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U Street, Adams Morgan humming again

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Email|Print| Text size + By Diana Kuan
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Beyond the monuments and museums of the National Mall , this city's Northwest neighborhoods are attracting visitors with a vibrant music scene and pulsing night life.

Adams Morgan and the U Street Corridor, bohemian in contrast to Washington's more refined areas, are enjoying a transformation after decades of decline and neglect. Bistros and cafes sprout up alongside decades-old eateries and dive bars. New music venues and historic jazz clubs compete for customers by letting their rhythms drift through open windows .

On a recent visit, we headed first to 18th Street, Adams Morgan's main corridor, just as the sun was setting. When Washington became the first big US city to integrate its schools in the 1950s, civic leaders renamed the area after two elementary schools: historically white Adams and black Morgan. From the 1960s to the present, immigrants from Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia have added to the neighborhood's rich culture with eateries, ethnic grocers, and world music venues.

The current urban renewal has brought hip sidewalk cafes and rooftop restaurants, but the biggest dining draw seems to be Meskerem, a tri-level Ethiopian restaurant. Diners sit on low leather hassocks around a mesab, a basket-like wicker table, for communal eating.

From our table on the second floor, we had a bird's-eye view of a room full of hungry Westerners chowing down on meat and vegetable stews with their bare hands, as is customary in Ethiopian culture. We ordered a sampler of braised lamb, beef, chicken, and vegetables. The food was served on a large plate lined with injera, thick fermented bread that doubles as a food scooper. We washed down the spicy berbere sauce with honey wine and Ethiopian beer, which also served as good precursors of the night ahead.

One choice for after-dinner music is Madam's Organ, a playfully named, easy-to-find blues club ; the outside has a mural of a voluptuous redhead with the club's name emblazoned across her cleavage. World music fans can visit Bukom Cafe, which serves Ghanaian cuisine along with live reggae and West African beats. Jazz is just a short hop to U Street, about 15 minutes on foot or three minutes by cab.

The U Street Corridor, like Adams Morgan, is undergoing a renaissance after years of decay. Once known as "Black Broadway," it was a center for African-American night life from the 1920s to the late '60s. The area suffered after the 1968 riots sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But the opening of the U Street/Cardozo subway stop in 1998 began to draw businesses back . Now U Street is surging into the cultural spotlight. Boarded-up buildings have been transformed into new cafes, restaurants, and clubs that draw patrons from all over the city. Along U Street, however, signs of its illustrious early days remain.

Duke Ellington, whose childhood home is a block from the U Street/Cardozo stop, is commemorated with a large, elegant mural on the Metro station's wall, painted by local artists and students. "The Duke" got his start playing on U Street before decamping to Harlem in 1926. One of the venues he frequented was Crystal Caverns, where Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Pearl Bailey also performed. In 2000, the club reopened as Bohemian Caverns. It retains a cave-like basement lounge that is still popular for live jazz, soul, and blues.

Newer jazz venues are drawing crowds, too. Cafe Nema recently expanded its space to two floors. The original downstairs with battered brick walls showcases mostly mellow jazz acts, while a glossier upstairs has DJ s spinning house and electronica. Rotating exhibits by local artists adorn the walls and add to the festive atmosphere .

A few doors down , a dynamic trumpet solo emanating from a second-floor window drew us to Twins Jazz, a restaurant and lounge. Twins Jazz is owned by twin sisters from Ethiopia and hosts both local and international performers. We sat in the main dining room, a very intimate space with photos of jazz greats on the walls, and had drinks while late diners around us tucked into large plates of fried plantains and grilled salmon. The club was hosting an all-night jam session. About a third of the audience were musicians who cheered each other on and took turns on stage displaying their impressive chops. We nursed our drinks and stayed for longer than expected, savoring the convivial vibe.

A local institution since 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl was still open even after the clubs closed. It claims to have served such legends as Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, and Bill Cosby, among many others. The bright Formica counters may be a far cry from the warm candlelit jazz venues, but the same crowds head here to nosh on late-night burgers and chili dogs. Waiting in line for a milkshake, we reflected on the richness of U Street -- where even a small diner is deeply rooted in its neighborhood's cultural history.

The energy on the sidewalks of Adams Morgan and U Street signal that the renaissance is just beginning. While the rest of Washington sleeps, the two neighborhoods reverberate with history and diverse beats.

Contact Diana Kuan, a freelance writer in New York, at dianakuan@gmail.com.

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