Restaurateur and music man Eric Hilton highlights his favorite District haunts—old and new—and how the city has changed.
Eric Hilton, half of the Thievery Corporation duo.
Eric Hilton—one half of the Grammy-nominated DJ duo Thievery Corporation and owner of nearly a dozen DC bars and restaurants—has made a career of investing in barely-there DC neighborhoods. With a keen eye for evolution, his team’s modus operandi is to take over abandoned buildings in emerging areas. “If you’ve lived here long enough,” he says, “you can feel where the energy is going to go.”
Growing up in Rockville, Maryland, Hilton had a typical suburban upbringing. But his call to music—and to DC—came early. Since he first hopped on the T2 bus to come into the city and check out Olsson’s Books and Records on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (where Ralph Lauren is now), Hilton has been hooked on the local culture.
As a kid in the District, he spent a lot of time in record shops like that one—Commander Salamander, also since defunct, was another of his favorites. Back home in the ’burbs, it was all new wave and punk music on his boom box and playing guitar in grunge-garage bands with neighborhood friends. At age 17, Hilton discovered bossa nova music, which would not only become a major musical influence but would also lead him to musical partner Rob Garza—the other half of Thievery Corporation. Their first track as a band, “The Glass Bead Game”—a “simple, ambient trip-hop song”—became the ninth song on their 1997 debut LP Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi. Hilton and Garza are currently on tour promoting their most recent album, Saudade.
Along the way, Hilton’s worked all over the city. From a deejaying stint at Fifth Column to throwing warehouse parties for some 2,000 attendees, to setting up a nightclub in a basement deli near Connecticut and K Street, he’s kept a finger on the pulse. In fact, Hilton recalls hanging out at State of the Union on U Street in the late ’80s when it wasn’t an area everyone was comfortable in. Now it’s thriving—and speckled with Hilton establishments (of the 10 businesses he currently co-owns, nine are on or near U Street). As his interests evolve, his roots remain strong.
“DC’s story is kind of the American urban story, but on steroids. You have this natural trend of people moving into the city for convenience, excitement, and culture. [And] of course, in DC, with more jobs being created by the government, it fuels that fire.
In terms of restaurants, places like Kapnos have it right, because the food is generally healthy. They cater very well to sort of an emerging, lighter, healthier food trend.
I’m also very fascinated with the lower 14th area like Le Diplomate and Ghibellina because when I go into those places I feel I’m actually one of the younger people. It’s strange, you see people that clearly could be grandparents, and they’re hanging out. That’s normal in other cities around the world, but I don’t see that in the US that often. There’s this big trend of empty nesters moving back into the city.
The 9:30 Club.
Unfortunately, the music scene has never been that great in DC. There are good bands here, but for whatever reason they’re not getting the recognition, and the chips aren’t really falling in the right place for them. However, the 9:30 Club is a great place. We’ve probably played there 20 times. We have opportunities to play other places, and we just never enjoy playing anywhere but 9:30. After playing at the 9:30 Club I like to go to The Gibson; it’s quiet.
Room 11 is a regular stop for me for great locally sourced food, the patio, cocktails, and punch program. Daikaya is a place for inventive dishes and perfect ramen, with a unique interior design by Lauren Winter and Brian Miller from Edit Lab. And hotel tabard Inn is a true DC classic, with a relaxed atmosphere and a phenomenal patio.
I shop exclusively at Yes! Organic Market because produce is mostly organic and 100 percent GMO-free, and it’s locally owned. Also, I don’t overlook places like Petworth and neighborhoods outside of NW DC. I’d also go to the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market on Sunday, but I’m never up in time. GoodWood is my favorite DC shop. [Owners] Dan and Anna [Kahoe]have an amazing eye, and I make a stop there once a week.
One of the best vantage points in town is from the corner of 13th and Clifton NW.
My favorite walk is the nature trail from Calvert Street, past Dumbarton Oaks, all the way to Wisconsin and Whitehaven. I saw 10 deer grazing at noon last week. It makes for a nice 30-minute break from the city. And 13th and Clifton NW is my favorite view in DC—hands down.” Thievery Corporation plays July 26 at the Believe in Music Festival, Cockeysville, Maryland