'What are you doing here in the middle of the day?" We asked that question at the Shirlington Busboys and Poets (4251 S. Campbell Ave.), the popular restaurant that also doubles as a community center and freelancers' unofficial office space.
We were looking for insights about the south Arlington neighborhood - long known for its indie-flick theater, dog park and restaurant row - which has become its own destination in recent years, with a big assist from more retailers, shiny new condos and Signature Theatre (4200 Campbell Ave.).
As it turned out, the assorted encampments of table dwellers and couch sprawlers at Busboys had plenty of answers about what they were doing here.
After testing out Silver Spring and Old Town, Nicholas Broussard, 27, found Shirlington to be just right. "It's a hidden gem, especially for us in our late 20s, early 30s. It's not on the map, so it's not crowded and can hold on to its charm."
Broussard, a student at Georgetown, was ordering one of several meals he consumes here weekly. "When I tell friends in the city about all the restaurants and the friendliness, I worry it will get too popular if I don't stop talking about it." Close to his apartment and his grocery store, Busboys is a natural landing spot for the single Broussard. "You can get coffee, have drinks, work, read, people or dog watch, eat with your kids, listen to poetry, do homework, whatever makes you feel at home."
When in the mood for a more boisterous, less studious crowd, Broussard heads to Samuel Beckett's Irish Gastro Pub (2800 S. Randolph St., Arlington), another of what he calls "the village's ideal places to just hang out."
Karen Lopez and Amy Dennis were in no rush to end their first outing as friends. Dennis, a nurse at an Alexandria hospital, and Lopez, a paramedic who brings patients to that hospital, had clocked almost four hours at Busboys. They chose Shirlington for its proximity to Interstate 395, as Lopez lives in Prince William County, and because "it's just easy - lots of options to sit outside and just talk without being rushed off," Dennis said.
"I love how charming and low-key it is during the day," Lopez said from one of the outdoor couches. "It's a crowded nightlife scene, which is fine if that's what you're looking for."
Plus, Dennis said, "the parking gets horrendous later." As if on cue, a friendly Arlington police officer walked by, warning outdoor patrons that the 4 p.m. parking restrictions were about to kick in to make room for an outdoor music festival.
When teacher Katrina Rainer, 30, needed to bone up on a new technology initiative coming to her school, she parked herself at a communal table. "I'm working, but not really 'working,' and this is perfect place for that," the Alexandria resident said. Another draw? "Even though I don't live in Shirlington, I feel like a local here."
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