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Farewell to the Banana Café

Jorge Garcia-Meitin Zamorano has no firm plans after the Banana Café and Piano Bar (500 Eighth Street SE) closes on December 16th. “I couldn’t tell you for certain what I’m going to do,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is sitting under my favorite tree, and thinking.” He says he’ll be glad to have the time to travel, see friends and go back to school. He wants to learn more about computers — and cooking.

That’s right, cooking. Despite a successful career in the hotel hospitality industry and twenty-five years in four of his own restaurants, Zamorano has never been to cooking school.

Born in Cuba, he and his extended family moved to Puerto Rico when he was just a year old. There, he learned how to cook from his grandmother, a ‘wonderful person’ and fabulous chef who cooked for the whole family.

“As a kid, I never wanted to eat,” he said, “I hated eating.” He mimes pushing food around his plate. “My punishment was to go sit in the kitchen with my grandmother and watch her cook, so I could realize how much work it was.” A strict disciplinarian, he said she would sit him at the small table in the corner in the kitchen, raising one eyebrow as she turned to demonstrate recipes to him, “as if to say, ‘See how much work I’m doing?’ And that’s how I picked up on cooking.”

Zamorano learned something from his punishment –two things, in fact. At around seventeen, he went to school at Loyola in New Orleans and began his career in the food service industry. And he demonstated the Cuban and Puerto Rican recipes that his grandmother had showed him to Walter Gutierrez, his chef for the last 25 years. Together they put them on the menu of the Capitol Hill restaurant together with the Tex-Mex cuisine already on offer when he took over the Lonestar Cantina in the early 1990s.

Zamorano became the owner of that restaurant, which became the Banana Café, almost by accident. An artist by inclination, in 1990 he decided to quit his job as the Director of Food and Beverage Services at the Henley Park Hotel (926 Massachusetts Ave NW) to focus on painting full-time.

As he was painting in his Fifth Street SE house a few months later, his friend Jaime Vargas called him from his restaurant, the Lonestar Cantina, located at Eighth and E St. SE, and asked him to come have a cup of coffee. Zamorano put down his paintbrushes and went over. As the restaurant grew busy, Vargas asked Zamorano to help out. So Zamorano climbed behind the bar in his paint-speckled sweatpants, beginning a year or so of work with his friend that would change the course of his career.

Zamorano with some of his paintings that adorn the restaurant walls.
Banana Cafe and Piano Bar Head Chef Walter Gutierrez has worked at the restaurant for 25 years. He was 18 years old when he and Zamorano began working together. Courtesy: J. Zamorano

When Vargas announced that he was going to sell the restaurant, Zamorano first bought half, then six months later, all of it. He thought he’d run the restaurant for a few months then go back to painting or traveling. Instead, he ended up staying for twenty-five years and running four restaurants during that time, including the Starfish Café down the street and two more in Cumberland, Maryland.

“It’s hard to believe that it really happened twenty-five years ago,” he said.

“When I first got here, people used to say, ‘Why do you want to have a restaurant on Eighth Street? That’s crazy!’ ” he said, recalling that in the early days of the Banana Café he would have to chase away sleeping people from the front of the restaurant and clean empty bottles and trash from the perimeters before he could open the doors.

He said in the days before the internet, people would call to inquire about the restaurant. “When I used to tell them where it was, as soon as I said it’son  Eighth Street SE, people said, ‘Oh my God, no; it’s very dangerous.’

“I used to tell them, listen, come over, have dinner; when you’re finished, I’ll walk you to your car. But before I knew it, I spent all night walking people to their cars,” he said. “That’s how I got people at least to come here. And then little by little people started coming here, and they were less afraid of coming to the area.”

“And then time went by and we turned Banana Café into what it is now, the art, the music, we had the piano bar upstairs. And it has been amazing.”

A Mardi Gras party a few years ago in the upstairs Piano Bar. Zamorano stands with the lounge’s then manager. Photo: Jose Varela
Zamorano poses in the window of the Café, c.1994. An artist, Zamorano used to do a painting annually for a Christmas card. This was that year’s painting. Photo: Jose Varela

He said the employees and the restaurant are like his own family. His family lives in Florida, so it might be a year or more between visits with them, but he sees the employees and the customers every day. He gets a touch emotional recalling the relationships he has built over the last twenty-five years together with his decision to move on.

“I’m very proud of what we did in the area, of how many people I employed. I’m thrilled about the great people we met. I’ve seen so many kids grow up and now they’re bringing their kids here, and that for me –it blows my mind.”

The announcement that the neighborhood landmark was closing resulted in an outpouring of emotion from that community, many of whom recalled the importance of the café in their lives. “When I first moved to Capitol Hill, I didn’t know anybody,” wrote one under the closing announcement posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “I used to have my dinner on the patio and a server named Eddie would make me feel so welcome.”

John Chu says the Café holds a special place in his heart and on the path of his life. He had his first date and his first kiss with Alena Vauter at the Banana Café’s piano bar on October 25, 2012.

John Chu proposes to Alena Vauter October 25, 2014 at the exact spot of their first kiss two years earlier in the Piano Bar of the Banana Cafe. Courtesy: John Chu/BaoMeetsBagel.com

Two years to the day later, a bachelorette party already in progress in the upstairs piano bar suddenly quieted down as the Banana Café’s bartender filmed John as he proposed marriage to Vauter on the exact spot of their first date. 

As he dropped to one knee, the party attendees started chanting, “Say yes! Say yes!” 

She did say yes. The two have now been married for a little over two years and have a son, Liam.

“There’s a few moments in your life you can almost still see or touch in front of you,” Chu said. “So, it certainly is a memorable place for us.”

Zamorano smiles when he hears the story. “We get a lot of that,” he says. “We have a lot of people who have met and fallen in love here.” Zamorano has built more than one part of his life here as he met his own partner of twenty-five years, Darren Love, in the early days of the café. 

Jorge Zamorano and Darren Love met at what is now the Banana Cafe and have been running the business together for 25 years. Photo courtesy Jose Varela

“It’s a great community, and I’m excited to see everything that has happened.”

So why walk away?

“When you start getting to my age, the reality hits you,” he said. “You realize that you have a certain amount of time left.”

He said that as a restaurant owner, he really needed to be constantly present. “I know that for the things I want to do, I need time.”

He adds that he realized he would need to make some renovations to the restaurant in the near future. If he did that, he would want to commit to a few more years. It was the impetus he needed.

“Internally I have a lot of conflict in letting go of it and saying goodbye to all the people that I’ve met and all the employees,” he said. “I had a lot of restless nights. It’s big –I’m letting go of my baby.”

The building was sold to Whitestar Investments in mid-November. They take possession after closing on December 16th, the final day of the Banana Café. Zamorano said he believes they will renovate for another restaurant.

“I’m excited somebody’s going to take it and fix it up,” he said, “because I feel it is the best location on the street.”

But it is the end of an era for Zamorano, and for the Capitol Hill community. Zamorano’s Banana family seems torn between grief and best wishes.

“Thanks for 25 fabulous years, Jorge, Darren, and you all!” one wrote on social media, accompanied by several heart emojis. “We’ll miss you so much, and wish you all the best!”

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