Restaurateur Ian Hilton, who’s curating the project with his brother, Eric, and chef Erik Bruner-Yang, refers to Victura Park as “a pop-up winery, of sorts,” making use of the Reach’s landscaped grounds. Picnic tables are arranged under trees in what’s called the Presidential Grove; cafe tables shaded by umbrellas sit on a patio next to the shimmering reflecting pool, and blankets spread out on the green grass between two of the Reach’s curvaceous aboveground buildings, or pavilions. “We’re trying to make it look like a park, not a restaurant,” Ian Hilton says.
The Hiltons and Bruner-Yang originally teamed up for the Reach’s cafe, Hyannis Port, and were getting ready to open its restaurant, to be called Dialect, this spring. But after the Kennedy Center closed and the restaurant was put on hold, Hilton says, they began talking to the Kennedy Center about using the Reach’s outdoor areas for socially distant entertainment.
Victura, named after John F. Kennedy’s beloved sailboat, opened July 10. It covers approximately 20,540 feet of outdoor space, with an overall capacity of 250, including seats for 180 — the prize spots are a few pairs of chairs at the edge of the property, overlooking the Potomac River and Roosevelt Island, though the couples on picnic blankets looked pretty comfortable, too. Given the amount of room, Victura Park is good for small groups and families, and doesn’t feel crowded, even when someone else sits at the next table. (Dogs are allowed, though they should be kept on leash, Hilton says — “no playing fetch.”)
Hilton says the grassy space reminded him of a Virginia winery, and the menu is heavy on summery wines, such as a Portuguese vinho verde, and rosé from Virginia’s Paradise Springs, though there’s also canned beer, cider, seltzer and cocktails. The food options are simple: cheese and charcuterie boards, marinated olives and a baguette with olive oil. The downside is that prices are closer to the Kennedy Center intermission bars than your neighborhood bar: $8 to $12 for a glass of wine isn’t bad, but $7 for a 12-ounce can of Bud Light and $9 for a can of Devils Backbone Orange Smash cocktail seem high. (All food and drinks are purchased at a cafe inside the Reach, which is also where the bathrooms are located. Masks are required indoors.)
Hilton says some of the details are still being finessed. On the first weekend, visitors were funneled into one entrance to control access — and to keep people from wandering away into the Kennedy Center campus with alcohol — though that will probably change in the future, even as the Kennedy Center attempts to limit capacity for social distancing reasons. Speaking of access, walking or biking to Victura Park is recommended, as the Kennedy Center’s garage is closed. (You can always look for parking in the neighborhoods on the other side of Virginia Avenue.)
As the season goes on, Hilton says more events are in the works — perhaps wine or beer tastings with local producers, and maybe an Oktoberfest in the fall. But for now, they’ve turned an unused corner of D.C. into an attractive and somewhat off-the-beaten-path summer escape.
Victura Park is at the southern end of the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. victuraparkdc.com. Open Friday from 3 to 10 p.m., Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.
Here are a few other new or revamped outdoor spaces to check out:
Cork Wine Bar: The enticing and cozy little patio behind 14th Street's Cork Wine Bar was one of the best additions to D.C.’s al fresco scene in 2019, and it reopened to customers on July 10 with an expanded footprint. Colorful plants hang on the wooden walls, and the umbrella-shaded tables have now spread out onto the sidewalk on T Street, surrounded by planters. The menu includes cheese, charcuterie and, of course, avocado toast to snack on, and Cork's by-the-glass selection offers an interesting mix of roses and sparking wines. It's a solid choice for date night, but make sure to make reservations. 1805 14th St. NW. corkdc.com. Wednesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Hook Hall: Hook Hall’s 7,000-square-foot patio became “The Oasis” on July 9, and the new tropical theme means more colorful flowers on the wall, more hanging chairs swinging in the breeze, more grapefruit crushes and margaritas, and more pineapple on pizza. (Well, you don’t have to get the Hawaiian pizza — they also have fish tacos with mango salsa, and vanilla ice cream with toasted coconut and caramelized pineapple.) The feature attraction is still the row of seven covered cabanas, private spaces for six that offer such amenities as ceiling fans and USB ports. Reserving one costs $100 for a two-and-a-half-hour block, though it does come with a bottle of champagne and bottle service-style attention.
The rest of us can make do with tables for two or four or Oktoberfest-style benches for six on the artificial-turf patio. You do have to pay to reserve these — $10 for two or four, $35 for six — but that includes a beer or seltzer for everyone in the party. The vibe on a recent Saturday evening was unexpected: lively, bordering on loud; busy, but not crowded. It was almost like the Before Times, but not in a way that felt unsafe. 3400 Georgia Ave. NW. hookhall.com. Wednesday from 3 to 10 p.m., Thursday from 3 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Imperial: Before the Imperial opened last November, the Adams Morgan restaurant and cocktail lounge talked up its split-level rooftop deck as the ideal place for warm-weather drinks. Except when the terrace finally opened on July 3, it was with a setup that no one could have imagined. Due to social distancing, there are only 26 seats on the sail-shaded roof, fitting parties of two to six at a mix of outdoor sofas, round, woven chairs, and bar stools at rails along the walls. The cocktails are as pretty as the buckets of flowers on each table: Standouts include the Melondrama, which mixes watermelon, mint and a kiss of olive oil with the mellow sweetness of a Manhattan, and Stealing Tomatoes From the Garden of Eden, a fresh summer salad of a vodka cocktail, bursting with flavors of strawberry, cherry tomato, mustard seed and lime. (Drinks are $14-$16, except during “Tower Hour,” which runs from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.)
Reservations, which can be made 14 days in advance, are strongly suggested, though space is saved for walk-ins. If you want to stay out of the sun, you can request the stools on the lower portion of the rooftop, under a shaded roof and near a fan. 2001 18th St. NW. imperialdc.com. Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to midnight.
Your Only Friend at the Columbia Room: One of the more unusual pivots in the past few months has been at the Columbia Room, where partner and beverage manager Paul Taylor launched Get a Hero, Be a Hero, a sandwich shop that matched every purchase with a donation to first responders. That project has morphed into a new sandwiches-and-cocktails pop-up called Your Only Friend — “My love of sandwiches and cocktails combined in one glorious package,” Taylor says, served at lunch and dinner on the Columbia Room’s shaded patio, and, starting next week, in two dozen seats in the “streatery” below in Blagden Alley.
The idea, he says, is “to take something somebody knows and make it better than they ever thought it could be.” The gourmet sandwiches draw inspiration from Taylor’s regular orders at Vace or Wawa, his “2 a.m., after-five-drinks” cravings for chicken sandwiches, or, in the case of Ham Jam, which layers Parisian ham, salted honey butter and blueberry and red wine jam on a soft roll, “a combo of my honeymoon in Paris and a trip to Puerto Rico.” Taylor has also kept the charitable aspect of the previous endeavor, donating $2 from each sandwich to No Kid Hungry and Campaign Zero.
The dozen drinks are a mix of frozen, spirit-free and clever twists on classics, with the spirit of experimentation the Columbia Room is known for. (The Nordic Old Fashioned is built with aquavit and strawberry cachaça.) The drinks aren’t designed for sandwiches, but they pair pretty well, Taylor says. “I like an Italian sub with Dr. Brown’s celery soda,” he says. “We have that, but we also sell the Celery gimlet” that captures similar flavors. Eventually, Taylor sees Your Only Friend as a model for a stand-alone business, but right now, he’s trying to help others. “With the pandemic, it’s hard to know what I’m going to have for lunch,” he says. Anyone else in the same boat will find delicious ideas in Blagden Alley. 124 Blagden Alley NW. youronlyfrienddc. Open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 10:30 p.m.