I am so awkward at frat parties. I occasionally go to them with friends who, unlike me, are in greek life, but I always feel hopelessly out of place. Truth be told, I feel more at home having a buffet breakfast at the Brookings Institution, which I sometimes do on free mornings before hearing a talk at the think tank. Think about that. What could possibly be better than savoring a cheese Danish while watching Washington’s wonkiest discussing health care policy or counterterrorism strategies? The best part is, the whole morning is free.
Breakfasts at Brookings are part of what I love about Washington, a city that offers much more than monuments and museums. D.C. abounds with interesting and unusual places to visit, eat and shop, which can be an alternative source of amusement for students who generally avoid the party scene. Some are famous. Others are more unknown. I encourage new students to visit all of them.
My first stop would be Ben’s Chili Bowl. Even before President Barack Obama ate at the U Street restaurant this past January, it was famous for fantastic food and rich history. Founded in 1958, Ben’s is a D.C. landmark frequented by locals and tourists alike. Bill Cosby adores the place and other celebrities know about it, too. In the recent movie “State of Play,” Russell Crowe’s character, a Washington reporter, stops in for a bite. As far as what to order, I always ask for “what the president had,” which is the restaurant’s trademark half-smoke. Get it with fries and a shake. You will wonder where food like this has been all your life.
Washington offers tons of good eats. Believe it or not, many restaurants in town have reasonable prices as well. Take Zorbas, for example. The Greek restaurant off Dupont Circle serves Gyro and Falafel to die for. They offer a delicious dinner for $10 or less. Plus, the place sits across the street from Larry’s Ice Cream and down the road from Afterwords Café. At dessert time, everyone should know about these great places.
Students who like fresh produce should note that Dupont Circle also hosts a farmers market on Sundays, although the one in the Eastern Market neighborhood is better. It has a bigger and more diverse selection of goods and street venders there sell French crepes made to order. Seriously. What is more satisfying on a sunny Sunday morning than strolling through a bustling hub of local commerce with one of those?
But enough about food, let us talk about a bookstore.
Everyone living in Washington should visit Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue. Nationally revered and superbly stocked, this independent bookstore is the kind of place that plays Regina Spektor music while people sit reading and sipping espresso. These are the type of people who worship NPR and always know what is one the New York Times best-seller list. Thinking of best-sellers, I got to chat with Christopher Buckley the last time I went to Politics and Prose. He was there talking about his new memoir. While signing a copy of “Thank You For Smoking” for me, he confessed that his late father, conservative icon William F. Buckley, would have been impressed with President Obama and terrified of Sarah Palin. By the way, do you know who kept talking to me that night? A woman who revealed herself to be the sister of Ted Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter. She shops at Politics and Prose all the time. Apparently, so does Ted.
Another good bookstore is Kramerbooks in Dupont, which includes the aforementioned Afterwords café and is a common hangout for AU students. Like Politics and Prose, it has that cozy independent feel. I advise newcomers to visit Politics and Prose first, but hit Krammers when in the Dupont area.
If Washington is more than museums and monuments, it is also more than good food and good books. There are artsy, independent movie theatres like Bethesda Row Cinemas. There are local historical societies in Georgetown that offer spooky walking tours around Halloween. All the column inches in the world probably cannot do D.C. justice. No guidebook or Web site can either. The best way to discover the wonders of Washington is to get out into the city and explore.