D.C. cultural scene adopts new trends in food, fashion, arts, entertainment

Even in a recession, the culture bubble in the District seems nowhere near ready to burst. With more restaurants, nightlife and culture slated for 2011, we look at what defines Washington now.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 30, 2010

All the signs of construction - the dust, the stray slabs of wood, the cardboard-covered bar - linger at Toki Underground, the narrow tunnel of a ramen and dumpling restaurant that will soon perch above the Pug on H Street NE.

But as is the case with so many new ventures in Washington these days, the buzz is already built, thanks to word of mouth and neighborhood blogs. When the restaurant finally opens in early 2011, there will be no soft opening, no learning curve. Just crowds.

With the population in Washington growing for the first time in 60 years (and the 'burbs thriving as well), the clamor for the benefits of urban living - including restaurants, bars and the arts - has never been greater. And neither have expectations.

"The average customer in D.C. - both drinks- and food-wise - is much more elevated in terms of their palate, and it's starting at a much younger age," says Bill Thomas, the owner of the two Bourbon bars and the upcoming Jack Rose, scheduled to open Feb. 1 in Adams Morgan.

Even in a recession, the culture bubble in the District seems nowhere near ready to burst. In fact, the city is proudly standing on the brink of a cultural transformation.

On the cusp of 2011, we're looking at what defines Washington now when it comes to eating out, night life, fashion and art - and offering a peek of what's to come.

Food: The dining scene gets a shot of diversity

Call it the New York-ification of the D.C. food scene: Restaurants are springing up in ever-smaller spaces and serving fare that is increasingly niche. Yes, we're still downing gourmet burgers and frites, but late 2010 also brought the 20-seat hot-dog venture DC-3, U Street's ChiDogO's, the all-things-Nawlins Bayou Bakery and the Vietnamese restaurant Ba Bay. Poutine, Korean tacos, pho, porron: Restaurant-goers have an insatiable appetite for all of it, as long as it is new, as long as it is novel.

Next year, expect the trendlet to feel like a full-on boom, beginning with the planned February opening of Toki Underground, which hopes to fill its 30 seats with diners hankering for just two dishes: ramen and dumplings. (The small kitchen will crank out five kinds of each, including hakata-style ramen swimming in a pork broth reduced for 28 hours and a mushroom-based veggie noodle bowl.)

"Toki Underground for me is Taipei in one 700-square-foot space," explains Erik Yang, the chef and the face of Toki. But it's obviously D.C., too: One wall, behind the bar, is covered with graffiti by a local artist, while vintage skateboards hang like shingles on another.

To prepare to open a place of his own, Yang, a slight but intense 26-year-old of Taiwanese heritage, decamped for Taiwan to learn to cook with more authenticity; some of his investors learned a bit about the business by slinging Vietnamese-inspired "pho dogs" at U Street Music Hall.

For the handful of Washingtonians who will open Toki, the restaurant is a way to stake a little claim on their city. "D.C. had all this room for growth, all these little pockets in areas that had nothing going on," Yang says.

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