Cleveland Park Neighborhood Guide

The National Zoo and the Uptown Theater have been drawing people to Cleveland Park for decades, but since 2010, unique restaurants have added more reasons to visit this self-contained small town in the city. Newcomers include a place that serves only steak frites, the expansion of an elegant dining room run by a former White House chef, and a tiny bar of gourmet ice cream sandwiches. Visitors will quickly discover Cleveland Park's many other charms: leafy hiking trails, quirky dive bars, cozy date-night hangouts and homegrown shops that offer last-minute gifts for birthday boys and girls of any age. We picked these favorites for their one-of-a-kind qualities.
 
 
1

Melvin Hazen Tributary Trail

Sedgwick Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-895-6000  |  Web site »

The dirt pathway meanders downhill, past pretty sections of the burbling creek, over fallen trees and through the water. It should take only 20 to 30 minutes to reach the bottom of the trail, which ends in what some call their "happy place," a green open area often dotted with dogs, picnicking families, bikers and runners passing through and people tossing Frisbees or dribbling soccer balls.

Follow a trail to the right, and you can end up at the zoo. To the left is Peirce Mill, a 19th-century gristmill that recently reopened for tours after a long renovation.

Pack a lunch and a Frisbee and join in the fun at the field or its pavilion. Two bridges pass over the creek at the field and make perfect, picturesque spots for young children to look down at the water.

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2

Medium Rare

3500 Connecticut Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20008  | 202-237-1432  |  Web site »

You can always spot the first-timers at Medium Rare by the grins they wear when a server appears unannounced with a second helping of steak frites. It's satisfying when it's unexpected (spoiler alert?), but if the meat doesn't live up to the big reveal, well, there's that saying about selling the sizzle vs. the steak.

Opened in 2011, Medium Rare has plenty of both. Each meal begins the same way: A server deposits a basket of crusty bread on the table and asks how you want your meat cooked (you can substitute a portobello mushroom for the beef). A modest salad makes an appearance before the steak arrives, sliced pencil-thin, served with crisp frites and topped with a sauce that Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema identified as redolent of chicken liver and mustard. At $19.50 per person, the encore portion brings the set menu's value up a healthy notch.

The service is fast. A twosome can finish in less than an hour, making Medium Rare an ideal spot to grab a bite before catching an evening show at the Uptown. A brunch menu, served Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., adds bottomless brunch cocktails and steak and eggs to Medium Rare's repertoire for $23.

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3

Atomic Billiards

3427 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-363-7665

Open since 1992, Atomic Billiards serves as Cleveland Park's scruffy basement rec room. It's dark and loud, and the decor features retro-corny murals of rocketships and Martians, glittering acrylic table tops and plastic '60s-style lamps. The one-room bar is always lively: Groups of 20- and 30-somethings crowd around the five blue-felt pool tables and the two shuffleboard tables, and couples find seats to play Connect Four or Uno. This is one of the few spots in town where a menu at the bar lists board games that customers can play.

Atomic's never-ending parade of specials attracts the neighborhood crowd. Women can play pool free on Sunday nights with a drink purchase, and everyone plays for half-price on Wednesdays. Guinness costs $5 every Thursday night. During weekday happy hours, which run until 8 p.m., Bud Light, Fat Tire and other draft beers are $3.25 and mixed drinks, $4.

The bar stands out for its jukebox, lovingly stocked by the staff with actual CDs. The eclectic mix includes the Smiths, Guns N' Roses, the Beastie Boys, James Brown and the Clash -- everything you'd want for a night of hanging out and playing darts and pool.

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4

AMC Loews Uptown 1

3426 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-966-8805

The Uptown Theater looks to have been permanently Instagrammed. No photo filters or enhancements are necessary to convey the beleaguered gravitas that paints the walls of this 1936 movie palace with the red-letter facade.

A stairwell chandelier illuminates the face of Jim Morrison, who gazes from the surface of an early '90s coming attraction poster for Oliver Stone's "The Doors." Also coming soon, apparently: "Cape Fear," "Home Alone," "City Slickers" and "Back to the Future II." Transporting you even further back than the George H. W. Bush era are the restroom "lounges," a nod to the more genteel days of the art deco theater's opening.

The Uptown's single screen is one-of-a-kind for Washington: The curved 70-by-40-foot rectangle wraps around the audience and occupies nearly your entire field of vision when sitting mid-center on the main floor. Forget stadium seating; some say the best view in all of Washington moviegoing is from the first row of the Uptown's balcony. Plan ahead if you want to snag one of those great spots, however. Block-wrapping lines are the norm for blockbuster openings, but it's worth the wait.

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5

Cleveland Park Bar and Grill

3421 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-806-8940  |  Web site »

There are plenty of sports fans living along the Red Line between Dupont Circle and Tenleytown, but that stretch doesn't have many places to watch your team's big game. That's why Cleveland Park Bar & Grill is such a popular neighborhood destination. The rooftop bar makes it especially enjoyable in warm weather, when the best seats in the house let you take in the sun and provide a view of the neighborhood and flat-screen televisions. But the place is jumping year round, especially during March Madness, when hundreds of young professionals who live nearby descend on the bar to root for their alma maters, and on fall Sundays, when the 40 TVs are tuned to the NFL. Sit at the far end of the bar, and you can keep your eye on multiple games.

Beers are the expected Yuengling/Blue Moon/Stella Artois sports bar selections, but the food is a step above the usual wings and burgers. The personal-size wood-fired pizzas shine when you stick to Italian cheese and vegetables. Pop in for happy hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. on weekdays, for $3 draft beers and rail drinks, and ask about the rotating late-night specials, which kick in at 10 p.m. and offer beers for $4 or less.

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6

Ripple

3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-244-7995

When chef Logan Cox moved from New Heights in 2010 to take over the kitchen at Ripple, he added an adventurous modern American menu to the warm little wine bar with a great cocktail program. The new home for his busy, novel plates finds him accessorizing with foams, purees or swipes of thick sauces even more. In summer 2012, a grilled cheese bar emerged in the front of Ripple that serves happy-hour crowds from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and night owls from 10:30 p.m. to midnight.

7

Sugar Magnolia

3417 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-244-7995

In 2012, Ripple expanded into the space next door, and the part facing the street became Sugar Magnolia, a tiny market of two small freezer and refrigerator cases stocked with prepackaged sandwiches and imaginative ice cream sandwiches, plus hand-scooped ice cream. Apart from the frozen yogurt shop up the street, it's the only place on the Cleveland Park strip where you can get the cold summertime treat. But pastry chef Alison Reed's made-from-scratch desserts are in a gourmet league of their own: Think lemon-star anise ice cream between oat cookies, maple-bacon ice cream between waffles; or, for purists, chocolate ice cream between decadent peanut butter cookies.

8

Firehook Bakery & Coffee House

3411 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-362-2253  |  Web site »

The secret garden behind Firehook is the most charming alfresco dining space of any Cleveland Park restaurant -- and one of the finest in the city. Framing the walled patio are about a dozen cabana-like nooks for table seating, shaded by a grape arbor growing through its wire support. Five more tables open to the sun surround the large, elevated fountain at the center, ringed with flowers. On the wall of the two-story building north of the garden, a mural pays tribute to the garden's former caretaker, the Roma restaurant, which the Abbo family operated here from 1932 to 1997.

On summer evenings, folks sip iced drinks and work on their laptops at tables under the arbor. Several child-size plastic Adirondack chairs in red, orange and yellow entice youngsters to sit.

The courtyard has the rare quality of being both quiet and kid-friendly; parents can truly relax in this enclosed space after a long walk spent trying to prevent toddlers from darting into Connecticut Avenue traffic. Ideal for casual dining on the way to or from the National Zoo, the counter-service cafe inside serves baked goods, drinks and packaged salads and sandwiches, such as tarragon chicken.

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9

Wake Up Little Suzie

3409 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-244-0700  |  Web site »

The sign above the door of this gift shop looks like a bit like an anomaly among its neighbors. Written in a funky font featuring squiggly '80s-reminiscent designs, it reads, "Fun things for fun people." The little shop of wacky, clever and beautiful gifts, named for owner Susan Lihn, manages the difficult feat of being eclectic without feeling junky.

The standout offerings include a vast selection of unique jewelry, from beaded bracelets to colorful resin rosebud earrings, and baby gifts galore, including clever books ("Goodnight iPad"), brightly patterned sippy cups, mobiles with dancing ladies and onesies that elicit involuntary "awwws." Along with a small selection of women's clothing -- mostly T-shirts and other jersey knits -- there's an impressive collection of home goods. Chilewich placemats, stunning ceramics and glass serving trays unexpectedly pop up among the stacks of Mad Libs and array of globe-printed beach balls. Price points are similarly varied, ranging from $1.50 buttons to leather handbags approaching $100.

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10

Vace Italian Delicatessen

3315 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-363-1999

Before the chichi Palena Market opened down the street, Vace was the place to fortify your cupboards. At the spartan Italian market (and its sister location in Bethesda), every inch of shelf space is teeming with hard-to-find gems, including mozzarella made in-house every day, fresh ricotta salata, Italian truffle butter and dressings and spreads, Illy coffees and even fresh biscotti. For a fancy dinner in a hurry, head to the freezers, where you'll find every form of pasta, from veal-stuffed agnolotti to rich, ready-to-bake lasagnas, all freshly made by the shop and packed to go. Few customers leave without something from the deli, which cranks out a mean sub, slicing mortadella, Genoa salami and provolone cheese to order, then piling each an inch thick on crunchy bread with hot peppers, lettuce, onions and dressing.

The simple, thin-crust pizzas may be among the area's best pies. The white pizza with spinach and the plain cheese are big sellers ($1.70 a slice; medium pizzas start at $8). Wait until evening to grab one, and you may find yourself out of luck.

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11

Ardeo + Bardeo

3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-244-6750  |  Web site »

Until a renovation united them in late 2010, Ardeo and Bardeo were separate: one an American restaurant, the other a wine bar. You would never know it these days. The wine list at the slick art-deco restaurant will leave oenophiles agog with its breadth (Spanish cavas, California chardonnays, French Sancerre blancs), and the diverse dishes show Italian, French and even Asian influences creeping onto an ostensibly American bistro menu. Diners can slip into quilted booths for more formal dinners of rich, corn-studded pasta carbonara and pan-seared scallops surrounded by a moat of crunchy green papaya, Thai basil and chayote squash. But a more interesting choice might be to settle in at the glossy bar for a flight of wine and a handful of the surprisingly hearty small plates (most priced at less than $10), including the roasted brussels sprouts spiked with apricot. On a recent weeknight, plenty of couples in their 40s and older had made the wine-and-small-plates choice their dinner. Few date-night ideas look more romantic.

12

National Zoological Park - Smithsonian Institution

3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008  | 202-633-4470  |  Web site »

What's a Cleveland Park neighborhood guide without a mention of the best park in town? Even if all the animals are hiding, this is a wonderful place for a walk, an early morning run or even some time at the playground.

Park at the bottom and work your way up to the Connecticut Avenue entrance, or take the Metro to Cleveland Park, which is much easier than walking from the Woodley Park stop named for the zoo. Either way, be prepared for a trek, and keep an eye out for the light misting sprays of water located throughout the zoo to help cool you down.

Check the zoo's Web site for daily events, like feeding times and, perhaps most popular right now, cheetah cub viewing. Visiting the zoo can mean seeing anteaters sucking up food, watching apes start to pad down for the night, sitting under orangutans as they traverse the "O line" overhead and more. Don't overlook the volunteers standing nearby, sometimes ready to give a small presentation. They often have the inside scoop on feedings and other special moments that a tourist could miss.

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