Guest Contributor | April 16th, 2008
Words by Kira Poskanzer
Photos by Jono Rotman
While the focus of American politics these days follows the state-to-state contests of the primaries, it’s a perfect time to visit a relatively calm Washington DC.
You can feel like a politico, though, if you stay at the Hay-Adams, the stately, classic hotel just across Lafayette Park from the White House. The lobby there retains a sense of originally stained wood and heavy carpets, but the rest of the hotel has been lightened up and updated in sandy tones. White lilies and tulips abound. A sense of solidity and some great old touches are also maintained: brass mail chutes and old telephones in alcoves in the hallways, and old door handles in the middle of the room doors from which laundry used to be hung. But the most thrilling aspect of the Hay-Adams is the view. You can gaze right out to the front of the White House. It’s so stunning that the executive residence of every US president since John Adams is right there that the view seems almost like a postcard. It’s easy to imagine that if you opened the window, you could hear horse hooves outside instead of cars. Keep the window closed, and the serene illusion is maintained. If you want to stay at the Hay-Adams, you’d better do it soon, or awhile later. Just don’t try to stay during the 2009 presidential inauguration. All the rooms are already booked.
Step out into this city of marble and granite, and to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, another classic. The galleries are replete with skeletons and gems, elephants and butterflies. If you’re lucky, you may be taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the research facilities, where you can see endless rows of fossils and specimens stored in shelf after shelf, like books in the stacks of an old library. You’ve probably never been anywhere with that many different type of creatures under one roof. Or so meticulously organized.
A few types of human creatures are on display at the National Portrait Gallery close-by, with portraits from the earliest days of the colony until today. There are some Native Americans, and female Americans and black Americans to examine, but it’s mostly white men, seemingly culminating in a new acquisition hung between the men’s and women’s restrooms on an upper floor: a portrait of Stephen Colbert. On the ground floor, there’s a courtyard filled with plants and floor level fountains and colonial facades, all enclosed in an undulating glass roof. It’s a calm and enormous space, and almost makes you feel as if you’re in a museum case of your own.
It’s amazing to see the major monuments in Washington DC, even time after time: the Washington Monument, with its enormity and simplicity and the beautiful shadow it casts; the Lincoln Memorial, with its majestic, larger-than-life sculpture and inspiring eloquence of the Gettysburg Address; and the quiet gravity of the Vietnam Memorial. Just try to pass as quickly as possible by the four-year-old World War II Memorial in between the Washington and the Lincoln. A better way to honor the fallen would be to avert your eyes from this tacky mishmash of a memorial.
Two restaurants in Washington DC lie at either end of the spectrum from each other, in almost every way, but both are worth the trip. In Georgetown, the cute and colonial university area, Hook serves unusual combinations—nutmeg-cilantro tuna, sablefish with sweet almond milk—and all of the dishes feature sustainable seafood. (The décor features seafood, too.) The house-cured tuna bresaola was a stand out. Chef Barton Seaver is only 28 years old, but Hook is already successful enough to be spawning a more casual seafood place nearby. For something a whole lot meatier, visit Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. You can get your chili in bowls or on hot dogs in buns or on fries, but it’s all the same stuff, and the Ali family has been serving this delicious stuff from the same place on U Street since 1958. With its chili served on paper plates, this place is every bit as American as the monuments and museums in the rest of Washington DC.