p until just a few years ago, Washington's psychological map was reversed: "Outer" was in, the inner city was out. Developers talked up Georgetown and Old Town, Metro towns and "new towns"; but downtown D.C. was Deserted City, especially after dark. Washington's poles of power may have been the White House and the Capitol, but the axis of influence -- Pennsylvania Avenue, running wide between them -- became a ghost town once the law and lobby firms locked up. The area just north of the avenue between about Fifth and 12th streets NW hadn't had a significant residential population for more than a century. Chinatown, once a popular dining area, was deteriorating; and the handful of nightclubs and performance venues that were lured to the area in the '80s by large warehouse spaces and low rents had increasing difficulty convincing patrons that the streets were safe. Even by day the aura of discouragement became so palpable (and the suburban malls so spiffy by comparison) that such establishment department stores as Garfinkel's, Woodward & Lothrop and Lansburgh's gradually shuttered their doors.

Now, in what sometimes feels like a development abracadabra! D.C. is Downtown Chic. Penn Quarter, as the neighborhood is now called, is packed with restaurants and nightclubs, bars and brewpubs -- all of them full at once, it seems, especially on nights when MCI Center at Sixth and F is booked -- plus bookstores, boutiques, art galleries and theaters, high-end spas and salons, fitness centers and a weekly farmer's market. It's such a destination that the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro station is scheduled to add "Penn Quarter" to its title by the end of the year. Even more importantly, what was for a long time adults-only territory is now extremely family-friendly.

Tourists and locals alike are venturing into almost virgin territory, working their way north from the Mall to a new campus of museums. The International Spy Museum, which opened in summer 2002, drew a million visitors in just its first 18 months; the new Marian Koshland Science Museum at the National Academy of Sciences has also turned out to be a surprising hit, despite the fact that both charge admission. The City Museum of Washington, which has restored the old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square, is only a few blocks farther north, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts is at the western edge of the Quarter at New York Avenue and 13th Street. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, at the heart of the Quarter, are undergoing renovation but are scheduled to reopen on July 4, 2006. The popular exhibits at the FBI headquarters are also closed but are scheduled to reopen next year.

And the boom hasn't slowed. The Shakespeare Theatre is building a second theater at 620 F St. that will be 40 percent larger than its current venue (and which will host jazz, dance, film and chamber music as well as theatrical productions); Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's new digs on Seventh Street, a courtyard theater that will double its Church Street seating capacity, will open next spring. In addition to the eight-screen E Street Cinema, a 14-screen Regent Cinemas multiplex will open in Gallery Place next month. The new home of the Newseum, under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth, is scheduled to open in early 2007.

Shopping is once again a lively pastime, with many of the top brand names (Benetton, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters) lifting signs. Woodies and Garfinkel's may be gone, but H&M is in (and Hecht's, the loyal, is still going strong). The Shops at National Place are undergoing an extensive facelift and renovation to turn the formerly inward-looking retail space outward toward F Street and upscale the food court.

Odd as it sounds, downtown may be the District's first 21st-century success story.

"Booms," of course, are always exaggerated. The push to redevelop Pennsylvania Avenue -- less the grand boulevard of L'Enfant's vision perhaps than as a Fifth Avenue-style promenade of hotels, offices and high-end restaurants -- cost more than $1 billion over 20 years. Limited residential construction began in the late '80s, primarily because developers were forced to offset office building with mixed-use construction. The restaurant boom began in the mid-'90s, inspired by the construction of MCI Center, which opened at the end of 1997; and there have been plenty of unsuccessful runs and closings.

But it has really been in the past three years that the Penn Quarter has developed a personality, and a population. By the end of next year, the New Penn Generation will occupy some 2,000 apartments and condominiums -- the condos ranging from about $350,000 to $850,000, and a few costing as much as $1 million -- with 1,000 more residences just to the east. (And thanks to the conjunction of several Metro lines, many residents don't need cars.)

Two dozen restaurants, both big-name chains and local independents, have opened in the Quarter since 2000, and there are several others in the blocks just west toward the White House. Already you can choose from Catalonian and Cantonese, barbecue and Burmese, Thai, Indian, Tex-Mex, Mongolian, fusion, mezze and tapas, dim sum and Sichuan, Japanese and Jamaican, oyster bars and wood-fired pizza, chophouses, fish houses, coffeehouses and Teaism, not to mention the sandwich shops, sub stops and street vendors. And coming soon are IndeBleu, a French-Indian restaurant from a former chef and manager of the Inn at Little Washington, on G Street between Seventh and Eighth; a Clyde's, this one with something of a Victorian saloon flavor, in the Gallery Place development; and Oya, an island-fusion restaurant on Ninth. (What with Ceiba on 14th, Ortanique on 11th, Cafe Atlantico on Eighth and Ginger Reef on E, Penn Quarter is acquiring a definite nuevo Latino accent.)

On the third Thursday of each month, the neighborhood's art galleries stay open until 8, and Starbucks at Seventh and H hosts poetry readings.

The neighborhood even has a warm-weather market, the FreshFarm Market, which sets up Thursdays from 3 to 7 on Eighth Street just south of E through Oct. 28; the stalls are filled with locally raised produce, flowers and herbs; handmade soaps; eggs and cheese; even sandwiches and ready-to-eat soups.

Everything old is new again, and that's particularly true of Penn Quarter. The Hotel Monaco at 700 F St. NW was designed in the early 1840s as the General Post Office by Robert Mills, who based the design on the Temple of Jupiter in Rome; it was admired for its beauty by Charles Dickens, who found little to admire in the capital in general. (Intriguingly, there was a hotel on the site originally, Blodgett's, where Congress met after the burning of the Capitol in 1814.) Mills also designed the Old Patent Office Building (now the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery), as well as the Washington Monument and the Treasury Building.

The National Building Museum was originally the U.S. Pension Bureau, established in the 1880s to serve and honor Union veterans; it bears a frieze of marching soldiers around the top. The Italianate LeDroit Building next to the Monaco, which now houses Zola, was built in 1875. The National Museum of Women in the Arts was formerly a Masonic temple, as was what is now McCormick & Schmick's at Ninth and F.

The first recorded mention of the nation's Main Street being named Pennsylvania Avenue seems to be in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1791, the year before construction of the boulevard began. It was the first main street in other ways as well, where the first hotels and boarding houses, lawyers' offices, tailors and taverns and even newspapers set up shop (the old Evening Star building is at 1101 Pennsylvania). The city's original Center Market was built at the foot of Seventh Street -- about where the Navy Memorial is now, and not far from where the FreshFarm Market sets up -- and was such a vital commercial complex that at times the vendors, stalls and lean-tos spread as far as 10th or even 11th.

Daniel Webster lived and practiced law at 503 D St., within eyeshot of the courthouses. Gen. "Fighting Joe" Hooker bivouacked here (and according to some accounts, gave the local prostitutes a new nickname). Abraham Lincoln died here (in Petersen's Boarding House, across the street from Ford's Theatre). The owner of Ford's was the largest contributor to the Lincoln memorial on D between Fourth and Fifth streets; dedicated only three years after his assassination, it's the oldest Lincoln memorial in the country. Walt Whitman nursed the Civil War casualties at the Portrait Gallery (then the Patent Office), which was put to use as a wartime hospital; he may well have met up with Clara Barton, who also worked and nursed there. (For more Civil War sites, see accompanying story on heritage trails.)

But however fascinating its history, it's the new life that has been breathed into Penn Quarter its boosters are touting these days. It's the place to see -- political patrons and celebrity drop-ins are routinely reported by media-savvy maitre d's -- and to be seen. And increasingly, it's scenery, for studio films (most recently "Head of State," "The Manchurian Candidate," Nicolas Cage's upcoming "National Treasure," and the 2005 releases "Syriana" with George Clooney and "The Wedding Crashers" with Owen Wilson); made-for-TV movies (HBO's "Path to War") and series ("K Street" and "The District"). By the end of this decade, what was one of Washington's most neglected neighborhoods is expected to be built to capacity, and that raises a whole new hipness issue: overexposure.

"We may have to find a new bar," an Armani-clad Zaytinya patron observed to his friend a few weeks ago. "Everybody in Washington must be at this one."

Eve Zibart is a staff writer for Weekend.

You won't go hungry in the District's Penn Quarter. Cafe Atlantico and its Minibar, on Eighth Street between D and E, are two of close to 50 eateries that have set up shop in the neighborhood -- and more are on the way.Old buildings in Penn Quarter are being taken over by restaurants, bars, clubs and museums.