“See the bowtie? I wear it and I don’t care. That’s why it’s cool.” Steven Moffat, Dr Who
Cool defies definition, but we know it when we see it. Yes, the cool factor is an artificial construct, but nobody wants to be uncool or hang out someplace that’s square. Places that are “in” in D.C. tend to be like small islands in a constantly evolving archipelago of urbanity. Each one has something going for it that makes it different whether it’s the architecture, a thriving art scene, or intriguing places to eat. These 10 neighborhoods are reflections of the capital city’s diversity, history, and bonhomie.
Sandwiched between posh Woodley Park to the north and stylish Dupont Circle to the south, Adams Morgan is gritty and entertaining and about as close as you’re gonna get to the BoHo of SoHo. Its eateries serve up Korean, Middle Eastern and Belgian, Ethiopian, Mexican, and Japanese cuisine at local faves like Donburi and Izakaya Seki. Wise imbibers take a stroll down 18th Street after dinner for a sip of whiskey at Bourbon or its sister, Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Oh, and never forget; a little Rebellion never hurt anybody.
Bloomingdale is a miniature version of the city at large that maintains its old charm while still being relevant. It packs a lot of fun and amenities into 12 blocks, like open mic night on Mondays at The Boundary Stone a cool whiskey bar, and some of the best food in the city at The Red Hen, chef Mike Friedman’s award-winning restaurant. Beautifully renovated brick and stone row houses line the streets but it’s the well-maintained gardens that prove Bloomingdale residents have a green thumb. When not at Common Good City Farm, an urban farm experiment, you can find the locals perusing produce at the Sunday farmers market in front of Big Bear Café.
Dupont Circle is part glamorous grand dame and part public park, and she is always on the go. In bouquiniste-fashion, Connecticut Avenue vendors sell trinkets and share sidewalk space with swanky chocolate shops like Chocolate House and Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café, a claustrophobic but beloved bookstore and coffee shop Harry Potter would find familiar.
Dining options are plentiful and if you’re on a budget Food Corner Kabob House is a hidden gem that’s low on ambiance but earns high marks for Afghan dishes like fresh tandoor-baked naan and roasted meats. Just two blocks away, is Ankara, an elegant mid-priced Turkish restaurant the locals favor for the succulent and plentiful smoked eggplant and lamb. In a nutshell, Dupont Circle is where modern art at The Phillips Collection shares borders with embassies, outdoor chess games, and Sushi Taro, a one-star Michelin restaurant.
When movies show exterior shots of D.C. it’s often a riverside view of Watergate, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Memorial Bridge that gives people chills, and that’s because Foggy Bottom, one of the oldest neighborhoods, is Washington with a capital W. On any day of the week, there are diplomatic receptions at the U.S. State Department, K Street lobbyists are busy peddling influence with members of Congress, and George Washington University students and faculty scurry between classes and rounds at the university’s hospital next door. Hours later, they can all be seen sharing Shammi kebabs and biryani in tented booths at Rasika West End where the food, drink, and decor feels like an Indian dream.
George Washington never slept here, but Julia Child, President John F. Kennedy, George Will, and plenty of other presidents, journalists, famous artists, and notorious characters did. Narrow cobblestoned streets are shaded by mature trees and the eaves of beautiful 18th- and 19th-century homes. Once you see the boutiques and art galleries, you get why this hilly enclave’s real estate is so highly prized.
Upmarket restaurants like 1789 and Cafe Milano cater for the well-to-do whose shopping sprees often include a visit to Marston Luce for Louis XV fauteuils or a stop at Dean & DeLuca for imported cheese and charcuterie. The Georgetown University students who can afford to live there often jog along the C&O Canal while tourists tend to seek out celebrity sweets at Georgetown Cupcake or a brush with evil at the infamous Exorcist Steps.
H Street NE
Is the H in H Street short for Hip or is it just the letter H? It’s not a dumb question considering the crowds in this area are mostly hipsters and millennials. Today, they pack the dive bars, trendy eateries, and tattoo shops till the wee hours with nary an idea of the neighborhood’s colorful past. That all changed in 2001 when Atlas Performing Arts Center was renovated and helped begin a transformation of the area that included renovations, new businesses, and a new streetcar.
A once blighted area became party central, and today, brilliant murals add energy and color to the cityscape. Diaspora dining makes it possible to eat Lebanese fast casual at Micho’s Grill, nibble on small bites and wines-by-the-glass at The Pursuit Wine Bar, or dine at star chef Erik Bruner Yang’s places, either retail/restaurant Maketto or Toki Underground, D.C.’s first ramen shop.
A walk or drive along 14th Street will leave you perplexed if you try to figure out where the U Street Corridor ends and Logan Circle begins because the area has become one big busy food fiesta. Victorian homes and multicolored storefronts make Logan Circle historic and hot for young urban professionals and their more affluent elders living in expensive three-story Edwardian manses.
Both sets appreciate access to creature comforts and the nearby dining. Spain has invaded and brought terrific food and wine to Estadio and Barcelona Wine Bar, cold brews take center-stage at ChurchKey, and if we stretch the boundaries a bit, there’s Compass Rose. It serves street food from Denmark, Malaysia, Peru, Basque Country, and anyplace else the owner’s travels take her.
Washington, D.C. is finally realizing the priceless value of Potomac River waterfront access and is spiffing up older areas while building new and exciting developments. Navy Yard is on people’s radar because it’s in the former category. The U.S. Navy Museum has some not so new neighbors like the early adopter Bluejacket micro brewery, acclaimed Italian cuisine guru Michael White’s Osteria Morini, and the Washington Nationals.
Ted Lerner, the team’s owner, figured the area was a home run and built a beautiful stadium for major league baseball games. Before and after the games, tourists and locals mingle and party at The Bull Pen at Half Street Fairgrounds. Outdoorsy types can run along the Potomac River Boardwalk, cruise along the river in a kayak or canoe and kids won’t be able to resist dipping in the wading pools at Yard’s Park. Take a folding chair and enjoy fresh breezes and cool jazz along the Capitol Riverfront from May to September.
Penn Quarter and Chinatown has something for every interest and barely clings to its somewhat dubious title of Chinatown. Concerts and D.C.’s Capitals and Wizards take center stage at Verizon Center, the National Portrait Gallery is a more human scaled part of the Smithsonian with its artistic aesthetic, and everything from hot dog carts to upmarket restaurants is open to serve you.
If you want killer Japanese food, Daikaya is a twofer. The first floor is a chicken ramen shop, and upstairs, the izakaya serves Japanese drinks and inspired dishes such as grilled avocado and firefly squid with fresh grapefruit. For more ramen options or fried chicken pleasure, go around the corner to Daikaya’s other restaurant, Bantam King and join the crowds enjoying super crispy fried chicken that is finger-licking good. If, post-dinner, you are still in need of libations and socializing, walk over to Cuba Libre for creative rum drinks and cardio-strength salsa dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.
Shaw is so cool it’s hot. Brick Federal and Victorian rowhouses, modern minimalist, and renovated industrial, loft-style buildings make Shaw a truly urban neighborhood where Art house-style movie theaters, spice shops, and trending restaurants are serving original food to packed dining rooms. For years, Shaw was held captive by the scourge of crack cocaine, crime, and poverty, but now it’s a desirable D.C. darling for savvy, food-obsessed Washingtonians.
The triangle that includes 9th Street and Georgia and Florida Avenues has it goin’ on. Hazel and Lincoln have new chefs and seasonal, American, small plate menus, Landmark Theatres gives equal billing to independent films and classy cocktails, and Ripple’s new chef, Ryan Ratino, proves why he deserved a RAMMY nomination for Best New Upcoming Chef. Two influential theaters call Shaw home are cultural anchors: the 9:30 Club, which continues to be a neighborhood anchor for progressive music, and Howard Theater, which has gotten a new lease on life after a long slumber.
U Street Corridor
Duke Ellington may have become a star in New York and then performed around the world, but his heart beat to the rhythms he heard growing up on U Street in Washington, D.C. Back then, this was called “Black Broadway,” and hundreds of brilliant writers, artists, musicians singers, scientists, educators, lawyers, and business people lived or performed in this thriving African American “city within a city.”
And today, U Street and 14th Street continue to celebrate diversity at hot spots like Nellie’s, a gay sports bar, and Marvin, a soul food restaurant with a Belgian accent named for DC native Marvin Gaye. Busboys and Poets, a quirky restaurant and bookstore inspired by Langston Hughes’ early days as a starving poet and busboy is a longtime staple and is joined by Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant, and DC Noodles, a hidden Asian gem with a focus on Thai dishes. Live music, dance, and theater lovers head to U Street for alternative, hip hop, jazz, indie, rock n’ roll and other genres at basement U Street Music Hall, DC9, Tropicalia, Black Cat, and Lincoln Theater.
Although the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood is the city’s smallest, it has plenty of amenities that instill loyalty in its residents, and it’s below the radar for most tourists. It’s located between the Washington Channel and the Anacostia River and is well known to Washingtonians who head to the 200-year old Maine Avenue Fish Market, which is the country’s longest operating open-air fish market for fresh fish and seafood on the weekends.
People live here for the quiet, the incredible views of the Potomac River sunsets, and because it’s easy to get to downtown D.C., the National Mall, and museums in minutes. The Gang Plank Marina and other residential marinas boast more year-round boat residents (liveaboards) than anywhere else on the East Coast, and this is now D.C.’s hottest new neighborhood thanks to the new $2 billion, 3.2 million-square-foot project known simply as The Wharf.
Spread across 27 acres of land and 30 acres of water, The Wharf will join the acclaimed performance stage known as Arena Stage and add a new concert hall that seats 6,000. Plus, the public will be able to patronize dozens of retail, dining, and nightlife options, shop at a newly renovated fish market, and tour and sample the wares produced at a new rum distillery and brewery.