Once an afterthought, the Southwest waterfront aims to activate the Potomac and become the city’s newest go-to destination.
Catch the Wharf Jitney, a free ferry to East Potomac Park, from the recreation pier to see a different side of Washington.
London’s famous Thames-front promenade, with its iconic Eye Ferris wheel. San Francisco’s Embarcadero, punctuated by the foodie lure of the Ferry Building and stellar views. Southwest might start ranking among these world-class waterfronts with the opening of the first phase of The Wharf. The $2.5-billion, mile-long Hoffman-Madison Waterfront development fills a placid stretch of the Potomac River with decidedly edgy, industrial-cool buildings holding hundreds of condos and rental apartments, nearly two dozen restaurants and enough boat slips to lure a small fleet. Oh, and a riverside promenade that’s at the heart of the zone’s appeal.
“I walk, I bike and I kayak, and this whole area will be terrific for that,” says architect Jeanine Quaglia, who moved to the zone in part due to the amenities coming with The Wharf. “It’s definitely going to activate the Potomac in a way we haven’t seen before.”
The angular steel-and-glass mid-rises, cobblestoned streets and sidewalk cafes of The Wharf are a stylish leap forward for the formerly sleepy zone. In the late 20th century, the onetime commercial shipping center was best known as the home of Arena Stage and the Maine Avenue Fish Market. (The latter, the oldest continuously operating seafood emporium in the country, is still slinging peel-and-eat shrimp and rockfish; it’ll be updated in coming months as part of the project.) “The Wharf will appeal to tourists, but we didn’t design it for them,” says Hoffman-Madison Waterfront CEO of PN Hoffman. “We wanted it to have real D.C. DNA. We don’t have any chain restaurants, and we’ve tried to surprise with other offerings.”
To dive into The Wharf, you can move into one of the four residential developments (we’re partial to the Channel, with its rooftop infinity pool) or check into one of three hotels, including a new InterContinental with a glassy ballroom overlooking the Potomac. But the most unexpected aspect of the ready-made neighborhood may be that it’s a stellar after-five destination.
“We’ve been waiting for people to come down here and play with us,” says Bruce Gates, who has owned the down-home, waterside Cantina Marina on the waterfront since 2002. Gates is now the force behind The Wharf’s Pearl Street Warehouse, a 300-person live music hall for Americana acts (bluegrass, country, etc.). “Now we have a built-in audience.”
Gates’ joint will be just one of multiple concert venues in the nabe, many on the narrow, string-light-festooned Pearl Street. Almost any night of the year, this means music fans can drop by Kirwan’s Irish Pub for a little Gaelic drumming or catch a big-name act (Foo Fighters, The National) at the 6,000-seat Anthem, a multilevel rock temple from 9:30 Club’s Seth Hurwitz. “Music is social, and I wanted The Wharf to be a community, not just a development,” says Hoffman.
Restaurants from marquee, only-in- Washington names also figure in the evening mix: Fabio Trabocchi’s Mallorca-inspired seafood spot Del Mar, a branch of Hank’s Oyster Bar, Mike Isabella’s French-Med Requin in a warehouse-like building with 40-foot ceilings and jumbo crystal chandeliers. “It all reminds me of a European city down there, like maybe St. Tropez,” says Isabella. “The Wharf is pretty epic. I think it’ll be the new go-to in D.C.”