You never forget your first lawn chair.
At least that's what Carlie Steiner will tell you. The co-owner of Himitsu felt a swell of pride when she recently spotted a couple waiting outside her restaurant on a portable seat.
“It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Wow, people are starting to find out about the restaurant on a bigger scale,’ ” Steiner says. “They know they’re going to wait, and they’re happy to wait.”
Waiting in line for dinner is nothing new in Washington. But that chair wasn't in front of Rose's Luxury, Bad Saint or Little Serow. It was on Upshur Street, in Petworth, a Northwest Washington neighborhood that four years ago had little more than a Pizza Hut, a few takeout joints and Domku, a since-shuttered Scandinavian restaurant.
Now the nation's eyes are fixated on this block-long commercial strip, measuring only one-tenth of a mile. This July, Eater's restaurant editor named Himitsu one of the 12 best new restaurants in the country. Last month, Bon Appétit magazine listed Himitsu and Timber Pizza , on the same block, two of America's 50 best new restaurants.
The attention has only confirmed what many locals have known for some time: Upshur Street is the best place to eat out in Washington right now.
Its most striking characteristic is that most restaurants there are owned by first-timers. Steiner and chef and co-owner Kevin Tien have worked in the hospitality industry for years, but Himitsu marks their first foray into ownership. They opened the tiny spot in November, luring guests with Steiner’s playful cocktails and Tien’s Japanese fusion dishes, such as the karaage and biscuits and Kobe beef tri-tip steak with umami butter rice.
The same goes for Himitsu's neighbors. Justin Logan worked at a think tank before he and his wife opened Ruta Del Vino , a Latin-leaning spot with an approachable wine list and such hits as steamed clams with an aji amarillo sauce. Taqueria del Barrio — which serves tortas, more than a dozen tacos and other Mexican standards — is the first bricks-and-mortar restaurant from Anna Bran-Leis and Shawn Leis, founders of the D.C. Empanadas food truck. And Andrew Dana and Chris Brady of Timber Pizza worked in business and sales before opening their pizza joint last year. Since the Bon Appétit article, guests have been lining up for their gorgeous blistered pies, topped with fistfuls of farm-fresh ingredients.
Unlike financially padded restaurant groups or national chains — think the ones behind some boxy steakhouses downtown — these new chefs and owners also usually have more of their own money on the line. This makes them, they say, more willing to go the extra mile to impress diners.
“We have something to prove,” says Dana, of Timber Pizza. “There’s a level of care and dedication that comes with that. You can hire the best general manager in the world, but they’re not going to care as much as the owner, because it isn’t their labor of love.”
Compared with such geographical dining powerhouses as the 14th Street corridor, Shaw and Penn Quarter, Upshur Street has remained virtually untouched by large developers — for now, at least. The street is a mix of residential townhouses and small commercial parcels with zoning limitations. Properties are owned by individual, independent landlords, who are more willing to take a risk on young entrepreneurs than the large corporations behind spaces in, say, downtown, would be. Although there are two condominium projects planned for the strip — one next to Timber Pizza and another next to Himitsu — many neighbors predict that those developments will still be proportional to the street.
“Big developers are looking for lots of square footage where they can build a tall building,” says Paul Ruppert, who owns three businesses on Upshur Street and was one of the neighborhood’s pioneers when he opened Petworth Citizen, in 2013. “The footprint of these properties [on Upshur] is not large.”
So in lieu of Madewells and Anthropologies, you'll find such independent boutiques as Willow and Fia's Fabulous Finds, a secondhand-clothing gem, and Bentley's Vintage Furniture & Collectibles, a quirky alternative to the West Elms of the world. That's what makes Upshur feel on a par with other dining and retail destinations like 14th Street — except it's slightly better because it has more heart.
For business owners, the benefits of operating in a location like Upshur are twofold: Rents are lower compared with other buzzy neighborhoods that offer more square footage, and the cozier space allows closer attention to guests. “We try to make it feel like you’re walking into a nice home,” says Steiner, of Himitsu. “We want it to be a really personal experience, and I feel like we have the ability to do that, because it’s such a small restaurant.”
The food does get personal on Upshur. Dishes are often a reflection of the owner’s backgrounds and experiences: After a recent trip to Spain, Steiner added sherries she tried and loved to the wine list. Those wildflowers atop your Julia pizza at Timber? They’re grown on the rooftop of Dana’s condo, along with other produce on the menu, just across the street. The tortillas at Taqueria del Barrio are made with the same recipe owner Anna Bran-Leis used to make alongside her grandmother.
“I’m hoping to convey a family feel in my food,” says Bran-Leis, who also serves her grandmother’s recipe for black beans. “I’m not going to feed you a Michelin-rated meal, but the food you eat here, you’re going to feel like you’re at my house.”
Residents of Mount Pleasant, Woodridge, Brookland and Kennedy Street will probably recognize the homey, independent vibe. And although Georgetown, Adams Morgan and Logan Circle have no shortage of excellent dining options, they’re sprinkled with corporate chains that dilute the charm. None of these pockets can compete with Upshur Street in terms of the sheer concentration of quality restaurants.
This fall, two new projects will open in the street's remaining vacant properties: A yet-to-be-named British pub from Alex McCoy, serving curries and beer, and Lulabelle's Sweet Shop, a combination ice cream parlor, bakery and gift shop from the teams behind Willow and, in Mount Pleasant, Each Peach Market.
McCoy and the Lulabelle folks are quick to say they were drawn to Upshur for its tight-knit community — but their future neighbors say they should be ready to reach beyond the surrounding streets.
"One dude and his mother came down from New York to try the pizza," Dana says. "This press and spotlight is far beyond what we were hoping for."
Nearest Metro: Georgia Ave-Petworth,
with a 0.4-mile walk to Slim's Diner.
Hank’s Cocktail Bar
819 Upshur St. NW, hankscocktailbar.com.
828 Upshur St. NW, himitsudc.com.
829 Upshur St. NW, petworthcitizen.com.
809 Upshur St. NW, timberpizza.com.
Ruta del Vino
800 Upshur St. NW, rutadelvinodc.com.
4201 Georgia Ave. NW, slimsdiner.com .
Taqueria del Barrio
821 Upshur St. NW, taqueriadelbarrio.com.