Georgetown Neighborhood Guide

New bars, new condos, new restaurants -- few Washington neighborhoods have escaped vast transformation. But save for the revolving cast of chain stores on M Street, Georgetown has remained comfortingly familiar, a place where you can cultivate favorite little cafes, gelato shops and boutiques knowing they will still be there in a few years. And with its 19th-century architecture and red-brick sidewalks, and all its international flair, is it any wonder we have a soft spot for the neighborhood and its old charms?

So consider this guide not a compass for the new and hot, but a little love letter to the treasures that can feel hidden in the tourist traffic jam -- like a 10-acre garden that was once a haunt for hippies and 40 years later is still a lush getaway, though now for ladies who lunch. And a bakery so unpretentious that it has a treat called The Chocolate Cupcake of Doom.

Whether you are showing visitors the sights, or rediscovering the neighborhood, here are 12 stops to hit.

 
 
1

Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden

1703 32nd St. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-339-6401  |  Web site »

What a difference a couple of blocks make. Head north along 31st Street NW, and the din of shoppers quickly gives way to an idyllic street lined with trees and stunning Georgetown homes. And it only gets better once you reach the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, which sit on 10 acres at the highest point in Georgetown.

The spot feels like a secret sanctuary, between the near silence of the surroundings and the fantasia of vibrant flowers. The property begs for exploration to fully appreciate the varied landscaping -- the daylilies on Crabapple Hill, the sprawling forsythia along the northern perimeter, the 900-flower rose garden and the orchard of peach, apple and cherry trees. Although picnicking is not permitted there, visitors can take their baskets of food to Montrose Park, which is just a short walk down R Street.

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2

Cafe Bonaparte

1522 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-333-8830  |  Web site »

If M Street is the destination for cupcakeries, burger joints and nostalgic temples to calories-be-damned American dining (think: Serendipity 3), the upper stretches of Wisconsin Avenue are the European vacation of Georgetown.

There, on the blocks just around Dumbarton Oaks, find cafe Patisserie Poupon, wine bar Bistro Lepic and the tiny bijou shop the French Apartment. It is here that Cafe Bonaparte -- narrow, red-walled and named for the equally tiny French emperor -- has been serving crepes for almost 10 years. They come oozing with Nutella, or goat cheese and spinach; salads such as the tart, currant-studded endive incarnation are stars in their own right.

There are few better places in Georgetown to waste an afternoon sipping coffee or champagne cocktails, reading the paper and people-watching. Plan brunch before 11 a.m. or after 2 p.m. on weekends, however, because the wait at other times can be brutal. And forget about eavesdropping: At Bonaparte, it is not uncommon to hear a half-dozen languages above the whir of the espresso machine.

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3

Thomas Sweet Ice Cream & Chocolate

3214 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-337-0616  |  Web site »

This longtime fixture on the east side of Wisconsin Avenue and P Street is where you go to feel like a Georgetowner. You are in privileged company -- a photo by the entrance documents a visit by President Obama last month.

The shop, which has been around since 1984, is the kind of place that Washington natives take their out-of-town guests. And enough madras- and boat-shoe-clad prepsters pass through the doors to assure you that this is Georgetown.

No one notices the forgettable interior -- fluorescent lighting, drop ceiling and green laminate tables -- because the menu absorbs all the attention. The flavors, written on a blackboard hazy from so much erasing and updating, go from classic to sophisticated -- cafe au lait, hazelnut, sweet cream, butter almond. The Thomas Sweet signature mix of ice cream and toppings is the blend-in, and some flavors are blends already: Think mint or coffee Oreo, vanilla or coffee Heath Bar. Chocolate, the other half of the offerings, can be customized into any shape with an advance order. There are also cookies, coffee drinks and, because everyone has them these days, tart yogurt and cupcakes.

When you are sitting under a green umbrella by a basket of petunias, doing nothing more than watching the passersby and spooning up ice cream made in-house, it is easy to pretend you are as rich as the people who own the houses around the corner.

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4

Big Planet Comics

1520 U St. NW, Washington, DC 20009  | 202-342-1961  |  Web site »

Before superheroes became the go-to for movie studios in need of a summer box-office smash, the fates of cities were mostly determined in the pages of comic books, panel by panel.

Caped crusaders and men of steel dole out justice at Big Planet Comics. The shelves of the small shop are filled with the latest issues from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and other independent publishers, alongside trade books that feature a single storyline bound into one, bigger book.

You will not find toys and other ephemera here: strictly comics. Big Planet is considered a bookstore first and foremost. The shop stocks graphic novels and has a case of kid-friendly titles. Even so, you will see your fair share of adults -- the young at heart -- walking out with the latest comics.

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5

Hugh and Crye

3212 O St. NW, #5, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-250-3807

Washington is probably the Dress Shirt Capital of the World, but amid the sea of billowing oversize Oxford shirts and blousy-sleeved buttondowns on the Metro every morning, the well-fitting silhouette of a Hugh and Crye dress shirt stands out.

The secret? Nine cuts for every style, based on height and body type, instead of the generic neck-size shirts at department stores. Until last month Hugh and Crye didn't have a retail location, which meant you had to guess at your correct size or wait for the occasional pop-up store. Now, however, finding the perfect fit is a lot easier. The new Hugh and Crye office/studio space on O Street is a minimalist spot with skylights and exposed beams, with the shirts hanging on simple rolling racks. If something catches your eye, it's easy to try on, and the staff is good about judging whether you should be wearing a short-slim or an average-slim.

The shop is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, and sometimes even later. (Call ahead if you want to drop by after 7.) The only caveat: Customers are asked to call ahead before stopping in on weekends.

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6

Kafe Leopold

3315 Cadys Alley NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-965-6005  |  Web site »

The succulent roast chicken, tender and crispy schnitzel, skillet-cooked bratwurst and plates of charcuterie, cheese, olives and pickles at Kafe Leopold can make it difficult to exercise restraint. But one look at the massive pastry display at this this modern European cafe, and you will have no problem leaving room for dessert.

The cuisine has an Austrian focus, but its pastry chef, Luigi Herve, who has been at the cafe for three years, is from France, and his macarons, pralines, Napoleons and hazelnut layer cakes show a skilled hand. The European plates and sweet stuff are not the only things that make Leopold a destination. Its tucked-away location, just a block south of M Street, offers an oasis of calm and cool in an otherwise manic, shopping-crazed section of town.

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7

Annie Creamcheese

3279 M St. NW, Washington, D.C., VA 20007  | 202-298-5555

Full disclosure: Annie has left the building.

Co-founder Annie Lee has gone on to open her own place, Pretty People Vintage, in Old Town Alexandria, yet her neo-kitsch imprint remains on this side of the river at her namesake shop on M Street. Annie Creamcheese was, and still is, a brash, poly-blend sort of vintage store, where pop jams blast from the speakers, most dresses can be described as Austin Powers-esque and you will frequently find Georgetown freshmen scouring the racks.

The non-vintage clothing, cheapie sunglasses and costume baubles generally ring up at $40 or less. But a discerning shopper can find lux silk scarves for $12, a shiny Diane Von Furstenburg snakeprint dress for $130.

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8

Ching Ching Cha

1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-333-8288  |  Web site »

A deceptively modest storefront does not let on a thing about what is inside this airy and calm Wisconsin Avenue sanctuary. The shop is full of tea paraphernalia and books, but also a handful of worn wooden tables -- including two designed for sitting on the floor -- where you can experience a quiet tea service away from the mania of Georgetown shopping.

The stars of the menu are such wonders as the artisan teas -- hand-tied bundles meant to blossom like a flower in the hot water. Skip the bland tea meal and stick to the small plates that Ching Ching Cha serves to accompany its liquid specialties. For a sweet tooth, a lotus-seed-paste pastry arrives piping hot and buttery with a rich filling that may remind you of fig jam. Add a few curry rolls and a curious marble tea egg, and you have an easy fill-in for weekend dim-sum.

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9

Thunder Burger & Bar

3056 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-333-2888  |  Web site »

Thunder Burger has raised a ruckus in recent weeks thanks to a promotion that has head chef Ryan Fichter serving up such unusual game meats as ostrich and gator. But set that Wild Wednesday nonsense aside and you are left with a neighborhood bar with great beer and whiskey lists and lots of ambitious burgers.

The aggressively rustic interior, with exposed beams, riveted leather chairs and lots of dark wood, manages to charm even while approaching Medieval Times territory. The menu is similarly over the top. Sure, the basic burger is a medium-rare-to-medium all-beef patty with lettuce and remoulade sauce on a buttery challah bun, but a few options down the list you will find a kobe beef burger topped with foie gras and Morbier cheese or an organic beef patty covered with pulled pork and fried onions.

For the adventurous eater, the regular menu features a lot of interesting proteins, including elk and boar. But if you are hankering for something really exotic, such as rattlesnake, just wait till Wednesday.

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10

Baked & Wired

1052 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Washington, DC 20007  | 202-333-2500  |  Web site »

This cupcake bakery/coffeehouse had been charming Georgetown for seven years before its competitor named for the neighborhood arrived, and it is more fashionable, too, just as you would expect from a business created by graphic designers. If you could make a 3-D world out of all the impossibly pretty images from your favorite design blog, Baked & Wired is what it would look like.

Glass cloches on a marble counter protect 20 kinds of cupcakes, with such names as menage a trois and unporked Elvis, and pastel cake stands elevate pies overflowing with fruit. Nearby, more glass canisters of cookies, brownies and cupcake sprinkles catch the sunlight. If it is too hard to decide what to try, go for the chocolate peanut butter cupcake. In an eight-week hunt to find the best cupcakes in the city, The Washington Post Food section called that flavor truly delectable.

Tip: To blend in with the regulars -- the office workers who stop in for a sugar rush or the sweat-soaked runners and cyclists who come in right off the C&O Canal towpath -- know the drill. Head to the right side of the restaurant for drinks (including Stumptown coffee), quiche, yogurt or quick breads, and go to the left side to get other baked goods and pay.

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