The New U

Washington's U Street, once the city's 'Black Broadway' but then blighted by riots, is returning to its old status as a must-go place.

Focus On Shopping

July 28, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

During its heyday in the 1950s, Washington's U Street was the "Black Broadway" of the city.

With few other places to go, African-Americans flocked to the street to watch movies, hear jazz or have dinner. And when legends like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie came to Washington, U Street was the place to catch them.

"There's more of a history here for African-Americans than Harlem," said Nizam Ali, co-owner of Ben's Chili Bowl, a U Street institution. "In some ways, it's more important historically. This was the educational and political center of black America. This is the best place to find black-financed construction and buildings designed by African-Americans."

After the rioting that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, the street suffered blight. But it has seen a recent revival as young business owners have opened stores that offer trendy shopping and eats. Here are some must-see places on this historical street.

Ben's Chili Bowl,

1213 U St. N.W., 202-667-0909;

For more than 40 years, this unassuming eatery has drawn late-night diners and faithful fans like Marion Barry and Bill Cosby, who used to take his wife, Camille, on dates to the Chili Bowl in the 1960s. When U Street thrived as Washington's entertainment hub for African-Americans decades ago, Ben's was the place to be after an evening out. Today, with the revitalization of U Street, people are flocking to the diner for chili dogs or cheese fries more than ever. And celebs like Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington and Shaquille O'Neal have stopped by when they've breezed through town. (In fact, a scene in The Pelican Brief was filmed at Ben's.)

Nizam Ali, son of the original Ben, runs the Chili Bowl today with his brother. He believes the secret to their success is simple. "My father had this special chili recipe," Ali said. "It's still a secret today. Only my brother and I mix up the ingredients."


1506 U St. N.W., 202-588-7100;

There are many reasons to stop at Cakelove, a bakery that opened in March. There are the sinfully rich cakes with inventive names like "Susie's a Pink Lady" (layers of yellow sponge cake -- moistened by raspberry liqueur -- separated by raspberries and slathered with Italian butter-cream icing). There are also "Crunchy Feet," pound cakes baked in brioche pans so they come out slightly crispy. These come in flavors to die for, including chocolate-almond-orange and a scrumptious combo of mango, orange and cayenne.

Then there's the owner, Warren Errol Brown, 31, who was named one of People magazine's "Top 50 Bachelors" last year. Brown left his job as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to bake. Cakelove has been such a success, he's opening a cafe across the street so fans can sit and enjoy his baked goods.


1520 U St. N.W., 202-265-6546;

Why buy Marc Jacobs if you can spend much less and get the vintage clothing that inspires designers like him? If this is your thinking, Meeps is a wonderful place to try. Owners Danni Sharkey and Leann Trowbridge scour estate auctions and yard sales to fill their store with cool shoes, dresses, purses and men's suits. Among their more distinctive items are a 19th-century bustle skirt and bathing suits from the 1960s.

True story: Recently found at Meeps was a sundress with lace piping that was a dead ringer for a piece from Anna Sui's Spring 2002 collection. Price of Sui's dress: $235. The Meeps version? $24.

Millenium Decorative Arts,

1528 U St. N.W., 202-462-4444

This neat little antiques store focuses on housewares, furniture and collectibles from the 20th century. The place to seek fairly inexpensive pieces of furniture if you're on a budget.

Sisterspace and Books,

1515 U St. N.W., 202-332-3433;

This store offers wall-to-wall shelves of books by and about African-American women. It also stocks cards and gifts with an African-American touch.

Trade Secrets,

basement of 1515 U St. N.W., 202-667-0634;

The place to go for an eclectic selection of clothing, accessories, aromatherapy items and handmade artifacts imported from places as far-flung as Tibet, Japan, Malaysia and Africa.

Wild Women Wear Red,

1512 U St. N.W., 202-387-5700

Toddre Monier was deep in a forest in Namibia for the Peace Corps last year when she dreamt that she owned a women's shoe store named "Wild Women Wear Red." This spring, she made it a reality when she opened a store on U Street that's attracted customers as much with its funky decor -- by husband and co-owner Bill Johnson, who is a furniture and interior designer -- as it has with its eclectic selection of shoes, clothing and purses. Monier and Johnson have filled their store with cool clothing by little-known designers from New York and Philadelphia.

Monier, 28, also is a talented designer who makes gorgeous one-of-a-kind purses that are definite conversation pieces.

Zawadi Gallery,

1524 U St. N.W., 202-232-2214

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