Staying in Gallery Place for a DC visit

We’ve written before about Gallery Place as a great neighborhood to spend time in while in DC. For those visiting, there are also a couple of great places there to stay and have all the riches of downtown and the mall just steps from your hotel.

The Fairfield Inn and Suites, a Marriott property at 500 H St NW, is a fairly basic but comfortable place to shelter at a modest price.   There’s a fitness center, free wifi, and a breakfast buffet. We know it mostly as the home of the Irish Channel Pub where numbers of our actor friends like the happy hour when they haven’t got a show call to get to. It’s just two blocks from the heart of the neighborhood, but right across the street there are a button-cute townhouse and a lovely church, giving you a sample of residential DC.

The Courtyard Washington Convention Center, another Marriott at 900 F St NW, we know mostly from the Gordon Biersch brewpub on the ground floor (do you sense a drinking theme?). It has the fitness center and wifi of the Fairfield, but substitutes an indoor pool for breakfast – giving you an excuse to try the raft of great breakfast options out and about. It sits less than a block from the Gallery of Gallery Place, so you’re in exciting city bustle from the moment you step ourdoors.

We have stayed at and enjoyed The Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton Group property at 700 F St NW. It is a luxurious place with high-ceilinged rooms, some themed around particular persons from US history, and a free wine reception for guests at 5 PM every evening. It has a fitness center and free bikes to borrow. The general manager even offers bicycle tours around town. The in-building restaurant is closed for renovation until fall 2016, so they’re currently offering “Grab and go” breakfast for guests, and the concierge is working to be extra helpful directing you to the many spectacular neighborhood restaurants.

Finally, we did a quick Airbnb search for next week and were surprised to find a number of quite attractive 1 bedroom properties available to rent in the neighborhood for around $200 per night. We have lately become addicted to staying in apartments while on the road so we can do some of our own cooking and have a couch to retire to when the hustle of touring wears us out. It’s well worth having a look when you’re planning your visit.

Any of these locations would position you for easy access to almost anything we list in Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. Please share with us any tips you have for staying near the heart of things either in comments here or by dropping a line to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Metro, still better than driving through gridlock, but not as good as usual

Strange things are definitely happening with DC public transit, and unfortunately it’s not fun for visitors or residents. A couple of weeks ago, on our way home from The Who and the What at Round House Theatre, our conductor abruptly announced that all passengers should get out at Woodley Park Station. We emerged and determined this looked like it might be a big delay, so even though it was raining we decided to take our chances on walking home as it only added one mile to our walk. As we went up the stairs from the platform, we saw smoke curling in from the southbound tunnel and the station manager was rushing people out of the station. That was a completely new experience for us, and still rare but more common than it should be.

In Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC we extol the virtues of the Metro system, especially Metro Rail, as a speedy and convenient way to get around the area.DC has some of the worst traffic in the country, and Metro is especially valuable during the otherwise gridlocked after-work hours when you’ll be wanting to get to your neighborhood for a great evening out. To a large extent, Metro still deserves to be your #1 travel choice for speed and reliability.

However, you may have picked up on news coverage that parts of the system have been discovered to need unusually high levels of maintenance. The operators of the system have announced “SafeTrack Surges,” or week-long periods when entire parts of the system will have reduced or no service. There’s one in progress right now that has two stations in SE DC completely closed until July 3rd.

That is clearly a huge inconvenience for thousands of locals.  For visitors, unless you are staying near one of the closed stations or outward from them, these closures shouldn’t have much impact on your enjoyment of the city.

Along with these Surges, some lines trains are running less frequently or “single tracking” at night and on weekends. While this is frustrating, the trains should still be able to get you home, you’ll just be waiting longer.

What can you do?  We suggest, first, doing a little bit of advance research:

  • Metro’s website: this web page has information on scheduled work that may disrupt your travel, through the end of the calendar year
  • Google: type “transit stops near [street address of your hotel or apartment]” into Google’s search field to learn more about public transit nearby
  • Your local hookup: call or email your concierge, Airbnb host, or a friend to ask for some backup transit advice
  • Your smartphone: download and set up Google Maps on your phone, which offers the best up-to-the-minute advice on transit options when you are on the ground in its Directions feature.  These include walking, Metrorail, buses, driving and hailing an Uber; speaking of which, download and set up the Uber app on your phone if you haven’t already.
  • Your wallet:  Of course, Uber and taxis are more expensive than public transit.  You may need to adjust your travel budget upwards for your trip this year — and invest in a decent pair of walking shoes, which will give you much more flexibility in this immensely walkable city.

Once you’re here in DC, you can use Google Maps/Directions, the Uber app, and the kindness of bartenders and theater house  managers to navigate the terrain.  And remember, in most neighborhoods in DC and almost all the neighborhoods we’re sending you to, you can hail a cab on the street or at a hotel as well (Shirlington is the main exception, and hailing an Uber works fine there).

Even with these delays, if you need to get on a weekday night from your just-closed museum on the Mall to a 6 PM dinner reservation in Bethesda, for instance a Metro Rail train is still a WAY better bet than trying to make the drive with thousands of homeward-bound commuters on the road. Hopefully, we’ll pass through SafeTrack Surges by the end of the fall, and get back to the more normal state in DC, which is of having one of the most useful and reliable transit systems in the USA.

Why Washington, DC is one of the friendlier towns around

There’s no getting around it for visitors:  DC is a large city, sometimes it can be confusing, and it isn’t cheap.  However, as Insiders we want to reassure you with a few tips about the local population, and let you in on one of our best secrets: Washingtonians are actually pretty friendly.

One of the great things about the Washington, DC area as a destination, whether to visit or to live, is that most of the people here like to meet and get to know new people.

Because so many people visit our nation’s capital, or live here for just a few years while being, or working for, an elected official, the whole population is used to new faces.  Many remember the time when they were new themselves, and appreciated the kindness of strangers. Whether you’re at a bar or hanging out in a theater lobby, many people around you will welcome a greeting and some conversation.

It is true that DC can be obsessed about work. “So, what do you do?” is a common conversational opening here. Like most conversational openings, the goal is to establish some common ground. Two government employees or two lawyers exchanging answers to this question can quickly get on to sharing the kinds of stories about parallel experience that so often lay the foundation for friendships.

You can jump right in with how you earn your daily bread, or you can playfully subvert the script by answering with something other than a profession, which is one of the gambits we like to employ. “I coach my daughter’s soccer team.” “Today, I stared at French impressionist paintings for about an hour.” “I sit on this stool and wonder when the bartender will notice me.” An unexpected answer like this will almost certainly amuse the DC native and take the conversation someplace interesting.

An awful lot of Washingtonians are interesting and interested in the world — it’s what brought them here in the first place.  “How long have you lived in the area?” is a typical way to either start a conversation or redirect someone who is maybe going on a little too long about their pet project, so we recommend it, and be sure to share some information about your hometown and reasons for travel in exchange.

Some of us are even natives of the area or the city (an important distinction to some people, for whom being “from DC” means being born and raised within city limits).  Washington-area natives have what we like to think of as an ideal mix of Southern hospitality and Northern forthrightness — we’re friendly and outgoing, and we also like to get to the point.  So if you’re stuck for conversation, you can always ask someone to describe the area’s character, and see if it matches what you’ve gleaned in your time here.

During your vacationing daytime rambles around museums and monuments, you’ll be surrounded mostly by other visitors from around the country and around the world. Asking them what they have particularly enjoyed can start a pleasant conversation, and might even tip you to something you’d like to do.

So while you’re around the nation’s capital, make your way through your personal pilgrimage list, take that photo where your companion seems to be holding up the Washington Monument, have a few great evenings out, and don’t forget to meet some people beyond your fellow travelers and glimpse the place through their eyes as well.

14th Street Neighborhood Overview

During the day time, the 14th St NW neighborhood is sleepy, with local secondhand stores, doggie daycare establishments, boutique grocers and the like open for business, but few reasons for visitors to stop in. Around 4 PM, though, this starts to change as some of Washington’s hardest-to-book restaurants and most-hopping-at-happy-hour bars warm their ovens and chill their cocktail shakers. By pre-theatre dinner time, the sidewalks fill up with a youthful and energetic crowd ready to shed workday attitudes and cruise into an evening of fun.

You will also spot the sadly numerous DC workaholics dodging along the sidewalks, a loosened tie or perhaps athletic shoes in place of heels the only concession to departure from the office. They stop in Trader Joe’s or takeout restaurants to collect sustenance for their second shifts on their kitchen tables or couches. Pity them, pity them. A better evening awaits you here.

14th St NW runs through several entertainment zones, but the one that bears its name runs from Thomas Circle NW at its southern border up to U St NW where it overlaps for a bit with the U St NW Corridor. Logan Circle bounds it on the east, while 16th St NW to the west marks the transition into the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The whole area is liberally supplied with nightlife, shops, restaurants, and bars. The best Metro stop for the northern end of the neighborhood is the 13th St exit from U St/Cardozo (Green and Yellow lines). For the southern reaches of the neighborhood, either this station or Dupont Circle (Red line) are equally good.

Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC will frequently send you here for three theaters. At the corner with P St NW Studio Theatre Company rises with large photo murals of DC acting greats and dynamic posters for their current or upcoming work in all the ground floor windows. Studio has three similar auditoriums with 200 seats each plus one smaller flexible space that usually accommodates about 100 audience members. At 16th St and Q St NW, Theater J has a beautiful 200 seat auditorium inside the DC Jewish Community Center Building. Since it sits on the border, we’ll either call it a 14th St evening or a Dupont Circle evening depending on where we recommend dinner. Just south of the corner with T St NW, the Source Theater, which is home to Constellation Theatre Company and a few other arts groups, has a 100 seat auditorium and the most crowded lobby in town.

Music and burlesque acts perform at The Black Cat just a few doors south from Source. Many people eating and drinking on 14th St NW will also be heading to other nightlife spots in the U St NW and Shaw neighborhoods.

Interesting shops are scattered around the neighborhood. Here are a few good samples. Salt and Sundry offers household related gifts in case someone at home would like a tea towel or some fancy bitters. Filson offers hipster fashion from Seattle.   Batch 13 is the spot for exotic liquor. Miss Pixies, a neighborhood institution where we’ve furnished about a fifth of our home over the years, offers quirky domestic goods from all the best estate sales. Monarch Novelties, towards the southern end of the strip, looks more like a haunted property or a crime scene than an operating business. It’s a fun window to look in.

Restaurants are the big drivers of traffic to the area. Scanning roughly from south to north, we’ll highlight a few of the gems. The Pig serves satisfying meals enriched with porcine products. Birch and Barley is an elegant destination with the option of a tasting menu with beer pairings. Etto with its crisp pizza and succulent antipasti feels Roman enough we half expect our bill to come in euros. Le Diplomat has a stellar raw bar and great French entrees, and prime time tables book up weeks in advance. Barcelona is as Spanish as its name with marvelous charcuterie and tapas. El Centro D F is an excellent Mexican restaurant, specializing in a different Mexican city or state every 6 months. Busboys and Poets in all honesty is about a block north of the neighborhood, but we can’t walk this close to it without mentioning this next-wave bohemian diner powerhouse with a lefty bookstore and a dynamic little stage.

There are also a few exceptional spots for more casual, less expensive dining. The Whole Foods Grocery on P St NW has an extensive prepared foods section, draft beer, and a mezzanine full of seating. Amsterdam Flafalshop serves up those yummy lumps of chickpea with a culinary rainbow of accompaniments. Taylor Gourmet offers high tone sandwiches and salads alongside a funky soda machine that lets you mix your own flavors.

If you’re looking for a more dedicated bar experience: Church Key, upstairs from Birch and Barley, is a beer lover’s wonderland. Stoneys, across the street from Wholefoods, is the place to go if you’re just looking for an American neighborhood bar. 2 Birds 1 Stone is the hippest dive in DC. Bar Pilar greets the drinker with cozy charm.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with gelato from Dolcezza or fancy coffee and biscotti at Peregrine Espresso.

Between these businesses, and many more, sit some of the city’s best located loft apartments – most of them purpose built since DC never really had heavy industrial buildings. If you look closely, though, you’ll see the neighborhood’s heritage as Auto Row in the unusually tall and wide shop windows and the giant elevator at Studio. Enjoy your wander around 14th St NW. Whether you’re on one of our Great Evenings Out or exploring on your own, there’s plenty here to keep you happy.

Gallery Place Neighborhood Overview

Business suits stride by cargo pants to the rhythm of bucket drums amidst a swirl of activity.  Daytimes bring tourists, office workers, shoppers and neighborhood residents, while evenings bring sports fans, culture vultures and gourmands.  Whether day or night, come to the Gallery Place neighborhood to be at the nexus of local, national and international Washington. You’ll be joining the fun and people-watching all of the visitors, residents and workers buzz up and down the sidewalk.

“Gallery Place” is named for the three art museums that are part of the neighborhood, with the primary axis running along 7th St NW.

If you’re headed to Gallery Place for a Great Evening, you can ease the transition from a day of touring by putting one of the museums here on your late afternoon to-do list and therefore have only a short walk to supper and the rest of your fun.

To the north, between F & G Sts NW, sits the stately building that houses two museums: the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, both full of fascinating stuff with lots of timely, of-the-moment exhibits.  The marvelous interior courtyard is a wonderful rest stop for the active visitor, with its year-round fountains and covered atrium. Four blocks to the south at Constitution Ave NW is the National Gallery of Art with its companion sculpture garden. A world class art collection shelters in two buildings, one neo-classical and the other post-modern, while giant sculptures grace a fenced enclosure around either a fountain or an ice rink depending on the season. Well worth a few hours browsing during daytime hours.  And, like most museums in Washington, all three of these are entirely free.

The National Archives is the other major national museum in the neighborhood, at Pennsylvania Ave and 7th Streets NW. In addition to serving as the almost sacred home for important documents in our nation’s founding, a small exhibition space usually has some engaging show on about a facet of American history.

Other similar attractions in this museum-rich neighborhood charge a fee:  the Newseum and the Spy Museum.  We would recommend either one, with the Spy Museum being particularly worth the cost of admission for families and lovers of Disney-type attractions; the Newseum is more hit-or-miss especially given the steep price tag.

In between all of these museums are three major theaters – Woolly Mammoth’s below-ground ground jewel box and the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s two stages, the Harman and the Lansburgh – which often figure in editions of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. and in evening-out info on this website.

Celebrity chef Jose Andres holds a lot of territory in these blocks with Jaleo, China Chilcano, Zaytinya and Oyamel all dishing up delicious meals. We would point you to any of these for a lively, tasty dining experience, along with Graffiato or Rasika.  Any of these places will require both a reasonable-sized wallet and probably an advance reservation:  save a lot of cash and time at fast-casual choices Protein Bar, Teaism or Merzi.  Sweet teeth can be satisfied with the counter service at Pitango Gelato, Bakers and Baristas, or Red Velvet Cupcake. Thirsty travelers can hydrate at the District Chophouse, a brew pub whose bourbon barrel aged stout is a special treat, or Proof, an above-average (if perhaps too loud) wine bar.

If you’re surrounded by Capitols or Wizards jerseys, you can feel sure there’s a game on at the expansive Verizon Center. If you’re surrounded by families with kids in tow, then there’s probably a circus or Disney on Ice filling the enormous arena.

Two Metro stations serve the neighborhood, Archives/Navy Memorial to the south has Green and Yellow line trains while Gallery Place/Chinatown, with entrances in several spots in the neighborhood, has Green, Yellow and Red Line service.

Oh, and don’t be fooled by the “Chinatown” moniker — though there is a substantial and attractive Chinese-style “Friendship Archway” at 7th and H Streets NW, locals dismissively refer to this area as “China Block” (since it is hardly large enough to merit “town”), and pretty much none of the Chinese restaurants here are better or more interesting than what you’ll find in a strip mall closer to home.

Insider tip: If you’re yearning for some quiet moments, there are benches along a pretty pedestrian area just north of the Navy Memorial proper that are a great place to take a load off for a while and watch the passing scene, perhaps with a cup of tea from nearby Teaism or a pastry from Paul’s French patisserie.

This is the first in a series of posts in which we’ll provide a little more detail and context about the neighborhoods we send you to for Great Evenings Out. Please let us know if you’ve discovered anything in Gallery Place we should have mentioned either by commenting below or writing to us at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.