Considering the rarified international clientele that frequent the city, DC has always had a grand tradition of luxury power hotels to service them. But in truth, the mythologies that have propelled many of them on started to fade with the onset of the boutique hotel era. To wit, the now even quaintly monikered Off The Record bar at the Hay Adams, where once all the best political eavesdropping went down, is now just kind of a, well, quaint old basement bar.
On our most recent visit to the capital, lured by news of a high-profile new restaurant, we checked in to the plush Mandarin Oriental—which actually first opened its doors back in 2004, but had somehow eluded us until now. Upon entering the handsome, energetic lobby however, we instantly got swept up into the vibe. We felt at home there immediately, and wondered what took us so long.
Here’s what we loved.
All the way back in 2004, the Washington Post called the then new Mandarin Oriental’s location “unconventional.” Yet it’s sort of hard to imagine why, as the grandiose cultural complex that is the Smithsonian is remarkably close by—as is The National Mall and all its attendant monuments. If this was your first trip to DC, you might be downright gleeful as to such proximities. It’s also right on the Potomac. And unlike 16 years ago, the area just to the south of the hotel has also been enlivened by the District Wharf, the city’s dynamic new(ish) retail, dining and entertainment complex—which boasts some of the capital’s most talked about restaurants.
Indeed, La Vie, Officina, Del Mar de Fabio Trabocchi, Praline Bakery and 12 Stories for cocktails with a view are all destination worthy. But also, several very DC-centric boutiques offer unique shopping opportunities for flowers, books, jewelry and home decor.
Gorgeously patterned, luxurious draperies and matching carpets, elegantly understated wall-coverings, Chinoiserie cabinets, attractive beige/blue color schemes, grand marble bathrooms with Art Deco wood detailing…all the frippery of a great classical luxury hotel is represented in the Mandarin Oriental’s gorgeously styled rooms. Yet they feel startlingly modern and unfussy at the same time.
But the location of the hotel plays a major role in the unique appeal of these singularly luxurious sleeping chambers. Those facing front take in a tableaux of the neo-classical majesty that is amongst DC’s great architectural boasts; but others have ethereal views of the might Potomac through generously proportioned windows. Ours also looked out onto the Jefferson Memorial—and for devoted Founding Fathers fans flush with cash, the Oriental Suite offers a particularly striking view of the stately monument.
Since our visit coincided with the holidays, the lobby was glimmering with seasonal sparkle, mostly due to a particularly grand Christmas tree standing at center. But the rotunda style design made for excellent energy and accidental encounters—while the gorgeously patterned marble floor and dramatic circular ceiling can be said to make every entrance a grand one. (Plan to sashay in like a movie star, if at all possible.)
Later, with our Friday afternoon brains having shut down after a week of far too many stressful business dealings, we decided to join the afternoon tea time in the very chic Empress Lounge, a nearly perfect hotel bar, with Asian-accented furnishings, and tall windows offering garden views (there are terrace tables in spring and summer). We skipped the tea service—though it looked temptingly decadent—and opted instead for a delicious Tom Kha-Rita cocktail, with Patron Silver, Cointreau, Galangal-Chili-Ginger Syrup Lime Juice and cucumber. It was an experience that was really just the height of DC sophistication, with excellent people watching to match.
Amity & Commerce
Just as how in European luxury hotels, you can judge quite a bit by the quality of the club sandwich served in the lounge (or otherwise obtained via room service), in a posh American hotel restaurant, we always recommended considering the classic steak frites. And that’s precisely what we gravitated to on the menu at Amity & Commerce, the Mandarin Oriental’s theatrical new bistro and bar.
As soon as we walked in, there was the sense of drama, with soaring ceilings, elegant color schemes and spectacular lighting fixtures. And though it had a decidedly more contemporary feel than many DC five-star hotel restaurants, the name itself nods to Thomas Jefferson’s 1778 treaty which linked France and America.
We started with one of our current obsessions, the duck liver parfait with port gelée and thick slabs of toasted brioche, which was one of the best we could remember—and we eat a lot of it. Though the restaurant’s regular bread was so good, we had to summon all of our willpower not to fill up on it (order some to go, for a midnight indulgence back in your room). Overall, the menu was very of the moment, with baby kale & beets salad, tamarind glazed Angus short rib, pan seared diver scallops, as well as artisanal cheese and charcuterie plates. Our 8 oz. teres major steak was an incredibly flavorful cut, perfect for your monthly beef splurge, served with yukon fries, with bordelaise sauce. And well, they mixed a sublime dirty martini—not as easy as it sounds.
Combined with an after dinner brandy in the Empress Lounge, Amity & Commerce is genuinely one of DC’s must dining destinations…in a hotel that we will absolutely be returning to.