Neighborhood Guide: U Street
In Washington’s U Street corridor, you’ll find tons of African-American history—from Civil War soldiers to jazz legends—with hearty servings of shopping, dining, and nightlife on the side.
The U Street corridor—along U Street between Ninth and 18th streets, Northwest—was an artistic mecca in the early 20th century. It was home to Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes as well numerous theaters and music venues that helped make the neighborhood “black Broadway.” After a period of decline due to the 1968 riots, it has regained its status as an artistic and culinary center, and its ties to black culture make it one of the most colorful areas in the city. The center of the neighborhood is the intersection of 14th and U streets, where much of the shopping, dining, and nightlife are located.
Closest Metro: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo (Yellow and Green lines).
Go Mama Go. Looking for an ecofriendly shop? Look no further than Go Mama Go. This home-furnishings store stocks wares exclusively from fair-trade dealers, and the result is an impressive collection of colorful and affordable dinnerware, wall art, bath soaps, and gifts from local and international designers.
Home Rule. This shop’s varied, funky, and yet tasteful collection of kitchen and bathroom products is a step above your average department-store aisle. From a bright-green trash can for $4.99 to a two-slice toaster for $59.99, Home Rule is full of practical bargains, moderately priced necessities, and occasional higher-priced irrational buys. To wit, the Babyplane: a spoon fitted with removable plastic wings for $16.99.
Nana. This store stocks trendy and colorful vintage-inspired clothing and accessories. The cozy women’s boutique carries stylish apparel from designers such as Pieces of a Girl, Dagg and Stacey, Kelly Lane, and Anastasia Lomonova. And the extensive sale rack isn’t bad, either.
Pulp. If you’re hunting for a notecard or a quick and quirky gift item, head to Pulp. It stocks cards for any and every occasion, and gifts include everything from Urban Smalls baby onesies to shopping bags made from recycled newspaper. Don’t worry about packaging the gift—Pulp also sells a selection of wrapping paper and ribbons.
RCKNDY. This shop (whose name is pronounced “rock candy”) offers a hyper-modern selection of home-decor items, including funky ceramics by Anne Black, sleek furniture by Blu Dot, fragrant bath soaps by Kol Design, and colorful Judy Ross textiles. Popular gifts include Kobo candles ($34) in scents such as jalapeño and Portuguese olive blossom and a hot-pink piggy bank ($95).
Red Onion Records & Books. A great source for finding and rediscovering favorite bands and authors. Stacks of used and new vinyl, CDs, and books fill the shelves and walls of this intimate one-room haven. Take your time browsing because the speakers often blast great music and owners Joshua Harkavy and Alyssa Best are happy to share their tastes.
ShoeFly. This small shop contains a gold mine of funky footwear for both men and women. ShoeFly offers a range of choices from detailed Gola sneakers for men to patterned Naughty Monkey pumps for women.
Dining & Nightlife
Café Saint-Ex. Happy hour at this cafe, from 5 to 7 on weeknights, isn’t overly popular—but that’s part of its appeal. The long wooden bar usually has a few open seats, and mellow jazz plays just low enough that you can enjoy it while talking with friends. Although wine and Yuengling and Miller bottles are the only featured deals, it’s worth ordering a regular-priced beer from the eclectic selection including Chimay, Peroni, and Delirium Tremens. There aren’t any food specials from the ecofriendly kitchen, which is stocked with local produce, but a plate of fries—sweet-potato or traditional—is only $5, and a fried-green-tomato BLT is $10.
Cork. With 50 wines by the glass and more than 160 by the bottle, this wine bar lives up to its name. The owners intended it to be a neighborhood hangout, but it’s quickly becoming a destination for folks throughout Washington—the frequently long lines are proof of that. If you brave the crowds, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you’re a fan of Rhône wines and Old World varietals. For food, nosh on chef Ron Tanaka’s shareable small plates, which run from $4 to $24. Try the rosemary/chicken-liver bruschetta with shallot marmalade or oil-cured roma tomatoes.
Coppi’s Organic. This spot is known for its selection of delectable Italian-style pizza and its devotion to partnering with local organic farmers.
Duffy’s Irish Restaurant & Pub. Owner Andy Duffy, an Irishman, opened this pub in May 2006. White-painted walls, lined with photos of the Emerald Isle, are trimmed with dark wood, and quotes from Irish notables such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw are stenciled in green. Tealight candles glow from the bar and tables, accompanied by dim overhead lighting. On tap are frothy Guinness stout and an amber Smithwicks, but Strongbow cider comes in a can. Food includes the Irish standbys—fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, and corned beef and cabbage—but also such American fare as Buffalo wings and burgers. The Monday happy hour features $1 domestic cans from 4 to midnight. On Friday and Saturday nights after 9, domestic cans are $2.
Local 16. Located on the corner of 16th and U streets, this restaurant, lounge, and bar draws crowds on the weekends. Decked out in various shades of red, the dimly lit first floor contains a bar and two rooms with table seating as well as more intimate window seats. Prices are within reason for entrées, ranging from a traditional cheeseburger ($13) to curried tofu ($14) and the more expensive steak frites ($18). Upstairs, an outdoor bar and seating area includes heat lamps that help keep the space open through some of the colder months. The second level also houses an indoor bar where local DJs spin. Check out the all-day $3 Peroni special every Sunday and Monday.
Marvin. Named for singer Marvin Gaye, a DC native, this glass-fronted restaurant and lounge is so quietly tucked away near the corner of 14th and U streets that it can be easy to miss. But if a good Belgian beer and a meal of solid bistro fare is what you crave, you won’t want to miss it. On tap, the bar offers Abita Turbodog, Stella Artois, and Maudite, among others, and stocks around 30 bottled Belgian beers. The food, though slightly pricey—an $11 plate of ribs is among the menu items—is worth the splurge. There are no happy-hour deals, so come a little later to enjoy a meal and a drink after you’ve spent time hopping around the other bars in the neighborhood.
Momo’s Sports Bar. This sports mecca has three floors, two bars, and 25 flat-screen televisions showing everything from football and boxing to UFC. The food menu is filled with standard bar food and the occasional healthy surprise, such as an apple-pear-and-walnut salad. Happy hours have nightly themes, including college night, ladies’ night, and gamer night. The standout is a Mexican-inspired Friday deal: $2 Coronas, Pacifico beer, tacos, and nachos.
Nellie’s Sports Bar. Nellie’s opened its doors to the sports-loving gay community in July 2007. It welcomes patrons of all stripes, but if you go to this not-so-typical sports bar—with Christmas lights illuminating the exterior, quaint portraits lining the walls inside, and Tuesday-night drag bingo—expect a curious crowd of macho and metro sports fans who are there to check out the latest game, play some Foosball, and nosh on the bar’s signature sliders or tasty empanadas. Not a sports fan? Not to worry—grab a board game and a brew, and head to the rooftop deck for a night of old-fashioned fun. Time is critical during the “beat the clock” happy hour from 5 to 8, which starts with $1 bottled beer and rail vodka and increases by $1 every hour. Nellie’s opens at 5 PM during the week and at 11 AM on the weekend for brunch.
Polly’s Cafe. Though this small basement pub serves dinner during the week, the weekend brunch is what makes people come back. Drinks including mimosas, Bloody Marys, and screwdrivers come by the glass and the pitcher. Try eggs Benedict served eight ways—avocado, portabello, and spicy southwestern, among them—or a smoked-salmon omelet. Not in the mood for eggs? Polly’s also dishes up Belgian waffles and challah French toast.
The Saloon. Unlike its U Street neighbors, the Saloon has a few unconventional choice rules: no standing, no loud music, no saving seats, no TVs. What patrons get is a comfortable pub where you can enjoy pleasant conversation with friends or strangers. Most important, there’s a fantastic selection of Belgian and other imported brews—some argue it’s the best beer selection in the District. Sorry ladies, no martinis.
Solly’s U Street Tavern. Solly’s is the classic neighborhood dive to chill out after a hard day’s work and have a cheap beer (or two or three) with a pal. Popular events happen regularly, including Kostume Karaoke on Wednesdays—with hundreds of costume pieces on hand if you forget to wear your own—and local comedy acts on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Weekday happy hour goes until 8 PM, with games playing on 11 flat-screen TVs.
Stetson’s Famous Bar & Grill. While change abounds in the U Street restaurant and bar scene, Stetson’s stays the same. A neighborhood favorite since opening in the early ’80s, the low-key, Tex-Mex-themed bar provides a friendly atmosphere for watching the game on an enormous flat-screen TV or on an assortment of smaller screens. A couple of pool tables and dart boards are available upstairs. During hot summer evenings, expect the rooftop patio to be packed. The kitchen turns out satisfying but greasy bar fare, with half-price burgers on Mondays and 25-cent wings on Wednesdays during happy hour.
Arts & Entertainment
9:30 Club. A block north of the main drag is the 9:30 Club, one of the city’s best live-music venues. It hosts rock, punk, hip-hop, and country acts as well as some local bands almost every night of the week. It’s a two-level space, so if shoulder-to-shoulder crowds aren’t your thing, head upstairs to the balcony for a slightly roomier spot to watch. The venue offers four bars stocked with more than 50 beers; a food window with sandwiches, wraps, and other munchies; and an upstairs coffee counter to keep you wired. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, through the Web site, or by calling 800-955-5566. Prices and showtimes vary so check the Web site before heading out.
African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum. Probably the first and most striking sight you’ll see in this neighborhood is the nearly ten-foot bronze sculpture designed to memorialize African-American troops who fought in the Civil War. Designed by sculptor Ed Hamilton, “The Spirit of Freedom” was the first memorial by a black artist to be displayed on federal land in DC, and it sits surrounded by a semicircular wall carved with all 209,145 names of the US black troops who fought to preserve the Union and end slavery. Two blocks west, the African American Civil War Museum gives a deeper history of their battle for freedom. Open Monday through Friday 10 to 5, Saturday 10 to 2; free, but donations are welcome.
Black Cat. This nightclub, bar, and live-music venue is popular with local hipsters. Downstairs, you’ll find the club’s smaller performance space, Backstage, and the Red Room Bar, a dimly lit spot with a well-stocked bar of microbrews and imports, Belgian beers, bourbon, Scotch, and more. Upstairs is the 7,000-square-foot main concert space, which hosts national touring acts, popular local bands, and monthly DJ dance events. There are a few tables and chairs in the back for conversation, but most people crowd near the front, where the band plays. The no-cover Red Room Bar is open Monday to Thursday 8 PM to 2 AM, Friday and Saturday 7 PM to 3 AM. Doors open for the Backstage at 9, and the act goes on at 9:30. Door times for the Mainstage vary; check the Web site. Tickets for shows on both stages are required and can be purchased from the box office (cash only) starting at 8 PM or through Ticketmaster.com.
Bohemian Caverns. When this jazz spot opened its doors in 1926, it welcomed a roster of legends, among them Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Eighty years later, this music and supper club is still a favorite of locals for its eclectic jazz, R&B, and soul lineup. Performances during the week usually start at 8 PM, on Fridays and Saturdays around 9, but check the event calendar before heading out. Get there at 6 on Tuesday nights to enjoy discounted Belgian beers, including Chimay, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Delirium Tremens, and more. When the weather gets warm, sip beer on the patio on the corner of 11th and U streets. We think it’s some of the best people-watching in the city.
Busboys and Poets. This coffeehouse/bookstore/restaurant/lounge usually has something going on—it hosts everything from films and book discussions to poetry readings and open-mike nights. Intended as a spot to bring diverse neighborhood residents together, a sense of social action pervades the place. Food and drinks are kept relatively cheap and simple, an invitation for the more budget-conscious to dine there. The bookstore, run by the nonprofit Teaching for Change, stocks nonfiction, poetry, and literature with a progressive bent. Even the name of the place carries significance: It honors Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at a nearby hotel in the 1930s as he was beginning to make his name as a poet.
DC9. This dive bar and venue gets great bands, but it’s the DJs working every Friday night’s Liberation Dance Party that makes it an important U Street stop. There’s a $6 cover to gain upstairs access, but if you get there early enough, you can take advantage of the open bar from 9 to 10:30 (rail cocktails only). Can’t make it until later? Grab a drink or two in a downstairs booth before heading to the dance floor, where the crowd often gets thick and sweaty.
HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz & Blues. This nonprofit cultural center, taking its title from the House resolution passed to name jazz “a rare and valuable national American treasure,” presents concerts from new talent and renowned artists, hosts jam sessions, and offers lectures, workshops, and music lessons. Though wine and beer are available by the glass, HR-57 is also BYOB—so pick up a bottle of your drink of choice and head over on a Wednesday or Thursday, when local musicians gather for an entertaining jazz jam session. It makes for a great date. Admission is $8 Wednesday and Thursday, $12 Friday and Saturday. If you bring drinks, there’s a $3-per-person corking fee.
Lincoln Theatre. This U Street landmark has a storied past steeped in black history. The Lincoln opened its doors in 1922 and welcomed to the stage such entertainers as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, and Ella Fitzgerald. From the 1920s to 1950s, the U Street corridor was considered a black commercial and entertainment center, but a 1954 Supreme Court decision led to the area’s desegregation and the theater’s eventual closing. In the 1990s, the theater reopened, and today it hosts plays, films, music, and dance as well as community events, galas, and benefit performances. The beautifully restored gold-painted, chandeliered, and red-carpeted theater seats 1,250. The lobby opens about an hour before performances, and seating begins 30 to 45 minutes before shows.
Studio Theatre. This 14th Street performance space houses four theaters, an acting conservatory, wine and coffee bars, and a small bookshop. The theater puts on mainly contemporary plays and modern adaptations of classics. This year’s lineup includes Tom Stoppard’s Prague-based Rock’N’ Roll, Scott Frankel’s cult hit Grey Gardens, and Radio Golf, the culmination of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle.
Velvet Lounge. Located around the corner from the 9:30 Club, this cozy indie-rock venue offers a steady stream of local, lesser-known acts. Drinks are served at a relaxed downstairs bar, where an assortment of local art adorns the red velvet-covered walls, and an upstairs bar services the small (read: often crowded) performance space. There’s nothing fancy about this dimly lit lounge, and that’s something regulars love about it.