Is it the old childhood thrill of the treehouse? The novelty of a new perspective? The happy astonishment of a postcard-perfect view? Or simply that slightly unworthy but all-too-human touch of Potomac fever that makes us enjoy looking down on the less elevated?
Whatever the motivation, the rooftop restaurant has a strong allure. It's a little taste of vacation, a rite of (mostly) summer, a backyard barbecue without the cleanup. Some so-called roof restaurants are truly roofs, some are upper-story decks and a few are more like open-air balconies; but they all offer a temporary escape, at least when the weather cooperates. For those who prefer to stick to air conditioning and allergy-free zones (or who are more thrilled by lofty views and elbowroom than by trendy martinis), there are several glass-enclosed high-rise restaurants that look across the Potomac to Virginia and vice versa -- "Rms Rv Vu" without the exhaust. (For those who use wheelchairs, these more full-service buildings are the most likely to be accessible, especially because so many of the restaurants in the District in particular are former rowhouses.)
Below is a list of restaurants, pool decks and bars that will get you off the ground. Back in the high life again.
Adams Morgan has traditionally offered the most places to take the evening air, and they've gradually multiplied to the point that touring the neighborhood, starting at Perry's on Columbia Road then heading down one side of 18th Street and back up the other, makes for a pretty impressive movable feast.
Perry's, which has been serving on its third-floor roof for 20 years, is the local landmark and remains one of the most coveted spots, so much so that the restaurant takes reservations only before 7 p.m. (The deck has actually been in use more than 20 years and is likely the Washington record-holder: Before Saied Azali bought the building, it was the Biltmore Ballroom and had a tradition of, if not dining, at least dancing under the stars.)
The Reef's rooftop is 18th Street's largest, half tables and half bar, and unlike Perry's, which looks out over traffic and a few atmospheric garrets, offers glimpses of the Capitol and Washington Monument. (It also is likely to pick up some island-beat music from Bukom Cafe below as a fringe benefit.)
Although the restaurant Roxanne is vacant, its rooftop bar, On the Rox, is open for business and connects not only to the roof of the Adams Morgan Spaghetti Garden next door, which has its own partly covered rooftop, but to the Brass Monkey pool hall, which has its own popular patio deck. (They're under the same management and may eventually merge.)
Tom Tom's roof seating is sort of convertible, bricked in since the "old days" and with a retractable roof, so it's a little like a sunroom at the rear of the second floor. Up the street at Madam's Organ, the third-floor rooftop tiki bar is a bit of a surprise, considering that the place looks a little like a shot-up Wild West saloon from the sidewalk. The tiki bar's atmosphere is also convertible, thanks to tenting, so it's open year-round.
The newest rooftop refuge on 18th Street is also one of the nicest, the third-floor roof patio at Chloe. Opening off the loftlike teal and glass lounge, with its spiral staircase, gleaming white bar and DJ alcove, the patio is surprisingly calm, and the umbrellas and decking walls all but eliminate the noise.
Though they're a little more of a walk, there are three in-demand rooftop restaurants sort of halfway between Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, and a good possibility of a fourth. Down 18th between Swann and T streets, the covered but open-sided third-floor roof of Lauriol Plaza looks across and down at the Straits of Malaya's smaller but more relaxed open-air second story. A couple of blocks to the east, the drinking and dining deck atop Local 16 rivals the Reef's in size: It can handle about 40 for dinner and nearly twice that, if they're friendly, around the bar. This week, Local 16's neighbor Stetson's, which already has patio dining, is scheduled for a hearing on its application to expand onto the roof.
Downtown's most famous rooftop is, of course, the Sky Terrace at the Hotel Washington, which looks out on a real-life ViewMaster disk of the monumental city: the White House, the Treasury, the Old Executive Office Building, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the green swath of the Ellipse and sometimes even the cherry-blossoming Tidal Basin. In between those great edifices, the chain of smaller flower gardens, trees and set-off statues suddenly and vividly vindicates Lady Bird Johnson's beautification campaign for the capital.
The Hilton Washington Embassy Row Hotel has opened its ninth-floor pool deck for summer specials off and on for several years and currently serves happy hour drinks and nibblies Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. (See Nightwatch on Page 5.)
Not far away, just below Dupont Circle, is one of the few roof-level dance clubs, the multi-reincarnated club Five near the five-points intersection at Connecticut Avenue, 18th Street and Jefferson Place NW. If you remember it as the Roxy, the reggae music and Caribbean-look bar will do a deja vu on you. Fridays and Saturdays, the room is open until 5 a.m.; tequila sunrise, anyone? Closer to the circle, the Big Hunt's second-story rear deck is also a bit of island in the city, but in a lower key.
While Georgetown has a fair number of patios and gardens, both indoor and out, rooftops there have a somewhat mixed history. In fact, one of the first buildings to go au naturel, what was then Cafe Baba-Lu, isn't even a restaurant anymore: It's the Club Monaco boutique. And in the post-9/11 era, in dining as in everything else, security consciousness has had an effect: Concerns over its frequently politically connected clientele led the Four Seasons Hotel to ask its across-M Street neighbor, Au Pied Bistro, not to use its rooftop deck (to which, in proper neighborly spirit, the bistro agreed). The only true roof-level dining these days is at the Alamo Grill, which looks out over 31st Street (which is at least lined with interesting buildings).
Nevertheless, there are a few elevated dining spots in the neighborhood that come close. Old Glory has an open-air rear deck off the second floor with glimpses of Wisconsin Avenue. Garrett's Restaurant & Railroad Tavern's second-story rear terrace is glassed-in, which offers a wider season. And although it doesn't quite qualify as a roof, not being on top of anything solid, the outdoor deck at Sea Catch does overlook the canal and has as good a Georgetown view as any. (Honorable mention goes to the upper-level bar at Sequoia in Washington Harbour, which has fabulous views of the Potomac, the Watergate and Kennedy Center, local crew teams and approaching storms as well as sunsets.)
The Kennedy Center has its own vantage point, of course: The Roof Terrace Restaurant, which -- except for the pre-sunset moments when the glare is just too strong -- has a famously fine view toward the Rosslyn skyline and GW parkway. And although you cannot walk straight from the restaurant onto the open terrace, you can get your drink shifted into a plastic cup, go back out into the gallery and walk around to the terrace doors and outside.
There are other elevated dining spots scattered across the District. Cleveland Park's popular Ardeo has recently unveiled its rooftop terrace, which has a bit of greenery as well as the Uptown Theater in its sights, and is serving brunch there as well as dinner. Just up the street, the restaurant that was Coppi's Vigorelli and then Brick's has been sold to the owners of Vida. They plan to reopen it as C.P.'s Bar & Grill (for Cleveland Park) within the month, serving casual Italian fare and keeping both the brick pizza oven and the partly covered rooftop intact.
The restored (from fire) Sweet Mango Cafe at the Georgia Avenue-Petworth Metro station has a rooftop area that's mostly open for lunch. It may not be much cooler than the cheery dining room inside, but that's probably because of the kitchen's potent jerk spices. Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel each summer opens the pool terrace for light fare; now called Flamingo's, it's on the 12th floor, but since the hotel actually has 15 floors, the only view is straight up into the stars. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel does not have true rooftop dining, but the patio of Cafe Mozu overlooks the hotel's garden courtyard.
Two of Washington's most spectacular views are available only for substantial prices but would make fabulous settings for special occasions and catered events. One, from the rooftop of Charlie Palmer Steak, looks across the Capitol's West Lawn at the government's great dome -- "So close you'd swear you could reach out and touch it," as one awed guest put it. And from its vantage point facing Lafayette Park, the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel gazes straight across to the White House; entirely appropriate for a hotel named for the son of one president and the secretary of another.
With the growing interest in the outdoor trend (and with the increasing debate over indoor smoking), it's likely that more restaurants will explore their upper levels. And the developer of a proposed mixed-use development on the site of the CVS at Seventh and G streets NW near MCI Center is looking to put a restaurant at roof level there.
ADAMS MORGAN SPAGHETTI GARDEN -- 2317 18th St. NW; 202-265-6665.
ALAMO GRILL -- 1063 31st St. NW; 202-342-2000.
ARDEO -- 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-244-6750.
BIG HUNT -- 1345 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-785-2333.
BRASS MONKEY -- 2317 18th St. NW; 202-667-7800.
CAFE MOZU -- 1330 Maryland Ave. SW (in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel); 202-787-6868.
CHARLIE PALMER STEAK -- 101 Constitution Ave. NW; 202-547-8100.
CHLOE -- 2473 18th St. NW; 202-265-6592.
C.P.'S BAR & GRILL -- 3421 Connecticut Ave. NW. (Opening soon.)
FIVE -- 1214-B 18th St. NW; 202-331-7123.
FLAMINGO'S -- 480 L'Enfant Plaza SW (in the Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel); 202-484-1000.
GARRETT'S RESTAURANT & RAILROAD TAVERN -- 3003 M St. NW; 202-333-1033.
HAY-ADAMS HOTEL -- 16th and H streets NW; 202-638-6600.
HILTON WASHINGTON EMBASSY ROW HOTEL -- 2015 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 202-265-1600.
LAURIOL PLAZA -- 1835 18th St. NW; 202-387-0035.
LOCAL 16 -- 1602 U St. NW; 202-265-2828.
MADAM'S ORGAN -- 2461 18th St. NW; 202-667-5370.
OLD GLORY -- 3139 M St. NW; 202-337-3406.
ON THE ROX -- 2319 18th St. NW; 202-265-6665.
PERRY'S -- 1811 Columbia Rd. NW; 202-234-6218.
THE REEF -- 2446 18th St. NW; 202-518-3800.
ROOF TERRACE RESTAURANT -- 2700 F St. NW (in the Kennedy Center); 202-416-8555.
SEA CATCH -- 1054 31st St. NW (in Canal Square); 202-337-8855.
SEQUOIA -- 3000 K St. NW (in Washington Harbour); 202-944-4200.
SKY TERRACE -- 515 15th St. NW (in the Hotel Washington); 202-638-5900.
STETSON'S -- 1610 U St. NW; 202-667-6295. (License pending.)
STRAITS OF MALAYA -- 1836 18th St. NW; 202-483-1483.
SWEET MANGO CAFE -- 3701 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-726-2646.
TOM TOM -- 2333 18th St. NW; 202-518-6667.
Up until relatively recently, the Maryland suburbs were so green that it wasn't necessary to climb to the roof to get a view. Now that so much development has reshaped them so quickly, there are precious few spots to get up, up and away. In fact, the only real rooftop dining is at Bethesda's Tia Queta, a small but popular adobe-look deck curiously adorned with a traffic light. Bethesda also has one elevated deck that serves as the patio for Black's Bar & Kitchen and one old standby hangout, Steamers, which is almost all deck, always covered but in good weather open-sided.
The Chevy Chase branch of Meiwah, offshoot of the popular downtown Chinese restaurant, is on the second floor and has an open patio, although the view is mostly of the intersection, construction and neighborhood shopping.
The nicest elevated deck in the area is the second-story balcony at the Irish Inn at Glen Echo, which, though it overhangs the parking lot, does have glimpses of Glen Echo Park and the odd park police horse.
BLACK'S BAR & KITCHEN -- 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278.
IRISH INN AT GLEN ECHO -- MacArthur Boulevard and Tulane Avenue, Glen Echo; 301-229-6600.
MEIWAH -- 4457 Willard Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-652-9882.
STEAMERS -- 4820 Auburn Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-0661.
TIA QUETA -- 4839 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-4443.
Virginia is still green in many places but hasn't much more in the way of rooftop dining than Maryland. But it does have one of the last of the rotating restaurants, that once-classic feature of high-rise hotels, and some pretty impressive views of the Washington skyline, many of them close to Metro stops.
As quickly as the neighborhoods near the Northern Virginia Metro stations have been built up, you'd expect a few more restaurants to have built upward. Oddly, though, the only true rooftop venue is the partly covered deck atop the Clarendon Ballroom, which is really more of a club than a restaurant; its outdoor menu is limited to wings and things, but the size (4,000 square feet) and the backdrop border of potted plants make it a big draw.
The unexpectedly dramatic outdoor patio at the upscale surf and turf restaurant Finn & Porter in Alexandria looks to be at ground level from the front, but the grounds drop away so that the patio extends over a terrace garden complete with a 30-foot-high geyser.
The skyline views begin just over Key Bridge in Rosslyn, at the 13th-floor JW's Steak House at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel; it's glassed-in on three sides and has an unusually good view up toward Fletcher's Boat House and down the river. The nearby Holiday Inn Rosslyn near Key Bridge has four more floors than the Marriott, and the staff at the Vantage Point restaurant -- on the 17th floor -- is quick to point that out as well as the fact that this glass goes all the way around.
The Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City has two venues with capital views. Windows Over Washington, the more formal restaurant on the 14th floor, is half-glassed on the side toward the Mall (open for dinner only on weekends). The Skydome, the glass-sided rotating lounge on the 15th floor, has almost a 360-degree view, blocked only by a bit of bar and elevator.
At the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, the Chesapeake Grill is on the roof of the hotel, which has 18 floors below the grill; its view of the nation's capital is a little more hit-or-miss than in Rosslyn, and Reagan National Airport lies between the hotel and the Mall. Although technically speaking, the Ruth's Chris Steak House in Crystal City is not quite on the roof -- it's on the 11th floor of a 12-floor office building -- it does have a clear view of official Washington, particularly from the glass-walled bar.
CHESAPEAKE GRILL -- 2799 Jefferson Davis Hwy. (in the Hyatt Regency Crystal City); 703-418-1234.
CLARENDON BALLROOM -- 3185 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-469-2244.
FINN & PORTER -- 5000 Seminary Rd. (in the Mark Center), Alexandria; 703-379-2346.
JW'S STEAK HOUSE -- 1401 Lee Hwy. (in the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel), Rosslyn; 703-524-6400, Ext. 2270.
RUTH'S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE -- 2231 Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703-979-7275.
SKYDOME -- 300 Army-Navy Dr. (in the Doubletree Hotel), Crystal City; 703-416-4100.
VANTAGE POINT -- 1900 N. Fort Myer Dr. (in the Holiday Inn Rosslyn); 703-807-2000, Ext. 3.
WINDOWS OVER WASHINGTON -- 300 Army-Navy Dr. (in the Doubletree Hotel), Crystal City; 703-416-3894.
Eve Zibart has been dining and drinking on Washington roofs for more summers than she likes to count.