- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Paris has its Tour d’Argent, that venerable restaurant across the Seine from Notre Dame, and the restaurant Jules Verne on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. Rome has the Hotel Eden and a roof-garden restaurant with a stately, proportioned view of the Eternal City. New York, which once had Windows on the World on the 109th floor of the World Trade Center, now makes do with the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, art deco in style and still a glorious perch.

And Washington? The capital may be a low-rise city, but from those comparatively stunted heights it has a surprising number of stunning views, many of them capped by restaurants. The good news is that in and around central Washington are sites with arguably stupendous views of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Prices range from stratospheric to McDining, with plenty of possibilities — and views — between. Moreover, the ambitious vista-starved groupie can explore many over a single weekend, maybe just by dropping in to have an inexpensive drink — or by sticking a nose against a window before leaving at no charge.

These are dining and drink rooms and rooftops with a view perfect for satisfying out-of-town guests. Be sure to phone ahead and check out Web sites to get a sense of pricing, and access to Metro and parking. It will come in handy for sharing when visitors arrive or when your lust for vista and victuals collide.

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“It took my breath away the first time I walked in the door,” says Thomas Byrne, managing partner of a family of six brothers and sisters who owns and runs Top of the Town in Arlington, a rooftop rental space for catered events sitting on a hill about 22 stories above the Potomac River just southeast of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

The Bethesda native and his wife had moved into the high-rise Rosslyn condominium after graduating from the University of Virginia’s law school . Running along the horizon as seen from their 12-foot-tall living room window was the ribbon of the Potomac underlining the nation’s capital, while framed broadly with a sweeping skyscape for as far as the eye could see.

The panorama includes most of monumental Washington, with its near-Roman order of perfect white marble and stone of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, the turtle shell-shaped top of the Jefferson Memorial, and angular cubes of the Kennedy Center. The Capitol building sits ruffled like a white hen on Capitol Hill, with Smithsonian museums arrayed like toys on each side of the sweeping green Mall below it. At night, the lights from FedEx Field glow on the hills of Prince George’s County.

“When the old Top of the Town restaurant folded in 1991,” Mr. Byrne says, “we knew this was a chance of a lifetime, so we bought it.”

The former restaurant had sputtered for years, selling the sizzling view but offering little else for patrons interested in fine dining. Rather than get into the restaurant business, however, the Byrne clan decided to redecorate — the space occupies the entire top floor of the otherwise undistinguished suburban rectangle — and simply rent the facility as a space for weddings, special occasions, and fine dining that clients bring in with their own caterers.

Royalty, political leaders, business types and a thousand brides have succumbed to the unutterable glory out the windows. One sees postcards of similar viewson racks for tourists in the city; usually of a pale yellow moon rising to the right of the Capitol building in spring, with everything lushly green, and the sky and river deep blue.

“Depending on the time of day, the season of the year,” says Mr. Byrne, the windows offer something different. “I can sit for hours watching. Even the weather ‘paints’ a different picture that is something fascinating and just, well, almost impossible to describe.”

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The second most beautiful view in Washington is found atop the historic Hay-Adams Hotel on the most prestigious block in Washington, at the north side of Lafayette Square across from the White House. John Hay and Henry Adams were both leaders of Washington’s literary and intellectual circles in the late 19th century. Hay was a secretary to President Lincoln and secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. His negotiating paved the way for the Panama Canal, and permanently established the Alaskan border with Canada. Henry Adams was a grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and after he built a home beside Hay’s mansion, he took up writing histories. He commissioned Augustus St. Gaudens to design his wife’s burial site in Rock Creek Cemetery — its shrouded bronze figure is considered to be one of the most impressive sculptures in the country.

Their twin mansions were razed in 1927 by famed Washington developer Henry Wardman, who transformed the site into an Italian renaissance-style dazzler. Every big wheel and his uncle has stopped by since: foreign dignitaries, presidents and potentates, as well as the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, the Barrymore family, Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis, and many others.

“It’s really amazing, a kind of magic,” says Jack K. Nargil, a George Washington University graduate who, since 1999, has been concierge at the hotel. “I usually walk guests to their suites facing the White House, and we go through this little thing of showing them the amenities, and I go over to the drapes and pull them open.

“It almost always makes them stop,” Mr. Nargil says. “Sometimes they can’t believe that’s the White House over there across the park. ‘That can’t be, it looks so small. It’s gotta be a copy,’ they sometimes say, not believing that you can go into a hotel and have this fantastic ‘picture’ of I guess America’s number one address.”

Not everyone can afford the spectacular view. Rooms overlooking the White House typically start at $1,200 a night. But with that comes the privilege of taking an escorted ride on the elevator for a rooftop look across Lafayette Square to the White House.

“A lot of times, gentlemen will arrange the rooftop visit in advance,” he says. “We’ll lay out champagne and roses up there, and believe it or not, we stand back and give them privacy, and see the gentleman surprise the girl with that beautiful view, and then the champagne and roses. They’re asking them to be their wife, you know.”

At the same time, security is of paramount importance at the hotel. The rooftop is rented for private functions for top-dollar prices scheduled well in advance, and with close monitoring by White House security. There is no opportunity for a casual rooftop visit, but plenty to offer for pricey wedding planners and corporate affairs with big budgets. The first-floor restaurant, by contrast, is accessible to walk-ins seeking fine dining.

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Less expensive thrills are only a few blocks away at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with its white-tablecloth Roof Terrace Restaurant and Bar and bargain-basement KC Cafe, both sitting on the roof of the culture palace riding the Potomac just south of Georgetown.

The restaurant view is probably the best of Georgetown’s quaint waterfront and its rising streets of peaked housetops, church spires, and growing cadre of low-rise condominiums and offices. Just before sunset the river and cityscape glow pink and orange and yellow, and light spangles the water with a witching beauty surpassing most capital cities.

For no price at all one can pop into the cafeteria for a lovely view of the Virginia side of the river, over to the left to the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. For the price of a drink at the Roof Terrace Bar comes the fantastic view of Georgetown and the river — in summer a busy center of crewing and kayaking and tour boating, and year-round abuzz with jets incoming overhead to land at Reagan Washington National Airport downriver.

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The Capitol View Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill is the only restaurant offering a decent view of the Capitol building. There’s a special elevator to whisk you up to the rooftop setting, where wall-to-wall windows display the cast iron beauty seen as a ruffled white hen from Top of the Town.

The dining is fine — the place crawls with Hollywood techies, actors and support cast when filming takes place for the newly-emerging “Washington” television shows, as well as senators and congresspersons — but even the budget-conscious can get a thrill for the price of a beer at the small bar within. Just face leftward for the glory of it all.

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There’s a flying saucer on top of the DoubleTree Hotel in Arlington just across Shirley Highway from the Pentagon near the 14th Street Bridge. By day, with a good eye, one can look down the barrel of the Mall all the way from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and up past the Washington Monument to the back portico of the White House.

There’s no security threat, because you’re too far away. But the sight is dazzling in the pink glow of morning at the Windows Over Washington restaurant below, or at night sitting one story up in the circular bar.

The bar does, in fact, move clockwise about a foot a minute, a slow-seeming pace that fools more than a few guests who slip off to freshen up in the restroom only to discover that they cannot find their table when they return.

Below, the lights of traffic buzzing around the circle of the Pentagon, or slipping across the river from Washington, take on a magic of their own, coupled with the lacey blur of jets making downriver toward the airport, and night boats flecking the water.

It’s all red and white and moving light, champagne bubbles and dots — and it only adds to the luster of being on top of the world in Washington.

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