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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