Five years ago, there were few places for a sit-down meal on Upshur Street, in the heart of the Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Residents could rely on one good restaurant and a takeout place or two, said Councilmember Brandon T. Todd, of Ward 4, which includes the Petworth community. Today’s Upshur Street, though, boasts more than 10 restaurants, at least three of which “were named some of the country’s top places to get fast-casual food and drinks,” Todd said.
The revival happening in Petworth reflects the cultural transformation taking place in the nation’s capital. It became readily apparent in 2016, when Washington, D.C. was honored? both as restaurant city of the year by Bon Appétit and the country’s hottest entrepreneurship hub by the Kauffman Index.
Excitement continues to grow with new entertainment venues opening one after another. Just last fall, Todd proposed that a new director of the office of nightlife be created to head up the city’s booming bar scene. The city’s cultural wave included the opening in 2016 of MGM National Harbor, a new outpost on the banks of the Potomac from one of the world’s largest entertainment resort providers.
“What we’re seeing in my ward and in wards all across the city is activity beginning to sprout up in places that have been devoid of any for many years,” Todd said. “We have hundreds of new restaurants and bars and cultural activities that are drawing people to Washington, D.C., every day of the week.”
Whether it’s an edgy beer hall shaking up a traditional neighborhood, a renowned chef serving ultra-local cuisine in a renovated church or the sleek reinvention of a tired waterfront, opportunities for fun abound in the new D.C. And while monuments, museums and civil affairs have long brought travelers interested in history and politics to the city, the evolution underway is drawing a culturally-savvy and discovery-oriented new crowd.
“There is a renaissance happening in the DMV right now: a fresh, new, hip vibe that is bringing everyone together—hipsters and politicians, policy buffs and sneaker enthusiasts, all converging,” said Melonie Johnson, president and chief operating officer of MGM National Harbor, using the new catch phrase for “the District, Maryland and Virginia.”
Many are drawn to the increasingly eclectic food scene, whose character has been building for several years. A slew of talented chefs have set up shop everywhere from Shaw, a neighborhood where jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald once performed, to the Wharf, a newly-revitalized area on the southeastern Potomac River waterfront. Travelers have their pick of Michelin-starred restaurants and creative fast-casual concepts alike, and festivals throughout the DMV celebrate local and international fare year-round. This appetite for variety, and the marriage of local and global sensibilities, is energizing the cultural shift throughout D.C.
It also attracted MGM Resorts to the city. “We saw an opportunity in the capital region that would allow us to showcase our entertainment brand in a unique environment and to a diverse audience,” Johnson said.
Taking architectural cues from D.C.’s monuments and museums, MGM designed the resort “with a sleek, modern feel that complements the current skyline without detracting from it,” she said. The brand hired local and minority businesses during the construction phase, and its representatives met with neighborhood groups before getting licensed to operate, in an effort to reach out to local vendors.
“We wanted to create an experience that feels connected to the community and its history, while remaining authentic to our global perspective and the international nature of the destination,” Johnson said.
Inside the resort, nine unique eateries range from a high-end seafood restaurant, led by celebrated chef José Andrés, to a sports bar serving American classics with local flair. The nightlife venues include a cocktail lounge inspired by D.C.’s famous cherry blossoms and a 3,000-seat theater that hosts big acts like Bruno Mars, Chris Rock, Cher and championship boxing. That’s all in addition to a 125,000-square-foot casino with slots, table games and poker tournaments, of course. There are also quieter activities available: Various luxury boutiques welcome shoppers from across the country, and the spa has partnered with renowned skincare brand Clarins.
The resort is set amid the stunning National Harbor scene, which stretches for more than a mile along the Potomac River. Less than 20 minutes outside the nation’s capital, travelers can relax at the marina, stroll the tree-lined promenades and take a ride on the Capital Wheel, a 180-foot observation wheel with panoramic city views.
With all of the resort’s action and energy just steps away, the harbor perfectly characterizes the changes happening in Washington, D.C., a city where corporate leaders rub shoulders with creative artists, and entertainment can take on just about any form. “I think in the past we have been seen as a government town, and certainly we still are a government town,” Todd said. “But a government town with a twist.”