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Where People Want to Stay:  The Westin Grand, Washington D.C.

It's a Saturday night in June, pleasantly cool and dry for a Saturday night in June in the nation’s capitol, and we are standing in front of the arc-shaped wing that is the  façade of the eight-story Westin Grand. Set back from the corner where M Street meets 23rd, the hotel branches out into a pair of rectangular wings that extend down the length of each block. Cars are slowly coming off the street onto the small entrance plaza either unloading passengers in evening dress (there are two weddings at the hotel tonight) or picking up others for one of the many local destinations hosting events this lovely evening.

"You see these young people, all dressed up, leaving the hotel?" a tall and burly doorman with a big, warm-hearted smile asks  us. "They’re going to a wedding or a party at some other place. But they're staying here. It happens all the time. Even if the function is somewhere else, people want to stay here. That's because this place is so special!"

This is Haile Selassie, the employee of greatest longevity at the Westin Grand who, as it happens, shares the birthplace as well as the name of the erstwhile emperor. ("It's not an uncommon name in Ethiopia," he tells us.) "There are plenty of hotels in Washington. But people want to stay here because they know about the service. Everyone on the staff goes out of their way to take care of the guests."

If service is one reason people choose the Westin Grand, location must be another. Looking across 23rd Street and down M, we can practically see the beginning of historic Georgetown just two blocks away with its brick sidewalks, small shops, and old- Washington ambience. A few blocks to the south, George Washington University stands at the gateway to Foggy Bottom, home to the State Department  and headquarters of many national and international organizations. And just beyond is the White House which leads to the Mall and monuments. "Practically all of it is within walking distance," Haile says.    

"Today this neighborhood has its own name: the West End. It's all modern hotels and apartment houses," he adds. "But when I began working here back in 1993, it was just an extension of Foggy Bottom, and it wasn't nearly as built up. A parking lot was right across the street. Many of the buildings you see now are from the late 1990s and early 2000s. And we weren't a Westin then, just the Grand. But in 1995, after the owners went bankrupt, the property was bought by a company who did some renovation. In 1996, it was taken over by Starwood."

Designed by the famed architectural firm Merrill, Owing and Skidmore, the hotel was touted as one of the most luxurious properties in Washington when it opened in 1984. Critics took note of the copper dome atop the curved façade, guestrooms that looked out to a central gardened courtyard in the European style, luxurious marble bathrooms, and the soaring circular lobby (modeled after the lobby of the Plaza Athenée in Paris), rimmed with marble pillars and topped with a ceiling of concentric rings that resembled a flying saucer. Happily, nearly a quarter of a century later, all these features remain.

In 2007, the hotel underwent a complete renovation of its 263 guest rooms resulting in the light-filled, spacious accommodations decorated in cool neutral colors and a sleek contemporary style. All come with the Westin "heavenly bed" of fine linens, multiple pillows and the kept promise of blissful, restful sleep, as well as hi-speed Internet connection and flat-screen televisions. Bathrooms were also redone. Now white and tan, they're equipped with enormous soaking tubs and separate showers stalls with the de rigueur Westin dual shower head.

redit Westin Grand - click to enlarge
Credit Westin Grand

redit Westin Grand - click to enlarge
Credit Westin Grand

Jennifer DelosReyes, who recently took over the role of sales and catering  coordinator for the Westin Grand, told us she was overwhelmed by the renovations. "I'd stayed here a number of times when I worked with the global sales office. But when I came on to the team and toured the property, I could not believe the difference. I saw the bathrooms, and it was 'Wow!' They used to have these dark red granite counters that made them seem so small. Now, with the textured wallpaper, the sand-colored marble, the glass shower doors -- it blew my mind."

Zigi (far right) and friends at the M Street Grill  - click to enlarge
Zigi (far right) and friends at the M Street Grill

A native of Washington who lived in Denver for some years before returning to her home ground, Jennifer is part of a staff that reflects the diversity of the nation's capitol. There are more than a few of Haile Selassie's compatriots from Ethiopia as well as a number from neighboring Eritrea. We met people from Poland, the Philippines, South and Central America, Italy -- all seemingly happy to be part of the Washington and, in particular, Westin Grand scene.

Tseghereda Tesfamical, who’s known as Zigi and comes from Eritrea, is the charismatic hostess at the M Street Grill where she presides over a multinational team. Breakfast and lunch are available in this bright and airy dining room which opens onto a courtyard whose stone wall with bas relief- fountain looks like it was taken from an ancient Roman villa.

Café on M, a popular setting for DC power lunches and dinners, has a more subdued and private ambience and its own charming hostess who came to Washington from another land. In her native Poland, Slywia  Holden had studied Russian language and literature. Now the attractive young woman can add English to her list of mastered languages. 

Executive Chef Lance Mion is from upstate New York. A photographer in the Boston region in his early 30s, he decided to switch careers and enroll in the Academy de Cuisine in Bethesda. "That was in 1994," he told us. "I always wanted to go to culinary school and figured if I don't do it now, I'll never do it."

Detail of wall in court outside the M Street Grill  - click to enlarge
Detail of wall in court outside the M Street Grill

Lance worked in a classic French restaurant in Chevy Chase and as a contracted chef  in the Clinton White House during the two terms of that administration before joining the Westin Grand some six years ago.

"Our cuisine is international but geared to an American palate," he said. "We participate in the Starwood menu (along with about 180 other Starwood American hotels), offering main courses like New York sirloin, broiled salmon, and grilled yellowfin tuna.   But we also have an 'Unwind Specialty Menu' ("unwind" being the Westin codeword for the state of relaxation the hotel aims to inspire, enhanced by the outdoor swimming pool, health center, and convivial gatherings over lunch or dinner).  

"I have a Mexican sous chef  who has created a kind of tapas selection to accompany the traditional Café on M menu: three artisan cheeses with orange blossom honey and a fine five-year-old Maderia; southwest pizza made of a grilled tortilla with a grilled New York strip, guacamole, feta cheese and chipotie crema; fried shrimp twists with seared scallions and soy ginger aioli; sweet and sour chicken wings with hot Thai chili sauce and Vietnamese sweet chili sauce. We do have the ability to run specials and I allow my sous chef a lot of free rein with that. At the same time, I'm trying to come up with my own menu, more of a bistro style. For both of us it's not just a job; we very much like to cook, and we especially like the creative side."

It is in the hotel's active banquet scene that Lance gets the chance to exercise his creativity. "That's a major part of this property's business," he told us. "We do company events, a lot of pharmaceuticals, insurance, some political groups. We do weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, social events for businesses. And here is where we can make use of the local cuisine, the Washington/Maryland products like the rockfish we get from the Chesapeake Bay  -- a major item. At the moment, I'm preparing a five course tasting menu with matching wines for a dinner for the board of directors of the host company (the actual owners of the hotel managed by Starwood).

"We've gotten three or four international groups staying at the hotel at one time," he added, "Chinese, Saudi, South American. We had to prepare dinners for all of them. Then we did a wedding for a pair of Italian Americans, worked out a menu of stations. There was whole roasted snapper but also comfort food: Italian sausage with fennel, roasted peppers with onions. It was terrific.

"But the most interesting event was our banquet for the Humane Society. They wanted a vegan menu. So we prepared a curry quioa salad with apples and walnuts (quioa being an ancient grain with high protein content originally grown in the Andes). We found a vendor who supplied a soy-based protein that we were able to shape and cook like a filet  -- we made a meatless brown sauce to go with it. For dessert, we had Bavarian cream with raspberries. I used a cream substitute that I was able to whip with a natural syrup."

It would seem with Lance in the kitchen, anything is possible -- even a splendid vegan dinner . But making things possible is apparently the operative theme of the Westin Grand where people like Lance and Jennifer, Zigi and Slywia, and the irrepressible Haile Selassie share a credo of providing the kind of service that results in a hotel being the place where -- as Hailie Selassie so aptly put it -- "people want to stay."

The Westin Grand
2350 M St. NW
Washington, dc 20037

         l: Phone: 202429.0100,

           Web:  http://www.westin.com/washingtondc

Photographs by Harvey Frommer (unless otherwise noted)

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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