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So you think Washington is a drag

Washington has plenty to please body and soul

Email|Print| Text size + By James Reed
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2004

WASHINGTON -- How is it that a city with a drag queen who impersonates conservative political pundit Ann Coulter gets such a bum rap for gay visitors? Bill Pietrucha's send-up is called "Annie Has Her Gun." It's a camp classic just waiting to take over the city.

Yet somehow, for gay men and women, the nation's capital is supposedly stuffy. Even the gay press has picked up on this notion. Out & About magazine's travel guide to Washington notes, "The city has a genteel, sometimes very uptight, Southern character," and gaybazaar.com says, "Beatniks, Bohemians, slackers, punks, and blue-collar boys will probably find themselves isolated in this town."

What gives? The truth is, Washington isn't so much conformist as schizophrenic at times. The city's gay scene is concentrated in three areas: Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Georgetown, and each is markedly different from the others. Dupont Circle is the vortex. Venture down any street jutting off the circle and you'll find plenty of gay-centric attractions. Connecticut Avenue has the gay bookstore Lambda Rising (1625 Connecticut Ave., 202-462-6969) and Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill (1517 Connecticut Ave., 202-387-3825), where bookworms and martini-swilling revelers collide into the wee hours on weekends. On New Hampshire Avenue, Hotel Madera, a boutique hotel, is gay-friendly. And P Street leads to 17th Street, the city's gay epicenter of shopping, restaurants, and bars.

It's here you'll find J.R.'s (1519 17th St., 202-328-0090), a casual, comfortable watering hole that attracts gay men of all ages. SoHo Tea & Coffee (2150 P St., 202-463-7646) is even more relaxing and has the advantage of staying open until 5 a.m. for all your coffee, tea, and blueberry-muffin needs. Nearby is Apex (1415 22d St., 202-296-0505), a cramped dance club with shirtless men gyrating to tepid techno. On Saturdays, Apex hosts the "Liquid Ladies" dance night for women.

Speaking of women, they're the one group you won't find much of on 17th Street. Instead, they seem to make their presence felt with their businesses, including the lesbian-owned (and therefore lesbian-popular) Cafe Berlin (322 Massachusetts Ave., 202-543-7656) and Mercury Grill (1602 17th St., 202-667-5937).

To start my search for all things sapphic, I invite my friends Laura and Rachelle to be my guides, though they seem slightly underqualified since they just got married at a Vermont inn and fully admit to being "domesticated."

Along with a gaggle of their friends, we hit Ziegfeld's and Secrets (1345 Half St., 202-554-5141). A few blocks down, Velvet Nation (1015 Half St., 202-554-1500) is the popular Saturday attraction.

For alternative dance nights (read: better music, a more diverse crowd), check out the Black Cat (1811 14th St., 202-667-7960) and ChiarOscuro on Saturday nights (at the Edge Nightclub, 56 L St., 202-488-1200).

A lazy Sunday is an ideal time to explore Adams Morgan, a northern neighborhood of Washington that feels worlds removed from Dupont Circle. A strong African community has brought clothing shops and Ethiopian restaurants (Meskerem is particularly tasty). Start with brunch at the Diner (2453 18th St., 202-232-8800), a noisy but vibrant restaurant that's always packed. A few doors down is Tryst, where the volume is lower but the hipster quotient much higher.

With so many distractions in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan, it's easy to consider the Mall an afterthought, but don't. All sorts of museums and monuments await. A woman seated beside me at Tryst especially recommended the FDR Memorial (900 Ohio Dr., 202-426-6841).

"It'll warm your little leftie heart," she said softly.

If you don't swing that way politically, however, no worries. There's always that Ann Coulter drag queen.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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