More Than Monuments


D.C. Concierges Offer Insider Tips For Out-of-the-Box Sightseeing

International visitors looking for out-of-the-box things to do in Washington, D.C., would do well to consult a member of a small yet passionate group of people whose mission is to “achieve the impossible” for their guests: the city’s hotel concierges. There are only around 100 members of the Washington Area Concierge Association (WACA) representing the District, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia; but what they lack in numbers, they more than make up for in commitment to their profession. “All concierges have that same mindset,” Andrew Runkle, a 26-year-old concierge at the Sofitel Hotel by Lafayette Square told The Washington Diplomat. “As long as it’s not illegal, we’re supposed to be able to make it happen.” To keep abreast of the latest urban trends, new exhibitions, restaurant openings and other developments, WACA meets monthly with its affiliates from Destination DC, the city’s lead tourism marketing organization, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington and other groups. Washington’s concierges are well prepared to give out-of-towners the low-down on hotspots throughout the city. But these knowledgeable hospitality ambassadors can also give travelers an insider’s perspective on D.C.’s diverse offerings, including many of its lesser-known attractions. Luis Colmenares, chef concierge at the boutique Hotel Monaco in Penn Quarter, has been living in Washington for 23 years. Over the past 10, he’s seen the city change its image, becoming more international, as he described it. “We now have an array of restaurants with famous chefs. We have fine shops and things that at one point you could only find in New York. Now they’re right here.” Currently serving as president of WACA, Colmenares, 50, is originally from Caracas, Venezuela. Like many of the concierges interviewed by The Diplomat, he combines an international background with great enthusiasm for his chosen home. “It’s my city. I’m not changing it for anything else … unless I win the lottery so I can travel around the world. Other than that, this is where I am,” he said. So what does someone who has organized private shopping tours and teas for Middle Eastern royalty like to do in Washington? “My favorite thing to do is just to wander around,” Colmenares says. “There is so much amazing architecture in this city. Every time you look around it’s almost reminiscent of a European city, like Paris.” If you ask, he’ll tell you about one of his “secret, private” places: the Washington National Cathedral and the adjacent garden. The cathedral grounds, designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick law Olmsted, comprise 59 acres of gardens and wooded walking paths. Thanks to its location on one of the highest hills in the city, the cathedral’s towers offer spectacular views over Washington — a totally different perspective than the one from a better-known vantage point, such as the Washington Monument. The National Cathedral is also a favorite of Chiaki Adams, concierge at the Ritz-Carlton Washington in the West End. In particular, she recommends the cathedral’s Gargoyle Tour, running April through October. Aside from the more traditionally carved waterspout monsters, visitors will want to keep an eye peeled for Darth Vader. A miniature version of the “Star Wars” villain peers down from high atop the National Cathedral’s northwest tower, the result of a decorative sculpture contest for children held in the 1980s. Adams, originally from Japan, has lived in the Washington area for about 20 years and worked at the Ritz-Carlton for six. Asked for some of her favorite offbeat suggestions for places to go in D.C., she was brimming with ideas. The second floor of the Renwick Gallery, an off-the-Mall branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, holds such treasures as the “Game Fish” — a swordfish constructed entirely of ping pong balls, figurines, dominoes and other such paraphernalia — as well as the gallery’s mysteriously shrouded “Ghost Clock.” Another great way to see the city, she pointed out, is from the water — on paddleboats along the Tidal Basin or kayak rentals from Thompson Boat Center or Jack’s Boathouse along the Potomac River. Or just take a nap next to the water, perhaps by the fountain in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, whenever batteries need recharging. Parents tugging along younger tourists may especially need some downtime. Adams suggested the soothing, glass-covered Kogod Courtyard inside the National Portrait Gallery, housed, together with the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in the Old Patent Office Building off 7th Street, NW. “Parents can take turns visiting both museums while the other keeps an eye on the child,” Adams advised. For tours without small children in tow, Adams recommended, as did several other concierges, the Dumbarton Oaks museum and gardens, as well as the Hillwood Estate. Each property features a historical home once occupied by well-known diplomats, impressive international art collections and breathtaking gardens. “I think Hillwood is quintessential of what Washington in its most elegant style is all about,” said Hector Torres, vice president at Capital Hotels and Suites and an exuberant supporter of all things D.C. “It’s also in a neighborhood that most people rarely get to see. But it is such an amazing place. And to sit there and have lunch or tea or something in the afternoon is just a lovely experience.” While outings to specific museums, monuments or other attractions typically occupy the top spots on tourists’ to-do lists, concierges interviewed for this article unanimously urged explorers to take in some authentic neighborhood flavor as well. More than any other place, they recommended getting to know the U Street Corridor in Northwest D.C. “Back in 1970s and ’80s, people used to go to Georgetown for nightlife. Now, it’s U Street and Adams Morgan,” said Ashok Kunnath, 51, a concierge who has been with the Washington Hilton near Dupont Circle since 1982. Kunnath, who hails from Thrissur, known as the cultural capital of the state of Kerala in southern India, said no trip to U Street would be complete without a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark since it opened in 1958. Bill Cosby, who earned the right to eat free there through repeat visits starting in the 1960s, would surely agree. As would Hector Torres. Despite an “invasion” of chefs from New York, among other places, Torres admitted to being partial to community restaurants. “We have our own, homebred chefs that have been doing it for years and really put out some exquisite food. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a perfect example. It’s one of the best foods you can have,” he said. When I mentioned how a recent visit by a certain U.S. president, together with the French president, must have raised Ben’s profile even further, Torres laughed. “You know, one thing about Ben’s Chili Bowl, it was famous before Obama, and will continue to be famous after Obama.” For another, maybe somewhat less crowded yet authentic taste of Washington, Torres recommends the Florida Avenue Grill at 11th Street, NW, just a few blocks from Ben’s. The “world-famous” restaurant, serving Southern cuisine, celebrated its 65th birthday last October. Indeed, as much as D.C.’s dining scene has been revolutionized in recent years — and not only by the influx of upscale eateries, but by cupcakes, organic salads, frozen yogurt, and the ever-growing flock of specialty food trucks — the classics never go out of style, even if they get a modern update. For instance, when you’re in the mood for a hearty American burger, head to Good Stuff Eatery on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, just a few blocks from the Capitol, said Robert Watson, chef concierge at the Willard InterContinental Washington Hotel. “Good Stuff is a great offbeat homage to American gourmet burger ingenuity,” said Watson, 51. “This is a place which is sure to delight any international visitor in search of pure Americana.” Watson, the current president of Les Clefs d’Or, the international association of professional concierges that has a membership of 3,400, has been at the Willard for four and a half years. But his international experience stretches back to 1975, when he began his career at the Hyde Park Corner hotel in London. Like many other Washington concierges, his international experience (he was born in Uruguay, raised in Costa Rica, and has worked on three continents) gives him a distinct perspective on the city. Another way to gain perspective on Washington, of course, is to leave it. Leslie Valtin, concierge at the St. Regis on 16th Street, a short walk from the White House, recommends a fall daytrip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia. “In the fall, the grounds are beautiful. It’s 500 acres, and they have a wonderful new visitor’s center — very interactive,” said Valtin. “In one of the movies it snows on you, while you watch George Washington cross the Delaware. They also have terrific docents — you can sit in a room inside the mansion and talk with Martha Washington. She tells you all about her life on the plantation with George.” Northern Virginia offers plenty of other options, too, for fall outdoor activities. Adams of the Ritz-Carlton said one of her favorites is hiking in the Shenandoah Valley. Valtin suggested touring one of the many wineries in the region. Fall is grape-harvesting season, and some places let you witness this ancient ritual in action. Back in D.C., Valtin shared two special recommendations: a visit to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department, where heads of state are received and important functions held; and the P.O.V. (Point of View) lounge atop the W Hotel overlooking a certain residence. The rooftop terrace, said Valtin, is “the only place in the city with any kind of view of the monuments and the White House.” And while residing in the city’s hotels, in addition to prodding concierges for insider tips, don’t forget to take in the hotels themselves, integral to Washington’s history and identity. As novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote while staying at the Willard during the Civil War, the hotel could more justly “be called the center of Washington … than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.”

About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.