WASHINGTON -- Being a visitor here can be frustrating. The avenues are wide and beautiful, the museums magnificent and generally free, and the monuments impressive. But when 5 p.m. rolls around, and you and your family have been walking for hours through the Smithsonian and around the Lincoln and Washington memorials, the city can seem suddenly deserted.
We remember a long and tear-filled walk in the early 1990s when the children were young as we tried to find something to eat, or a place to get a drink, or maybe a little nightlife that didn't involve the expense of the Kennedy Center or a trip to Georgetown. We were faced with canyons of empty stone and a city that seemed to close up tight as soon as business hours were over.
Luckily, cities evolve, and the area just blocks north of the National Mall, once Washington's commercial and retail downtown, is rapidly going from deserted and slightly scary to vibrant. The area now called Penn Quarter boasts dozens of restaurants, theaters, a major shopping center, museums, the MCI sports center, bookstores, art galleries, and even a megaplex movie house.
On a cool afternoon recently, we walked three blocks from an office on F Street to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Mall to see an exhibit, and then headed back toward Penn Quarter. The Hotel Monaco, designed in the 1840s to resemble the Temple of Jupiter in Rome and once used as the General Post Office and later as the Tariff Building, looked intriguing, with its marble walls and massive columns. Inside we found Poste, the boutique hotel's restaurant, where chefs were giving the kitchen staff instructions for the evening. A plate of olives at the bar, and another of bruschetta topped with grilled peppers and grilled shrimp, took the edge off our hunger, and the early evening bustle of an affluent-looking after-work crowd made for good people-watching.
Later, we walked another block to IndeBleu, a new French-Indian fusion restaurant on G Street. Chef Vikram Garg spins fantasy into such fusion-tinged dishes as a tower of lobster and lump crabmeat with marinated mango, or seared foie gras sandwich with rose petal marmalade and garam masala brioche. After we sampled several small plates, we finished with the pastry chef's interpretation of spaghetti and meatballs: saffron ice cream extruded into pasta shapes and balls of the Indian favorite, rosewater-flavored gulab jamon, tasty, though a little more frill than substance.
Though the cost of these little plates added up quickly, the range of dining in Penn Quarter is wide. Jaleo, a Spanish tapas restaurant that was a pioneer in the area, offers a range of tapas at quite reasonable prices; and Zaytinya, under the same ownership, does the same in a vaguely Middle Eastern-style. Down the street on Seventh there's a Legal Sea Foods, District Chop House and Brewery, and Rosa Mexicana as well as other chain and independent eateries and lounges. Chinatown, adjacent to Penn Quarter, has many affordable restaurants. Five Guys Chinatown on Eighth, a popular hamburger joint with mega-size burgers, can satisfy red meat cravings for as little as $2.69 a burger. A new branch of the tea emporium, Teaism, opened recently on Eighth Street, and there are plenty of
One of the main attractions in the area is the International Spy Museum, which opened last summer and is so popular that tickets must be purchased in advance. Unlike the Smithsonian museums, which are public and free, this one is privately owned and charges general admission ($14 for adults; $11 for children ages 5 to 11) plus more for special exhibits such as a current one on the history of terrorism in America. On an early spring day, the museum, which touts what it calls the world's largest collection of international espionage artifacts, is swarming with families probably trying to avoid the chilly weather outside. The stated mission is to educate the public about espionage, but its attraction, especially to older children, is obvious: The interactive elements make it seem more like a theme park than a conventional artifacts-in-a-case museum.
The arts in many forms are also blooming in Penn Quarter. Seventh Street sports several well-known galleries, from Zenith to Touchstone to several smaller places, all with changing exhibits. The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Eighth Street are being renovated and are scheduled to reopen next year. For theater buffs, the Shakespeare Theatre not only features a schedule of plays, such as ''The Tempest," directed by Kate Whoriskey, running through this month, but is also building a much larger venue around the corner. Dance, musical evenings, and theater will be shown in the new building, set to open in 2008. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company opened May 10 with ''Big Death & Little Death," which will run into June, in its new, much larger building. Ford's Theater, on 10th Street, shows plays and other entertainment, and for those who prefer the silver screen, a 14-screen cinema opened last winter in the area's new shopping block, Gallery Place.
This is the area where such elegant department stores as Garfinkel's and Woodward & Lothrop once attracted the elite of Washington, and today the past becomes present with teen fashion beacons such as Benetton, H&M, and Banana Republic. Hecht's, one of the last old-line department stores in the area, often has sales, and other chains like Ann Taylor Loft, and Barnes & Noble also have stores in the mall.
Of course, in a city as storied as Washington, ''past" is always relative. The Penn Quarter, roughly between Pennsylvania Avenue on the south, 15th Street to the west, New York and Massachusetts avenues on the north, and Third Street on the east, once held the studio of the famed early photographer Matthew Brady. Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater and died in Petersen's Boarding House across the street. The Portrait Gallery was once the Patent Office, used in the Civil War as a hospital where poet Walt Whitman and nurse Clara Barton both tended casualties. Julia Ward Howe also wrote the lyrics to ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in this section of the city.
Now the area, once dreary by day and forbidding by night, is making new history and allows visitors to experience more of the nation's capital.