Washington D.C. On a Budget or a Bankroll

Some of the best places in Washington to eat, sightsee, stay, and socialize

The nation’s capital brims with fancy restaurants and classy cocktail bars – where else would you expect politicos and dignitaries to broker secret alliances and schmooze into the wee hours? But Washington is not solely the domain of high-end hangouts. The city teems with students, interns, and low-level government employees with barely enough cash to buy a Big Mac – you’ll find budget-oriented eateries throughout the District. And Washington’s two most gay-popular neighborhoods, Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle, have inviting hotels occupying both ends of the expense spectrum.

Here are some of the best places in Washington to eat, sightsee, stay, and socialize, whether you’re traveling on a tight budget or you’ve got money to burn.

On a Budget
A surprising number of visitors don’t realize it until they arrive, but the dozen or so first-rate Washington venues that make up the world’s largest museum complex, the Smithsonian, charge no admission. You could spend days exploring every floor of these repositories of art and artifacts and never have to shell out a dime. See the actual kitchen of Julia Child, transported here from her former home in Cambridge, Mass., at the National Museum of American History. Or drop by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to view works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

When it’s an affordable meal you’re seeking, look no further than Hamburger Mary’s, the queer-as-a-three-dollar-bill West Coast restaurant chain that opened its first East Coast branch in D.C. a couple of years ago. This kicky burger joint a few blocks from Dupont Circle is popular both for cocktails and inexpensive pub grub. Among the many gay eateries along nearby 17th Street, the 24-hour Annie’s Paramount Steak House serves up some of the tastiest American chow in town. Weekend breakfast here is a long-standing post-clubbing tradition. Soho Tea and Coffee is a queer cyber cafe and java house on the ground floor of a bland apartment complex near the P Street bar action; it has art exhibits, live music, and a sexy crowd.

Although it’s not cheap as pizza parlors go, Dupont Circle’s Pizzeria Paradiso still offers an excellent value – and the pies here are simply to die for. It can take forever to get a seat, but for serious pizza lovers, the wait is no big deal. Just north in the funky Adams Morgan neighborhood, you can count on delicious Middle Eastern fare at Mama Ayesha’s and hearty, authentic Ethiopian cooking at the long-running Fasika’s, where meals center around a spicy stew called watt.

Popular for its upstairs piano bar, Banana Cafe and Piano Bar is one of the most festive gay haunts on Capitol Hill. Reasonably priced steaks, lime-garlic chicken, and plantain soup are among the Latin American specialties – save rooms for one of the exotic flans (maybe passion fruit or coconut). Mr. Henry’s, a Capitol Hill pub with one of the best (antique) jukeboxes in town, has long been a friend to Washington’s lesbian and gay community. The place is famous for its hefty burgers. Upstairs is a smoke-free cabaret with a mix of piano, jazz, and folk acts – it’s where Roberta Flack got her start.

One of the best budget lodging options in D.C., the William Lewis House comprises a pair of neighboring Victorian town houses in an up-and-coming historic neighborhood not far from Dupont Circle. There are gracious common rooms, off-street parking, and a pleasant yard with a deck, hot tub, and fruit trees – it’s a wonderful value. Also reasonably priced and even nearer to Dupont Circle, the art deco Kimpton Carlyle Hotel Dupont Circle is one of the District’s long-time gay faves. Rooms have a slightly dated appearance but contain fully equipped kitchens and sitting areas, and there’s a popular lounge and restaurant on the ground floor.

Occupying three adjacent Victorian town houses, the eccentric Tabard Inn, just south of Dupont Circle, has been around since the 1920s. Rooms suggest the setting of a Gothic mystery novel, complete with one-of-a-kind antiques, dark-wood paneling, charming bathroom fixtures, tile fireplaces, and other quirky pieces. The equally old-fashioned and very romantic restaurant serves inventive Continental cuisine.

On Capitol Hill, an 1893 mansion was converted into the European-style Capitol Hill B&B in the late ’80s. The location is charming and convenient, a short walk from Union Station, Capitol Hill’s many attractions, and a handful of gay bars. Rooms are simple but exude character; each contains at least one furnishing from the house’s days as a residence of congressional pages – if only these walls could talk.

On a Bankroll
Of course, you’ll find plenty of deluxe hotels in Washington, where it’s easy to spend a princely sum. Traditionalists often opt for one of the capital’s famous grandes dames, such as the 1925 Mayflower Hotel, which has hosted a steady stream of presidents and foreign dignitaries. Or, just off Dupont Circle, occupying the former apartment building in which Al Gore spent his childhood, the 1927 Fairfax at Embassy Row could not be more inviting, with its lavish guest rooms decked in brocade draperies and French country reproduction antiques.

Just a short walk from the gay-bar action, the gay-friendly, San Francisco-based hotel chain Kimpton owns the super-trendy Topaz Hotel, a sleek boutique property with cushy, whimsically furnished rooms. New Age-y types love the “yoga rooms,” outfitted with meditation mats and yoga-conducive CDs and videotapes. Just try to adopt a Zen attitude when you’re presented with the bill. This is one several Kimpton properties in Washington, including the glam Hotel Rouge, the hipster-infested Hotel Madera, and the surreal Mason & Rook Hotel, all of which are near Dupont Circle.

Of the many high-ticket gay-friendly eateries around Dupont Circle, Obelisk, owned by the same folks who run Pizzeria Paradiso, may just be the best. The setting is sleek and austere, the beautifully prepared northern Italian fare mouthwatering. Also stellar is Vidalia, a contemporary take on down-home Southern cooking, where you might sample such delicacies as shrimp-and-grits with caramelized onions and fresh thyme. Not too far north, Palena is helmed by head chef Frank Ruta and pastry wizard Ann Amernick, two of the most heralded kitchen names in metro Washington. Book well ahead for a chance to sample Atlantic halibut pan-roasted with baby fennel-and-tomato confit, and save room for the chocolate-toffee torte with chocolate ganache.

Bill Clinton and the senior George Bush have one thing in common: they’ve both dined amid the barbed wire and lizards in the extravagantly decorated faux adobe restaurant Red Sage, the Capitol Hill home of Santa Fe chef Mark Miller. Grilled elk loin topped with dried fruit and served over a fricassee of mushrooms, turnips, and zucchini is a favorite dish here. Two Quail, occupying three romantic town houses in Capitol Hill, has long been one of the city’s better-regarded gay-friendly eateries, owing to its eclectic Continental and American cuisine – try the filet mignon stuffed with Maytag blue cheese and applewood-smoked bacon. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric place to celebrate that very special occasion.

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