March 24, 2009
STRANGER: Dan Silverman
LOCATION: CommonWealth, 1400 Irving Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Dining in the District
“Washington is a very easy city for you to forget where you came from and why you got there in the first place.” — Harry Truman
Sorry to argue with you Mr. Dead Ex-President Truman, but after having dinner with blogger Dan Silverman I have to say he knows exactly where he came from and why he’s in the nation’s capital. Dan writes the popular Prince Of Petworth blog, an ever-expanding look at all that’s good, and occasionally not so good, about Washington, DC. And this affable man is full of infectious enthusiasm for a city he’s clearly proud to call home.
And yes, I know starting sentences with “and” is bad grammar.
Moving on swiftly, Dan — pictured above — and I met for dinner at CommonWealth, a British-themed “gastropub” in the District neighborhood of Columbia Heights.
For the non-Washington readers of the blog (hello, you three sweethearts!) Columbia Heights one of those areas that can lazily be described as diverse but is more than that. Hispanic and black families that have been here for generations live alongside a good number of young professionals, gay and straight, while a recently-built Target and Ruby Tuesday’s sit near by independent bars and cafes. Oh, and I live there, and can tell you that the Giant supermarket has quite possibly the friendliest checkout staff in the country. Someone who lives near me also owns a dog with the loudest, most annoying bark in the world…but I’m getting sidetracked.
The Petworth in Prince Of Petworth refers to a neighborhood just north of Columbia Heights. As Dan describes it, the place is more residential and there are less places to build the kind of huge new developments going on elsewhere in the city. Still, Dan loves living in Petworth, even though it wasn’t the first neighborhood he chose when he moved down here.
“I didn’t think I was going to stay in DC”
Born in New York City, Dan grew up in Brooklyn and then Nassau County, Long Island, before attending Miami University of Ohio to study political science with a minor in French — his favorite class being a wine tasting that guaranteed he’d get annihilated on free wine but also barely scrape by passing the course. At university he got to meet “tons of different people” from all over the Midwest and elsewhere, and as I could tell just by spending one dinner with him this is a guy who clearly thrives on meeting and finding out about new people.
After university, Dan went to Israel for a 10-month community service program, teaching English, doing plumbing (very much learning on-the-job) and setting up soccer leagues. Before he left, he applied to various graduate schools and upon his return in the summer of 1997 enrolled at DC’s American University for a course in international affairs.
“I didn’t think I was going to stay. I thought I’d do two years, graduate and maybe go back to New York,” Dan said. His first home was a basement apartment in Woodley Park, a place that was apparently “dark as hell, you didn’t know whether it was day or night.”
Despite the drawbacks of living in a basement — I always thought basements were for laundry machines and storing boxes of old clothes and unused tubs of muscle-building supplements — he liked Woodley Park, which was “the perfect neighborhood for me at the time.” It had a convenient commute, and the nightlife was young and different from the other two mainstay night spots: Georgetown and Adams Morgan. If you’re looking for popped collars and overpriced drinks, Georgetown’s your place, whereas Adams Morgan is home to anyone looking for a crazy night out that usually ends in a jumbo slice of pizza you regret the next morning while you’re speaking to God on the big white telephone.
Dan couldn’t take more than a year of being a basement dweller, so then it was on to another relatively quiet neighborhood, Cleveland Park, where he became a devotee of Nanny O’Brien’s Irish pub that all but became his living room.
If I had a pub for a living room I don’t think I’d ever move, but Dan got itchy feet again when his friend bought a house in the Potomac Avenue neighborhood near the Robert F. Kennedy sports stadium. Dan’s then-girlfriend was moving back to DC from graduate school in Syracuse, NY, and the future Prince of Petworth decided to look around for a place to buy.
It was 2002. To start with he looked at Columbia Heights but “even back then the prices were ridiculous for condos.” Then his realtor suggested an affordable place for sale one neighborhood up in Petworth. “Nobody I knew had ever heard of it,” Dan said. After visiting the house Dan found it to be “a nice area, very residential, and a very cool standalone house with a big backyard.” Then he started to do some research and discovered a number of slated development projects in Petworth and got excited about them. That, coupled with the fact his girlfriend had fallen in love with the house, sealed the deal.
Even before day one in Petworth Dan was taking steps to integrate with his new location. The person who sold the house held a dinner party before Dan moved in, where he met the immediate neighbors “so it was seamless transition. I just sort of fell in love with my neighbors very quickly, and it was quite different” from his previous homes of Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, where sitting out on the porch and sharing a beer with your neighbor isn’t a common sight.
“Petworth used to be a hidden gem”
Then one day — and pardon Dan’s French here — one day he just thought “Fuck it, I’m going to start a blog.” He’d seen a host of New York City blogs and couldn’t find too many in DC. There was one Petworth blog but while the writer is “one of the nicest guys in the world” it wasn’t updated as often as Dan would have liked. So he launched the Prince of Petworth blog, and he really does update a lot, sometimes several updates in the space of an hour.
The blog features everything from local news to reviews of new stores, coffee shops, and more. There are also a number of quirky features ranging from photos of doors and buildings Dan simply thinks look awesome (and there are a lot of those) to his “What The Helen Of Troy Is This?” feature in which he photographs something odd then asks his readers for an explanation. Someone inevitably quickly responds with a detailed, accurate answer.
And the blog also serves as a kind of community sounding board, where residents can sound off about problems — and sometimes with results. For example, he once posted a picture of a clogged-up gutter and the day after a city official got in touch asking where the gutter was because the city wanted to clean it up.
The blog has expanded over the years to become city-wide, but its heart remains in Petworth. Dan walks everywhere, which might help explain his constant energy and obvious vitality, and he’ll take photos of interesting things he spots along the way, or people he meets, or new shops or restaurants he passes by. This might come across as trite, but it makes the blog feel “real” rather than someone being paid handsomely by a corporation to pontificate on parts of a city that the writer clearly has never visited.
But what is Dan’s stance on neighborhood development, perhaps one of the most contentious issues on his blog and throughout the easily-labeled “up and coming” parts of DC?
As you can see from the picture above, CommonWealth where we met for dinner is in a nice, shiny new building that’s also home to a Potbelly Sandwich Works, fancy apartments that are out of my pay range, and just across the road from the aforementioned Target.
Petworth, being a more residential area with less open lots, has experienced “much slower development than Columbia Heights, which one could argue is a good thing because it’s more gradual than having a lot of new buildings bringing a big change all at once,” he said. And there are a number of new and not-so-new venues in Petworth Dan points to as signs of a vibrant, diversifying area: the Domku Bar & Cafe, the Red Derby bar, and more sitting alongside long-running spots including the “phenomenal” Hitching Post restaurant. “It used to be a hidden gem, but people are discovering it now,” Dan said.
It’s easy to bitch about gentrification or go 180 degrees and bitch about what some call “ghetto” neighborhoods like Petworth — and the snarkier DC blogs seem to take pride in doing so — but Dan takes a refreshingly upbeat, entirely non-ironic view of things and it’s obvious he wants nothing but the best for the place he loves to call home.
Oh, and don’t mention the word ghetto around Dan when talking about Petworth. While Dan acknowledges that there is crime in Petworth, Columbia Heights and other nearby neighborhoods that is higher than other places — Cleveland Park for example — “in the almost six years that I’ve lived in Petworth I’ve never been concerned for my personal safety. You do have to use your street smarts, and I want people to be aware of the dangers, but it’s very easy for a perception to get blown out of proportion. I’ve heard people refer to Petworth as the ghetto and that cannot be further from the truth. People who say that have never been to the ghetto. Petworth is glorious, there are beautiful trees and yards, and people take care of their houses.”
“Everybody has their own vision for their neighborhood”
Will adding national chains to the neighborhood encourage people who think of the area as a ghetto to visit? There was, and still is, a fair amount of back-and-forth about the merits of a Ruby Tuesday’s opening up in Columbia Heights and the impact it might have on local restaurants and long-time residents. “Some people say it shows the neighborhood is become Disneyland, with cookie-cutter chain restaurants. But you go there and you see a diverse clientele of new residents and old-schoolers,” Dan said. “I’m a huge fan of the Ruby Tuesday’s. I have no problem with one store like that. If it starts to become 50 of them then we have a problem.”
Welcoming the likes of CommonWealth and other recent developments, Dan said, “Here’s what I say to those who say it’s unfair development that’s just for young white kids — I call complete and utter bullshit on that because every old school resident I’ve spoken to said they’ve been waiting so long for new sit-down restaurants” and other venues to open in the area.
“Everybody has their own vision of what they want their neighborhood to be but I don’t think people take a step back and realize it’s got to be a mixture. You don’t want all high end stores and then price everyone out, and you don’t want all chain stores and takeout places because then it’s not pleasant. If you can somehow support a combination then you have a beautiful experience, with diversity, and that’s the goal and thats what I’d like to see happen in Petworth.”
Dan said that CommonWealth is one new addition to Columbia Heights that he loves, and he was already chatting with friends when I arrived. Safety in numbers!
I liked the ambience. It’s a big restaurant with a nice long bar and plenty of tables and chairs. Ideally for an interview it’s also not too loud. There were specials on offer but Dan and I stuck to the regular menu. I opted for a bucket of chips to start with.
As you can see, it was less of a bucket and more of a tin pot, but the chips were still massive and came with an incredibly delicious gravy. Only problem was the set-up didn’t really lend itself to doing much with the gravy other than dipping your chip in it. I found myself trying to surreptitiously guzzle it when Dan wasn’t looking. But at $5 for the chips and $2 for the gravy, I was determined not to waste a single scrap of it.
Dan ordered the $5 lobster bisque to start with. This is where I wish I had better journalistic skills, because I should have asked what he thought of it in greater detail. Instead, I can let you know Dan thought the food was “very good.” I’m an insightful reporter, right?
Moving on swiftly, the waiter left a perfect amount of time before bringing the main courses. Dan went for the $15 fish and chips and, once again, I’m going to have to assume he liked it because he polished off as much as he could.
I ordered the bangers and mash for $15, which was actually just one sausage and a pile of mashed potato. The sausage was made of good quality meat and the herbs and spices inside gave it a good kick that wasn’t overpowering. But the potato and accompanying gravy was a little bland, and the CommonWealth chefs seem to be a little liberal with their use of salt. The price tag for the various dishes also seemed a bit steep for what we got. Shave a few dollars of most of the dishes and I think this place would have gotten an extra star — in the event that I had a star-based ranking system, but I’m not Roger Ebert, and I don’t have one.
While I wasn’t amazed by the food, it was very filling and neither Dan nor I wanted dessert. As I paid up, I asked Dan where he saw the blog going.
Right now he works four days a week at his day job and then one day on the blog. He’d like to transition full-time to the blog but realizes he needs to expand his audience, which explains why he’s covering more of the city these days. The only thing that might make him move eventually is if he has children and wants to relocate to a neighborhood with a better high school. However, the Prince of Petworth definitely intends to reign over his kingdom of choice for the foreseeable future.
In the near and long-term future, Dan welcomes development and change coming to Petworth “as long as you maintain the camaraderie that has existed” in the neighborhood. His ever-expanding blog is just one of the ways he’s trying to keep that kind of familiarity alive in Petworth and beyond, and it’s impossible not to wish him every success.
Plus, he lives relatively nearby so I better be nice to him or else [insert evil threat here].
I jest, I jest, Petworth is at least one Metro rail stop away.