What I learned about Washington D.C.

The Washington Monument
Lisa took this photo of the Washington Monument at sunset. It turned out better than all of the 100s of pictures I took, so her shot gets top of the fold.

Three days in Washington D.C. is not enough.

At least, if you vacation like I do. For instance, on Saturday, we could have done more sight-seeing if we had left the hotel before 2 p.m.

The view of the Capitol Building from the tower of the Old Post Office museum. The view is awesome, and free, but the rest of the building is empty and a little depressing.

But we didn’t. And I don’t regret it one bit. Sleep is very important. Especially after receiving the Peter Boylan nightlife tour of D.C.

Instead of giving you a boring play-by-play rundown of our extended weekend in D.C., I will provide a snapshot of some of the lessons I learned about our nation’s capitol.

But first, a synopsis. My lovely wife Lisa and I took the Megabus to D.C. on Friday, leaving at 8 a.m. Cost: $15 for a 3 hour tour. We arrived at Union Station and took the subway to our hotel, Washington Plaza, which I would recommend. It was clean, had great service and a decent location for the price.

We soon learned lesson #1: Washington D.C. is deceivingly expansive.

On the map, everything looks to be within walking distance. Our hotel was 5 blocks away from the White House. An easy-peasy jaunt, right? And then we would just take a leisurely stroll down the National Mall to the Capitol Building, where we were to meet Boylan at 2 p.m., no problem?

No. Our 2 p.m. meeting became 2:30, then eventually it became 3.

Beautiful Lisa standing next to the Washington Monument. It was supposed to rain all weekend but we ended up with perfect weather.

I called Peter to tell him we were at 3rd and Penn Ave, and that we were almost to the Capitol. “What?” he asked incredulously. “That’s a 30-minute walk! Take a cab to Delaware and Constitution and tell the cab driver to let you off on the Senate side.”

See, the blocks in DC aren’t your run-of-the mill walk-to-the-mailbox length blocks. No, these are blocks longer than football fields.

So in DC, you should learn the subway system quick (slightly overrated to me, based on glowing reviews from friends, yet still probably the best in America, which isn’t saying much) or just resign to taking cabs everywhere (average $10 a trip).

I will give this to the subway system: it is easy to navigate and seemed relatively safe. However, it loses points on the timeliness of trains (wait was up to 15 minutes) and difficulty in trying to figure out how to use fare cards.

Anyhow, we made it to the capitol building for our personal tour from Mr. Boylan and his young protegé Fino. Which leads me to lesson #2:

It’s not what you do, it’s who you do it for.

Lisa and I sitting in Senator Inouye’s seat in the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting room. He is the chairman. I am holding his gavel. (Sidenote: Senator Harkin’s seat is two chairs to the right.)

Status is huge in D.C. The entire political system is determined by rank and file. If you have rank, you have somebody on staff who polishes your nails. If you don’t have rank, you better file at the back of the line.

As mentioned before, Peter works for Senator Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii). Senator Dan has a Medal of Honor from WWII. He had his arm shot off while attempting to grenade an Italian bunker. With his left (attached) arm, he pried the grenade from his right (severed) arm and flung it into the bunker. Badass.

Elected in 1962, Inouye is the most senior member of the U.S. Senate and is the President Pro-Tempore, meaning he is third in line for the presidency.

Deputy Chief of Staff Boylan, myself and Lisa in the rotunda of the Capitol Building.

Because Peter and Fino work for him, they essentially have the run of the Capitol building. With white visitor badges pinned to our jackets, Lisa and I were led past the velvet ropes into meeting rooms, onto balconies and into the bowels of the Capitol building. One of the coolest things we saw was the old washroom, consisting of a marble bathtub, that was tucked away at the back of the utilities room.

Not only did Senator Inouye’s status appropriate VIP access during the tour, but it extended to the bars and restaurants surrounding Capitol Hill. In the company of Peter and the rest of his staff, we were given the best tables and the best service everywhere we went.

Which leads to lesson #3:

Washington D.C. has the best restaurants.

Apparently politicians are a bit fussy when it comes to dining out. On our first afternoon we ate at a historical restaurant called the Old Ebbitt Grill,

The Old Ebbitt Grill.

which was located across from the Treasury Department building. We ate in the Grant room, which was apparently where Ulysses S Grant used to smoke his cigars. It was a nice enough place, though the food was a tad bland and we were pretty sure the bartender was drunk at 1 p.m. But you are paying for the history, and the prices weren’t outrageous. Yet the guy sitting next to us returned his salad with complaints to the chef. How can you complain about a salad?

So anyway, to meet the prissy demands of the politicians and foreign dignitaries, the restaurants in D.C. have to be top notched. And as Peter said, in D.C., everybody you talk to is important. Everyone is a possible vote or possible connection, so everybody is treated like aces, and this is reflected in the service at restaurants.

Lisa standing on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial.

Here is where we visited:

1) The Old Ebbitt Grill, which was already discussed.

2) The Monacle. This is where the politicians hobnob during happy hour or during business lunches. Great service, great wine, expensive.

3) RFD. A decent sports bar with an impressive selection of beers. The server was extremely knowledgeable and every beer recommended by him was tasty and spot on.

4) Mandu. The best Korean food you will have cooked by white guys.

5) Kushi. This is the last place we went on Friday night, so I am not 100 percent sure this is where we went. But it was a good Japanese izikaya restaurant. I think.

As a side note, we found the best places to eat and drink in Chinatown. The next place being the exception:

6) Siroc. This high-end Italian restaurant might be the best place I have ever eaten. Lisa and I went there Saturday early evening after touring the monuments. We both got the specials: Lisa the pasta and I got the sea bass. The sea bass was seared perfectly with a crisp skin, and was dished atop crisp greens and a cauliflower sauce. Not to mention the squid and the scallops we had as appetizers were delectable. The place filled up quick, so get reservations.

Morris Minor performing at The Dubliners. Not sure which one is Morris, but they were good.

7) The Dubliners. An Irish Pub done the right way. The Guinness on tap was cool and refreshing. Not a hint of bitterness. They had a great variety of other Irish beers on tap, along with their own namesake lager. They had four shelves of Irish whiskey, in addition to live Irish folk singers performing every night. Thanks for the recommendation Jim Mags!

8) Oyamel Cocina Mexicana: We stumbled upon this treat Sunday afternoon after visiting the Smithsonian Museums. At 4 p.m. on a Sunday this place was packed. Reservations are recommended. Oyamel is like a Mexican tapas bar. The dishes are served in appetizer sizes, and you are expected to order 5-8 plates to share. The ceviche was fresh and tasty. The tacos were hit and miss. The lamb was spicy and tender. The pork and mushroom taco was a little bland. But excellent chips and salsa with a kick and perfect margaritas.

Whatever you do, do not eat at the Smithsonian museums. The ham sandwich at the Museum of Natural History was the worst $10 sandwich I have ever had.

Which leads to lesson #4:

Power walk through the Smithsonian museums.

Triceratops at the natural history museum. The dinosaurs were cool. Everything else was kind of lame.

Granted, we only visited 2 museums: the natural history museum and the air and space museum. Unless you are a huge nerd, just look at the cool stuff and move past the boring stuff like squirrel skeletons and astronaut space gloves.

The highlights of the natural history museum were the dinosaurs and the Hope diamond, which seemed a little small compared to the hype. The Wright Brothers display at the air and space museum was interesting, and it was cool to

The Spirit of St. Louis.

see the Spirit of St. Louis. Unless you are an aeronautical geek, the rest can be bypassed.

The good thing about the museums are they are free, and they are open everyday. The downfall is that they are free and open every day. This means every family in DC brings their weird, snot-nosed kids to the museums on the weekend.  And since the museums’ budgets are limited, they seem to cut corners on cleaning, and they smell a bit like stale B.O.

However, the monuments are totally worth it. And that is lesson #5.

The Jefferson Memorial.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
The Lincoln Memorial. The best place to visit in Washington D.C.

Lesson #6: February and early March probably isn’t the best time to visit D.C. The weather was a tad dreary, though we did get lucky with some extended periods of sunshine. Still, everything was muddy and under construction. There were no leaves on the trees, but you could tell it was going to be really pretty when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Visitors standing outside the Washington Monument.

Lesson #7: Check the schedule before planning your trip to Ford’s Theatre. We went on a Sunday afternoon. We were able to see the museum and the gift shop for free, but the theatre itself was closed.

And that concludes our trip. Next week we go to Iowa. Not much to report about that.

The White House. Nobody was home.

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