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When you consider how bloated Washington looks at eye level, it’s amazing how little altitude is required for it to look absolutely puny. From the vantage point of JW’s View Steakhouse, the restaurant atop the Key Bridge Marriott, you can literally see over the city on a clear night—and the hotel is only 13 stories high. The city seems a digestible place when viewed from my windowside table—the Kennedy Center’s just a pillbox, the Key Bridge a sharp line that ends at my wine glass.

“Talk to me, baby,” pleads a woman at the table next to me, who’s been fighting with her lover since I arrived. “We’re drinking wine. We’re looking at the skyline. Anything you say will be positive.” And positive he is—until the steak arrives. “This is an insult,” the lover barks, causing his waiter to turn as red as the diner hoped his steak would be. “I won’t eat this.”

It’s a popularly held notion that your chances of eating well drop sharply at higher elevations, but for the most part this rule applies only to air travel. D.C., however, is funny about height. Since the District’s planners demanded that no building cast a shadow on the Washington Monument, it is a city with relatively few views, and the architectural phobia brought on by the great phallus’s presumed Napoleon complex has taken its toll on local restaurants: If you want to gaze at anything more awesome than the inside of the restaurant where you’re eating, you’re best off crossing the river. The problem is that penthouse-level dining rooms are most often found atop hotels, institutions rivaled only by airlines in their skill for reminding customers that they hate to travel.

Take JW’s: The service is predictably gracious; coddling is a reflex for hotel staffers because they know that their customers would rather be someplace else. In this case, that someplace else would be a real steakhouse. Whereas old-school steak joints serve beef with an ironic grin and the new-school palaces offer weird masculine fantasies, JW’s is just an observation deck with a menu; the half-head of iceberg lettuce served as a starter salad might hold some kind of retro appeal if the restaurant’s decorator had looked further than the honeymoon suite for inspiration. The New York strip does come with an authentic steakhouse price tag, but the sky is clear—could that be Bethesda?—so my spirits are high. Then my steak arrives. The beef is cooked medium-rare, as I specified, but still it’s dry and flavorless. My waiter brings A-1 without my even asking for it.

Like the Hotel Washington’s Skyroom (which boasts downtown’s best dinner view, although it’s closed until April), the Skydome Lounge in Crystal City is more bar than restaurant. But it’s worth making bar snacks your meal to get a load of the panorama. Plopped like a beret atop the Doubletree Hotel’s north tower, the lounge is democratically designed so that no one has to miss out on the view. When the waitress tells me about the buffalo wings with “a twist,” the Jefferson Monument is swallowing the highway on my left; dead ahead, I can see planes angle down and into and up and away from the airport, which sits behind a cluster of buildings to my right. The Skydome’s floor rotates fully about every 45 minutes, so by the time I get my beer, the Jefferson is at my back. When the wings arrive, I’m staring at a stage in the middle of the lounge, where two middle-aged men are singing Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I could have avoided getting dizzy by eating at the Penthouse Restaurant one floor down, but then I’d never have experienced the twist: celery and carrots.

Since a view alone won’t do it, hotel restaurants have two ways of offsetting the tackiness that’s coded into their corporate DNA: Succumb to it or disguise it. The best places try to use food to achieve the latter. A quick glance at the Chesapeake Grill’s menu, a tony document offering braised lamb shanks and seared scallops over fennel risotto, is enough to make us briefly forget the elevator episode. (It involved Japanese animation conventioneers; the scariest one wore a stuffed animal on his head.) Our French waitress assures us that chef Robert Donis’ Valentine’s Day specials taste as good as they read, and she’s not lying; the beef and veal medallions are ruddy and rich, nestled in a tangle of braised leeks, and a velvety square of foie gras sits smugly on a plate of caramelized duck breast. We’re tempted to proclaim the place worthy of its four-star prices until we look out the window. When the host told me on the phone that you could see for miles from the grill’s perch atop the Crystal City Hyatt, I didn’t assume he was talking about an airport runway. National at night is quite a sight, but I don’t want to pay to see it unless I’m actually going somewhere.

By the time I sit down to the similarly refined menu at the Capitol View Club, I’m already thankful that we don’t have to plug our noses just to get to our seats; compared with the entrances at the other hotels, with their musty, mail-order red carpets, the lobby of the Capitol Hill Hyatt, sheltered by a high, slanting roof of glass, feels like the Taj Mahal. As far as top-floor views go, this one is strange; we have to look up slightly to see the Capitol. But the food elevates the experience. The lamb sausages are smoky and crisply charred; the broth-poached sea bass is a diet dish I’d order again—melting, flaky, and topped with truffle confetti; the venison chops are gamy and robust, although I could do without the “walnut fromage.” (Think unsweetened cheesecake.) The mood music practically mimics the tinkling glow of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building in the distance. “This place might even be nice enough to come back to,” my girlfriend chirps, munching on a carrot from the bowl of iced vegetables, her head framed by the Capitol dome. Then the piano player decides to sing.

Capitol View Club, 400 New Jersey Ave. NW, (202)

737-1234.

Chesapeake Grill, 2799 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington. (703) 418-1234.

JW’s View Steakhouse, 1401 Lee Highway, Arlington, (703) 284-1407.

Skydome Lounge, 300 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, (703) 416-4100.

Hot Plate:

Back at sea level, the South Beach Cafe boasts no view to speak of. The tendency of Miami chefs is to torture food until it looks as art deco as the buildings overhead, but the food at South Beach, fussy as it is, tastes downright rustic. The Cuban torte features layers of chorizo, cheese, tortilla, red peppers, and jalapeños; it’s basically a quiche, and neither the tart tomato sauce nor the cilantro cream disrupts its synergy. Pondering the menu on the street outside, a passer-by assures me that the hole-in-the-wall’s food could rival any found on the strip it’s named after. “You from Miami?” I ask. “Never been,” he says.

South Beach Cafe, 7921 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, (301)

718-9737.—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to

banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.