Sunday, August 11, 2013

DC & The Carlyle - It's Not The Ritz But It'll DO

In Travel As In Life, It's All About The Money
If you have followed this blog at all, you know that one of its goals is the discovery of small, boutique hotels that offer great design, great service and great locales. I always say - NOTHING IS TOO GOOD FOR MY PEOPLE. That's why I spend countless hours searching for that perfect combination of architecture and price. As a result, I very rarely stay in places that do not impress. Unlike across the pond, finding quality, reasonably priced small hotels in the good ole USA is a daunting challenge. The Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur will set you back only $675 to $1,400 for one romantic night near or on the Pacific. Or you could go down the road one mile and check into the Ventanna Inn and Spa for the paltry AARP Rate of $810 a night. And for the somewhat frugal, head up Highway One about four miles to Glen Oaks Big Sur, a repurposed,  fifties roadhouse for a sweet $295 a night. Still pretty expensive, but it is Big Sur. Finding a small, cutting edge twenty room repurposed monastery on a lake, a newly renovated farm house in the middle of a small vineyard or a minimalist designed urban enclave in the big city,  at a decent price in the Land of The Free, is akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
When I started our search for hotels in Washington, it became very apparent that DC is a ridiculously expensive place to sleep. And after a few days in the nation's capital, I place our nation's capital near the top of the list of places to blow a lot of money, just below London, which is numero uno. In the classic Guy Ritchie film,  Snatch,  Avi (Dennis Farina's character), when asked by customs - "Do you have anything to declare?" replies "Yeah - Don't go to England". Classic! Now don't get me wrong, England is an amazing country and London is an amazing city, but do not go to England expecting to leave with any money in your wallet or any room left on your American Express credit line. Ditto DC!
A Great Little Place That Could Be The Real Deal One Day
The GoodThe Carlyle Suites Hotel has all the attributes of a quality hotel. It only has 170 rooms. Not small but small enough to qualify as a "boutique" property. It is very well designed, even if it is somewhat cliched with the whole art deco thing. The literal "stylising" is a little tedious.  The lobby is very cordial and nicely scaled for a small hotel. Our room had a very comfortable bed, a nice large shower and comfortable furniture. In addition, the room was quite large with a small kitchenette. Of course, as I stated in my last post, we were upgraded to a larger room, so my guess is the smaller rooms are adequate. One space that impressed was the translucent roofed breakfast room. Very airy and very intimate. And the food  was excellent. Finally, the room rate was very attractive by DC standards - $120 to $170 depending on your choice of room and when you stay.
The hotel could not have been in a better location. Seamlessly located on a side street just off famous  DuPont Circle, it was within easy walking distance of scores of great restaurants and shops. You felt very much a part of the local scene, not ensconced in some large, over decorated corporate big city hotel. Always a plus for Nomads in search of the smaller place.
The Bad - The hotel renovation  missed a few details. The door jambs are original and were not properly repaired and painted. In addition, the room door was noisy and had to be forcibly opened. There is also a tremendous amount of room to room and hall to room noise. To some, these items may seem picky, but, to quote the renown Bauhaus Architect Mies van der Rohe - "God is in the details". If you are going to wear a well tailored suit, it must be well stitched and appointed, or its just a good looking suit from a distance.
The Ugly (Not American) - I covered the misleading and overpriced charge for valet parking and the insolence of the front desk in my last post, so I won't repeat it here. Suffice to say it was very, very bad. Which leads to the "Needs The Most Improvement Award" for this hotel in tony DuPont Circle. The staff - In a word - UGLY! I did not encounter a single staff person who was easily conversant in English. When ordering a glass of iced tea in the dining room, the wait staff literally did not understand what my wife was requesting and had to get someone else to explain to her what we needed. It was similar to talking with someone on the other side of the world in a call center whenever you had to interact with any staff. In addition, the front desk staff had no knowledge of the area. When asked if there were any restaurants within easy walking distant, the girl on duty explained, in broken English, just to head down New Hampshire until we came to the big circle. Really? And there were no lists or recommended places to eat in the room. I have always agreed with the advice of Rick Steves when traveling abroad to  "Travel like a local". The inverse of that would seem to apply in American hotels. Well, the Carlyle didn't get the memo. Excuse me for being politically incorrect, but I expect a staff to be able to communicate in my native language in America!
So what is the bottom line you ask? In my most humble Nomad Architect opinion, I give the Carlyle a 7-8. It is clean, convenient, well designed and perfectly located. And the price is actually cheap by DC standards, except for the valet fee.  If they improve the quality of their staff and install new room doors, I would give it an 8-9.  
If You Gotta Eat - DC Serves Up Some Great Grub
Like those great gastronomic cities  New Orleans, Chicago, Savannah and Charlotte, Washington has many food offerings for every taste. One of the great benefits of staying near DuPont Circle is access to scores of great restaurants. One restaurant that stood out as a Nomad Keeper  was Kramerbooks & Afterword Cafe, a  unique combination of a hip restaurant and uber hip bookstore. They serve you a small sampling of fruit, breads, muffins and other goodies when you are seated. We ordered the spinach, bacon and cheese omelets and they did not disappoint. And the service was excellent. The price? Well, I think you know where I stand on that issue. But it was worth it. After finishing our breakfast, we had some time to kill waiting for our daughter, so we wandered aimlessly in a very unique bookstore. Containing a diverse blend of classics, modern authors and travel books, if you enjoy browsing great book stores, this is your kind of place. It was very pleasing to wander through the stacks of a bookstore that refuses to fall victim to modern technology. Video may have killed the radio star, but the internet has not killed this unique bookstore in the middle of tony DC. I also discovered that this DC landmark sports its very own small bar. And it was full of people  at ten o'clock in the morning. I am sure they were all lobbyists  or senators. Drinking in the morning would seem to come naturally to these two symbiotic symbols of America politics.
And other great restaurants abound. On our first afternoon there, walking among the leafy oaks and landscaped townhouses of the DuPont Circle area, we stumbled upon The Dupont Italian Kitchen. Not only did we have an excellent salad, bread to die for and a nice house Pinot Gris, our waiter actually sat down and discussed the highlights of DC and its environs. He was a transplanted New Yorker who visited fifteen years ago and never left. It was great to get a local's insight on what and where while visiting the nation's capital. Other excellent restaurants that are worthy of any Nomad include Circa at Dupont for everything from burgers to mussels, Odeon Cafe for some descent old world Italian, and Firefly for serious in season comfort food.

And one restaurant that should not be missed is Matchbox. This very cool, urban eatery in the Barracks Row Neighborhood is an absolute Nomad Keeper. In addition to a diverse menu including delicately prepared short ribs,  salmon and steak, this intimate little neighborhood place serves up the best pizza this side of Tuscany. I recommend the Coppa, Italian Ham & Arugula. E' ridicolo!

Next up - Washington for Patriots!
From The Bunker
d.l. stafford

Travel Quote of The Week - What you don't understand about this town is that they can fight about issues all they want, but they don't really care about them. What they really care about is who they sit next to at dinner." - Anonymous Prominent Woman
Video Artist of The Week - The Association - With hits like Along Comes Mary, Windy and the classic Requiem For The Masses, this pop/folk sextet from California was a creative musical fixture on the Sixties Music Scene.


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