Greetings from our nation’s capitol! This year, the Yeh family is continuing its tradition of exploring the USA by paying a visit to Washington, D.C. While the food and natural wonders can’t compare to our last summer vacation (Puerto Rico), we’re certainly getting an incredible dose of history.
The day began at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Capitol. I chose the hotel by the simple expedient of using Google Maps to find the hotel that was closest to the National Mall. Located a 2 minute walk from the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, right by the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, the Holiday Inn Capitol fits the bill…and it has a rooftop pool which the kids have forced me to take them to every night.
I picked up breakfast for the family at the Wall Street Deli, which is run by a friendly Asian family (the proprietor, spotting my face, was very excited, and also urged me to visit the other deli by Capitol Hill that her husband runs). I ordered both the Grand Central Biscuit (a biscuit sandwich with 5-6 strips of bacon and two scoops of scrambled eggs) and the Sausage Gravy Biscuit (a biscuit halved and smothered with sausage gravy). The portions were huge, and despite their simplicity, the family loved the meal. I loved the fact that the total bill was under $10.
Since DC is in the middle of a historic heat wave, we took a cab to the Everett Dirksen Senate Office Building. (The ride over prompted a classic Marissa-ism. I was describing the President of the United States as, “the most powerful man in the world,” when Marissa asked, “Oh yeah? What about Genghis Khan?” This prompted the cab driver to burst into laughter and comment, “She really knows her history.”) As I was planning our trip, I reached out to my old friend and HBS classmate Heidi Nelson Cruz, whose husband, Ted Cruz, is the junior Senator from Texas. Ted’s office showed us some good old-fashioned Texas-style hospitality (special thanks to Amy Herod, who organized the visit and sent on the pictures below, and Brittany, who entertained the kids when we first arrived, and got us our gallery passes). Not only did they get us Senate Gallery passes and loan us one of their interns, the estimable Thomas “Zach” Hornton of Princeton, Ted even made time to take photos with me and the family. Then in true Yeh Family style, Jason asked to take a photo with bunny ears, which Ted took up with the gusto of a born politician:
Even more typically, Marissa then asked for another photo with just herself and the Senator, using her own camera. Once again, Ted graciously agreed. I have a hunch this will not be the last time in her life that she brings a powerful man to his knees:
As a special treat, right when we finished with our photos, who should arrive but two astronauts in full uniform. I immediately recognized the world-famous Chris Hadfield, who had won the Internet with his various videos from the space station (including singing “Space Oddity,” chatting with William Shatner, and showing what happens when you try to squeeze out a wet towel in zero-G). He was accompanied by his 1st Flight Engineer, Thomas Marshburn. After chatting with the intrepid space explorers, Marissa insisted on taking a picture of me with the astronauts, which I’ll post after we return home and I can transfer the photos. To top it off, the NASA representative escorting the astronauts then gave Jason and Marissa official Expedition 35 mission patches and pins.
(Strange yet cool stuff seems to happen every time we visit DC; the last time we came was when I was still at HBS. It also took place during a massive heat wave, and the New York Times ended up using a photograph of us to show tourists admiring the Capitol’s rotunda.)
After our outer-space encounter, Zach took us to the Capitol on the secret underground subway–something my friend Spencer Connaughton recommended we ride, and boy was he right. Zach gave us an awesome tour of the Capitol, complete with professional-grade explanations of what we were seeing and fun bits of trivia about the different rooms. It must be an incredible experience to spend a summer interning in DC. Zach is majoring in Political Philosophy and Spanish at Princeton, so if you find yourself reading about Ambassador Horton’s work in Latin America, you read it here first.
After our visit to the Capitol, we strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks to eat lunch at the Tune Inn, which we knew from its appearance on one of our favorite TV shows, “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” We love that show. It’s such a good formula that it transcends its insufferable host, Guy Fieri.
For lunch, Alisha and I shared a beer-battered burger (the house specialty), while Marissa had the chocolate chip pancakes, and Jason had the chicken fingers. I was worried about the chicken fingers at first–the menu said the dish only included three fingers–but they ended up being Jerry Rice-sized fingers; Jason didn’t even finish them all, which is saying something considering his growing 11-year-old boy’s appetite. The food was good, but it ended up being only the second-best burger of the day (more on that later).
After lunch, we caught another cab to go crosstown to the White House. Sadly, the sequester has closed down the White House tours, and the actual White House visitor’s center is also closed for renovations. I did get an excellent map from the temporary visitor’s center, which displaced the previous maps I had been using (free maps obtained from the hotel and some random homeless guy respectively).
From there, we walked a couple of blocks to the Federal Triangle to visit the Old Post Office Tower. We learned that the Federal Triangle was actually a massive urban renewal project to clean up the part of Washington that had acquired the charming sobriquet of “Murder Bay.” We rode all the way up to the 12th floor of the tower, and took in a 360 view of DC. With the Washington Monument undergoing seismic reconstruction, the Post Office Tower offers the best view of the city. We also listened to two talks by the ever-friendly National Park Rangers who provide the tours of the tower. We also stopped off at the souvenir shops in the courtyard of the building. From afar, I noted a “going out of business” sign and joked that it ought to say something like “going out of business since 1968,” but it turns out to be legit. The GSA is running the Old Post Office building at a loss, and recently turned to private developers to take over. The winning bid came from none other than…Donald Trump. The shop proprietors had an unflattering picture of the Donald on display. I just hope that, given access to such a historic building, that he resists the temptation to gold-plate it and rename it the Trump Old Post Office Tower.
After leaving the Old Post Office Tower, and making a brief stopover in Barnes and Noble to soak up the air conditioning, drink some Starbucks, and shop for books, we proceeded to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museums were amazing. We saw a number of special exhibits, including Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge (incredible set of portraits, mostly in graphite/charcoal, by contemporary artists), Mr. TIME: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin (cover paintings by the legendary artist, who painted them in as little as 24 hours to meet the magazine deadlines), the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (collection of portraits from a national competition–some absolutely amazing work here, including a 100-pound sculpture made out of rice), and Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection (including, yes, a better mousetrap). We also saw a number of the permanent exhibitions, including The Struggle for Justice (incredible photographs and art documenting the struggle for Civil Rights from early America to today), America’s Presidents (official portraits and other art about all our past presidents; I was particularly taken with some plaster life casts of Abraham Lincoln’s hands–his fists were double the size of mine!), and Jo Davidson: Biographer in Bronze (busts by the famous sculptor, who created busts of many famous people from the early to mid 20th century, including Albert Einstein).
We spent a couple of hours there, and amazingly, saw less than half the exhibitions. Yikes!
We finished the day with dinner at Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s fast food empire. I’ve wanted to try Shake Shack ever since they came out on top in a three-way burger-off in A Hamburger Today, where they defeated Five Guys and even my beloved In-N-Out. Being an In-N-Out partisan, I had to try Shake Shack for myself to challenge the AHT judgement.
Jason had a Shakeburger, Alisha had a Shakeburger, hold the lettuce, and I had a Shakeburger with pickle and onion. Marissa, not being a meat fan (at In-N-Out, she gets the grilled cheese–a bun with cheese and ketchup, but no patty) had the cheese fries.
After tasting the Shakeburger, both Alisha and I agree–it does taste even better than In-N-Out (though In-N-Out is still awesome). The beef, a custom blend that includes brisket and short rib, tastes incredible, and the butter-toasted bun provides a rich, potato-y contrast. I bow to the judgment of the writers at A Hamburger Today.
In defense of In-N-Out, the two are very different; a Shakeburger costs more than double its equivalent at In-N-Out. On a price/performance basis, In-N-Out is still tough to beat. Still, at a mere $4.75, a Shackburger is the cheapest gourmet burger I’ve ever had, and I’d put it up there with all the fancy restaurant burgers I’ve experienced. Alisha also gave Shake Shack the nod over Umami Burger’s truffle burgers.
The one place where Shake Shack isn’t affordable are the $5 shakes. Here, In-N-Out clearly wins the battle, though Shake Shack offers more flavor options.
Full of burgers, we headed home from our first day in DC, full in mind and body, and ready for the day to come.