H Street Life

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

A sister club to Ninth Street NW's DC9 nightclub, the two-story Red & the Black offers two destinations in one. Upstairs, a narrow performance space welcomes indie-rock bands, alt-country acts and singer-songwriters and holds about 100 people. Brian Deily, who's booking the Red & the Black as well as DC9 and the nearby Rock and Roll Hotel, says his intention is to bring in smaller, quieter acts that may not be ready to play the other, larger venues, but so far, there has been a lot of crossover between bands at the Red & the Black and DC9.

Even if you're not stopping in to see a band, the New Orleans-themed tavern is perfect for grabbing a drink -- especially if you can get the booth in the front window. Though the bar opened in June, the decor already feels lived-in, thanks to creaking floors, dozens of old photographs and vaguely spooky red lights throwing shadows on the black walls. House-made jambalaya and red beans and rice are spooned from pots behind the bar, and Louisiana's Abita beers have a place of pride.

H Street Martini Lounge

1236 H St. NE; 202-397-3333

The H Street Martini Lounge serves as a counterbalance to most of the H Street establishments, offering dozens of martinis in an upscale atmosphere without losing its neighborhood flavor. Exposed brick walls, cozy high-backed chairs in warm earth tones and a soundtrack of soul and R&B lend a classy vibe, reminding me of the old Juste Lounge. And that's before I started perusing the list of more than 54 martinis, from such classics as the French martini and the Lemon Drop to a whole candy store's worth of sweet, fruity drinks made with flavored rums and crafted to taste like Jolly Ranchers and German chocolate cake. The bartenders have their own specialties, too, so don't be afraid to ask. The Nishatini, made with citrus vodka, pineapple liqueur and pineapple juice, is a winner.

Every Wednesday, free hand dancing lessons are offered on the smooth hardwood floorboards upstairs, where jazz and R&B bands play Thursday and Friday nights. (Unfortunately, the room is too small to allow for much dancing once it gets busy.)

Atlas Performing Arts Center

1333 H St. NE; 202-399-7993

Slated to be the cornerstone of the neighborhood's artistic revival, the Atlas Performing Arts Center's grand opening will add two new 250-seat theaters to the existing Joy of Motion Dance Center -- which fills a former supermarket -- and a lab theater used for classes and small performances. The 1938 art deco movie house, which has been under renovation for several years, opens Sept. 21 with a fundraiser featuring the Cab Calloway Orchestra (now led by the Hi-De-Ho Man's grandson, Cab Calloway Brooks). The African Continuum Theatre Company's 2006-07 schedule kicks off the same night with Lanford Wilson's "The Gingham Dog."

Phish Tea Cafe

1335 H St. NE; 202-396-2345

There's a stage against the back wall on each floor of the attractive Phish Tea Cafe, and the long, deep building is one of the biggest on the block. Comfortable couches and armchairs surround a huge bar in the ground-floor lounge, while the upstairs dining area has a huge hardwood dance floor.

That's why it's too bad the entertainment schedule is constantly in flux. Even if phone calls and a large banner hanging from Phish Tea's awning announce that a particular band is performing on a given night, I've wandered in to find the restaurant deserted. Open-mike nights Wednesdays and Fridays attract comics and musicians, and assorted R&B and go-go bands perform Saturdays.

Rock and Roll Hotel

1353 H St. NE; 202-388-7625

Let's get a common misconception out of the way: You can't stay overnight at the Rock and Roll Hotel. You can, however, spend the night checking out a live band or a DJ in the larger-than-you'd-think concert hall or hanging out and shooting pool in the sprawling upper level. There are two "suites" filled with vintage furniture that can be rented for the evening -- introducing indie rockers to the concept of $1,000 minimums -- while winged guitars soar overhead.

With a capacity of just under 400, this former funeral home should fill a niche for bands that could fill DC9 or the Galaxy Hut but aren't enough of a draw to headline the Black Cat. Rock and Roll Hotel's upstairs is open daily, even if the concert hall is empty, and should soon offer rehearsal spaces for bands as well as a recording studio. The club has been open for only two weeks, but with bookings that include Marky Ramone, the Presets and VHS or Beta, it looks like the Rock and Roll Hotel is checking in for an extended stay.

R&B Coffee

1359 H St. NE; 202-397-4357

Good things about R&B Coffee: fantastic espresso and cappuccino drinks; free Wi-Fi for customers; plenty of armchairs and space to spread out while checking e-mail, snacking on pastries and sipping a cup of latte. The name is short for Rhythm and Beans.

Disappointing things about R&B Coffee: Sorry, night owls, but R&B is open only until 3 p.m. during the week and 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, though that may change in the next few months. Let's hope so, because this has the potential to be a very cool little neighborhood gathering place. In the meantime, if you want to stop by and pick up a pound of the house-blend beans, you'll have to wake up earlier.

H Street Playhouse

1365 H St. NE; 202-396-2125

After use as a garage, movie theater, roller rink, furniture showroom and restaurant, this building became a versatile black-box theater in 2001. Home to the Theater Alliance and a rotating cast of smaller companies, the 100-seat venue can also be used by local artists who need a place to show their work. Adding to the sense of community, anyone who lives within five blocks gets free tickets to Theater Alliance performances. The well-reviewed " 3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian" has been extended until Sept. 17, and a stage adaptation of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" makes its East Coast premiere Oct. 12.

The Majestic by Gwen

1368 H St. NE; 202-388-1204

With more than two decades in the restaurant- and club-management business -- including running the hand dancing hot spot Solar Eclipse and the old Ledbetter's, which is now the Argonaut -- Gwen Reese is one of the more experienced proprietors on H Street. Her unpretentious restaurant and lounge -- known variously as Gwen's Majestic, the Majestic by Gwen and just "the Majestic" -- draws an older crowd than its neighbors, thanks to a combination of live jazz and blues performers, a full bar and Southern-style cooking. Arrive early on Fridays and Saturdays for the best tables, but beware the outdated hours and schedule of performers posted in the restaurant's window.

Rose's Dream Bar and Lounge

1370 H St. NE; 202-398-5700

Back in the late '80s, Little Benny and the Masters and E.U. were among the most popular bands on the D.C. go-go circuit, packing now-shuttered clubs such as Deno's and the Ibex. E.U., fronted by the charismatic Sugar Bear, had the genre's big national hit, "Da' Butt." That seems like a long time ago, but in Washington, old go-go stars don't just disappear -- they're still working the clubs, albeit with different bands. Every Friday at a second-story walk-up called Rose's Dream Bar and Lounge, Little Benny takes to the mike, running through old-school go-go hits, hip-hop covers and funky originals while crowds pack the makeshift dance floor or huddle around the large bar. (There's no stage, so the band sets up against the front wall.) On Thursdays, Sugar Bear and his group the Band are starting a new weekly residency. The music is more laid-back than at some go-go clubs, so the atmosphere feels closer to a party than many events do.

Club owner Danny Roberts promotes go-go concerts in the Washington area, including an upcoming Chuck Brown show at Mirrors, and he worked with Sugar Bear and Little Benny before opening this cheerful little lounge, which features some of the friendliest bartenders on the block. Stools and drink rails line the lime-green walls near the DJ booth, and flat-screen TVs (tuned to videos or sports most of the time) face every angle for maximum football viewing. In the back is a tiny little room -- more of a nook -- that can hold maybe six people comfortably.

Besides live music, entertainment includes karaoke Wednesdays and DJs spinning dance music Saturdays. So one question remains: Who is Rose? "Rose was my sister," Roberts explains. "Our family owns the Caribbean restaurant downstairs, and it was her idea to open a bar [up here]. It was to be called Rose's, but she died right before the bar opened, so it's Rose's Dream."

Ohio Restaurant and Bar

1380 H St. NE; 202-399-9279

Etta James blasts from the jukebox and portraits of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Haile Selassie hang on wood-paneled walls. The Ohio Restaurant and Bar has sat on this corner for decades, watching the neighborhood move through the riots and the hard times, and though the windows and paint are new, the Formica counter is original -- not something an owner picked up at an architectural antique shop.

The one-room Ohio is a throwback to an urban '60s diner, and chef Harry DaCosta serves up an appropriately rich menu of soul food. Entrees include smothered pork chops, country fried chicken, fried whiting, bone-in croaker and turkey wings. Pick one of those -- the pork chops are outstanding -- then choose two sides from a list, including homemade potato salad, gooey mac and cheese, yams and spicy cabbage. No matter what, you won't pay more than $8 for a full dinner. (If you're on a budget or in a hurry, fish sandwiches are just $3.) There's more than just food here, though -- the Ohio boasts a full bar that has to be the cheapest for blocks around: All imported beers (Heineken, Corona) are $3, and all domestics (Miller Lite, Miller High Life) are $2.50. No wonder you'll find a crowd of older neighborhood residents laughing and talking, nodding their heads to Bobby "Blue" Bland or Silk.

The Argonaut

1433 H St. NE; 202-397-1416

The Argonaut was the first of Joe Englert's bars to open on H Street, and it quickly settled into its role as a neighborhood tavern, drawing crowds of regulars for after-work drinks, evening get-togethers and Sunday afternoon football. Taking its inspiration from an English pub and adding a healthy dose of seafaring knickknacks -- a diving helmet over the bar and model ships in the window and scattered among the mismatched tables -- the Argonaut isn't fancy, but it's more comfortable than most of the bars on the street.

The nautical theme extends to the drink menu, which offers a number of rum concoctions, including the fruity Pacific Punch, as well as a top-shelf selection of rums. (Sailor Jerry and Seafarer are worth sampling, and you should ask about the bar's own seasonal infusions.) Like at many other H Street spots, though, the menu looks to the South for inspiration: catfish po' boys, a fried green tomato BLT, pulled-pork sandwiches and very good sweet potato fries. The music is as diverse as the crowd: One evening, the jukebox is rocking with AC/DC and Prince before some younger guys cue up Rick Ross's "Hustlin'."

Last month, the Argonaut unveiled its upstairs space, which is filled with benches in all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies, tables made from old barrels, two dartboards, a foosball table and a bar covered in gold doubloons. On Saturdays when a DJ spins old-school hip-hop, it's still more of a place to hang out with friends than a hyperactive singles scene.

Fritz Hahn is the bars and clubs editor at washingtonpost.com.

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