U-topia was in the vanguard of the U Street renaissance five years ago. And today it remains one of Washington's most colorful and offbeat dining and drinking experiences.
Advertised as a "bar & grill, art & eat," U-topia brims with artistic and culinary flare. The wide-ranging international menu features such geographical specialties as gumbo soup, stir-fry vegetables, linguini with scallops, shrimp jambalaya, and lamb couscous. The massive bar is well stocked and the wine list is extensive. While patrons wait for their orders to arrive, they can sit back and enjoy the view. Created out of an old, gutted town house, the tall, narrow space is filled with vibrant artwork and dramatic designs that incorporate the structure's original building materials -- including large swatches of layered lime green and yellow house paint. Inspired by the trendy spots of New York and Paris, owner-artist Jamal Sahri originally planned to open U-topia as a cafe-gallery where he could display his artwork (those are his Picasso-esque paintings on the wall). While his concept expanded into a full-fledged restaurant and bar, Sahri still devotes the back dining area to monthly exhibitions by local artists. "Running a restaurant is kind of an art," he says of his pursuits these days.
Thursday nights pulse with the driving Brazilian beat of the Wayne Wilentz Trio. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own percussion instruments along and join in the jam. On the weekends it's advisable to arrive early if you hope to secure a table, as it gets crowded. Patrons standing by the bar can seem to hover over nearby tables. And if you are seated at a table, be prepared to wait a while for your order. U-topia attracts an eclectic crowd of sophisticated urbanites. Hip yet casual, they range in age from early twenties to late fifties; and come in all races, creeds and sexual orientations. "These are people looking for something a little different," Sahri observes.
-- Neal Learner