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OBAMA LAND

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A year has passed since the history-making election that proclaimed Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States, and national polls suggest that for many Americans the "honeymoon" is over. In Washington, however, each political bump this new administration suffers seems only to strengthen the city's love affair with the first family.

When I spent a few days there recently, Washington still felt fully in thrall to Obamania. Indeed, those few people I encountered who could recall ancient history - meaning, the previous administration - were quick to describe what a pall George W. Bush cast over the nation's capital. Besides frequently bragging about how his tax policies were "starving the beast," (that beast, of course, being Washington), President Bush was famously uninterested in the city's cultural and culinary attractions. His most memorable dining experience in the capital, one wag told me, was the pretzel that nearly caused him to choke to death.

"President Bush was always dissing Washington, but Barack Obama doesn't," said Peggy Clifton, a researcher at the Library of Congress. "So, most people who live and work here are much happier now. We feel like there's finally someone in the White House who respects what this town actually does - which is govern."

Visitors will see that glowing pride reflected in the city's swank new restaurants, ritzy new hotels and spruced up landmarks.

While we ate lunch at Sonoma, a popular dining spot near Capitol Hill, Clifton, a longtime observer of the local scene, remarked on how quickly the president had changed Washington's mood. It's already abundantly clear that the Obamas, in residence barely nine months, adore their new hometown. Many Washingtonians are falling all over themselves to show the feeling is mutual.

Affectionate puns on the president's name are nearly epidemic. Are you ready to "Barack the casbah"? Want an "Obamarita" with those nachos? Nearly everywhere one looks there are pictures of Barack and Michelle; their daughters, Sasha and Malia; and even portraits of Bo, or "Bobama," the first puppy.

I'd arrived with a several-day itinerary suggesting ways to "explore Obama's Backyard" that I had downloaded from washington.org, the city's official tourism Web site. Look! It's the Hay-Adams Hotel, where Michelle posed for her Vogue cover shoot. Here's Ben's Chili Bowl, where Barack prefers the "half-smoke" chili. And there's the Blue Duck Tavern, where the Obamas celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary in early October with some of executive chef Brian McBride's American-style cooking, made with local ingredients. Because I'd decided to make my own visit "green," by taking only the Metro around town (no rental car, no taxis), there was Obama's smiling face on my Metro card, seemingly giving me an eco-fist bump every time I swiped it through the turnstiles.

Finally, I began to wonder if Madame Tussauds is on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee. How else to explain the remarkably unflattering likenesses of Republicans like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and both President Bushes, 41 and 43; yet the newly installed wax statues of the Obamas render them as considerably more attractive than they appear in real life?

Dreams can come true

One afternoon, I discussed the "crush" Washington seems to have on the Obamas, almost as if they are the prom's king and queen, with Barton Seaver, a well-regarded local chef who recently opened a new restaurant, Blue Ridge.

The couple's vocal championing of locally grown vegetables and produce - don't miss Michelle's thriving vegetable garden and beehive "towers," a new addition to the White House's front lawn - has raised the national consciousness about more healthful eating, he believes. This has not only been good for Washington's restaurants, but the city's overall vibe.

"Thanks to the Obamas, D.C. is becoming the city it should be, not only politically, but culturally and financially. Then again, it really does wonders for civic pride when suddenly there's a few extra billion dollars to spend!"

Seaver's last comment hints at a curious inversion of economic reality one feels around Washington these days. Belts continue to be tightened as the so-called "Great Recession" still pummels most of the United States, yet within the Beltway, the capital seems awash in money.

According to the Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, new hotels are being constructed at a record pace, with 18 new properties under way. This summer saw the launch of a new W Hotel and the sleek Donovan House. Venerable spots like The Jefferson, Hilton Washington and Georgetown's Four Seasons have all undergone extensive, and expensive, renovations.

"Bush didn't make Washington a place you wanted to visit, but that Obama has turned the city into a very attractive destination," says Liliana Baldassari, director of public relations at the Four Seasons Hotel.

I wondered about this when I stayed one night at the Lorien, a new hotel and spa in the tony suburb of Alexandria, Va., designed by interior decorator Vincente Wolf. (Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will doubtless recognize the name is a reference to an enchanted forest in Middle Earth.)

A quite magical spot Lorien seemed, particularly when I ordered a pizza baked in a wood-fired grill at the hotel's Brabo Tasting Room restaurant. Afterward, back in my room, I noticed there was a "dream" button on my telephone. A printed card explained that if I pressed this button, someone would answer and make whatever I wished come true. I was half-tempted to request "comprehensive healthcare reform."

Failing that, I consoled myself by sampling Washington's newest restaurants, such as Zentan, an Asian eatery and a sly joke on Washington espionage because the restaurant's name means "spy" in Cantonese, and Bourbon Steak, a new restaurant from celebrity chef Michael Mina that features his signature "slow-poaching" method of cuisine.

I poked around in N.O.M.A., a rapidly developing neighborhood just north of Massachusetts Avenue, near Union Station, and along the U-Street Corridor (long the center of Washington's music scene to sample).

Eventually, I found myself at the Spot Lounge, a hip new club near Dupont Circle that is decorated with hologram-like photo murals of runway models. Was this a wink at Michelle Obama's much-hyped passion for fashion, I wondered?

A spreading halo

Such trendiness, a few Washingtonians are willing to concede, is not a natural fit for this most wonk-ish of American cities.

One afternoon, I savored crispy shoestring potatoes, oh-so-delicately spritzed with truffle oil, at Potenza. Located only a few blocks from the White House, this chic new Italian eatery is frequented by such heavy-hitters as PBS' Gwen Ifill, Penny Pritzker (the Hyatt hotel heiress, who was national finance chair of Barack Obama's presidential campaign), and Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary. Imagining myself hobnobbing with such company, I was feeling pretty Obama-tized, until Paul Sharon, the restaurant's general manager, stopped by my table to chat.

When I told him about the scene at the Spot Lounge, he reacted with a snort of laughter, and tartly informed me that D.C. is no O.C.

"Not by any stretch of the imagination is Washington a stylish city," Sharon proclaimed. "Most people who work here, for instance, dress like nothing. These guys, if they dry clean their suits once a year, it's a miracle. Then again, chic is a meaningless concept in D.C.; Washington is all about brain power."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent survey, greater Washington has twice as many adults with advanced degrees as the national average. Nearly 45 percent of local women have a bachelor's degree or higher, the highest percentage in the nation. Is it any wonder, then, Washington has long been considered the geek of American tourist destinations, or that a vacation here has often felt, at least to the young set, like doing homework?

Be that as it may, it seems wonderfully appropriate that the Obamas' "it's sexy to be smart" halo has spread across several of Washington's most famous museums and landmarks, all of which now gleam from recent renovations.

In July, for instance, the Ford's Theatre Museum reopened after a two-year renovation, in time for the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in 1809; the National Museum of American History received a sprinkle of glitter in April with the release of the film "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which features such museum artifacts as Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves and Amelia Earhart's plane.

And, the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened a month after Obama was elected in 2008, provides a magnificent new entrance into the Capitol building, probably the most famous man-made landmark in America.

Waiting in line here for my tour to begin, I was surrounded by students on field trips from their homes in Tennessee, Indiana and Nebraska, each state's group readily identifiable by the students' matching T-shirts. "If success is the fire within, we're burning up!" said the bright yellow tops worn by a group from Oklahoma.

Among this giggling gaggle, I noticed a quintet of blond girls who sported identical necklaces featuring large pendants in the shape of marijuana leaves, all encrusted in a pave of fake diamonds.

I smiled, thinking of how Obama in his memoir, "Dreams of My Father," defused political fallout by honestly admitting his own youthful drug use. Did these Oklahoman girls know this about the president - and, if so, would that be indicative of an abomination, or Obama Nation?

That's up to each U.S. citizen to decide. Maybe you voted for him last November; maybe you so detest him that you proudly label yourself a "teabagger." Either way, if you plan to visit Washington any time soon, bear in mind this city is still embracing Barack Obama with wide-open arms and big, sloppy kisses. Be prepared to feel the love.

If you go

Lodging

Lorien Hotel and Spa, 1600 King St., Alexandria, Va. 877-956-7436, lorienhotelandspa.com. Spa luxuries and cool minimalism, nestled in the heart of Old Town Alexandria. Rooms start at $220.

Four Seasons, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 202-342-0444, fourseasons.com. Georgetown is outside the front door, and there's bullet-proof glass in the Presidential Suite. Rooms start at $545.

Donovan House, 1155 14th St. NW, Washington. 866-538-0187, thompsonhotels.com. Injects an element of sensuality and sleek sophistication into the Washington hotel scene. Rooms start at $129.

Dining

Bourbon Steak, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-944-2026. Sure, there's premium red meat, but there's also organic chicken. Entrees start at $24.

Equinox, 818 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-331-8118. The best of "enviro-friendly" dining, from chef Todd Gray. Entrees start at $17.

Potenza, Woodward Building at H and 15th streets. 202-638-4444. Exquisite rustic Italian dishes, pizzas and pastas. Entrees start at $12.

Spot Lounge, 1214 18th St. NW, 202-785-2922. Washington's prettiest young things, in an underground bar that's lit a brilliant blue.

Attractions

The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., 202-456-7041. Public tours of the White House are available through your congressional representative. Requests must be submitted at least 30 days in advance.

Ford's Theatre and Museum, 511 10th St. NW., 202-347-4833, fordstheatre.org. Site of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Admission is free.

Madame Tussauds, 1025 F St. NW, 888-246-8872. madametussauds.com. Wax figures of famous people from Hollywood, politics and history - Angelina Jolie to J. Edgar Hoover. It's tiptop-tackiness. Admission is $15-$20.

Information

For more about Washington, including hotel deals, visit washington.org.

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