By Tracy Sefl and Elizabeth E. THorp | June 23, 2014 | People
Staying au courant in an evolving Washington is a full-time job. There’s the exploding restaurant scene, a rising number of entrepreneurs, and a cadre of cultural gatekeepers committed to making DC its best. To imagine that only 19 years ago the District of Columbia was facing insolvency and was in receivership is shocking. With the Hollywood stylings of House of Cards, Scandal, and Veep, our nation’s capital is vibrant, exciting, expanding, and—dare we brag—even very cool.
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: In addition to a top seafood menu, Eat the Rich offers patrons another hip Shaw bar scene; The Capitol Riverfront has been called “DC’s best kept secret,” as it’s one of the coolest spots in the city; The vibe at Southern Efficiency attracts an edgy, young set to the already popular Shaw area; Having hit TV shows like House of Cards filmed in DC has added to our city’s appeal.
To better understand the evolution of this beloved city, Capitol File scoured the census data, read industry reports, pored over national best-of lists—we even consulted five handpicked women and men who are lauded by their peers and have witnessed our city’s progression over the past few decades. We’re calling them our “ambassadors of cool” (and you can read more about what they think in our sidebars here). In all of this research, one thing is clear: The evolution of cool in Washington is tangible and ongoing. It might even surprise you.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, it was said that millennials have been flocking to the city in record numbers over the past decade. They’re coming from all over the country for the jobs and opportunities available for young people—and for a livable, walkable city with fantastic public transportation and a lower cost of living than, say, New York or San Francisco. With this influx of new citizens, the physical and demographic landscape of the District has palpably changed from largely governmental to include an impressive population of entrepreneurial residents.
“Washington, DC, is emerging as a world-class city,” says Jodie McLean, president of EDEN S, a developer that owns and operates community-oriented shopping places focused on enriching the communities they serve. EDEN S is behind the Mosaic District in Fairfax and Union Market in Northeast DC, among many other new shopping venues in the region. “The city is no longer just about politics, but a place where great things happen—economically, culturally, and in the community. The District is home to more than 750,000 STEM jobs [careers in science, technology, engineering, and math], which is one of the highest concentrations in the nation, and we have the highest number of [venture-funded] start-ups per capita,” explains McLean. “If we add Maryland and Northern Virginia into this, the statistics are even more impressive. But the point is, this is an economic engine that drives a community of like-minded people in pursuit of a higher quality of life.”
“I grew up in and around the city, and DC has definitely changed,” says Jimmy Gardner, a tech entrepreneur who’s married with two children from a previous marriage. “I moved from the suburbs into the city about six years ago, and we raise two young ladies part-time in the city. It’s such a benefit to them and their growth as it relates to community and culture. Having neighborhoods like Dupont Circle, Shaw, and Logan Circle—where we feel open and safe to walk with them to a new dinner spot or local store—is a fantastic way for them to experience urban life. At the same time, having such great cultural institutions, like the Smithsonian, only lends itself to expanding their horizons and gives them a glimpse out onto the larger world.”
DC’s dining scene has certainly exploded in the past decade. According to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, there were 1,400 restaurants in the greater DC area in 2001, almost 2,000 in 2010, and currently there are north of 2100. Called “one of the most exciting restaurant cities on the Eastern Seaboard” by Travel + Leisure, DC has become known for culinary distinctions that include James Beard Award–winning chefs, such José Andrés (Jaleo, minibar) and Johnny Monis (Komi), a AAA Five Diamond restaurant in CityZen, and restaurants like Del Campo, Casa Luca, and Daikaya, which are included on Esquire and GQ’s 2013 and 2014 best US restaurants lists.
According to a new report from Cushman & Wakefield retail services, food and beverage sales in the 14th Street/Logan Circle area totaled more than $68 million in 2013. In fact, these emerging culinary neighborhoods brought in more dining dollars than the traditional DC culinary hubs of Georgetown ($61.6 million) or Dupont Circle ($37.7 million).
Continuing the revitalization of Washington is CityCenterDC. The once-bleak tract of downtown Washington east of the White House has undergone a remarkable transformation. By the time CityCenter broke ground in 2011, $10.6 billion had already been invested in more than 150 real estate projects in the area. Where people were fleeing the District in droves 20 years ago, the population in DC increased 7.4 percent from April 2010 to July 2013.
CityCenterDC is Downtown’s signature neighborhood, where an unmatched mix of shops and restaurants, apartments, condominiums, office buildings, and common areas blend for a vibrant urban experience. It encompasses 2.5 million square feet and covers more than five city blocks. The $950 million development began construction with Phase I in spring 2011, and Phase II should be completed by the third quarter of 2016. CityCenter has been described as “a modern-day Rockefeller Center” by the New York Times. Reported CityCenter retailers include such luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Paul Stuart, Salvatore Ferragamo, Zadig & Voltaire, Burberry, Hugo Boss, and Kate Spade, among others. That sets the cool bar pretty high. We’re looking forward to seeing what “cool” pops up next.
Here’s to continued glamorous growth in our fair city.
Chef and founder of Red Apron Butcher, Nathan Anda moved to DC in December 2001 when the DC culinary scene had few big-name chefs and an up-and-coming network of young kitchen staff. He’s a Swatch collector, pug lover, and has zero tattoos.
What’s the local culinary scene like today?
How many different styles of restaurants opened last year in DC? 100? DC has developed itself into being a really cool restaurant city. In 2001, it wasn’t compared to New York or Philadelphia as much. Big name chefs from those cities are coming to put restaurants in DC. So many people from around the country and world—with awesome palates—want to go out to eat and try new things. This is definitely a thriving market.
What’s the coolest change you’ve noticed among your customers?
In the last 10 years, more people want to know what they’re eating, where it’s from, how it was raised. We source all our pork from animal welfare farms. I have our farmers on speed dial. Ten years ago you’d go to a steakhouse, and the menu said “beef.” Now you go and they tell you the breed and where it’s from.
Where do you eat?
I love the Shaw area—Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency—a good amount of chefs filter through there. All Souls is a great spot. And in Penn Quarter, if I get out of work in time to eat, it’s The Source, Proof, or Del Campo.
What do you want to see DC do better?
I want people to love DC. I want them not to compare it to where they’re from, but to embrace it and be excited about all that’s going on here.
What should DC folks be eating more of?
Breakfast. Red Apron Butcher, 1309 5th St. NE, 202-524-6807; 709 D St. NW, 202-524-5244; 8298 Glass Alley, Fairfax, VA, 703-676-3550
A campaign staffer turned corporate attorney turned ice-cream entrepreneur, Victoria Lai opens her shop, Ice Cream Jubilee, in the Yards Park development this summer near Nationals Park.
What makes DC “cool”?
It’s an amazing place—a city of tradition and core beliefs, but also a city of invention. People from around the world come to share ideas and make an impact. Our parks and museums attract millions of visitors; these spaces are our playgrounds for festivals, concerts, and picnics. Washington is internationally unique, and we can call it home.
What changes have you noticed?
The U Street corridor is the hot spot; it’s an area I didn’t enjoy walking through when I first came here.
What made the Navy Yard a hip spot for your shop?
I discovered Yards Park last August. When I visited, everything about the landscape announced, “The weekend is here!” It feels like a getaway. I jumped at the opportunity to build my business with the community of Southeast DC.
Not long ago, it wasn’t a popular neighborhood.
[In a year] I’ve seen Yards Park bloom as DC becomes more familiar with it as the next great neighborhood. If I hadn’t just bought a place [in Adams Morgan], I’d move in a second. The Capitol Riverfront is DC’s best-kept secret. In the next few years the Yards and the waterfront will go from this hidden gem to the spot to be in.
What draws entrepreneurs here?
DC attracts motivated, opinionated people who are excited about new experiences. I love talking to my friends about their “side hustle,” a passion project that they devote their creative energy to. Washingtonians have become more enthusiastic about their side hustles, which cultivates a more welcoming environment for those debating whether to embrace their creative side.
What’s cool in food and drink in DC?
Washingtonians are looking for experiences that delight our creativity, tickle our senses, and elate our aesthetics. It’s no longer good enough to have just local food or just tasty food—it has to be both. Ice Cream Jubilee, 301 Water St. SE
Fugazi member Brendan Canty goes to Comet and Backstage at the Black Cat to hear good music.
Soundtrack artist, producer, and one-fourth of the influential DC group Fugazi, Brendan Canty is working alongside Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Sam Green on a documentary of Guinness World Record holders and is continuing his long-standing film collaborations with the band Wilco. He’s a father of four and a lover of pie.
How have you seen DC evolve?
The last 10 years have been insane… people coming into DC and investing. The rate of change, people moving back in droves—it’s a city that has a lot of diversity and a lot of opportunity. We’ve played second fiddle to NYC and LA. Now DC looks relatively good. It’s an international city, like Paris and London. For people buying real estate on a global market, it’s very cheap here, comparatively.
What’s cool about the District now?
The music scene is enormous. Growing up here, we had no restaurants, no bars, no clubs. We had to lobby to get the club scene to open to all ages. I go to Comet; it’s quaint. I end up at Backstage at Black Cat a lot. I also love the whole roots-music thing in DC. I go to JV’s off Route 50—mellow, free cover, great food. It’s the last of the great bar-band scenes. Also, the new Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown.
What are your go-to spots?
What keeps me in this neighborhood is the Connecticut Avenue NW strip off Nebraska—Politics & Prose and Buck’s. Little Red Fox has the best apple pie. The wilds of upper northwest DC are quickly becoming populated with hipper places.
What effect does this town have on your artistry?
It’s a place of extreme haves and have-not; communicating this drives me. Fugazi spent time trying to bridge that gap. You want to use your tools; get on a loud microphone and tell people about it. No matter how affluent this city gets, there will always be a profound need to fill that hole and to help people.
Some people say DC is stuffy.
It’s important to live your life at night in DC. It’s quiet, cool, and beautiful in the night air. There’s stuff to do every night of the week. It’s all accessible, in every way…. We’ve been in Northwest DC for 17 years, and it’s just gotten better and better.
Opting to innovate in the burgeoning social enterprise space armed only with an English degree and a passion, Will Byrne founded the nonprofit Groundswell. Today, the organization—whose mission is to bring the clean energy economy to the community level—is a team of 17 with offices in downtown DC, where visitors are greeted with a framed photograph of Byrne and President Bill Clinton.
Could you have launched Groundswell somewhere besides DC?
Less than five years ago, I started Groundswell with a few others, and we’ve figured out a way to basically bundle households or nonprofits—charter schools, faith organizations, health clinics—into group purchasers so they have leverage. The outcome is that communities are getting capital in the form of savings and more clean energy resources. San Francisco is a hotbed as well as New York and Portland. But the level of interest in start-ups and entrepreneurship has transformed DC. I’m very excited and hopeful. Now it’s much more a part of the fabric of the city, a place that’s really excited about entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity. And a place where starting your own venture is seen as not just legit, but also cool. Having this growing entrepreneur community—especially one that is focused on social issues—in the backyard of Congress can only be a good thing for the country.
What is the best scene in town?
All Souls—a cool, cool place. There’s so much happening that is really cool. Friday evenings near Dupont, they have free entry to all the galleries, and you get wine. The artists are there, very unpretentious and welcoming. People talk about how the arts scene isn’t super strong, but it’s there; you just have to look. I love E Street Cinema, and the history of the jazz scene here is really cool. Dacha Beer Garden: I lived in Berlin and can attest that it’s legit. And I’m a huge music guy. The 9:30 Club—I don’t know that people realize we have the most esteemed rock venue in the country.
Founder of menswear collective Mutiny, Gert Barkovic is a sculptor by training, and her workroom reflects her artistic talents. It’s small (less than 500 square feet), inviting, and stylish with a distinctive smoky and woodsy fragrance.
What’s cool about this space?
52 O Street NW is so cool. This collective space has been here for about a decade. I moved in here in September. This is one of the most unique buildings in the city; one of the few places for artists. There are lots of designers in the building and great creative energy.
What evolution do you see happening in town?
DC is in a huge renaissance. You look at the skyline, and it’s crane after crane. The creative spirit based on the development has fabricated this different mood. Things are more viable for those who want to seek a creative profession. The art presence is becoming larger.
The nation’s capital should be the coolest town in the whole damn country. It should be the best in green spaces, with more places where people can congregate. DC could be even more open to independent businesses, too, because they make the city as unique as it can be.
Why is 14th Street the place to be?
In nine years, I’ve seen a huge change. We have beautiful businesses coming in. I hope, as the development slows down, the city can foster the independent spirit more. I love my neighborhood; I want to be able to walk out my door and hang out at a little bookshop or a coffee place. I hope for more of these alternative lifestyle spaces. I think that’ll happen. Stores like Redeem and the Muléh are really valuable to neighborhood life.
Where do those in the know like to go out?
Etto is everything I love. My husband and I spend Sunday mornings at Le Diplomate. There’s Et Voila on MacArthur Boulevard, a tiny Belgian restaurant with the best burger. And the bar at the Jefferson Hotel—we love hanging out there; some of the conversations are outrageously fun to listen to. We need more speakeasies and quiet little places, too. Mutiny, 52 O St. NW, 202-500-8680
DC’s all-ages rock venue since 1980. 815 V St. NW, 202-265-0930
All Souls Bar
A standout star in ever-evolving Shaw. 725 T St. NW, 202-733-5929
Barber of Hell’s Bottom
Offering the modern District gentleman the perfect cut and straight razor-shave. 818 Rhode Island Ave. NW, 202-332-0200
Transformed from manufacturing complex to restaurant, brewery, and bar serving a rotation of 20 beers and five cask ales. 300 Tingey St. SE, 202-524-4862
Busboys and Poets
Vegan, book snob, carnivore, activist, poet, student—you’re all welcome here. 2021 14th St. NW, 202-387-7638
Prepare yourself to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a bowl of ramen noodles. 705 6th St. NW, 202-589-1600
Thinking way outside the box—and making visual dreams come true. 510 H St. NE, 202-797-1018
DTR Modern Galleries
Looking for your next Warhol? 2820 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-338-0625
Eat the Rich
Indulge in a locally sourced and Chesapeake Bay–centric menu from chef Julien Shapiro. Don’t forget the mini beer back with your oyster shooter. 1839 7th St. NW, 202-316-9396
The District’s venue to catch EDM titan Tiësto or the UK’s soulful crooner Sam Smith. 2135 Queens Chapel Road NE, 202-503-2330
Hank’s Oyster Bar
Oysters on the half shell rule the ice bar at this Dupont eatery. Or try the sake oyster shooter. 1624 Q St. NW, 202-462-4265
Stay late into the early morning at this subterranean club and party to the sets of DJs they’ve just flown in. 1802 Jefferson Pl. NW, 202-450-2126
Jack Rose Dining Saloon
Home to a hand-selected whiskey collection of 1,600-plus bottles. 2007 18th St. NW, 202-588-7388
Little Red Fox
Gourmet market plus coffee shop plus to-go prepared foods equals a neighborhood foodie nirvana. 5035 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-248-6346
Long View Gallery
Doubled in size after a recent renovation to now hold 600 guests, this gallery supports local and national artists, and serves as a versatile event venue. 1234 9th St. NW, 202-232-4788
The spot for on-trend sneakers, headwear, and apparel. 1426 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202-625-6732
Skaters flock to this den of all things skateboard-related. 2220 14th St. NW, 202-299-9008
The coffee is sure to change your morning routine. 660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-629-4381
Do you know the password? You’ll need it to gain access to this 1920s-style speakeasy. 728 King St., Alexandria, 703-299-8385
The search for the perfect nightcap is over. Check out this little cocktail-and-desserts-only establishment. 1401 R St. NW, 202-234-0400
Offering select items by up-and-coming designers for image-conscious Washingtonians. 1810 14th St. NW, 202-332-7447
Celebrate an event at this opulent venue with shows nightly and a lively burlesque brunch on Sundays. 734 11th St. NW, 202-737-0101
Serving DC denizens sushi since 1976. 5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-961-1644
A townhouse-turned-restaurant serving traditional Thai cuisine gives new meaning to a home-cooked meal. 515 Florida Ave. NW, 202-332-4322
Curated clothing mixing vintage pieces and modern styles for those striving for responsible consumerism. 1843 14th St. NW, 202-332-9499
Artisans abound offering the best meats, cheese, breads, teas, home essentials, and more. Don’t miss the drive-in movies throughout the summer. 1309 5th St. NE
This authentic Italian deli is a top local source for homemade pastas, sauces, and specialty foods. 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-363-1999
Try a cheese flight or small plates from the locally sourced menu at this wine-centric eatery. 1940 11th St. NW, 202-332-9463
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Bringing new and innovative plays for its 34th season. 641 D St. NW, 202-289-2443
Photography by abby greenawalt; scott shuman (southern efficiency, cocktails); courtesy of netflix (cards); alfrendo images/getty (riverfront)