10/27/2011 02:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

Amid 14th Street Competition, Café Saint-Ex Ups Its Game (PHOTOS)

WASHINGTON -- The once-shabby 14th Street corridor north of downtown has evolved over the past few years to become home to multiple condos, entertainment venues and buzzworthy dining destinations. Now, Café Saint-Ex, which helped pave the way for many newer restaurants nearly a decade ago, is raising its game to stay competitive.

Earlier this month, the restaurant reopened its kitchen after a complete overhaul lasting four weeks. It's whipping up new, more elevated dishes with ingredients like sweetbreads, pork belly and foie gras. A four-course tasting menu is also virgin territory for Café Saint-Ex, which is now in its ninth year of operation.

These changes are a noted departure from the eatery's roots as a neighborhood watering hole, whose offerings leaned toward burgers and other bar fare. When it first opened, the area around 14th and T streets had very few sit-down dining options.

John Snellgrove, director of operations at Novel Foods, which manages Café Saint-Ex, believes that it was one of the businesses that helped raise the profile of 14th Street. "We're all very happy and proud of the fact that I think a lot of people look at us as one of the first people on the block," he said.

But as the years passed, Café Saint-Ex found itself struggling with a changing identity. It naturally evolved into a place that focused more on food than on drink, but its kitchen, the relic of a former soul food restaurant with equipment nearly two decades old, shackled the chefs' creativity. The renovation, said Snellgrove, allows executive chef Billy Klein to employ a much wider range of food techniques, which has opened the door for more interesting ingredients and preparations, an in-house bread program, and more intricate cocktails.

The changes, Snellgrove said, have put Café Saint-Ex in appetizing competition with its new neighbors. He admires many of them, in particular Mark Kuller's Estadio and Jeff Black's Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

"It's great to be in a neighborhood where the standard of excellence is pretty high," Snellgrove said. "It just makes all of us kind of strive to make sure we're maintaining." But Café Saint-Ex doesn't plan on being overshadowed by the newcomers. "We don't want to be the low man on the totem pole around here," he said.

Flickr photo by Daquella manera.

Café Saint-Ex