Garden District

Garden District is one of the many businesses that has helped to make 14th Street a place to go in the nation's capital. (April 1, 2004)

Here are a few items that can be purchased on 14th Street in Washington: a magenta bathroom mat, a bamboo cutting board, a gay-porn greeting card, a set of martini glasses, a Tote le Monde luggage tag, a blue sushi plate, a dinner table from Indonesia, a pale-pink feathered baby wreath.

When the shops close, here is what you can do: listen to live jazz, drink Belgian beers, attend an art opening, munch on chiangmia pork sausage, catch a local band, have your palm read, board your dog or do the laundry.

Fourteenth Street used to be a scary place. It drifted into disrepair after the race riots in the late 1960s, and prostitutes, drug dealers and panhandlers dominated the street. Not anymore. In the past five years -- as real estate prices in the area skyrocketed -- about a dozen stores and eating places have opened on the blocks between U Street and Rhode Island Avenue. Thrift shops, corner liquor stores and a few dilapidated auto repair shops remain. But the newer establishments that cater to a hip, moneyed, stylish crowd are making the area a new hot spot.

The pioneer was Home Rule Inc. -- a chic store selling fun and functional housewares. The place has a funky look, with lime-green and blue walls and a cement floor. "People used to be really horrified by this neighborhood -- it's had a bad reputation since the riots," said co-owner Rod Glover. "We moved here because it was inexpensive." The store opened in 1999 and had little trouble attracting customers. "Literally from the first day we opened, people wandered in and shopped," said Glover.

Pulp -- recognizable by its bright purple storefront -- considers itself the anti-Hallmark. It sells thousands of cards, from the spiritual to the sexual. Upstairs is Pop -- a SoHo-style men's and women's clothing boutique without the SoHo prices.

Nearby is Go Mama Go! -- a store that defies categorization. It sells everything from $10,000 objets d'art to blank journals. The place is colorful and spacious. It wasn't always this way. When it opened 2 1/2 years ago, "the door was a bathroom for homeless people," said owner Noi Chudnoff. She opened after spending roughly $125,000 refurbishing her space, including painting the storefront bright orange.

With its several new furniture stores, some are referring to 14th Street as the furniture capital of the capital. Muleh, which opened last April, carries high-end, organic-modern furniture from Bali, Thailand and other far-flung places. It also carries clothes so shoppers can "furnish their homes and their wardrobes at the same time," said owner Chris Reiter. Three other recently opened furniture stores are Maison 14, Vastu and Reincarnations Furnishings.

And for more of a treasure hunt there is always Ruff and Ready Furnishings, an eclectic used-furniture shop that has been around since 1978. "It's an old-fashioned 'junque' store, a mixture of collectibles, antiques and used furnishings," said owner Bill Troy.

Just up the street from these shops is Cafe Saint-Ex, which opened a year ago and buzzes almost every night. It is a cozy bistro with wood floors, mustard walls and a tin ceiling. The cafe can get crowded on the weekends, but on weeknights, it is charming.

Customers marveled at how the area is changing. "Fourteenth Street was designed by [Pierre-Charles] L'Enfant to be a major thoroughfare," said David Webster, a Washington lawyer, as he sipped his drink at the bar. "Maybe its not the Champs-Elysees, but it is beginning to come back."

Then there is Rice. Open since October, it is a reasonably priced, pan-Asian restaurant not at all affiliated with the Rice eating place in Manhattan.

"The clientele is a mixed crowd -- young couples -- gay and straight," said owner Somsak Pollert. It is a place where people "dress up and have fun. It is not a place where people go to get drunk," he said. Pollert has put a lot of thought into the ambiance and the decor of the place -- he likes bare walls and simple lines so nothing distracts diners from their meals.

One old favorite has had a face-lift. HR-57 -- a jazz lounge named for a bill that passed in Congress in 1987 to honor jazz as "a rare and valuable American treasure" -- has gussied up the front seating area but is still a relatively undiscovered night spot. On a recent Saturday evening -- when there was an hour wait to be seated just up the street at Saint-Ex -- it had several open tables. And HR-57 is cheap, at least by Washington standards. The cover charge for a night of live jazz was $10. Unlike the old days, there is no need to bring your own alcohol -- the establishment has a liquor license and serves beer and wine in addition to the traditional fried chicken.

Where to shop

  • Candida's World of Books. 1541 14th St. 202-667-4811. www.candidasworldofbooks. com. Travel and international books.

  • Flowers on Fourteenth. 1718-A 14th St. 202-667-7888. www.flowersonfourteenth.com. Bouquets and flowers.

  • Fusebox. 1412 14th St. 202-299-9220. www.fuseboxdc. com. Contemporary art gallery.

  • Garden District. 1801 14th St. 202-797-9005. www.garden district.biz. Flowers and plants.