Photos and Review by Oyster.com Investigators
A 144-room boutique with a stately vibe, impeccable service, and the most envied address in the capital not numbered 1600 Pennsylvania
How else to inaugurate this review? OK, yes, the Hay-Adams made news early in 2009 when the Obamas stayed there for two weeks prior to the inauguration. But it was famous for quite some time before that, before it was a hotel even. In 1884, best friends John Hay (Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and later a secretary of state) and Henry Adams (the author and descendant of John and John Quincy) built their homes on the plot of land where the hotel now sits. The houses soon became "Washington's leading salons," as it says on the hotel's website: "The stimulating discussions of politics, literature, science, and art attracted the era's leading artists, writers and politicians." In 1927, nine years after Adams' death, the houses were razed and replaced by the hotel we have now.
Today, you're probably unlikely to find impassioned discussions on art or literature at the Hay-Adams, but you can be sure politics is still part of the nightly repertoire. The hotel's esteemed restaurant and especially its famous bar, the aptly named Off the Record (motto: "Washington's Place to be Seen and Not Heard"), host power players from both sides of the aisle. One step into the dark, cozy tavern in the basement, and you immediately get the feeling some fairly important decisions have been made there by people from the West Wing, or at least The West Wing.
One floor up, in the equally intimate lobby, it's much brighter but no less classy. Among the many highlights: vaulted archways, baroquely filigreed ceilings, an elaborate flower bouquet. Doormen hold the door every time; the concierge knows his stuff. Orchids festoon every hallway. I wouldn't call it stuffy, exactly, but it's worth noting the CD selections that accompanied the CD player in my room: Diana Krall, Faith Hill, and Lang Lang, among a few others. Make of that what you will.
That last detail also demonstrates the hotel's ability to go above and beyond to please guests. Ditto the free Fiji bottled water you find throughout the hotel: in the business center, gym, the rooms. Even the "tap" water in the restaurant is chilled Fiji water. To some, an egregious slap in the face to the environment (would Al Gore stay here?); to others, yet another example of the hotel going above and beyond to please.
The Hay-Adams doesn't stand alone in its level of service and attention to detail -- there are a host of excellent luxury properties in D.C. (For our favorites, click here.) The best comparison is probably to the Jefferson, its sort-of-neighbor several blocks north. While I liked the Jefferson a tad more -- it's newly renovated and boasts a spa -- the Hay-Adams bests it geographically: You can't beat the location, especially if you can nab one of the rooms with a view. Basically, you can't go wrong either way. If you can afford the Hay-Adams -- or have close, unsavory ties with a lobbyist who can -- I highly recommend it.
As good as it gets: warm, attentive, and efficient
The hotel's motto -- "Where nothing is overlooked but the White House" -- applies to everything, but it would be fair to suggest it is referring primarily to the service. For most hotels, such a boast would reek of hyperbole; for the Hay-Adams, it's a reflection of reality. From the moment I checked in, when Mario, the bellman, took my bags and gave me a detailed tour of my room, to the morning I checked out, when a white rose and free bottle of Fiji water accompanied my room-service spread, the staff didn't just overlook nothing; they went above and beyond. When I returned to the lobby the evening after checking in, Mario greeted me with "Welcome back, Mr. W_____." When I took pictures of my food at the restaurant and of my drink at the bar (not common behavior, I imagine), the hostess and waiter, respectively, chatted with me about my camera instead of, say, reporting me to the Secret Service. And not once did I have to open the lobby door myself. My only complaint? No sugar for the coffee with my room-service breakfast.
Across the street from the White House. Enough said.
Even in 1884, it took guys named Hay and Adams to procure the plot of land at the corner of 16th and H Streets. Today it would take a successful land invasion -- across the street sits Lafayette Park, better known as the Obamas' unofficial backyard. The only way to stay closer to the White House would be to run for high office yourself (or, you know, go back in time and donate huge sums of money to Bill Clinton in 1992).
The immediate area, in the heart of old downtown, bustles during the day with nine-to-fivers in power suits, but it's positively desolate at night. Your only dining and drinking options are on-site or at other hotels like the Jefferson, W, or St. Regis. In sum, the location is a prime home base for daytime sightseeing and an even better one if you can score one of these rooms overlooking the White House. Just don't count on any nightlife.
Small but stylish; comfy and clean
If the Hay-Adams has a weak point, it's the rooms: They don't quite match up to those of its competitors, at least in terms of size. (Nearby, the Jefferson and St. Regis come to mind.) Because of the building's structural limitations -- it was built in 1928 -- the rooms are relatively small by modern luxury standards. My standard room was 375 square feet (but it didn't even feel that big). And it must be stated for the record that most of the rooms, alas, do not overlook the White House.
That said, the Hay-Adams's rooms are gorgeous: elegant yet understated, bright and comfortable. The pleasures are in the details, which vary from room to room: ornamental fireplaces, decorative carvings, patterned ceilings. My favorite touch? The "eco-friendly" panda you can place on your bed to alert housekeeping not to wash your linens every day. I'd like to think even a couple of guys like Hay and Adams would have smiled at that.
Small in both quantity and quality, but classy all the way -- and free, too
The Hay-Adams doesn't offer anything unexpected in the way of amenities, and everything it does offer -- gym, business center, meeting rooms -- is small. But then, so is the hotel itself, and all the features, as you'd imagine, come with state-of-the-art equipment and luxury touches. The fitness center, for instance, sports free bottles of refrigerated Fiji water and cardio machines with private TV screens and headphones. In 2011, the hotel opened the "Top of the Hay" roof terrace for private events, which features gorgeous panoramic views of The White House.
Not great for young kids, but no reason not to take the family
Because of its mature vibe (Depression-era architecture, antiquish furniture, conservative decor), the Hay-Adams isn't ideal for families with young children. At the least, though, you can be sure the attentive staff will go above and beyond to make the young'uns smile.
A highly regarded restaurant on site, but the area's not known for its dining
The Hay-Adams's restaurant, the Lafayette Room, isn't quite up there, reputation-wise, with those at the St. Regis or Jefferson, right down the street, but it still wields enough cache to draw beyond its hotel-guest base. The night I ate dinner there, an American was dropping names left and right with two Romanians at the table next to me; something related to macroeconomics or microfinance was discussed. At any rate, they were there, as are many like them, for the fine food and classy ambience, not just the address.
Quite possibly the most famous hotel in the capital, and deservedly so. The Hay-Adams draws powerbrokers from around the world with its impeccable service, great bar and restaurant, and elegant rooms, some of which overlook its famous next-door neighbor. P.S. It's where the Obamas stayed before the inauguration (if it's good enough for the President ... ).