FOR a quintessentially D.C. start to a winter day, grab a power breakfast (the fruit platter with salmon is a good morning choice) among the wheelers and dealers at the Old Ebbitt Grill, just steps from the White House. A favorite hangout for Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt, and now senators and lobbyists, the Grill, built in 1856, makes you feel like a true political insider and gives you a chance to test your C-Span skills by trying to identify fellow patrons.
When the flora and fauna there get boring, head a couple of blocks toward Garfield Circle to the United States Botanic Garden on the Capitol grounds and stroll through a truly delirious paradise of color and scent. Both soothing and stimulating, America’s garden is a great place to start the day gently and wait for the coffee to get the pistons going. A personal favorite: The exhibit on “Plants in Culture,” documenting botanical influences on the development of therapy, ornamentation, music, ceremony and language.
Though a bit of a cliché, the next stop is worth experiencing. The pool at the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art turns into a skating rink in the winter that is truly enchanted, despite the kamikaze games of the occasional teenage hockey types. Piped-in 18th- and 19th-century classical tunes add to the already romantic effect, and the rink accommodates up to 200 people an hour. The hot chocolate at the Pavilion Café is not to be missed.
For lunch, flee the centers of politics and tourism and head to a landmark of local history along a strip once known as the Black Broadway because Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Nat King Cole regularly played its clubs. Devastated by the 1968 race riots, the area has been reborn with hip cafes and funky bars and stores. But a constant from the old days is Ben’s Chili Bowl, which opened in 1958. Its owners were inducted in 2001 into the D.C. Hall of Fame as much for the restaurant’s chili dogs, half-smokes and milkshakes as for its role in helping to spark the neighborhood’s revival. What the Old Ebbitt Grill is for Capitol Hill elites, Ben’s is for city natives, black intelligentsia and local politicians. Bill Cosby and Chris Tucker are regulars.
Now that the arteries are trashed, it’s time to drain the wallet in Georgetown, where narrow cobblestone streets, trendy boutiques and overpriced retail stores can easily occupy a snowy afternoon.
For dinner, take a cab back downtown to the corner of Ninth and G Streets and join the super-chic crowds gathering at Zaytinya (the name means “olive oil” in Turkish). This place can get a bit noisy and pretentious, but its service is fast, its Turkish, Greek and Lebanese fare is award-winning, and its décor is gorgeous (so, too, are the belly dancers who often perform on weekends — O.K., my wife is telling me to take that line out).
To end the day, go see a show at a theater with all the history, elegance and charm of the Kennedy Center but half the budget. Built in 1924, the Tivoli in Columbia Heights was an opulent movie palace with marble, plasterwork, painted murals and a crystal chandelier beneath its dramatic domed ceiling. Closed in 1976, it was restored and reopened in 2005 and is now home to GALA Hispanic Theater, which offers plays in English and Spanish, as well as an accompanying program of dance, music, poetry, spoken word, art and film.
Old Ebbitt Grill, 675 15th Street NW; (202) 347-4800. United States Botanic Garden, 245 First Street SW; (202) 225-8333. National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; (202) 737-4215. Ben’s Chili Bowl, 1213 U Street NW; (202) 667-0909. Zaytinya, 701 Ninth Street NW; (202) 638-0800. Tivoli Theater, 3333 14th Street NW; (202) 234-7174.