Historical Chic: Overnighting at D.C.’s Spectacular Riggs Hotel

Whatever else happened during our stay at the Riggs Hotel, when we ordered a dirty martini and it arrived with a pair of plump Sicilian castelvetrano olives, we knew we were in a place that cared for attention to detail. After all, we’ve grown tired over the years of ordering a $17 cocktail, and then seeing those sad little pimento-stuffed green things from the supermarket floating around in it.

The Riggs opened in DC’s Penn Quarter at the absolute worst imaginable time for a hotel to open, in February of 2020, one month before the first COVID lockdowns went into effect. It reopened in July of that year, but has yet to exist in a time where the threat of virus surges was not hovering over everyone’s travel decisions. Still, upon our December visit, there was a palpable buzz in the public spaces, and a towering, festively decorated Christmas tree near the elevators urged us to forget about all the bad news flashing across our screens, and actually instilled a much needed dose of holiday cheer.

But the Riggs announces its specialness as soon as one pulls up to the front door, fitted as it is into the majestic 19th Century former home of the Riggs Bank, an especially stunning example of Romanesque Revival architecture. And Lore Group Creative Director Jacu Strauss ran with that theme, rather than attempting to mod the place up. So as we stepped into the check-in area, with its antiquey wood, Deco style chandeliers, and retro banker’s lamps, we almost felt as if it were the 1920s, and we were coming in to make a deposit, rather than getting ready to deposit ourselves in a plushly designed room a few flights up.

The first thing we noticed upon entering said room, was the architectural heft of the surrounding area, visible through a trio of generously proportioned windows. In one direction was the 1869 Masonic Temple building, in another the National Portrait Gallery, and yet another the Hotel Monaco, the latter two both built in an imposing neo-classical style. The views, indeed, were aces.

What we also noticed was that of the two books placed on the bedside table, one was by Sylvia Plath, the other by William Blake, two writers who surely could not represent more disparate points of view – he the enlightened mystic, she the tortured trailblazer of confessional lit. The furnishings also seemed to have no use for matching up. To be sure, in a hospitality culture of far too much comfortably familiar beige, the Riggs was more about clever clashes, including surreally patterned headboards, and wall coverings by Voutsa that might just as easily have been depicting melting ghosts as hypnotically ruched fabrics.

And how often might one expect to find a plush chartreuse armchair + ottoman sitting stop a geometrically patterned rug? Contrast that with a mini-bar tucked into a neo-classical style cabinet, and deep red walls and drapes uniting it all in a refined sense of regal but cheeky elegance.

We also got a peek at the lavish First Ladies Suites, three of which are named for less famous presidents’ wives and one for a presidential daughter-in-law…and each coming in at more than 500 square feet total. The Ida McKinley was a riot of purple and pink, inspired by her love of flowers; the Angelica Van Buren was all polished sophistication; the Caroline Harrison reflected the colors of her famous porcelain collection; and the Louisa Adams had a full sized grand piano tucked into a corner, recalling her affinity for music. (For those with a lot of friends in the capital, the 720-square-foot Riggs Suite boasts a wet bar and a dining table for twelve.)

We were disappointed that the Silver Lyan, arguably now DC’s premiere cocktail bar, was closed on the Monday we were visiting. But by early evening the hotel’s opulent Riggs Cafe was abuzz with the sort of energy we hadn’t experienced since COVID first shut down the hospitality business all those months ago. After ordering that aforementioned martini, we just sat back for a little people watching before scanning the room for historical details, with the dramatically arched windows, handsomely coffered ceiling, massive distressed mirrors, and imposing marble columns creating an awesome sense of grandiosity. But all that was distinctly contrasted by a 15-foot-tall, rather surreal looking “terrarium” installation full of radiant faux flowers. Somehow, it all worked brilliantly.

There were even TVs showing old B&W film footage from the time of the bank’s heyday, including the Women’s Olympic Swimming Team in training, FDR signing some or other bill that was surely pissing off the capitalists, and a really strange looking Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The warm mini French breads wrapped in a bag were a genuinely nice touch as a prequel to dinner, and we followed with the cucumber and caviar appetizer, which was served with a particularly flavorful helping of potato chips, proving that caviar does not have to be unapproachable. And since we most definitely want our last meal on this earth to involve chicken liver mousse, we order it whenever possible, just in case. At the Riggs, the spiced quince gelée gave it an utterly unexpected kick and sweetness all at once. It was one of the best we’ve ever had, and we could have possibly even died happy right then.

D.C. has seen no shortage of genuinely impressive hotels open in the last few years, the Conrad, the Viceroy, the Thompson, the Lyle… But our stay at the Riggs took us to the conclusion that it represents by far the most engaging and immersive experience in the capital right now, that ideal mix of history, luxury, energy and inimitable style that attracts us again and again to our fave properties. We, of course, will be back, if only for the chicken liver mousse.

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