Like Barack Obama's campaign catchword, change is the theme in Washington. The once-sleepy city is a happening hot spot, with exciting new attractions, chic eateries and vibrant nightlife in formerly dicey neighborhoods. Think you can't have a hip time in D.C.? Yes, you can! USA TODAY's Kitty Bean Yancey leads a tour of some insider haunts (including a few already graced by the Obamas).
The U Street corridor
Dubbed the "Black Broadway" in the segregation era and damaged in '60s race riots, the street northeast of Dupont Circle is lined with clubs, restaurants and boutiques that attract a diverse crowd. The historic Lincoln Theatre (202-328-6000; thelincolntheatre.org) has been beautifully restored and will be the site of "The People's Inaugural Gospel Concert" Sunday. Lines got even longer at the half-century-old Ben's Chili Bowl (202-667-0909; benschilibowl.com) after the president-elect stopped by the no-frills eatery last Saturday with D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty for the signature chili-crowned $4.95 "half-smoke" sausage on a bun. It's also a favorite of comedian Bill Cosby.
A creation by Oprah's chef
Chef/owner Art Smith, who once cooked for the talk-show queen and Obama supporter, has opened Art and Soul (202-393-7777; artandsouldc.com), in the new Liaison Capitol Hill boutique hotel (866-246-2203; affinia.com) on New Jersey Avenue, just steps from Union Station and the Capitol. The restaurant's décor is Milan-modern, including U-shaped cream faux-crocodile banquettes inset in walls, perfect for hush-hush power schmoozing. Giant renderings of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and others adorn the walls. The menu with $18-$32 entrees offers hearty drinks (a $12 "pink elephant" martini with 4 ounces of gin), old-school Southern hospitality and cuisine (pork chops with red-eye gravy, shrimp and grits) and creative melds such as old-fashioned corn hoecakes tarted up with smoked salmon and pickled okra. The sole disappointment on a recent night: pecan-crusted chicken, said to be a Winfrey fave, that was dry and almost tasteless.
Updated 14th Street
This former sketchy zone has turned into a neighborhood for the young and trendy, who can be seen day and night toting gym bags, recyclable Whole Foods sacks and $1,000 handbags. New draws include Marvin (202-797-7171; marvindc.com), at the intersection of U and 14th streets, named for late soul legend Marvin Gaye. It specializes in scrumptious down-home dishes, such as the popular $16 chicken, waffles and collard greens and $8 shrimp and grits, plus Belgian staples (mussels and crispy fries with mayonnaise dipping sauce). What does Gaye, whose psychedelic portrait in platform boots dominates the Euro-bistro dining room, have to do with Belgium? He lived there briefly and loved the food, a black-clad waiter explained. The second-floor lounge and outdoor terrace bar upstairs are weekend hot spots.
Traveling trendsters hole up at the new Donovan HouseHotel (800-383-6900; thompsonhotels.com), named for "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the pre-CIA spy organization OSS. Highlights include spiral-shaped showers and the Desmond Tutu Suite. (The South African cleric has stayed here.) Not far are the ultramodern Lotus Lounge (202-289-4222; lotusloungedc.com), where VIP wannabes lay down $100 bills for bottle service, and the Café Saint-Ex (202-265-7839; saint-ex.com), a hangout from brunch till the wee hours.
Front-page museum news
Transplanted from Arlington, Va., into contemporary digs that cost $450 million, the Newseum (888-639-7386; newseum.org) bills itself as the world's most interactive museum. Its seven levels fronting Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol burst with media memorabilia and interactive displays. (Obama daughters Malia and Sasha tried being weathercasters Saturday.) Current exhibits include front pages proclaiming Obama the 44th president and a "Vote for the Presidential Pooch" corner, where visitors drop coins or bills into tubes in front of photos of non-allergenic dog breeds for consideration as White House pet. The current crowd favorite: a shelter dog.
Just down the street is another new attraction: the $621 million U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (202-226-8000; visitthecapitol.gov), which opened in November. While it will be closed to the public Monday and Tuesday, the Newseum, which is on the inaugural parade route and hosting camera crews from major media, will be humming. Tuesday's general-admission tickets ($20 adults; $13 kids 7-18; 6 and under free) are sold out. Museumgoers can see the parade and watch TV coverage and the swearing-in on multiple giant screens.
Newseum food (including $7.25 mac 'n' cheese) is by Beverly Hills wonder-chef Wolfgang Puck. His sleek, adjacent The Source restaurant (202-637-6100; wolfgangpuck.com), which serves Asian fusion fare, was named 2008 new eatery of the year by D.C.'s restaurant association. Hillary Clinton has dined here.
The little restaurant that can
A baker's dozen of out-of-town chefs — including Puck, Alain Ducasse, Todd English, Michael Mina, Charlie Palmer and Eric Ripert — have unpacked their knives in D.C. Resident chef-of-the-moment is Spaniard José Andrés — whose inventive ways with small plates at Oyamel, Zaytinya, Jaleo, Café Atlántico and minibar (thinkfoodgroup.com) has brought international recognition. Andrés eateries offer inaugural-themed menus.
Meanwhile, a young chef who doesn't make many headlines has foodies flocking to Komi (202-332-9200; komirestaurant.com), a townhouse with just a dozen tables near Dupont Circle. Johnny Monis, 29, has built a fervent following with Mediterranean-accented dishes and a focus on food rather than marketing and expanding, even though he was nominated for rising-star chef of 2008 by the James Beard Foundation. "I'm happy here," he says. Komi's décor is simple — yellow walls with candles in sconces. The $90-$125 set menus Monis hand-writes daily list choices that might include a mezzethakia selection of Greek appetizers, suckling pig or olive-oil gelato. Monis, who named the restaurant for a Greek beach near his grandmother's home, loves to slow-roast goat and says he goes through 20 a week.
Downtown moves up
The once-seedy area near the Verizon Center sports arena has been reborn as Penn Quarter, a nightlife hub. One draw: Central Michel Richard, a modern bar and bistro (202-626-0015; centralmichelrichard.com) from L.A. chef Michel Richard of Citronelle fame. It won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for best new U.S. restaurant. The décor is light and airy: blond wood and butter-colored leather banquettes. Well-heeled patrons tuck into $12 country paté or the popular $33 lobster burger, washed down with a well-chosen selection of unusual wines, fetched from floor-to-ceiling glass cases.
The Penn Quarter also is home to ever-changing clubs. Currently, young partiers line up outside Lux Lounge (202-347-8100; luxloungedc.com). (Other nightspots-of-the-moment include Fur, Josephine and Midtown, elsewhere in D.C.)
Insider pizza joint
Bigwigs and their offspring who attend nearby private schools, including the main campus of Sidwell Friends (the Obama daughters' new school), line up outside a brick storefront in the upscale Cleveland Park neighborhood. Inside 2 Amys (202-885-5700; 2amyspizza.com), they nibble Naples-style thin-crusted pies in a spare dining room. The $10.95 Margherita with mozzarella and basil sells well. Parents lap up the wine bar tucked at the rear. It also pours homemade Italian-style limoncello ($7).
Old favorites reborn
Some were surprised when forward-thinking Obama put his family up at The Hay-Adams (800-853-6807, hayadams.com), a traditional D.C. lodging and a Bush-supporter haunt. But the 145-room hotel across from the White House is a perennial choice of insiders who favor discretion and intimacy. The red-walled Off the Record Bar is a power-broker spot. Another lodging favored by VIPs — the once-stuffier Four Seasons Hotel Washington D.C. (800-819-5053; fourseasons.com) in Georgetown — has unveiled a major face lift. It includes a just-opened Mina steakhouse. Yet another transformation in once-staid D.C.