The area just north of Dupont Circle stretching east to Logan Circle used to be one of the city’s culinary backwaters. Apart from a few solid ethnic eateries, 14th Street offered no decent food to speak of, and the restaurants on 17th and 18th streets were little more than glorified bars, the food serving mainly to soak up the booze in patrons’ stomachs.
But that was so 2002. Now, in what’s become a familiar refrain to D.C. homeowners and other real-estate speculators, the condos came, followed by the retail, and now the restaurants.
With a spate of new openings to serve theatergoers, shoppers and, of course, new residents, you can now eat well in this formerly “transitional” neighborhood.
Here are three places — two established favorites and one newcomer to watch — that are certainly worth the visit.
Open barely two years, the king of the culinary hill here is Komi at 17th and P streets.
Here, Chef Johnny Monis took over the narrow, spare space that formerly housed Il Radichio and transformed it into a destination for foodies for miles around.
The kitchen is small — not much bigger than a pantry — so the menu is as well. Most selections are on the adventurous side, but to take a chance among the four to five appetizers, pastas and entrees is to be rewarded.
An amuse bouche — a date stuffed with mascarpone and sprinkled with sea salt, anyone? — usually indicates the creativity to come. Monis’s menu is 100 percent influenced by his Mediterranean roots.
“We won’t use something that isn’t found in Greek and Italian pantries,” he said.
The menu changes often, apart from a handful of mainstays that Monis probably dares not remove, so popular are they.
One is a suckling pig that falls off the bone from hours and hours of cooking time. It’s served with Brussels sprouts and creamy, letter-perfect polenta.
The other is a not-often-seen white tuna, wrapped in speck, a cured Austrian meat similar to prosciutto. Served over a grain salad, the fish is moist, tender and flavorful.
Manager Sebastian Zutant oversees a small-yet-smart, primarily European wine list, as well as a courteous, knowledgeable staff.
It all adds up to one of the city’s most pleasurable dining experiences.
Hank’s Oyster Bar
Around the corner is a radically different, yet still perfectly satisfying, concept. Hank’s Oyster Bar, as the name implies, is a casual, loud fish house specializing in shellfish and all types of comfort food.
It’s a bit of a departure for Chef Jamie Leeds, who put 15 Ria on the map with more ambitious, advanced cooking.
But Hank’s, named after her father, is the restaurant she’s always wanted to open. The space, again narrow and dominated by brick, seems part New York oyster bar and part seaside clam shack.
It’s small — only 70 seats — and reservations aren’t taken, although you can call ahead to put your name on the list. Even still, the milling about on the sidewalk of hopeful patrons and a crowd at the tiny bar are the rule, not the exception.
The blackboard usually highlights six or so types of oysters on the half shell, priced according to quality and geography. You’ll also find jumbo-shrimp cocktail, peel-’n’-eat shrimp with Old Bay, and seafood ceviche with lime and jalape�o.
The rest of the menu — as is the vogue — is divided into small and large plates, mostly Chesapeake and New England beach food such as lobster rolls, clam chowder, steamed mussels, fish and chips, and griddled crab cakes.
There are always a couple meat dishes on the menu for landlubbers, and they change by the day.
Go on a Monday when it gets colder out and sample the molasses-braised short ribs, some of the best braised meat in the city.
Viridian, on 14th Street around the corner from the Studio Theatre, is the newest kid on the culinary block here, having been open less than a week. The high-ceilinged, concrete-floored space, bathed nearly entirely in white and chocolate tones, would be decidedly austere were it not for the large-format, portrait photographs hanging in rows of two from every wall.
Apart from adding a splash of color — and the odd feeling that you’re occasionally being watched — the photos tie the space into the larger neighborhood. Fourteenth Street is now home to several galleries, including the Hemphill Fine Arts gallery upstairs.
Speaking of austere, the menu — listed on nothing more than a single sheet held to a piece of cardboard by a rubber band — offers exactly three entrees.
Take your pick from either rockfish, split roasted chicken or hangar steak, and supplement it with one of about eight appetizers (mussels, cauliflower soup and local field greens among them) and about a half-dozen side dishes (such as roasted baby turnips, lentils with leeks and olive-oil mashed potatoes).
As for wine, choose from six whites, six reds and three sparklers — by the bottle or glass.
The idea, said owner Saied Azali, is to keep everything simple in a classy but comfortable neighborhood space. The kitchen, headed by former Ruppert’s pastry chef Sidra Foreman, uses about 80 percent local ingredients, he said.
If they can pull off such a concept, we’ll be hearing about Viridian for a long time to come.