The Hip and Hungry Hit 14th Street

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; Page F01

It may be the Worst Economy Since the Great Depression, but you wouldn't know it at Cafe Salsa, a nuevo Latino restaurant that opened last month on 14th Street NW. A gaggle of girls sips mojitos at the bar; a first date appears to be going very well at a table near the window. The crowd is diverse, hip and carefree.

No wonder restaurateurs of all stripes are flocking to this central Washington artery, once a barren stretch of boarded-up shops and fast-food joints. Nearby Logan Circle may have evolved into a hip destination with the arrival of Whole Foods Market on P Street late in 2000, but vast stretches of the 14th Street corridor remained empty. With the exception of the beloved Mar de Plata, Cafe Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar, there weren't many places to eat and drink.

Now Cork, a wine bar that opened in January of last year, has become a top dining destination; the Gibson, a speak-easy-style cocktail bar, is one of the toughest reservations to score in town. Last month, Policy, a slick restaurant-cum-lounge, opened within one week and two blocks of Cafe Salsa.

By fall, there will be more: a new coffeehouse, Mid-City Cafe; beer bar and restaurant Birch & Barley and its upstairs lounge, ChurchKey; Eatonville, a Southern restaurant that is a tribute to the late author Zora Neale Hurston; and a yet-unnamed seafood restaurant and market overseen by rising-star chef Barton Seaver. Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro is looking at spaces in the area. There are rumors that a sushi bar will replace Mar de Plata, which lost its lease and will shut its doors at the end of the month and concentrate on a newer location in Dupont Circle.

Restaurateurs cite several reasons to love the location. For one, it's booming. Over the past year, almost a third of all condo sales in the District took place in Logan Circle, Shaw-U Street or Columbia Heights, according to Alexandria-based real estate research firm Delta Associates. All are neighborhoods along or within walking distance of the 14th Street corridor. For those outside the area, the street is accessible by Metro and, as of the end of March, via a D.C. Circulator bus route between McPherson Square and Woodley Park.

There are also business incentives. Anecdotally, restaurateurs say they are paying between $21 and $45 per square foot, compared with about $60 per square foot in Dupont Circle. More important, a new business can obtain a liquor license, the path to profitability in the hospitality industry. In Adams Morgan, a second five-year moratorium on new licenses was voted into effect last year. There are also bans in certain parts of Dupont Circle, including 17th Street NW, which helps explain why recent openings include a frozen yogurt shop and a hair salon instead of full-service restaurants.

Then there's the cool factor. The street architecture is interesting and varied; it's not a valley of clean-but-soulless condos or office buildings. Nearby U Street, home to institutions such as Ben's Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theatre, has emerged as a cultural center, a trend that restaurateurs say was boosted by Barack Obama's election. Several young members of the administration live within blocks of 14th Street. "Obama shows up at Ben's Chili Bowl, and suddenly this becomes a center for inaugural events," says Ian Hilton, director of operations at the Gibson and at Marvin, which opened in 2007. "It's pushed everything ahead a few years."

Most of the new arrivals are ambitious neighborhood joints. Their models are Marvin and Cork, stylish bars and restaurants that seem to have a 30-minute minimum wait no matter what time diners arrive. Cafe Salsa, a few doors down from Cork, is sleek but cheerful with vibrant red walls, tile floors and a long bar with a friendly and competent bartender. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant (sister to one of the same name in Old Town Alexandria) has a casual, reasonably priced menu that includes ceviche, mashed plantains and mini arepas with shredded pork and guacamole, with most entrees priced under $20. A terrific happy-hour special offers all appetizers and mojitos for half-price, which means drinks and a light meal can total less than $20 per person.

Near T Street is Policy, a stylish two-story restaurant and lounge. Owner Omar Miskinyar, a former club promoter, says he wanted to create a restaurant first: "The idea is to give you good food and then let you party afterward," he says. The menu is ambitious. Chef Brian Murphy, formerly of L'Auberge Chez Francois, has offered grilled guinea hen and crisp veal sweetbreads. (The bar menu might not strike cocktail aficionados as having quite the same sophistication. One of the signatures on the sugary list is the Lovetini, a chocolate vodka martini with chai cream liqueur and a cinnamon lollipop.)

The vibe, even in the restaurant, is distinctively clubby. Downstairs, it's retro diner meets bordello, with red vinyl booths and stools and a black pressed-tin ceiling. Upstairs, the glittery lounge has graffiti-tagged walls, drippy chandeliers and modern, minimalist couches. The hordes that arrived on opening weekend seemed far more interested in partying with bottles of vodka at their tables than in quiet conversation.

Several more restaurants are expected to open on 14th Street this year. Slated for August is the still-unnamed seafood restaurant and retail market backed by Eli Hengst, of Sonoma and Blue Ridge, and chef Seaver. Though nothing is yet fixed, Seaver says the menu will have a large raw bar and simply prepared cooked seafood dishes. The market will have a fresh fish counter (focused on sustainable choices, a passion of Seaver's), a small deli that serves prepared food and a grocery selling basic pantry items and local produce. The space will have about 85 seats and an outdoor patio for warm weather. "It's the Tuesday night dinner and the casual night out that makes the city a better place to live," he says. "White-tablecloth restaurants have put D.C. on the culinary map, but it's the neighborhood places that fulfill the city's needs."

Mid-City Cafe, a coffeehouse scheduled to open in May, also aims to be a neighborhood hangout, says owner Mick Mier. He had originally planned to turn the space into an artist's workshop but decided the area needs a good-quality coffee bar more. "I like hanging out and the coffeehouse vibe," he says. "I'm going to try to re-create it."

Mier, who designed the elegant but cozy 1905 restaurant in Shaw, is aiming for a 1940s feel at Mid-City. The space will have a long bar with swivel stools, a long counter overlooking the street, and banquettes and tables for larger groups. North Carolina cult roaster Counter Culture will provide the coffee. Mid-City plans to be open from 7 a.m. until 8 or 9 p.m. but will serve only pastries at the outset. Mier hopes to add simple sandwiches (the space currently has no kitchen) soon after.

Birch & Barley, originally slated to open last year, will serve wood-fired pizzas like the ones at sister restaurant Rustico in Alexandria, plus beer-inspired dishes such as Cornish hen with shaved Brussels sprouts and honey-beer butter. Upstairs, ChurchKey will offer more than 500 brews (including 50 drafts and five cask-conditioned ales) and its own menu of shareable plates, including cheese, house-made charcuterie and pizzas from downstairs.

Eatonville, to open in May between V and W streets, also aims to be a comfortable hangout for everyone in the neighborhood -- emphasis on everyone. Andy Shallal, who also owns the three Busboys and Poets, sees his new venture as not only a dining destination but also another opportunity to define Washington. "D.C. doesn't have a real character to it," he says. "They say, 'This is so New York or New Orleans or San Francisco.' How many times do you go somewhere and say, 'This is so D.C.?' "

To that end, the 250-seat restaurant will serve "healthy Southern" food. The decor will be flamboyant, with colorful murals by local artists, tables and comfortable couches for lounging. Shallal says he aims to attract a diverse crowd. Many of the restaurants south of U Street, Shallal says, are successful but segregated. "I'm racially focused," he says. "Restaurants are watering holes where people can get to know each other. That's one of my roles as a restaurateur and a resident of the city."

The restaurateurs say they are grateful for the area's boom. At Posto, the casual Italian restaurant that opened in the former Viridian spot last December, the main complaints have been about long waits and noise levels jacked up by the crowds at the bars. The same is true at Cork and even more so at the Gibson, where drinkers without reservations usually don't get in. More restaurants could help ease the jams or create an even livelier neighborhood that draws even more diners.

"One plus one equals three," says Hilton at the Gibson, noting that he will open a patio in May and, when the weather turns cold, a second-floor bar. "Do we compete? Yeah. But if it's busy here, we can send someone down the street. The more things that are here, the better a destination it becomes."

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