The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rich with history, D.C.’s Barracks Row keeps reinventing itself

Barracks Row in Washington is known for its military connection and vibrant restaurant district. (Photos by Maansi Srivastava for The Washington Post)

Eleven years ago, Ned Ertel’s 9-year-old son Alexander got an abrupt introduction to some unconventional D.C. neighbors. While playing outfielder at Tyler Elementary, he watched a hit ball sail beyond the diamond and into the Silent Drill Platoon, a unit of Marines famous for precision maneuvers with unloaded ceremonial rifles.

“He didn’t know what to do, because they were all standing in formation, and they had guns,” Ned Ertel recalled with amusement. “They made a rule eventually that, if you hit [the ball] into the Marines, it’s a ground-rule double.”

That’s life on Barracks Row, home to the Marine Corps’ top officer and its oldest active outpost, Marine Barracks Washington. It’s a place where marches by John Philip Sousa, who was born on Barracks Row, fill the air on summer evenings. The neighborhood is just as well known, however, for its exciting restaurant district opposite the barracks. And that space, locals say, is thriving, with new business openings and events.

Ertel, 53, said he loves to return to places such as Belga Cafe, a Belgian concept restaurant that opened in 2004, four years after he moved to the neighborhood. But he also has plans to visit the newcomers to the lineup on Eighth Street SE, including ramen restaurant Kaiju, and Japanese restaurant and karaoke bar Ginza BBQ.

“We love it on Barracks Row, because there’s a lot always happening,” he said. “New restaurants are always coming in.”

Keeping the neighborhood fresh and inviting is the full-time work of Brian Ready, executive director of Barracks Row Main Street. A recent transplant from Las Vegas who came to the job in June, Ready said he’s committed to making the most of the space and creating reasons for neighborhood residents to continue returning to Eighth Street.

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SZU YU CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

MONT.

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Lincoln Park

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Source: OpenStreetMap contributors

SZU YU CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

In place of the conventional Christmas tree lighting in Eastern Market Metro Plaza, at the top of Barracks Row, Ready last year deployed a nightly tree-based music-and-light show. He also started a Friday jazz series for the summertime; a successful drop-in chess tournament that drew a mix of local masters and novices; and a Saturday fitness series in partnership with Onelife Fitness. Barracks Row also participated in D.C.’s “Art All Night” festival in late September, with what Ready admits was an over-the-top ice-sculpting demonstration.

The embrace of spectacle, Ready said, is inspired by the glitz and exuberance of his hometown. In 2023, he plans to break new ground with a Guinness World Record attempt at the plaza: arranging attendees into the shape of the largest human ice cream cone. Ultimately, he said, the goal is to make the plaza, Barracks Row’s largest public green space, a destination, rather than just a thoroughfare for the Metro.

“We’re going to try to up the ante,” he said. “We’ve just got a lot of different things that we’re going to try to push, event-wise.”

Phil Guire, a local real estate agent with Compass, said the blend of Barracks Row’s liveliness and the adjoining neighborhood’s elegance and tradition makes it attractive for those looking to settle near Capitol Hill.

“The Marines are always going to be there. … You’ll always hear them do their taps in the evening,” he said. “A lot of that feels very comfortable and regular. And I think maybe that’s what appeals to so many people.”

There’s relatively little turnover in the neighborhood, filled with colorful rowhouses. Just 39 properties sold in the past year, Guire said, ranging from $2.15 million for a four-bedroom, 3½-bath detached home with custom details to $875,000 for a three-bedroom, 2½-bath townhouse. The average sale price was $1.1 million. There are now three properties on the market, he said.

Guire’s go-to Barracks Row spot is Rose’s Luxury, the first of a trio of D.C. restaurants opened by James Beard Award-winning Chef Aaron Silverman. It opened in 2013 and has earned a Michelin star.

“It’s still consistently one of my favorite meals,” he said.

Despite the urban surroundings, the residential part of the neighborhood can feel intimate, said Carl Reeverts, a resident since 1981. Reeverts, a co-chair of the Eastern Market Metro Community Association, which advocates for civic matters and publishes a newsletter for locals, said the physical closeness of the homes promotes community. Neighbors connect over block parties, school pickups and ballgames, he said, and there’s a local babysitting network.

“It’s like the best small town in the country,” Reeverts said.

Marci Hilt, another association co-chair who lives just outside Barracks Row, marvels at how far the neighborhood has come since she arrived in 1982, and how it continues to develop and improve. Hilt still remembers the area as it used to be, mostly desolate and with a reputation for crime. Although multiple factors, including the 1999 founding of Barracks Row Main Street, contributed to the area’s eventual transformation, she remembers starting to feel the change the year she moved in with the opening of an Eighth Street shop, Frame of Mine.

“It’s just gone uphill ever since,” she said.

Schools: Tyler Elementary, Brent Elementary, Jefferson Middle School Academy and Eastern High School.

Transportation: The Eastern Market Metro station (Blue, Orange and Silver lines) is located in Metro Plaza, at the top of Barracks Row. The 90 and 92 buses run along Eighth Street SE, while the 32 and 36 buses stop on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

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