Lobby of Riggs Hotel
Riggs Hotel. Photo by Jennifer Hughes.

The concept of a vacation has fundamentally changed over the past eight months. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an escape no longer involves leaving the country, the city, or in some cases, the living room. Some D.C. residents are finding that escape inside local hotels.

Like in most cities, D.C.’s typically vibrant hospitality industry is struggling.  While the summer is typically the busiest time for D.C. hotels, with occupancy rates around 90 percent, 2020 occupancy rates during this normally bustling season hovered just below 20 percent. Cooler weather, climbing COVID-19 cases, and travel restrictions have further limited tourists’ trips to D.C. 

However, number of high-end hotels have reported a surprising new client base that may prove to be their saving grace. Washingtonians are looking for a home away from home, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control says indoor environments are the riskiest places to contract COVID-19.

“We’ve seen an uptick in local patrons since the pandemic,” says Crawford Sherman, managing director at The LINE DC hotel. “I think that they’ve been so housebound for so long that they’re desperate to go someplace they’re familiar with, that feels safe, that isn’t crowded.”

District residents come to the Adams Morgan hotel for a variety of reasons. On a recent visit, City Paper spotted young professionals with laptops and coffee who claimed workspace for the day. “It’s comfortable here, and I just can’t sit in my apartment any longer,” a local named Jon explained. “There’s great food, good ambience, and free WiFi. It’s become my office during the pandemic.” 

While Spoken English (currently operating as Cafe Spoken) and Brothers and Sisters, the two dining establishments inside The LINE from Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, have always been popular, D.C. denizens seem to be spending more money now that they’re spending more time on site. Whereas neighborhood guests used to comprise just 5 percent of business, Sherman says this demographic is now responsible for nearly 20 percent of patronage. He expects that number to rise this winter. 

“We’ve certainly encountered a rise in locals posting up in our library, or on the patio of American Son,” says Tim Ma, the restaurateur behind American Son inside the Eaton DC hotel downtown. “The hotel has always been super active with co-working not just in Eaton House, but throughout hotel common spaces like the lobby library.” (Eaton House is the hotel’s dedicated coworking space.)

The ambiance and food options at Eaton DC are the main draw. “As restrictions have eased, we’re hearing from a lot of local guests that a change of scenery is much needed,” Ma says. “People do want to just get back out there for sure, but safely, and because hotel cleaning protocols are known to be very strict, I think folks tend to feel safer in these kinds of spaces.” 

So goes it at Café Riggs inside the Riggs Hotel at 900 F St. NW. “We’ve had an increase in weekend leisure hotel guests who need a staycation, and more foot traffic walk-ins within the local area who are sick of staying at home and need a night, or day, of escape,” Udit Dang, the food and beverage director at the restaurant says. “Neighborhood folks have continued to increase throughout the pandemic.”

City Paper visited Café Riggs, helmed by Executive Chef Patrick Curran, for Sunday brunch in October. Tables were buzzing and drinks were flowing. Dining dollars are helpful since the hotel is only at about 15 percent occupancy. The property opened at the start of the year, not giving the team ample time to make a name for themselves before the pandemic shut down the city. 

It’s not just the food from chefs like Bruner-Yang, Ma, or Curran that attracts nearby dwellers to hotels. “We had two wives who showed up one day without a reservation and just needed to get away from their husbands,” Sherman says. “They asked for rooms with bathtubs and sea salts and anything we could offer to create a spa-like experience. They just needed to feel like they weren’t trapped anymore.” 

And while these stays are temporary, the shift toward a growing community clientele base may not be. Ma suggests there’s a new and growing percentage of the working population in search of an “oasis” like hotel lobbies. “Those that work and eat here are for sure going to be permanent for the time being,” he says. “So many companies have completely abandoned their offices and are having employees work from home.”

“As long as the pandemic is going on, we certainly can expect a shift in our clientele coming to stay and work,” says Joseph Cerione, general manager of Blue Duck Tavern inside the Park Hyatt in West End. While Cerione notes that Blue Duck Tavern and its accompanying lounge have long attracted both travelers and District residents for meetings, the pandemic has seen an increase in neighborhood customers seeking a “safe and clean environment for a work-away-from-home option.”

Weekends see an influx of locals and those looking for a staycation who may be celebrating an anniversary or birthday,” according to Cerione. And while the Park Hyatt’s occupancy rate hovers around 30 percent right now, Cerione notes that Blue Duck Tavern has continued to do quite well in the face of the pandemic as D.C. residents patronize their favorite restaurants. “Now that we’re in our 15th year, we’ve benefited from a very local following,” he says. “One of our regulars has joined us over 1,200 times over the years.”

While hotel eateries have seen an uptick in local business, the past eight months have come with major challenges and magic acts. Takeout and delivery, which many restaurants are relying on right now, doesn’t typically make up a large percentage of hotel restaurant revenue. 

“We had to figure out how to run every type of revenue stream we can in a food business,” Ma says of American Son’s efforts since the pandemic began. “Takeout, community kitchen, ghost kitchen, off-premise private events, virtual cooking classes, virtual dinner parties, makeshift wine store, online grocer, online alcohol sales. You name it, we did it.” 

On top of these pivots, Ma adds, “We suddenly had to figure out how to be policy experts, grant fund writers, packaging experts, furlough specialists, street patio designers, disease experts, virtual conference room savants, unemployment experts, and cash flow managers.”

Servers have also faced a new set of obstacles compounded by reduced capacity limits. Café Riggs, for example, is operating with just 10 percent of its opening staff, according to Dang. “We have real safety concerns,” says Tina Hatano, a server and bartender at Café Riggs. “Working in a restaurant within a hotel, we have a lot more guests from out of state, so we have to explain D.C. regulations upfront. Otherwise, they get confused by certain new standards we’ve implemented.” 

Matthew Gilchrist, the food and beverage director at The LINE, says the act of serving guests has fundamentally changed. “We used to explain our dishes as we were setting them down in front of guests,” Gilchrist says. “But now, we place the food, take several steps back, and then give a quick overview of the meal. It’s safer not only for our patrons, but for our servers, too.” 

While you have to search hard for a silver lining of the pandemic, Ma thinks some of the new protocols the crisis has brought about are positive. “Guest and employee safety and cleanliness within our industry will certainly be improved, and that’s a great thing,” he says. “Restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels will all be designed to ensure for more openness and more outdoor space.” 

Guests seem to be more appreciative than ever of their servers and hotel management, according to Cerione. “In general, most of our guests are very respectful and abide by the D.C. guidelines,” he says. “I am pleasantly surprised by how upbeat and positive everyone has been, despite what is happening.”

Kat, a guest at Blue Duck Tavern describes her renewed interest in dining locally. “I never knew how much I appreciated these sorts of restaurants until they shut down for months,” she says. “I just feel that if I can support these folks, then I should.”