City Limits


Excursions In and Out of D.C. Offer Own Unique Charm

Embrace the city or get away from it? It’s the question my husband and I face on a regular basis at the end of the workweek. As childless young professionals with most of life’s major responsibilities still ahead of us, our weekends tend to be open slates.

And as natives of the American Midwest, where dairy farms abound and neighbors say “howdy,” urban life makes this fact both a blessing and a curse. We’re grateful for the ethnic cuisine and abundance of cultural activities that Washington, D.C., offers, but we also find ourselves pining away every now and then for a good old-fashioned rural road in the middle of a lazy Saturday afternoon. We know this may not be Los Angeles or New York, but to a couple from small-town Wisconsin and Indiana, D.C. is still a metropolitan hub.

Needless to say, we’ve tried both methods of embracing the city and getting away from it—and have found that each has its own charm. Among our recent excursions, we’ve officially deemed two of them particular successes.

A Capital Affair Because our wedding anniversary in September fell on the Labor Day weekend, traffic (as usual) helped us decide where to celebrate the occasion: We would leave our car at home and rely on the taxis and Metro system in the nation’s capital. Deciding among the city’s plethora of hotels, surprisingly, didn’t take all that long. We settled on a budget of no more than 0 a night and then scoured online reviews and rating systems for ideas.

We ultimately chose two nights at the newly opened Hotel Palomar in bustling Dupont Circle, mostly because its rooms were the most spacious that our budget would allow. At 570 square feet, our deluxe suite was comparable in size to our one-bedroom apartment in Takoma Park, Md., and included a separate living room with a flat-screen television. We found the bed to be heavenly and also liked that the L’Occitane bath goods were refreshed daily.

The Kimpton-owned hotel’s structural layout makes it obvious that the building was once a Radisson property, but overall the multimillion-dollar renovation has done wonders for the Palomar’s revitalized ambiance. The outdoor pool area, though closed for swimming, proved to be a perfect spot for an evening cocktail during our first night. And even though we didn’t use it more than once, we also liked the hotel gym for its free weights and individual flat-screen monitors on each cardio machine.

The next day, we grabbed a cab and headed to the 100-seat H Street Playhouse, home of the Theater Alliance troupe. Although its run has since ended, the local production of “3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian” actually brought us to tears. The heart-wrenching story of two young girls written by then 15-year-old playwright Phoebe Rusch was executed brilliantly. We’d been to other great performances at the Kennedy Center, Roundhouse Theatre and Warner Theatre, but this one topped them all.

Later that night, we sipped a couple of happy hour cocktails at Mimi’s American Bistro across the street from Hotel Palomar before splurging on a three-course meal at nearby Al Tiramisu. The cozy Italian restaurant is frequented by celebrities, socialites and powerbrokers—and its fame factor showed in the service. The owner was incredibly friendly, but the bartender seemed put out when we ate our dinner at the bar (we didn’t know same-day reservations were impossible to get). Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the tuna tartar, and my mushroom risotto was rich and delicious.

The dessert cheese plate, on the other hand, was not noticeably tastier than the much more affordable version at Brickskeller located close to Embassy Row. Then again, the two vastly different dining options—one a high-end Italian eatery attracting D.C. elite and the other a saloon famous for its hundreds of beer varieties, both of which are separated by a mere few blocks—reflect the diversity and excitement that a city such as Washington has to offer.

Blue Ridge Escape For our second trip, we decided to go for rustic and simple. An online search for places along the majestic Blue Ridge Parkway brought up several bed and breakfasts, the most appealing among them a three-bedroom inn located in Willis, Va.—population 2,639—called Mountain Song Inn. We packed our car and after a little more than four hours, pulled into the driveway.

To us, the place was perfect. The house is built on top of a lush hill overlooking rolling mountains and a tree farm. The product of a huge renovation several years ago, the building was purchased in late 2006 by Dan and Tanya DuRant, a couple from Las Vegas.

Our affordable room had its own private patio and a large soaking tub. The real attractions, however, were the two porches (one upper and one lower) that ran the length of the house, as well as a screened-in porch for dining. The décor on the main level of the house—with reading nooks, leather dining chairs and a stately stone fireplace—was a tossup between a Pottery Barn store and Williams-Sonoma Home catalogue.

The whole place allowed us to indulge in laziness. Late at night, we popped open a bottle of champagne and selected a movie from the owners’ DVD collection. In the morning, we sipped coffee by a roaring fire as Dan DuRant prepared us a gourmet breakfast of cream cheese-stuffed French toast, sausage, bacon and a delicious fresh fruit salad, including sweet strawberries and plump blueberries in the middle of winter.

We had just one night to dine in town, but choosing a restaurant for dinner was easy. The restaurant at nearby Château Morrisette Winery was so cozy and inviting that we wished we had made it there far earlier than our 7:30 reservation so that we could’ve relaxed the lobby, which is a fantastic place to sip some wine and watch the sun set over the mountains.

Both trips in and out of Washington, D.C., were enjoyable, but we were a little partial to our experience at Mountain Song Inn. Although prices at the Palomar have gone up (our suite is now 9 per night), we’ve stayed in smaller rooms at the Palomar twice since our anniversary. And we’re already making plans for another weekend in Willis.

Where to Weekend

In Washington, D.C.: Rooms at the Hotel Palomar are some of the most spacious around for the price range. Service is exceptional at the Kimpton-owned boutique hotel and includes a wine and light hors d’oeuvres reception in the evenings. 2121 P St., NW (202) 448-1800

The H Street Playhouse houses the Theater Alliance, a small company that focuses on new and alternative plays. Upcoming productions include new plays from the Theater Alliance’s Pangea Project, an international festival. 1365 H St., NE (202) 544-0703

At Mimi’s American Bistro, happy hour runs daily from 4 to 7 p.m., when appetizers, martinis and beers are half price. The food and service are a bit unusual but impressive, with an “American” cuisine that includes mezze platters and singing waiters. 2120 P St., NW (202) 464-6464

Al Tiramisu was once selected for the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano, an award given to restaurants for superior cuisine and representation of authentic Italian culture. Reservations are both required for dinner and difficult to come by. Our decadent meal of two appetizers, a large salad, two entrees, one dessert and a bottle of mid-priced wine cost 0. 2014 P St., NW (202) 467-4466

In Willis, Va.: Mountain Song Inn offers spectacular views of the Virginia countryside and fantastic rustic charm—for relatively affordable rates. 319 Mystic Lane, Willis, Va. (540) 789-3000

It’s best to visit Château Morrisette Winery before sundown to take advantage of the view. Dinner entrees range from for Amalfi chicken with shiitake mushrooms and caramelized shallots to for a filet mignon with a Parisian-inspired compound butter. Lunch prices are somewhat lower but more limited, and the attached winery is open daily for tastings. 287 Winery Road, Floyd, Va. (540) 593-2865

For our next trip, we plan to make it out in time for the much-lauded Floyd Country Store Friday Night Jamboree featuring authentic bluegrass and old-time music in nearby Floyd, Va. (540) 745-4563

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.