AT THE BEGINNING of the Garbo movie "Grand Hotel," a jaded doctor wearily announces to no one in particular: "Grand Hotel . . . people coming, going. Nothing ever happens" -- the most concise definition of hotel lobbies ever offered up.

In the context of the movie it is, of course, an ironical statement, for it sets a stage upon which unfold more or less memorable events, stories, destinies. And what's true in the movie pertains to reality: Hotel lobbies are places where the theater is free, where countless comings and goings create a sense of expectancy, a feeling that something fascinating or funny or sad might occur at any moment.

Lobbies function as extensions of a city, spaces where the movement of people on the streets continues indoors at a pace determined by the wishes of the hoteliers and their architects. To create a proper lobby an architect must be able to conjure a certain mood, to establish a certain distance from the world outside while maintaining connections with it (while assuring that services can be delivered efficiently to visitors and guests). The architects must be able to visualize the movement of people through the spaces, in a sense to choreograph the dance without knowing the dancers. For above all it is the quality of the movement in a given lobby -- its speed, direction and density -- that sets the tone of the place.

Perhaps the best thing about lobbies, from the hometown point of view, is that their various, and often vicarious, pleasures are not reserved for the visitors who pay the rent. All one has to do is open the door. Simply strolling through a decent hotel lobby is sometimes enough to give a lift to a humdrum day. But the chief reasons for visiting a lobby are to look, listen and, especially, to meet -- activities that take a bit of time.

Snippets of conversation overheard, glimpses of potentially bizarre behavior, movements of this or that curious-looking group from desk to elevator -- these may be as much as one realistically can hope for, but they're enough to gossip about, to form a backdrop far more compelling than the norm for a meeting with a friend, an aquaintance, a stranger.

Fortunately, thanks in large measure to a recent building boom, Washington offers a striking variety of hotel lobbies where one can enjoy a special, happenstance kind of show. The following comments are addressed to big lobbies in the city itself, but they apply with equal force to the burgeoning number of hotels bringing new life to the suburbs. The Sheraton Tysons Corner, the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn on Rockville Pike, and the Hyatt Regency in downtown Bethesda, to name three I've visited in the last year, are outposts of a certain kind of vitality amidst the sprawl.

Smaller hotel lobbies, too, are a special subject. The Hay Adams with its superb wainscotting, the Ritz-Carlton with its comfy hideaway bar, the Henley Park with its splendid tea room, the Tabard Inn with its cozy hearth, the homey Jefferson, the toney Madison, the busy Hotel Washington, the surprising Wyndham Bristol -- each offers its own distinctive ambiance and pleasures. For many occasions, smaller lobbies are in fact preferable to the larger ones, but the theater is more restricted. Choices are limited. Almost always, in the smaller places, bars and restaurants are the main attractions to which tiny lobbies are mere preludes.GETTING DOWN TO BASICS

Obviously there are important, mundane reasons to keep hotel lobbies in mind when criss-crossing a city: telephones and toilets, for two.

When one is in the eastern end of Georgetown, for instance, there is no need to bother searching for outdoor phones, which, besides being few and far between, don't work. (It has been scientifically observed that at a given moment, two of three public phones in the District are out of commission, if not actually mangled. The one that functions is always in use.) By contrast, the telephones in the Four Seasons Hotel are sheltered and comfy; they come thoughtfully equipped with a scratch pad; they always work. And so it goes with practically all of the major hotels in the city -- there is bank upon bank of functioning phones, with phone books sometimes, and chairs, and level shelves upon which to rest a briefcase or a purse.

What's true of telephones is triply so for many hotel washrooms and toilets -- they work, they're incredibly clean, they're restful enough to make meaningful the euphemism, "rest room." Sometimes they're so elegant as to give one pause -- the awful custom of a lurking servant with a hot towel is long gone, so far as I know, but it lingers in the atmosphere of places such as the men's room on the ground floor of the Ritz-Carlton, where the cotton handtowels are folded and stacked so precisely that, even though there's not a soul in sight, one feels poorly for not leaving a tip.

It can, however, take a diligent search to find the men's and ladies' rooms -- even less-than-luxury hotels don't cherish the notion that their facilities operate for the benefit of the general public. Standoffishness is a trend -- there seem to be fewer and fewer plush lobby seats that are just there, waiting for the weary traveler and, coincidentally, the non-paying guest.

Some kind of nadir in this regard is reached at the Madison, where little signs warn "This section of our lobby is reserved for guests of the Madison Hotels and their visitors." Although the signs are discreet, one can't help but read them, as they sit like labels atop spectacular pieces of veneered 18th-century furniture. The trick here as elsewhere is to make oneself feel so much a guest that the snootiest hotel employee wouldn't think of making you budge.

Buying, generally, isn't an objective in casual visits to a hotel; almost anything ordinary one wants or needs can be purchased around the corner at about half the cost. (Unless, of course, one needs or wants an extraordinary souvenir -- an autograph of Woodrow Wilson, framed along with what appears to be a vintage photograph, can be had at the Willard for $480, plus tax. Just the thing for great-granddad.) On the other hand, eating and drinking are pleasant accompaniments to looking, listening and meeting -- perhaps the best tack is simply to order up a $3 cup of coffee, or $5 glass of wine, or whatever, and enjoy.AMBIANCE WITH AGE

Old hotels have a certain advantage. In them, one's sense of expectancy mingles with and is curiously heightened by echoes of the past. A favorite of mine, for sentimental and other reasons, is the Capitol Hilton, which opened as the Statler in 1943. (Changing names, due to changing ownerships, are a given on the hotel scene.)

This urbane lobby is like those of most big hotels: a miniature city, its "streets" running parallel to those outside. Unfortunately, during the recent renovation whereby this lobby acquired the warm-toned veneer that seems de rigeur in late-'80s Washington, one of its K Street entrances was closed. In consequence, it's no longer quite the entertaining rainy-day short-cut it once was. Even so, it remains a busy, pleasant place where echoes of wartime Washington -- military brass and pretty women and tired weapons contractors -- mingle in my mind with an evening in 1965 when I arranged to meet my now wife there for our first date. As I said, to meet is a prime purpose of the lobby, and lobby bars.

Another terrific example of the parallel-street type of floor plan is the Mayflower lobby, where the carpeted corridor paralleling De Sales Street on the ground floor offers a dignified alternative to anyone whose business it is to walk the block between Connecticut Avenue and 17th Street NW. Here, too, the money spent on the lobby is a sign of the healthy effects new competition has had on the older hotels.

The Mayflower has been "host to itinerant power," as it says in a local guidebook, since 1923, and its lobby restoration, completed several years back, changed it from a dark and musty corner to a bright reminder of the past. From its low-ceilinged balcony (not a bad place for a business meeting one would like to keep secret) one can get a closeup look at the re-gilded column capitals and decorative trim. The bar is nice, too; a gregarious bartender named Sam doubles as a magician to help tired travelers get through evenings away from home.

Another favorite oldie among the Washington giants is the Shoreham, now the Omni-Shoreham, which opened in 1930. This is the bulky, picturesque blond brick pile, designed by Joseph Abel, that rambles all over the hill descending from Calvert Street NW to Rock Creek Park. But even though one can comfortably get lost rambling around in the seemingly endless corridors (one reason kids of a certain age love this hotel) leading to shops, a restaurant, the pool, meeting rooms and, frequently, to nothing at all, the distinction of the Shoreham lobby is the considered sense of pace -- it's a busy hotel but one's pulse slows down in it.

The entrance canopy, fairly new, is nothing much -- there could as easily be gasoline pumps as hotel doors underneath these innocuous steel beams -- but all changes once the passage is made. The eye, and then feet, are gently led down the hill via a sequence of stairwells underneath graceful vaults -- it is the interior equivalent of a broad, quiet boulevard, here terminating in a spacious, high-ceilinged room now called the Garden Court. One of the city's largest, and certainly one of the more relaxing, bar rooms, it has an unobtrusive, gazebo-like centerpiece that's special in the late afternoon.

Behind this room is a terrace, once an outdoor room where people listened through summer evenings to famous singers (Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf), now just an unattractive relic leading to tennis courts. But the interior has benefited from a recent renovation. Especially fine are the delicate, expertly restored, ornamental paintings that line the intrados of each arch and the friezes all around.NEW, BUT DIGNIFIED

A few of the newer hotels have attempted with some success to replicate this kind of soft, dignified, spacious ambiance, notably the Four Seasons and the Grand, both designed, not coincidentally, by the Washington office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. (Yes, we do have a Grand Hotel, and also a Sheraton Grand and a Grand Hyatt -- the name is more fashionable today than it was in 1932, when the movie was made.)

The Four Seasons will be nine years old this year -- middle-age, relatively speaking, for Washington hotels. Though smaller and lacking such pretty ceilings (generally it's a mistake to look up in any building less than half a century old), its principal interior spaces are organized similarly to the Shoreham's, and with similar effects: the lobby sweeps back and down quite gracefully to views of the C&O Canal, though it's more like a quiet street than a boulevard.

A distinguishing feature of the Four Seasons lobby, besides the handsome blond woods and such accoutrements as the phones and the newsstand with papers in French, Spanish, Arabic and so on, is the fine architectural use of plants -- splendidly variegated clusters are deployed to make spaces and to screen certain views (such as the huge Pepco power plant across the canal). The overall effect is understated but lush. The plants, mostly tropical and some quite rare, thrive there despite the relative absence of light and humidity because they're removed periodically for TLC in the Burtonsville, Maryland, greenhouse of a specialty firm called Creative Plantings. This exemplary kind of care is yet another reason we're attracted to lobbies.

Our Grand Hotel sits on the southeast corner of 24th and M streets NW. Unlike many of the newer hotels, this one is architecturally interesting outside as well as inside -- with its copper dome atop a centered quarter-cylinder bay, it's one of the more impressive, and least noticed, corner facades in the city. Unfortunately, only pedestrians can truly take its measure; automobiles, speeding west towards Georgetown on one-way M Street, pass the Grand while moving in the wrong direction.

Spatial arrangements inside the Grand are simple and ingenious: a circular lobby immediately behind the doors acts as a pinwheel, with spokes leading alternately to elevators, to phones (each with its fresh flower in a vase) and a tiny news-tobacco shop, and down a handsome stairwell to the Promenade, an elegant room with a view to a little garden in the classical mode. With its high ceilings, wood paneling and very beautiful columns sheathed in dark wood, it is a good choice for a quiet afternoon tea.

This particular West End corner has been thoroughly transformed in recent years. Formerly a mix of row houses and light industrial buildings, it's now framed by luxury hotels. The Park Hyatt is situated immediately to the north of the Grand, across M Street; the Westin is immediately to the west of the Park Hyatt, across 24th.

The Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Washington office again did well with the Park Hyatt -- though not so memorable as the Grand Hotel, it's another strong, urbane corner building. The best thing about it, from a walker's point of view, is the way inside and outside have been united: The building was cut away at the corner to make room for a delightful outdoor cafe, a nice place to pause for a drink on warm evenings and an entertainment even for those just passing by.

The lobby is small and mainly for hotel guests, but afficionados of Washington art will want to drop by for a look at an excellent selection of abstract paintings by Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring and Paul Reed, who, as original members of the "Washington Color School," helped to put the capital city on the art world map in the '60s. True, these fine, crisp, intelligent paintings (with compatible pieces by the likes of Sam Gilliam and Frank Stella) don't look entirely comfortable in their new surroundings -- they call for sharp, hard spaces filled with natural light -- but it's good to see them, anyway.

At the Westin (by architect Vlastimil Koubek) the ambiance is busier, more dynamic. This is one of the smaller, and more successful, of the new breed of lobbies where a relatively fast pace is encouraged. The Westin, too, mingles outside with inside, but the difference here is that the exterior space is a courtyard hidden from street view; its airy, white-mullioned centerpiece, the Colonnade Restaurant, is like an architectural folly in a little urban park. With its greenhouse-like rear wall the lobby itself extends into this courtyard -- a near-perfect setting in which to nurse a drink through a snowstorm. The neat aspect of the Westin's floor plan is that, though compact, it offers several avenues of approach or exit; the main entrance is on 24th but one can cut through from M or enter from the back, via the courtyard.PROLIFERATING ATRIA

The first of Washington's atrium hotels was the Hyatt Regency, which opened in 1976 near Capitol Hill -- no surprise, in that the atrium lobby has become a signature for the Hyatt chain's Regency-class hotels ever since it was invented by Atlanta architect John Portman two decades ago. To be precise, Portman re-invented the atrium lobby; Denver's 19th-century Brown Hotel, for one, featured just this kind of high, centered interior space. Other, non-hotel precedents include the Old Post Office and the Old Patent Office buildings in D.C., and, of course, the dramatic central court in the Hollywood set for "Grand Hotel."

In any case, soaring ambitions were defeated by the height limit at Washington's Hyatt Regency (designed by Welton Becket Associates with J. J. Petro); its open lobby, five stories high and covered by a tilted, steel-framed skylight, seems definitively truncated. There's busy-ness here, but not much charm to compensate for the odd, unsatisfying proportions and the hard edges all around.

A better choice, in this neighborhood, is the Sheraton Grand across New Jersey Avenue, where Vlastimil Koubek mixed and matched lobby types: the basic organization is boulevard-like and pulls a visitor backwards towards an attractive mezzanine cafe with a gazebo centerpiece reminiscent of that in the Shoreham bar; in between, there's a skylit atrium with exposed elevator cabs. (Once a novelty, these are now a cliche', and they always look stupid in low-rise Washington.)

There's also a little forest of tropical trees and plants, a lattice wall with climbing (fake) greens, and a Trump Tower-like waterfall. The coziest public room in the place is a mezzanine wine bar that, unhappily, didn't attract enough customers; now it's rented for private parties.

The city's most spectacular hotel atrium is that of the new Grand Hyatt, close by the Convention Center. This is a 13-story building with enough height to give visual excitement to its hollow core, and the architects (RTKL Associates) tried hard to articulate the wall surfaces so that the space doesn't feel like the inside of a huge, empty box. An especially good touch was to screen the elevators behind lattice in two vaguely Italianate towers. Even so, the space does feel rather empty. Maybe the city has enough atria, already.

Nonetheless, at eye level, the Grand Hyatt lobby is an exciting, dynamic space. There are multiple entrances and, inside, multiple choices as to destination. One can circumnavigate the space and stop off at shops or restaurants along the way, and one can go down escalators, stairwells or elevators to other bars or restaurants or a nightclub. In detail, this is a mish-mash of styles, but the main theme of busy-ness and movement is played through agreeable variations. There is a white baby-grand piano, and often a pianist, adrift on an island in the middle of a blue lagoon. One of the bars has five or six different levels -- it's the best "people coming, going" place in town.

At the Vista International, a midblock hotel whose atrium was the only possible way to provide a view for every room, the architects (Smith and Williams of Los Angeles with Holle & Graff of Washington) brilliantly solved the empty-box problem: Instead of trying to fill it with the conventional hanging sculpture, they built another building in the space. Six stories high and containing a mezzanine bar (unfortunately converted to a private club) and five luxury suites, it helps mightily to bring this atrium down to human size.

However, the atrium is clunky and jarring. The really amazing thing about the Vista is that, despite a surfeit of oppressive dark glass and tinted concrete surfaces along with inconsistent historicist touches, the space itself is teriffic. Here again, there are choices and contrasts: the lobby lounge is open and airy, while the bar in the back is as dark as a wainscotted cave.

The J. W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue is the hotel lots of architects and critics love to hate, with good reason and bad -- it's a huge, nondescript suburban-type building plopped onto one of the city's great sites, an odious companion piece to the Willard Hotel, its next door neighbor. On the other hand, though many will say its run-of-the-mill atrium lobby and its vast, underground spaces divert life from the city streets, this is incontestably a dynamic environment. One can get lost entertainingly here: In addition to the lobby, with a customary big-hotel assortment of bars and restaurants and such, there's the sunken interior street leading to The Shops at National Place. The whole forms an engaging in-town mall with lots and lots to offer.

Last but obviously not least on this list is the Willard, which reopened two years ago to prolonged, deserved applause. What a great pleasure it is to have the Willard back -- the muscle-flexing exterior with the bounteous Mansard roof; Peacock Alley, the best of our hotel "streets"; the non-pareil concierge's desk; the lobby with those go-for-broke columns; nooks and crannies such as The Nest, where corner tables (with Avenue views) are rightly prized. It's a grand hotel, and then some.

Benjamin Forgey is architecture critic of The Washington Post.