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Adams Morgan Business Climate Benefiting from New Quality Retail, Services and Dining

Accompanying images can be viewed in the September 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

For neighborhood-serving commercial establishments in Adams Morgan whose business models and offerings assume patrons from both the community and the Washington area generally, tourist traffic is the canary in the mine — no sound or appearance of tourists and business will be down, sometimes fatally, depending on the strength of the respective business and its capitalization and whether or not there was some larger factor at play, such as the recently completed reconstruction of 18th Street’s roadway and sidewalks.

And the recent 18th Street project (see, “Streetscape Project Completed; Adams Morgan Celebrates the New Look,” InTowner, August 2012 issue pdf, page 1.), as necessary as it was, played just that dead canary role for many businesses. Now, however, with the completion of a beautiful new 18th Street well in place, including its handsome, wide sidewalks, new street furniture and lighting, and hopefully more realistic rental and leasing packages for potential proprietors to attract more new businesses, tourists are being sighted in the heart of Adams Morgan and proprietors are anecdotally reporting steady — in spite of 2015’s severe winter weather — and recently rising receipts.

New retail shops, restaurants, and bars are opening, or posting signage proclaiming soon to open new or expanded establishments — filling presently vacant storefronts — and existing businesses are both expanding and creating new and similar shops, restaurants, and bars.

The heart of Adams Morgan’s 18th Street commercial and nightlife strip lies between Kalorama Road and Columbia Road together with the strip’s immediate westward arm of Columbia Road to Mintwood Place; it is the focus of this report. The bustling and thriving 18th Street and Florida Avenue nucleus of successful Adams Morgan businesses, and the relatively somnambulant stretch — other than the Safeway and CVS — of Columbia Road to Mozart Place are different matters to be considered perhaps on another day.

18th Street from Kalorama Road to Columbia Road

New and expanding restaurants, bars, shops, and non-profits are the highlights in this core part of commercial 18th Street, with the newest bar being, by all accounts, the delightful, live-comedy themed “dive bar” named “High Dive,” which recently opened in the space previously occupied by Pharmacy Bar. The bar’s attractive young owners do not take themselves too seriously; they obviously enjoy the irony of “High Dive” as a name — as in high diving board — by choosing a very attractive, sleek nautical design for the bar’s interior, complete with decorative portholes, and yet emphasizing that their “dive bar” is a contrarian gesture in an age of the decline of dive bars — witness the closing of Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, a 23-year iconic Adams Morgan night spot on Columbia Road, and the recent shuttering of the popular Dr. Clock’s Nowhere [dive] bar on the second floor above Rendezvous.

High Dive’s overriding themes are comedy acts during the week and a once-a-week open mike session. Beer and several mixed drinks are the menu — no food other than bar snacks — but patrons are invited to bring their own food. For those fearful of Adams Morgan loosing its touch of “edginess,” the English basement level at the old Pharmacy Bar, which one accesses by a tiny concrete staircase, is a cave-like venue named DC Vape Joint; it is an emporium featuring electronic cigarettes and has a dusky dungeons and dragons sort of vibe that’s billed as a full service shop that includes a vape lounge.

A terrific Korean-American restaurant called BUL Korean has opened in the old, and long vacant space that once housed Lautrec. The food is delicious, especially the flavorful and chewy pork spareribs and the homemade kimchi. After dealing with a DC government bureaucrat who informed the proprietors that the painting on the building replicating the great poster by Aristide Bruant of Toulouse Lautrec and a defining historic district icon for which no competing signage would be allowed and that awnings were not allowed in the historic district, BUL seems to be working out its signage and outdoor seating problems. BUL’s food is reasonably priced, with amply sized portions that are engagingly presented; it is happily located next door to one of Adams Morgan’s favorites, the fine French bistro La Fourchette.

Across 18th street from BUL is a magnificent new bike shop called Bicycle SPACE in the old Slaviya Restaurant and Lounge location (I can remember when the building housed Cities and before that Dance Place). Its large showroom-style plate glass windows showcase an amazing array of terrific looking bikes, and the proprietors come to Adams Morgan with a great reputation for sales and service. It will become even more vital to the neighborhood if, as rumored, City Bikes decamps for larger quarters outside the neighborhood that reportedly will include space for both storage and repairs — space which City Bikes lost when the City Paper building on Champlain Street was demolished by the developers of the so-called Christian Science Church Historic Hotel building.

Also on the west side of 18th is another large space comprising storefronts formerly occupied by the notorious nightclub NY NY Diva. One storefront will be occupied by a new traditional restaurant with an ABC license — two firms are vying for the space – and the other is already taken and attractive signage in its shop windows announces the coming attraction to be a handsome adult lingerie shop. The community rejoiced at the departure of NY NY Diva when the District shut it down in October of 2014 following its numerous health department, alcoholic beverage, fire code, and disorderly conduct violations.

Also on the west side of the street, closer toward Columbia Road is Donburi, a relatively new “Japanese rice bowls” eatery in the form of a single counter diner. The food is glorious, my favorite being the barbecued eel — a scrumptious dish. The panko coated shrimp and pork dishes are also outstanding, and the food is reasonably priced — both to eat at the counter and as takeout. Donburi has now received its beer and wine license and serves Saki and Japanese beer with its food — with a two-bottle limit per customer.

Directly across the street is another outstanding and relatively new restaurant, equally successful but larger, again with very reasonably priced dishes. Its ramen offerings are exquisitely spiced — with homemade buns, dumplings, broths, together with wonderful and amply portioned pork belly entrées. Always calm and crowded — but pleasantly so — and now expanding from its cozy and well-laid out English basement level to the main floor above.

The newest restaurant entrant on 18th Street, SONGBYRD Café and Music House, is located on the first floor and a second level of the former Federal and District restaurant and nightclub — another notorious Adams Morgan night spot that lost its license. Its name celebrates the legendary Charlie Byrd, whose live performances in a earlier nightclub establishment at this location — the Showboat Lounge — electrified audiences with Byrd’s unique acoustic guitar creations that fused and inflected traditions of folk, jazz, and bossa nova. SONGBYRD is a wonderfully ambitious establishment — already providing a coffeehouse environment serving delicious sandwiches and specialty coffee drinks, and offering such intriguing services as the sale of vintage vinyl records, a live, on-site, record recording capability, and with other complementary activities in the offing.

Columbia Road to Mintwood Place

Columbia Road immediately west of 18th Street has two new restaurants and an attractive retail store of note called URBAN DWELL, which is located in a handsome storefront in the recently built-out street level floor of the Alcazar apartment building. URBAN DWELL is chock full of attractively presented soft goods, primarily of small items — totes and leather goods, gift books and calendars, candles and gadget items for home, tee-shirts and clothing for children, and lots of games. It is very child and family friendly and has reasonable prices, notwithstanding its classic upscale appearance.

Several doors west from URBAN DWELL, at the corner with Mintwood Place is an outstanding Afghan restaurant that recently succeeded Napoleon, the French restaurant from the same proprietors. They have named their new establishment named Lapis after the beautiful blue semi-precious Lapis Lazuli stone of Afghanistan. I found the food is excellent, with the first three of five appetizers on a sampling menu from which I chose an onion and potato bolani, a spinach sambosa, and a shamee kebab to be absolutely extraordinary, as was the chutney sauce and white yoghurt served with them. My main dish, the chicken kebab, was excellent, served on a seasoned skewer containing a generous portion of boneless chicken breast, all reasonably priced and graciously served.

The second of the two new restaurants, Pops Sea Bar, is closer to Columbia Road — next door to Cashion’s Eat Place, another great favorite in Adams Morgan and the parent establishment of Pops. Oysters on the half shell and a variety of shell and fin fish fill a casual and relaxed oceanfront-style seafood restaurant and raw bar. The seafood I sampled was excellent, and the platters come with generous portions of sides, especially the fries. Catfish, red snapper, and crab cakes were the most popular items among those eating around me. Prices for the fin fish platters were modest, as were the portions of fish. Pops fills a real and important niche in Adams Morgan eateries.

With new establishments such as these joining with the terrific restaurants, retail shops, and bars already present in Adams Morgan, one can easily envision a coming renaissance in eating, entertainment, and shopping throughout the neighborhood’s commercial strips.