Start your journey of rediscovery at the newly renovated National Portrait Gallery, a lesser-known Smithsonian museum that's one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the U.S. It reopened last July after a $283 million face-lift and still offers vast rooms full of all those icons you recognize from the history books: George Washington (and every other U.S. President), Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks, and many more.
One of the most interesting post-renovation touches is that visitors can view ongoing conservation work through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Unlike D.C.'s other downtown museums, it's open late—until 7 p.m. every day—making it a good place to unwind after a meeting.
If you have time for a side trip after viewing President Washington's portrait, cross the Potomac, go 15 miles south, and visit his house. Mount Vernon has been spiffed up and has a new visitor center and museum. Also, George's newly reconstructed whiskey distillery is now functioning.
Another museum makeover is worth noting, though you'll have to put it on your calendar for October, when it reopens after moving from Arlington, Va. The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue will be a high-tech, interactive monument to free speech.
In a city once mocked for its mediocre dining, top-notch chefs are bringing culinary artistry to a wide assortment of new restaurants. In the heart of the Penn Quarter arts district, between the Capitol and the White House, restaurateur José Andrés has Café Atlántico (202 393-0812), featuring Nuevo Latino dishes created by chef Katsuya Fukushima. Try the melt-in-your-mouth tuna ceviche and the scallops in coconut sauce with crispy rice. Dinner will cost about $50 plus wine.
Eight blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Newseum site is the Willard Hotel's new Café du Parc (202 942-7000), offering a taste of Paris on the Potomac. The creation of renowned Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann, its French-accented menu includes scrumptious paté en croute, a pot-au-feu terrine, and a variety of desserts, including mille feuille (puff pastry with vanilla custard). In warm weather this moderately priced bistro has outdoor tables overlooking a park honoring World War I hero General John "Black Jack" Pershing. The National Park Service and the Willard hope to recreate the bohemian atmosphere of Paris' Montmartre district with park fêtes featuring painters and musicians.
Another dining tip among many choices: the weekend brunch—or any meal—at Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt Hotel at 24th & M Sts. NW (202 419-6755). Don't miss the "angry trout," so named because its tail is stuffed in its mouth, or the best bratwurst this side of Milwaukee. Then order a drink and toast progress in the nation's capital.
By Richard S. Dunham