Whitney Lawson

New life comes to once gritty capital streets, as shops, restaurants, galleries, clubs, and scenesters take up residence.

Meeghan Truelove
April 09, 2009

As D.C.’s inner city blossoms, roughly six contiguous areas north of downtown are being grouped as MidCity. At its heart, Logan Circle (a genteel Victorian residential quarter in its day) and the U Street Corridor (a creative hub once hailed as Black Broadway, where hometown hero Duke Ellington grew up) have been among the city’s most embattled neighborhoods. Now there’s an influx of artists, students, and professionals, and businesses are opening in a collaborative spirit—with one eye toward the global village and the other very much on the local scene—showing what can happen when fashion, art, and food mix with politics.

WHAT TO SEE Half of the artists represented by Nevin Kelly Gallery (1517 U St. NW; 202/232-3464; www.nevinkellygallery.com) live in Poland, the rest are in D.C.: a delightful hybrid of old-world skillfulness and new-world dash. Founded by a Georgetown University professor, Irvine Contemporary (1412 14th St. NW; 202/332-8767; www.irvinecontemporary.com) exhibits work by well-known early- and mid-career artists—such as mixed-media dreamscapes by Robert Gutierrez. At bi-level Project 4 (903 U St. NW; 202/232-4340; www.project4gallery.com), guest curators organize shows of works from D.C. (photography, sculpture, site-specific installations).

WHERE TO EAT Busboys and Poets (2021 14th St. NW; 202/387-7638; lunch for two $27), is a café, performance space, and bookstore to a diverse clientele that favors the individual pizzas and well-pulled espressos as much as the readings by the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich and Amiri Baraka. On Sundays, the brunch crowd hits Crème (1322 U St. NW; 202/234-1884; brunch for two $25) for chef Terrell Danley’s nouveau-soul cooking: think crispy fried chicken on fluffy Belgian waffles, doused with maple syrup. Since 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St. NW; 202/667-0909; lunch for two $17), a survivor of historic riots and economic depression, has satisfied fans with irresistible hot dogs and chili–cheese fries. Local-farm champion Barton Seaver’s Café Saint-Ex (1847 14th St. NW; 202/265-7839; dinner for two $55) is packed night and day for such specialties as fried green tomato BLT’s. At Viridian (1515 14th St. NW; 202/234-1400; dinner for two $64), MidCity’s most sophisticated restaurant, Antonio Burrell also buys locally for his clean-flavored dishes, like tofu-and-mushroom terrine with red-pepper jam. Owned by two brothers, Etete (1942 Ninth St. NW; 202/232-7600; dinner for two $36) wins in a crowded field of Ethiopian restaurants; try the chicken with fresh ginger and hot pepper.

SHOP The owner of Muléh (1831 14th St. NW; 202/667-3440) scouts fine contemporary furniture from Asia and fashion from the United States and Europe (he was one of the first to carry 3.1 Phillip Lim). On the airy second floor of a row house, Nana (1528 U St. NW; 202/667-6955) delivers stylish, affordable fashion from up-and-coming designers. Look for Holly Aiken’s striking "vegan-friendly" vinyl bags. Wild Women Wear Red (1512 U St. NW; 202/387-5700) sells sexy but practical shoes, such as puzzle-patterned suede boots by Camper and Lisa Nading loafers with kittenish heels. At the cavelike Carbon (1203 U St. NW; 202/986-2679), limited-edition mod Chelsea boots from Italy and deconstructed, rubber-soled wing tips by Blackstone attract professionals who don’t take themselves too seriously. Lettie Gooch (1911 Ninth St. NW; 202/332-4242) has polished, slightly offbeat clothes and accessories, including herringbone pencil skirts with flirty back pleats from Black Halo, and delicate rolled-paper-and-silver strand necklaces by local designer Ayanna. Candida’s World of Books (1541 14th St. NW; 202/667-4811) leaves bookstore travel sections far behind, and stocks cookbooks, coffee-table tomes, and fiction in 15 languages from 40-plus countries. Even the kids’ section is multilingual.

WHERE TO GO OUT Hipsters and politicos with down time head to Gate 54 (1847 14th St. NW; 202/ 265-7839), a moody lounge with a speakeasy vibe. DJ’s spin nightly, and on iPod evenings, locals plug in their own collections. Named for a 1987 House resolution honoring jazz, the nonprofit HR-57 (1610 14th St. NW; 202/667-3700) is dedicated to preserving the groove in an area once thick with clubs headlining such luminaries as Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. On Wednesdays and Fridays, HR-57 hosts the city’s hottest jam sessions. The Duke would be proud.

Muléh

Founded by Christopher Reiter following a four-year stay in Asia, Muléh is a unique lifestyle store blending home furnishings and fashion. The home furnishings for sale reflect a decidedly modern, Asian aesthetic. Many are made from organic materials and feature clean lines, lending a contemporary edge. Several of the store’s pieces are created using traditional methods from local artisans. The store added clothing in 2004, and the inventory includes items from such designers and brands as Vivienne Westwood, Paula Mendoza, and Ports 1961.

HR-57

The city’s coolest jazz plays day and night at this groovy, dim-lit classic. The name, Washington geek-speak for House Resolution 57, refers to the act officially establishing jazz as a “rare and valuable” national treasure; the nonprofit cultural center does its part by hosting jam sessions and performances five nights a week. Exposed brick walls and simple furniture drive the point home—it’s about the music. Order beer and wine here, or bring your own; there’s dinner too.

Gate 54/Saint-Ex

A boisterous thirtysomething crowd fills both floors of this popular watering hole: the ground-floor bistro has seats for dinner or an alt-sceney drink, while the dance club underground throbs with everything from retro-soul to electronica. Both are inspired by a quirky airplane theme (“Saint-Ex” refers to French writer and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), with aeronautical oddments throughout. The crowd is varied and nonexclusive, but if you wear Buddy Holly glasses or dye your hair red, you'll fit right in.

Candida's World of Books

Candida’s World of Books leaves bookstore travel sections far behind, and stocks cookbooks, coffee-table tomes, and fiction in 15 languages from 40-plus countries. Even the kids’ section is multilingual.

Lettie Gooch

This trendy boutique, located in the U Street Corridor sells fashion-forward, offbeat apparel and accessories for women. The store has an inventory of emerging and edgy fashion, and it frequently sells pieces from up and coming and local designers, including Aysha Saeed, a former financial banker. Other designer lines available include Laga, a romantic, vintage-inspired Spanish line, and Hype Clothing out of L.A. The shop frequently hosts special events and promotions, including Halloween parties and healthy happy hours.

Carbon

Located on Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park, Carbon is known for its selection of stylish, eco-friendly shoes, clothing, and accessories. The store, which opened in 2004, carries items from small, independent brand and designers that fit its sustainable chic mantra. Shoppers can find shoes from the likes of Liam Michael and Sanuk and clothing from Kim Schalk and Auralis Studio. Carbon also serves as an art gallery, hosting various exhibits. The civically-minded store supports environmental and worker rights causes.

Wild Women Wear Red

Wild Women Wear Red sells sexy but practical shoes, such as puzzle-patterned suede boots by Camper and Lisa Nading loafers with kittenish heels.

Nana, Washington, D.C.

Opened in 2003, Nana is a locally minded women’s clothing boutique that showcases independent American designers, many of whom use sustainable, organic and/or recycled fabrics. The store sells vintage-inspired and handmade items, such as dresses made of recycled fabric from designer Preloved. In addition, it carries owner Jackie Flanagan’s tunics and dresses sold under the house label. The inventory also includes jewelry and handbags, as well as unique finds like locally made lipgloss by Haughty. Nana’s selection of items from emerging designers, like Dagg & Stacey and Kelly Lane Design, has made the store a go-to destination for those seeking a classic, yet fashion-forward look.

Etete

Brothers Yared and Henock Tesfaye, Ethiopian transplants, opened Etete in 2004. The restaurant, a gift for their mother, serves traditional Ethiopian food and has managed to distinguish itself from the plethora of other Ethiopian restaurants in the area, now known as Little Ethiopia. The no-frills dining room has small, wooden tables, hardwood floors, yellow walls, and a modest bar. The restaurant’s namesake, the Tesfaye brothers, serves as executive chef preparing both meat and vegetarian dishes, including gored gored, spicy beef cubes with mitmita, hot ground pepper.

Viridian

Creme Cafe

Busboys & Poets

Part restaurant and part community gathering spot, Busboys & Poets is a socially-conscious restaurant founded in 2005 by Iraqi-American activist and restauranteur Anas “Andy” Shallal. The eatery is divided into five separate areas, including a bookstore, the gallery, where works from local artists highlight the décor, and the Langston Room, a dinner theater-style area with a stage. The menu has a selection of burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches, as well as vegan items, and the calendar is full of special events like author talks and open mic poetry nights.

Project 4

This bi-level gallery is located at the intersection of 14th and U Streets in the U Street Corridor. The 1,000-square-foot Project 4 displays international, contemporary art exhibits from artists such as Margaret Boozer and Jonathan Trundle. The gallery is dedicated to fostering the careers of emerging artists, and its flexible design, envisioned by D.C. firm Inscape Studio, can accommodate a variety of media, including video and sculpture. A selection of works are available for sale, and project 4 will procure works for their clients.

Irvine Contemporary

Irvine Contemporary, founded by Georgetown professor Dr. Martin Irvine, showcases works by emerging and mid-career artists. Past exhibits have included politically-minded themes, such as Seeing Green, focusing on issues in Iran. Others have served to draw attention to new artists, such as New Realisms, with works from New York-based artists in their 30s. Following his passion for educating the public on the value of contemporary art, Irvine offers consulting services for collectors seeking to enhance their private art collections. 

Nevin Kelly Gallery

Half of the artists represented by Nevin Kelly Gallery live in Poland, the rest are in D.C.: a delightful hybrid of old-world skillfulness and new-world dash.

Ben's Chili Bowl

DC legend Ben’s Chili Bowl has been around since 1958. Try the iconic half-smoke (half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage) topped with Ben’s homemade chili sauce. You can order chili in variety other ways, too: in a bowl, on a burger, or on a salad, all available until late at night. Ben's also offers vegetarian and tuna sandwich options, as well as an entire breakfast menu.

Café Saint-Ex

Inspired by owner Mike Benson’s affinity for flying and the works of French author-pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Café Saint-Ex is a neighborhood bistro with an understated aviation theme. In addition to a vintage Art Deco bar, the interior is adorned with black-and-white photographs of pilots, clocks announcing international times, and a propeller from a World War I biplane flown by Mike’s grandfather. Created by chef Billy Klein, the inventive New American menu features dishes such as sweet corn croquettes and Wagyu strip loin with sweet potato purée. Downstairs, the Gate 54 lounge hosts live DJ’s five nights a week.

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