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D.C.'s Rebirth of Cool

There's lots to do in the capital besides monuments and museums. In the final installment of a three-part series, The Root explores the hip side of the Chocolate City.


For ages, Washington, D.C., was a place you visited for its monuments and museums and mocked for its power suits and night life. A federal city, but definitely not a fashionable one.

Almost overnight, Washington is buzzing with a cool self-assuredness. In this new D.C., driven by creative newcomers and locals looking to make their mark, proximity to political power matters less than commitment to city life. It's artists, entrepreneurs and hipsters in fedoras and fro-hawks -- and Philip Lim and Stella McCartney -- who flock to the city's spate of new clubs, galleries, bars and restaurants.

To an outsider, it would look as if all this change is the trickle-down influence of the city's most-watched power couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, who make date nights at the Kennedy Center and celebrate birthdays at the certified-organic Restaurant Nora.

But the rebirth of cool in Washington didn't begin Nov. 4, 2008. A steady growth in the District's population -- after a long period of decline -- and investment by businesses large and small are major reasons neighborhoods feel vibrant again. In 2009 alone, nearly 10,000 new residents poured into D.C., some lured, no doubt, by the new veneer of hip. Though the city's black population dropped from 60 percent a decade ago to 54 percent, all you have to do is look around to recognize that D.C. is still very much the Chocolate City.

Take, for example, home base for the neo-renaissance: the U Street corridor. A stone's throw from Howard University, and known as "Black Broadway" in the 1920s and '30s, U Street was home to Washington's vibrant jazz scene  -- and jazz legend Duke Ellington -- until it was ravaged by riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hip lounges and clubs re-established the neighborhood as an edgy destination in the 1990s, but a mini-empire of recent additions helmed by musician Eric Hilton (of the DJ duo Thievery Corporation) has shown both staying power and encouraged other businesses to snap up the neighborhood's few remaining boarded-up spaces. U Street is now a destination for dining, music, poetry and dancing, as well as a symbol  of the African Diaspora: In a matter of blocks, you'll find some of the country's best Ethiopian restaurants; rastas drinking rum punch and getting down to old-school reggae and dancehall; DJs spinning house, soul and funk until the wee hours; and aspiring jazz stars performing in the shadows of Miles and Monk.


The city's stylish elite converge for late-night dinners under dim Edison bulbs and the visage of Marvin Gaye at Restaurant Marvin, perched at the apex of the U Street and 14th Street night life scenes. The bistro's Belgian-meets-soul-food aesthetic once raised eyebrows, but perfectly seasoned frites, coconut-milk-steeped mussels and the modern take on chicken and waffles now draw many a regular.

(For a more classic interpretation of soul food, Oohs & Ahhs is the neighborhood's go-to joint, serving heaping portions of catfish, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese in unpretentious fashion -- in packed-to-the-brim Styrofoam containers.)

Washington's most ubiquitous ethnic cuisine, however, is Ethiopian, thanks to a large local population. On U Street, Dukem is the bustling standard, with live music and dance performances; down the street on Ninth, Etete is smaller but perhaps more refined.