The waiters are attentive, and the orchids don’t droop. The menus brag of paprika-spiced chips to accompany the Kusshis, Chincoteagues and Wellfleets.
“I’m impressed with your knowledge of oysters,” one woman tells another.
The two are part of a group that regularly drinks at the Watershed.
“Too often,” says Bryant Sewell, the seeming ringleader of the group. “But this is the only place to drink.”
Excluding the restaurants at Union Station, the Watershed is the lone white-tablecloth restaurant in NoMa, which roughly runs from Massachusetts Avenue north to R Street, and from First Street NW to Fourth Street NE, with an extra block here, one less there.
But NoMa only came into being this decade. For more than a century, this neighborhood was a no-man’s land, populated mostly by warehouses. It was nameless, too, with most people referring to it as “that weird part of Near Northeast.”
Then the neighborhood metamorphosed, almost overnight.
In the past six years, private companies pumped in $3 billion in investment. Existing development is estimated to be almost 16 million square feet. In the past year, 1,400 residents have made NoMa home.
Much of this can be credited to the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID), a group created by the D.C. Council in 2007 to coordinate public and private investment, provide cleaning and safety services, and promote the area.
It’s also because of the trains, which rolled into NoMa in 2004 after a public-private partnership spent $103 million to develop the New York Avenue Metro station.
The name NoMa, a play on “North of Massachusetts Avenue,” was first thrown around in the 1990s, when the neighborhood was considered as a possible technology hub.
It’s taken years for the name to stick, and some people, of course, still tell stories about what NoMa used to be.
Tony Goodman, the ANC commissioner representing parts of Near Northeast and NoMa, talks about how the Irish and Italian immigrant population living in a swampy area of NoMa called Swampoodle saw their homes razed in the early 1900s because Union Station was to be built there.
“It was truly an entire neighborhood suspended,” Goodman says.
Nat Stevens, 69, who sells rims at Mac’s Tire Service at Fifth and Florida, a half-block outside NoMa’s boundary line, has been around the neighborhood for decades.
In that time Stevens has worked a lot of jobs — cotton picker, dishwasher and, at one point, security guard at the circus in the old Uline Arena, a major entertainment venue in NoMa that closed in 1986 and is now a giant parking garage.
In its prime, the Uline hosted the Beatles’ first North American concert, a historic address by Malcolm X and dozens of other events.
“I watched Bobo Brazil on TV when he fought there, and Jake the Snake,” Stevens recalls, naming wrestling legends. “Has this place changed? Oh, yeah, it’s changed.”