Breathe in the aromatic mix of applewood and cognac while considering William Wordsworth's summary of life's pleasures: "A genial hearth, a hospitable board and a refined rusticity."
Rustic to elegant, fireplaces lend cozy charm to the town's menus and barstools. On wind-chilled weekends, smart leisure artists are huddled together, taking in the magic of the hearth.
When the canal freezes over, romantics crawl out of hiding and sneak along MacArthur Boulevard to OLD ANGLER'S INN in Potomac. On a recent chilly Sunday, hockey players carried their skates past a middle-aged couple necking in the parking lot. It's that kind of place: you leave "drunk with fire."
Inside, baroque music and an oak fire in one corner lull the hiking-boot-and-heavy-sweater crowd into believing that this is deep country. More wood is stacked below the overhanging hearth, andirons stand ready and the hot rum toddies flow.
"Some people have such a good time here," said bartender Jim Guzel, "they come back and swear the fireplace was in another part of the room. It must be the Irish coffees."
"Mesmerizing," says a subdued young man, bourbon in hand in front of the flames at the TABARD INN (1739 N Street NW). Besides one of the city's great drinking fireplaces, the dark lounge offers worn sofas, a simple mantelpiece and a full selection of imported beers. Faces flush throughout the evening as glasses are emptied and logs are piled on, a touch of rural comfort downtown.
Restaurateurs are less energy-conscious than alert to ambience when they light the kindling. It works. The old firebox, utilitarian until the advent of the Franklin stove, is now a fancy extra. Among the most elaborate in town is just off Connecticut, above Dupont Circle (1701 20th Street NW): the carved stone facing of The golden BOOEYMONGER's lobby fireplace, where cherubs float in bas-relief above the mantel and complacent drinkers stare into the embers below.
The home fires are burning in all styles at local taverns and expensive dining establishments. Never mind the hearths that are high on atmosphere but low on authenticity, those that rely on gas or electric "logs." In the pretty-but-ersatz category, Georgetown's Cafe DE PARIS and CHADWICK'S of Old Town put on good shows, but they're ashless. The same is true for CLYDE'S at Tysons Corner: a beautiful red-brick fireplace front in the Palm Terrace faces the highly touted, risque mural on the other three walls, but the slow burn runs on gas. Alas, as the proverb has it, "there is no fire without some smoke."
"I'll drink to that," says the pleasantly high patron at the Tabard Inn. The following hot spots offer food, drink or both to the accompaniment of crackling blazes; some stock packaged prest0-matic logs, others burn actual tree parts.
Sure to warm the pyromaniac's heart, PETITTO'S RISTORANTE D'ITALIA, at 2653 Connecticut Avenue, NW, has not one but four working flues. The firelight reflects the soft colors of the townhouse's dining rooms, giving the pasta and wine a Duraflame glow. "With real wood the heat gets uncomfortable," says co-owner Byron Petitto. There's history attached to one of the fires: a black-and-white marble mantel is from President Garfield's Washington home, bought at auction by the original owner of the building. Two other fireplaces have wood fronts, one has carved stone.
At LA CHAUMIERE in Georgetown (2813 M Street), which serves French delicacies around a free-standing stone fireplace in the center of the room, clients vie for tables near the cinders. "They all want to sit as close as possible," says owner Gerard Pain. "I've seen them sweating to death, but they want to sit right next to the fire."
Likewise, the heat from the hooded central fireplace upstairs at the THIRD EDITION at 1218 Wisconsin Avenue may wilt the celery in your bloody mary, but the effect is toasty after the bitter outdoors.
A drive to L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS in Great Falls (332 Springvale Road) turns up more than just a fancy French dinner in a quaint setting. There's a large country-style fireplace in the middle of the building, with two openings. Copper and brass pots and pans hang from the mantel and the arched red brick opening is always ablaze.
JOUR ET NUIT (3003 M Street) ignites dinner conversations before two fireplaces. A white colonial number in the formal bordello-red dining room is decorated with dried flowers on the mantelpiece, and a smaller one in the private dining room under a mirror provided a backdrop, recently, for an older gent, part of a 15-percent party in progress, grandstanding with a snifter. They say wine fires us -- but brandy doesn't seem to hurt, either.
Drinkers and snackers hog the hearth at some spots, while diners are away from the action. There's combustion in the small, dark-paneled fireplace in the entryway. The busboy responsible for the flickering attraction did his bit with a shovel and hearth broom, and sparks flew. He won the approval of the Sunday-night customers, arranged in a sprawling semicircle.
Another couple snuggled up on a sofa, fanning the fires of love, as the waitress took last calls.