Special Neighborhood Hang Out: Say Cheese!
By January 17, 2023 0 1220•
“I never thought my little café would become such a popular neighborhood hangout,” said Suzy Nabil, owner and some would say “the Spirit” of Say Cheese! at 1132 29th St. NW.
Nabil spoke enthusiastically, with her usual big smile, as she turned to her grill and flipped a golden butter-toasted sandwich stacked with hot roast beef slices and melted cheese dripping from its sides onto a plate alongside a small bowl of her rich homemade pumpkin lentil soup. “I have so many regular customers who come in mornings to evenings from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. to eat and talk – talk about everything! They’re from all different backgrounds, workers, young professionals, shop owners and their staffs. And so many say they come here because of me! I never expected that!”
The large curved windows fronting the sidewalk of the narrow building on 29th Street just doors from M Street and across from the busy side entrance of the Four Seasons Hotel, had long attracted Nabil as a site for her dream café, she told The Georgetowner.
Nabil fixed and painted the once abandoned building, added wood furniture, cabinets and an open kitchen with bold yellows, turquoises, greens. Colorful benches with pillows are usually filled with customers sitting in the long afternoon sun on most days — talking. The walls are filled with artwork and the long tables with tall stools against the windows are piled with magazines and newspapers (including The Georgetowner) that everyone picks up and reads, according to Nabil. You don’t see many customers hunched over their computers for hours. A young man in his twenties and an older woman in her 70s often come around 5 p.m. and talk. Workmen in overalls, ladies who lunch and not just a few well known journalists and politicians come often (columnist George Will says it’s his favorite lunch place by far).
Nabil is not new to the eatery business. For more than 20 years, she and her husband have owned the popular Wisemiller’s deli next to Georgetown University at 1236 36th St. NW. They bought it while her husband was studying for his Ph.D. in classical literature at Georgetown and working at the deli part time. He had an undergraduate business degree in business, she in mechanical engineering, but somehow, they found they loved the deli business.
About ten years ago they opened a smaller deli café with sandwiches, coffee and smoothies on Wisconsin Avenue – Wisey’s. “It was instantly successful and fun,” Nabil said with a smile. “But the pandemic and university closings hit it hard. We closed it down for good. Still, I had always wanted to have my own café so I started this. I did it for myself and now its success makes me happy.”
Until now, Nabil has run a one-person shop doing everything. When the café is full of people eating and standing in line to order her made-in-person sandwiches, salads, soups, smoothies and desserts, they sometimes must wait a good 15 minutes. Sometimes the used dishes pile up on a side table. “It’s like a busy home kitchen,” she says. “People tell me they feel like they’re at home.”
“I do need to get some help but it’s all so expensive,” Nabil says. Everything has increased in price.” Including the building. Nabil had a flexible contract with the former helpful owner Alan Gaunoux. But last year he sold her building and the ones he owned along M Street. The dozen or so stores – many who’ve been there for decades – have been told they’ll have to leave possibly by spring 2023.
Nabil told The Georgetowner that she received a letter instructing her to vacate the property in March.
“I would hate to see this close. I’ve put so much work into it. I know the people who work and live near here love it. It’s now one of the only cafes left in this area. But I’m not sure I can do it all over again.”