Don’t Drive in DC (& Other Tips for a Sane Business Trip)

As the title of this journal suggests, I was travelling on business and quickly discovered that even with a well-meaning GPS unit, driving is not the best way for a newcomer to experience Washington DC.

Renaissance on M Street

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

The Renaissance on M Street has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation and whilst the newness of the place initially impresses, they definitely have a few kinks to iron out.

The first thing I was struck by is that it’s not immediately obvious where the check-in desk is. For some strange reason the large lounge area and concierge desk are the first things you see and you have to turn yourself around and veer off to the right to find the reception. Once this mild moment of confusion was over I had a fairly painless check in but came to discover that the front desk staff at the Renaissance aren’t the most friendly or helpful bunch of people. In fact some of the staff were downright snooty and made me feel like I was inconveniencing them by asking questions.

Twice I had to ask for assistance with first retrieving and then storing equipment and both times I had to wait for about thirty minutes before I finally received help. The front desk would call security who would then go to the storage room and return a while later to try and ascertain if they could fit all of our boxes into their back room. All in all I felt that the staff made what should have really been an easy task into a long and drawn out affair.

The other painful aspect of staying at the Renaissance Hotel is that cell phone reception is virtually non-existent. At some point in its history, the building was used as a hospital and the walls are so thick that it cuts off most mobile signals. The real joy is that when you step outside to make a call, loud, distasteful music is piped into the valet area, forcing you to move farther down the road so you can carry out a conversation. Even in the large lobby area, I found it virtually impossible to carry out a call without the signal being dropped.

If phone reception isn’t of importance then the lounge area isn’t a bad place to enjoy a cup of coffee from the adjoining Illy’s café bar in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening. The one thing that the Renaissance does get right is its bar. It may be small but our server, Michael, was a paragon of good cheer and goodwill. He had some great food recommendations and shared stories of the hotel’s history with us.

Finally, our room was cosy but as so many chain hotels are wont to do, there was no way to open a window, which I always find to be a bit stifling. The centerpiece of the room was a beautiful flat screen television and there was a generous desk area with Internet plug-in, which was useful for work purposes. The bathroom was small but clean and bright with a large, modern shower cubicle.

Renaissance M Street Hotel
Washington, United States, 20037

One Washington Circle Hotel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

Arriving at One Washington Circle we were greeted by a fast and friendly check-in clerk in the small but warm reception area. From the lobby décor, I was expecting a hotel room akin to that of the one I stayed in at the Renaissance on M Street but was instead welcomed into a vast, apartment style suite.

I was immediately taken aback by the baby grand piano that stood in front of what I later found out was a sliding door leading to a wide balcony. It took me about five minutes to get my bearings in the suite, which for one person staying one night was unnecessarily large. The suite had a small hallway toilet room, a living room area with television and study, a modestly sized kitchen, a large dining room, a large bedroom area also with television and a full bathroom. If the sofa in the living room area converted into a bed I’m fairly sure that a family of four would be pretty comfortable staying here for any length of time.

At One Washington Circle though the abundance of space was not matched by quality decoration. Apart from the bedroom, which was fairly warm and cosy in appearance, the rest of the suite was strikingly bland and in need of some updating. In some areas the wallpaper was peeling or the walls just looked plain grubby and in need of a makeover. The artwork (if you can call it that) on the walls was strangely mismatched and overall the suite could have benefited from the eye of a Feng Shui practitioner.

I settled into the bedroom, which besides the bathroom was the only room I really used during my stay. Despite the fact that the room overlooked a major roundabout, it was very quiet and I slept well that night once I’d cranked up the heat a bit. The only conundrum I faced that night was that I was unable to find a wireless remote control for the television and instead had to use what looked like a games console, which was attached to the television set.

The hotel also offered a swimming pool, gym and bistro, none of which I had time to take advantage of. I would recommend forgoing the bistro anyway as the hotel is within 15-20 minutes walking distance of Georgetown, which you should visit even if you’re only staying for one night as I did. Not only does Georgetown have some great shops but it also has some wonderful restaurants and I can obviously advocate Filomena and the News Café where I ate on a separate visit.

Neither the Renaissance nor this hotel overwhelmed me on my trips to DC. They both cater well to the business traveler and are in central locations but I would encourage visitors to look elsewhere if you’re looking for a true quality experience.

One Washington Circle Hotel
Washington, D.C., United States, 20037

Bistrot du Coin

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

On their business card, the Bistrot du Coin advertises itself as "French, Fun and Friendly" and it certainly is all three of these. I called at 5.00pm to make a reservation for four people and wasn’t immediately convinced of their claim to be "friendly" as the person on the other end of the line barked at me "to please arrive on time!"

A 15-minute walk from the Renaissance Hotel I was a little nervous about shouldering the responsibility of taking my colleagues to a French bistrot in DC but I need not have worried. The Bistrot du Coin offers simple, hearty French fare in a long hall that glows gold in the evening. We arrived punctually and at 6.30pm I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about as the place was far from full. However within half an hour the opposite was true and I was relieved that their staff had been so insistent that we arrive in a timely fashion.

Paper squares covered the small wooden tables and flag bunting stretched from one side of the restaurant to the other, possibly in anticipation of the new Beaujolais which they would be celebrating the night after our visit.

We ordered some Pinot Noir, salads and a French Onion Soup. The wine went down easy and we all tried a little of the soup with its wonderfully gooey cheese and stomach-warming broth. We then waited anxiously for our main courses, which included the Magret de canard au poivre vert and the classically French steak and French fries. I had ordered the duck, tempted not only by the duck itself but also by the accompanying potato-carrot gratin. I followed the chef’s recommendation on the menu and ordered the meat medium-rare and didn’t regret the decision. The small slabs of duck were cooked to perfection and despite the usual richness of this meat, I think I could have eaten this meal every night for a week and not tired of it. I also tried some of the steak and fries. There’s really nothing like eating French fries that are soaked in steak juice and washing it down with a robust red wine on a cold winter’s night. On the restaurant’s website they advertise themselves as a place "where you can eat good food at a fair price" and they really do deliver on that promise. My duck was pan seared, served with a dreamy potato-carrot gratin and draped in a light, creamy green peppercorn sauce. At $17.95, I really couldn’t go too wrong.

Somewhere during the course of the evening someone at our table ordered a crème brulee, which was a perfect way to round off the evening. Before we departed I took a trip to the bathroom and discovered the table football on the mezzanine level and suddenly wished that we didn’t such have an early start for work the next morning. Maybe next time.

Bistro du Coin
1738 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, D.C., United States, 20009
(202) 234-6969

Café Salsa

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

We found Café Salsa somewhat by accident, having been originally directed to a Tex-Mex place opposite. We perused menus in both restaurant windows and were very quickly won over by the more upscale-looking Café Salsa. The place was empty too so we were taking somewhat of a chance having an early lunch here following a quick business meeting nearby.

The staff was extremely attentive but with no other people in the restaurant this was too be expected. The lunch menu was very long and making a decision was difficult as each option sounded more tempting than the next. Touting their food style as "Nuevo Latino", their dishes are inspired by the cuisine of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Seafood dominated the appetizers lists with old favourites such as "Ropa Vieja" taking precedence on the entrée list. I wanted to keep to a light lunch and opted for the soup of the day, which was carrot, followed by a tomato, beet, avocado salad. In addition, one of my colleagues thankfully ordered a side dish of sweet plantains for us to nibble on.

The carrot soup was surprisingly creamy and sweet but utterly delicious. One outstanding feature of the food at Café Salsa is that all the ingredients appeared to be very fresh. There wasn’t a hint of age in the avocado I was served and the tomatoes and beets were crisp and crunchy. The sweet plantains were moist and firm and not at all oily. The Pollo al Aioli sandwich that was served also looked extremely fresh in every way, including the French baguette on which it was served.

The interior of Café Salsa is the only part that somewhat belies its Latino heritage. The floor is a uniform striping of red and white and the walls follow a similar colour pattern. Mirrors hang on one wall to illuminate the narrow restaurant space but overall it creates an atmosphere of modernity and sophistication as opposed to the colour, passion and energy that I usually associate with the Caribbean and South America. That said, true to their name, Café Salsa hosts salsa lessons every Tuesday night and features "international tropical music" with a DJ every Friday and Saturday night.

Cafe Salsa
1712 14th St
Washington, D.C., 20009
(202) 588-5286

Pavilion Café

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

After attending to some business close to The Capitol, a colleague and myself wandered on foot down the snow-covered Mall wondering where we could stop for lunch. We hadn’t strayed too far when we spied the Pavilion café, which is nestled in the middle of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The snowy covering ensured that the garden was a peaceful place to pass the time that day with only a few people out and about braving the cold weather. We took a few minutes to look over their menu and were surprised to learn that many of their items were unavailable. They were out of all of their salads and the sandwich selection was also sadly depleted. Undeterred we ordered their French Onion Soup and a couple of Paninis and took a seat in their conservatory-like café.

The Pavilion Café was really a wonderful place to stop on such a cold day as we warmed ourselves, enjoying the view of the sculpture park and a small rink where families and children enjoyed themselves on the ice. It was the epitome of a winter wonderland.

Our food arrived fairly quickly and wasn’t quite as overwhelming as the view. The French Onion Soup was a poor imitation, with big chunks of cheddar cheese lamenting in a thin broth and very little onion to speak of. I’d ordered a Cuban Panini, which was a strange concoction of provolone cheese, deli ham as well as roasted pork. It wasn’t bad but at $8.50 it certainly wasn’t a good example of value for money. I ordered a herbal tea and my colleague celebrated the early end of our work day with a cold beer as alcohol is available for purchase. I couldn’t help wishing that we’d had time for a hot chocolate as that seemed to be the more appropriate beverage that day.

The service was somewhat disorganized but the staff were so sweet and cheerful that I feel bad being overly critical. They initially forgot our order of soup and seemed under-prepared even for the small crowd of customers that day being as they were all out of salads and many of the sandwiches by the time we arrived at 2pm on a Wednesday. I imagine that on a warmer day or during peak season at the Smithsonian this place does brisk business. It’s one of the few desirable places outside of the museums open for lunch and is certainly a better option than the many kiosks around offering fast food snacks and soft drinks.

Pavilion Cafe
Natonal Gallery Sculpture Garden
Washington, District of Columbia
(202) 289-3360

Filomena Ristorante

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by sararevell on April 6, 2008

If you’re looking for a restaurant to get you in the mood for Christmas then I’d challenge anyone to find a place more fitting than the Filomena Ristorante in Georgetown. After circling the block a few times, a colleague and myself decided that if this place had won the award for the best Italian restaurant in DC every year since 2005 then we should be guaranteed a great meal.

We walked past the quaint window display where two elderly women lovingly prepared fresh ravioli and down the stairs into a grotto of Christmas and all things Italian. On a Tuesday evening this place was packed out and without a reservation I began to wonder if we would be able to score a table even just for two of us. We were in luck though, and within five minutes we were seated next to what has to be one of the most impressive Christmas trees I’ve seen in a long time. The tree was so large that the real top had been cut down to fit within the room and was decked from top to toe in decorations that sparkled and in some cases, moved.

Flaunted as one of the top restaurants in DC for over 20 years, Filomena also boasts an impressive list of guests ranging from past presidents to a long list of Hollywood stars that are listed out on their menu. They also mention which dishes have been ordered by the likes of Bono and Bill Clinton and who ordered seconds.

Once we’d come to terms with our surroundings, our lovely waiter took our drinks order and answered questions. The menu is extensive and we wanted to ask which of their dishes used pasta made on the premises although we then both proceeded to order dishes that sadly did not contain their homemade pasta!

We started off with their Crisp Frisee Salad Greens tossed with a Strawberry Vinaigrette, and topped with honey glazed Walnuts and Goat Cheese. This salad could have easily passed as an entrée it was that large. Knowing that the main course would also be filling both my colleague and myself tried to stop short on the salad but the fresh strawberries in the vinaigrette made it almost impossible to do so.

I ordered the Conchiglioni, which was a deep dish of pasta shells with a rich filling of eggplant and three cheeses baked in a creamy tomato sauce. The flavours and cream were so intense that I only made it through four of the six giant shells before I had to admit defeat. On a chilly December evening though this dish is definite comfort food for the tummy and soul.

To finish with up, the waiters bring two tall decanters of Sambuca and Amaretto to the table. We were instructed to drink the Sambuca with three coffee beans with which to make three toasts: to health, wealth and love.

Filomena Ristorante of Georgetown
1063 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Washington, District of Columbia, 20007
(202) 337-2782

© LP 2000-2009