Walking along Washington DC’s 14th Street today, with its luxury condos and trendy restaurants, there are few signs of its checkered past. Fourteenth Street was a prominent shopping district in the mid-50s, and has always served as a major transportation corridor, carrying people through the city and over the Potomac via the 14th Street bridge.
Things changed suddenly in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was the center of the ensuing riots that destroyed over a thousand buildings, many of which remained empty for decades. Residents left the city for the suburbs and the void was filled in the 1980’s by strip clubs, drug dealers and prostitution. This red light district is the 14th Street that I remember from my college years. We just didn’t go there.
The area started turning around with rising property values and the opening of Whole Foods on 14th and P in 2000. Development projects have added over a thousand residential units and new retail spaces. Between 2012 and 2013, twenty four new restaurants opened between Florida and Rhode Island Avenues, as shown in this Washington Post article that shows great before and after photos down the new 14th Street.
The closest Metro stop is the U Street Station on the Yellow/Green lines, but we decided to get off at Dupont Circle on the Red Line. The walk through the Dupont Circle and Logan Circle neighborhoods is lined with beautiful Victorian rowhouses from the late 19th century. We took New Hampshire Ave to Q Street and then wove our way through the neighborhood toward 14th Street and our first destination, which we’d been looking forward to for a long time.
I’m so happy that Stephen Starr decided to expand his restaurant group to DC. Starr owns over 30 restaurants in Philly, New York, Atlantic City, Florida, and now DC with the opening of Le Diplomate in 2013. Just being at Le Diplomate was enough to make me smile, conjuring memories of trips to Paris. Looking around at the spectacular décor, there was little evidence of the dilapidated laundromat that used to occupy this building. That’s because Starr invested $6.5 million to transform the space, importing the curved zinc bar from France along with tables, chairs, antiques and other adornments, as he revealed to Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post. This attention to detail lends an authenticity to the French bistro experience.
Le Diplomate quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in town, hosting politicians, diplomats, and local celebrities. Therefore, it can be a challenge to find space at the cozy bar, particularly on the weekend. This time we planned to arrive just after brunch and were rewarded with two seats at one of the tall tables next to the bar.
Everyone raves about the mushroom tart, but we ordered the dish that defines French food for us – the Steak Tartare. The tartare was exactly as I wanted it to be: fresh filet mignon that was hand chopped to a silky consistency with briny flavors of capers and cornichons and just the right amount of spice from Dijon mustard. It was beautifully presented with a quail egg on top. The three slices of toasted baquette went fast, but it was easy enough to request more with the very attentive service we received, despite not having a dedicated server at the bar table.
The wine list has some lovely selections of French wine by the glass that pair well with the food. We went with two glasses of the Saint Cosme Cotes Du Rhone. This Syrah based southern Rhone wine provided the perfect flavors and textures to compliment the tartare.
Tartare mission accomplished; we’ll be back for that mushroom tart.
Barcelona Wine Bar
Much as Le Diplomate reminded me of places I had been, Barcelona Wine Bar invokes visions of a place that I very much want to visit. Barcelona now has nine restaurants along the East Coast. Co-founders Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer opened their first restaurant in Connecticut in 1996 to reproduce the tapas bars that they fell in love with while living in Spain. Although this is a restaurant chain, each chef has the freedom to add their own creations to the core menu, allowing for fresh local produce and specialties to be incorporated.
We walked past the brave souls on the patio, swaddled under faux fur blankets on a mid-February afternoon, and headed inside to the bar. We preferred to overlook the patio through the large wall of windows while enjoying the attention of the friendly bartenders. We love this place for weekend days because they serve a large selection of traditional Spanish tapas in addition to the brunch menu. This time we went with the Grilled Hanger Steak, which was a fairly large strip of tender steak grilled to medium-rare, sliced thin and topped with a luscious black truffle vinaigrette.
The bartenders here are very knowledgeable about their extensive selection of Spanish wines and are happy to help you choose the right wine for your meal. The hanger steak is a flavorful dish that requires a robust red wine so we chose one from the Montsant region of Spain which is located an hour or so south of Barcelona. Montsant wines are typically full-bodied red blends similar in style to their more well known and pricy neighbor Priorat. We had the 2007 Laurona which is Garnacha (Grenache) based with a little Cariñena, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah thrown in for good measure.
We recently discovered the pleasure of sipping vermouth, which is a very popular way to spend afternoons in Spain. Not ready to leave our spot just yet, we took some extra time for a glass of vermouth, or Un Vermut on the menu. The Casa Manol Vermut Negre is served simply over ice with a twist of orange peel that complements the notes of cinnamon in this fragrant vermouth. Warmed through by the drink, we were ready to head back out.
Just a short walk north, Doi Moi is a bright spot on the street. This was the third restaurant venture for restaurateur Mark Kuller and Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio. The focus here is Southeast Asian food, especially Vietnamese and Thai. The name Doi Moi, a term which means innovation and renovation in Vietnamese, also refers to economic reforms initiated in Vietnam in 1986. It appropriately reflects the renewal currently taking place in Logan Circle and along 14th street.
The atmosphere was open, airy, sleek, and modern – an interesting contrast to the other spots we visited on this crawl. After two red meat dishes, we lightened things up with the Phla Hơi Chell: Sliced Raw Scallops dressed with lime, chilies, lemongrass, cilantro, shallot and crispy garlic. The crunch of the garlic added nice texture to the velvety scallops and every bite was laced with the fiery heat of the chilies.
The wine list was uniquely interesting for a Southeast Asian restaurant, but that’s not surprising given that the bar manager and wine director are the same team responsible for the stellar wine programs at Proof and Estadio. We selected a vibrant Chenin Blanc, Badenhorst “Secateurs” hailing from the Western Cape of South Africa. This beautifully fragrant white wine, with its citrusy flavors of lemon peel and grapefruit was a perfect match to our scallops.
Owner Mike Benson was one of the forerunners in the redevelopment of 14th Street, first opening Café Saint-Ex in 2003 and then its sister restaurant, Bar Pilar, in 2005. Bar Pilar was supposed to be the more casual sibling, serving comfort food in a bar atmosphere. Former Chef Justin Bittner and current Chef Jesse Miller took the restaurant to a new level with their innovative, locally sourced cuisine.
When we first walked through the door of Bar Pilar, it looked like an average hole-in-the-wall bar, but we didn’t let that discourage us. Once inside, it was very comfortable and welcoming. The Hemingway inspired bar is named after the author’s boat, Pilar, and is decorated in a subtle nautical theme.
The focus is on seasonal ingredients, so the menu changes frequently. We were pleasantly surprised by the creative variety of small plates offered and many of them peaked our interest. Rabbit was calling out to us from three different dishes on the menu, so we selected the Benton’s Bacon Wrapped Rabbit Terrine. The intense smokiness of the bacon dominated the terrine, which we really enjoyed, but it required a wine change.
We had started with a glass of Chenin Blanc thinking it would go well with the rabbit, but once we tasted the bold flavor of the bacon, we switched to red wine. The Casa Mariol Samso Crianca from Spain made from the Carinena grape and aged 16 months in American oak barrels matched the flavors of the terrine perfectly.
We ended our evening with a drink at The Gibson, a speakeasy club named for Elsworth Gibson, a local jazz legend who was the house band leader at the Eighteenth Street Lounge. Restaurateur Eric Hilton (half of the music duo Thievery Corporation) co-owns the Eighteenth Street Lounge, Marvin and numerous other spots around DC, with his brother Ian Hilton. They opened The Gibson in 2008.
This place is hard to find, as I guess a speakeasy should be. There is an unmarked black door near the corner of 14th and U Streets just next to Marvin. Behind that door is a doorman with a list. If you don’t have a reservation – not on the list – he will let you know if there is room for you. There is a no standing policy at the bar, so you may have to wait for space to open. You can give him your name and phone number, and he will call or text you when your seats are ready. The bar opens daily at 6:00pm so we planned to be there shortly after opening to improve our chances.
There are bar snacks available – olives, nuts, grilled cheese sandwiches. But we didn’t come here to eat. We came here to drink and relax. The interior décor is dark wood and candle-light, just the right scene to set the mood for a cocktail. There is a list of creative takes on classic cocktails, but the bartenders here are masters of the craft and are always up to the challenge of mixing you a custom drink. Just tell them what you are in the mood for – herbal, smokey, sweet, fizzy – whatever you like. Having already made enough decisions for the day, we decided to go off menu…
There are so many restaurants along this stretch of 14th Street that you could easily design dozens of different restaurant crawls to suit your mood or tastes. These are our favorites…so far.
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