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Sean Carman


Waiting for Wagamama

Posted: 03/17/2012 7:42 pm

Surely I am not the first to notice the parallel between the failure of the London-based Asian noodle restaurant to arrive in Penn Quarter and Samuel Beckett's theatrical representation of existential despair?

True, Beckett's play concerns two tramps in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, whereas Penn Quarter is a bustling restaurant and theater district anchored by a sports arena. And yes, the subject of Beckett's play is a mysteriously absent figure who may or may not represent God, whereas Wagamama is an Asian noodle chain famous for its chicken katsu curry.

But if you set those differences aside, the parallel between Waiting for Godot and Wagamama's long-delayed arrival in Washington is striking: In both cases, a much-anticipated visitor's interminably delayed arrival deprives those in waiting of spiritual fulfillment.

(One other key difference: In Beckett's play Godot waits offstage -- possibly nowhere, possibly in oblivion -- whereas Wagamama is as tantalizingly close as Boston.)

Perhaps you know the story. Sometime in 2009, the windows of the former Olson's Books and Records store on 7th Street, NW, between D and E streets were painted white and decorated with a picture of a fashion model dressed in a Wagamama t-shirt, her hair festooned with multiple sets of chopsticks. She was leaning over, looking down at something, either her fate or a steaming bowl of chicken ramen. The windows were also painted with the Wagamama logo, bold black letters and a tiny, free-floating red star that suggest a 1930's Russian avant-garde sensibility. The message these signs conveyed was "globalization" and "really great noodles."

The lettering in the window also made a promise: "Coming May 2010." Then May 2010 came and went, and then all of 2010 came and went -- all four seasons passing, the leaves budding, turning, and falling, only to be reborn -- and still the promised trendy noodle bar with white construction paper table cloths and complimentary crayons never arrived.

Instead, For Lease signs went up in the windows. In September 2010 the For Lease signs came down. Then 2011 came and went -- clouds scraped across the sky, the moon passed through her many phases, etc. etc. -- and still Wagamama never arrived. Finally, in late 2011, the lettering in the window changed again, to read, "Coming Early 2012." Later, it was changed to, "Coming Spring 2012."

If you crave affordable noodles and cocktails served in a trendy setting, it's enough to drive you to despair.

Just as in Beckett's play, a waiting cast bites its nails in anticipation. The "Bring Wagamama to D.C.!" Facebook page, for example, has a desolate list of pleading wall posts.

There are, in addition, witnesses who swear the noodle restaurant has absolutely, definitely promised it will be here soon.

On October 20, 2011, Adrian Fair reported that he had participated in a Wagamama D.C. focus group. "Begin spreading the news folks!" he wrote. "THEY'RE COMING!"

"Please let it be true," Jeff Welsh posted on October 29, 2011, "I need awesome ramen!"

Then, yet another winter came and passed without a stir. A leaf turned, threatening to fall, but somehow did not, etc. etc. (again).

When will the torment end? Only a god could deliver us from this loneliness. A god or a promised hipster noodle bar. Which, in the world of affordable downtown lunch spots, maybe amounts to the same thing.

But OK, seriously -- when is Wagamama going to get here?

On March 9, the Penn Quarter Insider reported that, after pestering Wagamama with a series of e-mails, it had finally received a reply from Ingrid Williamson, Wagamama's Director of Marketing. Wagamama, Williamson said, was "waiting to get confirmation from [its] landlords and property development on an exact date to when [they] will be opening."

A call to Nancy Barrett, U.S. Marketing Director, from a certain Huffington Post blogger, went unreturned.

A myriad of anxious D.C. foodies shake their fists at the inky night.

More recently, there have been signs of some sort of construction taking place within the former Olson's location. Last week, on Thursday, I loitered by the entrance of the space until I caught the construction foreman returning to the site. I stopped him and asked my friendly question, but it turned out he and his men were not building the new Wagamama after all. They were using the space for materials storage for the renovation of Jaleo.

The foreman must have seen the disappointment in my eyes, because he quickly reassured me that Wagamama would be here soon.

"I know a guy who spoke to them," he said. "They're going to start working soon. Real soon. It won't be long."

There is one critical difference between Beckett's masterpiece and the long-promised arrival of London's favorite chain of Asian noodle bars.

Unlike Godot, there's a chance that, someday, Wagamama will actually get here.

I'm sure that, if and when it does, there will be a celebration. I have two friends who have eaten at a Wagamama in London. They report that it's a terrific place. The menu on the website looks excellent-- modern, affordable, pan-Asian fare. Penn Quarter could always use another good noodle shop.

I'm also sure that, if Wagamama ever gets here, all the angst and longing that has preceded its arrival will be forgotten. Just as if Godot himself had finally arrived.

All we can do is wait.


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