October 31, 2012, Washington, DC: Tammy Gordon has spent the last year and a half as a first-time homeowner in Cleveland Park getting to know the neighborhood in the manner she knows best: By befriending its bakers, baristas and waiters, by sampling its baked goods, and by sipping its specialty cocktails. Though I lived just a neighborhood away from Cleveland Park for several years, I recently saw this stretch of Connecticut Ave. from a new perspective during a walking tour/interview/happy hour with its friendly resident food blogger. In doing so, I learned an important lesson: If you want to get a feel for a place, take a walk with someone who loves to eat there.
You’re so passionate about the relationship between place and food. How did it start?
When I was living in Dupont Circle, I fell in love with the farmers market down there. I found myself more and more buying my groceries at the farmers market. I was never much of a cook — I tended to go out and eat at happy hour more often than eating in — so I would end up buying all of these vegetables that would look gorgeous and that I’d take pictures of and they’d sit on my counter and rot.
I started to sort of aimlessly tweet as I was walking through the market. I’d be like, ‘This is what’s at the market. I don’t even know what this is. What do I do with this?’ And people would tweet me back and send me recipes, so by the time I got home I would have like ten links to different recipes to try. So my idea was that instead of buying ten beautiful pieces of vegetables or meat to rot on my counter and not cook all week because I’d go to happy hour, I’d stay in at least two nights a week and I’d learn to cook one new thing each week and I’d blog about it on Florida Girl in DC. I’ve learned so much since about cooking and where my food comes from and the restaurant scene in the city. I’ve gotten to know so many people.
How does the restaurant scene in Cleveland Park stack up compared to the rest of DC?
I think the neighborhood’s really gotten lucky over the past year or so because so many great restaurants have opened. It’s always been a great neighborhood restaurant place — Dino’s been here for about eight years, and Ardeo Bardeo just did a fantastic renovation of their space and is doing better than ever. And it’s also a local sourced neighborhood haven. You have Ardeo and Ripple and Dino and Palena that are all really into keeping everything seasonal and keeping everything well-sourced, so I feel like I have a great rotation all the time. But then if you want a great dive bar, there’s Atomic Billiards or Nanny O’Briens. It’s one of those neighborhoods where it feels like you’re a little bit removed form the city, and it’s more chill, and you have dogs and trees and parks, but at the same time you have some of the best restaurants and that bar feel just up the street.
I do think it’s a challenging neighborhood sometimes for restaurants because you have so many people that are either new to the city or working on Capitol Hill that are in the condos, you have families with young kids, and you have people who’ve been here for 50 years. Sometimes it’s hard to characterize. The restaurant community has to serve a lot of different types of customers and I think that can be hard sometimes.
I’ve been really happy with Medium Rare coming in, Ripple, and others. Cleveland Park is sustaining a lot of restaurants and there’s a lot of competition. There’s a lot of clienteles that they serve, but they have become a really good destination neighborhood; it’s not just for people who live here.
Tell me about some of your neighborhood restaurants.
Palena: This is my favorite on the weekends. Palena is fantastic. They have the fancy side of the restaurant, the cafe side and the market. Chef Frank Ruta used to be the White House chef. If you can make it there by 10 am on the weekend, you can get fresh donut holes, but they go fast! They also have baked goods like lemon strawberry croissants, peach crumb bars and lemon pound cake.
St. Arnold’s: That’s been a really great place. It opened in January. Prior to St. Arnold’s, the space had an always-empty tapas restaurant. But you just knew that with those roll up windows, if the right restaurant opened, it would be amazing. I’ve been there a lot this year since it’s open air, even when you’re inside. They have a great tv, they have tons of Belgian beers and great mussels. Plus, if the weather is bad they have an underground bar.
Dino: I go to Dino a lot. I love that they always do the seasonal stuff, so their menu changes all the time. The stuffed squash blossoms and the meatballs are amazing and they have the baby artichoke shipped in from the Santa Monica farmer’s market and they deep fry them. I love those. There’s a base menu of things that don’t change and he’s really good at working with the farmers from the area to see what’s seasonal and he buys that.
Ripple: Have you heard of snakehead, the invasive species in the Potomac? They’re trying to fish it out of existence but you have to be able to do something with it. The most economically viable model is to have restaurants want to cook it. I’m really passionate about it because it’s just such an interesting model: You’re putting it on the menu to make it extinct. It’s totally crazy. Anytime snakehead comes in, they feature it on the menu at Dino and Ripple. If you ever see it on the menu, get it. It’s actually a really good white fish, so it’s good fried or grilled. If you see it on the menu, it’s a deliberate attempt to get them out of the Potomac so that they don’t take over.
Sugar Magnolia: The pastry chef from Ripple opened this. They do ice cream sandwiches, gelato and packaged sandwiches, but it’s really cool because Ripple’s all built around what’s in season and what’s local, so this is the dessert twist on it. I’ve have had the berry goat cheese ice cream and the sweet corn ice cream, the waffles and bacon ice cream sandwiches. Last time I had the strawberry lavender one.
Firehook: Firehook is kind of the only coffee place in the neighborhood. They’ve got this secret back patio. When I moved here, I didn’t know this was here. People would say, meet me at Firehook on the patio and I had no idea. It has Wifi, it’s dog friendly, kids can run around and it’s all covered so it’s not extremely hot, and I actually live right behind here so it’s easy.
Uptown Tap House: The old 4 P’s closed and Uptown Tap House is just opened. It’s aiming to be an American gastro pub kind of like Clydes. It’s a good spot for sliders and beers while you watch football on the outdoor patio.
Medium Rare: This may be my favorite new place in the neighborhood. Medium Rare. It’s crazy because it’s only pretty much only steak on the menu. It’s $19.95, it’s three courses. It’s one of those places that’s really simple if you have a lot of people. When you first arrive, they bring out bread, then a salad course, then they do steak and you get an option of seconds. All for $19.95. It’s a great deal.
They did an amazing job with the space. Even though I’m not a huge steak eater, it’s got a great patio and the brunch and the desserts are great. I tend to show up for a drink because I think the bar is cute and small; especially for fall, it’s super cozy. For brunch, they do egg frites and the same riff that they do on steak frites that they do at dinner. And I think they have best french toast in town. Let’s pop in for a glass of wine.
You’ve lived in so many neighborhoods. What made you decide to buy in Cleveland Park?
I’ve lived on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown, in Dupont Circle twice, maybe three times, in Del Ray in Virginia. I’ve bounced in all of these different neighborhoods and I ended up buying here, which wasn’t even on my radar when I started looking. But it’s been a great neighborhood. It’s super easy too cause I work in Penn Quarter. It’s faster to Metro than it is to drive.
I started out looking for a two bedroom closer to 14th St., Columbia Heights, because I wanted to be close and be able to walk to a bunch of things. I wanted to try to get a little bit more house than I needed and to find someplace that I could live in for awhile. At the time, I had just got my dog and I started thinking a lot about taking him for a walk at 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night. So I started to ask myself, Do I really need that much space? I scaled back to a one bedroom and started looking in variety of different neighborhoods. I fell in love with my place as soon as I saw it — fantastic light and windows, great kitchen, lots of closet space, a parking spot, and it backs up onto woods behind me. It all feel into place. There were four million reasons the deal shouldn’t have gone through, it was all kinds of complicated, and it all fell into place in the end.
Has it been easy to meet your neighbors?
I love my neighbors and having the dog makes me meet so many more people than I ever did before. You start seeing the same faces. And I definitely spend a lot of time in the neighborhood. If I go out straight from work, I’ll go out anywhere in the city, but if I come home, I’ll usually stay home. Dino, St. Arnolds and Palena are all really good about having dog-friendly patios, so a lot of times I think, I can’t go out tonight, but then I realize I can.
What are your favorite DC restaurants beyond Cleveland Park?
My favorites have evolved and changed over the years. When I first moved here, I lived at Johnny’s Half Shell when it was in Dupont Circle. Johnny’s still a friend. I still go visit him out of nostalgia’s sake. These days, I’m loving Toki Underground on H St. It’s different. it’s small, it’s got a crazy wait, but you go and have cocktails somewhere else and put your name on the list. I’ve been a sucker for Bourbon Steak for awhile. More than sitting in the restaurant, I love their bar menu. They have like eight different burgers at the bar. I’ve been really into Pearl Dive for the last year. I don’t know how I grew up in Florida and didn’t like oysters, but I’m starting to like them. I’ll go there and they’ll say, What kind do you like? And I say, I like small ones and ones that are not very gooey. I know that’s not how you order oysters, but it kind of helps. Will Artley, who used to run Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, that was my favorite restaurant when I lived there, just became the chef of a place in Falls Church called Pizzeria Orso. I had a really fantastic meal there and I recently wrote about it.
What makes DC so compelling to you right now?
People are being really creative here and looking for different interesting ways to build neighborhoods and community. I think there’s an awareness of building neighborhoods and building community that maybe didn’t exist for awhile.
It’s not that people didn’t love their neighborhoods in DC before, I just feel like maybe you lived in your neighborhood, but you were part of a larger DC scene. Now people are getting so into their specific neighborhood. H St. is hyper-local, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights… All these little neighborhoods have their own thing going on. It’s amazing to see all of those neighborhoods that have a core farmers market, that have a community fair, that have a listserv, that have all of these different ways for people to connect.
For more information about Washington’s restaurant scene, check out Tammy’s blog at Florida Girl in DC.
Related Posts on Neighborhood Nomads:
- Julia’s Perspective on Capitol Hill (July 20, 2012)
- A Walk Back in Time Through DC’s Chinatown (October 4, 2012)
- Shaw-Howard: Race, Gentrification and the Keys to the Corridor (August 10, 2012)
- Anacostia’s Creative Economy (July 16, 2012)
- Southwest Waterfront: Jason’s Floating Neighborhood (March 27, 2012)