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Postcard From D.C.

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Just because the Bush administration equates entertaining with sticking needles in their eyes doesn't mean Washington isn't entertaining itself. The old Kir and canapés crowd (as well as Clinton-era barbecue joints) has been replaced by an edgier scene: upscale bars, gleaming restaurants, and boutique hotels. All of a sudden, the nation's capital feels like Paris in the '40s. Maybe we are at war, but the influx of new money and four-star chefs (not to mention leggy lobbyists, juiced-up journalists, and campaign consiglieri) has the Potomac partying again. If you're lucky enough to be furloughed for work or play, forget the stuffy standbys and take note of the newbies.

If I had one night in Washington, I'd spend it at the Hotel Monaco (rates, $130-$1,100; 700 F St. N.W.; 800-649-1202), now occupying the elephantine old Tariff Building in the revived Penn quarter. It's been renovated by San Francisco-based Kimpton hotels and is now a marble monument to élan. The rooms are spacious, the robes leopard, and the bed throws cashmere. Chef Jay Comfort presides over the hotel's restaurant, Poste, where the crowd is equally sleek and sophisticated.

Just as swinging is the scene at Hotel Rouge (rates, $110-$280; 1315 16th St. N.W.; 800-738-1202), where rooms are done in saturated reds and purples with tufted headboards and '60s plastic chairs. The pillow-strewn banquettes at Bar Rouge have quickly become the venue of choice for local artists who sip Blonde in Red Velvets (a martini) while watching campy B-movies on the flat-screen TV. For a calmer experience, Topaz Hotel (rates, $130-$310; 1733 N St. N.W.; 800-424-2950) has Asian-inspired decor, a more intimate feel, and a friendly vibe that extends all the way to guests' dogs (they're welcomed with special bowser biscuits). For those without pooch in tow, there's always the newly renovated Madison Hotel (rates, $290-$1,800; 15th and M Sts. N.W.; 202-862-1600). This former JFK haunt has a new restaurant, Palette, where the menu is daring (barbecued wild boar, Brazilian cockles, black olive ice cream), the wine list sensational, and the bar a great place to sample the D.C. scene.

The best way to sample the cuisine? A culinary crawl, starting with a lemon martini and roast lamb and eggplant meze at Zaytinya (701 Ninth St. N.W.; 202-638-0800), one of the best new spots in town. The great Greek and Middle Eastern dishes have made it one of the hottest rooms—sometimes boisterous, but never dull. Then it's on to my favorite new hangout: Firefly (1310 New Hampshire Ave. N.W.; 202-861-1310) in the Hotel Madera. I love the creamy risotto with roasted shallot purée, as well as the bar and the lounge, where you can sip away while perched on an elbow shaped couch. The list of favorites also must include Charlie Palmer Steak (101 Constitution Ave. N.W.; 202-547-8100), where you're likely to spot Tom Daschle and friends (and enemies) dipping filet mignon into little plates of sauces. Choose a wine from the new eWinebook, a handheld computer with every bit of information except who stomped the grapes.

Of course, I can't pass up the newcomer Ceiba (701 14th St. N.W.; 202-393-3983). The brainchild of Jeff Tunks, of DC Coast and TenPenh fame, this Latin American spot boasts a jazzy menu and serious cocktails (most requested: mojitos, mango margaritas, and the classic Brazilian caipirinha). The ceviche is the star here, backed up by the rock shrimp and crab nachos and the grilled octopus. But don't overlook the bean soup; it's much kickier than the old-geezer version in the Senate Dining Room.

What's not new, but feels new after a recent face-lift is Perry's (1811 Columbia Rd. N.W.; 202-234-6218). With such delectable sushi, perfect organic greens, and soft gingerbread with white chocolate mousse, it's no wonder the Kennedy kids and the Bush twins pay visits when they're in town. Come spring and summer, it's simply the best rooftop dining in the city.

After dinner, I head to Madam's Organ (2461 18th St. N.W.; 202-667-5370) for great local music that keeps the beautiful crowd tapping its toes into the night. Or if velvet ropes are your style, there's Home (911 F St. N.W.; 202-638-4663), where the young power-set hangs in The Attic, a members-only room with a $1,000 yearly fee. No matter the nightspot, all roads lead to The Diner $ (2453 18th St. N.W.; 202-232-8800) for wee-hour bacon and eggs and a divine hot turkey sandwich. It's the kind of place that's open all night and where you can wear your pajamas to Sunday brunch.

When I've had as much excitement as I can take, I repair to Georgetown, to shop on Wisconsin Avenue and relax at the new 86-room Ritz-Carlton (rates, $475-$5,000; 3100 South St. N.W.; 202-912-4100). Tucked away on a historic side street (you'll see the 130-foot smokestack, left over from a demolished incinerator), the heavenly suites are done in subtle reds and oranges, and all have fireplaces. In Degrees, the bar, have a tin of caviar with an apple martini—and, yes, that is a Middle Eastern royal at the next table. Come morning, the spa will wash away all your sins.

Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.

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