New 18th & U Duplex Diner owners Jeff McCracken and Mark Hunker didn’t win the long popular Northwest D.C. bar and restaurant at a poker table, but that’s where their friendship and eventual hospitality business partnership originated.
“We first met at a poker game 17 years ago,” Hunker recounts, “and we immediately became fast friends.” They began hanging out, drove across the country, vacationed with friends in Key West and bought a Rehoboth beach house together.
They would later work together at a Washington-area IT firm specializing in government contracting. “We saw each other more often than we saw our partners,” jokes Hunker, a former presidential appointments director and OPM chief of staff during the Clinton administration.
The duo is now betting on utilizing nearly 10 years of shared Rehoboth restaurant ownership and operational experience, Hunker says, to “carry on the tradition of a community and neighborhood institution” in D.C. Hunker, who also lives in Adams Morgan with his now husband of four years, Jeff Shields Hunker, says both he and McCracken have been Duplex Diner customers “since the second or third day after it opened.”
In fact, the couple held their marriage ceremony there, later celebrating the union at the Rehoboth restaurants Eden and Jam Bistro that Hunker co-owns and operates with McCracken. A Rehoboth resident, Hunker married Shields in D.C. before same-sex nuptials became legal in Delaware.
McCracken, also a Rehoboth resident who has a D.C. home in the developing H Street, N.E., area, similarly splits his time between locales overseeing operations at both beach town establishments that he and Hunker oversee together. McCracken shares his life with Ron Niemann; the couple has been together for seven years.
A decade ago, McCracken and Hunker jumped at the opportunity to purchase Rehoboth restaurant Eden when the family owners decided to sell. A favorite dining spot for both, located on Baltimore Avenue near the beach, they relied on McCracken’s penchant for, and professional experience in, building rehabilitation and renovation redesign to transform the space and create a second level additionally booked for private and catered events.
It wasn’t long afterwards, in 2010, that they opened the more casual and café-style Jam Bistro, adjacent to Eden. Eden is distinguished by a warmly inviting and romantic ambience, as well as featuring extensive wine offerings and noteworthy fine-dining fare. Both businesses have become popular and well-respected Rehoboth dining destinations.
Duplex Diner devotees needn’t worry about drastic alterations at the hotspot straddling Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan at the intersection of namesake 18th and U streets at Florida Avenue. Opened by original owner Eric Hirshfield in 1998 and subsequently purchased by former manager Kevin Lee in 2011, it has remained popular, with Thursday nights a longstanding gay party tradition.
“When we were approached about buying, we couldn’t imagine it being sold to someone who hadn’t ‘lived it’ and ‘loved it’ as much as we have,” Hunker says.
“We bought Duplex Diner because it is a successful business,” says McCracken. “We prefer the word ‘evolve’ in describing our contribution,” Hunker is quick to point out, “rather than sudden change. Expect our influence in adding an expanded range of wines to the menu, and a more consistent service approach in the dining room.”
“We focus on strategic management and the customer experience,” Hunker explains, “We entered this business as diners.”
Duplex Diner has a “neighborhood feel,” notes McCracken, as Hunker adds, “with a welcoming staff and a diverse crowd. We love being part of a place that is a part of our lives.”