When I moved to Baltimore last year, I thought I was getting two cities in one. Washington is so close, so convenient, I figured I'd routinely go there for dinner, a show, maybe a spin around the monuments. All right, so I was more than a little naive. I was a Beltway virgin.
Since then, I've learned what Baltimoreans have known all along: That Washington may be one of the most popular tourist destinations to everybody else, but from our particular vantage point, it's an unpredictable next-door neighbor. One week you cruise into town, stroll on the Mall and window-shop in Georgetown. The next week you're stuck on I-95 or lost in a maze of traffic circles and one-way streets.
After a few of these metropolitan mood swings, you simply give up. A night in D.C.? Forget it.
Despite all the reasons to avoid Washington, I decided to give it another try, and I'm glad I did. If you know where to go and what you want to do, the nation's capital is worth the trouble.
So here you have it, a game plan for visiting Washington at night. I tried these four itineraries and enjoyed them because they they took me to the most international neighborhood this side of Europe, to the newest memorial, to the political scene and to a train station that offers more than trains.
Everybody's heard of Georgetown and its million-dollar homes, its fashionable restaurants and its collegiate watering holes. Which is precisely the problem. Georgetown is more overrun than the Lincoln bedroom.
Then there's Adams-Morgan. Although it lacks a tony shopping district, its main drag -- 18th Street, stretching from Florida Avenue to Columbia Road -- rivals Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs. Seems something is always opening. A new night club called Crush. A cyber cafe called Liquid.
A predominantly Latin American and Caribbean community in the 1960s, Adams-Morgan has been gentrified in recent years. But its ethnic character remains intact.
Considered the most diverse neighborhood in the city, it features Argentinian, Brazilian, Cuban, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Vietnamese fare and more.
I started out at Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant on 18th, where practically everything is finger food. You tear off a piece of crepe-like pancake and use it to pinch a bite of spicy chicken and vegetables.
Like many of the restaurants, Red Sea offers al fresco dining, in this case a porch with a few candle-lighted tables. This gives the neighborhood, which is just north of Dupont Circle, a decidedly European feel. Its sidewalks buzz with lively conversations in French, Italian and languages you don't even recognize. Some places, such as Perry's and Star of Siam, have rooftop dining, with a bird's eye view of the excitement.
For me, though, a sidewalk table was the best place for people-watching, which is as much a part of Adams-Morgan as lobbying is on Capitol Hill. I saw mini-skirted and tie-loose professionals shuffling from bar to bar in packs of five or six, dog walkers in colorful wind suits, young parents in khaki shorts and overalls, station wagon taxis full of conventioneers and other people in tank tops, tattoos and turbans. Your basic Benetton ad. And on every block was a guy waving drivers to a parking space and expecting a tip.
After dinner, I moseyed down a few doors to Toledo's Lounge, a boisterous, crowded bar with walls covered in kitschy Americana -- a huge Mobil winged horse, a yellow road sign for "Rough Road" and lots of red neon -- most of which came from a Baltimore antiques store, according to the owner. The place feels like a "Friends" hangout, with an attractive crowd of Capitol Hill staffers, professionals and slackers in their 20s and early 30s. Over beer and a burger at the bar, one guy regaled us with a play-by-play of a race in his Annapolis sailing league.
This being Washington, you never know who'll show up. Apparently, George Stephanopoulos used to drop by.
My next stop was Bedrock's Billiards on Columbia, a hip underground game room with seven pool tables, a selection of board games and retro furniture. There were serious players as well as couples on a double date, who played Scrabble while waiting for a pool table.
As people browse the cafes and restaurants on foot or on bike, they often stop to take in the music coming out of the cafes and clubs, much of it live. Walking a block here is like flipping the radio dial, from Mexican to jazz to Caribbean to folk to techno. As the dinner rush winds down around 10 o'clock, the dance scene picks up. Heaven & Hell on 18th has an upstairs bar (Heaven) and a downstairs bar (Hell). The difference? There's no room to dance in Hell.
That adds up to a pretty full night on the town. But you've only scratched the surface in Adams-Morgan. Another night, try something less casual: dinner at Cashion's Eat Place, an intimate, elegant restaurant; cocktails at Cities, which has a different theme city each year; and live music at Felix Restaurant & Lounge, where I heard a Sinatra sound-alike and a three-piece band.
Memorials by moonlight
If you've only seen Washington's outdoor attractions during the day, you haven't seen them at their best. At night the memorials truly shine, made more magnificent, more dramatic, by the lights.
Naturally, the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial was first on my list. I parked right outside the entrance off Ohio Drive and took my time walking through the memorial without the distraction of noisy tours or crowds of any kind. Designed like an outdoor museum, the memorial has a different space for each of Roosevelt's four terms in office, with familiar quotes etched in stone alongside various statues and picturesque waterfalls. You're reminded of theater; the statue of a barefoot fellow listening to a fireside chat on the radio feels intimate in the soft light.
From there, I parked on Connecticut Avenue and walked to the Vietnam Memorial, which glimmered with the reflection of people reading its names by candlelight. I continued on to the Lincoln, where couples sat on the steps admiring both views of the Washington Monument, one in lights and one upside-down in the glassy-smooth Reflecting Pool.
The nighttime tour of the Tidal Basin area is dazzling. The statues of Lincoln and Jefferson are more visible and seem more commanding than during the day when they're hidden in the memorials. And if it weren't for the lights, I would have missed the Albert Einstein statue altogether, since it's obscured by some bushes at Connecticut and Henry Bacon Drive. With the traffic so light, you can manage the impossible: Drive down Independence Avenue to the Capitol and over to Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and Old Executive Office Building in a matter of minutes.
Between parking and walking, those are all the sights I could squeeze into one night. The Washington Monument requires a separate trip. Ordinarily, you pick up a free ticket with an appointed time, but at night you wait as long as two hours with school groups from all over the country. With the right group -- I was in front of 90 eighth-graders from outside St. Louis -- it can be pretty entertaining. They sang, they tried in vain to organize the wave and they debated which is taller, the monument or the Gateway Arch back in St. Louis. (The arch wins, 630 feet to 555 feet and 5 1/2 inches.)
Still, the monument is Washington's highest point, and the view is breathtaking. The city positively sparkles. One of the unexpected highlights is a small, flickering light beyond the Lincoln in Arlington National Cemetery -- the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy's grave.
A political earful
While I can't guarantee you a Newt Gingrich or Jesse Helms sighting, I can steer you in the right direction, so that even if you don't spot real, live power players at these longtime Capitol Hill establishments, you'll find something just as tangible: that clubby, inside-the-Beltway ambience.
Walk through the doors of the Monocle, on the Senate side of the Capitol on D Street, and Ted Kennedy and Dan Quayle welcome you in the dining room. The walls are covered with photos of politicians past and present, along with magazine and newspaper stories chronicling the Monocle's place in D.C. lore since its opening in 1960. According to one story, President Kennedy once sent a limo over to pick up a sandwich. These days, political satirist Mark Russell films his weekly bits for CNN's "Inside Politics Weekend" at the bar on Friday nights.
When I entered the restaurant, the distinguished gentleman at the door seemed surprised to see a face he didn't recognize. The place feels more chummy than stuffy, like an upscale neighborhood bar as opposed to a private club. The maitre'd, the bartender and the chef have been here for ages, and so have the customers. While chain-smoking at the bar, a retired Republican looked up from his vodka and 7-Up and groused to his buddies, "We're never going to have fun again, you know that?" It was right out of a New Yorker cartoon.
There are too many regulars to name, says manager Nick Selimos. But here are a few: Sens. Pete Domenici from New Mexico and Connie Mack from Florida, and Rep. John Kasich from Ohio.
The night I was there, everybody wore suits, suits that made them look like Somebody. At the Dubliner, an Irish pub a couple of blocks away on North Capitol Street, it was the same story. More than likely, the bartender explained, they were lobbyists and staffers. But the word is, various congressmen and senators come in. It just depends what's happening on the Hill that day.
Over on the House side on First Street, the burgers at Bullfeathers were almost as delicious and messy as the gossip. The long, wooden bar was packed, so I settled for a table in the dining room under a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. Supposedly, "Bullfeathers" was a favorite expression of his.
At the adjacent table were three Republicans -- staffers, from the sound of it -- talking shop. "If a sniper took him out," one of them said, "and I'm not saying I'd like to see that happen, the office would get along fine without him." They went on to debate at length whether a rising star in the party stood a chance at winning national office despite rumors they'd heard that he's bisexual.
OK, so you don't know whom they're talking about or who these guys are. But since you're overhearing the conversation here, in Washington, it's more entertaining than C-Span or "Nightline" or the Sunday morning talk shows.
A one-stop adventure
If you take the train to D.C. instead of driving, your options are more limited, because the last train leaves for Baltimore at 10 p.m. Assuming you arrive by 8 o'clock, you've got two hours. That's not a lot of time, but you can find more than enough to do around Union Station.
If you want something quick and inexpensive, the food court on the lower level has more than 30 restaurants, everything from monster burritos to tabbouleh. For the true Union Station experience, though, dine at one of the nicer restaurants on the main level. I prefer the Center Cafe, in the middle of the enormous waiting room. Here's the best part: When the trains rumble into the station, the second level sways slightly, like an earthquake tremor.
If you leave through the station's main exit, you walk through the same arched doors as Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Outside is the ornate Columbus Memorial Fountain and a replica of the Liberty Bell. Back in the station, near Gate C, I came across a statue that probably goes unnoticed: A. Phillip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and had a hand in organizing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.
You could continue shopping in Union Station -- 125 stores in all, including Political Americana, which sells a life-size figure of Bill Clinton playing the sax -- but you'd miss out on a view of the city. I recommend two. The first takes 15 minutes. Ride the escalators to the top of the parking deck, where you'll see the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The second is better. Take the Metro to the Federal Triangle stop and cross 12th Street to the Old Post Office, built in 1899 and now used for business offices, gift shops and a food court. The glass elevator on the lower level takes you to an observation deck in the clock tower 315 feet above the ground. Though not as high as the Washington Monument, the tower has a more impressive panoramic view, because you're not looking through tiny, scratched windows. Even better, there's little or no wait for the elevator.
If you're like me, you're out of breath by the time you board the train for Baltimore. And as you kick back in your seat and the car pulls out of the station, you grin with sheer exhilaration and ask yourself, "Why haven't I done this before?"
When you go
To get to Adams-Morgan, take I-95 south toward Washington, then I-495 west. At Exit 33, go south on Connecticut Avenue into the city. Turn left on Columbia Road and go to 18th Street. There is metered parking along 18th Street and a parking lot in the 2400 block.
Red Sea, 2463 18th St., 202-483-5000
Toledo Lounge, 2435 18th St., 202-986-5416
Heaven & Hell, 2327 18th St., 202-332-8899
Cashion's Eat Place, 1819 Columbia Road, 202-797-1819
Cities, 2424 18th St., 202-328-7194
Felix Restaurant & Lounge, 2406 18th St., 202-483-3549
To get to the Washington Monument and other memorials, take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to New York Avenue to 14th Street. Turn left on 14th, then right on Constitution.
There is limited parking at the individual memorials, but your chances are better at night. Otherwise, look for street parking.
From June to August, the Armed Forces bands will perform free concerts at the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument. The hourlong shows will be on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, at 8 p.m. Free brass-band concerts will also be conducted this summer on the Capitol's East Terrace on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, at 8 p.m.
To get to Capitol Hill, take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to New York Avenue to Fourth Street. Turn left on Fourth Street, then left on D Street. Park on the street or at Union Station.
The Monocle, 107 D St. N.E., 202-546-4488
The Dubliner, 520 N. Capitol St., 202-737-3773
Bullfeathers, 410 First St. S.E., 202-543-5005
Amtrak trains travel daily between Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station and Washington's Union Station. A round-trip ticket costs $30 to $48. Call 800-872-7245 for specific times and further information.
MARC trains operate Monday through Friday. A round-trip ticket costs $10.25. Call 800-325-7245 for specific times and further information.
Union Station Mall, 50 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., 202-371-9441
Center Cafe, Union Station, 202-682-0143
Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., 202-289-4224
Pub Date: 6/08/97