Mason-Dixon Arrive, May 2009
I remember the first time I drove to Washington, D.C. I was heading to 17th Street for dinner, and I had directions from a co-worker who lived in D.C. She had warned me about the confusing circles – Logan, Dupont, Thomas and Scott – especially at night. I brushed off her warning, as I was used to driving in cities; however, the moment I entered Dupont Circle, I knew the impetus for her warning. Streets shot off in all different directions like bicycle spokes, all with last-minute signs pointing the way to different streets – Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, P Street – and if you are in the wrong lane and need to exit the circle, forget about it; no one’s letting you over, so you might as well circle around and around in a dizzying manner.
The majority of my friends and family members who have driven in D.C. recall similar experiences, as until you get the hang of it, the circles can be intimidating to drive around (I still get nervous and my palms a bit sweaty). And as you are white-knuckling it and focusing intently on street signs, you’re bound to miss the circles’ beautiful stately homes and serene center fountains, as well as the ample shops, restaurants and galleries found on the streets around the circles. With this in mind, here’s an idea: take the MARC train from Baltimore’s Penn Station to Washington’s Union Station and jump on the D.C. Metro’s Red Line straight to Dupont Circle, or drive to the Silver Spring or Glenmont Metro Station and take the Red Line to Dupont (Metro is the best way to get here as parking is a nightmare). Either way, head to Dupont and Logan Circles and take the time to walk around these beautiful concentric gems, enjoy a beautiful lunch outdoors and hit some of the area’s great shops.
If you take the Red Line to Dupont Circle, there are two exits from the Metro. Take the Connecticut Avenue one, which will bring you right to Dupont Circle, which began as a Civil War encampment and reached its social height in the early 1900s. After a neighborhood decline in the 1960s, young, primarily gay, homeowners helped restore the neighborhood in the 1970s. There’s a beautiful fountain in the middle and ample benches to watch the world go by. Dupont is a very safe area to walk around, but in the evenings, it’s good to be aware of your surroundings, just like any city.
Let’s start with lunch. In the Dupont area, there are three main arteries containing restaurants and shops – 17th Street, Connecticut Avenue and P Street; the latter two are better for lunch as 17th Street is more of an evening destination. If you choose P Street, the bulk of your options are between 20th and 22nd Streets. Some of my favorites include Al Tiramisu, Pesce Bistro, Marrakech Palace and Urbana, located in the Hotel Palomar. I recently had lunch at Urbana, a sleek and gorgeous space described as “reminiscent of a Tuscan wine cellar,” and had a wonderful brick oven pizza with loads of proscuitto and a quartino of wine, which is basically a third of a bottle, or about a glass and a half of wine.
Personally I prefer Connecticut Avenue for lunch as there are loads of restaurants offering every possible cuisine you can think of – Indian, French, Chinese (City Lights of China is the old guard of Chinese restaurants in D.C. and is very authentic), Mexican, Italian … you name it – as well as ample outdoor dining options (check out La Tomate’s great outdoor space, delicious food and fun happy hour specials) and great boutique shops mixed in between. I was craving Italian on my visit last month, so I decided to try Odeon Café (odeoncafedc.com). Inside, the charming eatery has an Old World look with its soft lights, walls painted in red and orange, tile floor and huge curved bar. The huge mustard-colored heavy drapes at the front provide a dramatic flair and the floor-to-ceiling front windows open up for an “al fresco” feel. There’s an upstairs balcony-style dining room, too. The menu is extensive, but we opted to share the proscuitto and mozzarella appetizer, which was a delicious starter, followed by rigatoni with artichoke and chicken in a tomato pesto sauce and a cheese tortellini dish. The prices are very reasonable, too. If you’re looking for a lighter lunch, check out the yummy salads and yogurt at the new Sweet Green, which just opened a Dupont location in April.
After lunch, time for some shopping! Ladies, be sure to check out Terra, a stylish women’s clothing and accessories boutique that focuses on functional, timeless fashion, and carries scarves, jeans, dresses and jewelry. Next door for the gentlemen is Daddy & Son clothing store. Continue on Connecticut Avenue for other shops, including Ann Taylor Loft, Best Cellars wine, Blue Mercury beauty products and many shoe shops. If you need a snack, head to Kramerbooks & Afterwords, a cute bookstore and café with live music, or Firehook Bakery and Coffee House.
If you’d rather look at priceless art than shoes, the acclaimed Phillips Collection, which opened in 1921 as America’s first museum of modern art, is nearby on 21st and Q Street and has paintings by Renoir, Bonnard, O'Keeffe and van Gogh.
If time permits, head back to Dupont Circle (be sure to check out the odd Sonny Bono Memorial Park at the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue, 20th Street and O Street, established after Bono’s tragic skiing death by a family friend) and take P Street east from the circle to Logan Circle, a vibrant neighborhood that has experienced an amazing renaissance in the past 10 years. Along P Street you’ll see the new Whole Foods, a sprawling place that is packed day and night due primarily to its focus more on ready to go meals for young professionals and great wine selection. Also on P Street is Stoneys Food and Drink, which dates back to 1968, and Halo, a new hotspot for gays and lesbians.
Originally called Iowa Circle and part of the original L’Enfant plan for the city of Washington (although his plan actually called for a triangle; it was altered to a circle in 1818), Logan Circle sports a beautiful statue of its namesake, Civil War General and Sen. John A. Logan. Take a few minutes to walk around the circle to admire the iconic huge mansions, some of which remain single-family homes, while others have been converted to upscale condos.
The bulk of restaurants and shops – as well as the beautifully restored Studio Theatre – can be found on the burgeoning 14th Street corridor between P and S Streets. Most of the buildings here are former auto showrooms from the 1920s and 1930s and are now home to trendy shops and restaurants. If you here for dinner, go to Posto, a sexy, gorgeous Italian restaurant. For shopping, Timothy Paul Bedding + Home has beautiful stemware, bedding and chic pillows, while Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams has high-end furniture. If you have a sweet tooth, pop in ACKC Cocoa Bar (TheCocoaGallery.com), a cute place that serves up cocoa drinks named after leading ladies of Hollywood (The Liz, The Joan, The Audrey and The Lucy), espresso drinks, endless chocolates and sells adorable gift baskets and hosts chocolate tastings and chocolate making classes.
If you’re looking for something for the garden, check out Garden District’s two locations on 14th Street – one sells indoor plants, while the other focuses on outdoor plants and flowers. The urban gardening center has been featured repeatedly on HGTV.
As close is D.C., is, why not stay overnight? Dupont Circle has several B&Bs, including the circa 1883 Swann House and the Embassy Circle Guest House, a former embassy and now a stunning B&B. If you do stay overnight, head to 17th Street for dinner at either Komi or the new Level One. Whatever you decide, embrace the lively atmosphere around those crazy circles of D.C.