Over the last two years, flashy new bars, restaurants, and nightclubs have opened for commerce in the Atlas area. However, the target consumer has a right to be extremely skeptical of these establishments. First off, there is neither a close-by Metro station nor a parking lot; exacerbating this is the street’s contemporary reputation as a “dangerous place” or “crime corridor” (both Washington Post quotes). (Perhaps you have even heard of the handicapped man assaulted for a winning lottery ticket in ‘04? Or Nationals outfielder Jose Guillen’s g.f. being robbed in broad daylight this May? Both occurred in the heart of the Atlas District.) Or maybe hipsters feel less fear than guilt – of living it up in a modern culture-conflict zone, replete with its own outdoor-party battles and chicken-wing wars. This writer’s biggest worry is the area’s kitchiness – nautical- and carnival-themed bars?
To evaluate the A.D. (never too soon to create a folk nickname, is it?), I’ve enlisted Beatbots’ Resident Wiseguy Patrick Vail, Food-Tester Christie Church, Fashion and Etiquette correspondent Jeff Kozlowicki, and Socialite Beau Finley. We assembled on H Street one recent September evening, and the results are listed below.
The evening began with dinner at the Argonaut (1433 H St. NE).
It is difficult to say what The Argonaut wants to be. The small restaurant and bar sports a pirate-themed menu, a disco soundtrack, a single pool table in the center of the dining room, and local news on the big-screen TV. The food is more cohesive: hearty sandwiches and platters, as well as a modest array of bar food. Build your own sandwich from an interesting and offbeat selection of ingredients (fried green tomatoes, Fuji apples) or opt for one of The Argonaut’s offerings. A sugary pulled-pork sandwich with sweet potato fries was a winner, as was a vegetarian mushroom burger. There were some missteps: the house beer tastes as if someone squeezed crates of old lemons into a vat of perfectly fine ale, and be forewarned if you, like a certain member of our party, prefer your greens sans vinegar. If you find yourself on H Street too early for a show, The Argonaut offers decent options for fueling up. So far, though, nothing here warrants coming out for its own sake.
Lining our stomachs with pirate-themed grub means it’s time for boozing. So, after dining, we rendezvoused with Mr. Finley at the Red and the Black (1212 H St. NE).
The Red and the Black. I know nothing about this bar going in. It's crowded and, judging from the clientele, too trendy for me. I've never seen so many white people in one place in D.C. without knowing a single one. My friend Zach drove, so that means I get to sample the brews. No draught beers? This is a bar, right? It's narrow, but not too cramped with good lighting. Oh no: hipsters. I guess that means we fit in? A band in sportcoats walks in and I get a toe stepped on - not cool. Zach wants to stab the wayward musician interfering with our drinking. We gulp fast because we know there's a bar next door we need to evaluate and this place, though rapidly losing its patrons to the concert upstairs, sure isn't worth sticking around in, because journalistic integrity = growing thirst for beer.
While our party shared Beau’s sentiments for the most part, the Red & Black, at the least, has relatively fair drink prices and a promising schedule for live music. (It has already hosted the likes of Retisonic and Travis Morrison). As Beau alluded, the Palace of Wonders (1210 H St. NE) lies next door to the R&B.
The Beatbots crew can be something of a freak show, so we felt right at home at Palace of Wonders, a turn-of-the-century freak show-themed bar. There's nothing on draught here--bottles only--but the bartender swallows swords for tips, and you can ask for salty popcorn or a microwaved corn dog with your order. Inside, check out the glass cases filled with various taxidermied freaks of nature (most notably, a unicorn and a two-headed cow) along with various vaudeville-era sideshow props, or head to the stage and catch a magic show or a burlesque routine. Aside from the museum pieces, exposed brick and blond pine, soft yellow lighting and lush, velvet curtains give Palace of Wonders a warm, inviting feel.
Outside on the patio, lounge on carousel seating or sit on the benches that run along the high privacy fence and cozy up to Al, the resident feline. While the lack of draught beer is puzzling, and the gimmicky kitsch can feel overdone at times, Palace of Wonders is worth more than the sum of its pickled, mutated, stuffed, conjoined, bearded parts.
If Jeff Kozlowicki were to construct a bar to match all of his dreams, the result would be the Palace of Wonders. Perhaps this dreamlike atmosphere led Jeff and his own Friday night cadre to walk directly past ours without noticing. Or, maybe it was because we left mere minutes before he arrived. As our night wound down, his had just begun, and would eventually culminate with a nightcap at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel (1353 H St., NE).
The entryway’s creaky ticket window and stained glass light monstrosity would feel more at home at a chic Art Deco apartment building, but they should not turn off would-be rockers from destiny. The spirit of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel comes through loud and clear as soon as the music starts. Past the ticket-seller and through thick doors, the performance area is substantial and open, ready to be flooded with the aural delicacy of the evening. The disco ball shines proudly, expecting the parade of good-timers ready to boogie or slam as the dance-oriented calendar sends waves onto the floor below.
The upstairs bar area, with pool tables, high ceilings, and a cloud of smoke, resembles several of the great dives of San Francisco’s Mission District. The busy bartenders quickly sling drinks to the queued hipsters as the thunderous music flattens even the hardiest eardrums. The screeching metal and classic hard rock provide the perfect soundtrack for a hazy evening of conscious but not self-conscious cool, helped by the fashion-neutralizing dim of the red overhead lighting. Even with the conscious hipster conceit behind it all, the upstairs screams rock ‘n’ roll.
A hallway leading to bathrooms that ache for obscene graffiti holds two long rooms that give the Hotel its name. Knowing winks decorate each room: Alice Cooper as the Chief Executive make one room’s edgily drab furnishings into a presidential suite while the other room’s Addams Family couches are rounded out by cartoon bleeding walls. A former funeral home, the Rock and Roll Hotel promises to revive the oft-disturbed corpse of rock ‘n’ roll through a brisk program of good shows, strong drinks, and a non-exclusive attitude.
So, did the Atlas District live up to its hype, or sink like buried treasure and handcuffed Harry Houdini? The answer is in between. While H Street fell flat compared to its fabricated image as bohemian Valhalla, good times were had by all. If, by chance, you live or work near Capitol Hill and use a car, H Street will surely host great Happy Hours in your future. The Palace of Wonders, if it does not become overcrowded, will be a great destination by itself. And the existing bars will be great places to visit before catching live music.
A church on H Street carries a banner reading “Revival is Here.” I’m not sure if the sign refers to the economic redevelopment of the “Atlas District” (more likely it cites Jesus himself); in fact, local parishioners may feel threatened by the new scene. But debates of authenticity and urban renewal can be set aside for a night if you can find salvation in booze and rock music.
A Note on Transportation:
The seemingly remote location need not deter even the less adventurous. H Street is well served by the X2 Metrobus line http://wmata.com/timetables/dc/X2.pdf , which will cheaply carry you from Chinatown in less than ten minutes and from Metro Center in less than 15. Once on H Street, walking alone feels creepy after dark, but the bars and clubs are not far from each other. The X2 runs late and will serve you to connecting buses after the Metro closes. For the moment, the merchants offer a for-tips courtesy shuttle in the form of a nice guy in a hybrid car. When I missed the bus at 2am, I found myself sharing secrets and seats in the ‘shuttle’ rather than standing on the side of the street waiting for an overpriced cab. Suck it up and give yourself the chance to enjoy new fun bars.