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ZooFari 2016


Lions and tigers and (panda) bears, oh my!

On the beautifully warm and breezy evening of Thursday, May 19th, we joined the Friends of the National Zoo and more than 100 of the DC-areas best restaurants and vinters on the wild plains of the Smithsonian National Zoo for “ZooFari 2016,” a wildly amazing fundraiser that aims to protect wildlife species from all walks of life!

In addition to an abundance of complimentary samplings of the city’s most delicious dishes, hand-crafted cocktails, and fine wines from celebrity chefs and mixologists, the premier culinary event serenaded us with live music throughout the evening, (safely) provided us with live exotic animal encounters, and gave us the opportunity to the support FONZ and all their furry friends in a silent auction both before and during the event.DSCN0854


The event, which was sponsored by GEICO, kicked off with a private reception for VIP guests in the Elephant Community Center located on the zoo’s campus. We sipped on speciality cocktails and munched on creative culinary snacks from restaurants such as Equinox, Ten Penh, Doi Moi, Compass Rose, and Purple Patch. We watched from a few feet away as our new best (elephant) friends  Swarna, Kamala, and Maharani (pictured below) played with their favorite toys, munched on hay, and admired us from afar with the same curiosity. While all of the elephants at the National Zoo look similar, like humans, they each have their own quirks, physical birthmarks, and personal stories that make each of them magnificent and unique.  Trust us when we say you need to make this your first stop when visiting the Zoo – you will spend most of your time here!



As the VIP party ended, we made our way down the hill and around the monkey, ape, and orangutang enclosures. FONZ members and Zoo employees kindly guided us in the right direction (towards the unlimited food!) and provided us with utensils and compostable plates as we prepared for our foodie journey.


As we approached the first tent, restauranteurs from Rocklands BBQ (take note of their sweet corn bread and cole slaw, yum), Bistro 525/The Federal City Bar, and Calvert Woodley Fine Wine and Spirits loaded our plates full of the most flavorful meats, cheeses, breads, and pastas (take, for example, the braised lamb dish from Bistro 525 pictured below).



We continued to eat our way down the yellow brick road of foodie fun until we approached the VIP Premier Pavilion located on the Zoo’s Great Meadow. While our entire experience at ZooFari was beyond incredible, this aspect of the event was our favorite for an number of reasons. A live-event mural immediately demanded our attention as artist Ryan “ARCY” Christensen brought a painting of Bei Bei (the Zoo’s newest member of the Panda family) to life before our eyes.


The location also offered primary seating, festive decorations, a private bar, additional animal encounters (such as our slithering friend the yellow rat snake below), a live violinist, and samples of some of the city’s best bites from Ris, Juniper Restaurant, Entyse Wine Bar and Lounge from the Ritz-Carlton, Bastille, and Georgetown Cupcake (pictured below), among others.


The famous Georgetown Cupcake, offered us seasonal flavors such as White Chocolate Raspberry, Vanilla Butterfly Surprise, Coconut, and Lava Fudge. They also offered an abundance of their always classic flavors such as Red Velvet, Cookies & Cream, Vanilla Birthday, Chocolate Birthday, and Chocolate.


Check out the close up of this Lava Fudge cupcake action:


And this White Chocolate Raspberry gem…


Check out how sweet these “panda pop” cake pops from Baked by Yael are! We couldn’t help but grab two..or three..or four for the road! Baked By Yael is DC’s first nut-free, Kosher cakepoppery that offers an array of other treats such as bagels, coffee cake, cookie bars, and gluten free options at their Adams Morgan location. Stop by their storefront for a taste of the sweet life!


This display of heaven in a cup below was served by Juniper Restaurant, which is located at the Fairmont Hotel in Georgetown. This unique gem serves up modern American cuisine, utilizing fresh and locally grown ingredients (including bee pollen and honey from their own rooftop beehives!) They serve up tasty and innovative dishes for breakfast, lunch, express lunch (soup, salad, sandwich, and a house-made cookie for $19) and dinner.FullSizeRender-45

The chocolate-covered coconut cookie with house made ice cream below was a products of RIS, an upscale neighborhood restaurant serving seasonal American cuisine. Owned and operated by executive chef Ris Lacoste, this high-class eatery offers brunch, lunch, dinner, cocktails, and decadent seasonal desserts. With menu items such as the “Red Velvet Wheat Berry and Oat Waffle” with red berries, cream cheese, and warm Canadian maple syrup, or the “Champagne Oyster Stew” featuring crisp oysters in a celery root cream and champagne broth with walnuts, ham and chives – Ris should be at the top of your “must try” list.FullSizeRender-47

We made the tough decision to leave behind all of the enticing dishes under the VIP tent to continue our foodie adventure. After ice cream, cookies, cupcakes, cake pops, and sweet corn bread, we were on the hunt for something crisp and savory. Enter Marriott Marquis and their amazing fish tacos.

The right touch of spice and crispy texture, the fish tacos were loaded with sautéed peppers for a fun and flavorful kick on an otherwise classic dish. What makes Marriott Marquis unique (other than it’s amazing fish tacos), is that this massive 1,175-room, 49-suite facility located in the heart of downtown offers guests four different dining options: The Anthem, The Dignitary, High Velocity, and Lobby Bar. Take your pick from locally sourced shareable plates to sipping ice cold regional bourbons on-the-rocks on their 40-seat outdoor patio. (Trust us, go).


Sadly, by the time we finished our fish tacos, it was time to start making our way down to the exit of the Zoo. Four hours of unlimited wining and dining had caught up to us, but we weren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. We all of a sudden heard loud screams of joyous laughter from behind some tall bushes (sounds creepy but we will explain) As we turned the corner we discovered what all of the commotion was about: a giant, gorgeous carousel! This wasn’t just any ole’ carousel with boring seats and ponies. No…this was a magic carousel with pandas, monkeys, seals, butterflies, (and our personal favorite), elephants!  Our childlike spirits (or maybe just immaturity) immediately came out as we dashed for a spot in line. We spent the next 10 minutes on a non-stop ride giggling, joking with the Zoo volunteers, and taking far too many obnoxious and unflattering photos.

Amped up on adrenalin, we finished out the night at the LivingSocial Lion Lounge – a private VIP area, surrounding the Zoo’s Lion and Tiger Exhibit, which offered a “cat’s eye” view of the giant felines in their natural habitat. We sipped on samples of scotch and rum and broke it down on the dance floor with a live DJ spinning jungle tunes.


If you harbor a special place in your heart for all of earth’s special creatures, as well as a serious love for some of the finest foods and wines on the East Coast, make sure you snag your tickets to next year’s ZooFari as soon as they become available! Not only does the event provide a rare, behind the scene glimpse of some of the world’s most endangered and misunderstood creatures, it provides a common space for foodie fanatics to sample dishes that they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to. Regularly check the FONZ website for more details as next year’s date approaches so you are ready to purchase before tickets disappear. Below is some pricing information from this year’s event that will give you an estimate so you can plan ahead:

General Admission Tickets

FONZ Members: $160
Non-members: $200

VIP Tickets

Wildlife Patron Package: $1,500 ($1,650 after April 6)
Conservationist Package: $5,000 ($5,500 after April 6)
Benefactor Package: $7,000 ($7,500 after April 6)
Giant Panda Package: $10,000

As a helpful reminder, the Smithsonian National Zoo is open every day of the year except December 25, and admission is completely free. While those of us in the DC metro area often take this amazing perk for granted, every donation helps support the Zoo’s commitment to providing leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability. Not to mention, FONZ members enjoy special access to exhibit previews, free parking, special discounts on zoo events, and can travel with benefits to more than 140 zoos and aquariums nationwide.

Every penny you spend is well worth the magical experience that is the Smithsonian National Zoo, and we highly recommend you support FONZ and their mission to save our earth’s species by attending ZooFari next year. When you do, tell them the East Coast Contessas sent you.

  1. Lauren Vavala says

    This looks like such a fun time! Those desserts are gorgeous!!

  2. Jenn says

    Oh my goodness, how much fun!!! Looks like some AMAZING food to go along with the experience!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Whew, pricey event but it sure supports a great cause. Loved the photos of all the different foods.

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