Robert Wright
| Credit: Robert Wright

You've never had as much fun in Albany, Springfield, or Tallahassee as you have in New York, Chicago, and Miami, right?Lots of capital cities hardly ever seem to cut loose, squelching a visitor's search for fun with a sense that Mom and Dad are always home. And none has sustained this stuffiness as effectively as Washington, D.C. — until now. There's a new administration and the nation's capital suddenly has a new attitude. With dozens of sophisticated hotels and restaurants, sleek nightclubs, and worldly boutiques, this former dowager has become the self-assured life of the party — without forsaking its sense of responsibility to the nation, of course. Here's what not to miss in the revitalized Washington.

Washington's hippest address, the Hotel George (15 E St. NW; 800/576-8331 or 202/347-4200, fax 202/347-4213; doubles from $350) attracts a fashionable, sometimes famous crowd — the 'N Sync boys, Alanis Morissette, Grace Jones have been spotted in the swank Bistro Bis bar — but doesn't make a fuss about it. Though artist Steve Kaufman's neon silk-screen rendition of a dollar bill gets redundant (the original in a lobby lounge, copies in every room), the stylish furnishings do not.

The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C. (1150 22nd St. NW; 800/241-3333 or 202/835-0500, fax 202/835-1588; doubles from $450) opened last October in the West End (a tony neighborhood between downtown and Georgetown) with 300 luxe rooms. Guests have access to a serene Japanese garden with waterfall, plus unlimited use of the vast Sports Club/LA gym (look for CNN talkmeister Larry King on the treadmill). A second Ritz-Carlton opens in Georgetown early next year.

You don't have to be in town on business to relish the St. Gregory Luxury Hotel & Suites (2033 M St. NW; 800/829-5034 or 202/223-0200, fax 202/223-0580; doubles from $120), which offers high-speed Internet access in every room and, for guests on the top three floors, free evening snacks and cocktails from a full bar. Another plus for biz (and leisure) travelers: solicitous staff (they actually call guests to inquire whether there are any needs left unmet).

Also on the horizon: new properties from the Kimpton Group and Mandarin Hotels, both slated to open by 2003.

Book lovers and die-hard keepsake hounds, get thee to the Library of Congress. There you can take the city's most rewarding tour (in the Jefferson Building alone, one of three structures that house the library, browse the 6,487 volumes of Thomas Jefferson's personal collection, and behold one of the world's three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible). Best of all, get your very own free, photo-emblazoned library card, which endows the holder with reading room privileges good for two years. For the card, head to the Madison Building on Independence Avenue, room LM140; you'll need a driver's license, a passport, or another government-issued photo ID. Call 202/707-8000 for tour times.

Bipartisan lovebirds James Carville and Mary Matalin are joint backers of the new restaurant West 24 (1250 24th St. NW; 202/331-1100; lunch for two $40). Come for Southern classics like oyster po'boys or pan-fried trout, and all-but-guaranteed lunchtime sightings of the bald Democratic dynamo and his White House—employed Republican wife, who rendezvous here at midday.

Hit TenPenh (1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/393-4500; dinner for two $75) for surprising martinis (the saketini combines vodka, sake, and a pickled baby octopus) and inventive Asian dishes like Vietnamese-spiced crisp quail and wasabi mashed potatoes.

There's no shortage of spineless creatures at the Oceanaire Seafood Room (1201 F St. NW; 202/347-2277; lunch for two $135), and we don't mean the feds at the chrome-edged oyster bar. This is the place for juicy crab cakes, outsized lobsters, and a list of cocktails from your grandfather's day — "Bartender, a Harvey Wallbanger, please!"

The Diner (2453 18th St. NW; 202/232-8800; lunch for two $30) is the latest from Constantine Stavropoulos, owner of the much-loved coffee lounge Tryst two doors down. The Diner occupies an old auto-parts store; despite the steak-and-eggs menu, it's far from a greasy spoon, with its sunny storefront windows, cute red counter stools, and style-conscious staff.

Teaism (2009 R St. NW; 202/667-3827; dinner for two $20) is a must, not only for its rare teas — such as pu erh camel breath tea from China — but also for its captivating and affordable food. Try cilantro scrambled eggs with tea-cured salmon for breakfast, an ostrich burger for lunch, or ochazuke (green-tea-and-sticky-rice soup with salmon or pickled plums) for dinner.

A letter from your senator gains you entry to the Senate Dining Room (202/224-2350). Not to be confused with the institutional cafeteria in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, this is the opulent quarters in the Capitol reserved especially for senators — and you, but only if you plan ahead. As for what's on the menu, an inside source recommends sticking to the famous Senate bean soup ($4.95).

While many Hill staffers and other overworked, underpaid wonks may think only of home after a grueling day of running the country, there is a crowd in Washington for whom nighttime is the right time. Join these movers and shakers at Dragonfly (1215 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/331-1775). It's a sushi bar with all-white tables, chairs, and walls that slips into nightclub mode as the beat gets heavier, quirky Japanese movies are projected on the walls, and the place becomes packed.

A more mellow scene takes shape across the street at the 18th Street Lounge (1212 18th St. NW; 202/466-3922), owned by Eric Hilton of the indie music duo Thievery Corporation. Locals lounge about several rooms on couches and armchairs in front of fireplaces, while DJ's spin acid jazz, dub, and trip-hop.

For live music from top acts — Elvis Costello, Marilyn Manson, the Foo Fighters — try the 9:30 Club (815 V St. NW; 202/265-0930). The performers onstage often compete for attention with some boldface names in the crowd: Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and former commander-in-chief Bill Clinton have all cut a rug here.

Several new stores have come to the rescue of D.C.'s huddled, style-hungry masses. Niagara (2423 18th St. NW; 202/332-7474) is a subterranean boutique with such hard-to-find clothing lines as Milk Fed (Sofia Coppola's label) and Plum, and offbeat fragrances by Demeter such as "snow," "Altoids," and "bourbon." In the same neighborhood, check out All About Jane (24381/2 18th St. NW; 202/797-9710) for cool tees and dresses, and Daisy (1814 Adams Mill Rd. NW; 202/797-1777) for Earl jeans.

Fashion-aware lawyers and CEO's rely on Betsy Fisher (1224 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/785-1975) for bold clothes by designers like Shin Choi and Jenne Maag. Jane Fox's "Buzz" collection of smart bags, each embroidered with a signature bee, are hot sellers.

If you're looking for antiques and European imports, head to Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. At Gore-Dean (1525—1529 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/625-1776), score an eight-foot-high gilt-framed mirror ($9,000) from Alexander Graham Bell's mansion or an 1830 Biedermeier chest ($7,800). Up the road, A Mano (1677 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/298-7200) is a dizzying storehouse of French faïence, linens, and Italian majolica tablewares.

Love political collectibles?Political Americana is your place (1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202/737-7730; or Union Station, West Hall, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE, 202/547-1685). Pick up an 1896 William McKinley campaign button, a vintage photograph of Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, or even a piece of cynical history, such as a floating-chad paperweight (hello, Flori-duh).