Pride and privilege
Washington combines grandeur with old south sleepiness Where to eat with the political elite
THE thing about Washington is that it’s in Dixie; that is, the south. Although the most powerful nation in history is run from there, it’s a drowsy place, lacking New York’s frantic, jackhammer pace.
Rednecks park their pick-ups in swish Georgetown to buy booze-to-go in DC, avoiding the bureaucratic, state-controlled liquor stores in neighbouring Virginia. And you’re never more than an hour or so’s drive from men who distil their own liquor to sell illegally in stone jars.
When I worked there — in the 1980s, covering Ronald Reagan et al — my golfing friends in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, about an hour’s drive west, would sometimes order a j ar of ‘ ‘ white lightning’’ for Saturday evening.
DC’s most popular radio station played nonstop bluegrass music, although the district’s pop- ulation was about 80 per cent black. Its disc j ockeys either pretended to be rednecks or were the genuine article. They did not always seem to take into account the racial heritage of their audience.
I remember a woman ringing in one day to complain that a remark she’d heard on air was insulting to black people. ‘‘Sir, you don’t sound as if you ever met any black folks,’’ she told the DJ, who replied, if memory serves: ‘‘Ma’am, you are mistaken. I once met an Eeth-iopian riding on the ’ole City of New Orleans. He shone my daddy’s shoes.’’
He was fired by lunchtime and the station apologised publicly.
The other thing about Washington — and I suppose it’s rather obvious — is that it’s a city of transients. Legislators and the executive — including, of course, the President — are out-of staters. It’s a bone of contention among natives that the District of Columbia is not fully represented in Congress. Nor has any president ever hailed from the district. ‘‘Taxation without representation’’ is the grumble on DC car licence plates, or ‘‘tags’’ as they’re known.
But this onlyness about Washington imparts a unique character, I think. It’s full of smart, ambitious people making the most of their time there. Most utilities work well, from the subway to the buses, the railway and the airports ( Ronald Reagan National for domestic; Dulles and Washington-Baltimore for international).
Cabs are easy and relatively cheap, although the drivers aren’t always au fait with a city not much larger than a country town. A friend and his wife, being taken from Dupont Circle the 5kmto the national airport, realised they were headed in the opposite direction. After various stops and starts, the cab arrived at the airport with my friend in the driver’s seat and the sobbing Somalian driver being comforted by the customer’s wife in the back seat.
When we’re talking about Washington for visitors, and those who work in politics, law and the media, we mean NW, the Northwest quadrant. Heroic Christopher Hitchens amazed us when he bought a house deep in SE, which includes the Capitol but also, within a few streets, the machinegun-alley domain of crack-dealing gangs. I too bought a house on the Hill, SE, but safely inside an area patrolled 24/7 by congressional security.
Even so, I soon relocated to O and 30th Street, deep in leafy Georgetown.
Hitchens and I would sometimes convene at a nearby joint on Wisconsin Avenue, Pied du Cochon, which offered free ‘‘champagne’’ (made in New York state) with its Sunday brunch. It’s still there, as is nearby Blues Alley, from which we were ejected one night after laughing uncontrollably at the thought that the modern jazz being listened to so respectfully by others was in a sense, as British television presenter Kirsty Wark might say, modern democracy expressed as music.
Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House, is still there — or, rather, near where it used to be. Once a P. J. Clarke’s: This new K Street watering hole has an old-time Washington feel that, coupled with its private dining area Side Car, makes it a favourite of lobbyists, journalists and White House staffers. More: pjclarkes.com. Capitol Lounge: When the Republicans took back the House of Representatives in November’s elections, one of their top priorities was to take back Capitol Lounge as well. The Capitol Hill dive bar is known for its GOP clientele and for monthly Politics & Pints trivia nights. More: capitolloungedc.com. The Source: Wolfgang Puck’s only Washington establishment served as the ‘‘date night’’ location for Barack and Michelle Obama when the first lady celebrated her birthday in January. The restaurant, attached to the Newseum, has attracted a slew of Washington names and hosted a book party for Senate majority leader Harry Reid. More: wolfgangpuck.com. Logan Tavern: When David Axelrod was still at the White House, he was known to frequent Logan Tavern, situated several blocks from his Logan Circle high-rise and not too far from the White House. The rustic yet modern establishment is also a popular brunch location for the younger set of White House staffers. More: logantavern.com. Bourbon Steak: When Hollywood comes to town, it comes to Bourbon Steak, the rackety old bar patronised by White House scribblers, now it’s a huge brasserie, full not of West Wing movers and shakers but people out for a fun night in the company of others they imagine to be so.
So is Kramer’s Bookshop on Dupont Circle, where you can buy political magazines and books, international papers, smallcirculation magazines, and breakfast to eat while you try to decode what The Washington Post is saying about politics.
The White House, since 9/11, has become more of a stockade than a mansion. In its cop-infested environs, you’d better ‘‘walk right’’, as bluesman Huddie Ledbetter sang of Houston, Texas. It’s said that if any incoming airliner devi- restaurant and bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. On one evening, Mad Men’s Jon Hammwas spotted sipping Maker’s Mark at the same time as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was eating dinner with a group of friends. More: bourbonsteakdc.com. Equinox: In Washington, it’s all about the power lunch, for which chef Todd Gray’s downtown restaurant is definitely a popular spot. It became even bigger after the Obamas dined here just a few days after the inauguration. More: equinoxrestaurant.com. Sonoma: One of the nicer Capitol Hill wine bars, into which many a member of Congress has stepped. It has private upstairs rooms for political fundraisers, too. More: sonomadc.com. Cafe Milano: In recent months this Italian eatery, located on Prospect Street in Georgetown, has attracted everyone from actors Bradley Cooper and Renee Zellweger to VicePresident Joe Biden and his wife Jill. More: cafemilano.net. Carmine’s: DC’s version of the New York eatery Carmine’s only recently appeared on the scene ates from its course to Reagan National and strays close to the President’s home, it’s likely to be shot down. If so, the surface-to-air missiles necessary aren’t visible, unless they’re mini-missiles carried by the figures you sometimes see on the White House roof.
For me, the best thing about Washington, then as now, is its spacious beauty, its great avenues named after states, the Mall, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials (particularly the latter) and the lazy Potomac River drifting through. With sensible shoes, and weather permitting, you can walk to practically every place of interest. Don’t be tempted to hire a car unless you plan out-oftown forays.
The White House blockage of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 16th streets has made congestion much worse than it was when I lived there. If you like an easy drive, head out to Gettysburg and the impressive battlefield monument.
Or head to haunting Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet and the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown, with five blacks and 16 whites, famously broke into a federal armoury in 1859 in the hope that he could lead a slave insurrection. Before his hanging he said presciently: ‘‘ I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.’’ He got that right.
Eat soft-shell crab, a local speciality, and walk or cycle in the but has already proved to be a potent spot to hold a political fundraiser. Last September it hosted four in one night, including one for now Speaker of the House John Boehner. More: carminesnyc.com/locations. L2: This members-only Georgetown club, tucked behind MStreet in Cady’s Alley, is a hot spot for DC’s elite. It’s attracted youngish types such as White House chef Sam Kass, Washington Capitals player Mike Green and actress Gabrielle Union. More: l2lounge.com. Rock Creek Parkway. Breakfast like a king at Union Station. If you only have time for one memorial visit, make it the impressive but oddly moving Lincoln, especially effective at night. For churches, make it the neo-gothic National Cathedral, started in 1907 and finished in 1990. Have a drink in Bullfeathers, close to the Capitol, a haunt of congressional aides. See a show at the Kennedy Centre, or mosey around Georgetown’s chic shops and restaurants.
Americans are conflicted about Washington. They resent its power and glitter but are proud of its great buildings, monuments and thoroughfares. It has had its ups and downs as a city, bedevilled at times by racial conflicts and municipal corruption. Some of its presidents — Lincoln and Kennedy in particular — have left their marks on it.
Others, such as Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George W. Bush, didn’t care for it — and Washingtonians reciprocated that feeling.
Barack Obama, according to Hitchens (whom I visited recently) is having fun there. He and his wife, Michelle, often have their ‘‘date nights’’ at the Newseum, which has a fine restaurant (see ‘‘Power dining’’). There are also several small restaurants and bars Obama visits with metrosexual chums, according to Hitchens, who knows a thing or two about such joints. But the President has sent his re-election team back to his old Chicago political ’hood, lest their wits be dulled in sleepy, old south Washington.
Carmine’s is a potent spot for political fundraisers