Each year Washingtonians of all ages flock to beaches up and down the Atlantic. Come summer, on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons the Bay Bridge looks like a parking lot as families, GenXers, and Baby Boomers all creep to or from a weekend at the shore.
Thanks to Bo Blair and David Scribner, Spring Valley residents can find that resort atmosphere here in Spring Valley at Millie’s -- year-round. ”You feel like you’re at the beach, not in DC. Right?” Blair says. That’s exactly what the two had in mind when they set out to transform what once had been a gas station into a little bit of Nantucket here in DC. In sitting down to discuss just how Millie’s became Millie’s, it’s clear how grateful, pleased, and proud they are about how it all came together — and how delighted they are that so many people of all ages enjoy the food, fun, and little bit of vacation during each visit.
The story begins on the New England island of Nantucket, where, as Washingtonians working there just out of college, Bo and David crossed paths. They shared an appreciation of the carefree summer beach life to be found there, as well as the seafood. In time, this resulted in their developing the first Millie’s (opened in Nantucket in 2010), a seasonal restaurant that featured seafood appetizers with a Baja twist. It was a rousing success.
The name? There was, indeed, a real person named Millie, but she was by then already long deceased. “Madaket Millie” Jewett had been a legendary figure in the local Nantucket community embodying the self-reliant spirit of the island. She patrolled the coastline and watched for shipwrecks; as a result, she earned the highest rank in the US Coast Guard. Naming the Madaket Beach as well as the Washington restaurant for her and displaying her image on the outside wall paid homage to a local person who represented the very spirit of Nantucket.
The challenge: Could the vacation vibe found at the Madaket Beach Millie’s, at the end of Nantucket Island, be duplicated at a kindred second restaurant in the land-locked DC residential community of Spring Valley? What elements would be critical?
Finding a suitable structure was the first challenge. Bo and David sought a place that would conjure up the magic of an open space for informal outside dining and an enclosed indoor restaurant with a welcoming bar and décor that was reminiscent of Nantucket.
The possibility of developing a new business at a historic gas station might present strong negatives to some entrepreneurs. The open frontage and smallish building footprint might not seem to provide the opportunity needed to make a reasonable return on investment. Yet to Bo and David, its quintessentially American character and physical features offered exactly what they needed to work with. The broad, paved apron in front, where autos used to fill up, gave them valuable open space as the “beach,” once picnic tables and umbrellas were installed. Bo says, “There are not many locations that have that kind of potential capacity, with that big of a patio.” In fact, according to Bo and David, this was the most appealing feature of all about the place. As Bo puts it, “The outdoor space is key,” conveying the feeling of being on vacation.
The service station motif of the one-time Exxon outlet was preserved in the period-piece canopy out front that had covered the gas pump bay. Other aspects of the place were also quite attractive. The Colonial Revival brick and slate roof building contained an inside ceiling of ribbed concrete; this revealed the true industrial function of the building and, when painted, complemented the casual atmosphere they wanted to convey. In addition, there was enough room outside so that the limited interior space could be expanded with the addition of a glass-enclosed wing at one end to accommodate a suitable bar, and its outer wall could be outfitted with sliding glass doors that suggested both the former gas station and a casual indoor/outdoor beach business. Bo points out that the restaurant “didn’t have to have garage doors,” but it went over well when the city agency reviewed the plans. An ice cream window could offer the quintessential summer casual, standup (or sit-down) dessert experience for children and adults alike. Curving pavers could even be installed to suggest the pathway into the gas station for a fill ‘er up. Even the service road out front was a definite plus, providing on-street parking and separating the restaurant from the busy Massachusetts Avenue traffic.
The restauranteurs knew what they wanted and worked closely with their architect to bring it to life. From start to finish, it took a year and a half. Although the former gas station was a shell when they bought it and would be a “total remodel, everything,” Bo and David benefited from the work that had been done previously when Chicken Out Restaurant had won approval to turn the building into a restaurant. This included removing the underground gasoline tanks that had contained gasoline, to meet applicable environmental standards, as well as obtaining approval from the Historic Preservation Board for repurposing the property. The original Esso gas station, designed and built by Miller in 1936, was considered architecturally significant and thus subject to legal protection.
What décor would be suitable for the new restaurant? Obviously nautical. The dramatic 1900s wood boat hanging from the center of the ceiling originally came from Maine, where it was originally in a museum. A collector had it in his Silver Spring garage. Its crossed paddles are displayed along the wall. Bo says, “The boat is the centerpiece, décor-wise, for the restaurant — the first thing we picked out.” On the back wall are a colorful collection of additional paddles. The metal window frames on the vestibule of the restaurant, as well as the metal cabinet inside, are from the Philadelphia library. Reclaimed wood has been used. Pictures on the wall feature Millie (including one with her long-time friend Mr. Rogers) and Nantucket scenes. And on the other wall, the classic nautical points of the compass and the mileage distances of far-flung ports around the world. Bo describes it as the “signature” part of the restaurant. It is based on something similar on display in the center of town in Nantucket. The wall colors: white. The banquettes: blue.
The menu? As Executive Chef Scribner points out, half the dishes, including the taco and quesadilla appetizers, are taken right from the first Millie’s restaurant in Nantucket. Among the most popular appetizers are the pot stickers and the yellowfin tuna poke, which is sometimes ordered as a lunch meal alone. Entrees have been added. This includes nine dinner salads with proteins, and mostly seafood entrees. As Bo notes, “How many places can you go where you have that kind of variety, to have an entrée salad, where you have a full meal?” The entrée salads most in demand are the Cliff Road blackened salmon and the Jackson Point Parmesan crusted chicken. Among the entrees, a particularly popular choice is the Eel Point seared rare tuna. Bo comments that half of the whole menu represents “David’s greatest hits” through the years in all the restaurants he worked, including in Nantucket. The distinctive bar beverage of choice: the frozé, a strong icy rose-and-vodka cocktail made with strawberry purée and fresh lemon.
The cozy interior size of the building which houses Millie’s helps generate the convivial party atmosphere that prevails when the space fills up during dining hours. If the hard edges and high ceiling of the former gas station shell result in an inside dining sound level that can become somewhat elevated, it only contributes to the fun feeling of the place.
Millie’s restaurant has been a runaway success since its opening in 2017. It heads up the food and beverage retail row that now also includes Starbucks Coffee, Compass Coffee, Paradiso Pizza, and Bluestone Lane. In 2019, Michelin name it to its Bib Gourmand List, which showcases “restaurants offering exceptional food at moderate prices.”
The Georgetown Events restaurant group that runs Millie’s also scores great success with its Jetties and Surfside restaurants and others, and soon will open a second Due South in Chevy Case. The team continues to delight additional customers, opening another Surfside restaurant in May of this year in the center of Nantucket where the boat comes in and another Millie's in Connecticut.
Not surprisingly, the demographic here is well suited to an upscale seafood restaurant: plenty of families, and sophisticated diners who eagerly embrace the place as a local treasure, including a number who have also eaten at Millie’s on Nantucket. David comments that “we wanted everyone, from kids to older people, to like it, and they do, and be part of it.” Bo adds that “it can be almost anything,” including a place for family and friends, business colleagues, birthdays, or dates.
And the draw of clientele does not stop at the District line. Nearby Marylanders also have come in droves, some from even as far away as Potomac, wanting a different dining experience without driving all the way into downtown DC.
Millie’s is a commercial enterprise, but it serves a valuable civic purpose as well. Spring Valley lacks its own community center. The Miller organization originally provided one in Wesley Heights for both communities, but it has long since closed. As a substitute, Millie’s patio is a place where residents can and do meet and greet each other, and children and pets are welcome.
Restaurants in the DC area, as elsewhere, are varied as to cuisine and décor. “Feel-good” dining experiences, however, which offer a truly enticing atmosphere, are rare. They satisfy a basic need that we have. Here, within the city limits, being able to step right next door into a come-as-you-are, upbeat Nantucket beach party with Baja-inspired seafood is just the thing. That’s why we keep coming back for more.