PATTERSON: An afternoon at the Willard

Shoddy, snobby service reflects Washington ethos

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Nothing says Washington quite like the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Nathaniel Hawthorne once noted: “The Willard Hotel more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.” Located just a block from the White House in the heart of the nation’s capital, the Willard has housed or hosted U.S. presidents for a century and a half, beginning with Franklin Pierce in 1853. The Lincoln family stayed there in the week leading up to his inauguration; Richard Nixon used the Willard for his national campaign headquarters.

And the Willard is not just famous for its presidential guests - Mark Twain wrote books there; Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum stayed there. Walt Whitman immortalized the Willard in his verse; Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech while a guest in the hotel in 1963.

So when my wife and I were looking for something special to do on our anniversary, lunch and drinks at the Willard seemed like a grand idea. Perhaps the august personages listed above received a warmer welcome than Mrs. Patterson and myself; I should very much hope so.

We arrived at the Willard late on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and immediately adjourned to the famous Round Robin & Scotch Bar. The small and stately room, decorated with portraits of famous customers past and present, was nearly deserted at that hour. We approached the round bar in the center, behind which two gentleman stood ensconced. Though we stood mere feet from them, at an otherwise empty bar, we received no greeting. No eye contact even.

We skimmed a drink menu, then sat ourselves in a corner booth, where we were immediately attended - by bugs. Flies, gnats and mosquitoes bombarded us as we waited for someone, anyone, to serve us. At length, the taller of the two bartenders came over and, in a wordless manner that communicated perfect ambivalence, took our order - one Jameson, neat; one apple martini; one order of crab cakes. The insect invasion continued as we waited for our refreshments, which were delivered with the same warmth with which we had been welcomed.

We spent most of our meal fending off our little intruders. Afterward, the bartender came to collect our dishes; he did not ask if we wanted anything else. (We did.) So we took the hint, paid our check (almost $50, thank you very much) and decided to check out the little hall down from the main lobby where the history of the hotel is detailed in a minimuseum. We made our way down the short hall, perusing the various artifacts and plaques, most of them in the so-and-so-slept-here vein, but interesting nonetheless. Then I spotted the following typo on a placard: “When Charles Dickens stayed at the City Hotel during his first visit to Washington in 1824, he was saw no hint of …”

Huh, I said to my wife. That’s strange. Having spent many millions of dollars renovating the place at various points in the not-so-distant past, apparently they decided they could skimp on a proofreader for the historical material. Then, oops, another error: On a timeline snaking above the visitors’ heads chronicling great moments in the Willard’s history, one heading detailed luncheons held in honor of soldiers of the second Gulf war - in 2002. The Iraq War, of course, did not begin until March of 2003. OK, so fact-checkers not needed either, but hey, who looks up anyway?

On our way out, I told a very nice gentleman at the reception desk about the errors we had spotted in the gallery. He appeared mortified and wrote down each one in a notebook. He thanked me and asked for some contact information so that some higher-up could get in touch with me - for what reason, I was not exactly clear. No one ever called.

Reflecting on our less-than-swell afternoon at Washington’s hot spot, my wife and I could not help but laugh. But inside, I also gave a little shudder. In one of the most exclusive hotels in the city, where rooms can go for as much as $4,000 per night, some of the basics of hospitality - service, grammar, etc. - were shockingly shoddy. But my, the glamour!

And mere footsteps away, in another Washington institution, the basics of governance - fiscal responsibility, responsiveness to the wishes of the people, etc. - are likewise little attended.

But my, the glamour!

Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington Fellow.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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