Travel & Dining

I love my city, the Nation’s Capital, and I love sharing my insider’s knowledge with readers. I feel very proud of being from the MidAtlantic region. With so much diversity, you could never run out of wonders to explore. Check out our miles of lush farmland, award winning vineyards, magical inlets along the Chesapeake Bay, the colorful mountain range that makes up the Blue Ridge, the mighty Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and of course all our charming small towns. Really, we have everything a traveler could want. As a result of all this diversity, we have excellent food. With easy access to local produce, seafood and dairy farms, our restaurants serve the freshest ingredients. We also have more ethnic restaurants than just about anywhere (we tie with New York, really!). You can sample Ethiopian, Peruvian, Salvadoran, Burmese, Indonesian, European, Czech, Saudi Arabian, Yemeni and Afghan to name a few. So, put the MidAtlantic on your must visit list.

How to Dine Like a President in Washington DC

Published on November 09, 2012 on
By Renee Sklarew
obama-bens-chili-bowl.jpgAnd just like that, we have our next President (well, we already had him, but you know what we mean). So, thinking of a trip to Washington DC for the Inauguration? To help you make a reservation at a President-approved restaurant, go behind the scenes with these DC area owners and chefs.Swarms of secret service agents, food tasters, and now, mass tweeting, precede the first bite taken by a US President when dining away from the White House.

Before social media, with little fanfare, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy regularly dined at Positano’s in Bethesda, Maryland. George H. W. Bush relished Chinese food and frequently took dignitaries toPeking Gourmet Inn in Northern Virginia. President Bush and wife Laura favored Tex-Mex cuisine, dining at Cactus Cantina in Cleveland Park. Contrary to his reputation as a fast-food lover, Bill Clinton had eclectic taste; he and Hillary were regulars at Bombay Club, an upscale Indian restaurant near the White House.Local restaurateurs protect Presidential privacy by not sharing specifics on the dishes they order, but they do rave about “a spike in business” after a Presidential visit.Ashok Bajaj, owner of DC-based Bombay Club, recalls the first time President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton came in: “President Clinton spent thirty minutes shaking hands before he sat down to eat. They said they liked chicken, so we brought out five different kinds. It felt like a movie. There were 30 to 40 secret service agents posted in the kitchen, the dining room, and outside.” The Clintons returned ten times. Customers still ask Bajaj where they sat and what they ordered.

Previous Presidents have stepped out on the town, but none have embraced the Capital’s food culture as enthusiastically as the Obamas’. Some of their recent picks have included Oyamel (pictured),Rasika, Black Salt, Blue Duck Tavern, Shake Shack, and We, The Pizza.Ellen Gray and her husband Todd Gray own Equinox, a restaurant just steps from the White House. The Gray’s have fed every President since Bush I. “The Obamas’ agenda is food-centered,” says Gray, “there is no greater ad for the food industry.” The restaurateur notes higher security measures were put in place since 9/11. “The secret service watches the food preparation and tastes everything before it’s served.”President Obama has eaten in dozens of restaurants around the DC Area. Before his swearing-in ceremony in January 2009, secret service agents arrived at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. Owner Nizam Ali tells this story: “An agent walked to the counter, pointed at the election button the server was wearing and said, ‘he’s coming in.'”

The Obama Administration hosted a lottery to win dinner with the President. The three winners joined President Obama at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. Owner Saied Azali describes intense preparation and security, including a tent installed around the restaurant to block bystanders from seeing inside while the event was filmed. Later, President Obama posed for photos with patrons and staff. Azali notes that the first couple was affectionate that night—”They are young in soul,” he says. Azali recalls their interaction: “President Obama asked his wife if he was hip enough. Mrs. Obama answered, ‘You’re the hippest.'”

Some first-hand reports on Presidential dining: 

1. They pay for their food with their own money; no tax dollars cover their personal dining expenses.

2. Generally, Democrats try different cuisines, while Republicans prefer steakhouses.

3. The Presidents have all been generous tippers.

4. They select restaurants privately owned and operated.

5. Some give advanced notice, while others arrive with less than a one-hour warning.

Photo credits: President Barack Obama at Ben’s Chili Bowl, courtesy of Ben’s Chili Bowl; Bombay Club courtesy of Bombay Club; Oyamel courtesy of Oyamel; Mintwood Place courtesy of Mintwood Place

Summer Guide to Washington, DC

Posted by Renee Sklarew on on June 03, 2013
Whether you’re looking to beef up that summertime trip to DC or need a few more excuses to book your vacation in the Capital, our local DC expert has put together the ultimate summer calendar. With places to stay and eat, sports events and fests to attend, top tourist attractions and exhibits, there is truly something for everyone. Summer fun awaits in the nation’s Capital!   

graham-georgetown-hotel.jpgThe luxurious hotels in historic Georgetown – Capella Washington DC and the Graham Georgetown—capitalize on their Potomac River views with rooftops bars that cool down those hot summer nights. Two boutique hotels, Liaison Capitol Hill and Capitol Hill Hotel, boast the ideal location for scouring the sights on the National Mall, the Smithsonian museums, and around Capitol Hill. Major League Baseball fans should check into the Courtyard Washington Capitol Hill/Navy Yard or splurge for the Mandarin Oriental Washington DC. You can walk from both hotels to Nationals Park. Looking to paint the town? Book your room in DC’s most vibrant neighborhood, Penn Quarter. The Embassy Suites DC Convention Center and the Renaissance Washington Downtown were both recently refreshed and are steps from the Verizon Center, several theaters, and a plethora of bars and restaurants.



The Alexandria Food and Wine Festival in historic Alexandria, Virginia features the best of Virginia wine country and tastings from Alexandria’s top restaurants. The annual Restaurants in Bloom; The Annual RAMMY Awards is a themed gala and award ceremony for DC’s best culinary talent. The event is held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, and includes a cocktail competition, buffet style dinner, music, and dancing. Enjoy Hill Country’s Backyard Barbeque on the West Lawn of theNational Building Museum Wednesday through Sunday on late afternoons until dark with live country music, mini-golf, Shiner beers, and cocktails. Raise your glass at the National Zoo’s annual Brew at the Zoo. Sample beers from forty microbreweries and enjoy live music while hanging out with the animals. Must be 21 to attend.


dc-july4-fireworks.jpgThe 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival is not to be missed. The National Mall is transformed into a colorful gathering of culture, costumes, music, food, crafts, and storytelling. All events are free.

Celebrate Independence Day at PBS’s A Capital Fourth on the West Lawn of the US Capitol. Enjoy patriotic music, a parade, and spectacular display of fireworksagainst the backdrop of the Monuments. Or watch the fireworks from a park along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, for an unobstructed view and easier getaway (on the Virginia side of the Potomac, includes Gravelly Point, Lady Bird Park, or the Air Force Memorial to name a few).


us-marine-band.jpgThe Jazz in the Garden Series is a free concert every Friday evening in summer from 5-8:30 pm in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. This wildly popular event features a wide array of jazz artists. Refreshments are available at the Pavilion Café.

The 2013 DC Jazz Festival kicks off summer from June 5-16 with more than 125 dazzling performances from world-renowned artists. Venues include the Kennedy Center, Bohemian Caverns, and the Phillips Collection.

Every Friday at 8 pm during the summer, the “President’s Own” US Marine Band performs a free concert at the Marine Barracks Washington. Before the concert, tour the USS Barry Naval Destroyer Ship parked behind the Navy Yard on the Anacostia River.


dc-potomac-river.jpgThere’s no better way to enjoy the Monuments and DC Waterfront than from a breezy boat ride along the Potomac River. The Potomac Riverboat Company and Capitol River Cruises offer both day and evening sightseeing tours; pirate cruises, crab boats, and water taxis. The fleet from Entertainment Cruises, including The Dandy and The Odyssey, offer brunch, lunch, and dinner cruises with beautiful views of the city; a perfect way to celebrate a special occasion or to relax after a busy day of sightseeing.The National Park offers mule drawn Canal boat rides on the C&O Canal in Great Falls, Maryland. Travel back in time with your period-dressed Park Ranger describing life on the Canal in the 1870’s.

Photo credits: Graham Georgetown courtesy of Graham Georgetown; National Building Museum BBQ courtesy of Rachel Naft Photography/National Building Museum; 4th of July fireworks via Shutterstock; Real Pirates: The Untold Story of Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship courtesy of National Geographic Museum; US Marine Band via Wikimedia Commons; CitiOpen Tournament via Shutterstock; Corcoran Gallery of Art courtesy of Corcoran Gallery of Art; Potomac River via Shutterstock

St. John 2005 086
The View from the top of Bordeaux Mountain in St. John USVI

Eight Tough Miles, But Who’s Counting?

The annual race across the Caribbean island of St. John’s

Renee Sklarew Published in Running Times on June 1, 2008

“In St. John, we don’t have football fields. We have to build our athletes around the natural terrain. That’s why running is growing in popularity here,” explains high school cross country coach Jeremy Zuber, who tries to make running “a cool thing for kids to do.” Zuber, 27, is a five-time champion of the 8 Tuff Miles road race, held in the Caribbean island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The distance is actually 8.3 miles, but it is plenty tough, going from sea level, up 1,000 feet, and back down to sea level. It’s held the last Saturday of February, and this year’s race topped out at 800 participants.

Race founder Peter Alter, 49, arrived in St. John in 1996 when the island community was fighting its way back from the devastation of Hurricane Marilyn. “We wanted to draw people from St. Thomas to boost the economy. So I suggested a foot race from one end of the island to the other.” Alter assured skeptics that each year the race would get bigger and draw more people than the 21 runners in 1997. At 7 a.m. on February 23, downtown Cruz Bay, a town of dive shops, bars and ferry docks, is virtually deserted. One hour later, more than 1,000 people descend upon the area near the starting line. They have arrived by foot, taxi, jeep, ferry and boat to run, walk or watch. The morning is overcast, a relief for the runners, many of whom came from northern climates, some as far north at Minnessota, Maine, Canada and Scotland. St. John temperatures in winter hover in the mid-80s, and this day is unusually comfortable, with no burning rays blistering the shoulders of the participants.

Zuber, guest services manager at Caneel Bay resort, was raised in Iowa but got practice running hills working in Wyoming. He says he tolerates the pain from running up these hills with the help of cheering bystanders watching from their balconies and the roadsides, along with views of the natural beauty of the course. “When you come around the corner, and see where you’re going to go, you feel your spirit break free,” Zuber says, describing the view from the top of Bordeaux Mountain, the highest point in St. John, where runners move downhill on the edge of a cliff toward the finish line. At the first hill, a local pig is poised to cross the road but stops at the sight of the runners. It’s not uncommon for pigs, wild goats, donkeys, chickens and geckos to share the roads of St. John with cars and pedestrians.

“The pig was really part of the race,” photographer Bill Stelzer says. “Poor thing was trying to cross the street and had to wait for hundreds of people to go by first!” Further along the course, tropical foliage shades most of the road, but a glimpse of azure sea appears round a hairpin turn. Fans play bongo drums to tribal beats as runners descend the final mountain to the tiny village of Coral Bay. Afterwards, Miller awards scholarships to top finishers in all the youth categories. Jodie Tanino, 48, finished first in her age group. She has run nine out of 12 races in St. John and says aging has made the race more challenging. She decided to train differently this year by not ever running the actual course. “So, my treat was race day with 700-plus people instead of dreading another day of training,” she laughs.

The Unmistakable CARLYLE

untitled (42 of 1540)From Northern Virginia Magazine Romantic Getaways 2011

35 E. 76th St., New York, NY 212-744-1600; Prices range from $400-$700/night

Slip past The Carlyle doorman, and a new world awaits. The Carlyle was nicknamed “palace of secrets,” because behind these art deco walls, history remains private. You can create history here, too, in one of New York’s most celebrated hotels.

The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, epitomizes Manhattan exclusivity and privilege. For more than 70 years, this grand dame has played host to many a memorable rendezvous.  According to legend, Jack Kennedy conducted his “affairs” here, Audrey Hepburn and Princess Diana called The Carlyle home when visiting New York. John Kennedy Junior ate his last breakfast in The Carlyle. Today, guests and Upper East Side neighbors stop in The Carlyle’s Bemelman’s Bar—to hear Woody Allen jam Monday evenings with his Dixie Land Jazz Band. “Bemelman’s” is named for Ludwig Bemelman, an author renowned for his “Madeline” books, who painted whimsical murals on the dimly lit walls of the bar.

Almost every American president since Harry Truman has called The Carlyle their home-away-from-home when in New York. Top residential designers like Dorothy Draper directed the interiors of the hotel, including designing the sumptuous guest rooms with views that are unparalleled in Manhattan. Each direction offers a panoramic New York skyline—scenes greatly enhanced by floor-to-ceiling windows. Looking west, there’s an expansive view of Central Park just steps from The Carlyle’s door; to the east, boats moving along the East River; and at night, the city’s glittering lights.

You’ll ride escorted by an elevator operator—only two hotels remain in New York that employ such subtle security. Among the 56 suites, each is individually furnished with fine antiques, and some even boast grand pianos. The marble bathrooms offer Kiehl’s amenities; many have whirlpool tubs. The Carlyle’s beds are covered with the finest linens, and frequent guests are treated to a pillow, slippers and bathrobe all monogrammed with their initials.

Although couples relish the glamour and seclusion of The Carlyle Restaurant and The Gallery lounge, Concierge Jeff Thoennes recommends One if By Land/Two if By Sea—formerly Aaron Burr’s carriage house—for its romantic atmosphere. Thoennes says The Carlyle is the antithesis of hotels where people wish to see and be seen: “There’s a unique feeling when you walk in—The Carlyle is a hotel with a soul.” Full-service spa and salon, Twice-daily maid service, 24-hour in-room dining, In-house designer boutiques, Pet-friendly.

Allie's heart anniversary and boat 036VIRGINIA’s EASTERN SHORE

By Renee Sklarew for the cover story in Northern Virginia Magazine; September 2008 

The Eastern Shore of Virginia remains pastoral and unoccupied compared to the rest of the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s recognized by the United Nations as a “biosphere reserve” and has one of the last wetland habitats in the world. The largest coastal wilderness on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, this narrow finger of land separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling south on Route 13, the only major highway on the peninsula, you will pass protected environments—ChincoteagueWallops Islandthe Barrier Islands and, finally, Kiptopeke State Park—until you reach the 17.9-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel leading to Norfolk.

The Bridge-Tunnel itself is a marvel. It barely skirts over the bay, going above water and then under it. At times you’re driving alongside fishing boats or straight toward a container ship. Thousands of years ago, this peninsula was inhabited by the Algonquin tribes. Proof of the tribe’s fondness for seafood are the ancient shell middens, refuse of shellfish-harvesting, buried along the creek beds there. Native-American influence is seen in the names of the villages and the tributaries. The translation for Chesapeake is “great shellfish bay.”

Lisa Traynor, 53, of Chincoteague, said people commonly ride bikes to work. “The speed limit is 25 mph. It’s safe to pedal anywhere.” Asked about cell-phone coverage, she raved: “It’s not great, but I love that fact.” The towns, founded in the late 1600s, are sparsely populated. Ernestine Smith, 76, resident of Belle Haven laughed, “The phone book for the whole Virginia shore is half an inch thick!” The small villages are a picture book of architectural treasures. Homes are Victorian clapboard, streets have old brick sidewalks; both are flanked by lush gardens and picket fences. Between towns lie miles of flat marshes, and in parts the land is only three miles across, huddled between two colossal bodies of water.

Tourism is an important source of revenue. Most accommodations along these country roads are diminutive inns advertising themselves as “a great place to read a book.” A low-tech utopia, the natural environment draws you outside to explore its treasures: eco-tours off the coast of Wachapreague or Thomas Gardens’ rare and unusual plants in New Church. Fairfax County naturalist and historian Tony Bulmer, 40, of Nokesville, makes year-round trips to Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “Winter is an amazing time to visit. That’s when you see the snow geese, red-throated loons, all the winter birds that nest in the Arctic.”

The Shore boasts some of its own “green” citizens, who consciously maintain a small carbon footprint. Tessa Brown, 46, works for the thriving Blue Crab Bay Company in Melfa, which donates some of its profit to protect the environment. Manufacturing gourmet food and gifts, this homegrown company was originally known for clam and crab dips. Like many locals, Brown grew up here but left to pursue life in a city. Besides missing the quiet and soothing calm of the region, she was drawn back by the sunsets. “There are only a few places I’ve been where you can see the sun set over the water. I call it God’s little garden by the sea.” She returned a few years ago. “The nickname for people like me is a ‘come-back-here.’”

Inside the Blue Crab Bay gift shop, pungent spices arrest your senses while you admire the nautical decorations in every corner. Owner Pamela Barefoot, 57, collects organic materials from the beaches to create her seaweed soaps, and the cozy store’s food samples boast “the everyday taste of the Eastern Shore.” Their Crab House Crunch is an extraordinary combination of sea salt, vanilla and zesty red pepper, somewhat reminiscent of Old Bay seasoning. Barefoot recommends stopping for brunch at The Inn & Garden Cafe in Onancock (open on weekends only) for the grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and homemade bread. Their menu includes sausage-encrusted oysters and lobster ravioli with lump crab. After your meal, walk down to the Onancock Harbor before sunset to spot dazzlingly pink skies.

To see a PDF of my “Day Trips” Cover Story (90% by me) 0511.NVM.DayTrips[1]

Or a PDF of “Cycling on the Eastern Shore” TenTopTours2009 Adventure Cycling

IMG_2840TOUR DE SHORE By Renee Sklarew in Adventure Biking, 2009

“It’s a good place to ditch your cell phone,” said Larry Knudsen, 70, keeper of Snow Hill, Md.’s The River House Inn, sponsor of Inn Tours—bike excursions between lodges lining Maryland’s and Virginia’s Eastern Shores. Families take Inn Tour vacations to explore this secluded 70-mile neck of land. “When you’re riding along you see lots of farms and water, stands of timber and wildlife,” Knudsen said.

According to Bethesda cyclist Gerald Johnston, 70, “We go on back roads, and you rarely see a car.” Johnston also rides with Carolina Tailwinds, another Eastern Shore operator. “I use the trips to motivate myself to keep in shape year-round.”

The Between the Waters Bike Tour is a Wachapreague October fundraiser that benefits the Nature Conservancy by way of an eco-tourism event that gives riders the opportunity to see the region. According to Denard Spady, director of Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, “Routes are loops, winding along back roads, with scenic rest stops and views of barrier islands.” Between the Waters Bike Tour,; Inn Tours,; Carolina Tailwinds,



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