Washington DC reminds me a lot of Sacramento. They’re both cities whose foundations are politics and government. They have distinct neighborhoods that each have their own look and feel. Rivers run through both. Both are in states of redevelopment and, thus, gentrification. DC seems like it’s about 10 years ahead of Sac, though–there is a vitality that runs through the city that Sacramento also wants to capture: a vibrant nightlife, restaurant scene, sports, bars and microbreweries, a burgeoning tech sector, young people with high disposable income, and loads of money greasing all the wheels. (I will say this for Sacramento though–it’s hard to beat the diversity of people and food, something DC doesn’t have.)
I recently came back from Washington, having been there for a conference for a few days. From the policy and political perspectives, there was definitely a sense of moroseness from the convulsions and partisanship of the last several years. But that certainly hasn’t infected anything else in the city. The museums are still bustling, new (and expensive) apartment and office buildings are still coming up, the bars and restaurants are packed. Life continues on in the capital of our nation.
Being a history and politics nerd, I love wandering Smithsonian museums, monuments to past presidents (especially the Jefferson Memorial), and the literal structures of our government–the White House, the Capitol, and others. (There is a certain serenity to the Jefferson Memorial, maybe because it’s tucked a little out of the way, compared to the other ones, surrounded by a body of water that is trimmed by cherry blossom trees. I was just thinking how it harkens to the Pantheon in Rome, and then I read that it was indeed designed with that intent.)
But there are two things that I indulge in every time I’m in Washington, my two favorite destinations that I have to make space for. One is a DC literary institution, as much as the Library of Congress–Kramerbooks and Afterwards. I can spend hours here, browsing through their books, and breath in that unique smell that a person can only find at an independent bookstore. And afterward, I just walk to the opposite side of the building an grab a dessert or full meal at the “afterwards”–the cafe. (I have to say, their fried chicken sandwich is great.) I always pick up a book for the flight back when I visit.
(Since my first visit to Kramer’s in 2006, the independent bookstore changed hands and, apparently, the prices have increased at their cafe, causing quite the controversy among the staff, some of whom split off. But the quality of the food is much better, and it’s not absurdly expensive either, by DC standards. Some people just have problems with change, even when if it means surviving.)
My second favorite place is Zaytinya, a restaurant owned by chef José Andrés–one of many in DC. Zaytinya serves only small plates that draw inspiration from Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon. Andrés can charge any amount he wants and people will still flock to his restaurants, but amazingly the plates are all reasonably priced–averaging $12 each, I estimate. They are familiarly put together but highlight some exotic ingredients as well, like sweetbread, octopus ink, and lamb’s tongue. Nonetheless, the food (and price) is great. The long wait to sit–even at the bar–is evident of that.
My personal favorite is the seared halloumi cheese. The brininess of the cheese is balanced out by the sweetness of balsamic vinegar, the dates, and the slices of tangerines.
(Random tidbit–Andrés trained under Ferran Adrià, once head of the world-renowned elBulli restaurant in Catalonia, Spain. Adrià is known as the father of deconstructionist cuisine and elBulli was considered the best restaurant in the world before its abrupt closure in 2011.)
Next time you head to DC, between lobbying visits to senators or Congressmembers, be sure to visit these two places and see why they’re my go-to places.