When Thoi Van Nguyen and Ngoc Anh Tran fled the Vietnam War and arrived in the nation’s capital in 1979, they were hopeful. The married couple didn’t speak English, and had no family or friends nearby — but they did possess two invaluable tools: a robust work ethic and an armful of vibrant Vietnamese recipes.
They leveraged those tools to open restaurants, including Cleveland Park’s Nam Viet, which closed Sunday after operating for 20 years at 3419 Connecticut Ave. NW. General manager Richard Nguyen — the founders’ son — told The Current the decision was the result of a lack of business, as well as the fatigue of his 65-year-old mother, known affectionately to regulars as “Mrs. Thoi.”
The couple’s story embodies the American dream, their son said. Four years after they immigrated, they “took a leap” and opened a 13-seat Vietnamese eatery, My-An, in Arlington, Va., in 1983. The couple soon traded the tiny restaurant for a larger Arlington venue, Nam Viet — which remains in operation today. In 1997, the Nguyens unveiled a Cleveland Park location, to immediate success — customers were charmed by the colorful dishes and earnest hosts who treated guests like family.
When Thoi Van Nguyen died of a heart attack 12 years ago, his son stepped up. Richard Nguyen began his Nam Viet career at age 12 — an experience he reflects on fondly. “It taught me to be humble and hard-working. I still use these skills today,” he said.
Richard’s jolly, disarming manner has made him a Cleveland Park luminary over the years — just ask his loyal band of regulars. And last week, residents swarmed the restaurant to say their final goodbyes.
“It was crazy. We were giving hour-and-a-half, two-hour waits,” Richard said. “It had never been like that before.”
Pastor John Ball journeyed two hours from St. Mary’s City, Md., Friday night, to enjoy a final meal with plenty of his family’s favorite — spring rolls. “It’s the best Vietnamese food in the city. The country, really. It’s the best I’ve ever tried,” Ball said as he waited for a table at Nam Viet, in a line snaking out the door.
Another regular, Shirli Hughes, views Richard as a nephew. “He’s just so kind and warm. I’m always trying to set him up with people,” Hughes told The Current. “I almost cried when I found out [about the closure].”
Cleveland Park resident Craig Kennedy spent Saturdays at Nam Viet for 20 years. “It’s great food, great value, and Richard really makes an effort,” Kennedy said in an interview. Kennedy isn’t finished with Nam Viet, planning to resume his Saturday lunches at the Arlington location.
Nam Viet isn’t the only Cleveland Park eatery to endure too many quiet nights. The area’s catalog of quirky venues have borne the brunt of a city where a handful of inner-city areas have shifted quickly from half-vacant to hip. Ripple, another Cleveland Park mainstay since its 2010 opening, closed its doors last week, too.
Susan Lihn, co-chair of the Cleveland Park Business Association and longtime owner of neighboring gift shop Wake Up Little Suzie, is gravely concerned about the area’s apparent stagnancy. “My business is definitely down. So many small businesses are struggling,” Lihn said in an interview.
While a D.C. Department of Transportation proposal to revitalize the street offers some hope, Lihn said, such plans take time to come to fruition. “We need to explore every option. More offices, for example,” Lihn said. “Most other Metro stops have become more vibrant … except for Cleveland Park.”
Elected officials are aware of the area’s challenges: It’s a recurrent topic at the monthly meetings of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3C (Cleveland Park, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, Woodley Park), according to ANC 3C member Beau Finley. “I don’t know what the solution is,” Finley told The Current. “But nothing should be off the table.”
For now, residents can visit Richard at Nam Viet’s Virginia location. And with some free time, Richard is now able to realize some culinary dreams of his own.
“I’ve always wanted to travel the world, eat, and bring an adaptation to D.C.,” Richard said. “Even though our chapter ends here, our story still goes on.”