New bars and diverse businesses are enlivening the area becoming known as the Atlas District.
New bars and diverse businesses are enlivening the area becoming known as the Atlas District.
Dennis Drenner

H Street Life

(Dennis Drenner Ftwp)
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, September 8, 2006

Adams Morgan, Georgetown and Dupont Circle will surely remain the city's busiest and best-known neighborhoods for years to come, but barhopping along 18th Street or Wisconsin Avenue has become tired and predictable. There's no edge.

Those looking for something different will have to head east to a three-block stretch of H Street NE that's becoming known as the Atlas District. There's no other neighborhood where you'll find sword-swallowing bartenders, hand dancing lessons and live go-go and indie-rock bands a few doors down from a black-box theater, cozy neighborhood taverns and soul food takeout joints.

Much of the buzz comes from bars opened by nightlife entrepreneur Joe Englert, the man behind Lucky Bar and the Big Hunt, who surprised the industry last year when he announced plans to open eight bars and clubs in an area better known for boarded-up storefronts and carryouts than for happening after-dark destinations. (Four of those bars have opened.) But nightspots that Englert has no part in, such as the H Street Martini Lounge and Rose's Dream Bar and Lounge, are already in place, and the variety of businesses make H Street a much more interesting place to explore than the old standbys.

H Street remains a study in contrasts. Once one of Washington's main shopping arteries, the commercial strip was decimated by the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and never really recovered. As you drive east from Union Station, neon-lit Chinese takeout places, liquor stores and beauty salons outnumber condominiums and nightspots. A sign trumpeting a "human hair sale" appears before you encounter the first sit-down restaurant. Casual visitors heading to see a band at the Rock and Roll Hotel are left wondering about the difference between two carryouts called Danny's and Good Danny's.

The neighborhood is changing, and there are more reasons on the horizon to get excited. The Atlas Performing Arts Center, which has multiple theaters and dance spaces inside a 1930s art deco movie house, opens later this month and is planning an official grand-opening gala for Veterans Day weekend. The Pug, a boxing-themed sports bar run by longtime Capitol Lounge manager Tony Tomelden, will open in the 1200 block in the next few weeks. Two more bars, the Beehive and Dr. Granville Moore's Brickyard, are slated to open next year.

Right now, though, H Street is the place to be. Turn the page to find out why.

Horace & Dickie's Seafood

809 12th St. NE; 202-397-6040

Opened by a pair of golfing buddies more than 16 years ago, this tiny corner takeout serves an old-school fish sandwich of the highest order: a mound of fried, flaky fish piled high, open-faced, on two pieces of white bread. Add liberal amounts of tangy hot sauce and dill-heavy tartar sauce, and you'll still pay less than $5, including tax. Horace & Dickie's is the place to go when the bars close: It's open until 2 a.m. and there are no seats, so you have to get your sandwich to go. (Fried chicken is also available, with a choice of light or dark meat.)

Showbar Presents the Palace of Wonders

1210 H St. NE; 202-398-7469

The weirdest bar in Washington and the one most likely to become a tourist attraction, the Palace of Wonders almost lives up to its name. Co-owner James Taylor spent years collecting sideshow oddities and carnival memorabilia for the American Dime Museum in Baltimore, which he ran with ex-partner Dick Horne. Taylor moved his treasures to Washington this year, and now you can peer into dimly lit glass cases on the Palace of Wonders' second floor and gawk at the taxidermied body of the Last Living Unicorn, which once traveled with the Ringling Bros. circus, nine-foot-tall Peruvian mummies, an eight-legged goat named Spider Billy, furry fish and a one-gallon jar holding the preserved head of a huge python. (Make sure you read the plaque for the story behind that specimen.) Problem is, though it's fun to browse the collection once or twice, I don't think Fivey the five-legged dog is going to draw too many repeat customers.

What should keep crowds coming back is the steady stream of performances on the bar's large stage. Sword swallowers (including bartender Charon Henning), nearly nude '50s-style burlesque dancers, magicians and daredevils willing to lie on beds of nails and do handstands in piles of broken glass appear on weekends. An all-female arm wrestling competition is held every Tuesday night, while "Professor Quizzo's Flying Trivia Spectacular" tests patrons' pop culture knowledge on Wednesdays. The back patio, reached via the second floor, is a nice place to relax and make friends with the bar's orange cat.

The Red & the Black

1212 H St. NE; 202-399-3201

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company