Her D.C. has changed. But some of the best remains

June 5

The Joan of Arc statue nestled in Meridian Hill Park. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)

What the heck happened to my city? The changes for a returning expat are both jarring and delightful.

I am one of those “I was born here” residents of the capital city, someone who has seen its low periods of stagnation and highs of renewal, its poorest and richest corners. Today, for example, the erstwhile streetwalkers’ turf of 14th Street has become a foodie’s paradise. Sometimes it seems as though only the Black Cat remains the same, the grungy venue where successive generations believe they have discovered cool.

I have spent years living overseas, most recently a year and a half as a correspondent in Pakistan, and can offer what a returning expat finds new and noteworthy in the region, as well as the simple pleasures long forgotten.

Best equestrian statue: Joan of Arc in Meridian Hill Park

Washington boasts so many statues that we residents don’t even really see them as we rush about, head down, headphones on. Next time you are in Meridian Hill Park (also called Malcolm X Park), take off your headphones and look up.

The Joan of Arc statue — a gift from the “ladies of France in exile” — trots in perpetuity in one of the finest large formal parks in the city. Meridian Hill is designed in the grand old European style, with a cascading fountain and several small gardens.

As in much of Washington, its fortune has mirrored that of the population’s: Joan’s sword was stolen in the ’70s, and the hapless warrior rode off to battle sans saber for decades. Park-goers sometimes substituted bouquets for the missing blade. As the area gentrified, the community lobbied city officials, and the sword was replaced in December 2011. It is the only equestrian statue of a woman in Washington. A Sunday afternoon drum circle in the park attracts crowds in warm weather. 2400 15th St. NW. 202-895-6000

Best Daydream Destination: Gravelly Point

People have been doing it since Kitty Hawk, but it is still hard to explain what’s so fascinating about watching airplanes take off and land. Maybe it has something to do with daydreaming about where all those people came from and could be going off to.

Gravelly Point offers some of the finest close-up plane watching you will find anywhere. It’s a little strip of grass next to Reagan National Airport wedged between a parking lot and the Potomac River.

Visitors can watch the mechanical giants swooping in at what seem to be impossibly low altitudes, evoking the sense of awe once associated with air travel, when it was more “Mad Men” than mad dash. Now that’s a daydream worth having.

George Washington Memorial Parkway, Arlington, Va.

Best Chili Dog Not From Ben’s Chili Bowl: Weenie Beenie

What at first glance appears to be a printed menu on the front of this roadside Arlington eatery is in fact that famous list of sins that thou shalt not commit. Just a friendly reminder to follow the Ten Commandments, says the fellow serving lunch at this glorified hot dog stand.

The best sin to commit here involves a chili-loaded hot dog that gives competition to the undisputed half-smoke champ on U Street in the District. But Weenie Beenie does not offer the polished chrome and celebrity spotting at Ben’s. In fact, if you are not lucky enough to score a seat at one of the two picnic tables outside, you’ll just have to devour your road food the way nature intended: sitting in your car. In the parking lot. Under signs that banish loiterers.

The brick building with the orange roof seems weirdly out of place on its busy suburban intersection. Still, Weenie Beenie has its own unpretentious charm and pretty good food at a good price. The place was immortalized in the song “Weenie Beenie” by local Dave Grohl of the band Foo Fighters on their first album. 2680 S. Shirlington Rd., Arlington, Va. 703-671-6661.


A customer totes a basket at Hana Japanese Market. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)
Best Store-Bought Sushi: Hana Japanese Market

Sushi has become a standard staple in grocery stores these days, and the quality is usually standard as well. The answer? Hana Japanese Market, a tiny corner store where fresh sushi is delivered by a Japanese sushi chef daily. You can also find an explosion of Japanese snack foods, including half a dozen types of Pocky sticks (flavor-coated biscuits). Also look for beauty products, a small but fresh selection of produce and dried seaweed.

Tired of the same old ramen? A display is dedicated to several varieties of the dried noodles. This shop is packed floor to ceiling with products, and it can be a bit confusing; it helps to be able to read Japanese. 2004 17th St. NW. 202-939-8853.

Best retail therapy for dogs: Dogma Gourmet Dog Bakery and Boutique

If your dog is a sports fan (and whose isn’t), you will find team insignia-emblazoned outfits at this upscale shop in Shirlington Village. It’s a small boutique with gourmet treats, toys, accessories, clothes — and even a small sampling of people clothes.

The standout is the bakery, where cookies and other canine goodies are displayed as carefully as in any high-end grocery store. You can even special-order a bone-shaped birthday cake made of peanut butter. The drawback is the price. You will find high-quality knit sweaters and jackets — but be prepared to pay nearly as much as you would if you were wearing them yourself. (The store also has a location on Lee Highway in North Arlington.) 2772 S. Arlington Mill Dr., Arlington, Va. 571-422-0370.

Best Oysters After Dark: The oyster bar at Old Ebbitt Grill

If you want to know the best late-night restaurants in the District, you talk to the pros: the waitstaff and bartenders who typically leave work after 11 p.m. Among their favorite spots is the oyster bar at Old Ebbitt Grill.

An elder statesman among Washington eateries, Old Ebbitt has been serving freshly shucked oysters since long before oyster bars became the trend. For an insider experience, sit at the bar in the way back and order half-price oysters and clams during late-night happy hour. But be forewarned: The bartender is a good salesman, so you might find yourself ordering a seafood platter if you’re not careful.

Happy hour is daily 3 to 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). 675 15th St. NW. 202-347-4800.

Best Bagel: Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.

The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. has outlets in California, Georgia and Massachusetts, but none in Brooklyn. The closest one to our region can be found in a humble office park in Pikesville, Md., where bagel lovers trek to experience the type of bagels that typically can be had only in New York. They are light, if bagels can be described that way: crisp on the outside and airy on the inside, not dense and chewy, a common complaint among bagel snobs.

The water is the key, says founder Steve Fassberg. Patrons are greeted by a large water tank purification system that replicates the qualities of Brooklyn water, he says. We’re not sure if the theory holds water, so to speak, but the bagels are worth the trip. 25 Hooks Lane, Pikesville, Md. 410-602-7776.


Mixologist Keith Dengenis with a Shirl-i-tini, named after a customer. (April Greer/For The Washington Post)
Best old-school cocktail: DISH + drinks at River Inn

Cosmopolitans became famous in the 1990s as a favorite cocktail of Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City.” That means that cosmos are now retro. We found an expert cosmo slinger at DISH + drinks, an unimposing restaurant in River Inn, a low-key hotel on a residential street near George Washington University.

Keith Dengenis is a man who takes pride in his recipes. The mixologist will not only insist you have one of his liquid wonders but will even share how it’s made. His deluxe cosmo is not on the menu but a loyal following knows to ask for it.

The secret ingredient is the mix of flavored vodkas, including a startlingly violet-hued Van Gogh Acai-Blueberry vodka. Dengenis, 52, has tended bar at the Foggy Bottom bistro for seven years. Most cosmos are made with cranberry juice, but Dengenis began using pomegranate juice to avoid the corn syrup found in many cranberry juice blends.

His philosophy on bartending: “Bartenders who lack charisma or an entertaining disposition devote themselves to coming up with new cocktails. I’ve created about 75 cocktails in my career; about 15 of them were good. They can briefly be the center of attention, but at the end of it, it’s about the experience. If all you’re doing is selling drinks, I guarantee you’ll be out of business in six months.” 924 25th St. NW. 202-338-8707.

Bonus: The restaurant is not far from the Kennedy Center if you are seeing a show.

Cosmopolitan recipe
11 / 4 Van Gogh Acai-Blueberry vodka
1 ounce Svedka Clementine vodka
1 / 3 ounce triple sec
6 drops Creme de Cassis
Juice of half a lemon
3 / 4 ounce pomegranate juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaker; shake and serve in a cold glass.

Best Organic Mud Shampoo: Terressentials

It seems counterintuitive to wash your hair with dirt, but Maryland’s Terressentials boasts that its Pure Earth Hair Wash cleans hair without chemical detergents or preservatives. The wash has no added foaming agents, so it’s goopy, not sudsy. Fragrances include lavender and lemon.

Many other organic hair and skin products line the shelves of the shop in Frederick, including face lotion, body wash and an extra mild body and hair wash for babies. The line is pricey, but for those dedicated to using all-natural products, the benefits might just outweigh the hefty cost.

Founders Diana Kaye and Jim Hahn began making organic products to benefit Kaye’s health after she recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They opened the first Terressentials store in 1996 in Middletown, Md. The Frederick store has been operating since 2009.

As for my hair? The mud took getting used to, but it not only cleansed, it left my curls smooth and glossy, too. 100 E. Patrick St., Frederick, Md. 301-378-0069.

Best Local Soap Makers: SoapBox Soap

Poverty breeds illness, and something as simple as hand washing can make a world of difference. SoapBox is an Alexandria-based company that makes soap and donates one bar to those in need (here and abroad) for every bar sold.

The handmade soaps, in scents such as lavender, lemon grass and eucalyptus, are all-natural and gluten-free; using them is an easy way to do good without even really trying. They are sold at local Whole Foods and Harris Teeter grocery stores and several area Target locations.

Best Piñatas: Megamart

Amid all the world-beat newcomers to Hyattsville is the mainstay Megamart, the Hispanic supermarket known for its reasonably priced groceries and party supplies, including piñatas. Kick your birthday party up a notch with a piñata shaped like a pirate. The chain has multiple locations here. 2340 University Blvd. E., Hyattsville, Md. 301-422-1394.

Best Free Date (with beer): DC Brau

An alley behind a nondescript strip mall in Northeast Washington might not seem like the most inviting place for a date, but circle behind the post office and up a staircase to find a magical land of barley and hops.

The burly yet charming man sitting on a stool will ask for your ID and hand you four raffle-style tickets. But don’t reach for your wallet: The tickets are free, and each will get you a four-ounce tasting glass of beer. Most pubs and breweries charge for a flight of beer (usually $5 to $10), but not here.

DC Brau bills itself as the District’s first packaging microbrewery since 1956; it introduced its first product in 2011, and sells beers with names such as the Citizen and the Public. On the free tour, visitors get to walk through a steamy, yeasty brewing area and even peek in the grain storage walk-in cooler.

Who among us has not imagined a job where you can enjoy a tall, cold one? At DC Brau, the tour guides taste the product right along with visitors.

DC Brau offers authentic ambiance that’s hard to find. On a Saturday, it will get crowded. And if your date turns out well, you and your beer-loving friend can always take home a growler (large refillable bottle) to share.

DC Brau is closed for renovation but is scheduled to reopen by mid-July. 3178-B Bladensburg Rd. NE. 202-621-8890.

Michele Langevine Leiby is a lawyer and writer who previously covered arts for The Post and reported from Pakistan.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

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