By Fritz Hahn and Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 27, 2010; WE19
Once upon a time, the H Street corridor of Northeast was one of the biggest shopping and entertainment districts in the D.C. region. Then, like other parts of Washington, the area was torn apart in the riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As recently as five years ago, H Street was still a string of boarded-up storefronts, Chinese carryouts and discount beauty salons.
But then things began to change. The Atlas theater reopened. The Argonaut (itself the victim of a recent fire) and other bars began to move into the neighborhood. The Palace of Wonders offered burlesque and sword swallowing performances, the Red and the Black hosted indie bands before (slightly) growing crowds.
Hipsters started hanging out and getting late-night fish sandwiches at Horace & Dickie's. Then everything exploded, and restaurants and bars began attracting larger and larger crowds.
But H Street has become more than a strip of late-night bars: There's dance, cutting-edge art and even a kid-friendly wine bar. We know we've written a lot about H Street, and if you're a savvy Washingtonian, you've probably putt-putted past zombie presidents at the H Street Country Club and grabbed a pie to go from Dangerously Delicious. But there's more to H Street than novelty stops. The vibrant neighborhood is just that: a neighborhood, full of secret charms among the increasingly popular hot spots. Next month, the H Street Festival will bring an influx of people to celebrate the region's renaissance. But who needs that kind of excuse to pay H Street a visit? Here are some of the destinations that keep us coming back.
401 H St. NE. 202-675-2066.
This sleek Ethiopian restaurant is one of the trailblazers on the less-bustling Union Station end of the H Street strip. Exposed brick, a smiling wait staff, alcove seating and an uncrowded, unfussy setup add to the appeal of the locale owned by Meseret Bekele and her husband, Samuel Ergete, who pride themselves on serving authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Things get spicy quickly with an offering atypical of an Ethiopian restaurant: a basket of bread, which is served with red-flecked, berbere-laced olive oil. The menu offers all the standbys, from the traditionally raw beef dish kitfo to vegetarian selections, including the curried potatoes of dinich wot. In some cases, the restaurant really knocks the simple offerings out of the park, such as with fosolia, a deliciously seasoned mix of the most basic of foods: carrots and green beans.
2. Studio H
408 H St. NE. 202-468-5277.
With an ever-expanding selection of galleries in the area, H Street is becoming the place to check out new art. Phil Hutinet has added two stops to the mix, City Gallery in the 800 block and Studio H, a second-floor studio-turned-gallery exhibiting a diverse mix of local talent. Recent solo exhibitions at the Studio H space, which opened in October, have included photos and installations by graffiti artist Tim Conlon and marionette-inspired pieces by painter Ellen Cornett. Next up: the compelling, if dark, work of painter Camille Schefter.
421 H St. NE. 202-450-4075.
Toyland sits on the less-buzzy end of H Street, but this bright, attractive neighborhood bar -- decorated in a jet-age '60s style, with an ice-blue counter and sparkly silver stools -- is worth walking a few blocks for. True to the name, stacks of games sit on the bar: Monopoly, Connect Four, Uno, Jenga, even Operation. Just watch out -- even if you have dinner reservations somewhere nearby, it's easy to lose track of time when you're playing a competitive game of Fact or Crap and Boggle is within arm's reach. But wait, there's more: '80s movie nights. (A recent trio was "Fame," "Flashdance" and "Footloose.")
The cocktail list rewards exploration. The Urban Bourbon Sidecar, which pairs sweet Bulleit bourbon with honey-agave water and lemon juice, is a smart twist on a classic refresher, while the gingery Long Tall Suzie gets a kick from gin, Pimm's and bitters. The draft beer selection is slim, but with Flying Dog and Bear Republic among the bottle choices, you won't notice. With the right friends and a roomy window seat, it's easy to stay all night.
4. Liberty Tree
1016 H St. NE. 202-396-8733.
Fans of New England seafood will love this one-room restaurant and bar, run by Graig Glufling, the original chef at Matchbox, and Massachusetts native Scott Hamilton, who owns Hamilton's bar on the Hill. Need a fresh lobster roll on a toasted bun with mayo and celery? You're covered. Lobster and scallop pot pie? Yep. Roasted cod? Sure, and you can get cod breaded on a sandwich, too. Wash any of that down with a beer from Shipyard, Whale's Tale or Sam Adams, and it's as if you're on vacation. But the Liberty Tree goes beyond food tourism. Glufling is rightly known for his pizzas, and the brick-oven pies don't disappoint, whether it's the Cape Cod Casino, with clams, bacon, garlic and herb butter, or the aptly named Meat, topped by pepperoni, prosciutto and linguica. Our favorite seating option isn't beneath the dining room's antique prints or framed copy of the Declaration of Independence, or even at the eight-seat bar: It's on the alley-width patio. If you need a bite before bar-hopping, take note that the restaurant serves its full menu until 10 p.m. and then offers pizzas until last call at 11.
5. Little Miss Whiskey's Golden Dollar
1104 H St. NE. No phone.
It hasn't taken long for Little Miss Whiskey's to become a staple of the H Street scene. Its lush, New Orleans-meets-gilded-bordello decor in the dimly lit main bar reinforces the "you're not in Washington anymore" vibe, which only grows when you step onto the small backyard patio to be greeted by flowering plants, a burbling fountain and wrought-iron lamps and benches. Upstairs, a variety of DJs spin music for dancing -- could be yacht rock, dubstep, electro or alternative '80s depending on the night. Every other Wednesday, it's time to play dress-up at Kostume Karaoke. (Any costume will do!) The beer selection runs the gamut from ironic lowbrow (Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor, Stroh's) to impressive microbrews by Stone, Avery, Founders and Bell's. With no cover, no dress code, plenty of attitude and a crowd that includes architects, off-duty bartenders, bike messengers and roving DJs, Little Miss Whiskey's is hip -- and a hit -- all around.
6. Sticky Rice
1224 H St. NE. 202-397-7655.
If you labeled Sticky Rice a mere sushi restaurant, you would be missing a big part of the funky locale's lively personality. Yes, it serves an intriguing mix of inventive rolls, such as the spicy shrimp, avocado and cream cheese Godzirra roll and the tempura fried sweet potato South Roll. (Bonus: This is a great place for vegetarians.) But Sticky Rice also excels at entertaining its patrons, whether that means showing retro music videos to the dinner crowd, hosting karaoke on Tuesdays or offering rounds of speed bingo on Thursdays. But on Friday and Saturday nights, the party really gets started with DJs and large crowds looking to boogie. Another big draw? Two words: tater tots.
7. Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St NE. 202-399-7993.
One of the few spots that wasn't demolished during the 1968 riots was the movie theater that is now a complex of four theaters, dance studios and rehearsal space. Opening in 2006, the Atlas was a leader in what has become the neighborhood's renaissance. While no single company holds residence at the space, a number of groups make a habit of performing there; African Continuum Theatre, Washington Savoyards and In Series will all be at Atlas in coming months. The theater will bring back the Intersections series, an arts festival that began this year and included dance, live music and storytelling, among other disciplines.
8. Star and Shamrock
1341 H St. NE. 202-388-3833.
When friends ask where to get bar food on H Street, the go-to recommendation these days is Star and Shamrock. The Irish pub mashed up with a Jewish deli is not an obvious choice, but the setting is comfortable and the food delicious. (The place also gets mad points for opening at 11 a.m. every day, being one of H Street's few daytime destinations.) The Irish/Jewish combo is played subtly, with shamrocks and Stars of David carved into the wood paneling behind the bar. The theme is more noticeable on the menu, stuffed with reubens, reuben eggrolls, corned beef sandwiches and Latke Madness: huge piles of corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and swiss cheese served between three hot latkes. The beer list is just as multicultural, and includes both He'Brew beers and the usual Guinness/Harp/Bass pub staples. Enjoy the large selection of Irish whiskey; skip the Manischewitz Sangria.
9. Rock & Roll Hotel
1353 H St. NE. 202-388-7625.
One of the early pioneers on H Street, the Rock & Roll Hotel plays a key role in the D.C. music scene: The first-floor live performance space is the perfect venue for bands that aren't quite big enough to sell out the Black Cat's mainstage but have more buzz than DC9 can hold. But the venue has a knack for picking winners: Don't be surprised if Sleigh Bells or Best Coast play bigger venues the next time they're in Washington. Upstairs, the gritty Hotel Bar has pool tables, funky weekend DJs, very cool "rock heaven" decor and excellent game nights: Friday's Spelling Buzz, a fifth-grade spelling bee that requires contestants to drink between rounds. Unlike the 18-and-older concert hall, you have to be of legal drinking age to climb the stairs.
10. Biergarten Haus
1355 H St. NE. 202-388-4053.
Biergarten Haus is a little bit of Munich on H Street. The rear beer garden has room for more than 300 people, who hoist huge mugs of German beer while sitting at long wooden tables to listen to oompah bands or strolling accordion players. Bartenders pour a dozen German drafts, while servers carry platters stacked high with sausages and sauerkraut. Even with such a huge capacity, there are still lines of people trying to get outdoors on weekend nights. (Reservations are taken only for parties of eight or more, and only until 6:30-7 p.m.) The simple advice is to show up early, especially if you want a seat outside. While the interior, with its hunting lodge decor, is nice, it's not as fun as being outdoors. Oktoberfest starts Sept. 18 -- coincidentally, the same day as the H Street Festival -- and Biergarten Haus is planning a month of German bands, at least nine festbiers on draft and plenty of surprises.
11. Conner Contemporary
1358 Florida Ave. NE.
This well-regarded gallery specializing in figural realism and abstraction made its way to the neighborhood from Dupont Circle in 2008, taking over 12,000 square feet in a building that once housed an auto-body shop. While Dupont offered the increased likelihood of drop-ins, director and co-founder Leigh Conner sees a number of advantages in the current location. For one, the space has become a destination, so visitors are there because they want to see art. Another reason? The extra room, which is a boon for both artists and visitors. "We're seeing 500-plus people for openings," Conner says. Past exhibitions have included Koen Vanmechelen's buzzed-about "Cosmopolitan Chicken Project" featuring live birds, while a three-person exhibition starting Sept. 11 features an installation by John Kirchner. The show includes a live performance on opening night that Conner is leaving a bit of a mystery -- another excuse to pay H Street a visit.
1359 H St. NE. 202-397-3080.
On a strip populated with novelty spots offering putt-putt or burlesque, this charming coffee shop-wine bar hybrid epitomizes neighborhood hangout. The cozy cafe has all the biggies, from tasty chai to cushy chairs and a friendly staff to free WiFi. The service isn't lightning speed, but the vibe screams laid-back, so it's best to go with the relaxing flow with a hot mug of golden chamomile or Moroccan mint tea. Meanwhile, a wine bar isn't the only reason to head upstairs for an extended stay. Sova offers a variety of live music. And the venue has something for the little ones, serving as a performance space for the popular Boogie Babes series, which spotlights kid-friendly performers.