Explore Washington D.C.

One of D.C.’s Best-Kept Secrets: H Street NE

Everything you need to know to explore this historic and newly hot nightlife zone near the U.S. Capitol

A new streetcar, shiny red and silver, whirs back and forth along H Street NE, shuttling residents and visitors between Union Station and points east. It’s the first to operate in D.C. since 1962, when the city’s original streetcar system was dismantled. And it zips along a road that’s been significant in local history since D.C.’s early days.

British forces marched down the thoroughfare, when they invaded the capital city during the War of 1812. Later, H Street was a center of commerce for African-Americans and for immigrant laborers who helped to complete construction of the U.S. Capitol building.

Streetcar on H Street
A new streetcar gives easy access to the zone’s bars, restaurants and clubs. (©DC Streetcar)

The neighborhood declined after the 1968 race riots damaged many businesses. But today a fresh swath of restaurants, hipster bars, clubs and performance venues make it worth hopping on—and off—that trolley to explore the emerging, artsy zone that’s becoming a hot destination, especially for nightlife.

Most attractions lie between 3rd and 14th streets NE in what many dub “the Atlas District,” named for the performing arts center housed in an Art Deco-style 1930s movie theater.

Where to Eat

H Street’s patchwork of buildings ranges from brightly painted, turreted Victorian storefronts to sleek new structures, so it’s no wonder that the cuisine (and the restaurant decor) here is among the most eclectic in the city.

Upmarket spots, which moved in when gentrification began more than a decade ago, include Smith Commons, a three-level modern American known for its jazz brunch. The food and cocktails often smack of spice and global cultures—think a steak with Szechuan peppercorn jus or a burger napped with chipotle sauce.

 Ethiopic plates authentic East African dishes (spicy stews, sautéed lamb and the crepe-like spongy injera) in mod digs.

Half-smokes on the grill at Ben’s Chili Bowl
spicy half-smokes from Ben’s Chili Bowl (©T.Tseng/Flickr, Creative Commons)

The street’s popular bar scene helps casual dining spots thrive, too. A branch of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the legendary U Street hot dog and burger joint, recently opened in a corner brick storefront; don’t miss the only-in-D.C. half smokes, spicy sausages tucked in buns and topped with onions and chili. Toki Underground lures crowds to its second-story, countertop bars with (are we in Tokyo?) ramen.

Beer-lovers head to brew-centric spots like Granville Moore’s (Belgian suds and mussels in a snug townhouse) or The Queen Vic (English pub chow and ales). At the latter, Liverpool soccer fans turn out to cheer, sing and sip tea during the season. (The games are usually in the morning due to the time difference.)

Where to Drink

Biergarten Haus specializes in German brews by the stein in an oompah-pah-worthy space with Bavarian flags inside and fire pits outside in the beer garden. Spirits-focused hotspots include retro cocktail boite Copycat Co., where classic fizzes and Old Fashioneds are poured in dark, moody surrounds big on metalwork and leather chairs.

Raising a stein at Biergarten Haus
At Biergarten Haus, the courtyard draws crowds for steins of German brews. (Courtesy Biergarten Haus)

Other hideaways where you can sip (or quaff) drinks: The Pursuit Wine Bar, with 45 kinds of New and Old World vino by the glass and a customizable grilled-cheese menu in a sleek converted row house, and Little Miss Whiskey’s Golden Dollar, a rowdy watering hole with neo-Baroque décor (velvet sofas, rainbow-colored chandeliers, wrought iron) and a two-level back patio. Miss Whiskey’s hosts a floor-pounding DJ party each Friday night (go late for the best energy), frequent beer and spirits tastings and screenings of popular TV shows (e.g., “RuPaul’s Drag Race” some nights). It’s a good thing that the streetcar runs until 2 am on weekends!

Where to Play

Perhaps the hippest spot in the ’hood—and the establishment with the longest hours—Maketto opens from 7 am till post-dinner most days. The Zen-like hybrid of menswear boutique, coffee shop and Taiwanese-Cambodian restaurant oozes West Coast cool. Within two pristine, airy stories that wrap around an open courtyard, you’ll find hard-to-source sneakers, art books and sportswear by D.C. label Durkl, plus a menu starring pan-seared leek buns, anchovy brittle and lots of curries.

Entertainment junkies get a fix too, thanks to the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Located in a converted movie theater and several adjoining historic storefronts, it boasts multiple stages for plays, concerts and dance. Home to well-regarded and socially conscious Mosaic Theater Company, it also hosts several smaller troupes with offerings like classic Greek dramas and experimental comedy.

Atlas Performing Arts Center
Atlas Performing Arts Center, a former movie palace, now presents live shows of theater, music, comedy and dance. (©Joe Loong/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Rock, indie and hip-hop acts regularly show up at the Rock and Roll Hotel, a funeral home turned nightclub. The decor upstairs is gothic and gritty—check out the vintage velvet sofas and murals of blood-seeping roses. Concerts take place downstairs in the standing-room-only theater, and DJs spin on the second floor or on the airy rooftop lounge.

One of the zone’s most popular ways to have fun? Picking up a mini-golf club and hitting balls through quirky, D.C.-themed obstacles at the H Street Country Club. To find the place, just look for the Astroturf on the façade; inside, the course includes holes riffing on briefcase-toting D.C. lawyers, scandal-prone former mayor Marion Barry and the monuments on the National Mall. Skee-ball, air hockey tables and a rooftop bar up the buzz, and there’s also a hearty menu of Tex-Mex fare.