Channeling our Inner Southwest

The Channel Inn Closes as Wharf Rebuilding Begins

A monthly gathering has been taking place for about 20 years at Channel Inn’s Pier 7.  The last luncheon took place there on Friday, March 21st. The AOI have a membership of about 360, but usually see over 100 people attending the monthly luncheon – that offers a three course meal, free parking, great service, a view and friendship – all for $25. Photo: Bill Brown

Manny Fernandez created the Channel Inn, an institution where Washingtonians have been making memories for over 40 years. “I’ve been in this business all of my life,” says Ferenendez who arrived in Miami from Havana, Cuba in 1949 when he was just 17. After a short time at the university where he was studying architecture, he left school to pursue a calling in the hospitality industry. He worked at Miami’s Fontainebleau, and also the Greenbrier, where he met his wife Alma, before making a permanent move to Washington.

Marge Francese, resident of the Southwest neighborhood and chief of staff for former Ward 6 councilmember Sharon Ambrose, says she’s been a regular at the Channel Inn. “You never go in without Manny greeting you with a hug and a kiss. He’s been in the business since he was a kid. It reminds me of the fifties and the sixties with real tablecloths and nicely dressed waiters, all very accommodating. It’s sad that it’s the end of an era.”

Typically enjoying two meals a day at the restaurant, the dining room is home away from home for Fernandez. He’s proud of the fact that everything is made in-house, and that he has made so many friends over the years. “I believe in the community here and have always wanted to make everyone feel at home.”

The Channel Inn was created during urban renewal, but when deciding on the décor, Fernandez visited the Library of Congress to research what existed along the waterfront in earlier times. He wanted to give the impression of long-time establishment.

Fernandez has a personal collection of historic photos and nautical artifacts that decorate the corridors and different venues throughout the Channel Inn– the Engine Room (with a steam engine), a jazz bar with live entertainment, the Dry Dock for breakfasts, the Pier 7 Restaurant for lunches and dinners, as well as the banquet room accommodating up to 200 people.

The Breakfast Club

Lucille Pringle started working with Manny Fernandez at his earlier District venture, the Embers, before he opened the Channel Inn. She heads up the Dry Dock, or as it’s affectionately known, Lucy’s Café. A number of regulars from the neighborhood enjoy breakfast here each morning, in addition to overnight hotel guests.

Clarence Harper, an attorney who lives in the Southwest neighborhood has been coming to Lucy’s Café for breakfast just about every morning since the mid-1970s. He is appreciative of the convenient location, free parking for dining guests, and overall great value.

“I regard it as a real loss. I’ve even had a few family reunions held at Channel Inn over the years,” and notes that he has planned a gathering of family and friends there before the doors close.

Dr. Coralie Farlee, president of the Friends of Southwest points out that the Channel Inn has seen guests from all over – Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, in addition to those at the nearby Gangplank Marina’s liveaboard community. “The point is that it’s been a good neighborly place to stay and eat – there’s even a birthday group that celebrates together.” Farlee started coming to Lucy’s Café in 1990 and has made a number of close friends, and an especially good one in Lucille Pringle.

Pringle has seen a range of guests from Capitol Hill notables like Cong. Bennie Thompson (Mississippi) and Jerry Nadler (New York), to actor Al Freeman and the members of Duke Green’s Ham Hock Committee. Says Pringle, “I’ll really miss the customers – they’re all so special here – and we have such a great group of employees who have been working together for twenty years and longer.”

Vasser and Legrande Baldwin have been coming to Lucy’s Café from their home in Hillcrest for over 25 years. Vasser is a former assistant principal from Ketcham Elementary, while Legrande is a former principal from Maury Elementary. He used to bring principals to Channel Inn for meetings. “We’re typically weekenders – and there’s always stimulating conversation, either about politics or local issues. It’s a real gathering place, a tremendous resource for the community. We’re hopeful the new place is able to accommodate a personal touch that we were able to get with the Channel Inn. Lucy is an absolute jewel and we’re definitely going to miss this place.”

George Harley who owns a car service, is a frequent breakfast patron. He’s been coming to the Channel Inn since 1975. “In the earlier years I often went to the Engine Room, as it was one of the few places you could go for dancing, socializing and listening to live music.  So many groups over the years have performed here – it used to be a little more of a formal place where men would wear suit and tie, women would wear dresses.”

Sophisticated Dining

The other dining venue at the Channel Inn is the Pier 7 restaurant. As soon as you walk into the mahogany lined room with tufted red leather banquets, the seasoned wait staff anticipates every need. 

You might see actors and stage personnel from nearby Arena Stage here, as well as Arena’s executive producer, Edgar Dobie. Dobie came to live in Southwest with his wife, Tracy about five years ago with their infant daughter.

Says Dobie, “When we first started coming here, we learned about ‘Zelda’s table’ (referring to Zelda Fichlander, founder of Arena Stage) and have had our designers and others stay here, too – it’s our own little community center.”

A favorite waiter is Maroun Sakr, a veteran of the restaurant for 23 years.  Tracy states, “Maroun is like family – he has a great sense of humor and more importantly, can make a dinner table in a city you hardly know feel like you have just returned home from a long journey.”

Founded in 1865, the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants (AOI) of the District of Columbia, has conducted their luncheon meetings here for more than half the time Channel Inn has been open. “We’ve valued the plated, three-course luncheon, accommodations and complimentary parking, not to mention the outstanding view. We’ll all really miss Manny and Alma, their courteous wait staff and their hospitality,” says Bill Brown, President of AOI.

A Place to See and Be Seen

The Engine Room has hosted many local bands, and in 2012, the African American Music Association chose the Channel Inn for their annual birthday celebration of musician Marvin Gaye, a star born and raised in Southwest. It’s also been said that there were times when you could hear Councilmember Marion Barry singing a song or two on the Engine Room stage.

Councilmember Tommy Wells has conducted “Community Office Hours” at the Channel Inn for the last eight years.  While he says that the work on the Waterfront will be transformative, he gives credit to the tremendous work put forth by generations who have made this area a home and community. “Manny Fernandez and Channel Inn have played a central role in this community and an important role in the history of this city. They will leave an indelible legacy.”

Former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose says, “The Channel Inn has been a charming place on the waterfront, and Manny Fernandez has been enormously generous to the community for neighborhood events. It’s a gathering place for people – and it’s really a grown-up place, whether for lunch or reunions – it will be missed.”

President of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, Kael Anderson, who moved to the neighborhood ten years ago says, “It’s our neighborhood place – people go for breakfast, hear the latest news or have a nice dinner.  Manny Fernandez really invested in the Channel Inn and created a sense of place.”

One of the spring highlights along the waterfront is the annual Cherry Blossom festival. Barbara Ehrlich, a National Cherry Blossom Festival board member says that Fernandez has always encouraged more waterfront activities during the festival – and even hosted several related events in the hotel. “It’s such a diverse community here,” says Ehrlich who has lived in Southwest for over 40 years, “and the Channel Inn, our warm and fuzzy place, will be missed.”

After the loss of other neighborhood establishments like Hogates and Zanzibar, many diners are hopeful that there’s a wonderful place to come in the different phases of the development– especially one that is accessible to the neighborhood’s middle class.

“We’re hopeful we’ll soon see a place with a similar camaraderie and civility that we don’t often have the opportunity to see any longer,” says ANC6D Commissioner, Andy Litsky,

As of publication, a ‘Legacy Celebration’ has taken place and Pier 7 has served its last dinner, but you still have an opportunity to enjoy a breakfast at Lucy’s Café through the end of April – try her popular corned beef hash or grits.