Blurbs from the ‘Burbs – Vol. 1 – The Reluctant Arlingtonian

Blurbs from the ‘Burbs is written by new Arlington resident Jeff Zeeman.

Following seven years in Columbia Heights, and 15 years in total of urban living, a variety of altogether unexceptional factors (desire for more space, stellar public schools and amenities, immediate proximity to nature, better commute for my wife, an interest in no longer being awaken by drunk revelers at 2:00 A.M.) triumphed over my initial reluctance to move to the western half of Arlington. The urban snob in me at first rebelled: after years of carless living in edgy, gentrifying neighborhoods in three different cities, would I be able to survive without the constant reinvention of the urban fabric, the diverse and quirky neighborhood fixtures, and the street-level energy to sustain me? Admittedly, some part of me feared transforming from the “cool, in-the-know city guy” so central to my self-concept into “minivan-driving Dockers-wearing suburban golfer guy.” Happily, I’ve learned that, if you look carefully, Arlington is not without its own idiosyncratic quirks, and I plan to periodically chronicle them here. In this introductory post, I’ll summarize what has surprised me about Arlington so far, and what I miss most about D.C. Future posts will more narrowly focus on smaller discoveries from my adventures in Arlington and Falls Church.

Happy Surprises:

(1) Between the options available to me in Arlington and adjacent Falls Church (I live near the border), I can eat just as well as in D.C., only a lot cheaper. True, Arlington has few if any offerings that can match the higher end of the D.C food scene. But the area makes up for what it lacks in expensive and stylish restaurants with its abundance of really stellar cheap eats, in particular, ethnic food. I’ve already found a regular Chinese spot (Hong Kong Palace), Vietnamese spot (Four Sisters), pizza place (Pupatella — basically, a way more awesome Redrocks) and Mexican / El Salvadoran (La Union) that in my mind trump any in their category in D.C. Arlington and Falls Church are also reputed to be chock full of burger, kebob, Peruvian chicken, Chinese, Thai/Laotian and Vietnamese places that I am eager to try. I am, however, still on the hunt for solid Indian, Sushi, and Italian options. I’ll chronicle some of my favorites in more detail in future posts.

(2) The film buff in me is rejoicing. Going to the movies in D.C. was always a bit of a nightmare. For such a cultured city, D.C. is strangely lacking in convenient movie theaters. You can brave an hour-long line at the Uptown, circle for hours before finding parking in Georgetown, or arrive 30 minutes early after fighting downtown crowds to secure a decent seat for a new release at E Street or Chinatown. Compare that to Arlington, where I can watch a classic film while drinking a few beers at the Cinema Draft House, reserve a sweet leather recliner and skip the previews at Courthouse Plaza, or catch a great independent film in Shirlington. Plus, Ballston provides yet another option for new releases.

(3) Trails, trails, trails. Because my prior familiarity with Arlington centered on Crystal City and Clarendon, I never really associated this area with natural splendor, or anything remotely resembling that. But it seems like I can’t go anywhere in Arlington without falling ass-backwards into an awesome trail or park. You can use those trails to bike virtually anywhere, and all without a hungover hipster nearly mowing you down in his car, or a delinquent kid throwing stones at you. Or you can walk endlessly, and find all manner of interesting wildlife and natural treasures. I look forward to more exploration of the Arlington trail network in better weather.

Continues after the jump.

Still Missing:

(1) Interesting neighborhood bars. So far, I’ve been underwhelmed by the bar scene in Arlington. All I want in a bar is a place with a comfortable and creative environment, a few reliable food options, a beer list with some novel choices, and a vibe that is not manufactured from a corporate playbook … in other words, some real character. Granted, until recently, this hasn’t been a D.C. forte either, but great strides have been made in recent years with the opening of Granville Moore’s, Boundary Stone, Room 11, The Passenger, The Pug, Red Derby, and so on. Arlington bars, at least the ones I’ve discovered to date, are generally either chains, or might as well be. The one exception I’ll note is the Westover Beer Garden. Great beer list, good food, and a pretty chill vibe. Doesn’t try too hard, and doesn’t need to. I’d love to see a few more neighborhood bars like this place. Suggestions welcome, by the way, as I’m still exploring.

(2) It seems harder to get to know the neighbors. Maybe it’s just the (somewhat isolated) block I’m living on, or maybe it’s a product of arriving in the middle of the winter when everyone is huddled inside, but people have taken a lot less interest in getting to know me than when I first moved to D.C.. Of course, part of that is moving from an area full of young, single folks to an area where most people are more focused on their family life.

(3) I guess it’s a sign that I’ve acclimated quickly (and may already be turning into the dreaded suburban-Dockers-guy) that I really struggled to come up with number three. I’ll go with the lack of interesting public art and architecture. Arlington could use more public art. (So could D.C., for that matter, but Arlington is even more deficient in this regard). I’ve been particularly underwhelmed, so far, by the overall creativity of the architecture (whether larger office buildings, schools and libraries, or private homes) in Arlington. While many neighborhoods are loaded with gorgeous historic homes, others feature too many ridiculously oversized McMansion-style properties squeezed onto tiny lots (the Arlington equivalent of the hideous rowhouse pop-up), and there appears to be a pathological aversion to contemporary architecture with any flare at all in the parts of Arlington I’ve explored to date. Falls Church, on the other hand, does feature many amazing mid-century gems on Lake Barcroft … a topic to explore in a future post.

I’ll be back next month with my first post chronicling discoveries from my Arlington and Falls Church adventures, in hopes of proving that the beautiful life, is, indeed, portable.

85 Comment

  • I think this will be interesting. I’m looking forward to this.

  • I have to agree wholeheartedly with your comparisons. DC certainly has better bars, but ethnic restaurants, Asian in particular, seem to always be way, WAY better in inside-the-Beltway Northern Virginia than they are in DC.

    • and WAY better in Wheaton, Annandale and Rockville than Arlington

    • I’m an ex-expat who lived in Thailand and travelled throughout Asia. Arlington really sucks. the highly recommended places all have been disappointments. The heyday of Vietnamese places in Clarendon was about 20 years ago. Even Rockville has better destinations than Arlington and DC has been improving.

      • If you think the good Asian places in NOVA are in Clarendon, you are doing it wrong.

        • Completely agree. They all left Clarendon and are now in Falls Church and other close-in VA locales. I count proximity to Eden Center (in Falls Church) as one of the main things that makes living in Arlington great.

      • residents of the dc metro area have access to more varied and delicious foods than most of the world, even more than most of america and we still complain to no end about how it’s not good enough.

  • Galaxy Hut is a gem in Arlington in a sea of plastic.

    • I even make the trip out to Arlington on occasion for Galaxy Hut. Great spot!

    • I agree about the trails…at least paved ones. Having moved to Alexandria about nine months ago, I really, really, really, really miss being able to walk out my front door and go for a long trail run with my dogs in Rock Creek Park or on the Glover-Archibald and Whitehaven trails.

      +1000 to suggestions about Galaxy Hut (70′s styler tabletop video games!!!) and Lost Dog for beer. And while it’s cheesy and serves mediocre food, don’t forgot about the Dogfish Head restaurant at Seven Corners. You can get some of their funkier and seasonal beers on tap.

  • msmaryedith

    Try Galaxy Hut! It’s a great bar.

  • Couldn’t #3 be your commute? Presuming that you work in the city.

  • Who are you trying to convince here, Jeff? Us… or yourself?!?

    Nah, just kidding. Good luck out there!

  • colheights67

    “The film buff in me is rejoicing. Going to the movies in D.C. was always a bit of a nightmare. For such a cultured city, D.C. is strangely lacking in convenient movie theaters.”

    This might be enough to make me leave DC after 22 years. I was just thinking a couple of days ago about the sad, sad lack of theaters in the city.

    • i can’t believe anyone who has been the e street theatre would prefer the choices in arlington

    • Yeah, we could use another E Street like theater, still sad the Dupont theater is gone, but as far as the parking….you know both of the big both theaters in NW have garages you can zip into easily?

    • As a Petworth resident, I typically drive up to the Silver Spring theaters. I wonder how many other DC residents head to the burbs for movies. I think a theater in DC USA would absolutely kill it once Best Buy finally exits.

      • Please Please Please no movie theater in Columbia Heights!

      • I’m in the Cap Hill area and usually end up driving to Potomac Yards because it only takes like 10 minutes. However, if that movie theater that was being talked about near the Nats Park gets built, that would be the go to.

      • If something has left the E Street Theater, I have gone to Shirlington (though parking there is a nightmare too). There is a shockingly poor amount of theaters in DC.

    • What about West End? It’s tiny, but I really like it. I also really like seeing summer movies at Uptown. Usually the people waiting in line are really excited to see the film, and it’s fun chatting and waiting. Plus, that deli right there is delicious. Also, I love E street and don’t find it too crowded. Gallery place is a whole other story…

    • I really don’t get the movie complaint. I live in Columbia Heights and the Uptown is pretty accesible via the Circulator to Woodley Park (I’ve also done bikeshare, with a station half a block from the theater) and both E Street and Gallery Place are, what, 5 metro stations away? Gtown is a pain, but I don’t know what they have that the other three don’t.

      • You don’t get the complaint about the movie theaters? Even in this thread, people are only talking about 1-3 theaters. The Uptown shows one movie at a time, you have to arrive at the Chinatown theater at least a half hour before the show to get a seat, and E street is fantastic, but it’s a certain type. I like a good documentary or independent film. But sometimes E street doesn’t have what I’m looking for as I am not in the mood for the plight of a family torn apart or comment about the recession. One more thing: have you ever been to the Chinatown theater when people haven’t straggled in half way through when the movie they paid for is finished???? :)

    • DC used to have many more choices like the Biograph and Key. But it does have the West End and E Street. I never hear anything about the Angelika outlet in NoVA–is it still in business?

    • some film buff, if you’re not gonna name drop AFI in silver spring.

      and what the heck is a hungover hipster in a car? sounds like you’re living where you belong.

      • Someone who thinks Gallery Place is too much of a hassle to get to is unlikely to want to go as far as Silver Spring.

  • “The urban snob in me at first rebelled: after years of carless living in edgy, gentrifying neighborhoods in three different cities, would I be able to survive without the constant reinvention of the urban fabric, the diverse and quirky neighborhood fixtures, and the street-level energy to sustain me? Admittedly, some part of me feared transforming from the “cool, in-the-know city guy” so central to my self-concept into “minivan-driving Dockers-wearing suburban golfer guy.

    “You can use those trails to bike virtually anywhere, and all without a hungover hipster nearly mowing you down in his car,”……

    Arlington sounds like paradise!! You’ll fit right in! Best of luck!

    • I was going to invite you to my Docker-wearing-Dads-of-DC meet-up, but now I guess you’re not eligible. Adieu.

  • Some suggestions – Indian, Delhi Club in Clarendon; Italian, Cafe Tirolo (red sauce) or Pizzeria Orso (Pizza as good as Pupatella, and great pastas); Bars, Galaxy Hut (as others have mentioned), O’Sullivans, Jays and Eat bar

    Happy surprise #4 – Enjoy not paying $7 or $8 for a beer.

  • #3 Your tax dollars are getting shipped down to Richmond to be spent by people like the Cooch.

    • Cooch is nuts, but #3.5 – At least those tax dollars are substantially lower….See also, Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas.

      • At least you can see tax dollars in action in great school districts like Arlington and Fairfax in addition to good roads and public services. It’s a joke how much we pay in taxes and we see absolutely nothing for it. I’m not knocking taxes. They should be paid. But they should also be put to good use.

        • To be fair, property and automobile taxes are much higher in VA, making the total tax burden for homeowners with cars lower in DC than it is in VA.

          In addition, property values are also higher per square foot in the densest Arlington neighborhoods putting your total cost of living and tax burden even higher.

          The schools and public services are better, but you are paying for it with your rental rates/ housing prices / property taxes. Pound for pound, you are much better off staying in the city and sending your kids to private school than paying 7 figures for a 3 bedroom 1950′s rancher so you can be in a good school district.

      • +1…and Ken Cooch is exactly why VA needs more DC-minded voters. Virginia did go blue, remember!

    • Yeah, because the DC politicos are so much better. Marion Barry anyone?

  • You are now officially in New Jersey…with parts of Maryland being Long Island, Yonkers, White Plains. Lol

  • As a person who lived in Arlington for 4 years before moving into the city, I think I’ll really appreciate this series.

    One of the things I think I’ve noticed is that when I lived in Arlington, the things I chose to do in DC were more selective, and I had the opportunity to try things that had what I percieved as actual value as a destination. I think what I gain in options by living IN the city, I lose in perpective in terms of being forced to make a good choice in where i dine, and spend my time. As a result, I’ve spent far more time at bars I DONT like, and eating food that WASN’T good, than I ever did when I lived in Arlington and had to “travel”.

  • Cool story, thanks for sharing some alternate perspectives, in an even-handed way. I totally agree about the limited movie options in DC. Living in NE, I usually head to Hyattsville for an uncrowded, high quality and cheaper viewing experience, though they don’t get the great films that E Street does. Ever since (after arriving what I thought was early) being seated in the far front corner of one of E Street’s narrow little screening rooms, I’ve been hesitant to risk a return. (not saying they’re all narrow; some are medium-sized, but some are tiny).

    Interested in your top picks for trails in Arlington– I’d love to try some new ones for strolling and biking this spring without feeling swarmed on all sides like I do near the mall and on the GW parkway bike path.

  • Try the beach shack (Clare & Don’s) near the intersection of 7 and 29 in Falls Church proper for a laid back bar. Another one is the bar at the Evening Star in Del Ray. Also the Lost Dog (multiple locations) for pizza/sandwiches.

  • I grew up in NOVA and have lived in both DC and Maryland so I’ve experienced the entire spectrum of lifestyles available here and agree with many of your observations about the suburbs.

    Hands down the suburbs have better, cheaper food. I’ve always found the food in DC to be overpriced and overrated. Annandale, Rockville, Wheaton, Falls Church, etc, all have amazing affordable food tucked away inconspicuously in strip malls. For Indian food in NOVA, try Haandi in Falls Church. For kabobs, try Shamshiry in Tysons. It’s more of a restaurant than a bar, but The Lost Dog Cafe has a huge beer selection. What about The Italian Store for your Italian fix?

    Another new option for movies in NOVA is The Angelika Film Center in Merrifield, Virginia. Also, I’ve always had a soft spot for Cinema Arts Movie theater out in Fairfax.

  • Second for Delhi Club, oddly good for being across the street from a metro entrance. But, if you are willing to make the drive, Woodlawns off of 29 in Fairfax serves amazing family-style Indian food. El Charito Caminante is another favorite I’ll make the trip out to Arlington for. Westover beer garden is a great bar option with rotating taps of craft beer and the grocery store has a phenomenal beer selection. Northside Social Club (used to be Murky Coffee) has a seriously talented head baker and make a fine cuppa coffee.

  • novadancer

    I lived in S. Arlington for 10 years before moving in 2010. I agree on movies and bike paths. I miss having miles and miles of biking/walking within a few blocks of my door and I love the Shirlington movie theater. My fav places that haven’t been mentioned are the Carlyle, Meaza (ethiopian) and several of the Pho restaurants.

  • Please utilize one of those great VA schools. Don’t sneak back into a DC school because its more convenient to your work. I’m tired of the fight to get my kid into a DC public or charter school only to see cars with VA/MD tags dropping off their kids.

  • Wow, it’s almost like I wrote this article. I was a long-time city dwelller, spending 6 years in Columbia Heights and 10 in Cleveland Park. I always scoffed at the idea of moving to Arlington, but for many of the same reasons you cite in your article, I came around. A year ago, my fiance and I moved to Clarendon and I’ve never looked back. I don’t miss the dirt, noise, and crime of Columbia Heights, although I do miss Sticky Fingers, Room 11, and a few other cool bars and restaurants.

  • sorry, more to add–excellent restaurants include Liberty Tavern, Cava Peking Gourmet Inn, Bangkok 54, Lyon Hall, the Green Pig. For neighborhood bars, I’m a big fan of Screwtop wine bar and Eat Bar/Tallula.

    • I’d have to agree to your recommendations. Peking Gourmet is an Peking Duck institution with a history of VIPs that swing by every once in a while. Tallulah/Eat Bar are awesome, with Eat Bar being one of my favorite spots to go since it doesn’t get too crowded due to it’s proximity to the Clarendon stripe. Lyon Hall has a great selection, but can get crowded on the weekends. Green Pig has amazing food if you’re willing to explore the other parts of pork products and a nice selection of drinks to go with it.

      If you like Churchkey’s selection of beer, check out Cafe Rustico in Ballston. Same owners with a smaller selection of beer (but still impressive). They also have good HH specials. Virtual Feed and Grain in old town Alexandria is another favorite for their atmosphere, food, and drinks. Fireflies in Del Ray has a live band occasionally with pizza and nice selection of beer to go with it.

      If you ever want to just kick it at home, stop by Total Wine and Beer and get ready to have options galore for microbrews.

      As for a solid sushi place: Tachibana in McLean is the spot to end your search. Sit at the bar and order the “omakase” if you’re willing to leaving it in the discretion of the sushi chef (also pricey).

  • I remember a friend trying to convince me to move to Clarendon before it had gone full Whole Foods. I never really got the point and still don’t. It’s pleasant enough and hasn’t driven out all the small businesses (just most of teh non-restaurant ones), but it’s between Ballston and Rosslyn.

  • In Falls Church, try Mad Fox Brewery or Sweetwater (Merrifield) for good microbrew. Dogwood Tavern has a good selection of beers as well as Lost Dog (someone else mentioned this above – there is one in Falls Church and Arlington). Gordon Biersch also has decent beer if you can brave Tyson’s.

    I love The Pub in McLean but it’s kind of disgusting, so if you can’t stand stinking of smoke it may not be for you. Clare and Don’s is good, though! I also enjoy O’Sullivan’s in Clarendon. If Eleventh ever reopens, you might like that too.

  • Thanks to all for the comments!

    I very much appreciate all the suggestions, and I will definitely be checking out many of the places you all mention. Galaxy Hut clearly is at the top of the list of bars I need to check out. I have made it to Northside Social, which I agree is a great spot.

    I do disagree (at least based on my experiences to date) with those who claim that the Chinese food, at least, is better in Rockville / Wheaton than in Falls Church. I’ve been to a few of the highly-regarded Chinese places in Maryland, and those actually let me down a bit. But I still have more exploring to do, so I won’t reach any premature verdicts on that front.

    Regarding movie theaters, I do like E-Street, but between Angelika (which as others has noted is not far away) and Shirlington, I can see basically the same films in newer, more comfortable settings (E-Street has tiny screens, old seating, and the whole underground feeling going against it). And for mainstream releases, the difference is dramatic. While Uptown is fantastic, you have to want to see the one choice playing there, and the lines are frequently enormous. Gallery Place is awful. I would typically take the metro there, so basically, I’d have to add another 1.5 hours, between the round-trip commute and making sure I was there 30 minutes early to grab a decent seat, to the movie-going experience. And then there was the occasional loud argument or fight in or around the theater. The Courthouse theater is awesome … being able to reserve a seat and park right outside the theater (or metro there) is amazing, it is super comfortable (all leather recliners) and you can arrive right as the movie starts. Had I known about it before, it would probably have been worth the longer metro trip just for the seating feature and to avoid the mob scene that is Gallery Place. And of course, the Cinema Draft House is simply awesome, has no D.C. equivalent.

    I’d say that the lower income taxes and the higher property tax roughly even out. But like most people, I simply could not afford to live in D.C. and send kids to private schools, and the public school options are dramatically better in Arlington. So your tax dollars do stretch a lot further. There are trade-offs, but financially, for someone who has or wants a family, Arlington is definitely more affordable than D.C. Different story for singles, of course.

    My hope with this series is to highlight a few attractions that are definitely worth checking out if you live in the area, and hopefully even worth a trip out of the city for those willing to venture from D.C. I’ll do my best to convert the skeptics and maybe even inspire a trip or two out here to the wild west!

    • “The Courthouse theater is awesome … being able to reserve a seat and park right outside the theater (or metro there) is amazing”

      Why would you drive or metro there if you live in Clarendon? Is walking out of the question now that you live in the suburbs? When I lived in Courthouse I used to enjoy the short walk to Clarendon and Ballston, and would even walk to Georgetown when I wanted a quick dip into the city.

  • I look forward to a day when people can live in DC and actually still enjoy the burbs. And when people can live in the burbs without feeling the need to insult DC.

    We live in a great region. Learn to like all of it.

  • I like NOVA and MD a lot; great areas to live.

    This column is blah though, how self-important do you think you are? Yawn.

    • Thanks for the feedback, H Street LL. Next time you want to troll someone, though, at least do it thoughtfully. No one thinks they are “self-important.” Stick with, “you are self-important” or “how important do you think you are,” either of which makes more sense. And by the way, since you wanted to know, I think that writing, without compensation, a periodic column on a neighborhood blog places me somewhere in between a Supreme Court justice and the President of the United States on the importance scale.

  • With regard to District movie theaters, don’t overlook The Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase, DC ( http://www.theavalon.org/ ). It has terrific showings.

  • For Italian try Il Radicchio Between Rosslyn and Court House. Seems like a cheap place but they have a great spaghetti deal and a great selection of sauces. Pizza was surprisingly good too. But that’s my favorite spaghetti place in the area. I’ll also add my voice in support of galaxy hut. They frequently have cask and other weird seasonal on draft. Great art as well.

  • I would also add that the Alirngton public library is fantastic, if you use libraries.

  • As someone who just moved to a completely different state/suburb after 10 years living on capital hill, I relate to almost every word of this post. I will forever miss DC but I get a little thrill every time I find a decent independent restaurant hidden among the chains.

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