October 21, 2011, Washington, DC: At my sister’s request, we visited the Plaza Hotel that weekend, searching its hallways for Eloise, the fictitious character just her age who called the famed hotel home.
That’s my first recollection of experiencing how hotels play a part in the cities around them. Some great hotels would become my neighbors as I moved from New York and San Francisco to Washington, DC. In each place, those hotels down the street would bring a specific flavor to the neighborhood. They’d help cities do what they do so well. They’d make those neighborhoods welcoming havens for locals and travelers alike.
In the best cases, relationships between hotels and their neighborhoods are reciprocal. The presence of hotels in the neighborhood prevents neighborhood haunts from becoming too exclusive. At the same time, surrounded by a true neighborhood, hotels are just as inviting to locals as they are to their tourists.
The examples are plentiful. There’s a fantastic restaurant called Maialino on the ground floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel in my family’s neighborhood of New York City. It’s a local coffee bar by morning and the source of to-die-for truffle ravioli by night. There’s a lounge at the Elysian Hotel across the street from my cousin’s Chicago apartment that we’ve discovered is the perfect spot to catch up with our relatives on a cold night after a full meal. The Huntington Hotel was the closest of four luxurious hotels atop Nob Hill near my first San Francisco apartment, and though we opted largely for more affordable outings then, it was comforting to know the bar closest to home was stuffed with big brown leather chairs and bowls full of peanuts. It was likewise a relief living in New York to know the locations of the nicest hotel bathrooms, to be able to confidently duck into the Pierre while out far from the dorm.
Washington’s hotel culture, of course, is in a class of its own. Here our hotels are not just our neighbors, but the very same places we hear about in stories. The Mayflower, site of countless former office happy hours, was infamous long before Eliot Spitzer showed up. When the dark oak space at the hotel’s Town & Country Bar closed last year after 62 years in business, professionals throughout Dupont returned in droves to toast to their times there. The Washington Hilton, a place I know as my former gym, is better known as the Hinckley Hilton, site of an assassination attempt on former President Reagan. In other words, these hotels that appear in history also double as some of our most reliable “third places” beyond work and home.
The hotels down the street also guarantee our city neighborhoods remain exceedingly accepting to outsiders. Granted, it’s abundantly clear when the Young Republican or comic book conventions are in town at the Omni Shoreham in Woodley Park. (Remember the time they were there the same weekend?!) But it’s also clear that a typical night at Murphy’s Irish Pub across the street includes travelers dining alone, and colleagues on the road together escaping a conference meet-and-greet, and flight crews… always flight crews.
I sat in the lobby of the Omni Shoreham last night, one hundred yards from my old apartment, taking pictures and writing about our neighborhood hotels. Better known as the hotel where Bill Clinton broke out the saxophone at his inaugural ball, that hotel, my old neighbor, made me feel at home.
I felt a little like Eloise.