Destination: Washington, D.C.
By Elaine JeanSpecial to the Times
Spring is in the air and Eastern Market is bursting with fresh flowers and good things to eat, as well as an eclectic collection of arts, crafts and antiques. A visit to one of the nation’s oldest open-air markets is a nod to blue skies and sunny days ahead.
Built in 1873, Eastern Market originally was intended as a place to distribute provisions and create a sense of community on Capitol Hill. It still does both quite nicely.
A local favorite, Market Lunch serves the best breakfast around, but never on a Sunday. So if you want to try the blueberry buckwheat pancakes — affectionately called “Blue Bucks” — or their colossal egg, potato, cheese and meat sandwich known simply as “the Brick,” arrive at South Hall early on a Saturday and prepare to be friendly.
This is a cash-only establishment, and diners cue up in a line that looks long but moves quickly. Put your order in at the counter and read the posted rules while you wait, then grab a seat at a communal table and meet your neighbors. Washington insiders rub elbows — literally — with suburbanites and tourists, and a theme of congeniality carries throughout the day.
After breakfast, be sure not to linger at the table — that’s one of the rules. You won’t want to when you see the collection of butchers, seafood mongers, bakers and cheese vendors that fill the adjacent South Hall Market. This Italianate-style pavilion was rebuilt after suffering a three-alarm fire in 2007, and now it’s better than ever.
The family-owned businesses that fill the market have been here for decades. Bowers Fancy Dairy Products has been supplying Washingtonians with their cholesterol fix for over fifty years, purveying a wide array of domestic and international cheeses as well as local dairy items. They happily pass out samples so you can taste the difference that quality and freshness make.
Eastern Market is, in fact, all about quality: Canales’ Italian prosciutto, Calomiris’ Greek honey and olive oil, the Fine Sweet Shop’s kosher baked goods and Union Meat Company’s half-smokes, knockwurst and kielbasa are just a few of the items that foodies come to hunt and gather every week.
Tables brim with produce and shoppers chat with vendors along Farmers Line on the weekends, when an open-air market spills out of the building. Much of the food sold here is from rural areas of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
The 7th Street thoroughfare in front of the market is closed to vehicles on the weekends, and the resulting pedestrian mall is home to booths, tables and stalls selling a variety of handmade items — jewelry, soaps, children’s clothing, sketches, watercolor paintings and other artwork.
Manatho Shumba Masani is set up at the corner of 7th and C streets, where he’s been working wire and soda containers into Canimals for more than six years. Shumba’s cleaning up the planet one can at a time while showcasing contemporary music and Zimbabwean sculpting techniques.
The artist is fun to watch and easy to talk to, and his trademark giraffe is a favorite for its expressive face and graceful features. Who knew Arizona Iced Tea cans could ever look this good?
Market Pottery is located in the basement of South Hall, entered by walking around Shumba’s booth and past the patriotic panels painted by his neighbor. Local artisans have flocked here for over five decades, and the works of a half-dozen potters are displayed and sold in the front room.
Capitol Hill Flea Market — dubbed the area’s incubator for small businesses — is entering its 29th year. Antiques, arts and crafts inspire both casual browsers and avid shoppers alike, with offerings that go beyond the usual flea market fare.
Red Persimmon Imports offers handmade, fair trade gifts and accessories, and Olde Good Things brings architectural elements — stained glass, iron fencing, pressed tin and marble mantles salvaged from grand old buildings. A number of food vendors dot the landscape, selling everything from empanadas to falafel.
Nearby popular attractions include the Library of Congress and U.S. Botanic Gardens, and restaurants line the portion of 8th Street known as Barracks Row.
The Barracks Row Heritage Trail takes about an hour to complete, with the first sign located at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue near the Eastern Market train station. A free guidebook — available to download at culturaltourismdc.org — will lead you through the stomping grounds of John Philip Sousa.
The trail passes the Marine Barracks — the oldest continuously manned Marine post in the country — as well as the historic Washington Navy Yard, its car barn and other points of interest. Interpretive signage brings into focus Barracks Row residents who’ve lived and worked here while serving their country.
Eastern Market features live music most weekends and special events throughout the year. Upcoming on May 21 is the Lamb Jam, where “DC’s top chefs will be cooking lamb just for ewe.” To purchase tickets visit store.americanlamb.com.
Parking can be problematic on Capitol Hill, so arriving by train is recommended. If you decide to drive and would like to park on the street, visit us.parkmobile.com and download their app to feed the meter by phone.
Market Lunch doesn’t serve breakfast on Sundays, and Eastern Market is closed on Mondays.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.