Review: Conrad Washington DC Spells the End for the “Boutique” Hotel Era
Brilliant design, comfortable beds and excellent service: this is what a luxury hotel should be
A little over a decade ago, back when everywhere I seemed to inhabit had at least one thing made out of reclaimed wood and a piece of taxidermy on the wall, when there was maybe a handful of places that trafficked in “craft cocktails” and before the obsession with all things hygge and Marie Kondo minimalism, I was obsessed with hotels. To be more specific, I wanted to spend as much time as I could at Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel, a place that was literally right up the street from my apartment, one that cost a few hundred bucks a night to sleep in and felt like some old-timey member’s-only club out of the Victorian era.
I still love the Bowery, but its impact, my resulting obsession with all things “boutique” hotel that came after, has waned a good deal. I held every hotel up to the Bowery, and expected everywhere I stayed to have a similar experience. I wanted to feel like I was somewhere else, somewhere special and unique.
That was the era of the boutique hotel, a term that I feel has become as irrelevant as “hipster” or “craft” beer. Today, things have changed: I have, but so has what we should expect from a luxury experience at a hotel. You should have a comfortable bed, good food, great service and a bar that can pour you a good whisky or make a perfect Martini, but you also want somewhere that wows you with design.
The Conrad Washington D.C. does all of that, and that’s what made my recent stay there one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had at a hotel in a long time. Below, you’ll find a point-by-point rundown of my takeaways.
1. Everybody there is friendly and helpful
It sounds so damn simple, but as someone who dines out a lot and stays in a number of hotels throughout the year, the idea of friendly service feels like it’s becoming a thing of the past. Either you go somewhere and the people who work there are nice in a way that makes you worry they’re going to slip you a note that says, “Please get me out of here,” or they’re just not very friendly or helpful at all. I understand the latter. Jobs aren’t always fun. But when you’re in the service and hospitality industry, you’re literally paid to make people feel welcome. The part about some people acting like they’re being held hostage, well, I feel like I get that as well. But it can ruin an experience even faster than a rude employee, in my experience. It’s disconcerting.
I didn’t experience any of that during my stay. From check-in to cocktails, lunch, more cocktails on the packed rooftop, and especially in the Sakura Club Library, I not only got smiles and greetings, but conversations and advice on where to go out to dinner. The entire staff at Conrad Washington DC was engaging, possibly the friendliest hotel staff overall that I’ve encountered in America in the last year.
2. You don’t feel like you’re in the Capital City — but you definitely are
I end up in D.C. a few times a year for various reasons. I’ve heard people share various thoughts on the capital, and none of them ever place it as a fun destination the way places like Chicago or L.A. might be. I’ve always chalked this up to the city’s top industry: politics. Personally speaking, I’ve always had plenty to do when I visited. I’ve eaten well, really enjoy the museums and landmarks, and generally love walking around certain neighborhoods and admiring the row houses.
That said, I can also understand why people might not be so hot on the place. It’s filled with the two most annoying types of people on the planet: tourists and politicians. The Conrad bills itself as “a contemporary urban oasis in the heart of the District,” and while I usually wince at marketing copy like that, it couldn’t be more apt. The hotel is located in the heart of City Center, which feels more like one big outdoor mall filled with places where you have to spend at least a grand at if you want to buy anything (Gucci, BVLGARI, Hermès, etc.). And while Conrad DC certainly fits among the luxury titans, it also feels like a welcome escape from it. You don’t have to feel like the heir to a vast fortune to stay there.
3. It’s all about the details
Remember what I was saying about luxury hotels earlier? What I always appreciated about places that lived underneath that banner was that they seemed to fit a nice experience into places where they didn’t belong. Bowery Hotel is on the Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; the Vagabond in Miami took a midcentury motel and turned it into something ideal for the stylish 21st century traveler; Hotel San José in Austin has the tucked-away feel of some iconic Hollywood bungalow from the 1920s while being smack in the heart of the Texas capital. The Conrad in D.C., however, was literally built for that space. When it opened up this past March, it was the crown jewel of the neighborhood for a number of reasons.
The main one being the attention to design. Sure, it’s owned by a massive corporation in Hilton and not some smaller company that might not have the funds to undertake a sprawling project with a 100-year lease, but the people behind the Conrad spent their money very wisely. Namely, they called upon the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, famous for projects like the Olympic Stadium in Beijing and The Tate Modern in London. The Conrad DC is a cathedral to impeccable design and taste. It takes a little from the middle of the 20th century, has some aspects that feel very decadent in a 1970s sort of way, and also mixes in elements that call to mind all of the Scandinavian minimalist designers you can’t name but whose work you probably see all over the blogs and magazines you read.
4. Size matters
Space feels like such a luxury these days. Nothing is ever big enough and everywhere I stay feels so smushed together. Either the designers didn’t think about how they could utilize space properly or, like you get in so many hotels in major American cities, the space just isn’t there. You feel crammed in.
Conrad Washington DC is the exact opposite of all of those things. From the comfortably sized bedrooms to the conference rooms to the plush seats just outside of the restaurant where I comfortably typed up all of my notes, the place has tons of space, but also a good vibe throughout. The natural light that bleeds through the entire hotel is astounding.
5. The food is interesting, but not too interesting
That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but I promise that it is not. I mean that the menu at the restaurant, Estuary, helmed by chefs Bryan and his Top Chef-winning brother Michael Voltaggio, isn’t trying to blow your mind with anything too over-the-top or out there, but does deliver something extravagant and delicious. The most notable item on the area-influenced menu is an appetizer: the Maryland crab roll is a decadent little dish delivered up on a bun. It lives closer to the Maine side of the crustacean roll debate, but it isn’t dripping in mayo. And while it might seem beneath any restaurant to say ordering the fries is a must no matter what main you’re getting, I feel like the Voltaggio brothers understand me saying that the Old Bay-dusted potatoes are indeed a must.
The overall verdict
I like visiting D.C. I’ve stayed in at least a dozen hotels in the city: some I’ve picked myself and others were picked for me. I wanted to check out the Conrad because I’m a fan of the brand and find that Hilton does high-end better than other large chains. It’s never too over the top, always tasteful and I am sad when the stay is coming to an end. In the case of the Conrad, I was a little upset I had to leave, but now that I’ve stayed there once, I expect to make my way back to the national’s capital again to spend a few more nights at the best new hotel the town has seen in years. I’ve seen the light, and it is spacious, design-forward and every inch of space has some meaning.
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