The U Street Transformation
The cost of a dinner for two includes three courses, tax, and a 15-percent tip. Unless otherwise indicated, all restaurants are wheelchair accessible.
Tennis star Arthur Ashe, recalling the 1940s in an interview, once called the corner of DC's 14th and U "the grapevine."
"The cream of black society and everybody else passed through there, so if you were at 14th and U, you knew where the parties were, you knew who was in town, you knew if there was trouble. If you were at that corner, you always had the sense that something big was about to happen."
That sense of something big about to happen gave the neighborhood—a repository of black culture and a magnet for such artistic giants as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Jean Toomer—its pulse, even as Jim Crow's effects continued.
In the 1950s, that sense of something big about to happen turned ominous. The disintegration of the Black Broadway began in the late '50s, when white shopkeepers began shuttering their doors and putting down stakes on the edges of DC to escape the growing crime. Then came the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. And after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act that year, middle-class black families left for the suburbs. It wasn't until Metro arrived in 1991 that the area began its rise from the ashes.
Today U Street is again a neighborhood alive with speculation—in every sense of the word. Not only is it ground zero of a development boom that has attracted people of different ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds, it is also at the forefront of an ongoing debate about gentrification.
New wealth, and a new sense of optimism, has brought with it clubs, theaters, boutiques—and restaurants. A neighborhood bereft of options a little over a decade ago has become an interesting part of town to eat in. Here are looks at three sleek newcomers, one veteran of the area, and an old-timer.
Dining as It Should Be: Creme Cafe and Lounge
Stylish and personal, Crème Café and Lounge—chef Terrell Danley's cozy roost—avoids the cookie-cutter sameness of several of its recently arrived neighbors. It's the standout of the new U Street restaurants.
It's stretching things to say that Crème would be right at home on U Street in its heyday, but not by much. Danley, who has cooked at Georgia Brown's and Sam & Harry's, has fashioned a small but appealing menu—seven first courses, nine main courses, and three or four desserts--of bold, straightforward American cooking. Though small, the space accommodates a comfortable lounge, a long bar, and a dozen tables. And the customers come dressed to impress.
Of the seven first courses, the homey star is a big bowl of chicken noodle soup, perfect for a winter night. The broth tastes intensely of chicken, with generous portions of broad noodles and vegetables, and could serve as a light meal for the bargain price of $5. Mussels, steamed in a spicy broth flavored with ginger, garlic, and cilantro, are equally good. El's Mushroom Masterpiece is another simple triumph—an assortment of wild mushrooms sautéed and served with white-truffle oil and Manchego cheese.
Two innovations also succeed: Oprah's Tomato Salad—reprised from a meal Danley once catered for Oprah Winfrey—is concealed in a flaky case of puff pastry and accented with fresh basil and olive oil. His no-bread-crumb crab cake isn't just clever—a simple crab salad is wrapped in a thin spring-roll skin and quickly sautéed—it's also rewarding. Without the necessity of holding itself together, it's lighter than the usual crab cake, and the flavor of good crabmeat predominates.
The main courses are homey and delicious. In a world where quickly grilled meat is the fashion, Danley understands that flavor is best achieved by long, slow cooking. I'd go here any time for meat and potatoes—beautifully caramelized short ribs of beef served with a potato gratin and roasted root vegetables. His version of pork and beans is new-fangled in its approach—a pork shank on a bed of lima beans, with smoky bacon and caramelized onions—but old-fashioned in its result, the slight sweetness of the pork a nice contrast to the smoky flavor of the bacon. There's also beautifully roasted chicken, served with rice; shrimp and grits, spicy with andouille sausage; and, for patrons interested in dining more simply but no less luxuriously, a $9 Kobe-beef hot dog and a half-pound Kobe-beef hamburger.
Desserts, coming on the heels of such rib-sticking food, are sensibly small--a plate of cookies, a sugar basket of fresh berries, or the Sniglet, the chef's choice of what's available served in a bite-size portion.
Wines are modestly priced, with many in the $20 range. A Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage for $20 goes well with many of Danley's dishes.
Crème Café and Lounge, 1322 U St., NW; 202-234-1884. Main courses, $13 to $18; sandwiches, $9 and $10. Dinner for two: about $65. Open daily for dinner.
Strong First Courses, Good Pasta, and Overpriced Veal: Al Crostino
Even though the prices at Kuna—later redubbed Opera—crept up during its run, it filled the need for a moderately priced pasta restaurant in the neighborhood, and locals regretted its closing.
That void was filled when the owners of Al Tiramisu, the Dupont Circle restaurant, took over the space this fall. Like its predecessor, Al Crostino is a casual neighborhood spot, a bit cramped and noisy when it's full but with a friendly atmosphere. And its Italian kitchen eschews trendiness and flash, aiming to comfort with no-frills fare.
Dining here can be uneven. If you're looking for a complete meal in the traditional Italian, multicourse manner, forget it. Best to begin with an antipasto dish, then a pasta, and skip the main courses and sweets.
First courses are strong. A selection of crostini--toasted bread slices with a changing selection of toppings—so far has included a pleasant chicken-liver pâté, porcini mushrooms, and mozzarella with anchovies. There's a terrific vitello tonnato, thinly sliced veal with a tuna sauce, and a deliciously sweet dish of sea scallops on a purée of lima beans. One off-note was an oddly flavorless beef carpaccio.
Among a slate of tasty pastas, a recent special of butternut-squash ravioli is a standout, the sweetness of the vegetable in counterpoint to the herbiness of the sage. A plate of mushroom ravioli in a rich walnut-cream sauce was almost as good. Penne with sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese is a solid choice. The one pasta to steer clear of is the linguine with its tough shrimp—and not many of them--and cherry tomatoes.
The short list of main courses has been mostly disappointing. Rib-eye steak Tuscan-style was properly cooked but fatty and gristly. Lamb chops were robed in an unpleasantly sweet sauce of honey and balsamic vinegar. The best of the main courses was a special: a veal chop with wild mushrooms, the mild tenderness of its meat juxtaposed with the woodsiness of the mushrooms. The bigger surprise came with the bill. The cost was $40—twice as expensive as the other meat dishes on the menu, a fact the server neglected to mention.
The dessert selection, with items along the lines of tiramisu, panna cotta, and tartuffo, is mediocre. Better to focus on the cheeses, which are served in good condition and at the proper temperature.
Al Crostino, 1324 U St., NW; 202-797-0523. Dinner for two, about $72. Open daily for dinner.
Go for the View: Tabaq Bistro
In a city of increasingly multihyphenated, multipurpose restaurants, Tabaq Bistro can lay claim to one of the longest and fullest descriptors. It's at once a bar, lounge, restaurant, neighborhood hangout, weekend magnet, private club—and lookout point.
Nothing else in DC approaches the grandeur of the fourth-floor dining room, a sort of glass penthouse with 360-degree views of the city, including the expanse from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. The glass roof retracts in good weather, opening the room to the stars.
It's too bad, then, that this dazzling jack-of-all-trades stumbles in providing what's most important—good food and good service.
Perhaps the owners can be excused for wanting to pack as many people as possible into their stunning room, but tables are small and close together, and there are lots of them. Dining comfortably is a struggle, particularly when the mezze concept—Turkish small plates—dominates. Where are you supposed to put the two to three dishes per person your server will suggest, not to mention bread plates, water glasses, salt and pepper shakers? Wineglasses have to be moved to nearby window ledges when the food arrives.
Brothers Omer and Melih Buyukbayrak, who owned Meze in Adams Morgan, have reprised their menu at Tabaq. Unlike Meze, where the cooking stood out as a pleasant surprise in a neighborhood known more for its bar scene, the quality of the mezze at Tabaq varies widely from day to day—and from dish to dish. The standard hummus and baba ghanoush is tired; the eggplant caviar, smoky with roasted eggplant and pungent with anchovy and garlic, is superb. There are winners among the vegetarian mezze, including phyllo-wrapped "cigars" stuffed with feta cheese and spinach; a nicely done zucchini pancake in roasted tomato sauce; and grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and spices. Meat selections require more care in ordering. Duck borek—duck confit with a sauce of red pepper, yogurt, and port—is unusual and delicious. Manti, a dish of beef ravioli, is enlivened by its garlicky red-pepper sauce. Grilled lamb chops, on the other hand, were overcooked, as was the most expensive item on the mezze menu, foie gras with roasted figs ($13.95).
In addition to mezze, there is a small selection of main courses: a hassock of a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese on a hill of mashed potatoes; braised lamb shank in a tureen with a murky eggplant purée; a nicely cooked filet of branzini with almond-and-currant-studded rice.
Desserts range from a bland fig tart and a very sweet baklava with pistachio ice cream to a Grand Marnier soufflé well worth the required 20-minute wait.
My hope for Tabaq is that it becomes a little less impressed by its own hipness and a little more attuned to the basics of cooking and attentive service. That isn't to say that I wouldn't return—if only for that stunning glimpse of the city at night.
Tabaq Bistro, 1336 U St., NW; 202-265-0965. Dinner for two, about $48. Open daily for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Organic Meets Ligurian With Good Results: Coppi's Organic
Coppi's Organic, a fine neighborhood Italian restaurant, began as a pizza parlor and bar. After owners Elizabeth Bright-Mattia and Pierre Mattia closed their other restaurant, Coppi's Vigorelli in Cleveland Park, they grafted part of its Ligurian menu, much of it cooked in the same wood-burning oven that cooks the pizza, onto that of this smaller establishment. In the past few years, Bright-Mattia's cooking has moved in an organic direction with very favorable results.
Aside from the pizzas and calzones, the main attractions are the seasonally changing specials. Pastas might include trenette with organic New York strip steak, tomato, porcini mushrooms, and pine nuts—a hearty combination available, like most of the dishes here, in both full and half portions. Pleasant memories from last spring include a ravioli filled with a mixture of borage, nettles, and ricotta and sauced with a fresh asparagus pesto. More recently, a rack of lamb on arugula pesto was beautifully cooked, the slight gaminess of the lamb accented by the delicate bitterness of the greens. For dessert, don't miss the Nutella calzone.
Coppi's Organic, 1414 U St., NW; 202-319-7773. Dinner for two, about $60. Open for dinner daily.
An Institution Changes With a Neighborhood: Ben's Chili Bowl
In business in the same location since 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl is not just a restaurant; it's a U Street institution, a living artifact. During the years of the civil-rights movement, Ben's, a short hop from Howard University, was a gathering place for many of the movement's leading figures. A young Bill Cosby courted his future wife, Camille, at Ben's. Rioters devastated U Street but spared Ben's. These days, with condo development altering the neighborhood, its clientele is largely young, white, and affluent.
The food is less of a draw than the atmosphere, with its loud, peppery chatter about the mayor, the Redskins, and the merits of gentrification. Ben's is best known for its chili dog and chili burger, fairly ordinary specimens of each topped by thin, not very flavorful chili. A side of fries is obligatory and may be ordered topped with chili or cheese—in reality a Cheez Whiz-like yellow sauce. Get it on the side or it turns the fries soggy.
Ben's is at its best at breakfast, a meal surprisingly hard to come by in DC. Bacon or sausage with two eggs cooked to order, grits, and a biscuit is a deal for $5.99, and the pancakes and eggs are good, too.
Ben's, flaws and all, is the kind of place every neighborhood needs—the kind of place every city needs. Let's wish Ben's another half century of prosperity.
Ben's Chili Bowl, 1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909. Dinner for two, $30 or less. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, until 4 AM on weekends.
A Chicken Joint That Keeps It Simple: Chix
Chicken—Peruvian-style and other ways—gets star billing on the streamlined menu at the ten-month-old Chix, an environmentally conscious carryout and restaurant in a brownstone just off bar-happy U Street. It’s the brainchild of government workers Lukas Umana and Victoria Garcia. They haven’t quit their day jobs, so they wisely have kept the place’s focus tight: three varieties of rotisserie chicken, a few vegetable sides, and a handful of fresh salads and wraps.
The chickens, from an all-natural farm in Pennsylvania, are plump, moist, and full of flavor. A Colombian-style bird gets a daylong soak in organic coconut milk and coffee before its turn on the spit. The Peruvian chicken is marinated in a peppery mix of herbs and spices. And the spicy-sweetness of the house blend’s dry rub—Garcia is so fiercely protective of her longtime family recipe that she gets up at 5 am to make it herself—infuses not only the skin but also the meat.
Choose from a trio of house-made sauces—the piquant green salsa works best with the chicken, while the curry-mustard sauce is ideal for drizzling over bowls of hacked chicken and cilantro rice—and sides such as roasted sweet potatoes, well-spiced black beans, and a less-inspired casserole made with vermicelli and cheddar.
There’s a worthy home-style chicken soup full of shreds of dark meat, but the sleeper is a terrific lentil soup, at once soothing and assertive. It might be the perfect hangover cure—or preventative. Chix plans to open weekends till 3 am.
Chix, 2019 11th St., NW; 202-234-2449. Dinner for two, $40 or less. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Fried Chicken and Waffles and Belgian Brews: Marvin
A faux-weathered hotspot owned by the team behind Local 16 and the 18th Street Lounge is the last place you’d expect to find a tasty plate of chicken and waffles. But the spicy-crispy fried breast over a buttery Belgian waffle is a destination dish in itself. Oversize salads and fries with ketchup and two freshly whipped mayonnaises are good, too, but despite the place’s Belgian overtones, the mussel preparations are disappointing.
Marvin, 2007 14th St., NW; 202-797-7171. Dinner for two, $75 or less. Open daily for dinner; weekends until 3 AM.
An Ethiopian Star: Etete
What makes this narrow, 24-seat place stand out among the Ethiopian restaurants around Ninth and U streets? Not the decor, with its trendy palette of browns and ochres and oranges. It’s the finesse of the cooking.
Ethiopian is primarily a stew-based cuisine, so a certain heavy-handedness and even greasiness is to be expected. And yet not at Etete, which manages to deliver sauces of greater concentration and clarity than its competitors. The red sauce that makes the yebeg wat and doro wat so good is built from a foundation of caramelized onions and incendiary berbere powder and is as zesty and rich as an Italian sugu.
Kitfo, a sort of Ethiopian beef tartare, is just as good and intense even without a sauce; novices might order the meat lightly cooked, then use a torn bit of injera to scoop it up and eat it with bites of the buttery collards called gomen and the house-made cottage cheese. The vegetarian platter is a splendid sampler comprising three lentil stews (including azifa, a cool mixture of green lentils, Ethiopian mustard, and diced jalapeños), a stew of potatoes and carrots, and a chopped salad with tomatoes and Italian dressing.
Prepare to wait—and not to think of it as waiting. This is a languor-inducing place, as befits a culture that honors fellowship and a long, relaxing meal with friends.
Etete, 1942 Ninth St., NW; 202-232-7600. Dinner for two, $50 or less. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Small Plates and Craft Cocktails: Bar Pilar
Vintage maps and photos of Hemingway—the place is named for a character in For Whom the Bell Tolls—give this place charm, but it also has substance: The cleverly conceived small plates are of the moment—and wonderful.
The menu changes daily, but recent winners have been delicate pea shoots with fennel and a tangerine vinaigrette; a Spanish tortilla with goat cheese; an earthy stew of chicken braised with bacon and garlic; seared scallops with maple/balsamic-glazed beets and Meyer lemon; and grilled banana bread with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of toffee.
Every Tuesday, general manager Adam Bernbach holds “cocktail sessions” during which he creates five offbeat cocktails.
Bar Pilar, 1833 14th St., NW; 202-265-1751. Dinner for two, $50 or less. Open daily for dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch.
Southern Comfort: Oohhs & Aahhs
The only places to sit downstairs are the five red stools by the busy kitchen—and they’re often filled by regulars. Upstairs are a couple of tables. Most of the business at this soul-food gem on U Street is takeout—Wizards star Gilbert Arenas has been known to park his Range Rover by the curb—and even eat-in orders come in Styrofoam containers.
No shame in that, except that this is slow-cooked food worthy of a proper sit-down. All dinners come with a meat—expertly fried chicken, a spicy Cajun turkey “chop,” and wings sauced with a tangy-sweet house-made barbecue sauce are irresistible—and two sides; don’t miss the sweet-potato mash, porkless collard greens splashed with vinegar, or the gooey mac-and-cheese.
There are misses, notably the fatty ribs, and the kitchen is occasionally out of a dish—order fried chicken and you might get fried chicken wings. But you never get less than generosity. This is one place that serves up atmosphere and deliciousness in equal amounts.
Oohhs & Aahhs, 1005 U St., NW; 202-667-7142. Dinner for two, $40 or less. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.