Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Washington, DC

The once snoozy capital is more uptempo of late with edgy arts venues, a worldly dining scene and dynamic new hotels. David Kaufman reports.

September 26 2011
David Kaufman

Few cities have better benefited from good timing than Washington, DC. For years the US’s East Coast sleeper, the capital received double vitality injections when Barack Obama took up residence, just as New York City saw a small exodus occasioned by Wall Street’s collapse. With a stylish – and culture-hungry – First Couple in the White House, and a surge of urbane presidential staffers serving the Oval Office (along with the vibrant next generation of policy makers, diplomats and international professionals), Washington seems to have gone rather quickly from dowdy dowager to stylish upstart.

It helps, of course, that the city has the good looks to match the prodigious influx of new talent. A 70sq-mile urban wedge between Maryland and the Potomac River, the District of Columbia was established by Constitutional decree in 1790 to serve as a neutral capital for a fledgling nation. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington modelled DC after the great republics of ancient Greece and Rome. The resulting surfeit of neoclassical façades and structures speaks to the ideals of those early democracies, and further develops the English-inspired Federal architecture that defined colonial capitals Boston and Philadelphia.

More than two centuries later, what were once statements of rebellion are now Washington’s greatest calling card. Neoclassical landmarks, including the Capitol Building, the White House and Supreme Court are a dazzling homage to American might. Most are laid out along or adjacent to The National Mall, the 146-acre grassy expanse that anchors cultural icons such as the Smithsonian museums, the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. Viewed together, their grandeur and gravitas befit a city steering the course of the world’s wealthiest (for now, at least) nation.

Although the salons of Georgetown never stopped humming with political intrigue, the Obamas’ arrival seems to have woken Washington from a slumber. In a town where 9pm was not long ago considered late, enhanced programming at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and new, much needed cultural venues such as the Shakespeare Theater Company and the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater are keeping Washingtonians up well past their former bedtime.

They might be taking cues from the President and First Lady themselves, who made “popping in for dinner” a staple of Obama’s first year in office. Their excellent choices reflect the variety of what is essentially a Southern city with ample Yankee and European influences. One was spent at DC stalwart Citronelle, where Michel Richard’s contemporary French fare ranges from the whimsical (pizza topped with scallop mousse; lobster burgers) to a rack of lamb in a jalapeño-cumin sauce. Another was at the Park Hyatt’s Blue Duck Tavern in Georgetown, where Brian McBride serves up a menu of sustainably sourced nouveau-American staples in a Tony Chi-designed glass, steel and wood dining room. And a May 2010 outing took the couple to the then-new, tiny 12-table Komi, near Dupont Circle, where the nightly prix-fixe remains a mystery until serving time but might feature raw salmon with shiso sorbet or handmade spaghetti in a sea-urchin sauce. Writ somewhat larger is Alain Ducasse, whose Adour at the St Regis Hotel has low-slung white leather furniture and glass-walled wine cases floating under the building’s original ornate wooden ceilings.

Much like its culinary scene, Washington’s cultural one has also become increasingly worldly, and world class. Important European master works are in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Phillips Collection, the latter celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. But nowhere do art and architecture collude more impressively than at the Norman Foster-designed Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery. Foster’s glass-and steel canopy caps this Greek-Revival landmark, effortlessly linking old with new. The 17 galleries housed below give a human face to historic figures ranging from Pocahontas to John Wayne. The exhibitions are more current at the nearby Newseum, a three-year-old space dedicated to news gathering located midway between the White House and the Capitol Building. Designed by Ennead Architects (behind New York’s Standard Hotel), the $450m museum’s 14 galleries display a century of historic media moments; exhibitions focus on the September 11 attacks, Pulitzer-Prize-winning photography and memoirs of more than 2,084 journalists killed in action.

The National Gallery of Art remains perhaps the Mall’s cultural apex. One of its latest additions, artist Leo Villareal’s Multiverse, is a testament to this. The floor-to-ceiling assemblage of 41,000 LED nodes covers the 200ft-long concourse connecting the Gallery’s east and west wings, enveloping visitors in a surreal ambience that sharply contrasts with the gravitas of the West Building’s Vermeers and Renoirs, or the midcentury optimism of the Rothkos, Calders and Pollocks in the IM Pei-designed East Building. But competition will arrive soon; the Mall’s last vacant plot is now being developed as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. When completed in 2015, this $500m project by British-Ghanian architect David Adjaye will solidify The Mall’s, and arguably DC’s, status as the repository of the entire American experience. It will arrive in tandem with a new 20,000sq ft contemporary art centre now being developed by Miami-based über-collectors Don and Mera Rubell in south-west DC.

From The Mall to Georgetown, a hotel boom over the past few years has seen the global players move in (including a Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, St Regis and two Ritz-Carltons). Walking distance from both The Mall and the White House, the 317-room W Hotel inhabits the former Hotel Washington, another beaux-arts gem. It has the sleek POV bar on the roof, overflowing with canny politicos who sip hand-crafted cocktails, while taking in views stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon to suburban Virginia, across the Potomac river. More luxurious is the Park Hyatt, between Georgetown and Dupont Circle – a low-rise, red-brick property with handmade Shaker-inspired furniture, an impressive polyglot staff, a complimentary Audi sedan service over town and a serene tea salon.

But for the full, traditional DC monty, it’s perhaps best to opt for one of two classic properties. The 145-room Hay-Adams on Lafayette Square is pleasantly chintzy but still elegant, and as close as you can stay to the White House without a personal invitation. And the recently restored Jefferson is a 99-room beaux-arts beauty whose formal restaurant, Plume, is a surprisingly charming throwback to the power-decorating Reagan years.

The surrounding area is eminently strollable. Dozens of embassies line nearby Massachusetts Avenue, and the adjoining side streets hold the lavish urban estates of Washington’s late-19th-century elite. Most of the architecture skews beaux-arts (embassies of India and Indonesia), whimsically château-esque (Cameroon) or Victorian (Togo, Sudan). There are, however, a clutch of modernist marvels, including the Danish Embassy, co-designed by Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, and Britain’s massive Queen Anne-styled complex by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Equally walkable is Georgetown, whose patrician Federal row houses attest to the area’s existence four decades before that of DC itself. More than 250 years later, Georgetown and Dupont Circle remain wealthy enclaves, yet even within these bastions of DC gentility there are signs of the cutting-edge. Commonwealth, for instance, is a soulful, SoHo-styled sportswear boutique co-owned by musician/producer/designer Pharrell Williams; two-year-old Hu’s Wear stocks more than a dozen global lines, many exclusively, such as Suno and The Row; while Redeem trades in a roster of avant-garde labels (Germany’s Kai-Aakmann, Them Atelier from LA) that can be found holding their own in the East Village.

But to see where Washington is headed next, visit the emerging Atlas District, near Union Station. Here, in the shadow of Capitol Hill, the year-old Industry Gallery displays unexpectedly current industrial design by Spain’s Nacho Carbonell and Dutch Droog-alum Tejo Remy, while the historic Atlas Performing Arts Center was recently restored to its original art-deco splendour – its current repertoire ranges from off-Broadway-styled theatre to performances by the Capital City Symphony. An Atlas evening followed by moules-frites and one of 50 Belgian ales at nearby Granville Moore won’t necessarily result in a First Family sighting, but you’re more than likely to catch the next generation of Obamas-in-the-making.