Before the 1970s, the word “Watergate” conjured images of a luxurious and prominent D.C. hotel, high-end apartments, and intriguing architectural design. And while the complex, which is located next to the Kennedy Center on the banks of the Potomac, will most likely never shake its association with the infamous 1972 break-in and subsequent scandal (especially considering current events), a recent renovation has helped it reclaim its status as one of D.C.’s most upscale hotels (and home to one of its most hopping rooftop cocktail bars). And it’s not trying to brush its past under the rug; rather, it’s embracing it in cheeky ways.
The Watergate Complex is one of the most easily identifiable of Washington landmarks, a group of five Modernist buildings constructed between 1963 and 1971 in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Most people might not realize that just one of the buildings is a hotel; three are co-op apartments, and the fifth, the Watergate Office Building, is where the Watergate burglary happened. The apartments are among the most sought-after in D.C. and are home to many prominent politicians, including Bob Dole.
The hotel, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, recently underwent an ownership change and a $200 million renovation helmed by designer Ron Arad, and we had the opportunity to spend an evening there; dine at the restaurant, Kingbird; and visit the rooftop bar, Top of the Gate, at their invitation.
The lobby has been completely refreshed with plenty of wood and copper, and it all undulates and is a nice echo of the buildings’ architecture. There’s a bar and a couple seating areas, and overall there’s a relaxed, classy atmosphere.
Our room, a Premier King, clocked in at around 400 square feet, and warm earth tones gave it a welcoming and relaxed vibe. The bed was extremely comfortable (300-thread-count sheets and goose down pillows and comforters didn’t hurt), lights could be controlled from a bedside console, and the marble bathroom had a double sink and a luxurious shower. There’s a large in-room dining menu, and we definitely could have spent the night in the room with a bottle of wine and a couple orders of filet mignon with Cognac peppercorn sauce, wild mushrooms, and potato purée. Our room also featured a balcony, which offered great views of the complex, the Potomac River, and Virginia beyond.
But we had places to go! First we headed up to the rooftop bar, which was absolutely hopping; seriously, it has to be one of the hottest spots in town (walk-ins have to stand near the bar area, so we suggest you reserve a table). And with great cocktails, comfortable couches for lounging, and one of the city’s best views, it’s readily apparent why. Cocktails include the mango Moscow Mule (mango vodka, lime, and ginger), Pico Pineapple (Flor de Cana, black pepper honey syrup, and pineapple), Chamomile Julep (bourbon, chamomile, and mint), and the Furiosa (chile-infused Don Julio, lime, cane sugar, and pomegranate), all priced at $16. Six varieties of pizza are also brought up from the kitchen downstairs in delivery boxes, and boozy Hawaiian ice is also a nice way to cool off. The rooftop bar was already near capacity (and it got so crowded as the night wore on that there was a very long wait to get in), so make sure you get there early.
After watching the sunset, we headed down to the hotel’s restaurant, Kingbird. The swanky space is divided into two sections: a front, more casual bar area and a back dining room with striking plush red banquettes. The ground-floor restaurant is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner nightly. Executive chef Michael Santoro has one heck of a resume: He spent time at The Fat Duck in London and Spain’s Mugaritz before working under chef Brian McBride at D.C.’s acclaimed Blue Duck Tavern and serving as executive chef at Philadelphia’s Talula’s Garden; he then was chef and owner of D.C.’s The Mildred.
His menus are influenced by fresh, seasonal ingredients, and Santoro’s classical French training definitely shines through. His focused menu is divided into four sections: nine appetizers, three “Butcher’s Block” options, eight main courses, and four seasonal sides. We started with an appetizer of soba and squid ink noodles topped with a generous serving of Alaskan king crab, vermouth cream, morel mushrooms, and aged Parmesan; and chargrilled beets with burrata, dill oil, and candied pecan. The king crab dish was luxurious and well-balanced; and the beets were offered in several different shapes and textures (including small cubes which were heavily seared on one side, lending them a caramelized earthy flavor), with a generous half-lobe of burrata. For the main course, a rack of Meadow View Farm lamb was perfectly cooked and covered with a flavorful herb crust, served with mint tortellini filled with braised lamb neck, along with fava beans and black olive jus. A 22-ounce dry-aged rib-eye was dramatically served sliced on a silver platter with a roasted head of garlic, a bundle of fresh herbs, and a bordelaise sauce that deposited chunks of melting marrow over the steak. It was rich and delicious, also perfectly cooked, and nicely charred under the broiler. Seriously, this steak alone would have made the trip to D.C. worth it.
The hotel is thoroughly modern, but still nods in several ways to its storied past. The stylish retro staff uniforms were designed by Mad Men’s Janie Bryant, and as mentioned, its infamous history isn’t swept under the rug. For example, pencils in each room say “I STOLE THIS FROM THE WATERGATE HOTEL” in bold letters, and instead of hold music, callers are treated to recorded speeches of Nixon.
The Watergate Hotel could have easily continued resting on its laurels as a relic of yesteryear and still had plenty of guests, but this renovation really brought it into the twenty-first century in a great way. It’s sleek but still welcoming, the rooms are state-of-the-art and incredibly comfortable, the rooftop bar is easily one of the city’s best, and the restaurant is superb.