Washingtonians long since learned to rise above the summer weather, literally. Rooftop dining is a great way to lift your spirits and put the workaday world into the proper, small, perspective. It's even fun for those passing by on the sidewalks below, when the tinkle of glass and the glitter of lanterns from a couple of stories up filter down over the city like a carnival entrance.
We climb the stairs above Adams-Morgan, and look across at the other rooftop restaurants and nod, and smile.
Other evenings we offer ourselves up as scenery, lounging together under the umbrellas of sidewalk bistros as if awaiting the blood orange juice and Negroni cocktails of Rome, dismissing the tedium of the traffic, toying with cell phones and cocktail-glass stems and lazily arguing over the menu. Sometimes we wander down to the wharves along Maine Avenue and Old Town Alexandria, hoping the breeze carries away the mosquitoes and diesel and traffic din in favor of a pretense of salt and crab.
Sidewalk cafes and rooftop restaurants are quintessentially urban experiences, compromises with the city's energies -- not getaways but get-alongs. And one evening, suddenly, they are not enough. The fireflies wink at the weedy edges of the block as we straggle home, the bass speaker of a passing car's radio strikes a blow at our hearts, and then we recall those garden parties of the past with a nearly desperate desire. Those nights what we need are the hideouts, the secret gardens, the patios and terraces where the sidewalks end and where, for just a couple of hours, we can pretend to have left the city not merely below or beyond, but truly behind.
Here, then, are some of the hidden treasures, the courtyards and concealed piazzas of the capital city, places that will take only a few minutes to reach, but which will carry you as far away as you want.
Surprisingly, given the constant struggle for space, some of the loveliest restaurant gardens are right in town. The rear walled garden of the Tabard Inn (1739 N St. NW; 202/833-2668; not wheelchair accessible) and the wisteria-braided patio of the Iron Gate Inn across the street (1734 N St. NW; 202/737-1370; not wheelchair accessible), are both beauties. Even the tables along the Iron Gate's brick alley have an ambiance that would do a New Orleans courtyard proud.
There is a garden at the heart of the Washington Monarch Hotel complex (24th and M streets NW; 202/457-5000); and although the pavilion-like Colonnade at its center is primarily used for private functions these days, it is still open for Sunday brunch (request outdoor seating when making reservations); and the hotel's deceptively relaxed but sophisticated Bistro (202/457-5020) also opens through to tables in the yard.
The famously indulgent Galileo (1110 21st St. NW; 202/293-7191) not only has a great trompe l'oeil mural leading you into an eternity of Renaissance courtyard, it has a garden patio secreted behind the restaurant so that you can be visually as well as sensually transported.
The famously self-indulgent and brilliantly-colored Coco Loco (810 Seventh St. NW; 202/289-2626) has a tropically gleaming courtyard out back, tented in case of rain and now with a riot of neon and greenery to match the hot-night music.
Outdoor cafes are almost the norm in Dupont Circle, but the side dining room at Sostanza (1606 20th St. NW; 202/667-0047) is more like a conservatory, especially with its cool slate flooring and sunny paint. The Little Fountain Cafe in Adams-Morgan (2339 18th St. NW; 202/462-8100; not wheelchair accessible) gets away with an exceptional mention because although the garden is in front, it's visually removed -- a half-story down -- from the sidewalk and because the fountain helps hide the street noise. (And because the entire tiny joint looks like an enclosed patio.) But talk about exclusive -- there's only one table by the front fountain, and a handful more inside, so you really have to use your imagination here.
You wouldn't know it from the street, or from the roll-'em-up style of the front bar, but pre-New U standby Stetson's has a secret garden (1610 U St. NW; 202/667-6295).
And it's probably the second tiniest nook around, but we have a personal yen for the patio at Zuki Moon (824 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202/333-3312), especially when we glimpse it from the equally intimate bar over a preliminary bottle of fine cold sake.
There is nothing more beautiful than the flush of dying sunlight on whitewash or water, and as the evening wears on, my mystic axis turns west -- if not to Avalon, at least to Georgetown. There you can choose from among old-club-tie camaraderie, old-Fed garden dignity, European canal nostalgia, Euro-chic languor, Asian tropical fantasies or monumental grandeur.
The oldest and largest garden dining area is at the rear of Mr. Smith's of Georgetown (3104 M St. NW; 202/333-3104; not wheelchair accessible) -- two gardens, actually, seating some 200 altogether and with a retractable roof.
The patio behind Vietnam Georgetown (2934 M St. NW; 202/337-4536; not wheelchair accessible), with its lanterns and brick, is another old favorite around the neighborhood.
At Tahoga (2815 M St. NW; 202/338-5380), the rear garden takes the well-bred genteel approach, the sort you'd create for yourself if you could afford a Federal-era town house: wrought iron, red geraniums, champagne and foie gras. At Sea Catch (1054 31st St. NW; 202/337-8855), you can splash cool scent on your soul by slipping cold seafood and sauvignon down your throat while watching the mimosa fronds drifting down through the canal. (Admittedly the atmosphere can be a trifle miasmic sometimes, but with those Arno-like brick walls you could easily be in Florence.) The canal-side terrace at Music City Roadhouse (1050 30th St. NW; 202/337-4444; patio not wheelchair accessible) tends to be louder, but looking out at the Park Service barge, the birds and the occasional child running wild can be oddly charming.
In its previous incarnation as an Italian piazza, the patio at what is now Bangkok Bistro (3251 Prospect St. NW; 202/337-2424) seemed to be just the perfect hospitable extension of the family that owned the town house and whose guest you were. Though it's more obviously a formal restaurant now and with a totally different style -- from stucco to silk -- it's still quite attractive.
Despite our general reservations about riverfront dining, the boat speed restrictions and green scenery make it fairly easy to position yourself along the patios of Washington Harbour's waterfront restaurants (30th and K streets NW) -- Sequoia (202/944-4200), Tony & Joe's (202/944-4545) and the River-
side Grille (202/342-3535) -- in such a way that you can gaze across at Roosevelt Island and up the Potomac with its confetti of crews and sculls and canoes and cabin cruisers as if you were cut loose in a distant port, with only the vague sense of the Watergate and Kennedy Center fortresses over your shoulder. (This naturally presupposes that you are not there on a night when the Potomac is the main flight pattern route to National Airport.)
But for sheer escapism, it's hard to beat the rear garden at Busara, Glover Park's glitter-wok Thai station (2340 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/337-2340), which resembles a silk scroll painting brought to fragrant life, and where the fine spicing will put a purely sensual sheen on your candlelit skin. Trust me on this.
All Around the Town
If there is a challenger, it's the hottest beach in town -- the exotic courtyard beach at Island Jim's Crab Shack & Tiki Bar (901 Monroe St. NE; 202/635-8454) -- where you can dine amid the rustling palm trees and hibiscus and even, on Wednesdays and Fridays, enjoy equally hot tropical-West African music.
The great restaurant cluster around the Clarendon and Ballston Metro stations are absolutely fecund with sidewalks and patios, but most are still pretty exposed: The best-camouflaged versions are probably the deck at Little Viet Garden (3012 Wilson Blvd.; 703/522-9686), the patio at Nam Viet around the more quiet corner (1127 N. Hudson St.; 703/522-7110; not wheelchair accessible), the partially vine-covered Aegean Taverna (2950 Clarendon Blvd.; 703/841-9494) and the courtyard of the Havana Cafe (3100 Clarendon Blvd.; 703/524-3611). Music-lovers already know that quirky-smart IOTA (2832 Wilson Blvd.; 703/522-8340) left itself a little patio room in the renovation mix.
If you could build yourself an Old Spanish hacienda cottage, with a patio that was as much dining room as garden, it couldn't look much different from the Navajo-palette courtyard at Santa Fe East in Old Town Alexandria (110 S. Pitt St.; 703/548-6900). Of course, if you like the stucco effect, but prefer a more exuberant atmosphere, the courtyard of Taverna Creketou (1201 N. Royal St.; 703/519-3776) is among the oldest and most beloved in the whole area (818 King St.; 703/548-8688). At the less-traveled north end of Old Town, Cafe Marianna has a fenced-off patio entirely appropriate to its New Orleans cuisine and to its come-on-over-to-my-house style. The patio dining at Stella's (1725 Duke St.; 703/519-1946; call for wheelchair directions) is not in a true courtyard, but its patio is recessed, raised and removed enough from the front entrance, hidden behind a fountain, lots of greenery and benchery, that it becomes a real escape route.
Clyde's at Mark Center in Alexandria (1700 N. Beauregard St.; 703/820-8300) is, decoratively speaking, a mini-tour of water-sport club styles -- an Adirondack fishing camp, a Chesapeake Bay hunt club, a Potomac boathouse, a Newport yacht club and a Nantucket beach shack. And when you get to the last part, the Straight Wharf Bar, walk past the year-round bar into the screened-in deck, with its yellow and blue-striped booth cushions, hanging lamps and planters, second bar and seating for 100.
Bethesda has plenty of sidewalks and decks and garden-like decors and other near-misses -- the courtyard impression of the vine-heavy Aldo's (4948 Fairmont Ave.; 301/986-0042) is so strong it may have edged its way onto the exceptions list -- but the closest thing to a truly enclosed patio is the side courtyard at Cottonwood Cafe (4844 Cordell Ave.; 301/656-4844). Though plainer than the one at Alexandria's Santa Fe East, it has much the same feel, and glass doors and ceilings to shut out the rush hour.
La Ferme (7101 Brookville Rd.; 301/986-5255), Chevy Chase's longtime neighborhood secret, has only a simple deck into the parking lot, but it is shielded from the road by a hedge and its own flowers and umbrellas, and the French country-classic cuisine adds to the inn-crowd illusion. Similarly, the glassed-in former deck at La Cote d'Or in Falls Church (6876 Lee Hwy.; 703/538-3033) has a somewhat suburban site, but the sight is pretty well disguised.
Spiritual space is always enhanced by physical space, and although the more urban getaways can be amazingly restorative, they can't entirely obscure the nearness or the inevitability of that back wall. But you don't have to drive two hours to find a country inn in order to look out peacefully over the boxwoods and day lily wilds. There are few patios more evocative than the terraces of Potomac's Old Angler's Inn (10801 MacArthur Blvd., 301/299-9097; not wheelchair accessible), and when the breeze comes up from the right direction, you can hear the birds and small animals from down near the river and canal -- even an underlying murmur of what you can imagine to be Great Falls itself.
No matter how wired things get, there is always time for a late-afternoon glass of wine on the deck of the Inn at Glen Echo (6119 Tulane Ave.; 301/229-2280); and the peaky porches of Glen Echo's Victorians and the fairy-castle tower of the park nearby turn fantastical in the twilight.
It may be famously hard to get a last-minute reservation at the glorious and generous L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls (332 Springvale Rd.; 703/759-3800), but that's irrelevant when it comes to sitting on the patio, because no reservations are taken for outdoors: It's first come, first seated among the trees strewn with tiny lights and pale butterflies, starting at 5:30.
And the patio at Indigo (774 Walker Rd.; 703/759-4650), which opens onto the Great Falls Village Commons, transports the restaurant right out of its already fairly bucolic village-center location into the fine Virginia countryside.
CAPTION: Diners get away from it all at Old Angler's Inn in Potomac.
CAPTION: The courtyard at Santa Fe East: a sliver of old Spain in Old Town Alexandria.
CAPTION: Georgetown's Tahoga offers outdoor dining on more than one level.