Originally published on Advocate.com May 01 2002 12:00 AM ET
A capital idea
Statue at Memorial Bridge
A gay vacation to Washington, D.C., offers everything from monuments and amazing museums to incredibly diverse cuisine to an assortment of nightlife choices--hot-wax dripping optional
With healing comes tourists. After September 11’s Pentagon hit and the anthrax debacle, Washington, D.C., suffered—like devastated New York City—from a sudden and staggering lack of money-bringing visitors. However, as represented by the Pentagon’s repaired façade and the city's irrepressible cherry blossoms, spring 2002 finally saw a renewal of the tourism industry.
Because it's a city of political action (and, frankly, inaction), many queers of Generation X and older have already experienced our country’s capital during marches and demonstrations. Indeed, some of my fondest memories are of 1993’s march for gay and lesbian rights, during which the city was turned into a veritable pink planet, sending more than a few unaware middle Americans fleeing into nearby Maryland and Virginia.
D.C. is pretty diverse all year round. Not always in a good way—a D.C. friend recently expressed disdain with the city’s clear-cut separation of "the haves and have-nots." One block is trim, posh, and pretty, the next decrepit, poverty-stricken, and grimy. The Discrict of Columbia is divided into four sections—NW, SW, NE, and SE—and the northwest quadrant is de facto the richest, whitest, and safest, home to several high-profile neighborhoods including college-kid haven Georgetown, gay Dupont Circle, and multicultural Adams Morgan.
Recently, a sort of desegregated gentrification has set in throughout several predominantly African-American and ethnic areas, notably around the historically black U Street, where a friend and I were literally grabbed by a fist-swinging, drunk would-be robber last November. Happily, this 2002 visit I went unmolested, perusing foufy and awesome home accessories in the neighborhood’s fabulous Home Rule store. Still, I advise wariness and caution when exploring much of D.C. after dark, especially when alone or with only one other.
Where to stay? Well, the Moulin Rouge and Lady Marmalade may be nowhere to be seen, but on my D.C. vacation, Embassy Row’s South Beach–meets–Dante’s Inferno Hotel Rouge proved funky, hip, and sexy regardless. Not to mention decidedly tongue-in-cheek. My "Do not disturb" sign read "Go away," with "Clean up my stuff" on either side; the minibar boasted an "intimacy kit" containing condoms and lube; and the supercomfy bed was complimented by a padded red leather headboard just begging for impact. Morning was met with free Bloody Marys (10:30–11:30 a.m. daily) downstairs.
On my visit, I followed up the morning cocktail with a visit to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Famously, a planned Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition turned the Corcoran into a firestorm of controversy that spread across the country in 1989. It’s unlikely that so much protest has met the current Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years exhibition, barring that of Republicans out to downplay their recent First Ladies’ comparative lack of erudition. I easily burned a couple of hours navigating through the exhibit, which showcases—via multimedia and many personal belongings—Jackie’s divine couture, trips around the globe, multilingual appreciation for culture, damned good taste, and enviable ability to schmooze iconoclastic international politicos even JFK couldn’t. A number of Jackie O. groupies—60-something women donning pseudo-Jackie garb—crowded the
exhibit, which sells out quick. Book early.
After all that Jackie—and perusing some little-known American art in the Corcoran’s permanent gallery—hunger set in, so I partook of a tasty smoked turkey sandwich and special Jackie O.–inspired dessert, a decadent chocolate spiral, in the museum's popular Café des Artistes. Apparently, special tour group meals can be organized here as well as in even higher-profile D.C. locations, including The House of Representatives and Supreme Court. Call Guest Services at 1-800-654-6308 for more information.
Less well known than Jackie was Marjorie Merriweather Post, philanthropist daughter of Post cereal patriarch C.W. Post. Packed to the gills with moolah, she moved into what’s now known as the Hillwood Museum and Gardens and filled it with precious Russian treasures including Fabergé eggs. Only 250 visitors are permitted through the gates per day, so make reservations ahead of time, especially during spring. A one-hour whirl through the property’s plush rooms and glass-enclosed displays stirred my inner materialist into a morally questionable frenzy. Sadly, I left the glass cutter at home.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an absolute must, will quickly bring one back down to earth. Gays’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis is included in the displays—prisoners’ actual pink triangles, used to identify gays in concentration camps, are on display; some gay victims are included in the database. Yes, I cry every time I visit, as do most of the post-teenage tourists. Tickets are free, but they do "sell out," so book early during peak months.
Of course, no trip to D.C. is complete without strolling the National Mall and its monuments, museums, the Capitol, etc., but I know you’ll check those out sans my babbling. But don't forget to look off the Mall for a new monument to African-Americans in the Civil War, located on U Street at 10th (Metro to Cardozo). I’d already eaten, but while there I was tempted to nosh at the famed Ben’s Chili Bowl.
D.C.’s gay life is mostly concentrated on two streets: 17th and P. Both intersect at Dupont Circle, a.k.a. "the fruit loop," which also meets gay business–heavy Connecticut Avenue. Conveniently, D.C.’s clean and quick subway system, the Metro, has a stop right in the middle of the circle. While taking a Connecticut Avenue day stroll, I discovered that the Human Rights Campaign boasts a tasteful retail store hawking a bevy of fund-raising products including clothing, soaps, cards, home deco, and CDs. Yep, you can even show off their cute little emblem on your boxers! A couple of doors down are gay bookstore Lambda Rising, record shops, and restaurants. Speaking of: I enjoy Polo India Club (1736 Connecticut Ave.) for its excellently prepared Indian dishes, high-ceilinged Bistrot Du Coin for authentic French (half of the diners were Gallic), and the lickety-split French-themed salad bar rendezvous Café Midi, where people-watchers eat upstairs, sitting at large windows.
My first evening in D.C., I gorged on a loaded plate of delicious crabcakes and bacon-wrapped filet mignon at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse (1609 17th St. NW), a hugely popular gay restaurant. The following afternoon,
traditional malt shop burgers at campy (yet not to the point touristy straights whiff faggotry) Hamburger Mary’s on 14th.
More adventurous queers take note: D.C.’s international diversity is well represented in the city's cuisine. Vietnamese, Latin American, and Ethiopian are popular choices. For those not in the know, Ethiopian food is similar to Indian—aromatic spiced lamb and chicken stews—served communally and eaten with rubbery, crepe-like wads of sour-tinged bread. Multi-level restaurant Meskerem is my favorite, and everything there goes down great with a bottle of traditional honey wine, Tej. The SE’s Banana Café, close to the popular—and thus more pricey than your average flea market—indoor-outdoor Eastern Market, serves up tasty Cuban and Puerto Rican fare. Don’t go if in a rush, though: Their Puerto Rican specialties take at least 20 minutes to dish up. And they’re worth it!
My next to last evening in D.C. I went to see the Capitol Steps, a comedy troupe that plays out political comedy sketches via song parodies. A few were funny—one involved mushmouthed Bob Dylan being cloned—but most were on high-school talent-show level. One was downright tacky, stereotyping Middle Easterners. Unless you're a connoisseur of, um, developing comedy talent, do as Dorothy and Co. did down the yellow brick road: Skip it.
D.C. cocktail surfing, on the other hand, is pure pleasure. Bar Rouge at Hotel Rouge and Gabriel at P Street’s
Radisson Barcelo both whip up tasty, unique concoctions, including a divine
pear martini complete with pear slice and egg white froth at the latter
location. On foot-trafficked 17th Street, JR’s caters to mostly white posing preppy prettyboys and White House interns (is that redundant?). 30 Degrees, a happening lounge with specialty martinis and large couches, hosts a more diverse mix of 20-something and older gays. I’m particularly fond of their Oreo cookie-crumb rimmed Ab Fab–inspired martini. Yummy!
Literally upstairs awaits Cobalt, a dance club catering to the same crowd, while downstairs lies Food Bar, a queer-popular restaurant. So much shopping in one convenient location! For the least pretentious—not to mention most ethnically diverse—crowd on 17th, Club Chaos is the place to be. Kitschy and homegrown, drag shows and latin nights—not to mention a nicely priced Sunday drag show brunch—are among its draws.
Although I didn’t get down to it, drag and unpretentious queers can also be found in the SE’s Ziegfeld’s, according a local friend. On P Street, I visited the two-floor Fireplace club, mixing amongst a friendly, mostly black crowd. From there it was a half-block pounce over to Badlands for dancing. Thursday night brings College Night, but there’s really a mix of everything from bulging circuit boy to scrawny, malnourished George Washington University twink to hip straight girl. D.C. is home to a large school for the deaf, so you’ll also see cliques of youngsters signing between dances, while Friday nights draw a crowd of Asians and those who want them.
After Badlands, I stopped for a coffee treat at the corner’s Soho coffee shop, which was bustling even at 2 a.m. By far D.C.’s largest and best attended queer dance night is Velvet, which happens on Saturday nights at massive SE dance club Nation. Two generous dance floors, VIP space, and visiting DJs ensure fun for all.
Speaking of fun, when it comes to club life, drug use is particularly rampant in D.C.—not to mention the personal dramas the loaded locals are just itching to draw visitors into. For instance, one frisky D.C. queen got sweet on my friend at Velvet, but then quickly turned his attentions to an ex-boyfriend. Later, the ex made for my friend’s crotch. Finally, after additional rounds of this ritual, the local and his ex went home without anyone. Another word of warning garnered from personal experience: That cute local who just inched up and kissed you may seem friendly, but he could just be tweaked and, five minutes later, will be equally friendly with, well, anyone else within armshot. Yep, I experienced this several times over (one fellow letting particularly loose was the son of a foreign consulate rep) and witnessed at least three intoxicated locals completely
collapse and endless personal dramas unravel over a demented four-night stretch.
More upbeat, D.C. queers are also often transient or seeking to be, and could later settle in your town—and thus will be quick to strike up conversation and friendships with visitors from metropolitan cities. Considering how easy (and comfortable) Amtrak makes East Coast travel, New Yorkers should take particular heed of this fact. I didn’t find much drama, but I did do hot candle wax dripping on nipples at the duo-bar Green Lantern–Tool Shed. Daddies, bears, leathermen, and some young 'uns who like 'em crowded the place every night I visited, particularly between 10–11 p.m. on Thursday eves, during which free drinks are proffered to shirtless men. All types of guys, even twinks, flock en masse for this event, and the bartenders are a friendly, flirty lot indeed. The second night I stopped by, a snow-haired daddy was dripping hot wax on those game for a happy burn.
It’s almost inconceivable that an American could go their lifetime without once making the journey to our nation’s capital, whether on special political occasion, job assignment, or simply to see so much of our history represented. In fact, thanks to that awesome quality, which can’t be matched by many other places in the USA, D.C. remains a year-round destination for all ages, creeds, nationalities, and sexualities. Besides, is there any other city quite so well known for mixing business with pleasure?