Punctuated by stirring monuments and more than 30 free world-class museums, Washington, DC has long been a bucket list destination. But is it possible, or even recommended, for an art and history buff to venture away from the National Mall, and explore DC armed only with an appetite? The short answer is yes.
The long answer was revealed when I started, as many visits to Washington DC do, on the National Mall and dedicated the better part of a cloudless afternoon to walking away from the federal landscape and into the District. Home to more than 180 embassies and consulates, DC, countless locals told me, has an international flavor. I was determined to savor it and added an extra day to my weekend away. Armed only with a map and an empty stomach, I laced my walking shoes and decided to start from the foot of the Washington Monument. While the true center of DC’s grid system is the US Capitol Building, the 555-foot obelisk dedicated to the first president smacks of a “meet me here” landmark. Before setting off, I took the elevator to the very top. From the enclosed observation deck, views of the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and across the river to Arlington National Cemetery in neighboring Virginia were spectacular. National Park Service rangers pointed out landmarks and explained the monument had only recently reopened to visitors following repairs to the damage caused in the 2011 earthquake. A five-minute walk from the monument, and beyond the construction site of the Smithsonian Institution’s forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture (due to open in 2016 with a cross-cultural eatery from DC’s own Carla Hall) I arrived at my first stop: Julia Child’s kitchen. Painstakingly reassembled inside the National Museum of American, the kitchen is just how it was in the Childs’ Cambridge home, right down to the fridge magnets. Charming and human, I snapped a photo of her pegboard kitchen rack and continued. At my next stop, the National Archives, I joined the line of people eager to see the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but I had other plans this time. Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History is an exhibition devoted to the often turbulent history of booze in America. A tippler’s fantasy, it’s packed with objects, posters, photos, and fun facts. How many kegs of beer did Lewis and Clark carry West? Six! The museum hosts monthly cocktail discussions and tastings with mixologists from across the country too, but not on the day of my visit so I continued my walk up 9th Street NW, into the Penn Quarter and away from the National Mall.
At the corner of E Street NW, I pressed my nose against the glass of the acclaimed Barmini – an eclectic cocktail lab run by Jose Andres, winner of the 2011 James Beard Award. Open evenings and by reservation only, I’d return to Barmini later that night for a few of the 100+ molecular cocktails and small bites from the adjoining Minibar kitchen.
By this time, I was ready for a snack so I joined the throng at Shake Shack for one of the chain’s concretes, a blend of frozen custards and themed mix-ins. Some locations of this ever-growing burger chain serve site-specific themed ice creams and at this shop, next door to the International Spy Museum, it’s “Smorsecode” (chocolate custard, marshmallow sauce, and a crumble of locally made Polyvore graham crackers). It was rich, frosty, and charitable – 5% of all sales support the No Kid Hungry campaign. Acting on a local’s tip, I took it across the street to the Kogod Courtyard, the spectacular public space that connects the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Here, outside food is welcome and there’s free WiFi too. After a break, I said hello to the portrait of Alice Waters and continued on to City Center DC.
This new 10-acre mixed-use development is home to DC’s highest-end shopping (Hermes, Burberry, Longchamp, and more) as well as expense account restaurants (DBGB, Del Frisco’s Iron Eagle Steak, Centrolina, with Momofuku and Milk Bar soon to open). There’s an independent pastry shop, RareSweets founded by former Craft pastry chef, Meredith Tomason. The vibe is spare but her sweets are indulgent. I ogled her layer cakes but opted for a light al fresco snack at Mango Tree, a sophisticated Thai restaurant nearby. Fueled by chicken satay, I walked on saying goodbye to the Penn Quarter.
My next pit stop along 9th Street is the largest hotel in Washington, DC. The state-of-the-art Marriott Marquis Washington, DC is home to four eateries including the casual Anthem, a tribute to the Marriott family’s original business, the Hot Shoppe. Their classic Mighty Mo burger is on the menu. The hotel’s spectacular lobby is filled with art including the towering metal sculpture and a cherry blossom-themed mosaic on the floor. Ninth Street NW is fast becoming a magnet for independent restaurants and bars. Baby Wale, Thally, and Chaplins’ have opened in the last few years, and there are big plans for many more restaurants to open in 2015 including The Shaw Bijou by Kwame Onwuachi (25-year old Nigerian-American chef with serious NYC kitchen chops), Convivial by Cedric Maupillier (chef at the highly recommended Mintwood Place) and Freehand by established DC area favorite Tim Ma.
I caught up with some happy hour early birds at Baby Wale an industrial loft-like tavern attached at the hip to its white tablecloth sister restaurant Corduroy. Both are run by Tom Power whose reputation for eclectic menus featuring local produce did not disappoint. Bar snacks included Pilipino-style lumpia, a New Jersey hot dog, and pupusas stuffed with loroco (a flowering Central American herb). I was utterly yet delightfully stuffed by the bartender’s recommendation: a buffalo mozzarella “porcupine” (a small ball of fresh cheese baked in a spiky coat of phyllo pastry). From my window seat at Baby Wale, I could take in the 9th Street scene, a mix of elegant brownstone homes and condos, and independent businesses. I watched people pick up their pups from Wagtime (1232 9th St. NW), a doggie daycare, and artfully dressed friends head to an opening at Long View Gallery (1234 9th St. NW). Joining the friendly neighborhood denizens on the clean wide sidewalks (does anyone own a car?) I continued up 9th Street on a mission. Whenever I travel, I like to bring back something for my kitchen, and this time I was after a package of berbere, the brick red mix of ground spices (chili, ginger, rue, nigella, and fenugreek) native to East Africa and used to flavor stews. Knowing I was headed back down to Minibar later that evening for imaginative cocktails, I needed some fortification so I hit up the Satellite Room (2047 9th St. NW), a funky bar joined at the hip to the unofficial home of rock and roll in DC, the 9:30 Club at the corner of 9th and V Streets NW. This spot, lit by neon and the glow of pinball machines was the ideal place to transition from day to night. The come-as-you-are vibe is reflected in the diner-style menu so I couldn’t resist the siren call of the Satellite Platter: two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon. Nothing is ever as cozy as breakfast for dinner, so it was a fitting end to a city stroll that revealed the hometown flavor of a national capital.