The Willard Hotel has been probably the most famous unofficial center of power in U.S. history.
President Ulysses S. Grant, a frequent visitor to the Willard Hotel, allegedly coined the term “lobbyist”, when describing running a gauntlet of political wheelers and dealers he preferred to avoid hanging out in the lobby of The Willard Hotel. All he wanted to do was to enjoy a brandy and cigar in peace.
In reality, the term”lobbyist” had already been around for over 40 years before Grant used it, yet he usually gets credit for it.
Another story goes that the phrase “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar,” supposedly also originated at The Willard. One version alleges Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, Thomas R. Marshall, stated the now famous line in describing The Willard’s high cigar prices.
Over the years, every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce in the 1850s has either spent the night or attended an event at the hotel. Other moments in history have also unfolded within its walls.
After receiving several death threats before his inauguration, President-elect Abraham Lincoln was smuggled by Pinkerton agents to the hotel for a couple weeks, where he lived and worked until his inauguration. Soon thereafter, and just before the start of the Civil War, a last-ditch meeting of delegates from 21 states met at The Willard to attempt (unsuccessfully) to avoid Southern succession.
Later in 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote the patriotic “Battle Hymn of the Republic” after hearing “John Brown’s Body” sung by a Union regiment marching under the window of her room.
And Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote (or at least polished) his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in his room while staying at the hotel before the 1963 March on Washington.
Other notable guests include writer Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill and circus magnate, P.T. Barnum.
During the rest of the century, the Willard’s bought more and more adjacent land, expanding their hotel.
In 1904, the new Willard Hotel opened, and was called Washington, DC’s first “skyscraper”. Another 100 rooms were added in 1925.
After the Willard family sold the property in 1949, the hotel remained open until 1968, when it closed for major renovations (for 18 years). Again, in the 1990s, it underwent another major renovation.
I recently spent the night at the Willard and I must admit, it’s a charming, comfortable place to stay. And you can’t beat the hotel’s centralized location.
From the moment I pulled up, the staff was ready to assist. Before I was even out of my car, a couple bell caps and a doorman were ready to help with my bag.
The lobby is one of DC’s most elegant, with huge marble (faux) pillars, and a classic Concierge stand reminiscent of hotels of old. The check-in desk is wisely out of the way of lobby traffic. I would have enjoyed more comfortable seating areas in the lobby, such as a few more sofas, as much of the seating is limited to chairs. And don’t forget to look up and check out the ceiling with the States of the Union.
Rooms - The hotel has 332 guest rooms, including 40 suites. The room I stayed in was surprisingly large for an older hotel, comfortable and uncramped. The king-sized bed had a VERY comfortable, fluffy and luxurious featherbed with enough feather pillows for a small army. While my room could have used a bit more art on the walls, it was relaxing and welcoming.
The room had a well-stocked mini-bar, complete with items such as a 1/2 bottle of Moet White Star champagne, a selection of wines and gourmet snacks (think Dean & Deluca snacks). The traditional bedside clock radio had been replaced with a radio/CD player that also accepted an iPod or other MP-3 player plug-in.
On the bathroom door hung two Willard-monogrammed long bathrobes and slippers, plus lots of nice amenities, including a hair dryer and a scale.
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The desk had a high-speed Internet access connection as well as wireless access, (great to have the option), a two-line phone with voicemail, plus additional phones in the bathroom and bedside. A 36″ flat-screen TV and in-room safe were also nice additions. One small feature I loved was the illuminated bedside light switches (very convenient).
Unlike many hotels, and perhaps because the Willard was built when buildings were built very solidly, I never heard guests moving in the hallway or noise bleeding into my room.
The digital climate control worked well, in half-degree increments, so I was able to set the temp to just the right level before crawling into my featherbed.
Dining – The Willard Room serves classic fine-dining American and European cuisine - AAA 4 Diamonds and ExxonMobil 4-Stars. The recently updated restaurant boasts a wine cellar of over 250 wines, chef’s tasting menus of up to 7 courses, as well as a three-course pre-theater dinner ($47 pp) which includes valet parking.
Try the table-side prepared flambéed Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster for two, to end your meal.
A newer, bright and airy French-influenced Café du Parc, located up one flight, serves bistro cuisine and offers al fresco terrace dining during the warmer months. The hotel also offers 24-hour in-room dining.
An elaborate Sunday brunch is sure to please any hungry tourist or lobbyist, available from 11:00 – 2:00 p.m. ($75 pp), and includes items such as foie gras, prune beignets, venison sausage, beef tenderloin, Long Island duck, Virginia oysters and buffalo tenderloin.
A formal afternoon tea is also served in Peacock Alley each day, with 13 varieties of tea along with fresh fruit, scones, finger sandwiches, pastries and live harp music ($37 pp).
The Willard dining team will also put together a wonderful picnic for you. But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill baskets. The “basic” picnic includes baguettes, artisan cheeses, parma ham along with fresh and dried fruits. The over-the-top basket, perfect for a romantic afternoon overlooking the monuments, includes poached lobster with caviar complete with strawberries and Devon cream.
Power Cocktails – The Round Robin Bar just off the lobby, where Senator Henry Clay introduced Washington to the mint julep in the early 1800s, is a relaxing place for a drink among DC’s “power-brokers”. Grab a seat in one of the black leather booths or join the “boys” at a seat around its famous circular bar.
Spa Services – The spa offers over 25 diverse body treatments, massage styles and private thermal jet baths, perfect for a tired tourist or for anyone exhausted from a day negotiating on The Hill. A basic 30-minute massage is around $75, but make reservations early as the spa is very popular.
Staff – The Willard’s staff is what you would expect from one of DC’s finest hotels; professional and friendly.
Holiday “Lobbying” – Each weeknight in December from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. in the lobby, the Willard presents a free, live music program featuring area choral groups and ensembles singing holiday tunes. Enjoy a complimentary hot-spiced cider and a sweet treat as well.
Willard’s Hall of History – Don’t miss the gallery displaying pieces of The Willard’s history near the F Street entrance. With walls of photos and memorabilia, I found myself spending some significant time reading menus from 1912 and checking out the many photos. A typical gourmet “supper” in those days might start with Beluga Caviar ($1.50), then on to Lobster Newburg ($1.50), and finish with coupe, a fruit mousse and whipped cream dessert ($0.50).
Overall Impression – I must admit I truly enjoyed my experience at The Willard. It’s very comfortable, refined and guest-pampering without being stuffy or pretentious. The Willard is a luxury business-class hotel, and with it’s centralized location, it’s an ideal place when you feel the need for a special DC experience. Just remember, you might get so comfortable, you might not want to leave to visit the sites.
Rates - $299 to over $800 per night for a single/double.
Nearest Metro Subway Station – Metro Center, Blue, Orange and Red lines, then a 3-block walk.
Parking – Valet at $29 per day.
Images - All photos from personal collection, except #1 – Flickr