Urban escapes: District Wharf

Travel

March 2, 2020



A high-water mark: The Wharf, Washington’s waterfront destination, is a worthy reason to decamp to D.C.

by Page Leggett

If Washington, D.C., makes you think of acrimony and an ineffective Congress, you’re not alone. But Washington is more than ground zero for partisan rancor. It’s a storied city alive with history, awash in remarkable restaurants and, as of a couple of years ago, newly energized by a scenic waterfront that’s become a mecca for residents and tourists.  

The district didn’t always maximize its famous waterfront, crossed by generals from George Washington to Robert E. Lee. Other than tony Georgetown, there seemed to be a missed opportunity with all that shoreline and so few places to take it all in. 

No more. When The Wharf’s first phase opened in late 2017, this section of waterfront along the Washington Channel of the Potomac River suddenly became the attraction it was always destined to be. 

“For decades, southwest Washington has looked like a beige and barren place,” reads a 2017 Washington Post story heralding the birth of The Wharf. “[T]hat part of the city has rarely buzzed with life.” 

That is until the 24-acre Wharf, just south of the National Mall, turned it into something colorful and buzzworthy. 

Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Kith/Kin

The hopping entertainment district is anchored by The Anthem, a live-music venue run by a co-owner of the 9:30 Club (one of America’s top 10 live music venues, according to Rolling Stone in 2018). The industrial-chic, multilevel space also has multiple bars. It’s a venue with a design so ingenious — the stage moves — that it can be configured to seat between 2,500 and 6,000 music fans. 

Upcoming shows include Sturgill Simpson (booked for two nights), The Beach Boys and The 1975. I saw the sublime and seemingly ageless Bryan Ferry there last fall.

Worth noting: The Anthem doesn’t take cash. The good news: Lines for the bar move quickly since bartenders don’t have to make change. 

Eat, drink and do

The Wharf offers a range of dining options, many of them unexpected. One of the most unusual and celebrated is Kith/Kin, a drop-dead gorgeous spot serving African- and Caribbean-influenced cuisine. James Beard 2019 Rising Star Chef of the Year Kwame Onwuachi is in charge here; he traces his roots to Africa, Jamaica, New Orleans and New York. And there are flavors from all of them.

The space adjacent to the InterContinental hotel is airy and open, with soaring ceilings and windows overlooking the water. The food, while elegantly composed, is more down-home than the impressive space would indicate. Braised goat shoulder and gumbo with quail are among surprises on the menu. 

Cocktails range from island-inspired (One Love, with pineapple rum, hibiscus, passionfruit, lime and peach bitters) to summer-inspired (Chef Kwame’s Favorite, with gin, elderflower, lime, honey and tonic). Kith/Kin is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Elsewhere along the water, you’ll find stand-out Mexican food at Chef Roberto Santibanez’s Mi Vida and a high-end take on the flavors of coastal Spain at Del Mar. If the Capitals Campfire is blazing, pop by for a s’more. You’ll also find doughnuts, gelato, falafel, pizza, pastries, coffee, burgers and the award-winning Milk Bar, the desserterie that gave the world Cereal Milk-flavored ice cream. (And the world rejoiced!)

photo by Page Leggett

Suffering from insomnia? Head north to DuPont Circle’s Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café — it’s open until 1 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on weekends. Stop in for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night snacks. Check out the literary cocktails, including The Handmaid’s Ale, a seasonal shandy (beer plus a mixer) with cider, pumpkin-pie spices and cinnamon whiskey. 

D.C. was made for bibliophiles, and another great local bookshop is Politics and Prose. One of its three locations is on The Wharf. Check in advance if there’s a literary celeb on the roster. Recent guest speakers have included Diane Rehm, Paul Krugman, Glennon Doyle and Margaret Atwood. 

If books aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other retailers to explore at The Wharf, including Shop Made in DC, featuring all locally made stationery, clothes, art and bath and beauty products.

Getting around 

If you think gridlock is limited to our federal government, wait till you’re stuck in D.C. traffic. Congress moves quicker than cars during rush hour. 

Taking Metro — more like London’s Tube than New York’s subway system — can help avoid angst and wasted time. In addition, The Wharf offers a free shuttle to the National Mall. Along the way, it stops at L’Enfant Plaza, with more than 40 shops and restaurants, and the International Spy Museum, which is also worth a visit. 

The D.C. metropolitan area has long made way for cyclists. The 18-mile wooded Mount Vernon Trail runs along the Potomac and leads to the Virginia home of our first president. It, too, is a favorite attraction. 

But you don’t have to appreciate the Potomac only from its shores. Rent a kayak or paddleboard. Take a water taxi somewhere. (It’s a great vantage point from which to see D.C.’s monuments.) Or rent a float boat, which allows you and up to eight of your friends to eat, drink and make merry while your private captain guides the vessel. 

Dusk in downtown Washington DC with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in the background.

Get cultured

Many of D.C.’s museums are government-supported. They belong to us, the people, and are therefore free. I always feel I can spend more on food, drink and entertainment because I’ve saved on admission fees.

In addition, Washington is a great theater town. There’s Woolly Mammoth, Ford’s Theatre and the grandest of all – the Kennedy Center. You won’t need to leave the waterfront for exceptional theater, though. Arena Stage put down roots in the area long before it was a destination. They offer classics (August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle series, for instance) and edgy world premieres.  

Washington belongs to all of us. In an era of bitter partisan bickering, it’s nice to remind yourself that D.C. isn’t a swamp at all. In fact, the water has never looked more appealing. 

LOVE YOUR COUNTRY: A visit to D.C. may remind you just how majestic our center of government is. If you choose to center your stay at The Wharf, visit wharfdc.com to plan your visit. The Wharf offers three lodging options: Canopy by Hilton, Hyatt House and a sleek, sexy InterContinental.   SP

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