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A Visit to Adams Morgan Area of Washington, D.C., Shows Good Taste

December 02, 1990|MAUREEN PHELAN

WASHINGTON — I moved to this city two years ago, and soon learned what Washingtonians mean when they talk about the two-party system: They mean one on Friday night and one on Saturday night. If your circle of acquaintances includes lobbyists or Capitol Hill staffers, you can easily dine on hors d'oeuvres every evening of the week.

This town was made for people like me. This spring, I finally unpacked the last few boxes from Colorado, and found all my pots and pans and stuff, but hey--who missed them? I have always said, if God wanted me to cook, She wouldn't have invented takeout.

Although this will come as news to many in the nation's capital, even free food gets tiresome after awhile, especially if it consists of nothing but highly spiced appetizers made from the commodity being lobbied, i.e., soybeans, alfalfa, cow lips. Yucko. That's when those of us who can't cook go to Adams Morgan.

If you haven't visited D.C. for some time, you may not recognize the name. Once an elegant residential neighborhood, the area had been allowed to decline until a few years ago, when ethnic restaurants began to open around the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road. Little shops followed, the deeply cool nightclub and the first yuppie residents; the area is now a happy mix of ethnic and very urban yuppie cultures, and full of good cheap restaurants.

Each September, Adams Morgan hosts the largest block party on the East Coast, with food, music, dance, crafts, theater and art shows. (Next year's takes place Sept. 15.) But the block party (and warm Saturday nights) have become far too popular; it is much nicer to visit Adams Morgan on an ordinary day or evening, when you have a bit of time to stroll around.

On Saturday mornings all year long, at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, there is an open air vegetable and flower market which has a nice flavor. A sale of fresh baked goods or a basket of nuts is as likely to be conducted in Spanish as in English.

The browsable shops are mostly on 18th Street. You can easily spend an afternoon finding the exactly right gift, or the wild earrings that will firmly establish you as the zaniest gal in your little town. Here are several favorites, some of which have quirky or seasonal hours, so call ahead.

Antiques: The most beautifully redone Deco, '50s and Mission-style furniture is at Homeworks, 2405 18th St. (202-483-5857); such care has been put into the renovation of these pieces that they look brand new. Other antique and junk shops on 18th Street: Nice Stuff at 2102 (234-2208); Ruff and Ready at 2220 (462-4541); Chenonceau Antiques at 2314 (667-1651); Uni-Form, mostly retro clothes and household items, at 2318 (483-4577), and tiny Brenda's, downstairs at 2409 (265-1122).

Books: One of my favorite bookstores is Idle Time Books, 2410 18th St., with three floors of used books, an occasional armchair and a mellow and knowledgeable staff of readers. Others: There is a radical bookstore at 2438 18th St. called Revolution Books (265-1969). You may prefer Bick's Books at 2309 18th St., which carries philosophy, literature and books on Green politics; it is bright, airy and comfortable for browsing.

Neat Stuff: The most crucially weird and charming pins, earnings, watches, ties, picture frames, belts, etc., can be found at Wake Up Little Suzie, downstairs at 2316 18th St. Others on 18th Street: Fantasia, at 2402, and Noteworthy, at 2420.

At some point in your wanderings, the scents will remind you that the real reason to come to Adams Morgan is the food, glorious food. Here is a sampling of the creme de la creme de la creme (there are too many to even mention all).

Ethiopian: Unlike "lady wrestler" or "good lawyer" or "family vacation," Ethiopian cuisine is not an oxymoron; it's a real favorite in D.C.

Each diner orders an entree and several vegetables, which are all served on a communal tray. There is no silverware; instead, meals are served with a plate of injera, which is flat, soft, spongy Ethiopian bread. Each diner uses bits of the bread to scoop up the food. (A year after the fact, my nephew still talks about "the place where you get to eat with your hands.")

The novelty wears off quickly. What brings people back is the delicious food: lamb, beef, chicken, seafood and lentils, stewed and braised and simmered for hours, delicately spiced and luscious.

A very popular Ethiopian restaurant is Meskerem, 2434 18th St. If you can get one of the woven-straw Ethiopian drum tables, at which you sit on camel-hide hassocks, then this is the place. However, don't let them seat you downstairs or in the basement, which is like the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. Good food, no atmosphere.

In that case, try my own favorite--the crowded, noisy, happy Red Sea, 2463 18th St., which has a gorgeous old mirrored mahogany bar and stunningly beautiful waitresses.

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