Washington DC, an insiders' guide


Washington DC, an insiders' guide


Washington – so the stereotype goes – is a town of institutions and long-held ideals. Accordingly, its arts industry has been criticised for playing it too safe. DC is the town where public servants don formal attire for openings at the Kennedy Center; where tourists line up for matinees at Ford's Theatre, the site of President Lincoln's assassination in 1865; where parents drag their fidgety offspring to take in a bit of forced learning at the Smithsonian museums. But beyond those entrenched bastions of culture, there are little wellsprings that make DC something much more interesting than a dormitory town for power brokers.


In a high-energy and young city like Washington, the nightlife is well stocked with options for its twentysomethings when they emerge on Friday night for some weekend fun. But where do DC residents go to escape their suited up, political bosses? Well, let's start with a few favourites.
Like any city, each neighbourhood in DC has its own unique vibe and nightlife scene. A popular spot to hit is the U Street corridor. With a bar for just about everyone, you can't go wrong. Wine with your girlfriends? Head over to Vinoteca's outdoor patio and bocce ball court (it's like pétanque). In search of some good food, delicious margaritas and dancing? Try El Centro on for size. Want a drink while enjoying the fresh air and view? DC loves its rooftop bars and luckily U Street is filled with them. From DC9 to Marvin to Brixton to Lost Society, you can grab a drink and a prime spot with your crew.


The capital's largest musical epicentre is the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW: The 9:30 Club, the hall routinely praised by musicians as one of the best live venues in the United States, is five blocks east, and the Black Cat, a storied punk club, is three blocks south. Several of DC's newer, edgier nightspots are centred in the same region, all a short walk from the U Street-Cardozo Metro stop.

Tropicalia has been open for less than three months but has already built a following for its varied mix of live acts – everything from Chicago soul to samba to Afropop to the No! BS Brass Band – and DJs. This basement space is booked by Jim Thomson, a DJ and promoter who runs the Electric Cowbell record label and prides himself on the diversity of the performers he attracts. While most clubs emphasise either band-watching or dancing to records, Tropicalia excels at both. That, plus the unique signature cocktails served from a milk-coloured Plexiglass and steel bar backed by thousands of LED lights, makes it DC's hottest new place to play after dark.


The Washington neighbourhoods the world knows best – Georgetown, Capitol Hill – are among the least interesting for anyone who cares about eating well these days. For a taste of what's fresh in this worldly city, you want to venture beyond its well-known addresses and tourist zones and go where the flavours run hot and the fingers might serve as utensils. Take a French chef with a fondness for American food and what you get at Mintwood Place are … escargot hush puppies ($11).

They sound strange until you bite in and discover the great affinity fried cornmeal has for meaty snails. Cedric Maupillier, who put the Adams Morgan neighbourhood back on the gourmet's map when he launched his first restaurant in January, has all sorts of other luscious tricks in his bag – such as Long Island duck sliced over a neat row of sauerkraut and dappled with green peppercorn sauce ($28), a dish I never tire of eating. Same for the chef's baked Alaska ($10), ignited at the table with Chartreuse. Leather booths, vintage ironwork and recycled wood make a sepia-toned design statement but the carefree service reminds you you're in a neighbourhood restaurant.

 Alternative Attractions & Eateries

Washington is filled with iconic buildings and sights, but some of its highlights don't appear on the usual tourist pilgrimages through the Capitol, the Air and Space Museum, and the Lincoln Memorial.

My favourite monument is just a few steps off the Mall, behind the Vietnam Wall and in the shadow of Lincoln Memorial, yet mostly unknown even to locals: at 22nd and Constitution NW, hidden among trees, a 12-foot-tall, four-ton bronze likeness of a rumpled Albert Einstein sits on the lawn of the National Academy of Sciences. The monument incorporates some of Einstein's physics into its design – at his feet is an astronomical map of the stars; standing at its centre on the North Star and talking to Albert creates a perfect echo chamber.

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