DO YOU LIVE downtown? Within a block or two of monuments, museums, historic homes, romantic cafes, odd shops, subway stops and sunny perches for sidewalk- gazing? You do? Well, sorry -- this story isn't for you. If you wouldn't mind, could you pass it on to the person on your right?
Hi. The person on your left apparently thinks you live in the suburbs. That's all right, though, because even if you do, like a lot of us, there is a way to enjoy the legendary Sophisticated City Life -- or at least a few of those walking-distance weekend wonders easily accessible to genuine urbanites -- and to do it most times for less than the cost of an average pre- Christmas trip to White Flint.
The secret here is the small hotel -- any of the dozen or so low-rise, European-flavored places scattered arounthe city, hideaways hidden in plain sight amid all the high density. Most of them cater, naturally, to out-of-towners on weekdays -- a lot of them regular customers who like a little more personal attention than they'd get at the Prefab Concrete Towers. But weekends find small hotels, like any city hotel, significantly less in demand and thus more receptive to us intowners and other tourists (as much as 50 percent more receptive, in terms of price). Small hotels are not inherently nicer or necessarily more amenity-prone than large hotels, but I'm talking about them for one big basic reason.
They are closer to earth.
The smaller, the homier. The more hotel there is around you, the less easy it is to escape that bubble of hospitality and pop out into the world, or at least the neighborhood -- which is the point of all this.
None of this applies, of course, if you intended not to leave your room the whole weekend. Then, any Sherilton-Ramarriott would be fine. In fact, anything with a working "Do Not Distrb" sign would be fine.
But the kind of small-hotel outing I'm talking about -- usually available to two people for $50 to $80 a night (depending on whether you want a view, a kitchen, a complimentary cordial before bedtime, etc.) -- has always been good for another reason: To have a weekend away (from the kids, or the dog, or the dreaded oak leaves swallowing your lawn, or anybody connected with work who knows your home number) without actually going away. At least not far. And to a place that feels -- unlike most big hotels -- something like a home.
None of the four small hotels we're about to visit briefly is very far from you at this very moment, probably. Each is in a distinct neighborhood -- Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Washington Circle, Dupont Circle -- which tends to grow significantly more distinct the longer you're in it -- on foot, that is. And for more than an hour or two at a time.
Random browsing, say. Gallery-hopping. Ogling th homes of people whose pictures appear regularly in Washington Dossier magazine. Discovering shortcuts. Stretching the dinner through coffee to an aperitif or two -- because afterwards you don't have to search out the Mustang and then steer it back to Bladensburg. Just poking around, mostly, in a way that's impossible from a car, and probably pass,e for a local -- but perfectly acceptable for a couple of tourists who happen to work around the corner Monday through Friday, or live just up the road.
One more thing: If more people are due at your place for Thanksgiving than you can squeeze in the spare bedroom, well . . . maybe you could send them this story anonymously. Thanksgiving weekend is Discount City at most hotels; the only danger, if they take the hint, is that they may get to know Washington better than you do. WASHINGTON CIRCLE:
THE HOTEL LOMBARDY
You passed this place last time you saw "Maltese Falcon" at the Circle Theater. Little did you know there were people inside the Lombardy taking showers -- hot showers! -- under some terrific water pressure in big old tubs (not clawfoot, not Jacuzzis, just basic big old white tubs) while you, outside, tried to remember where you parked the car and whether you had an umbrella earlier.
But if you lived here, even if only for a night, you'd've been home by now. The Lombardy -- the door just to the right of the Roy Rogers -- is like a lot of small hotels in town: It used to be an apartment building. It was sold in 1977 and redone as a hotel with a small, mahogany-paneled lobby, a manned elevator (which means: don't keep pushing the button, dammit) and 125 rooms -- most of which have ordinary-looking kitchens with some of the nicest dinnerware, flatware and frying pans you will ever see in a hotel.
The rates -- which will invariably rise as long as various would-be sophisticates keep packing pieces of the aforementioned kitchenware into their suitcases -- are currently reasonable: $73 for two people in a one-room suite, $83 for a suite with a eparate bedroom, on any night (including one-night weekend stays; if you stay over two weekend nights, however, the one-room-suite rate is $49 a night, or $98 total, plus tax).
Ask for a room in the back, by the way. The view out front, facing Pennsylvania Avenue and points south, used to be more interesting until George Washington University commissioned that hideous (despite the preserved street-level facade) block- long Love Boat/office building across the park. Plus there's the noise: You will clearly hear that constant drone of traffic and the occasional firetruck brigade on Pennsylvania Avenue, because after the semi-adjustable steam heat kicks in you will have opened the windows.
Though the room is pleasant enough -- the furniture is sort of odd-lot, but polished, dignified and definitely un-motel-like -- we should not hang around here all afternoon, especially on a sunny Saturday.
A walk across Washington Circle, for instance, brings us to the One Step Down at 25th and Pennsylvania, wherein both the regular weekend-afternoon jazz-blues jam and hot-buttered something drinks are entirely welcome. Considering the day's wind-chill factor, soon we may start thinking we somehow walked to Chicago or some other real city. Even at the next quick stop, several doors up at the low-key, warm-paneled Marshall's West End, it feels like kind of a white-collar working- man's saloon. But then the guy in the Irish walking cap at the bar will start talking Reaganomics, which wouldn't be so bad if he weren't doing so in an attempt to pick up a woman. And succeeding.
You could always go back to the Circle Theater for the "Liquid Sky" midnight show. For contrast.
THE HOTEL LOMBARDY -- 2019 I Street NW. 828-2600. GEORGETOWN:
THE GEORGETOWN DUTCH INN The Georgetown Dutch Inn, 20 steps from M Street, has an adjacent free underground parking garage for guests. Yes. This alone is almost reason enough to spend a Friday or Saturday night in one o the Dutch Inn's 47 apartment-like suites. Actually, it's almost reason enough to buy a car.
But no. The suites are more reasonable: $65 per night for two people Friday or Saturday night, when there aren't as many World Bank consultants and French television crews and IMF executives wanting a room with a kitchen and a separate bedroom in the middle of Glamorous G-town, across the street from the Cerberus theaters and a precious stone's throw from the C&O Canal towpath.
You really should try the Dutch Inn before it gets too cold outside, and ask for room 3H: there's a semi-secluded balcony off the bedroom, protected from the noise of M Street by the oddly similar-looking wing of the Marbury House. (Though separately owned, the two hotels were built by the same developer; the Marbury has 164 rooms, nicer furnishings and rates to match, plus a restaurant and a piano lounge).
If you stay at the Dutch Inn this weekend -- or any day, actually -- you gt a free continental breakfast (croissants, coffee and such) set up in the tiny but tasteful lobby every morning by innkeepers Louis and Ellen Weinkle. (If you give the Weinkles a couple of more months, you'll find new carpeting, drapes and bedspreads, custom-made camelback sleep-sofas and Queen Anne chairs in all the suites. Everything's on order, see. For now you just get all-new kitchens, three phones, color TVs and some regular furniture -- nice, but nothing camelback. The two-level penthouse suites are $100, if available.)
There are a few restaurants nearby -- oh, about 800 -- but the only one at which the Dutch Inn's elevator stops is Peppino's, which is downstairs and Italian, and which also fills room-service requests.
The best part of your stay here, naturally, is the staying-out and wandering-about made possible, even almost attractive, by the elimination of both the Where Do We Park and the How Do We Get Out of Here factors, inherent in any after-dark visit to Georgetown.
THE GEORGETOWN DUCH INN -- 1075 Thomas Jefferson Street NW. 337- 0900. CAPITOL HILL:
THE PHOENIX PARK Used to be called the Commodore Hotel, remember? Well, if you do remember, forget. Nothing is the same, except the Dubliner downstairs, which is still downstairs and hasn't changed a whole lot. And we'll get to that in a second.
Meantime, you could do much worse than the just- refurbished, now officially "luxury" Phoenix Park, especially for $79 a night (two people any Friday, Saturday or Sunday; wine-and-cheese basket upon arrival; beds turned down by a chocolate-delivering phantom who also leaves a couple of Courvoisier miniatures).
The Phoenix Park has 87 rooms -- including three penthouses with fireplaces, Jacuzzis and terraces (and a Capitol view) that are leased on a long-term basis. But guess what: Not one of the 87 rooms is available Inauguration Week. What a surprise. The hotel, formerly a dumpy place in a prestigious location across from Union Station, is now, $7 million later, able to match isurroundings from the inside out. Look at the lobby: pink marble floor and wainscoting, brass accents, crystal chandelier, doorman in top hat and white gloves and a sweeping circular staircase leading up to the Powerscourt, the hotel's new classy Irish restaurant (which also provides room service.)
The rooms here are also impressive, not to mention new: the dominant pastel greens and pinks are offset by traditional Georgian dressers and desks and four-poster beds. Definitely a nice space to come back to and collapse -- which is what you ought to do if you take advantage of the location (walking distance to the Capitol, Union Station, the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the Library of Congress and immeasurably more if your mood is good and your legs are likewise).
The best place to collapse here, though, is still the Dubliner, run by the same Danny Coleman who now runs the elegant Powerscourt, but frequented by equal numbers of legislative aides, lobbyists and plumbing contractors on their way back to Maryland. Also, for some strange reason: Every time I have walked the venerable worn floorboards of the Dubliner late in the week and late in the afternoon, something weird and unfailingly entertaining happens.
Last time, a group of four off-duty D.C. police plainclothes officers sitting at a nearby table abruptly lit out to their illegally parked car when a transportation department traffic enforcement guy was spotted through the window trying to attach a boot to the car. The cops took off with half a boot hanging from their front wheel, and the transportation guys gave chase in their blue-and-white truck. The second time around the block, as we all watched from the window, the boot fell off. The transportation officers quit, and we could pretty much guess what kind of things one of them was saying aloud as he got out of the truck to retrieve the slightly bent boot.
THE PHOENIX PARK HOTEL -- 520 North Capitol Street. 638-6900. DUPONTCIRCLE:
THE ST. CHARLES HOTEL This is good walking territory, and the St. Charles is a real good hub. So maybe the World War II-era glamor poster hanging above the sofa in your room is still framed in its original 1977 shrink-wrap and is starting to curl at the corners. And maybe the woman in the game room sports a shade of hair you don't recall ever seeing before except in dreams, and maybe they're not sure at the front desk when the restaurant off the lobby is going to open today, if ever. So what.
None of this is particularly serious -- and in fact supports the overall down-to-earthiness theory of small hotels. It is especially not serious when two-person weekend rates start at $38 for one of the 150 rooms (30 of which have kitchens) in this borderline-historic, Art Deco former apartment house.
The first time I was at the St. Charles was to attend a press conference -- in the Roosevelt Room, which is down the hall with all those posters and photographs of Roosevelt (and Thomas Dewey, and Alf Landon, and Wendell Willkie) off the lobby, and which the hotel management likes to promote as a good off-the-beaten-path site for a briefing. (There are plans, in fact, for a remote TV studio downstairs, next to the planned new restaurant/lounge. In June, it was at the St. Charles that 26 of Jesse Jackson's freed Cuban prisoners were put up, and a few interviewed.)
The next time I found myself in the St. Charles was to visit a friend (not a Cuban prisoner) staying there. The rooms are, as my erudite friend put it, rooms. Nothing you could call elegant, but nothing blood-curdling, either. Some great views from the upper floors, and not a whole lot of noise along this part of New Hampshire Avenue above R Street. (Except when the the news crews converge occasionally on the embassies of Nicaragua or Grenada or Argentina, which share the block, or those strange noises coming from the room next door -- probably one of those weird artists' get-togethers, or some of the cast from "Zorba" or the performers from Blues Alley, Kilimanjaro, Arena Stage or the National Theater who often stay here.)
Next month, you should probably avoid the small game room just off the lobby; the dozen children who are among the cast of "The King and I" will be staying at the St. Charles. Better you should pick up a copy of "Dupont Circle Revisited: A Walker's Tour," from the L'Enfant Trust (1731 21st Street NW 20009; 347-1814), and go outside. The St. Charles itself (built in 1941) is not among the 34 buildings on the self-guided L'Enfant tour. Others are -- including such no-longer-standing landmarks as the Romanesque Hearst mansion (torn down in 1964 for the office building now at 1400 New Hampshire) and such still- standing relics as the Belmont House at 18th and New Hampshire (the huge triangular Beaux Arts temple maintained by the Order of the Eastern Star, but built in 1909 as a 54-room private home -- for entertaining -- by the same family that started New York's Belmont Park racetrack).
The Dove House, just across the street from the St. Charles, is also in the book. Without help, you can see that behind the red-brick turrets and asymmetrical facade of this Romanesque mansion at 1740 New Hampshire are 14 condominium apartments. With the help of the guidebook, you learn that the house was built in 1898 for businessman-hotelier Maury Dove as a single-family residence -- all 15,000 square feet, complete with ballroom, 12-foot ceilings and double octagonal drawing rooms. You also learn that where Dove's ballroom once was is now a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, sleeping loft and study -- and you still can't afford it.
This may not make you feel better. But if you walk the two blocks east to Connecticut and R and order one large pie at Vesuvio's Pizza, well then, that's another story. You will like the pizza very much.
Afterwards, however, you will feel no better. It will just be harder to walk.
Luckily, you're staying nearby.
THE ST. CHARLES HOTEL -- 1731 New Hampshire Avenue NW. 332-2226. OTHER SMALL FAVORS
Here's a sampling of other interesting places around town with fewer than 150 rooms and more than average ambiance. Rates are for one weekend night's double occupancy.
BELLEVUE -- 140 rooms at 15 E St. NW. $65-$75. 638-0900.
CANTERBURY -- 98 rooms/suites at 1733 N St. NW. $78-$98. 393-3000.
CAPITOL PARK -- 119 rooms at Fourth and G SW. $55. 479-6800.
CHANNEL INN -- 100 rooms at 650 Water St. SW. $55-$63. 554-2400.
GENERAL SCOTT INN -- 67 rooms at 1464 Rhode Island Ave. NW. $43 (or $78 two-night package). 333-6700.
HAMPSHIRE HOTEL -- 82 suites at 1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW. $68. 296-7600.
HENLEY PARK -- 98 rooms at 926 Mass. Ave. NW. $55. 638-5200.
HOTEL ANTHONY -- 99 rooms at 1823 L St. NW. $59 up. 223-4320.
MARIFEX -- 45 rooms at 1523 22nd St. NW. $60. 293-1885.
QUALITY INN DOWNTOWN -- 135 suites at 1315 16th St. NW. $55 (or $80 with full breakfasts, free drink, morning paper). 232-8000.
RIVER INN -- 128 suites at 924 25th St. NW. $68-$99. 337-7600.
TABARD INN -- 42 rooms at 1739 N St. NW. $77-100. 785-1277.