National Harbor Neighborhood Guide

We already know what you're thinking. How is National Harbor a neighborhood? It's not, in any conventional sense. The chain-store megalopolis on the shores of the Potomac River has hotels the size of small Texas towns. There's a pet boutique, a high-end jewelry shop and a Peeps store, but no grocery store. And there are more parking spaces than residents. But only a few years after National Harbor's shops and restaurants began opening in 2008 (and The Awakening sculpture was famously uprooted from Hains Point and moved there), it's locals who stroll the waterfront sidewalks with their stroller-bound babies, and locals who take the water taxi from Alexandria to dinners at Ketchup and Bond 45 or drive from Southern Maryland for a night at Bobby McKey's. And it's Prince George's County residents who stop by with their families for an after-school snack at Elevation Burger and meet their girlfriends for after-work drinks at Rosa Mexicano. Last fall, 145,000 people visited National Harbor just to see Cirque du Soleil. National Harbor might not be their neighborhood, but it is their new downtown. From spring through fall, it's also festival central: In two weeks the harbor will host a food and wine festival, then an homage to Led Zeppelin; and later in the summer, will come a beer and barbecue bash and a multiday Beatles festival. If you're festival-bound or just dying to see what the harbor is all about, we've got the spots that should make your itinerary.
 
 
1

McLoone's Pier House

141 National Plaza, Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-839-0815  |  Web site »

The way National Harbor plays up its riverside location, you would think that all the restaurants and bars along Waterfront Street and Waterman Passage would have large decks right on the Potomac. Wrong. Other restaurants may have picture windows and a view of the river, but no other restaurant is as close to bobbing boats as McLoone's Pier House, which is located the width of a sidewalk from the pier that its name refers to. Sit at one of the marble-topped tables and watch the sun set over sails and masts, and you'll understand why this is the best happy-hour spot at National Harbor. It doesn't hurt that the prices are almost as good as the setting, with $2.50 beers, $5 martinis and half-price appetizers weekdays between 4 and 7 p.m. The crowd-pleasing "specialty cocktails" are universally sweet, usually a formula of rum plus fruit juice, but they fit the on-vacation-on-the-water vibe, especially if you're ordering the calamari or peel-and-eat shrimp.This is the first McLoone's outside New Jersey, and besides the Jersey Shore-friendly cocktails, there are other touches of the original restaurants, which are owned by musician Tim McLoone: Jersey's Flying Fish beer on tap and musicians - usually solo and acoustic - performing Monday through Saturday, beginning at 7 p.m. Sometimes the music is a great soundtrack for the evening, but you might wonder why a roomful of guys watching sports on TVs over the bar or women celebrating the launch of an upscale clothing label would want to hear the Indigo Girls.

2

Bond 45

149 Waterfront St., Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-839-1445  |  Web site »

There's a reason restaurants vie to stack themselves on National Harbor's Waterfront Street. A placid pocket just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the harbor has a clear sightline to the west and, consequently, picturesque sunsets over the river. It's the ideal home for Bond 45, a New York-born Italian steakhouse that arrived in early 2010. Outside, its neon sign is classic Times Square, but inside, Bond 45 is just . . . classic - oaky interiors and dim lighting and a menu that features lamb ossobuco and side portions of polenta and fried artichokes so large that they're best shared among you, your date and the nice couple at the next table over. That all explains why even on the sleepiest of weeknights at National Harbor, a steady stream of conference-goers, couples and tourists pour in. It's expense-account eating, so if you want the experience without the bill, share a plate of house-made cheeses or ricotta crostini, or simply go for the cocktails, which were dreamed up by mixologist Dale De Groff. Some come cute in teacups, like old-style punches; others, like the Tuscan Cooler with Campari and tart San Pellegrino Aranciata, bring trendy flavors to an area lacking in true cocktail bars. In the summer, try to snare a table on the deck, which looks out over the water (specify that you'd like an outdoor table when you make a reservation). Time it right, and you might even catch the sunset.

3

Elevation Burger

108 Waterfront St., Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-749-4014  |  Web site »

Elevation Burgers are, like several other burger chains in Washington, popping up in the burbs like the restaurant equivalent of Whac-a-Moles. How does it stand out? It serves only grass-fed beef burgers, fries crisped in olive oil, shakes in flavors such as guava and not one but two kinds of veggie burgers. At National Harbor, where mega-restaurants turn out broccoli rabe, avocado-jicama salads and sashimi martinis, the Virginia-based chainlet serves something much more important than organic beef: families and the budget-conscious. Many items on the menu - including the cheeseburgers, veggie burgers and the shakes (which are easily big enough for two)- ring up at less than $4, meaning you can comfortably feed a family of four (nominally healthful) burgers and shakes for less than $30, just as long as Junior doesn't order the 10-patty Vertigo Burger. And if you're in National Harbor for only a few hours, or hanging out for a daylong festival, Elevation is the place to reload without reservations. The restaurant is tiny, however, so get your food to go and do your eating al fresco.

4

Art Whino

122 Waterfront Street, Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-567-8210  |  Web site »

There's so much graffiti in Art Whino, it's surprising that a neighborhood association hasn't mounted a campaign to paint it over.It's a curious pairing -- National Harbor and a gallery that heralds artists inspired by comics, skateboarding and graffiti culture. But Art Whino was among the first businesses to sign on to the development, moving to Oxon Hill in early 2008, when the harbor's "Coming Soon" signs far outnumbered actual tenants. Since its move from a warehouse space in Alexandria, Art Whino has been working a hybrid business model unlike that of most local galleries: It sells both art marked at thousands of dollars and priced-to-move T-shirts and objets, including intricate Japanese-inspired toys that are displayed prominently in the windows to catch the eye of impulse buyers on their way to the Peeps store, naturally. Parties and public events, which frequently feature DJs and artists painting, have become a big part of Art Whino's business model, too: The next art opening, of works by Chicago painter Charlie Owens, is May 14 from 8 p.m. to midnight.

5

Rosa Mexicano - National Harbor

153 Waterfront Street, Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-567-1005  |  Web site »

At 7 p.m. on a Friday night, every seat in Rosa Mexicano is taken, and for good reason. For residents of Prince George's County, National Harbor has become the destination for pomegranate margaritas and $14 bowls of made-to-order guacamole - no trek to Washington necessary. This location of this New York-based chain boasts something that the Chinatown incarnation can't: waterfront views, all the easier to soak up thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and an outside deck that lures an after-work crowd. The food is Mexican with a sophisticated touch: Snapper comes drizzled in truffle oil rather than fried, while salads are studded with radishes, jicama and avocado. The tequila-heavy cocktail menu is surprisingly high-end, with trendy touches, such organic agave sweetener, jalepeno-infused spirits and offerings with mezcal.

6

Potomac Gourmet Market

180 American Way, Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-839-2870  |  Web site »

For urbanites, grabbing a bottle of wine and wedge of cheese for a picnic usually requires a trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. That's why it feels so special to stumble upon a true little gourmet market at National Harbor. Potomac Gourmet stocks an array of cheeses and wine - a cachet of thousands of bottles occupies a central position in the shop - but dig a little further to find international foods and a beer selection that would make a D.C. resident envious. The shelves are lined with offerings rarely seen outside of beer-focused bars, including Kasteel Rouge and rare flavors of lambic. For the folks who can call themselves National Harbor residents (yes, there are condos cleverly concealed above all the street action, and townhouses are on the way), Potomac Gourmet stocks conventional, everyday foods, but the focus here is for foodies. Grab something immediate for a picnic by the waterfront, or stop in for something to take home for later.

7

Bobby McKey's Dueling Piano Bar

172 Fleet St., Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-567-1488  |  Web site »

On one recent Saturday night, 12 brides-to-be spent the waning hours of their singledom getting wild at Bobby McKey's. Why are piano bars like Bobby McKey's magnets for bachelorettes? Short answer: They're great unifiers, places where brides, birthday boys in glow necklaces and corporate types can belt out "Sweet Caroline" at the top of their lungs without judgment. And at this National Harbor bar, "dueling" pianists won't just play Neil Diamond, they'll also perform piano versions of Queen's "We Will Rock You," Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" or the Beastie Boys' "Girls" (one suspects that even Bell Biv Devoe may be lurking in their repertoire, if only someone would request it). The 20-to-50-somethings in the crowd hail from Southern Maryland, Prince George's or National Harbor's hotels, and by 9:30 on a Friday or Saturday night, every seat in the two-story bar is taken. (It's an excellent idea to reserve seats for $15 per person.) Because the nightly singalongs can get a little blue -- the humor is classic middle-school variety -- the club also hosts kids events every other month, subbing out Journey for Michael Jackson.

8

Cadillac Ranch

186 Fleet St. , Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-839-1100  |  Web site »

The shrieking is the first indication that someone is on the bull. It's also the signal for everyone in this rockin' bar to swivel and look toward the far corner of the room, where a large mechanical bull is surrounded by a thickly cushioned pad. The whooping and cheering increases as the bull swivels and bucks, and abruptly changes to laughter and applause a few seconds later as the rider picks himself up and rejoins his group. This ritual plays itself out dozens of times an hour at Cadillac Ranch, a national chain whose slogan might well be "The Place With the Mechanical Bull." The decor is cheesy - fake Western, with old guitars and license plates on the wall - and the food is adequate (the nachos topped with pork are a perfect example: good, smoky pulled pork atop some of the worst tortilla chips in the known world). It gets very, very loud thanks to the cheering bull riders and weekend DJs spinning a mix of country and rock. But readers often ask where they can live out their Urban Cowboy fantasies, and right now, Cadillac Ranch is the closest such spot to Washington. After a spicy margarita or two, you might not even mind the $3 charge for each ride. (Schadenfreude is always free.)

9

Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center

201 Waterfront St., Oxon Hill, MD 20745  | 301-965-2000  |  Web site »

It's impossible to sail into National Harbor and not notice it: the $870 million Gaylord, a glass behemoth that dwarfs everything else at the harbor and, it's said, every hotel on the East Coast. With 2,000 rooms, convention space for days, wedding halls, a serene English-style garden and a complex of restaurants and bars, including an over-the-top "ultra-lounge" known as Pose, it is both a destination and a novelty. In the summer, the Gaylord hosts its own July 3rd fireworks celebration and party; in the winter, it brings in a massive holiday display, indoor snow and 2 million pounds of ice and Chinese ice-carvers for a month-long exhibition known as "Ice!" (About 8,000 people attend each day.) Want to get a peek inside? Just walk in and poke around. For its intimidating size, it's surprisingly open to the curious.

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