Washington, D.C. is sometimes referred to as “the cultural DMZ of the Eastern seaboard,’’ and while that may be an overly dismal evaluation of the Capital City, a glimmer of truth lurks there somewhere. Northerners will readily tell you that the South begins in DC, and any Southerner worth his bourbon will claim that Virginia is the northernmost Southern State on the Atlantic. So there it sits — a geographic amalgam that nobody lays claim to, and everybody loves to disparage, full of what John Kennedy wryly described as ‘‘Northern charm and Southern efficiency. . .”
But don’t let that turn you away. If you haven’t been to Washington, D.C., in a long time, maybe now’s the time to go — you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Not only do the sidewalks stay unrolled after 8:30 pm (the most universally cited complaint about the place), but there are actually things to do in the streets! What was once a one-horse town has become a revitalized urban area, complete with a new subway system? (The subway, or Metro as it’s called, is not as extensive as the established systems in New York and Chicago, but it is clean and quick, and good for getting about Downtown, Capitol Hill and out to the airport on weekdays.)
Assuming that the inevitable occurs and you find yourself in Chocolate City for a day or so, we’d like to alert you to a few alternatives to dinner and a movie in your hotel room.
First things first. If you arrive in Washington and need a place to stay, we suggest Guest Quarters (801 New Hampshire Ave., NW. Major credit cards accepted). When you book a room here, you get more than you bargained for: the hotel doesn’t have any rooms in it — every guest gets a suite, complete with a spacious living room, and a kitchen equipped with dishwasher, pots, pans and dishes.
The Watergate is just down the street, and a Howard Johnson Motor Lodge is a block away. After you’ve checked in, take the Metro or a cab over to Capitol Hill and visit the Museum of African Art (316 A St., NE 547-7424). Founded in 1964, the Museum is dedicated to abolishing the misconception that African art is uncomplicated, ugly and the product of inconsequential cultures. The Museum’s director, Warren Robbins has taken great pains to show how sophisticated Twentieth Century European art has absorbed much of the ethos of African art, and makes a very pointed observation as to the debt the “civilized” art world owes its more “primitive” artists and artisans. The bookstore offers a variety of handsome books, postcards and posters; don’t forget to check out Boutique Africa, which offers an extensive array of Africana — from clothes, to sculpture and textiles, to jewelry.
The Museum of African Arts is housed in what was once Frederick Douglass’ Washington Home (he later moved across the river to Anacostia), and is open from 11 to 5 on weekdays, 12 to 5 on weekends. Admission is free, but contributions are always welcome — and are tax deductible.
Later in the afternoon, wander back to the Northwest section and hit the Watergate complex. This prestigious address was enhanced even further during the last year of Richard Nixon’s administration, and a goodly number of people will stop by to take pictures as a visual historical footnote.
Besides political intrigue, the Watergate offers two shopping areas. The first is an outdoor mall, The Arcade, which has, among other things, a grocery store, a liquor/gourmet shop, a photographer’s studio, florist, jeweler and a fancy bakery. (You might want to buy some supplies for a snack or a meal later on, since you’ve got a kitchen at your disposal.) The Arcade is frequented by residents of the huge complex (Senator Ed Brooke lives here) and weary shoppers may like to take advantage of the free form fountains and terrace chairs.
Les Champs, which is indoors, is a group of about thirty shops along undulating corridors that are full of lovely — and expensive things. Folk who are determined to be good to themselves can indulge in their addiction to Gucci leather goods; Cartier watches; imported clothes from European couturiers; fine sterling flatware; and lead crystal. There is also a perfumer that carries all the classic scents (like Jean Patou’s Joy, Jean Desperez’ Bal a Versailles, Hermes’ Caleche and Chanel No. 5), and some scents that, until recently, haven’t been marketed across the country. So if you’ve been trying to replace those now-empty bottles of O de Lancome and Amazone that you bought in Martinique two winters ago, now’s your chance!
Late in the afternoon, while everyone else is caught in the rush-hour crunch, you can walk back to your hotel room, contemplate your purchases, and watch the news. That last item doesn’t sound too exotic, until you realize that each major network station in Washington has a black anchor for the 6 o’clock news, and most have a fair number of black reporters, too. Some people are so mesmerized by this that they never get out to dinner. Now that you’ve been forewarned, you can affect a bit of nonchalance and dress for the evening.
When you’re ready, catch a cab to W.H. Bone & Co., at the Waterside Hall in Southwest (5th and I Sts. 488-7859). Southwest is where Washington’s urban renewal really began in earnest. What was once some of the worst slum areas in the city is now riverside townhomes, luxury high rises, and a string of restaurants and malls. Ambassador Andrew Young lived here as a Congressman, as do many other politicians and their staffs.
W.H. Bone stands for “‘Washington Ham Bone,” and was started this year by two young blacks. Their aim was to serve soul food with elegance, and they’ve succeeded. Where else in DC could you get ribs, rice and collards on fine china, accompanied by an appropriate wine, served in a pressed-glass goblet? The menu offers regional favorites from across the country, and even attempts to trace the original history of each dish offered. (That alone has been responsible for a number of intense dinner conversations!) The desserts — deep dish cobblers, rich layer cakes, a brandy-laced bread pudding — mostly home-made, and worth the extra carbohydrates. There is live entertainment on weekends, and a small dance floor for people who can’t sit still between courses. Dinner for two with tip and wine should run about $35-$40. W.H. Bone & Co. honors American Express, and accepts Visa (old Bank Americard), Diner’s Club, Carte Blanche and Master Charge as well.
If you ate more than you should, turn your toes again to Northwest, and your thoughts to dancing. Tiffane (2015 L St. 833-5595) should satisfy even the most ardent trippers of the light fantastic. The roof over the dance floor is glass, and it’s not unusual to see people dancing full steam — and staring straight up through the ceiling at the stars.
Or, on weeknights, you can try Foxtrappe (16th and R Sts. 232-2444). Foxtrappe is a black-owned private club which extends complimentary memberships to out of town visitors during the weeknights. The four-story mansion was once the headquarters for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and has been remodeled into what has become an institution among many of the city’s young, upwardly-mobile blacks. You can drift from the bar up a winding staircase to dance. Or, take the next flight up to the game rooms, and shoot pool, or play backgammon or electric tennis. (There’s also a jazz listening room on the third floor.)
Often, if a long evening has been a good one, someone is always crazy enough to propose extending it yet further. Confirmed late nighters can catch a bite to eat in Georgetown, at the Cafe de Paris (3056 M St. 965-2920). The Cafe is open 24 hours, accepts no credit cards, and is a godsend for late snackers. The counters are abundant with croissants (served hot and flaky), cafe du lait, a sinfully rich mousse au chocolat, and a gratifying assortment of quiches and omelettes.
Assuming that you do get to crash and manage to wake up before 2 or 3 in the afternoon, you might want to try brunch at The Public House (30th and M Sts. 333-6605) for a leisurely brunch before departure. Champagne punch, mimosas and rum swizzles flow liberally, and a pianist tinkles softly on weekends to soothe frazzled nerves.
Hopefully, this brief excursion will have dispelled some of the mental image you’d had of Old Washington, and encourage you to try New Washington again, sometime soon. There’s enough we didn’t mention this time around that you’ll just have to rediscover the Capitol a few more times. And before you know it, it will become a habit.