An Intercontinental Weekend at DC’s District Wharf
We almost got funny looks when, upon checking in at the Intercontinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf, we asked for a room looking out at the building across the way, rather than towards the beautiful stretch of the Potomac River sitting just to the right of the hotel. We’ve seen plenty of rivers, though – and we actually quite liked the architecture that has been going up on the Wharf these last few years, so unashamedly chose that as our preferred view for our stay.
Coming from New York, we watched for years as terrible development projects have blighted the cityscape there, sometimes feeling as if they were literally scoffing at the rest of the city’s supposed value system. But DC’s District Wharf actually feels genuinely organic, and very much human in its scale. Indeed, as we pulled up to the hotel, we immediately thought how it all reminded us of similar developments in Europe: Antwerp’s docklands, Hamburg’s Hafencity…
Fittingly, the Intercontinental brings with it a distinct sense of internationalism, with its spiraling chandeliers, retro-chic leather armchairs and grand staircase giving the gorgeous lobby something of the feel of a cool 1960’s Euro airport lounge. Upstairs, there are plenty of rooms with those coveted waterfront views, should that be your preference, including plush suites with names like Anchor, featuring its own billiards table, and Compass, with a luxe living room area looking out over the marina. But we immediately loved our decidedly sophisticated King Room, which from its floor-to-ceiling windows took in the handsome red brick residential building across the way. The generous space was characterized by an elegantly muted color scheme, warm woods, a smart, greyish brown leather headboard and, our favorite, a uniquely stylish, outsized floor lamp. Abstract artworks and historical B&W photos gave it all an air of understated artfulness.
Our goal was to spend a weekend literally without leaving the Wharf, plotting a stay which didn’t require any running around the city. We were actually very much looking forward to 48 hours of the sort of relaxed, unhurried discovery that just seemed better suited to these anxiety-plagued days.
After a surveying stroll, our first stop was lunch at the admittedly rather unimaginatively named Bistro Du Jour, where we decided that an order of fries with garlic aioli and a well-prepared bloody mary was a perfectly reasonable option. The fries had that crispy-outside-soft-inside perfectness that we would actually fly all the way to Belgium for. And at our waterside table, we were quickly surrounded by an aggressive troupe of intrepid little wrens, who took to our food scraps with a Darwinian sort of ruthlessness, belying their otherwise unassailable cuteness.
Something that was immediately obvious was the District Wharf’s refreshing lack of chain stores (other than CVS and Shake Shack). Rather, we quickly came across a little shop called Diament, whose ideology was on full display via a sign out front reading “Shop Small, Screw Amazon.” It was a policy we could definitely get down with, as was also the case with a suggestion forwarded by one of their many t-shirts for sale inside, which read simply, “Don’t Be A Dick.” (It’s a slogan that would definitely come in handy these days.) We spent some time perusing an entire corner of the shop dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and excitedly came away a couple of boxes of holiday cards bearing her image – we even considered sending one to Brett Kavanaugh.
Nearby, at Politics & Prose, we found ourselves flipping through the pages of a few also quite ideological books, including The Power of Women, and Speaking of Race. We almost picked up a copy of Baudelaire’s nihilistic The Flowers of Evil as a Christmas present, but then quickly realized the person we were buying for probably already owned it.
The Wharf has also done a terrific job of assembling a dining scene that goes beyond being merely a collection of restaurants, instead cultivating that same sort of internationalism on a plate. And easily the best of them all was the Intercontinental’s Moon Rabbit, whose name draws on the Asian folkloric tale of – you guessed it – a rabbit who lives on the moon. But here on Earth, Chef Kevin Tien’s menu resides very much in the present. After all, we never imagined eating chicken liver mousse in a Vietnamese restaurant – but the Banh Mi Pate turned out to be a deliciously spicy version of one of our favorite foods, the perfect complement the more subtly flavorful Salmon Crudo w/ green apple nouc cham and compressed celery. Our cocktail of choice, the Cafe du Boulevardier, was an exhilarating mix of Filibuster Bourbon, Campari, Barolo Chianto, chicory coffee and creme de cacao.
The very well-curated soundtrack that night included the Cocteau Twins’ cover of ‘Winter Wonderland’ – which was ironic, since outside it was actually 60 degrees Fahrenheit in December (er, thank you, climate change).
Nearby, New York’s Lebanese hotspot Ilili had just opened in a breathtakingly designed space, with near-ceiling-height trees, surrealist winged bulbs, flower patterned tiled floors, orange & grey bar seating and, well, giant bird cages of some sort – though the birds themselves seemed to be missing. We ordered up some bubbly – a lively Gruner Veltliner Sekt – pairing it with something from each side of the hot and cold Mezze menu. As it turns out the Lebanese have a way with steak tartare, as the Kibbeh Naye Beirutiyyeh was livened up with onion, mint and jalapeno; it was perfectly balanced with an order of Arnabeet Mekle, fried cauliflower in a perfectly textured tahini sauce.
The next morning we were able to view a particularly majestic sunrise over the river and marina from a corner of our room’s windows. We decided that after such a year of rises and frightening falls, we would make it something symbolic – this particular rising of the sun would be what propels us optimistically into 2022.
But the sunshine also lured us downstairs for a bit more shop browsing, though the first sign we came across was that of the American Psychiatric Association. We admittedly tried to find some more significant meaning in the APA’s DC headquarters being located in such a place that is mostly about conjuring pleasure – but we decided not to overthink it, and carried on to what would be one of our most memorable stops on the trip, the succinctly titled Shop Made in DC.
Now, one of the serious fallouts from the COVID shutdowns was the devastating effect it all had on small, independent shops, whilst major online retailers saw their sales – and their stockholders’ wealth – soar. But here was everything you could ever hope to take home from a visit to another city, and all locally made. First, there were the evocatively scented Witchie Wicks candles, of which we could most definitely recommend the Ginger Saffron and Himalayan Bamboo; then the “social impact jewelry” of Sarah Bayot’s Kicheko Goods, which is inspired by nature & travel, and whose proceeds go to fund such values-based schools as Mango Tree. There were also selections from Rake Coffee and Pearl Fine Tea, plus “We Are All Fauci” tote bags, and an “Orgasm Candle” by We Love Dija. The ideological impact is doubled by these being mostly women-owned businesses.
Lunch at the exotically styled Kaliwa fairly well epitomized the globally oriented dining scene, with its creative Korean/Filipino/Thai offerings – and each section of the menu representing all three cultures. The pork belly w/ housemade banana ketchup made for a flavor-forward starter before we dug into a senses-firing vegan green curry w/ coconut milk.
But there were a couple of genuine scenes, too. Michelin starred Italian chef Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar is a glamorous Mediterranean-leaning hotspot with opulent interiors meant to invoke a Spanish villa – and it’s buzzing from happy hour on (there seemed to be a lot of cocktail smoking going on at the bar). And just a short walk away on District Square, the stunningly designed La Vie felt more like a nightclub plus restaurant, with the requisite clipboard wielding gatekeepers at the downstairs entrance, and a perpetually packed (with trend-chasers) lounge area. Book a table for dinner in the industrial-chic front room, and it comes with glorious views of the marina down below.
And though there was nothing really happening when we were there, the Wharf even has its own music venues in the Union Stage and The Anthem, the latter whose 2022 lineup includes the considerable likes of Erasure, Die Antwoord, Mitski, Jack White, Lorde, and Kraftwerk 3-D (on April 8 you can even catch the National Symphony Orchestra performing Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.)
Surely our visit was much more about epicurean indulgences; but one can even come to the Wharf for a bit of revitalization, as the Intercontinental boasts the luxurious, world class Wharf Spa by L’Occitane. With such ethereally named treatments as the Immortelle Secret of Youth Facial, the Revitalizing Aromachologie Massage and the Re-Energizing Sun Stone, it most definitely has us considering a return visit.
So yes, the District Wharf is indeed what good development looks like, in an age where so much of it seems designed merely to line developers’ pockets. And with the Omicron variant still making international travel a tricky proposition, we genuinely can’t think of a better place to spend a winter 2022 weekend.