The Hagstrom Report guide to the New Northwest
December 24, 2013 | 08:09 AM Filed in: The Getaway
A sign on this new condo building across from the new Giant at the O Street Market calls foodies to live in Shaw and other Northwest D.C. neighborhoods. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)
How long will it take for farmers and ranchers visiting Washington to demand that their lobbyists take them to 14th and U and other hot addresses in the New Northwest Washington rather than stodgy Georgetown or even Capitol Hill?
It takes longer for news of the new to reach rural America, but if the farmers and ranchers come to lobby their senators and House members, it won’t be long before they hear from the young staffers who work on the Hill that the hottest places and some of the best food are now in Shaw, an neighborhood out-of-towners wouldn’t have dreamed of visiting a few years ago.
A Congressional Agriculture Committee staffer noted that there is an entire world of Washington that begins at the Capitol and looks west and north, but ends before Dupont Circle, which is considered the gathering point of older generations and too expensive.
The center of the New Northwest is 14th and U, but new restaurants and bars are opening almost daily as far north as W Street and east and south all the way to Seventh Street near the convention center. Also, 14th and U and Shaw are areas to go at night. There are few offices in the area and very few quality establishments are open at lunch time.
A note of caution about transportation: Parking lots are fast disappearing to new condos and apartment buildings, and the few that remain now charge $20 for the evening. Some restaurants have even given up on valet parking because there is no place to put the cars. It’s best to take a cab, a limo or even better to take the Metro to the 13th and U African-American Civil War Museum station, the Mount Vernon Square 7th Street Convention station, or the Shaw-Howard University station on R Street between 7th and 8th streets.
Here, after exhaustive personal research, is Jerry Hagstrom’s guide to his 20 favorite establishments in the New Northwest.
THE GIBSON — This bar behind a black door next to Marvin’s Restaurant is run like a speakeasy with I.D. checks for everyone, no matter how old, and is the epitome of cool in the New Northwest. The Gibson, dimly lit with black wood furnishings, lets in only as many people as can sit at the bar and tables.
Bartenders make classic cocktails such as the Negroni and new ones of their own concoction, and look disappointed if people order a simple glass of wine or beer.
Reservations, which can be made only by telephone, are vital late at night when people are standing in the street begging to get in. But it’s sometimes possible to get in at the cocktail hour without a res.
The Gibson is open seven nights a week, but reservations for the weekend must be made by Friday. There is a garden in the summer and a room upstairs that can be rented for private parties, but the bar just inside the door where the waiters shake the cocktails high in the air is the place to be.
LOST SOCIETY — This two-floor bar, restaurant and lounge is on the very corner of 14th and U above a Subway and a Dunkin’ Donuts, and has good views of the action below from its rooftop deck.
It has a steak-centric menu but is best for drinking and watching the people —particularly the young women n their short skirts and high heels — who gather in its dark alcoves and peek-a-boo booths.
POLICY — This restaurant, with its red leather booths and patent leather black ceiling, has some of the best small-plate meals in Washington.
Its Madras curry lamb sliders, roasted Brussels sprouts, scallops and tuna tartare are the only the beginning of a menu that is too long to describe here. And then there are the desserts.
The crowd is one of the most diverse in Washington, with male and female couples less in evidence than male couples, female couples and groups of all descriptions. Upstairs is a lounge with modern couches that by midnight attracts long lines in the street and is available for group events.
CORK — Farther down 14th Street between R and S streets is this restaurant made famous by Bill Burton, an Obama campaign press secretary, when he told a reporter in 2008 that this was where the Obama campaigners were hanging out.
It competes with Policy on small plates, but has a much more extensive wine list, with 50 wines by the glass and 160 bottles, mostly from Europe. An avocado and pistachio paste on grilled bread and foie gras mousse are among the best food items.
Cork used to stop reservations at 6:30 p.m., which sometimes meant standing at the bar for an hour, but it has changed policy and now takes dinner reservations all evening.
TAQUERIA NACIONAL — Located in an old post office on T Street just west of 14th, this is one of the few places in the U Street area to serve Mexican food.
No table service, but excellent lamb tostadas and unusual soft drinks such as Horachata and Agua Fresca. Open for lunch.
LE DIPLOMATE — This bistro is now the hottest ticket in town, Reservations for weekends must be made three weeks in advance, and some people still have to agree to dine at 11 p.m.
The food is very, very good, but the real attraction is the quality of the 1900-era décor that really feels like Paris.
When summer comes, the outdoor tables are first-come, first-served.
PEARL DIVE OYSTER PALACE — This restaurant, which prides itself on “a rustic décor that showcases a variety of repurposed items,” is part of the same group as the much pricier Black Salt on McArthur Boulevard , and it seems to a current favorite of the young Obama crowd.
It serves southern dishes such as duck confit and roasted duck sausage, but oysters of many varieties are the main attraction.
Blind oyster-tasting contests, anyone?
BAR PILAR — Named for a boat that Ernest Hemingway used for fishing in the waters of Key West and Cuba, Bar Pilar’s owners are fond of quotes such as “All things truly wicked start from an innocence” and “If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it.”
There can be no dieting here, not with “lard-fried buttermilk chicken with house-made pickles” on the menu.
Interesting fact: Hemingway left the Pilar to his Cuban captain and it is now on display at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home near Havana.
U STREET ESTABLISHMENTS
BEN’S CHILI BOWL — In business since 1958 next to the Lincoln Theater, this establishment is not part of the New Northwest, and in fact has become a tourist mecca.
President Barack Obama and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni have all eaten there. There’s nothing like watching a German woman wolfing down the chili, French fries and half-smokes when you know she’d never eat them in a chain restaurant.
For locals, its history going back to the civil rights era still makes it a special place. And Ben’s advertises a real rarity on U Street: 10 parking spots.
PELICAN’S RUM — If you find vodka tiresome, this is the place to go. This Jamaican-themed bar and restaurant specializes in rum-based drinks and all the food is jerked — fish, pork and shrimp.
The question the window asks: “Wanna get jerked again?”
NELLIE’S SPORTS BAR — This is a gay sports bar with the usual bar food served at high-top tables, but on Sundays it has a drag brunch that led to it being listed as one of the best brunches in town.
It’s not for the food, which is like the buffet that a small town Midwestern restaurant might put out when expecting a big crowd after church. But watching the parents of young gay men watch their first drag show is priceless.
NINTH STREET to SIXTH STREET
THALLY — Ron Tanaka, the chef who is one of the owners, has cooked at the Morrison-Clark Inn, Citronelle, Palena, City Zen, Cork and New Heights, and the experience shows in this little modern restaurant.
Among the offerings are skate and rabbit and dumplings.
TABLE — Modern, innovative French restaurants are hard to find in Washington, so this one is particularly welcome.
Here you can get lobster and grits, bison hanger steak with wheatberries, spinach and black garlic and pork and clams with lavender.
There’s a three-course meatless meal on Mondays and a tasting menu on Tuesdays.
EAT THE RICH — Named for a song by Motorhead, this restaurant serves fabulous oysters and perfectly prepared scallops at 11:30 on Saturday night. But the tables are shared and the music is deafening.
Cocktails are available in pitchers if you want to share them, and the wines have been chosen because they would be good with oysters.
MOCKINGBIRD HILL — A sister restaurant to Eat the Rich, the menu features sherry and ham. If you’re not a specialist in either, owner Derek Brown offers tutorials in sherry on Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m. and sampler plates of ham.
There’s also gin and tonic on tap featuring locally made Green Hat gin.
RIGHT PROPER BREWING COMPANY — Opened just this month, this brew pub is a collaboration by people with backgrounds from Brasserie Beck, Pizzeria Paradiso, Rockland’s Barbecue and WildCraft Soda.
On opening night, head brewer Nathan Zeender said, “We believe in yeast.”
For a pub, the menu is broad, featuring everything from burgers to Chesapeake Oyster Stew to Oh Miso Hungry, which is tofu with julienne vegetables in a miso and mushroom broth over brown rice.
HOWARD THEATRE — The historic renovated Howard was home to generations of black performers in the days of segregation, and is now a 21st century performance venue.
On Sundays it offers a brunch with gospel music. The food is all-you-can-eat soul. The price of $35 in advance and $45 on day of show (cocktails are extra) is a bargain compared with the big hotels downtown.
And then there’s the joyful music from groups such as the Harlem Gospel Choir and the Saint Augustine Gospel Choir.
THE PASSENGER — Is it named for one of the novels about people for whom the journey is everything? For the Michelangelo Antonioni movie? Its motto is “God Save the District.”
The deal here is that the bartenders, trained by renowned mixologist Derek Brown, are supposed to be able to make any drink you name.
The décor’s not much, but the place has attracted a real following. One young reporter said a party given in its Columbia Room was the best event surrounding his wedding.
The Columbia Room also offers classes in bartending, all the way up to the use of infusions and syrups and bitters and tinctures.
SHAW’S TAVERN — This gastropub sits somewhat in the middle of traffic on Florida Avenue, but has attracted a crowd that appreciates a comedy brunch on Saturdays, “soul Sundays, “industry brunch on Mondays” (is that for the people who serve it on Sundays?), a piano bar on Wednesdays, live jazz on Thursdays and live music on Fridays.
And on Mondays there are half-price burgers. On the brunch menu there’s red velvet pancakes and cornbread waffles.
FIRST STREET NORTHWEST
THE RED HEN — This Italian-influenced restaurant in Bloomingdale stretches the definition of the New Northwest all the way to the border on First Street.
The menus changes seasonally but currently features new-to-Washington dishes such as slow-roasted lamb meatballs with soft polenta.
Among the diners spotted here have been Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef who is also executive director of Let’s Move, First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity, and his fiancée, Alex Wagner of MSNBC.