Originally published September, 2013
Ah, Penn Quarter! On one hand, it’s more than just Chinatown; on the other hand, it’s also undeniably a made-up ethnically-neutral name for, let’s face it, Chinatown, one that city planners think is free of vaguely unsavory associations with ten dollar Tag Heuer watches and erectile dysfunction folk remedies that may or may not be made of ground-up tiger parts. It happens to be one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, but also one of the most culturally desolate, unless you think a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum followed by a twelve-dollar beer at a hotel bar is a Stimulating Night In the City ™. It has crazy potential: it also has a Fuddrucker’s. Sigh. Among the Ann Taylor Lofts and CalTorts, though, are some gems. Put in your earplugs and come, let’s explore Chinatow- er, Penn Quarter!
The best coffee shop in Penn Quarter and probably the whole city. Unlike most coffee shops, which cultivate an annoying folksy “overstuffed chairs and wall hangings from the Anthropologie discount rack” aesthetic, Chinatown is all exposed brick and industrial finishes. Get yourself a six dollar coffee, sit back, and commence eavesdropping on horrible people’s conversations. (Real exchange I heard there last week: “So now that you’re unemployed, what do you want to do next?” “Hmm … something involving crystals, and people of color.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks!!) The best spot for people watching is up front, on the long wooden pew; during peak hours, when it’s packed full of jittery, overcaffeinated young professionals, it’ll often be vibrating like your old washing machine, the one your mom would sit on for her “back problems.” (“Mommy, why are your eyes rolling back like that?”)
The bar scene in Penn Quarter is pretty thin; rent is high, and there aren’t a whole lot of local real neighborhood residents. The big apartment buildings in the neighborhood are basically huge dorms for post-college grads, with a 100% annual turnover rate, so there’s not really a “scene.” Still, the Passenger is a legit place to have a beer and fool some attractive members of the opposite sex into thinking that you’re not a complete trainwreck caused by poor parenting and mass media. They have Schlitz tallboys, a rotating menu of craft cocktails, and a bunch of booths. It’s all you need in a bar. Even if it wasn’t the only decent place in Penn Quarter to have a drink, it would still stack up just fine against any theoretical competitors.
Every time I hear someone argue that Washington DC is a legit world-class city, I always think, “if that’s true, why can’t I get a decent meal after ten o’clock at night?” You can’t be a world-class city if your restaurants stop serving before my 60-year-old parents go to sleep. Hogo is the first place to address this embarrassingly provincial shortcoming, serving a full menu right up until closing time. With an ever-changing menu overseen by various big-shot local chefs, this is the place to go if you don’t feel like shoveling back a fifteen-dollar omelet uptown. I recommend the pineapple burger. Just be warned; late night dining may blunt your hangover, but after midnight calories are, like, three times as bad as daytime calories. You will feel fat the next morning, and that’s because you will be fat.
This German/Austrian/Swiss cultural center, tucked across the street from the American cultural center known as “Hooters,” hosts various film screenings, art openings, and lectures. I saw my first Michael Haneke movie there, several years ago, an experience which left me puzzled, and also unable to watch a summer blockbuster ever after without feeling like someone was grabbing the back of my neck and rubbing my face in a huge pile of manure. Also, do you like attractive Europeans? Of course you do. You’ll meet many of them here. Sure, some Germans look like the stereotype of the pasty sweaty guy in sandals and black socks, but then some of them also look like Diane Kruger.
Here’s the thing; once you settle into a career path, get married, and have kids, all the drama and competition just drains right out of your life. It’s not about the struggle anymore, it’s about coasting. That can be tough to accept. Fortunately, society has given us an outlet for our tribal allegiances and competitive passions – sports! Scream passionately as the Washington Wizards “conquer” the visiting team, clutch your armrests as the Capitals play a “do or die” game! Hey, something has to matter – why not something that doesn’t matter at all?
E Street Cinema
Remember when you were in high school and your pal smoked a joint in your car in the mall parking lot and was like, “dude, you know what would be awesome? A movie theater that had, like, super comfortable seats with lots of leg room, and served every single kind of candy from around the world, and coffee drinks too, and, like, beer, and nachos, and hot dogs, and fancy pretzels, and crab cakes, and organic tea, and European wafers?! And they’d show, like, pretentious art films, but also documentaries, as well as regular-type regular movies, and they’d have midnight showings of cult classics?!” Someone actually built that theater. See, life isn’t all bad!
My esteemed colleague touched on this place already, but this sort-of-obscure gem is my personal favorite. You can watch them making fresh noodles in the window, and for six dollars, you can get an order of fried noodles, or noodle soup. The noodles are perfectly cooked – firm, not too soft – and if you feel a cold coming on, the vegetable noodle soup is guaranteed to cure you. The dumplings are even better, on par with anything New York (the self-proclaimed dumpling capital) has to offer. Make sure you try the broth-filled soup dumplings, as well as the disgusting-looking vats of green sauce on the tables, which looks like ancient curdled salsa but is actually some kind of secret garlic-and-ginger concoction that’s truly the Condiment of the Gods. The interior is a bit shabby, and the service perfunctory, but you’ll have some of the best dumplings you’ll ever eat.
BY FRANKLIN SCHNEIDER