These Washington, D.C. Hotels Combine Style with Social Consciousness

"With an emphasis on local food and culture, hoteliers and chefs are shifting the center of gravity in Washington, D.C."

Last spring, Sheldon Scott stood on the roof of the soon-to-open Eaton Workshop hotel in Washington, D.C. The 41-year-old fine artist—performance mostly, but some installation—wore a leather biker jacket, thick spectacles, and a hard hat. On one side of K Street below us was the Shaw neighborhood, once home to Duke Ellington and a flourishing African American arts scene, that, for the last decade or so, has been the epicenter of D.C.’s cultural rebirth. In the other direction were the neoclassical marble buildings that fill the capital like Tetris blocks. Scott’s job as Eaton’s director of culture is to marry the two.

It was cherry blossom season and, ten stories down, the trees had burst open, their spindly branches surrounded by exuberant pink clouds. For a city that sees the world as either red or blue, it was a welcome change.

“Washington and D.C. are different places,” he said, shielding his eyes from the morning sun. “Washington is where people work; D.C. is where people do.” The hotel sits at the intersection.

“K Street has a historical relationship to power and change,” Scott continued, “and D.C. is the praxis of change. It’s meaningful that the first Eaton is happening here.” To demonstrate the kinds of progressive ideas Eaton hopes to nurture, Scott walked me to the site of Eaton’s rooftop farm, whose greens will supply the hotel’s restaurant (American Son, run by local chef Tim Ma) but more significantly help feed the homeless populations of nearby Franklin Park.

The bar at Del Mar.

Nicole Franzen

For a long time, the capital’s hotel and food scene was as gridlocked as Congress. It consisted mostly of internationally known chefs and hospitality companies catering to the political and business establishments. But a new generation of hoteliers (such as the teams behind Eaton and Line DC) and restaurateurs (such as Fabio Trabocchi, of the Spanish-influenced seafood restaurant Del Mar, or Rose Previte, of the North African–inspired Maydan) is rewriting the rules and redrawing the landscape. (A new waterfront development project along the Wharf will be the location of a Thompson hotel slated to open in 2020.) They’re arguing that the chophouse shouldn’t be the city’s culinary gold standard, and that hotel lobbies aren’t just for lobbyists but also for artists, activists, and trendsetters.

Eaton is the labor of love of Katherine Lo, Founder and President of Eaton Workshop, and the daughter of Dr. Ka Shui Lo, chairman of Great Eagle Holdings Ltd., the Hong Kong-based parent company of Langham Hospitality Group. In 2014, her father invited her to develop a brand for her generation. “He was inspired by seeing how tech firms were disrupting industry,” said Lo, who once hung an American flag upside down from her dorm room at Yale to protest the war in Iraq. “The idea was to use my family business’s resources, but channel them toward something good,” she explained. Lo may speak for a generation more at ease commingling commercialism with conviction, as some have said of millennials, but her strategy also makes business sense. According to Neil Malhotra, a political science professor at Stanford University and coauthor of “The Economic Consequences of Partisanship in a Polarized Era,” “if you’re starting a company, and don’t have brand recognition, you can take advantage [of that] to brand yourself associated with a specific partisan affiliation.”

Katherine Lo.

Julian Berman

At Eaton, every element makes a statement. The music in the public spaces comes solely from a vinyl collection and is meant to be played from the beginning of an album to the end (“It’s all about the shared music-listening experience,” Scott told me). There is a Reiki room and a yoga studio where the hotel’s artists-in-residence will be able to take free classes. In the first-floor bar is a blank wall that will soon bear a mural of Alice in Wonderland as told by Ruby Bridges, the first African American to integrate New Orleans schools. The conference rooms are named after overlooked figures such as Beverly Snow, an African American restaurateur whose Epicurean Eating House was destroyed in 1835 by a lynch mob.

“Can you imagine what it would’ve been like for a former slave, now free, running a successful business in downtown Washington 30 years before emancipation?” asked Scott. “It’s our job to use examples like this to inspire people and remind them that times do change. Pendulums swing.” To that end, Eaton fosters exchange. We walk through the future home of Eaton House DC, a co-working space where a DJ will spin current events–inspired playlists engineered to get people talking.

“If I can get the impassioned scientist who is all about the conservation of the Guatemalan rock shrimp to be as interested and engaged in unsolved murders of trans people of color, then I have done my job,” Scott said.

Lo's utopian vision remains in the early stages. Across town, however, at the Line DC hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, things are further along.

“Washington and D.C. are different places. Washington is where people work; D.C. is where people do.”

Four years in the making, the Line opened last winter in a cavernous former Christian Science church, where guests on a recent Friday night ate octopus hot dogs and duck ballotines beneath an elaborate mobile made of church-organ pipes. As in Eaton, statements can be found everywhere, from a stack of books on a windowsill that includes Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture to Full Service Radio (FSR), the station that broadcasts from a glass-walled studio in the Line’s lobby. FSR’s programs include Insert Here, a show about “sex lives outside the heteronormative experience,” and District Derkas, a show that “deciphers the Middle Eastern experience within the capital of the United States.”

Adams Morgan, the neighborhood surrounding the Line DC.

Nicole Franzen

To spend an hour listening to FSR or to sit out- side the control room sipping cocktails like I’m Hip and Very Bitter—made with Virginia Fizz wine, Bruto Americano, gin, and grapefruit—is to glimpse a progressive, pluralistic world bathed in millennial pink. But Jack Inslee, the station’s manager, pushes back against the characterization of the station as political. “Conflating the creative community with the political community does us a disservice,” he told me.

The Line’s parent company is the Sydell Group, whose CEO is Andrew Zobler. He was instrumental in the development of the Ace Hotel in New York, the archetype of the hotel-as-cultural hive. Part of the company’s success has to do with the way it incorporates the cultural context of its hotels’ locations—places like K-Town in Los Angeles or, starting this summer, Austin—rather than relying on a cookie-cutter formula. In D.C., according to Zobler, that approach means that, “while we don’t have a political agenda,” the hotel’s programming takes on an activist hue.

What the Line is most known for is a restaurant so in-demand that Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday there with her husband before it even opened. A Rake’s Progress is run by Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde and features American cuisine sourced solely from the local foodshed. Gjerde’s menu is both a love letter to the mid-Atlantic farmer and an act of resistance against what he calls industrial monoculture. Put differently, Gjerde and his chef have gone maniacally small. “That, to me, is kind of subversive in a good way,” he said.

A room at the Line DC hotel; Cape May tuna at A Rake’s Progress, the hotel's restaurant.

Nicole Franzen

The night I ate there, this philosophy translated into a hearth-roasted young chicken lovingly presented on a cutting board before being whisked away for carving; a grilled tranche of locally milled bread accompanied by a round of butter from Pennsylvania’s Trickling Springs Creamery; and a mille-feuille of locally grown vegetables served with campfire cream.

As the post-dinner din rose up to the vaulted ceiling, Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, but none of the guests seemed ready to retire to their rooms. In fact, it wasn’t clear how many of those people were actually staying at the hotel. But the drinks were flowing and the vibe was right, and when the late D.C. native Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” came over the sound system, more than one person started to sing along.