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.
No visit to Washington is complete without a late-night Eat Pray Love-style spiritual journey to Ben's Chili Bowl. There, since 1958 — through the riots — a Trinidad-born Ben Ali and his family have cooked up renowned D.C. half-smokes and chili for fans who include Bill Cosby (and, yes, Obama), not to mention the long lines of folks who can wait as long as an hour on weekends for their post-drinking feast. Ali died in 2009, but the hunger for Ben's is going strong.
In recent years, D.C.'s night life has downsized — in a good way. The focus has shifted from mega-clubs holding thousands of people to more intimate and infinitely cooler lounges. Exhibit A: Love. Once a destination for ballers and hip-hop stars — Jay-Z hosted an inaugural party there in 2009 — the four-story nightspot is now open only for special events, such as Trey Songz's album-release party during CBC weekend.
These days, you're more likely to find visiting stars John Legend, Fantasia or Biz Markie hosting parties at the Park at 14th. Located in the heart of downtown, the well-appointed lounge is a destination for happy hour — including frequent open-bar affairs — though many guests are happy to stay and dance to the latest hip-hop tunes until the wee hours. Beware, though: On popular nights, purchasing pricey bottle service may be the only way to buy entry.
While the Park is a see-and-be-seen/dress-to-impress kind of place, it's balanced by newcomers like U Street's Lounge of III, a comfortable spot where attractions have included hip-hop trivia nights and gallery-worthy displays of reggae and jazz-album covers; and Bar 7, an understated yet popular spot located across from the convention center that relies on good DJs and wildly popular happy hours to draw customers.
Back on U Street, Patty Boom Boom is a tribute to all things Jamaican: A deli downstairs serves patties stuffed with goat or veggies, bartenders pour Red Stripe and wickedly strong rum punches, and DJs spin reggae and dancehall for a mix of dreads and music lovers. (Don't miss the live bands on Tuesday nights.)
If drink and dance aren't always what you're looking for, Busboys and Poets on 14th Street is the gathering place for the area's best and brightest performance poets. Every Tuesday night, they face off at an open mike that is cutthroat not only for the poets but also for the crowds who line up hours before the event, vying to get in. Vegan and vegetarian-friendly fare keeps the crowd diverse.
And if your idea of a hotel bar is a place where you just kill time, you haven't checked out Washington's fashionable options. The W's P.O.V. Lounge, just two blocks from the White House, offers postcard-worthy views of the monuments and some of the tastiest (and most expensive) drinks in the city. At the Four Seasons, located on the edge of Georgetown, the New York transplant Bourbon Steak has turned its sleek bar into a cocktail destination that attracts local businessmen and professional athletes alike. (The restaurant itself draws some serious star power, including Oprah, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson.)
From the Duke Ellington era to the present day, Washington has been a hotspot for jazz. Blues Alley is the beating heart. Its stage has featured Miles Davis, Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Marsalis and a galaxy of all-stars, and the tiny candlelit room seems more like Hollywood's idea of the perfect jazz club. Up-and-comers play at more intimate spots, including Twins Jazz and U-Topia on U Street, or the popular open mikes at HR-57 on 14th.
For live hip-hop and neo-soul shows, keep an eye on Liv, the concert venue above the historic Bohemian Caverns jazz club. While the Caverns has slipped since the days when Thelonious Monk performed there, the upstairs space brings in musicians and DJs who are close to the cutting edge.
Washington's theater scene is quickly becoming one of national repute, thanks to its eagerness to embrace works by edgy young playwrights of color. Studio Theatre scored big when it celebrated the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and it continues to produce hits by rising stars, including Stew (Passing Strange) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water). Woolly Mammoth Theatre brought Washington audiences Eclipsed and Into the Continuum, both of which artfully illuminate the issues facing black women here and abroad; it has also embraced the work of black gay playwright Robert O'Hara.
You'd be remiss if you visited Washington only for its night life and dining. We are, in many ways, still a town of monuments and museums, though there is new life there, too. After decades of doubt and indecision, a $120 million memorial for Martin Luther King is under construction on the Mall and slated to open in 2011. (The statue of King, which will rest on the edge of the Tidal Basin, will be larger than the one of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.)
For now, however, it's still a humbling experience to climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the spot — marked with an astonishingly modest plaque — where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech and look out over the Washington landscape, as he might have done.
Make a visit, too, to the small National Museum of African Art, which was recently gifted more than 500 pieces of African art from Disney, which it folded into a must-see exhibition, "African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection," with many fabled works that had long been removed from public view.
If you have time to venture out of the city, the town of Sandy Spring in the Maryland suburbs is a place to find local stretches of the Underground Railroad. Free blacks and Quakers populated the town in the 1800s and helped escaped slaves navigate the area's woods. Today, from spring through fall, guided hikes of the terrain, dubbed the Underground Railroad Experience Trail, are offered to give visitors a bird's-eye view of life in that era.
Where New York and Las Vegas may offer all-night fun, Washington is a city in which ethnic and racial diversity affect — and illuminate — every facet of cultural life. After decades of blight and segregation, it's on the rise, and that's why the District is worth visiting again and again.
Lavanya Ramanathan and Fritz Hahn cover arts, entertainment and night life for The Washington Post. Their work and more about visiting Washington can be found in the Going Out Guide.