- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

The place was packed. The sidewalk, too. On a recent evening, the patrons at Justin’s Cafe looked like an extension of the crowd at nearby Nationals Park, where the surging Washington Nationals were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There were baseball fans in Nationals T-shirts and jerseys. Office workers in ball caps and button-down business attire. There were full tables and empty beer glasses and half-cocked debates about the season-ending shutdown of Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Replace baseball with hockey or basketball, and the entire scene could have been Chinatown’s cluster of bars and restaurants on a Washington Capitals game night — with one important difference.

“Things have been awesome, and we’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” said Joseph Gonzalez, the assistant general manager of Justin’s Cafe. “But we’re surprised that we are basically the only operation down here in terms of a bar, restaurant, gathering-type place.”

Mr. Gonzalez shook his head.

For some projects near Nationals Park, the only thing to look at ... more >

“That’s kind of sad,” he said.

Ghost town

Following four seasons of losing baseball at Nationals Park, the Nationals appear to have turned a competitive corner, fielding a young, exciting and winning team that boasts star players such as Strasburg and Bryce Harper and figures to be a championship contender for years to come.

As for the neighborhood surrounding the ballpark, dotted with new residential and office buildings and pegged for a massive redevelopment effort even before city officials announced their original plans to bring baseball back to Washington?

When it comes to entertainment and nightlife options, the area has a lot of catching up to do.

“I went with some friends to the [Bruce] Springsteen concert [at Nationals Park] the other week,” said Brian Frederick, a D.C. resident and executive director of the Sports Fans Coalition, a Washington-based fan advocacy group. “Afterward, we walked all around looking for food. There was only Justin‘s, and their little porch was packed with people. There’s nothing else to do in the neighborhood.”

Exit Metro’s Green Line at the Nationals Park/Navy Yard stop, and the first thing you see are well-dressed young professionals cavorting on the rooftop of a sleek, modern building, above a sidewalk crammed with chairs, umbrellas and cafes.

Of course, the above image is literally a picture — a banner depicting a planned development, hanging on the side of a shipping crate.

The shipping crate is part of the Fairgrounds, a makeshift entertainment complex. Located across the street from the main gate of Nationals Park, the Fairgrounds offers food, beer, a concert stage and cornhole tossing; constructed out of shipping containers and wooden beams, it has all the aesthetic appeal of Guantanamo Bay, albeit with food trucks and longnecks.

Beyond Justin’s Cafe and the Fairgrounds, Nationals fans and neighborhood residents don’t have many — read: any, unless you count Starbucks, Subway and Potbelly — food and drink options within convenient walking distance of the ballpark.

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