We toured Takoma Park in April. Now it's time to get to know Clarendon, in the second of Weekend's occasional neighborhood introductions. Here's what you need to know to wander around someone else's home turf -- the lowdown on fun spots to browse, dine or just soak up the atmosphere. So leave your neighborhood behind for a day. Pull out these four pages, and you're on your way.
-- Joyce Jones
Suburbanites suffer many indignities. Tell someone you live in Clarendon, for example, and you're likely to be met with a blank look. "It's in Arlington. You know, that snapped-off corner of the diamond that, until 1846, formed the District of Columbia."
Ah, yes, Washingtonians sniff, the kind of place you move to if you want to trade the sophistication and edginess of the District for cultural assets like a Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru. There is a Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru in Clarendon, of course, but there are also enough international cuisines, crowded nightspots and eclectic shops to do any urban center proud.
All this and congressional representation, too.
Indeed, a century after its founding, Clarendon is once again a hot property. The rejuvenated town center at the heart of north Arlington is bisected by a strip of high-rises but surrounded by Rockwellian neighborhoods filled with charming, 1940s bungalows. The Metro rumbles beneath it while I-66 whooshes alongside. The neighborhoods are dotted with unexpected parks and playgrounds. The public spaces boast, um, well-intentioned artwork. The residents, who are relatively young (33.8 years is the median age) and ethnically multi-flavored (one in four Arlingtonians speaks a language other than English at home), don't seem to mind. They embrace the spirit, rather than the letter, of these ungainly ornaments.
The promotional brochures for the original 1899 subdivision, named for the Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674), had little more than spirit to proffer. The lots were situated near the junction of two rail lines, but the development's big selling points were its salubrious climate and pastoral setting. (Late-night Chinese takeout was decades away.) To entice buyers, developers dangled cash bonuses for the purchase of lots. It worked. By 1910, Clarendon had already leapt its borders, and by 1919 the community was booming.
Although the Great Depression brought development to a standstill, the ascendancy of the automobile in the mid-1930s more than made up for the loss. The area attracted national department stores and other retailers, including "park and shop" grocery stores that lured consumers with their ample parking spaces. Clarendon continued to prosper through the 1940s and into the early 1950s. But, by the end of that decade, the construction of the Capital Beltway had expanded suburbia's horizon. New homes crept further and further west. Retailers followed.
Like many other turn-of-the-century suburbs, Clarendon underwent a cycle of prosperity, decrepitude and revitalization. As the circle of new development expanded outward, Clarendon's real estate prices fell, making the area attractive to artists, young people and immigrants. The '70s and '80s saw an influx of immigrants from Asia, Central America and other locales. These new residents provided both the demand and supply for the many ethnic restaurants and ethnically oriented businesses that give the neighborhood its distinctive flavor.
The Clarendon Metro, which, for the sake of argument, we'll designate the center of town, lies beneath the intersection of Fairfax Drive, Washington Boulevard and Wilson Boulevard. The American Legion War Memorial Monument, which now stands in the small park blanketing the Metro's entrance, once stood in a circle at the center of the intersection. In 1940, the monument was labeled a traffic hazard and relocated, then eventually moved again to the Clarendon Metro park just feet from its original location. Today, the intersection is a sprawling mess that presents motorists with seven possible directions of travel. In a delicious irony, one of the proposed solutions is a traffic circle.
Despite such modern problems, Clarendon, to some extent, retains the feel of a village. High-rises haven't overtaken the skyline, though they loom on the horizon. As you approach from the east on Wilson Boulevard, the glass and granite edifices fall away, revealing storefronts that sprouted earlier in the century. Many of these stores have lots, but most of the available parking is in metered street spaces. (Parking is rigorously enforced, except on Sundays and holidays). Metro's Orange Line roughly follows Wilson Boulevard through the heart of Clarendon, and its frequent stops offer a cheap, convenient alternative to driving.
Just east of Clarendon proper, downhill from the Court House Metro stop, stands a landmark of lowbrow cool, Bardo Rodeo (enter at 2001 Clarendon Blvd., 703/527-9399; open Monday-Wednesday 4:30 to 11:30, Thursday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday-Sunday noon to 2 a.m.). Easily recognizable by the graffitied exterior and protruding Chevy on its Wilson Boulevard side, Bardo offers billiards, big-screen sports and movies, and a variety of brews, including the house brands. Bardo was one of the area's first brewpubs, but these days the brewing takes places off-premises in Rockville. Four blocks west on Wilson finds a neighborhood favorite, Delhi Dhaba, hidden between a computer store and a chain pizza joint (2424 Wilson Blvd., 703/524-0008; open Sunday-Thursday 11 to 10, Friday-Saturday 11 to 11). No waiters; just grab a bottle from the fridge, pay the cashier and carry your tray to the dining room. Stuff yourself with palak paneer and naan while Bollywood (Bombay + Hollywood) flicks cycle on the overhead TVs.
Then step across the street to finish with espresso and pastries on the patio of the Java Shack (2507 N. Franklin Rd., 703/527-9556; open Monday-Thursday 7 to 10, Friday 7 to 11, Saturday 8 to 11, Sunday 8 to 10). This coffeehouse, formerly the Sugar Shack, has been brewing good joe longer than any other in the neighborhood, which may be why locals prefer it. Just a block further finds primo browsing at Rainbow Thrift (2622 Wilson Blvd., 703/243-0239; open Monday-Saturday 10 to 6), which recently expanded to fill both floors of its building. Be sure to wind through all the rooms in search of that Bakelite vanity set, Naugahyde motor coat or yellowed Menudo poster featuring an adolescent Ricky Martin.
In the next block, The Galaxy Hut (2711 Wilson Blvd., 703/525-8646; open Monday-Friday 5 p.m to 2 a.m., Saturday-Sunday 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.), an outpost of quirky urbanity in low-key Clarendon, is a haven for punk and indie bands, songwriters and globally informed DJs. More important, the bar is stocked with exotic microbrews. Two doors down stands El Chaparral Market (2719 Wilson Blvd., 703/276-8336; open Monday-Saturday 9:30 to 8:30, Sunday 9 to 5), which caters to the local Hispanic population and stocks cool products from all over the world -- from votive candles to watermelon soda, plus unfamiliar herbs, tubers, vegetables and other goods.
Up a block on the left is IOTA Club and Cafe (2832 Wilson Blvd., 703/522-8340; open daily 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Cafe open Tuesday-Saturday 6 p.m to until folks leave), which is where graduates of the rowdier Galaxy Hut congregate. Recent expansions and renovations have made the main room one of the best around for viewing -- as well as hearing -- bands. The schedule favors roots and Americana styles, which makes IOTA a popular destination for those who've outgrown the louder scene. No curly fries here: Try the "pizette of artichokes hearts, tomato, shiitake, mushrooms & fresh basil" from the adjoining IOTA Cafe. The rear patio offers a quieter oasis in nice weather.
The sidewalks along the next quarter-mile of Wilson Boulevard sprout tables in temperate months, creating an outdoor gallery of neighborhood faces. Trips take longer when there's a familiar face at each restaurant in Clarendon's long strip of culinary establishments. Not that the delays are unpleasant; moochers can grab nibbles of the tiramisu at the gourmet haven called Jacques' Pastries (2905 Wilson Blvd., 703/526-0007; open Monday-Thursday 9 to 8, Friday-Saturday 9 to 10, Sunday 8 to 2), a coveted slice of the white pizza at upscale Italian cafe Faccia Luna (2909 Wilson Blvd., 703/276-3099; open Monday-Thursday 11 to 11, Friday-Saturday 11 to midnight, Sunday noon to 11), or crab cakes (plus an earful of blues or jazz) from the busy grill at Whitlow's on Wilson (2854 Wilson Blvd., 703/276-9693; open Monday-Friday 11:30 to 2 a.m., Saturday-Sunday 9 to 2 a.m.).
If you're not full when you get to the end of the block, have a seat in one of the candy-colored chairs outside Mexicali Blues (2933 Wilson Blvd., 703/812-9352; open Monday-Thursday 11-10, Friday-Saturday 11 to 11, Sunday 4 to 10). Its Tamal de Elote -- sweetened yellow corn, cooked in its husk -- demands your attention. With a side of sour cream, it's bliss. But save room, because next door is Lazy Sundae (2925 Wilson Blvd., 703/525-4960; open Monday-Sunday 11 to 10), where all the ice cream is made on the premises. The flavors change frequently and a sense of experimentation pervades. "Bubblegum" flavor may appeal only to a niche market, but "Chocolate Covered Cherries" should knock any recovering chocoholics right off the wagon. The brownies are baked in-house, the counters are lined with candy jars and all the sugar's tempered by nice, bitter espresso.
Continuing west along Wilson Boulevard, hook a left at North Highland Street and stroll one block to Clarendon Boulevard. Down a half-block to your left is Atomic Music II (3019 Clarendon Blvd., 703/522-9800; open Monday-Friday noon to 8, Saturday noon to 6), which specializes in secondhand musical instruments. Unlike those at some stores, the staff at Atomic doesn't mind if you just grab a guitar off the wall and plug it in. (Naturally, this policy can be a mixed blessing.) If you find that Randy Rhoads signature model you've always dreamed of, you can try to negotiate a trade for your old six-string.
If someone else has found their dream axe, but their chops are about to sever something, simply return to Highland Street and continue south. There, faces from a dozen B-grade horror flicks ogle passersby from a store window. Stein's Theatrical (3100 Clarendon Blvd., enter on Highland Street, 703/522-2660; open Monday-Friday 10 to 6, Saturday 10 to 4), tucked into an otherwise nondescript office building, carries rubber masks, stage makeup and costumes, as well as dance shoes and leotards. All four members of KISS are represented in rubber. You were thinking of something cuddlier? They have Yoda, too.
Another block takes you to North 10th Street; turn left and you'll find the newest location of Indian Spices and Appliances (3000 N. 10th St., 703/522-1555; open Monday-Saturday noon to 8, Sunday noon to 5, closed Wednesday). It's unclear whether the appliances are actually products of the subcontinent, but one thing's for sure: The racks of Bollywood musicals for rent could originate nowhere else. And they're not kidding about spices -- 10-pound bags of paprika, curry and others line the shelves. Chutneys galore! Unheard-of flavors of tea. And though it sounds silly to buy rice for the bag it's packed in, the colorful lines of Arabic script are so striking to Western eyes as to make an illuminated manuscript of pale burlap.
A right from North 10th onto Washington Boulevard and a short jaunt southeast takes you to Pershing Drive and plants you firmly back in middle America. Why the Rooster Crows (2647 N. Pershing Dr., 703/525-2004; open Tuesday-Sunday 11 to 6) is the best kind of antique store: That is, its proprietor possesses a discriminating eye. Each item is the kind you hope to find by chance on weekend trips downstate, but never do. The stock at The Corner Cupboard (2649 N. Pershing Dr., 703/276-0060; open Monday-Saturday 11 to 6, Sunday 12 to 5) next door is more of a hodgepodge. Vinyl records, baseball cards, used paperbacks, clothing and furniture of every sort fill the space. It's a place for browsing, and the prices encourage impulse purchases. Another spot for browsing lies diagonally across the intersection. Book Ends (2710 Washington Blvd., 703/524-4976; open Friday-Monday noon to 6) keeps odd hours, which somehow seems in keeping with the space; it clearly took ages to line each cranny with the world's written wisdom. This is the place to visit when the day holds no more pressing concern than flexing the imagination.
That's also the day to visit the Arlington Arts Center (3550 Wilson Blvd., 703/524-1494; open Tuesday-Friday 11 to 5, Saturday-Sunday 1 to 5 during shows), which is located some distance away (translation: you might not want to consider this a walking tour) on Wilson Boulevard near the Virginia Square Metro stop. A giant upraised hand with a bronzed palm seems to order passersby to halt for a look. In addition to exhibitions, the center also offers life drawing and other classes. The structure was originally a school building -- and in a sense it still is.
From the Arts Center, a three-block walk north on Monroe Street gets you to Uptown Bakers (3471 Washington Blvd., 703/527-6262; open Monday-Sunday 7 to 8). Elaborately fruited tarts line the bottom of the glass case, but the best deal is a mug of coffee and a slice of banana bread, with a newspaper, on the tree swing outside. More gourmet goodies can be found next door at Arlington Seafood Market (3461 Washington Blvd., 703/527-7100; open Monday-Saturday 10 to 7, Sunday 12 to 6). Its plain exterior belies its wealth of exotic flavors. Huge slabs of smoked salmon glow behind the glass. Crabs are available live or steamed. The spreads range from crawfish to caviar. Then there's the selection of spices and sauces, including "Y2K Millennium Meltdown" -- presumably that's pretty hot. A range of wines and fixin's imported from Scandinavia complete the makings of an excellent picnic.
Just steps down Washington Boulevard stands an historical marker reading "Old Ball Family Burial Ground" (open 9-6 daily) which points the way to a shady patch of grass wedged behind auto repair garages and the YMCA. The headstones have been crowded into a corner of the fenced area, and there is a more modern memorial in the center. Ensign John Ball of the 6th Virginia Infantry, veteran of the American Revolution, lies somewhere beneath your feet. He and many of his family members, also buried here, were among the area's earliest settlers.
Ball could hardly have imagined the busy streets and bustling Clarendon Metro stop nearby. Though the rectangle around the station has been nicknamed "Little Saigon" by some, there are also Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants, as well as Moroccan, Indian, Cuban, Greek, Peruvian, Persian, Mexican, Irish, Salvadoran and American cuisines within four blocks of the Metro.
Madhu Ban (3217 N. Washington Blvd., 703/528-7184; open Monday-Sunday 11 to 10) is a regular destination for vegetarians. All the Indian dishes are meatless, and its $5.75 lunch buffet is an undisputed bargain. A Taste of Casablanca (3211 N. Washington Blvd., 703/527-7468; open Monday-Wednesday 5 to 11 p.m., Thursday-Sunday 5 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.), next door, specializes in Moroccan cuisine and features belly dancing on weekends. Cafe Dalat (3143 Wilson Blvd., 703/276-0935; open Sunday-Thursday 11 to 9:30, Friday-Saturday 11 to 10:30) is one of five Vietnamese restaurants within sight of each other, and it always seems to be packed (due to the grilled lemon chicken over vermicelli noodles, no doubt). Another is nearby Cafe Saigon (1135 N. Highland St., 703/276-7110; open Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to midnight), an eatery whose no-frills setting belies the excellence of its food. Across the Metro park is La Cantinita's Havana Cafe (3100 Clarendon Blvd., 703/524-3611; open Monday-Friday 11 to 3 and 5 p.m. to 11, Saturday 4 to 11, Sunday 4 to 10), which offers fried plantains and yucca root among its other Cuban specialties.
Several old storefronts along Wilson Boulevard display dresses, religious wares, jewelry, foreign pop CDs and the kind of kitschy stuff that makes for great window shopping, but two in particular warrant extended visits. One is Orpheus Records (3173 Wilson Blvd., 703/294-6774; open Monday-Saturday 12 to 11), a new addition where the dust is still settling. But collectors of anything from Sun Ra to Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes to Tangerine Dream all made regular pilgrimages to its former location in Georgetown. It's one of the few places that still wholeheartedly stocks vinyl records (though CDs are available, too). Next door is K.A.T. Video (3171 Wilson Blvd., 703/522-8398; open Monday-Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight), which is a Mecca for discerning patrons of Japanese anime, Hong Kong action cinema and kung fu of every conceivable flavor.
Still singing the little town blues? Perhaps you're looking for a city that never sleeps? Look no further. If the hour is late -- or early -- enough, culinary distinctions become irrelevant. Have munchies, must gorge. Clarendon residents are lucky enough to have choices, however. Hope Key (3131 Wilson Blvd., 703/243-8388) offers Chinese for take-out or dine-in until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Silver Diner (3200 Wilson Blvd., 703/812-8600) offers the cuisine broadly known as American until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Finally, Mario's Pizza & Subs (3322 Wilson Blvd., 703/525-0200) serves, er, subs and pizza at any hour.
Okay, so maybe Clarendon does sleep. But it's cheap, convenient and easy on the eyes. In fact, all the attributes that drew people from the District (and various continents) are still very much in evidence. And those city snobs who still think civilization ends at the D.C. border? Well, just let them try to get drive-thru doughnuts at midnight.