It's 8 p.m. on a Friday, and a fashionable group of men and women is sitting around the pewter bar at Proof on Washington, D.C.'s G Street. "Do you cook?" asks a 30-something lawyer with shaggy black hair as she tilts a glass of red wine toward the guy next to her.
"If my apartment had come without a kitchen," he replies with a grin, "I wouldn't have noticed." Everyone laughs knowingly.
In the last few years, as more young professionals and empty nesters have bought homes in the nation's capital, D.C. has shifted from being a city of chilly Federal buildings to a place where cutting-edge restaurants, late-night cafés, and underground bars open more frequently than local politicians are busted for scandals.
Brasserie Beck is one of several large, bistro-style restaurants that debuted last year. Designed to look like a train terminal, Beck runs about the length of a block, with train-station clocks set to different time zones. The 100-beer selection is equally impressive: There are nine on draft, such as Campus, a pilsner from Belgium that's exclusive to Beck. The menu--steamed mussels served with frites, duck almondine--was crafted by chef Robert Wiedmaier, who also opened Marcel's, the city's premier French restaurant.
Central Michel Richard, started by the chef who made Citronelle one of the nation's top restaurants, has a playful interior, with leaning towers of plates stacked around the dining room. The bistro is often populated with D.C. celebrities--that is, lobbyists, lawmakers, and media types--who like to rev up an evening at the marble bar with a clementine mimosa. But the real draw is Richard's food, which comes with a more reasonable price tag than Citronelle's. Most of the dishes, from a "faux gras" terrine (made with chicken) to braised rabbit with spaetzle, don't top $20.
Just north is the historic corridor of U Street. Classic pit stops like Ben's Chili Bowl, a diner that's been around since 1958, are wedged between old and new clubs that play host to jazz musicians. In the 1930s, Duke Ellington often performed on U Street, then called Black Broadway. Some of the fiercest Saturday-night sessions are held at HR-57, which takes its name from a 1987 congressional directive that called on Americans to preserve jazz.
Right off U Street is Busboys and Poets, a bookstore that also has a café, a theater, a bar, and a restaurant that serves pizzas. At one end, hipsters browse for books near a photo collage of Martin Luther King Jr.; at the other, friends sip microbrews and watch a film about the Bush administration. Busboys and Poets is an homage to Langston Hughes, who rose to prominence in D.C. while working as a busboy.
The area of Adams Morgan has been undergoing its own renaissance. It's still popular with the college crowd, but there are now a few nightspots that appeal to a more sophisticated clientele. Bourbon, on 18th Street, is the place for bourbon aficionados: The 140-plus pours include a 16-year-old Black Maple Hill bourbon from Kentucky with hints of brown sugar.
One block west is another atypical retreat. Named after the Paris subway, Metropolitain is a subterranean bar (below a bistro named Napoleon) specializing in champagne and other sparkling wines. The decor is inspired by the 1970s, with gold-and-white wallpaper and cushiony leather couches--but there's no sitting around after 10 p.m., when DJs spin disco.
Champagne also gets prime placement at Proof, where some 40 bottles of bubbly and wine are available in pours ranging from two to eight ounces. Portraits of George Washington and Hillary Clinton flash across flat-screens above the bar. Proof, like many things in the nation's capital, was inspired by the founding fathers. In this case, it's a nod to Benjamin Franklin, whom the bar quotes as saying, "Wine is proof that God loves us."
Proof 775 G St. NW, 202/737-7663, proofdc.com, wine from $6.50
Brasserie Beck 1101 K St. NW, 202/408-1717, beckdc.com, beer from $7
Central Michel Richard 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/626-0015, centralmichelrichard.com, "faux gras" terrine $14
Ben's Chili Bowl 1213 U St. NW, 202/667-0909, benschilibowl.com, chili $5
HR-57 1610 14th St. NW, 202/667-3700, hr57.org, cover from $8
Busboys and Poets 2021 14th St. NW, 202/387-7638, busboysandpoets.com, pizza from $8
Bourbon 2321 18th St. NW, 202/332-0800, bourbondc.com, from $5
Metropolitain 1847 Columbia Rd. NW, 202/299-9630, napoleondc.com, wine from $6