When I was a small child, my parents made what was then the requisite car pilgrimage to Washington to show my brother and me the nation's capital. I remember only two things, the first being my absolute insistence that we walk all the way to the top of the Washington Monument. My mother's compromise was that we ride the elevator up but walk down, and I can still recall the almost dizzying and gradually hilarious rhythm of those seemingly endless left turns and the thumping of feet and the dank, cement smell of the staircase.
More importantly, however, I remember having dinner in one of the old family restaurants along the waterfront -- Hogate's, I think. And what I remember is how the Washington Monument, which had held only that peculiarly childish interest for me earlier, now held me transfixed, piercing the summer night like a barely moored rocket, its gleaming obelisk, doubled in the water, seeming to reach right down toward our feet. The official buildings had meant little to me -- just more columns and marble floors and paintings, all of a type -- but this I understood. This was the great compass point of the world, a transmitter, as we would say in the Indiana Jones era, for talking to God.
You can't see that now, not like that, not with that impenetrable, almost unapproachable solemnity. Successive waves of development, not just commercial but memorial; the demands of an exploding commuter culture for an expanding infrastructure; the mindlessly hustling busloads of tourists and caravans of schoolchildren shoehorning Abraham Lincoln into their schedules -- these and a dozen other facets of modern life have combined to vulgarize the skyline of Washington, to reduce the scale of its great buildings by crowding them about with boastful approximations, even obscuring them from many of what were their intended grounds.
And yet there are a few viewpoints left -- ironically, many of them from the anonymous downriver buildings establishment Washingtonians formerly looked down on -- from which the great public buildings seem to shake off their clamoring imitators, and from which Washington is once again revealed as the Monumental City. It takes air to do the city justice, as anyone who has flown into National Airport knows; brilliant as a postcard by day, it's more beautiful and mysterious by night or by snowfall or light mist, when the monument lights are the air. Whether you have forgotten Washington's majesty or have never really seen it, whether you are feeling sentimental or drawing back the curtain on a showcase for your out-of-town visitors, or whether you just, like so many of us, have fallen into the habit of walking with your eyes on the sidewalk or glaring through the windshield, it's time to lift your eyes, and your glass, to the domes and spires and porticos of American history.
Eyes in the Skies
One of the most popular tourist and hometown views in town is the rare overview of the White House afforded by the Sky Terrace lounge of the Hotel Washington (515 15th St. NW; 202/638-5900), but its reputation does it a slight injustice: It actually offers an almost bucolic sweep of green, angling across the Ellipse to the Washington Monument, the Tidal Basin (and the cherry trees and flowering tulips in spring), the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, as well as the Treasury Building and executive mansion. And for extras you have the smaller parks, memorial statues, a bit of the Gothic grotesqueries of the Old Executive Office Building, random kite fights, etc. Unfortunately, it is not a year-round option but a warm weather one only, closing after Oct. 31.
To most people, especially newcomers, the most impressive views of Washington are the panoramic ones; and for these you have to cross the river. Perhaps the most romantic of the vistas, the least-adulterated by development, is from JW's Steakhouse atop the Key Bridge Marriott, an easy stroll from Georgetown (1401 Lee Highway at the entrance to George Washington Parkway; 703/524-6400, Ext. 2270). Though it seems modest compared to some of its latter-day Rosslyn neighbors, it has an unusually unimpeded angle down the Potomac, 13 floors up (though not so numbered, of course) and all glass along three sides.
Depending on where you sit, you can see from the foot of the Parkway and the District shore just west of Georgetown University past the Watergate complex and Kennedy Center and, thanks to the low, lean and green silhouette of Gateway Park, around to the Mall and the presidential monuments. (Intriguingly, the prettiest and most unusual composition is the one out to the north: a retreating series of rooflines with their perspective oddly foreshortened, from the peaked-roofed boathouses at the bottom and their mirror images floating at their feet to the university's chapel above that and Washington National Cathedral lording it over all.) In the evenings, it overlooks one of the less intimidating patterns of taillights -- long, deceptively graceful ribbons up the Whitehurst Freeway, over Key Bridge and dividing at the foot of the hotel.
There is not a separate lounge in JW's, so this is a serious night on the classical side: prime rib, veal chop, rack of lamp, lobster, honey-walnut glazed salmon, crab cakes, swordfish and a good wine list kept to the moderate side. It has another odd sentimental attraction -- the antique Italian chairs, carved to look like bentwood and upholstered in hand-painted floral canvasses your grandmother would have wept over. And should you have to wait, or have nieces along, remember the porthole-shaped aquaria in the hallway.
For sheer grandiosity, it's hard to outdo the view from the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City (300 Army-Navy Dr., Arlington). In fact, it has two views, a fairly nice one from Windows Over Washington (703/416-3894), reopening Wednesday with a new Deco-dent interior; and the 300-degree view from the Skydome nightclub (703/416-3873) above that, which rotates so that you can see all its attractions without missing a karaoke beat.
Windows has the more serious menu -- strips, filets, lamb, salmon, swordfish, crab cakes, surf 'n' turf -- and a nice but somehow Virginia-heavy view of the Pentagon and the admittedly dramatic I-395 interchange that seems to carry your eye more toward the landing approach of National Airport. But up in the Skydome, the near side of the river shrinks back into its place, and Washington landmarks as distant as the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast raise their praises. And the view has a peculiarly fascinating, almost fisheye angle that makes it oddly difficult to play name that edifice; instead of seeming to be right next to one another, for instance, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials look as if the land between had been stretched to accommodate yet more water. The lights of the city are doubly reflected, in the Boundary Channel and the Potomac; the jets sail in like gulls; and from the myriad ramps and bridges wind skeins of white and crimson cars. And now that the Graves-girdled Washington Monument shimmers blue, it seems richer and sturdier and even more powerful, like a polestar.
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Crystal City (2231 Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703/979-7275) would be the first choice of airheads, so to speak; from its 11th-floor vantage, it looks right out over the rippling canopy of National Airport and its parade of flying machines, though the view up across the 14th Street Bridge is a little disadvantaged. But it does have a fine view of official Washington from the bar, which has a rounded, glass wall that looks both ways; it also has, like many name-brand steakhouses, a regular cigar-smoking clientele. (It's another odd coincidence, but the overwhelming style of these river-view restaurants is upscale surf 'n' turf). Ask for Table 24.
The airport is also the dominant feature from the windows of the Chesapeake Grill at the Hyatt Regency-Crystal City (2799 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Arlington; 703/413-6700); you can see some of the monuments, and a bit of Potomac; but that old de-scaling skyline clutter is closing in again. The most individualistic thing about this one is the menu, which is somewhat broader than its neighbors and for the most part well-executed: Along with the strips and crab cakes and salmon, it has grilled calamari, shrimp ravioli with andouille, duck breast, lamb shanks and risottos.
One Edifice at a Time
Perhaps you find the full panorama thing, or heights, a little dizzying. The Capitol View Club atop the Hyatt Washington on Capitol Hill (400 New Jersey Ave. NW; 202/737-1234) is a members-and-guests-only restaurant for lunch; but at night it's open to the public, and its southwesterly windows are thrilled by the great dome of the Capitol, looking much as it does in those little Wedgewood candle lamps, freed from its foundations and imposing without being vertiginous. (If the light in the tip cupola is on, it means that Congress is in session.) The kitchen here is trying to hold its own amid the more modern-minded Capitol Hill Euro-eateries, and doing pretty well; it's also closed until after Labor Day.
Not quite so elevated, but just as elevating, is Lafayette at the Hay-Adams (16th and H streets NW; 202/638-2570), which conveniently comes into its full glory just about the time the Hotel Washington's Sky Terrace retires for the season. Facing the White House from directly across Lafayette Square, the restaurant actually surrenders its view during the summer, when the trees are full of leaves, and gets it back after the fall's fallings. In the snow, however, it's gorgeous, and if you have guests coming around the holidays, you can show them a contemporary edition of a Currier & Ives engraving they'll never forget. The very best seats are tables 8 and 18. (The roof terrace is usually reserved for hotel functions and is not enclosed; but it depends on how romantic you really are: One man commissioned the hotel to set a solitary table on the roof on Valentine's Day so that he could propose.)
And the balcony tables at America in Union Station (202/682-9555), also known as the Capital Wine Room, have long views of the Capitol across the terraced sward -- and into the concourse the other way. After all, the station's pretty monumental itself.
Postcards From Home
Somewhere between the ground and the rooftop lounges is the upstairs bar at Sequoia in Washington Harbour on the Georgetown Waterfront (3000 K St. NW; 202/944-4200): During the day, it has a sort of activity-friendly view across the Potomac to the Kennedy Center and Watergate, thanks to the hustle of joggers and volleyballers and punters; but it develops more up-close-and-personal impact at night when the lights draw your eye past the sidewalks toward the Tidal Basin and beyond to the Mall. Similarly, the Roof Terrace Restaurant at the Kennedy Center (202/416-8555) has fine views of monumental Washington, though they are slightly foreshortened, a little too familiar and sometimes overwhelmed by the glittering of the restaurant itself.
There are obviously many other partial views of the monuments. The waterfront restaurants in Washington and Alexandria have bits and pieces; the sidewalk tables along Pennsylvania Avenue sometimes do, too. The several cruise ships that serve Washington can be great fun, but their appeal is a different one: They tend to showcase one or two buildings at a time, and their lower angles lack scale. (And, unless you plan to skip dinner and spend your time paying attention deckside, the buildings tend to slide into backdrop.) It's actually better to take a picnic or patronize the vendors and plant yourself in the center of the Mall, admiring the museums and the monuments all about.
But rise above the everyday attitude. Just once, drop the blase bit and let L'Enfant do his magic. It's a capital sight, after all.