Though they’ve reported from environs as diverse as Nicaragua and Seattle’s Pioneer Square, GFS contributors Max Rudy and Christine Galanti keep it close to home with today’s post on seeing your neighborhood through new eyes.
Living 15 miles outside of Washington, DC in Fairfax, VA, we spend a good amount of our weekends in the city going out to eat or catching choice live music performances at the 9:30 Club. We realized recently that we never took advantage of the opportunity to experience DC as we would any other destination city: like tourists. We wanted to get outside of the spots we tend to frequent and explore the undiscovered wonders waiting under our noses. This Labor Day weekend, we did just that, opting to skip the typical museum du jour and focus instead on the neighborhoods.
Saturday: Old Town Alexandria
Old Town Alexandria is a colonial treasure on the banks of the Potomac. Perfectly preserved row homes and a beautiful waterfront make this eating, drinking and shopping hub one of my favorite places in the city.
We set off by walking from the King Street Metro past the George Washington Masonic Temple (which you just know that the freemasons must have had alien help building) to the Lorien Hotel and Spa. There, award-winning chef Robert Wiedmaier has opened BRABO restaurant and The Butcher’s Block, a delightful butcher and gourmet foods shop. The Butcher’s Block offers phenomenal cuts of beef, duck, lamb and more, and its selection of cheese, Belgian beer, chocolates, wines and more are obviously hand-picked by someone who knows what they are doing.
Further down King Street, we saddled up to Hank’s Oyster Bar. Hank’s (chef Jamie Leed’s creation) has a few locations around DC, but on this Friday night, we got lucky and snagged a seat right outside on a beautiful late summer evening. Hank’s serves all types of seafood, and—you guessed it—specializes in oysters.
I usually go for a half or full dozen of raws, but this time went with the hand-breaded flash-fried oysters and the fish special, since it featured one of my seafood addictions and one of the world’s most underrated fish, black cod (aka sablefish). Made famous by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose miso black cod recipe brought sablefish from the kosher delis to the masses, the fish is teeming with omega-3 fatty acids and so remarkable when cooked correctly. [Editor’s note: And it’s a sustainable seafood choice according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch!]
Dessert was found one door down from Hank’s at Alexandria Cupcake, where we downed a vanilla bean (bourbon vanilla bean cake with a Belgian cocoa rouge buttercream frosting topped with a fresh raspberry) and a coconut cupcake. Though we left satisfied, it would only be fair to test the cupcakes at another Alexandria cupcakery, Lavender Moon. It’s a quirky storefront built from a old row home, with a relaxed and funky atmosphere. We tried their peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes, and were not disappointed. If we had to choose between the two, Lavender Moon would win, but why choose?
Sunday: Capitol Hill and Eastern Market
After the blowout first night, we took a slower approach to the day, meeting up with friends in DC’s gentrified Capitol Hill neighborhood. A mix of well-maintained city houses, eclectic shops and restaurants right off of the Eastern Market Metro stop, 8th Street SE has turned into quite an international foodie street peppered with buzzing restaurants like the Belgian Belga Cafe, the Greek Cava Mezze and the pizza bistro Matchbox.
We decided on a Turkish spot: Cafe 8. We sat outside and split a pide (Turkish pizza) and way too many doner kabobs. Full of juicy lamb goodness, the meaty kabob topped with a garlicky yogurt sauce in a soft lavash pita were more than ample. Bellies full, we ventured over to Eastern Market.
To me, Eastern Market is the heart of the city, beating with local artists, produce stands and an arcade of butchers and food stands. We eat, drink and make small talk with the vendors as we float from one stand to the next. The final purchase of the day: grass fed/finished skirt steak headed right for our home grill to be done up gaucho style for an evening BBQ. Not exactly something you’d do as a tourist at a hotel, but how could we resist?
Monday: DuPont Circle
On our final day of re-discovering Washington, we drove into DuPont Circle and found a parking spot at the corner of New Hampshire and Riggs. This little corner of DC offers up some of the most serene and idyllic neighborhoods in the US, and Riggs Street personifies this.
We wandered up Riggs to 16th and the U Street Corridor. This part of town used to be quite dangerous, but has now become one of the hippest spots in town, with stores like Junction, a vintage/resale store and Legendary Beast, a vintage costume jewelry storefront, a few doors down.
After our fill of vintage shops, we moved up 16th Street to Meridian Hill Park, a world-class gem of an outdoor space. From anywhere in this park—above the steps to the fountain, sitting in the grass—you forget you’re in DC. This park could easily be in San Francisco or Paris. Unofficially known as Malcolm X Park, Meridian Hill was restored after being completely run-down and dangerous in the ’80s and early ’90s. It is a great non-touristy place to bring out-of-towners.
Meandering through the tranquil, wealthy and diverse neighborhood of Kalorama to check out the Spanish Steps, we cut down Massachusetts Ave.—aka Embassy Row—back to DuPont Circle, admiring the stately embassies with a pit stop at Dolcezza Artisanal Gelato, home of gelato and sorbet that easily surpasses your standard gelateria.
Along the way, we caught a flyer for a sale at the intriguingly-named Mansion on O Street, so a quick detour was in order—and we were blown away. The Mansion on O Street boasts 100 rooms and 32 secret doors to explore. It is a functioning hotel, party space, brunch/tea restaurant and this day, a gigantic flea market.
But even exploring the nooks and crannies of the Mansion couldn’t delay our dinner, so off we went down Connecticut Ave to the recently renovated Penang Malaysian restaurant. Penang offers cozy outdoor seating for sampling the spicy, sweet and crunchy papaya salad and the Singapore Char Mee Hoon, piled with spicy shrimp, pork sausage, scallions, bean sprouts, and ground peanuts on rice vermicelli.
To finish off the night, we walked back through DuPont Circle to Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe. Kramerbooks is an institution. Where else can you get both the best provocative, political junkie book collection alongside a top notch restaurant and bar featuring 15 beers on tap, including Belgian beers and microbrews? We opted to sit at the bar and order a slice of the flourless chocolate cake to cap off a perfect weekend.