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.