They used to call it Black Broadway: the stretch of U Street in northwest Washington where the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane performed nightly. Then, in the 1960s, the neighborhood fell victim to urban blight as riots burned down much of the commercial district and affluent blacks moved to the suburbs. But these days efforts by local families to revive the area are taking hold. The result is a lively mix of recharged African-American culture and hip new shops and restaurants--less than 10 minutes from the National Mall and all those K Street lobbyists.
Washington's tourist routes are well trod, but U Street isn't playing to outsiders: it's where young, creative Washingtonians go to shake off their political straitjackets. It's also home to some of the city's richest but oft-forgotten cultural history. Back in the U Street corridor's heyday, the place to be on a Saturday night was the Lincoln Theatre. The Before Harlem There Was U Street walking tour gives you a peek inside (the theater's been restored and again hosts performances), as well as offering stops at two of Duke Ellington's childhood homes, the African American Civil War Memorial (the museum is down the block) and the Thurgood Marshall Center--a building that was the nation's first YMCA for blacks and Langston Hughes' home during the '20s. The tour costs $10 and meets the first and third Saturdays of the month at the U Street/ Cardozo Metro station at 13th and U streets.
The best thing about U Street is that great jazz once again grooves there. Bo- hemian Caverns, at 11th Street and U, offers nightly shows, plus food named after musical legends--the Miles Davis is a lamb kabob--many of whom performed at the dark, moody venue built to look like a cave. For an artsier scene, check out U-topia, at 1418 U Street, which has live music every night and a full menu. HR-57, named after a congressional resolution to preserve jazz, puts on jam sessions and performances Wednesday through Saturday, at 1610 14th Street. The ambience is laid back; you can bring your own beer or wine for a $3 corking fee.
No visit to U Street is complete without a meal at Ben's Chili Bowl, a neighborhood institution between 12th and 13th streets. Virginia Ali, who opened the restaurant with her husband in 1958, recommends the Chili Half-Smoke, a split-open sausage with chili, mustard and onions--the favorite, she notes, of Bill Cosby, who courted his wife at Ben's. Another great eatery is Love Cafe (1501 U), a coffeehouse that gets its sweets from the bakery across the street. For dinner, try Rice, a Thai restaurant at 1608 14th Street, or Opera, at 1324 U, for upscale Italian (Wednesday through Saturday only). Another fine option is one of the area's many Ethiopian restaurants, such as Dukem, at 1114 U.
Before you leave U Street, take some time to wander. You might stumble across something unexpected, like a 32-ft. Duke Ellington mural, or eye-catching, like the glassware in Go Mama Go!, at 1809 14th Street. In fact, more than 100 businesses have opened during the past two years--a sure sign that U is back.