In her office situated among the packed NoMa neighborhood, NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) President Robin-Eve Jasper recalls how about 12 years ago, nothing much was built north of K Street. Looking out over the packed neighborhood now, it’s hard to imagine anything else in this evolving spot.
“BIDs in neighborhoods that are a little bit neglected are established by property owners to do a better job keeping it clean and well-marketed,” Jasper says. “In this case, it was a place where a lot of different owners could say, ‘We are all competitors, but we can also collaborate to make this neighborhood really exciting.’”
Exciting might be an understatement. Since its establishment in 2007, the BID has seen the neighborhood experience rapid growth that skyrocketed once-vacant lots into a dense hub for business, retail, food and drink. A hallmark of the neighborhood’s ability to foster businesses and establish a sense of identity in a location that once had virtually none is a fierce emphasis on community and mutually beneficial relationships.
“I think we looked for opportunities that felt authentic,” Jasper says of the businesses that now call NoMa home. “People came to us with ideas. Wunder Garten is a great example. One of the people who started it is Bavarian by birth. He was an employee at NPR and he said, ‘We have no place like a beer garden to go hang out. We should have a beer garden.’ We listened to that and thought, ‘You know, that really does sound right to us.’”
NoMa’s recent notoriety in the food and drink world is all the more interesting given that when development of the area started, the focus was almost solely on office space. As the area evolved and people created homes instead of just workplaces, the turn to retail, food and drink space grew at lightning speed.
“We’ve got a whole lot more coming,” Jasper says. “I think what’s going to ultimately be a hallmark in the neighborhood [is] that there’s this great, nontraditional mosaic of retail.”
This progress can perhaps account for why some of the hottest and newest names in dining have taken up NoMa as their home. Breweries like Red Bear Brewing Co., game bar The Eleanor, sunny and spicy Laos in Town, and fast-casual fun Seoulspice – to name just a few – add to the mosaic Jasper speaks of. As the BID continues to grow and more people find themselves living, working and playing in NoMa, a strong sense of community and willingness to adapt to change will make this neighborhood even more dynamic.
We took an inside look at the community aspect of the neighborhood that’s been instrumental in incubating food, drink and reciprocal relationships among business owners.
This spot for fast-casual Korean food uses fresh, local ingredients that call back to founder Eric Shim’s heritage and family recipes. Now with three locations, the restaurant differentiates itself from a sea of local fast-casual concepts by “always trying to improve so that the customer experience [is] one they can’t find anywhere else,” general manager Danielle Wilt says.
“We want people to want to come here because they feel like they are loved and appreciated.”
Beyond providing quality Korean food to residents and visitors, the spot has been able to foster a similar sense of community among other area businesses.
“The [BID] provides us with so many opportunities to make those connections and [is] willing to go out of their way to make a more close-knit community,” Wilt continues.
You can now find Seoulspice in Tenleytown and College Park, but Wilt says their home base of NoMa was instrumental in giving them a platform to perfect their business model and community aspect before spreading their wings locally.
“As the BID began to expand and the residential buildings began to pop up and really develop, we have been able to gain a following with residents – people that call this place home as opposed to just calling it their place of work. We’ve been able to really grow. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the community in the past three years and really taken that to help us with our quality of service and quality of food.”
145 N St. NE, DC; www.seoulspice.com
Laos in Town
Laos in Town opened its doors merely months ago but is already making a splash by bringing the cuisine of Laos – along with an excellent bar program and thoughtful décor – to NoMa. When owner Nick Ongsangkoon and chef Ben Tiatasin set out to create a new destination for Laotian food in the District, they took a handful of different trips touring Laos to get a true, authentic feel for the food and the community they wanted to take home and share with diners. Upon returning home, Ongsangkoon looked for a place to set up shop and NoMa quickly became an obvious fit for all he wanted to accomplish.
“A couple of years ago when we started to launch this concept, we would go around eating and looking at other restaurants,” he says. “We fell in love with this particular neighborhood.”
He speaks of seeing restaurants, bars and beer gardens throughout the easily walkable, tree-lined area. The sense of community found throughout NoMa is a great platform for Ongsangkoon’s ultimate goal: to familiarize visitors of Laos in Town with the food and the culture of Laos that inspired him to open this spot in the first place.
“I would like to showcase the culture,” he says as he lovingly recalling his travels throughout Laos and all the cooking techniques his team has brought back to DC. “I believe that if Washingtonians would at least open up, they’ll fall in love as I fell in love. I want them to step into the restaurant and feel like they’re in Laos.”
250 K St. NE, DC; www.laosintown.com
Born out of a desire for a Bavarian-style beer garden and a way to fill a vacant lot in the middle of the neighborhood, Wunder Garten has become a go-to outdoor watering hole since its evolution as a pop-up in 2015 to its current location on First Street. Co-owner Biva Ranjeet says that although their transition from pop-up to permanent locale was not unlike other businesses that have made that jump, they “focused on the location, the neighborhood and our unique event programming.”
The space is open year-round and provides a whole host of unique programming along with a robust beer, wine and drink program. The CaliBurger food truck can be found for those wishing to snack, and the large space is conducive to intimate conversations or large groups wishing to catch up.
“We’ve built a dedicated, hardworking team that has become like a second family and cultivated a community both within NoMa and the region as a welcoming backyard in the heart of NoMa,” Ranjeet says of Wunder Garten’s unique digs. “We recognize that we’re not just another bar but a place where people can enjoy some great drinks, food and music in the midst of a carefully curated backdrop of flora – and from time to time, also some great programming. It’s a relatively simple formula but it takes a lot to get it right.”
She also notes that outside of the community it has curated within neighborhood walls, Wunder Garten has become “one of the large attractions to the neighborhood.” The spot draws both locals and visitors to their urban oasis, especially around Oktoberfest and other beer-driven Bavarian celebrations. NoMa resident or not, the once-vacant lot provides something special for all who visit to partake or imbibe in.
1101 1st St. NE, DC; www.wundergartendc.com
Carving Room NoMa
Known for: A second location of Carving Room, featured on the Guy Fieri-led Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, popped up in NoMa this spring. The spot brings an array of gourmet sandwiches, small plates and burgers along with an open-air watering hole to the neighborhood. 140 M St. NE, DC; www.carvingroom.com
Known for: This spot features two mini-bowling lanes (pro tip: reserve your lanes online before you and your friends venture out), an inventive food and drink program, and perhaps the most DC namesake of a restaurant to date (its name is a shout-out to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton). 100 Florida Ave. NE, DC; www.eleanordc.com
Lily and the Cactus
Known for: An innovative blend of cuisines from the Southwestern U.S. and Africa, this restaurant offers classics and combinations of flavors you won’t find anywhere else – NoMa or otherwise. 1225 1st St. NE, DC; www.lilyandthecactus.com
Known for: Another beloved spot that decided to bring their offerings to NoMa, the pizza and salumi restaurant set up shop in the bottom of The Belgard apartments this summer. Residents and visitors alike can indulge in the Neapolitan-style pizza that’s made it a mainstay at the original Brookland location, which will open soon in NoMa. 2711 12th St. NE, DC; www.fb.com/menomaledc
Red Bear Brewing Co.
Known for: Creative brews that are fun to drink and even more fun to order (think the Dom Peri-yaaaas!, a brut kölsch made with hops and full of floral, wine-adjacent flavors), lots of board games, and a fun, inclusive environment for all beer drinkers who walk through their doors. 209 M St. NE, DC; www.redbear.beer
Known for: Providing visitors and residents of the AVA NoMa apartment building in which it’s situated with a one-stop food shop, plus 30 draft lines and a killer happy hour. 51 M St. NE, DC; www.streetsmarket.com
Free for All
As another way to foster community, the NoMa BID offers all its programming – often involving local businesses – as free to all who wish to attend.
“We make all of our events free so we never exclude anybody,” Jasper says. “It’s another dimension of welcoming people. It’s part of the DNA here and I think it’s had an impact on how people feel about being in the neighborhood.”
Catch some of the following programming throughout the summer. For more information on year-round events, visit www.nomabid.org.
THROUGH SUNDAY, AUGUST 4
FRESHFARM NoMa Farmers Market
Every Sunday this summer, you’ll find purveyors of the best local goods take to the streets of NoMa to share all they have to offer with the community. Find coffee, produce, prepared foods, flowers and more for sale. Visit the NoMa BID’s website for a full list of vendors and special events. FRESHFARM NoMa Market also accepts and matches SNAP, WIC and SFMNP benefits, and is family- and dog-friendly. Located at the corner of 2nd and L Streets in NE, DC
WEDNESDAYS THROUGH AUGUST
NoMa Summer Screen
Back for its 12th year, NoMa Summer Screen’s 2019 theme is “Who’s Got Game?” Don’t miss sports films new and old such as Bend it Like Beckham, Remember the Titans and She’s the Man. Every movie is subtitled, dogs are allowed on leashes and you can indulge in fine food truck cuisine. Visit www.nomabid.org/summerscreen for a full list of films and food trucks. Begins at sunset. Lot on 1st and Pierce: 1150 1st St. NE, DC
FRIDAYS THROUGH SEPTEMBER
Feel Good Fridays
Kick off your weekends every first Friday this summer with a visit to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro Stop or CNN Plaza for free treats from NoMa vendors Galley Foods, Streets Market and Sweet Science Coffee. You’ll find coffee, breakfast food, friendly neighbors and a much brighter Friday await you. 7:30-9:30 a.m. NoMa-Gallaudet Metro: N Street in NE, DC // CNN Plaza: 840 1st St. NE, DC
THURSDAY, JULY 4
July 4 Bash
This family-friendly celebration of all things patriotic is the perfect way to spend your Independence Day. Come for the cookout and stay for face painting, moon bounces, live music and more. 12-3 p.m. Lot on 1st and Pierce: 1150 1st St. NE, DC