Keep your friends close and your best friends close to DC

I don’t think that’s how the saying goes, is it?

Who cares? The sentiment is the same. I have cruel friends who either live in or near enough to Washington to “make a day of” doing the things that take me months of saving and planning. Such is my station in life right now, though, and one of the many reasons Wait! exists here and on Instagram (go follow, please). It helps me keep my sanity and stay connected until I can get up there for good, which will happen. Soon. I hope. Oh, it’s happening. I’m coming for you, DC! Get ready!

Anyway, a really good friend of mine decided to take a day trip into Washington to see the cherry blossoms. Sure, he’s missing peak bloom by a few days, but he’s getting closer to it this year than I will (went on the tail end last year). When he said he was headed down, I gave him a laundry list of things he needed to do so I could live vicariously through him, and some of them, he did.

For instance, he sent me this.

Nothing like a nice candid shot of one of my favorite streets and grub spots in the city to remind me I need to write about my recent adventure. I know I said I’d cover Founding Farmers next, but my buddy’s cherry blossom/cupcake/half-smoke mission prompted an executive decision.

Today, I’m taking you on a weird food adventure through the U Street Corridor.

U Street and its surrounding excitement are a must stop on my DC trips partly because it was on the Brixton rooftop where I fell in love with the District one warm, sunny April happy hour. *sigh*

What’s not to love about woodland creatures who are also conspiracy theorists?

 

Okay, so it wasn’t the woodland weirdos. It was this (which is why I use this picture for everything; it’s not about aesthetics. It’s about emotion). Sure, it’s essentially a shot from a bar down a busy street, but it spoke to me that spring day. Look at those adorable buildings…not Warby Parker and The Shay…past that…Habesha, Right Spot, all those cool looking buildings that lead down to Maya Angelou PCS and beyond. Nothing is overwhelming in this area. This view and this space give me a sense of calm and of hope. Call me weird if you want, but that’s what I felt that day. I needed to go back and see if it was real.

 

I sat on that rooftop patio with my friend and imagined a life in which I lived in one of these buildings. I didn’t really plan for how I’d get there, but I declared I would. Still working on that plan.

I also really wanted another go at Sloppy Mama’s. Last spring, they’d just moved into Solly’s, and we fell upon them by accident late at night while wandering down U Street seeking food (we were headed for Ben’s Chili Bowl, but the promise of barbecue stopped us at Solly’s). We actually ate a lot that night. I remember some of it (Brixton small plates were delicious; DC9 has pretty damned good food). For nearly a year, I’d been telling my brother, a barbecue connoisseur, about how amazing Sloppy Mama’s was. Obviously, I had to show him first hand.

I took a late night photo of my food back in April. That never works out well. What IS this, and where is it from? The only three possibilities are Brixton (but we had small plates there), Sloppy Mama’s (but this is not the amazing BBQ I had there), or DC9 (but I only remember eating bourbon balls there…see below). What is going on here?

I’d also hoped to finally get inside Nellie’s. This is where our adventure started back in April before we saw this lovely sign, shrugged, and simply crossed the street to that fateful Brixton rooftop.

This was our first planned stop in April. As you can see, that didn’t quite go as planned. As much as I wanted to go here, it turned out well since my “Brixton lovefest” moment happened only because our initial plan fell through.

 

In case you wanted a close up of the sign (and of my mildly bizarre reflection in the door).

DC9 was another scheduled stop. Last time, I ate bourbon balls and sang group karaoke. I also discovered Narrangansett. Who wouldn’t want to do that again?

Bourbon balls from DC9 are worth it. The end. Actually, group karaoke is pretty “worth it,” too. Sound on for the video below.

DC9 also has a rooftop that will make you fall in love with the area if you’re the kind of person who likes cool rooftops in vibrant areas of amazing cities…

…and when you try to take a picture from one of those rooftops, you’ll be so blinded by “happiness,” you won’t be able to do it. You also won’t care that your hair is somehow both frizzy and flat. You’ll try again to get the shot. In the end, you’ll just be happy to know you were there…
…and you’ll make a very cheesy face, and you won’t care that the view behind you is bad or that your chin is HUGE.

This most recent trip, I let my travel companions make most of the suggestions on where we’d go, but this was my one and only non-negotiable piece. I’m not saying I was trying to recreate that night this time around, but I needed my people to see where I’d either gone insane or found myself (depending on one’s perspective on the city).

So how did it stack up?

We met a local buddy in front of The Prospect, considered going in, realized it was packed beyond logic, and decided to stick to the original plan. Next time, Prospect. Next time.

When you walk into Brixton, it is a British pub. That deeply pleased the sister, and she headed for the bar. I said, “No, no. This way,” and led everyone toward the staircase. If you’ve had the pleasure of climbing those stairs, you can probably guess what happened to her enthusiasm. After a momentary refusal from everyone and a stare that said, “Screw you, lady,” I somehow lured my posse up the three steep flights encased in a tiny hallway and we emerged on that wonderful rooftop.

I still loved that view, even at night.

That Atlas District Commons tasted like perfection from “my” seat.

 

Months after it called my name, this rooftop spoke to my brother, too. I know that look.

After a good while watching my sister, her boyfriend, and my brother bond with a really good local friend and appreciate the bar, we figured it was time to hit Nellie’s.

Nellie’s. Was. Packed. I might have considered waiting it out, but there was an actual line outside the door. I don’t know what was going on or what universal force is keeping me from the inside of that place, but in either case, I don’t like it. I’ll get in one day. Maybe during that “next time” I promised The Prospect. Hopefully for their drag brunch.

So on to the next chapter.

Hello, DC9, I’ve missed your confusing layers. When you walk into this place, the first floor is not exactly promising. I like the quiet dive bar/dirty diner vibe, but if you’re trying to convince a group of friends this place is completely alive (which it is), you’re not going to do it on the bottom floor. Last time, it was perfect because we were looking for a chill place to grab something sweet (try those bourbon balls. Seriously). This time, I ushered my brood right up the steps, to which my brother remarked, “Is everything a staircase to space here?”

Yes. It is. You get a quick workout with your Happy Hour specials. See? City of smart people.

We headed to the second floor, where last time I participated in the weird group karaoke ritual, but this time, there were neon lights, flopping bodies, and house music. If that’s your vibe, they do it well. It is not our vibe. We do not do it well.

Up to the rooftop we went. This time, it was enclosed with plastic shields (it was 17 degrees), but it was still the same cool place as last time. Before my brother could order his usual PBR, I butted in and introduced him to Narragansett, describing it as “the PBR of the Mid-Atlantic.” I didn’t do this so much because it tastes like PBR (it doesn’t). I did it because my brother would drink elephant urine if I called it the PBR of something. Well, not really, but he does love his PBR. This was the only non-local beer I drank while I was there, and that’s because I’ve become something of a fan of its simplicity and low price. (We recently started getting it around here in Florida, but that’s another post for another time. One day, I’ll tell you all about my awkward interaction with a far less enthusiastic and/or completely oblivious bartender.)

My brother also became a fan. Even if he did have to ask me what it was called every time he ordered one for the rest of the night, he had found a new friend. In every picture we took, he treated that can like it was a member of our group. No matter how many takes we did of the same stupid selfie, there was that can in a prominent location. Every single time.

Hi, Neighbor!
That’s love you see in his eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bad take? Narragansett can.

 

Better but blurry-faced take? Narragansett can.

 

One where we finally get it right? You guessed it. Narragansett can.

 

Somehow, the can was spared this shot, but I assure you it’s not far from that hand you see behind us.

We spent quite a bit of time in DC9, as we did last time. The energy there was really positive, and there were enough people to make it exciting but not so many to make it cramped and uncomfortable. I love a crowded place like this when the air is freezing cold, and I’m not really sure why. I also love a place like this when everyone there doesn’t seem to be waiting for something else to happen. This is a hard concept to explain, but in most of the places I’ve lived (not Orlando), the bars and clubs and even restaurants and sporting events are ground zero for people who seem to be waiting for something better to come along. Any place can be fun if you take ownership of it, if you say, “I came here to hang out with my friends, so that’s what I’m going to do.” In so many of the places I’ve lived, though, it’s more a feeling that everyone in a place is waiting for someone else to make it fun for them. I don’t know what it is, an overbearing sense of self-consciousness, a genuine lack of energy in the air, an overpromise by someone, or something else. It’s a mystery to me. I just know it makes me find most night life boring and/or awkward.

In general, I hate crowds. Really. If I can help it, I try to stay as far from them as possible. This (and good connections) is why I sit very close to dugouts or behind home plate at baseball games, choose outside seating (if the weather isn’t terrible) at restaurants, buy seats on the ends of rows or in remote parts of a venue, make reservations any time there’s a possibility, and schedule appointments at places as close to opening as possible (nothing gives me the wigs like a 12:30pm appointment).

What I really love about DC night life, though, is that even in crowded places, people are still doing their own thing. I never feel like I’m in anyone’s way or anyone is in my way. No one cares about what anyone else is doing. Now, I don’t mean this in a callous way. I just mean people live and let live. People in DC move with their own purpose. I didn’t even find this to be true in Orlando when I was there; there’s a unique anonymity to places like Washington. That’s a major factor that keeps drawing me back. Crowds, I’ve learned, are completely fine if everyone in them is doing their own thing. Busy streets are okay so long as everyone seems to have a plan. I know this is true of other major cities around the world, but like I said, it’s a major factor, not the major factor. Some day, maybe I’ll write about all the things that made DC feel like home the very first moment I stepped out of that very first Uber, but for now, back to DC9. Well, maybe back to my point first.

Here it is. We should all try something we think we might not like from time time. You may find it’s a matter of circumstances. At home, I have to be dragged out, but in DC, I’m the one doing the dragging. We all get an idea in our heads of what we prefer, and in most cases, it’s true, but if we don’t go outside our comfort zones from time to time, we’ll never learn anything new about ourselves. So your assignment is this: Next time you travel, plan at least one activity you know you wouldn’t enjoy at home. See if it’s really that activity or if the change of geography opens you up to it a bit more. This includes food.

Eat something weird.

We did.

Eventually, it dawned on one or all of us that we had to be at Ford’s Theatre at 9 the next morning. Plus, we were getting hungry. All had gone pretty well so far with the exception of the line at Nellie’s. What could go wrong with our barbecue adventure?

A lot.

Everything.

All the things.

We started down U Street, heads filled with visions of saucy buns covering tender meats topped with a tart pickle and crunchy slaw. I even knew exactly what I was getting: a brisket sandwich that I would drown in Cherry Bomb (a unique sauce described as “spicy cherry cola,” which is exactly correct). I don’t even care about the sides because nothing can touch the sandwich, but I guess I was probably going to go with their delicious hand cut fries. Basically, I wanted this. With fries. In my belly. Now.

Instead, we found…

Always so weird to encounter Florida paraphernalia (Florida-phernalia?) in places nowhere near Florida.

…absolutely nowhere to stand, sit, or order. It seems Solly’s has expanded into the neighboring building since I took the above picture that I merely used here as a dramatic pause (which is fantastic for them), but it was still nuts to butts in the place (also fantastic for them). I was genuinely disappointed and fought for just kind of waiting it out until a spot opened, but hungrier guts prevailed and we left.

The plan then became half-smokes from Ben’s. Obviously.

Remember how I said I don’t like crowds, but they don’t bother me in DC?

Well, my bro, my sister, and her boyfriend apparently hate crowds more than I do. Actually, I take that back. My sister and her boyfriend were fine. So was my friend. My brother, on the other hand, declared five seconds into the door at Ben’s, “there is no way in hell I’m waiting in that line.”

Not even for this?

Obviously, he’s a maniac.

What we didn’t know at the time, though, was he had a plan. We also didn’t think about the dangers of following the lead of the guy who’d just spent the entire evening trying to drink all the Narragansett in the DMV. A couple doors north of Ben’s is a place called simply The Saloon. I have no idea what drew the bro to this place, but he was hell bent on taking us with him. We tried to talk him out of it, arguing that if Ben’s and Solly’s weren’t going to work, there was a pizza place across the way. Something about this Saloon place didn’t do it for us on first instinct. After a few minutes of talking it through, we decided we’d give the place a go since it was the only one that was new to all five of us. It still had an odd feel to it, and I wasn’t totally sure what we were getting into.

Trust your first instinct. Or don’t.

It wasn’t the “No TV, no cell phone at the bar, no standing” rules that made it a bit of a disappointment. That, I actually kind of enjoyed. It was the food that was overwhelmingly underwhelming. I don’t care for warm hummus, and the chicken tenders weren’t anything special. I hear the burger is actually quite good, and now I wish that’s what I’d gotten. We were all kind of left unmoved with the food choices we made, but in that regard, you win some, you lose some.

On the other hand, their beer selection is excellent and quite different. They have some interesting booze-soaked fruits going on that we were a bit too close to night-night to try. I also kind of enjoyed the borderline aggro hippie vibe of the place. The walls are lined with advice you really need to see to understand (that’s my way of saying I forgot to take pictures of it). I also enjoyed the fact the owner has goals beyond merely owning a bar on U Street (which is a fine and admirable goal, but so is his other venture). The Saloon is a Habitat for Humanity juggernaut, building homes and schools throughout Central America. Around the place, inside and out, you’ll see “Bricks for Schools” with names painted on them. You can also drop spare change into a series of receptacles (bottles, mostly) on the tables to help fund their school building efforts. As well, there are pictures scattered throughout the place of the owner with various people in the towns and villages his fundraising efforts have touched.

Was this a first choice? No way. Was it the best food I’d ever eaten? Not even close (although I’ll go back and try that burger). Was it an accidental but fortunate opportunity to engage in a little late night “food for good?” Yes.

Eat Well. Give Better. Right?

The Saloon is at 12th and U, if you find yourself there. Let me know how that burger is.

 

Where were you when you had one of those “This is perfect” moments? Please share your stories in the comments. I’d love to hear how you found that one place that gave you a glimpse inside your own soul.

 

Follow all these great spots and products on Instagram. Tag @waitilleatthat any time you go to any of them. I’d love to hate you, too, just like my cherry blossom-chasing friend!

Also, if you can’t be there, Ben’s and Sloppy Mama’s will come to you. Be back later. I’m stocking up on half-smokes, chili, and sauce!

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