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The Hip and Hungry

April 16, 2009

Featured in The Washington Post

The Hip and Hungry Hit 14th Street

By Jane Black

Wednesday, April 15, 2009; F01

It may be the Worst Economy Since the Great Depression, No wonder restaurateurs of all stripes are flocking to this central Washington artery, once a barren stretch of boarded-up shops and fast-food joints. Nearby Logan Circle may have evolved into a hip destination on P Street late in 2000, but vast stretches of the 14th Street corridor remained empty. With the exception of the beloved Cafe Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar, there weren't many places to eat and drink.
Now Cork, a wine bar that opened in January of last year, has become a top dining destination; Last month, Policy, a slick restaurant-cum-lounge, opened within one week

By fall, there will be more: and a yet-unnamed seafood restaurant and market overseen by rising-star chef Barton Seaver. Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro is looking at spaces in the area.

Then there's the cool factor. The street architecture is interesting and varied; it's not a valley of clean-but-soulless condos or office buildings. Nearby U Street, home to institutions such as Ben's Chili Bowl has emerged as a cultural center, a trend that restaurateurs say was boosted by Barack Obama's election. Several young members of the administration live within blocks of 14th Street. "Obama shows up at Ben's Chili Bowl, and suddenly this becomes a center for inaugural events," says Ian Hilton, director of operations at Marvin, which opened in 2007. "It's pushed everything ahead a few years."

Most of the new arrivals are ambitious neighborhood joints. Their models are Marvin and Cork, stylish bars and restaurants that seem to have a 30-minute minimum wait no matter what time diners arrive.

Near T Street is Policy, a stylish two-story restaurant and lounge. Owner Omar Miskinyar, a former club promoter, says he wanted to create a restaurant first: "The idea is to give you good food and then let you party afterward," he says. The menu is ambitious. Chef Brian Murphy, formerly of L'Auberge Chez Francois, has offered grilled guinea hen and crisp veal sweetbreads. (The bar menu might not strike cocktail aficionados as having quite the same sophistication. One of the signatures on the sugary list is the Lovetini, a chocolate vodka martini with chai cream liqueur and a cinnamon lollipop.) Read the full story

The vibe, even in the restaurant, is distinctively clubby. Downstairs, it's retro diner meets bordello, with red vinyl booths and stools and a black pressed-tin ceiling. Upstairs, the glittery lounge has graffiti-tagged walls, drippy chandeliers and modern, minimalist couches. The hordes that arrived on opening weekend seemed far more interested in partying with bottles of vodka at their tables than in quiet conversation.
Several more restaurants are expected to open on 14th Street this year. Slated for August is the still-unnamed seafood restaurant and retail market backed by Eli Hengst, of Sonoma and Blue Ridge, and chef Seaver. Though nothing is yet fixed, Seaver says the menu will have a large raw bar and simply prepared cooked seafood dishes. The market will have a fresh fish counter (focused on sustainable choices, a passion of Seaver's), a small deli that serves prepared food and a grocery selling basic pantry items and local produce. The space will have about 85 seats and an outdoor patio for warm weather.

"It's the Tuesday night dinner and the casual night out that makes the city a better place to live," he says. "White-tablecloth restaurants have put D.C. on the culinary map, but it's the neighborhood places that fulfill the city's needs."

Many of the restaurants south of U Street, Shallal says, are successful but segregated. "I'm racially focused," he says. "Restaurants are watering holes where people can get to know each other. That's one of my roles as a restaurateur and a resident of the city."
The restaurateurs say they are grateful for the area's boom. At Posto, the casual Italian restaurant that opened in the former Viridian spot last December, the main complaints have been about long waits and noise levels jacked up by the crowds at the bars. The same is true at Cork, where drinkers without reservations usually don't get in. More restaurants could help ease the jams or create an even livelier neighborhood that draws even more diners. Read the full story