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Capital with character

A Capitol Hill tour is less familiar with Congressman Barney Frank suggesting the stops

Frank in D.C.
(Susana Raab for the Boston Globe)
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Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 28, 2007

A select number of Washington restaurants cater to members of Congress -- basically a few fancy steakhouses and slightly less exclusive Irish bars that serve decent food. These eateries feature table after table of lawmakers, lobbyists, and some of the capital's better-paid media personalities, digesting the news of the day along with their meals and speculating about the political health of the Bush administration.

This is not where you will find Representative Barney Frank , who eschews the official scene in favor of some of the city's more eclectic neighborhoods. Despite having spent more than a quarter century in Congress, Frank, 66, a Newton Democrat and the newly appointed chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, prefers the streets less traveled by Washington's influential class.

He says he doesn't care to be seen, and he doesn't want his meal interrupted 20 times by someone worried about regulation of housing mortgage agencies or whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates a quarter point. Frank wants ethnic food, a diverse clientele , and a little piano music -- all of which he gets regularly at the Banana Cafe and Piano Bar , in the heart of the up-and-coming 8th Street Corridor on Capitol Hill.

Frank says as he enters the bustling, noisy restaurant, "Look at that -- how many restaurants do you know where you can get the Washington Hispanic and the Blade [a local gay newspaper] at the same place?

"You get everybody here," he adds, gesturing around the crowded lower dining room. "Straight people, gay people, older people, young people, black people, white people. It's very diverse."

The restaurant, located in Frank's new neighborhood (he recently moved from hip Dupont Circle to the hip-but-edgy outer Capitol Hill area) has been around for more than 10 years. But it has recently exploded in popularity as Washingtonians have discovered the emerging neighborhood. Not just a Tex-Mex place, the Banana Cafe offers a pan-Latin menu mixing Cuban, Brazilian, and Spanish cuisines, along with seven kinds of margaritas and arguably the best mojitos in the city.

Upstairs is a piano bar -- a hangout, though not exclusively so, for gays (Frank is gay) -- that on this night features three local musicians and a more relaxed atmosphere than the restaurant. Both floors draw patrons from the US Marine barracks down the street as well as shoppers from the stylish boutiques on 8th Street SE. Just a few blocks closer to the Capitol, the bars and restaurants are packed with people who work on the Hill, staffers and lawmakers chatting on cell phones at the table and obsessively checking messages on their BlackBerrys .

The 8th Street Corridor -- also known as Barracks Row -- is an escape from all that. "I don't have one of those," Frank says, gesturing derisively at his dinner companion's BlackBerry. "My staff wants me to get one for emergencies. What emergency? I don't know CPR, and I can't make bail."

Frank is one of Congress's notable characters, and with the Democratic sweep in November, he has become one of the House's most powerful members. He is widely acknowledged by colleagues on both sides of the aisle to be one of the smartest members, and many a lawmaker and hearing witness has been silenced by his tough questioning and searing wit.

Unlike some lawmakers who race out of town at noon on Thursdays to see family and constituents back in their home districts and return on Tuesday evening in time for votes, Frank has made Washington more of a second home. (The new five-day work week the Democrats instituted when they took control this month may change some members' schedules.)

Frank does go back to his district most weekends, but said he generally stays one weekend a month in the capital, which many lawmakers barely explore. That is one reason he became familiar with 8th Street SE, which has only become fashionable in the past two or three years, as development brought in new business. Locals say they used to worry about street crime once they hit 6th Street SE, just six blocks from the Capitol. Now, they say, a pedestrian can feel comfortable walking all the way to 12th Street.

Frank doesn't recommend visiting the usual tourist haunts, such as the Washington Monument or the US Mint. "I love Union Station. It's such a great example of urban renewal," he says of the grandly renovated train station. "And they've got a great food court."

Union Station's basement food hall is more sophisticated than most, offering sushi, Cajun , Greek, and Indian fare, among others. But it is Frank's own neighborhood that holds some of the city's most attractive sites and eateries.

Just down Pennsylvania Avenue, heading toward the Capitol, is Sonoma, a wine bar and restaurant that is frequently packed with locals and congressmen alike. Frank prefers to head just a couple of blocks farther away to the welcoming if less-fashionable Mr. Henry's, which he calls "a quasi-gay bar" and neighborhood hangout .

The sprawling Eastern Market, at 7th and North Carolina Avenue SE, offers both tasty prepared food -- the fresh crab cakes on homemade bread are popular -- as well as merchandise ranging from vintage jewelry to furniture. The food stalls are open daily except Monday, and on weekends the market is crammed with antiques shoppers and craftspeople.

Continuing to E Street SE , you come across the Congressional Cemetery, a privately run facility that marks its bicentennial this year. It was originally designed as a resting place for members of the nascent government whose remains could not be transported home . Nineteen senators and 71 representatives are buried here, along with privates and generals from the Revolutionary War, and children, elderly, and indigent.

Frank said he has been to the cemetery just once, for a ceremony installing a cenotaph honoring Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs, who died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972 and whose remains were never found. But he recommends it for a few moments of reflection.

In the summer, Frank likes to go to concerts at the Marine barracks, on 8th Street near the Potomac River. ( "A Few Good Men" was filmed there.) The street includes a cluster of excellent restaurants and bars , not to mention one of the few Dunkin' Donuts in the city.

Frank's favorites include The Old Siam , a Thai restaurant near the Banana Cafe, and the Szechuan House Fusion Grill, a modern mix of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, and French food. Fusion Grill may be the only place in Washington to find Peking duck fajitas ($19), raspberry lamb ($24), and avocado eel ($5).

The Belga Cafe is perhaps the fanciest restaurant on Barracks Row, offering specialty Belgian beers to accompany a sophisticated mix of meats and seafood. Belgian fries -- french fries, for those who don't know they were created in Belgium -- are served as they are in Brussels, with mayonnaise.

The street is also home to several stylish boutiques and shops, including two -- Chateau -Animaux and Pawticulars -- for the fashion-forward pet. Chateau- Animaux sells an exquisite-looking array of dog cookies. They are meant for canines, but edible for humans, assuming one has a taste for beef-flavored biscotti with yogurt icing.

The eclectic Alvear Studio features artwork from local and international sources, paintings, jewelry, handbags, mirrors, and glassware. Backstage sells costumes and other glittery things.

On the second Saturday of the month, retailers stay open until 11 p.m. offering food, wine, and margaritas, along with art and fashion shows. The monthly block party keeps visitors in the neighborhood and contributes to the area's revitalization.

And that can only improve with the new Congress, says Frank, whose committee oversees urban development. "With the Republican Tuesday-to-Thursday work week, there was [little] economic boom," he says. But if lawmakers start spending more time in Frank's second city, "we may see more."

Contact Susan Milligan at smilligan@globe.com.

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