The building at the northeast corner of 17th and R streets NW may be the closest thing to a three-ring circus that the neighborhood above Dupont Circle has to offer: There's a bar, El Azteca, with a Mexican cantina motif, and there's the Spanish restaurant El Bodegon, with its own little barroom. And downstairs there's a Mexican restaurant, La Fonda. All under the same roof, except for La Fonda's sidewalk cafe.
The variety doesn't stop there, either: On Friday and Saturday nights, El Azteca has country music (from this country) in its main bar and dancing upstairs, while El Bodegon has a flamenco dancer in its restaurant but not in the attached barroom.
Sometimes people will arrange to meet at one place, and half the party winds up at the wrong restaurant while their friends cool their heels at the appointed spot. To add to the confusion, staff members say that El Azteca and La Fonda are affiliated, but El Bodegon is separate, a distinction often lost on patrons -- especially since the same sort of decorative tiles and wrought iron are found throughout the building.
But the kitchens are quite distinct, both Latin but each reflecting its own continent, and both producing tasty, ample and moderately priced meals. And the two barrooms are in sharp contrast: El Azteca's is dimly lit, with a long bar and a carpet, and banquettes and chairs in shades of plum; El Bodegon's is less cocktail-loungey, with a tiled floor, six-seater bar and small tables with straight chairs.
Nothing in this to drive Dupont Circle's other bars and restaurants out of business, you might say, or to set Columbia Road to trembling -- even factoring in El Bodegon's valet parking. But it may be the answer to a lazy bon vivant's prayers; how many other places can you think of where you can, without traveling a hundred yards, dawdle over an aperitif at a sidewalk cafe, dine to the accompaniment of castanets and swirling skirts, dance a while with your date and settle back to let someone else entertain you? SORTING THEM OUT EL AZTECA -- Cantina and lounge, first door east of the corner and up a few steps. 232-6969. EL BODEGON -- Spanish restaurant and bar, second door east of the corner and up a few more steps. 667-1710. LA FONDA -- Mexican restaurant with sidewalk cafe, directly on the corner. 232-6965.