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New Restaurants and Bars Along 11th Street in Upper Columbia Heights Are Signs of Neighborhood Gentrification

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Last month saw the opening of Maple and The Coupe, two new restaurants at the north end of a burgeoning commercial strip in the northeastern section of Columbia Heights — on 11th Street between Irving and Monroe Streets. In a growth pattern remarkably different from that of usual Washington gentrification patterns, this commercial revitalization has capitalized on long-standing traditions in this well-established neighborhood, including the original phenomenon of small businesses being created on one or both sides of wide streets and avenues that once had street car lines. 14th Street’s is the best known, while the 11th Street line was also one of those early 20th century electric car trolley lines; it terminated in a turnaround at Monroe and 11th Streets. This trolley turnaround is now an attractive children’s park on the northwest corner of that intersection and serves to anchor the north end of this commercial strip.

The south end’s anchor is provided by a large and constantly active playing field at the Harriet Tubman elementary school on the west side of 11th stretching the entire block between Irving and Kenyon Streets. In effect a park and playing field resource for the entire community, it sits on what was a lively commercial block prior to the 1960s riots occurring after the assassination of Martin Luther

King, Jr. in 1968 and the white flight following DC school desegregation in that same era. A form of urban renewal brought the community the Tubman school playing field on this site where one and two-story commercial structures on 11th and two and three-story Victorian row houses on Kenyon and Irving Streets once stood, and the development of the upper Columbia Heights 14th Street big box USA Center and its surrounding new apartment buildings have more recently brought the people.

Maple and The Coupe join eight other restaurant/bars in this fascinating neighborhood strip, beginning with its southernmost neighbor, The Wonderland Ballroom, which dates from only 2004 but which occupies one of the best known Washington restaurant/bar venues — that of the former Knob Hill which was one of the earliest gay bars for African-Americans in the entire U.S. and probably the earliest gay bar of any categorization in the District. Its location at Kenyon and 11th Streets was no accident; segregation prior to the 1950s was rigidly enforced by race-restrictive covenants on real property throughout the District; in this part of Columbia Heights, 13th Street was the dividing line — African-American, or in the expression of that era, “colored,” owners and residents to the east of that street and whites to the west.

The Wonderland Ballroom bought the property in 2004, significantly expanded its outdoor presence, and initiated a continuation of the venue as a locally owned and operated bar and restaurant, with nighttime dancing, entertainment, and a host of community activities — from packed Monday night trivia contests to monthly fundraisers for nearby nonprofit and community organizations, such as a recent one for the Lime Lite Boxing and Fitness gymnasium and its celebration of a 30-minute documentary film about the organization. Local bands and recording labels are featured on live entertainment nights — and always, lots of dancing. A full menu is provided and food is said to be remarkably tasty for that of relatively straight-forward bar fare, especially the skillet dishes served for weekend brunches. My favorite is the all-vegetarian one.

Following Wonderland in this same decade was RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria, known throughout the District for its Neapolitan pizza — thin crusts with scrumptious toppings — cooked in an Italian wood-fired oven. Its devotees range from Supreme Court justices to newly arrived temporary office workers who swarm the two-level indoor and large outdoor deck seating (in good weather) on both weekends and weeknights. [Ed. Note: shortly following its opening four years ago we published a positive review of the then new establishment. See “Reservations Recommended,” InTowner, Jan. 2008, issue PDF page 15 issue PDF; http://tinyurl.com/bbpulpz.]

RedRocks occupies a wonderfully eclectic large Victorian structure at Park Road and 11th Street where it is rumored that earlier in the 20th century Odessa Madre, DC’s version of Al Capone, operated one of her famous bordellos. Diagonally across the intersection from RedRocks is the high-tech, state of the art brew pub Meridian Pint, with two levels of restaurant seating, windows onto the street on the upper level, and a sports bar with large plasma screens on the lower level. A full menu, which gets high marks from its Yelp reporting patrons, and one of the largest DC selections of craft beers, both domestic and imported, has established Meridian Pint, along with RedRocks, as the anchors of this intersection.

Between Wonderland and this busy intersection are two very different favorites of the neighbors, both nearby and from farther afield — Room 11, a gourmet wine bar and restaurant with food consistently praised as outstanding and which is now in the process of expanding into a larger, adjacent space, and El Chucho Concina Superior and whose Mexican cuisine is highly regarded by its patrons.

Room 11, is among the most expensive of the new 11th street establishments, and the portions of its Sunday brunch menu offerings are for delicate eaters — heavenly to the taste but tiny in size together with a wine selection that is also consistently praised but not for price. A small menu for its inside, evening dining is planned for expansion along with its new space, once the District issues its final permits.

El Chucho, a small in size but robust in personality establishment across the street, offers a terrific array of tapas and shared Mexican food dishes with a full bar and cleverly concocted soft drink cocktails. Its tacos are among the best I’ve ever had — and I grew up in South Texas — and the coconut-based non-alcoholic drink I was served was in every way superior. My favorite (so far) tacos are the vegetarian, which are deep-fried slices of zucchini dressed with a remarkable black garlic sauce, and the strip steak — crunchy, chewy meat adorned with a green sauce made of avocado, jalapeno, cilantro, and, said the server, “anything else in the kitchen that’s green.” Its prices are modest and its portions are ample.

And beyond these two venues is probably the most interesting of the 11th Street establishments, namely, K.B.C., the Kangaroo Boxing Club, a restaurant/bar with an hilarious back story for its name. What’s made it a great hit with the community, however, is its outstanding American food — for example, classic pulled pork and chicken barbecue, extraordinary southern-style Johnny Cakes, and maybe the best collard greens in town, together with the attractiveness of its interior. It is truly a neighborhood bar with a classic bistro-style menu along with the warmth and engaging manner of its staff — a characteristic of nearly all of these 11th Street establishments.

Immediately nearby are the new restaurants on the block, The Coupe and Maple, both at the far north end of the 11th Street strip, with The Coupe on the corner of Park Road and Monroe Street and Maple across the street and one house down from Monroe Street.

The food at Maple is extraordinary, if my November experience is characteristic of its day-in and day-out fare. Appetizers I sampled among the bruschettas included one featuring anchovies atop cannelloni beans dressed with a flavorful light sauce, and one combining prosciutto di parma, a fig spread, and gorgonzola dolce. For an entrée I tried the house made gnocchi topped with a fresh basil pesto and lightly garnished with freshly grated parmesan cheese; a large portion of this heavenly dish was served and every bit was consumed. While expensive, it was a memorable Maples meal in a warm and cozy, handsome small restaurant environment, pleasantly packed with patrons sampling both the food and Maple’s highly touted wine selection.

The centerpiece of the Maple’s cleverly designed interior is the most striking piece of jagged tiger maple wood I’ve ever seen. Carved from a salvaged tree that had fallen into a Pennsylvania bog, so I was informed by a member of the staff, the wood provides the restaurant’s long bar focal point.

Dining at The Coupe, obviously a work in progress, was, however, a very different experience. The coffee and cherry almond muffin I was served were excellent, as I fully expected from my experience with The Coupe’s sister establishments, especially Tryst in Adams Morgan. I was actually there for a Monday late lunch, my two earlier ventures to The Coupe were on full-house occasions; there are now too many good restaurants in the area to bother with extraordinary waits for a table at any one of them, especially since I’ve learned that “waits for tables” are often inexplicably long at The Coupe. And, as I was unfortunately to further learn, items on the lengthy printed menu are often not available — for example, the sandwich I spotted. Moreover, the daily special, which I attempted to order, is, together with appetizers and entrées on the menu, only available after 5 p.m. I settled for the delicious cherry/almond muffin, my first choice, the flower blossom muffin, also not being available.

The Coupe presents a dramatic, long narrow interior restaurant space which faces handsomely designed projecting window bays along its 11th Street frontage, completed by its ‘L’-shaped base enveloping a full service bar facing elevated seating that is backed by the brick wall adjacent to the alley behind the condominium apartment building in which The Coupe is located. Modernist hotel-style restaurant furniture, fixtures, and lighting is interspersed with several “lounge” spaces furnished with what appears to be recycled Florida-style motel furniture; it provides interrupting space to walk through when being seated at the ordinary booths, tables, and counter spaces of the restaurant. A single, nine-seat “community table” is located at one end of the establishment, and a small lounge area, complete with dart board, is situated at the end of the formal bar. This approximate 7,000 square-foot, 200-seat capacity restaurant is open 24 hours, seven days a week, and offers breakfast around the clock.

Also directly across from The Coupe is the oldest sit-down restaurant on the strip, Columbia Heights Coffee, a small, family owned and operated coffee shop, with delicious coffee and tea drinks and a very limited menu of food and pastries. Like The Coupe, it offers free wi-fi. Its graciousness and long-standing business presence in DC –- for 13 years prior to coming to Columbia Heights it was located downtown in the Woodward Building – is evident within its shop in the most welcoming manner imaginable. The proprietor’s comment to this reporter when asked about how he reacted to the opening of The Coupe was simply that of “hoping that the new business being attracted to the block will benefit both . . . enabling [his shop] not to be run out of business.”

Washington’s Hispanic baker, El Latino Bakery, is also located in this section of 11th Street. The fragrance and aroma of its baking is an added pleasure to those walking the strip during baking hours.

The two carryout establishments in this stretch of 11th Street were not included in this review; one of them, however, El Rinconcito Deportivo received a four out of five stars rating from Yelp. The second, the Grand China carryout was not rated.

Other Yelp rankings are the following: at four stars, Maple, K.B.C., Meridian Pint, Room 11, and Columbia Heights Coffee; at three-and-a-half stars, RedRocks, El Chucho, and Wonderland Ballroom; and at three stars, The Coupe. The written comments posted from Yelp’s hundreds of 11th Street strip restaurant/bar patrons are fascinating to read — thoughtful, informative, and very direct.