Pride and priv­i­lege

Wash­ing­ton com­bines grandeur with old south sleepi­ness Where to eat with the po­lit­i­cal elite

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PETER MCKAY PETER MCKAY THE SPEC­TA­TOR THE SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

wash­ing­ton.org

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Carmine’s is a po­tent spot for po­lit­i­cal fundrais­ers

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