Neighbourhood spots in the nation's capital
The Eastern Markets: artisan cheeses share shelves with organic produce. (Jason Colston/LPI)
The bouncer and the chef at Meridian Pint (2400 11th St, NW), a Washington DC bar that opened just in time for what is, perhaps, this city’s seminal holiday – July 4th – passed cigarettes between each other and offered one to a patron.
"Thanks man," the customer said, lighting up under the street lamp at 11th and Park Rd, NW. He had just been enjoying quality microbrew while sitting at a basement table with its own automated taps. "That was some good food. I'll be back. I live just around the corner."
"Come back," the chef bellowed. "You're our neighbour. This is a neighbourhood place."
That sort of exchange - one of community camaraderie, rather than political innuendo - is not one people expect to hear in Washington DC, a city known more for monuments and memorials than mellow corner bars. But lately it seems to pop up with more frequency, adding a new layer of enjoyment to visiting this dynamic town.
Clocking in at 220 years old, Washington DC is one of America's older cities; and like many towns of her age, there is a sense of tradition here. But for anyone casually visiting, that legacy felt grander and more encompassing of the American narrative than neighbourhood centric. According to the Pew Research Center, DC is a city with a lot of "magnet" power and low "stickiness." In other words, lots of people move here - for a bit - before uprooting.
A new class of business is fighting that trend. Bars like Meridian Pint are trying to be the local drinking hole for a city that supposedly has no locals. Many of these spots are in places like Columbia Heights (where Meridian Pint is located), the U Street Corridor, Logan Circle and the area around the convention centre, once ignored by highly-educated professionals who demand good food, nightlife, arts and all the other things that make city life worth living.
Now these 'hoods are overlaid by a floating skein of twenty- to forty-somethings. Some opt for flashy new bars like ChurchKey (1337 14th St NW), which serves beers from around the country and gourmet paninis; some go for hipster-focused dives like the Looking Glass Lounge (3634 Georgia Ave) where $5 gets you a can of Schlitz and a shot of Jim Beam. All of these places could not exist without a dedicated local customer base that seems to put paid to DC's transience brand.
Bonus: A) as more people call DC home, the more new hot spots open up, and B) these bars and restaurants cannot retain their customer base by being sloppy. A new standard has been set in boozing and dining quality, as evidenced by sweet embellishments to existing spots like the straight-out-of Tuscany bocce courtyard that has been added to the back of U Street wine bar Vinoteca (1940 11th St NW)
There are some areas where the almost weekly spate of bar and restaurant openings speaks to the lack of true neighbourhood institutions in "new" DC. "New" is a loaded term - people lived in the neighbourhoods we mentioned pre-gentrification. There are still old school epicurean gathering spots that double as focal points for the city's iconic neighbourhoods, but even these places have largely modernized to accommodate the tastes of folks who enjoy slow food and quality booze. Take Eastern Market, in Capitol Hill. Once a gray-ish, functional agricultural exchange, now artesian cheeses share shelf space with organic produce and local arts and crafts.
Washington's character has changed with huge new influxes of folks seeking to make this town home. They may have moved to DC from somewhere else, but today, many sport the two bars and three stars flag tattoo of the city. As new as it is, Meridian Pint is a neighbourhood bar - for a new neighbourhood. Because that is what DC is becoming. A new neighbourhood, where the young and motivated and talented are the kids next door.