Try to peg the character of U Street, the revitalized and once-again trendy corridor in Northwest D.C., and you may have to check your watch.
That's because this urban renaissance district has two distinct personalities, as different as night and day. Stroll the neighborhood during daylight hours, and what stands out among its funky little shops, municipal offices and Victorian style townhouses is a rich legacy of African-American history.
A mural depicts native son Duke Ellington. At Vermont and U, a monument and nearby museum pay homage to "colored" Civil War veterans. In the shadow of Howard University is the landmark eatery Ben's Chili Bowl; next door stands the newly refurbished Lincoln Theatre, originally built in 1922.
Both recall a segregated yet proud era when this stretch, then nicknamed "Black Broadway," drew top entertainers and the black elite and vibrantly pulsed with life.
At night, the diverse cultures, nationalities and lifestyles that give this not-too-pretty, not-too-gritty village its laid-back, progressive flavor really stand out.
"I think of U Street as a great night destination," said Mark Giuricich, chef and owner of Kuna, a cafe and wine bar specializing in Italian farmhouse cooking. "We get a more sophisticated crowd. It's not the younger, college scene you might find in Adams Morgan."
The one-time Smithsonian executive chef renovated a former carryout before launching his restaurant at 1324 U St. about a year ago.
Rents are affordable, and construction denotes steady progress, he says. The atmosphere is a far cry from the blight, drugs and prostitution that caused the area to rapidly decline after the '60s riots.
In the early 1990s, however, city and community leaders embarked on a series of gentrification projects, including government buildings and a convenient subway station.
Suddenly, U Street was transformed, welcoming a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and residents.
Warren Brown, a 30ish attorney-turned-baker, is among them. In the spring of 2002, he opened CakeLove at 15th and U, whipping up exotic baked goods from scratch in a glass storefront.
"It is an exciting place to be," said Brown of his U-turn. "This is one of the more eclectic areas of the city, and there's lots of fun stuff happening. I'm looking forward to a nice, promising future."
During the day ...
African American Civil War Museum (1200 U St. N.W.; 202-667-2667): Photographs, documents, and audio-visual displays charting black Civil War history; two blocks over, the Wall of Honor lists some 200,000 names, and the Spirit of Freedom sculpture (at Vermont and U streets) honors black troops. Also, the museum holds live presentations the first Saturday of every month.
Mana Community Development Corp. (202-232-2915, www.dcheritage.org): Take a bus or walking tour of U Street, and learn more about the community's history.
Goodwood (1428 U St. N.W.; 202-986-3640): Favorite stop for antique hunters. The treasure trove includes 19th-century furniture at bargain prices.
Home Rule (1807 14th St. N.W.; 202-797-5544): The name pokes fun at the district's quest for statehood; the finds are equally kitschy. Try a shower curtain resembling bubble wrap, or a toilet plunger deserving of an Academy Award (it's shaped like Oscar).
Millennium Decorative Arts (1528 U St. N.W.; 202-462-4444): Millennium takes shoppers back to, yep, the last millennium, with clothing, knick-knacks, home furnishings and cool stuff that defies categorization.
Urban Essentials (1330 U St. N.W.; 202-299-0640): Co-owner Deborah Martens has lived 25 years in the community; now she sells contemporary transitional furniture and accessories "so people don't have to go to the suburbs."
Wild Women Wear Red Shoe Boutique (1512 U St. N.W.; 202-387-3153/5700): Husband-wife team Toddre Monier and Bill Johnson select only the most haute shoes, vintage clothing and glam wear.
During the night ...
U-topia Bar and Grill (1418 U St. N.W.; 202-483-7669): Moroccan music, art, poetry and international fare inside a fabulous gutted townhouse infused with its own mystique.
Cada Vez (1438 U St. N.W. 202-667-0785): One of the newest neighborhood additions, it boasts a restaurant, conference center and nightclub featuring live music, hand dancing and more. There's even a waterfall inside.
Bar Nun (1326 U St. N.W.; 202-667-6680): A place to party and chill with extras like stuffed pillows and flavored tobacco. Called one of the best clubs in America by Maxim magazine.
Bohemian Caverns (2003 11th St. N.W.; 202-299-0800): In its heyday, the famous "Cave" played host to Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and other luminaries. It was dark for 30 years, but re-opened in 2000 for a new generation of jazz aficionados. The restaurant features entrees named for acts who brought the house down.
9:30 Club (815 V St. N.W.; 202-265-0930): The storied club is famous in the region for its live music and top acts. A new and larger facility, suited to 1,200 fans, is less intimate than the old one but still great fun.
Black Cat (1811 14th St. N.W.; 202-667-7960): Partly owned by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, the club is a haven for local indie rockers and an essential stopover for indie bands worldwide. Like the 9:30 Club, it also recently relocated to a larger facility just down the block.
Tasty night or day
Polly's (1342 U St. N.W.; 202-265-8385): Live music and everyone from bankers to artists ensure this neighborhood spot is always bustling. Owner Cici Mukhtar says the eclectic American fare is made fresh, from scratch, and never microwaved.
Cafe Nema (1334 U St. N.W.; 202-667-3215): Somali and Middle Eastern dishes shine, alongside striking African masks and art. Live music too.
Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St. N.W.; 202-667-0909) They've been serving up tasty chili dogs, jukebox favorites and conversation since 1958. Enough said.
U Street is about an hour's drive from Baltimore on I-95 South; on-street parking is fairly plentiful. You can also catch the Marc train on weekdays and Amtrak on weekends. Take the Metro to the U Street/Cardozo (Green Line) stop.
Contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp., 202-789-7000 or www. washington.org. Contact the 14th & U Street Initiative, 1816 12th St. N.W., at 202-550-0769 or www.14thandu.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun