Margaritas, jazz and Burmese snacks

One day in D.C. with drummer Isabelle De Leon

By WP BrandStudio

Washington, D.C. is brimming with culture. There’s a thriving live music scene, nationally recognized cuisine and a community of inventive artists. The hardest part for a visitor is deciding where to start. In this series, inspired by the idea to Discover the Real D.C.washington.org and WPBrandStudio will profile some of the capital’s coolest locals across three creative industries, taking tips on how they spend a day in the city. This is #MyDCcool.

Throughout Isabelle De Leon’s career as a professional drummer, she’s played gigs as nearby as New York and as far away as Russia. She’s traveled to the Philippines, her parents’ home country, and lived in Hong Kong for a year when she was young.

But to Isabelle, D.C. is home. It’s where she was indoctrinated into the world of music, where she met the bands she plays with and where she started teaching drums. Isabelle says the D.C. music scene is unlike any other, which is quite a statement from someone who’s traveled all over the world.

“There’s a certain soulfulness that I found [in] a lot of musicians and music supporters here,” she says. “An emotional and spiritual aspect.”

Her love for the city doesn’t stop with music, either. From authentic Latin American restaurants to versatile shopping spots and a vibrant nightlife, there’s no shortage of places for her to browse and explore. Here’s how Isabelle does D.C.

11 am: An early lunch at Mezcalero

Isabelle lives in Columbia Heights, one of D.C.’s neighborhoods of choice for young people. It’s known for its ethnic diversity and top-notch Latin American eateries—the block that Isabelle lives on is teeming with pupuserias, taquerias and Cuban joints. But given her love of mezcal, she usually heads over to Mezcalero on 14th Street NW.

Hear why Isabelle loves living in Columbia Heights
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One of Isabelle’s favorite things to order is the mushroom fundido, a dish that you hear before you see; it emerges from the kitchen in a cast iron bowl that pops and sizzles. Also on the menu are fajitas, quesadillas and tacos made in the same style as they are in Mexico’s Distrito Federal. And margaritas. Plenty of margaritas. The walls of Mezcalero are lined with dozens of bottles of mezcal, all of which can be used in place of tequila in a margarita. On the rare weekend morning that Isabelle has time to stop by for brunch, her drink of choice is the spicy mango margarita, which is made with mango purée, lime juice, agave and chunks of habanero peppers for a kick. “The bomb,” she says.

1 pm: Light bites and shopping at Union Market

For Isabelle, or any musician, success often hinges upon networking with potential collaborators and local booking agents. “So much of music today is marketing yourself uniquely,” she says.

So she starts most of her days answering emails and catching up on social media, sometimes at the Big Bear Café on 1st Street NW in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. With its ample seating, cozy atmosphere and extensive list of coffees and teas, it’s a prime spot to either relax with a hot drink or hone in on getting to inbox zero.

But today, she wants a wider variety of food and drink options, so Isabelle heads over to Union Market in NoMa. This sprawling, airy marketplace hosts 40-plus eateries and retailers. Groups of friends gather over recently acquired treats, or individuals tuck into a solo lunch of ramen, pizza or arepas. In the warmer months, seating spills out onto the picnic tables just outside the market’s doors.

One of Isabelle’s favorite places to stop is Toli Moli. The tiny Burmese food shop stocks hard-to-find Asian snacks and spices, the kind that Isabelle grew up eating. Hidden in the very back of the market is a tiny kitchen that churns out staple dishes, including rice bowls and soups. “It kind of reminds me of home and the flavors I grew up eating,” she says.

Knickknacks and homewares are also available in Union Market at Salt and Sundry, the boutique that offers locally crafted enamel jewelry, dreamy-soft throw blankets, and tumblers with “District of Columbia” etched into the glass. It’s a dangerous place for Isabelle to go, she says, simply because it’s so difficult to leave empty-handed.

4 pm: Jam session at 7DrumCity

Union Market is less than a mile from 7DrumCity, the rehearsal and performance space in Truxton Circle where Isabelle teaches a roster of about 25 students per week. The studio emphasizes that repetition is the key to honing the craft of music, but should short-term visitors want to learn a little something from the studio’s staff, they can take advantage of its trial lesson rate ($55.)

Tours are always an option, too, for those who are more curious than anything. The space is undeniably D.C.; it’s located in a bright yellow row house on North Capitol Street, and the interior has old-school traits like exposed brick and narrow staircases. In the back of the property, an old carriage house has been renovated to fit a small stage, backdropped with a giant mural of a multi-colored octopus. There, students can rehearse for performances or locals can come to play intimate shows.

That’s where Isabelle stops to drum out some beats on a kit — completely improvised, she says, which is her favorite way to play. It’s “drawing upon everything you’ve learned,” she says. “It’s the music [that is] true to your voice at that moment.”

Listen to what ‘flow’ means to a drummer like Isabelle
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Improvisation is a key feature of jazz music, which is at the heart of the D.C. music scene. When she’s in the mood for a jazz show, Isabelle heads over to Sotto on 14th Street NW in Logan Circle, where live shows can be enjoyed alongside a full drink menu and Italian-American cuisine. For an even wider variety of music, she drops by Songbyrd in Adams Morgan which books a diverse range of artists. Or she’ll stop by the 9:30 Club in the U Street Corridor, which she says is quintessentially D.C. — and is right near a beloved Thai restaurant, Thai X-ing, which is nestled in a converted home and doesn’t have a set menu. “They have a set fee and they just cook for you whatever they are cooking that day,” Isabelle says.

8:30 pm: Dinner and music at Marvin

On this particular night, Isabelle pays a visit to Marvin, a venue on 14th street in the U Street Corridor that houses a nightclub on the second floor and a live music lounge on the first floor. At 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, the first floor is packed. Tables overflow with people who’ve come to see the show and enjoy Marvin’s eclectic Belgian-meets-Southern menu, which features red curry mussels, smoked baby back ribs and crab cake sliders. The cocktail menu packs a punch, too. It features drinks like the “New Year, Who Dis?” which mixes cucumber-infused gin, St. Germain, jalapeño, dill and tonic water.

Hear about Martin and the music scene of D.C.
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The band powers through its first set of R&B-slash-soul music—appropriate for a lounge named after Marvin Gaye, though the venue books artists of all kinds. The line for the club upstairs doesn’t start to really form until about 10 or 11 p.m., and by the end of the night, the whole place is vibrating with energy.

Isabelle knows most of the members of the band playing tonight—no surprise, given how tight-knit the D.C. community is. But that’s what makes it feel so soulful and earnest. At one point, the band’s lead singer spots Isabelle out in the crowd and announces to the room that Isabelle is a local musician, an entrepreneur and a staple in the community. The singer says that if she’s lucky, she’ll take a picture with Isabelle before the night ends.

Culture abounds in the capital city. Book your trip today and define what it means to do D.C.