now you have the Howard Theatre reopening and all of that," he explains.
Maintaining the city's legacy is as important to Hilton as preserving the background of places he renovates. In 2012, he opened Chez Billy, an ode to previous occupant Billy Simpson's House of Seafood and Steaks. The restaurant served as a pillar of the District's African-American community during the Civil Rights Movement, remaining prominent until it closed during the late 1970s following Simpson’s death in 1975. It was ultimately added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. For Hilton, connecting with a city's past is just as critical as becoming well-versed in its nightlife culture. However, he acknowledges that this is a challenging task given D.C.'s transient nature.
"It’s difficult for people to learn about [D.C.'s history], but that’s the thing about D.C.—you have so many people that just come and go," he says. "But that’s one of my favorite things about D.C., too—you do get this refresh of people with different administrations and even different Congresspeople. I do like that; it doesn’t get too stale with the population."
There’s been a great deal of discussion about D.C.’s multiplying population and the explosion of restaurants and condos along Northwest 14th Street, fueled primarily by the city’s "gentrification overdrive." Despite feeling like the area south of 14th & U might be getting too crowded, Hilton embraces the city's growth. In fact, he believes D.C. could withstand more people.
I personally enjoy the density because I still feel like D.C. is an underpopulated city.
"I personally enjoy the density because I still feel like D.C. is an underpopulated city," he admits. "In the '40s, there were 900,000 people here; now it’s like 650,000. It bottomed out around 580,000 or 550,000, and everyone is like, 'D.C. is growing so much,' but if you really look at it, over the last 20 years, we’ve only gone from like 550,000 to 650,000. That’s not blowing up."
Hilton's interest in city life developed as a reaction to his cloistered upbringing in the D.C. suburbs. "I’m pretty much an urbanist," he reveals. "I grew up in the suburbs. I always wondered why they sucked, and as I became an adult, I processed it and confirmed my dislike. All of my friends that are becoming empty-nesters want to move back into the city and I’m like, 'Well, why don’t you? You want to just die in your cul-de-sac?' You can raise kids in the sheltered environment, and then they go, and then you just die there. Come into the city—you can walk around, there’s probably a good restaurant, there’s probably a good store, and you don’t have to drive as much."
Regardless of how Hilton feels about the pull of suburban comfort or D.C.'s flexibility, the elephant in the room is its rising cost of living. This concerns him because it's made it more difficult for artists to sustain themselves. "I’m starting to worry about the fate of artists and musicians because any sort of electronic art—music, film or anything—is considered free now to the consumer," he says with solicitude. "[The cost of living is] going to accelerate the exodus of artists because they're making less while D.C. is costing more, so it’s common sense that you’re going to see fewer artists. I don’t like that."
Despite his unease about the future of art as a viable career in D.C., Hilton doesn't feel that creative types need to leave the city to succeed. "If you’re in music and you think going to L.A. is going to impact your music career, you’re probably wrong. You just have to make good music, someone will find you," he says straightforwardly. "Look at the Black Keys, they’re a pretty successful rock band and they’re from Akron, Ohio. The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma City, and they live there—both those bands live in their respective towns."
Even with Hilton's position as a local legend firmly cemented, he remains refreshingly modest. This becomes evident when he refuses to take credit for the mythical "Hilton brothers' empire" that he and his brother have supposedly created. "Oh, I hate that 'Hilton brothers' stuff. My brother hates that too, because whatever we do, we do with other people. We work in a collection of friends," he says candidly. "My partners from Eighteenth Street Lounge are my partners in Marvin and in Gibson and Patty Boom Boom."
"I always feel this twinge when I hear ['the Hilton brothers'] because I think of Freddy Paxton, my good friend, who owns part of Dixon Wine Bar and invested in El Rey. Joe Reza—American Ice Company is like, 80 percent Joe Reza in terms of his input and thought. I just think it’s lazy, like 'Oh, the Hilton Brothers.' It makes for good copy or something."
Oh, I hate that 'Hilton brothers' stuff. My brother hates that too, because whatever we do, we do with other people. We work in a collection of friends.
Much like the respect he exhibits for the people that he does business with, Hilton’s respect for the city shines bright. There’s no arguing that he’s benefited from its gentrification, but his deep appreciation for D.C.—and city life, in general—has made him conscious of its historic worth while remaining responsive to its changes. The respectful repurposing of Chez Billy and creation of Marvin are evidence.
Through this achievement, Hilton has conquered the businessman’s challenge of being both successful and sensitive. Attribute that to the artist inside of him and his decision not to quit his day job. It’s made him the impresario that D.C needs as it evolves.
However, Hilton says that he's finally slowing down. "El Rey was sort of the last thing we planned on doing. I’m chillin’ for now; I’m really trying to just double-back and work on places that need a little TLC and stuff like that. I told someone the other day that it’s kind of like having kids—you can keep having kids, but you have to raise them eventually. Just because a kid is new doesn’t mean it’s loveable, so you have to work with it."
However, if Hilton were in expansion mode (which he insists he isn't), he points to North Capitol Street as a sleeper location. "I’m totally calling North Capitol," he says of the divider between the city's Northwest and Northeast regions. "If somebody is young, wants to do some cool bar, be pioneering and get some cheap space, I would say go down to North Capitol. That area looks like it has a lot of promise."
Considering Hilton's track record, that is probably sound advice. He might beat everyone to it, should he get the urge again.
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