Trump gone but not entirely forgotten: A night at the new Waldorf Astoria in DC
The name out front may now say Waldorf Astoria, but the influence of Donald Trump — especially thanks to a few design and signage Easter eggs — is still fully felt at Hilton’s latest ultra-luxury hotel in Washington, D.C.
When the Trump International Hotel in D.C. reopened last week as a Waldorf Astoria three weeks after shuttering, it was inevitable Hilton wouldn’t have been able to sweep every vestige of its former namesake under the rug with such a tight timeline.
That said, I didn’t expect to see Kellyanne Conway immediately upon entering the five-star property. Admittedly, it was just on a TV blasting Fox News over the newly crowned Peacock Alley (more on that later), but it was still rather front and center in the lobby on a Friday afternoon.
Hilton (and owner CGI Merchant Group, which reportedly paid $375 million for the lease rights to the building, formerly the Old Post Office) made a few quick changes to the property when it comes to in-room amenities, almost all the signage, and food and beverage. But it is clear this is not going to be the final product of the Trump-to-Waldorf conversion.
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I hopped down to D.C. for a stay on the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC’s second official night in business. There’s a lot for Hilton to already be proud of in nabbing the property, but there’s also room for improvement — likely the normal friction that goes from transitioning out of one brand and into another.
It would be easy for someone to walk into the hotel and obnoxiously jeer, “It’s as though a Real Housewife in partnership with the Federalist Society was given a budget to design a hotel” (and I’m sure a few have). But there is unmistakable five-star service — and five-star apologies, when needed — that make this property one to watch as Hilton sinks its teeth into the rebrand.
The Waldorf is expected to trump – sorry, I had to – the nearby Conrad as the hotel giant's most prestigious property in the Washington, D.C., area.
However, in the meantime, there’s still a lot — a lot — of gold-plated and velvet … everything.
As my colleague Tanner Saunders and I noted last week, the D.C. Waldorf does not come cheap — in terms of points or even paying with cash. August has the lowest award availability for the year at 464,000 points per night on select dates — translating to about 0.2 cents per point, which is below TPG’s current valuation of Hilton Honors points at 0.6 cents apiece. Rooms were going for 583,000 Hilton Honors points on Friday night when I stayed.
I ended up booking directly through Hilton’s website, but make no mistake: This wasn’t coming as any superior bargain. My base rate for a deluxe king guest room (the cheapest option available) came with a base rate of $1,261 for Friday night along with $188.51 in tax. Yes, a basic king room was going for nearly $1,500 a night.
Once everything was confirmed, I got an email with the typical Hilton promises of a safe, clean stay (part of their CleanStay program introduced during the pandemic) as well as the “True Waldorf Service” offering up a personal concierge for “before, during and after your stay.”
As I type up this review at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport waiting for my flight back to Boston, I’m still waiting on the first outreach from this supposed True Waldorf Service.
If the main rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC can’t be beaten. It’s on Pennsylvania Avenue within walking distance of the White House, Washington Monument, Capitol Hill and a litany of other major D.C. attractions.
Given its history, some might say it was a little too accessible for a prior White House administration, as the former owner (the Trump Organization) faced constant scrutiny for potentially leveraging the hotel as a way to gain access to the former president.
Lobbyists and foreign governments would book rooms at the hotel in hopes of wooing the Trump White House. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s former lawyer, even used a table at the hotel’s restaurant as a private office.
The hotel’s location is prime for wheeling and dealing, plotting whatever it is people on respective sides of the aisle in D.C. plot and seeing the sights. I managed to leave the hotel on Saturday morning and grab a coffee, walk to the Capitol and down the National Mall to the Washington Monument, up to the White House (snapping photos the whole time) and back to the hotel in less than an hour.
Check-in and lobby
I initially checked in via the Hilton Honors app on my phone just before my plane pulled out of the gate in Boston to head to D.C. The hotel offered up a sixth-floor room, but I changed to a room on the eighth floor that was also offered and indicated I’d arrive by 5 p.m.
The travel karma was strong, as I arrived just before 5 p.m. at the front door of the Waldorf. The Trump signage outside is all gone, but upon closer inspection it appeared the main Waldorf Astoria sign was temporary.
Other parts of the building’s exterior where Trump branding once flashed are now blank.
I hopped out of my Uber, and a very friendly bellman greeted me, took my bags and led me to the check-in desk. I was immediately able to talk to a front desk attendant, who informed me I was getting a great view of Capitol Hill with my room. But he quickly apologized and said he needed to confirm with housekeeping that it was ready.
It was evident there was some back-and-forth going on, as I heard a muttering of “the guest is right in front of me.” Eventually, he said the room should be ready in 10 minutes and guided me to a cozy spot amid the sea of blue velvet couches across the cavernous lobby.
I actually welcomed the delay, as it gave me time to soak in the property that has been in and out of headlines over the last six years.
My immediate takeaways: Hilton and CGI Merchant Group have their work cut out if they plan on leaving a new mark on this lobby. Everything appeared like it was just as the Trump Organization left it, save for a Hilton Honors sign on the front desk and menus showing the main bar is now Peacock Alley — a mainstay for the Waldorf brand. A full-service restaurant remains closed for now, so Peacock Alley is where guests can take their meals (or source their in-room dining).
There are clear signs the Trump-led renovation of the Old Post Office several years back paid homage to the building’s former use. Modern elevators maintain a rustic feel. Exposed beams arc toward a massive skylight above.
But while there might be some strong elements referencing the building’s glory days, there are also a few lingering questions — namely, at what point do so many gold-accented pieces of furniture (and velvet couches) in one room cross the line from luxurious to tacky?
Further, my first impression of Peacock Alley is that it’s not so much a luxurious hotel bar as dancing in purgatory between a sports bar (four massive TVs — one on Fox News, the other on CNN and the remaining two on sports — adorn the ornate bar) and something more. It’s almost too sprawling to conjure any distinct brand identity at this point.
Of course, it was only day two under Waldorf purview.
I glanced at my watch at this point, realizing just over 20 minutes had passed. The friendly attendant came over to assure me it would only be two more minutes (a bathrobe needed to be procured) and I’d be on my way to the room “with that amazing Capitol view.” He eventually returned with the room key and apologized with a $25 food and beverage credit at Peacock Alley.
I was more than happy to let this slide at first because a hotel stay I had earlier this year involved a front desk manager telling me, “Your room may just never be ready,” so the Waldorf team was leaps and bounds better.
But then I remembered: This room costs nearly $1,500 a night!
Flaws tend to stand out more in luxury hotels that charge premium rates.
A brief time in room No. 1
Another friendly bellman arrived with the front desk attendant and collected my bags and led me to my room on the eighth floor. After all the ballyhoo of how great this view was going to be, I was excited to finally check it out. We chatted on the way up, and it’s here I learned the staff is still the same crew from the Trump International days — not a bad thing, as I’d say the attentive team was largely the hotel’s strongest selling point.
We finally got to the room, and the key didn’t work. I offered to run down to the lobby, but the bellman quickly went down the hall and got a master key and said he’d be back in a few minutes with a new key for me. We got into the room, and it was lovely but not necessarily jaw-dropping.
I noticed my first couple of Trump Easter eggs: the espresso pod holder still had the Trump Hotels logo on it as did the fire exit map on the back of the guest room door. The room itself still had the same decor as under prior ownership: a gold-accented bed frame decked out in very cozy white bedding immediately caught the eye before my eyes moved on to the royal blue curtains and, yes, velvet accent wall.
The desk and bureau had gold accents as well, and I also noticed some wallpaper was beginning to sag in parts of the room. The bathroom was decked out in marble and only had a shower. The first immediate upgrade I saw from Hilton’s new attachment to the brand was the toiletries.
I’m a bit of a hotel toiletry snob. In no way am I advocating for theft of goods found on an unattended housekeeping cart in a hallway. However, my litmus test for good hotel products is pretty easy: If you do see an unattended housekeeping cart in a hallway, do you start thinking about how you could really upgrade your guest bathroom experience back home if you just happened to nab a few soaps and mini shampoos and conditioners as you passed by?
My one time at a Trump Hotel was the Trump International Hotel in Chicago many years ago, and while it was a perfectly luxurious guest room, the Trump-branded bath products were so perfumed that I popped down to the Walgreens on Michigan Avenue for some $1.99 travel-sized Suave soaps.
This time around and with new Waldorf branding, the Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries were a sublime upgrade and not nearly as overwhelming as the time I briefly used Trump-label body wash. And no, there wasn’t an unattended housekeeping cart for the duration of my stay, so the litmus test was never deployed.
Once the butler left (after popping my bag in the closet), I went to the window to check out that amazing view — only to have a Capitol-less scene greet me. Instead, it featured a neighboring rooftop and a stream of takeoffs from Reagan National Airport.
I was going to just roll with it until that voice inside my head once again reared itself: This room costs nearly $1,500 a night!
I called down to see about a room change. A different front desk attendant picked up and said she’d see what she could do and call me back. A half-hour passed (during which an extraordinarily friendly employee arrived for turndown service), and by this point I was ready to go to the gym before dinner.
There was no literature or printed hotel information in the room, so I called down to the front desk again to see where the fitness center was — and asked again about that room change.
I got directions as well as news I was getting a room change and that a butler was on his way up.
Room No. 2
The butler showed me into a new room on the seventh floor, and this one was more spacious than my first and didn’t have the slight vault in the ceiling as the one upstairs (I found out later via my Hilton Honors app I was moved up a category to a grand king).
There was a chandelier over the, yes, gold-accented bed with velvet accent wall behind it. A separate sitting area with a desk in the corner is where you had to go to get the much-hyped Capitol view (the building next door still blocked the view from much of the room).
The bathroom was also an upgrade, with a separate tub as well as a shower. Alas, once the butler left, I noticed there were no toiletries. In fact, there was what appeared to be a soap bar used by the prior occupant still in the shower. While the last room had a few Evian water bottles throughout, this one was bare — and didn’t have a bathrobe.
That wouldn’t be such a deal-breaker save for the fact that the final minutes of my initial room delay were blamed on a bathrobe, and, well, the voice inside my head saying: This room costs nearly $1,500 a night! Then I imagined the former president and reality TV host staying here and throwing out his catchphrase to the poor staffer who forgot the robe: "You're fired!"
Instead, I chalked it all up to growing pains from the quick ownership change.
I called down to the front desk to ask about getting toiletries, and another butler was promptly sent up to stock the bathroom (for the record, the bathroom did look clean when I came in, it just seemed like the soap rack in the shower was neglected).
As for other decor, I noticed a rip in the curtain, leading me to believe Hilton and CGI should start considering an overhaul of the furniture and other interior design elements sooner rather than later if both rooms were showing signs of age.
As far as sleep goes, the bed was extremely comfortable and the sheer curtains and drapes closed with the press of a button — a nice feature for those looking to avoid the sun waking them up the next morning.
My room was very quiet, and I think that was helped by the design of the building. Many guest rooms are accessed from vestibules off the main corridors. Curtains line the walls of the main hallways overlooking the lobby, offsetting some degree of sound leakage from the bar downstairs up to guest rooms.
If you head down to the first floor and then down another flight of stairs behind the main elevators, you’ll get to the Waldorf’s spa and fitness center level. At one point the spa was an Ivanka Trump-branded spa, but Waldorf signage was already up inside. I couldn’t get much farther in because a team was working on what appeared to be new signage for the front door.
I moved onto the nearby gym, which was totally empty but stocked with just about anything you could need. Hotel gyms can often be sparse, sad things where owners toss in an elliptical and a few weights and call it a day. This gym was spacious, had an array of cardio equipment and strength training areas and offered chilled towels and water as well as those at room temperature.
Food and beverage
For now, the Waldorf is limited when it comes to where you can grab an on-site drink or a bite to eat. Sushi Nakazawa, a Michelin-rated Japanese restaurant, was unaffected by the sale of the Trump hotel and remains in operation, but the Waldorf team made no mention of it at check-in or when I called ahead the night prior to make sure there was somewhere to grab dinner at the hotel.
The staff told me Peacock Alley is the main option while a full-service, sit-down restaurant is in the works in the space where BLT Prime, a steakhouse, once stood. BLT Prime rather infamously was the restaurant where the ex-president reportedly had a seven-step procedure for opening his Diet Coke before moving onto his preferred meal of shrimp cocktail, a well-done steak and fries.
Have no fear (well, unless you’re a cardiologist): You can still get these menu items across the lobby at Peacock Alley.
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, and I had no problem scoring a, duh, velvet seat on Friday night. The place was buzzing with a mix of people who ranged from those appearing to be there just for a good time with friends or loved ones to those looking for creative ways to deploy an expense account (“We talked work for five minutes, so these can be expensed,” I overheard as two folks enjoyed a second round of martinis next to me at the bar).
Drinks and food aren’t exactly cheap. Peacock Alley offers a mix of classic and modern cocktails like a Vesper martini ($28) and a spicy margarita ($32). Given that I was on the hunt for any vestiges of the prior owner, I noticed I was able to put together a shrimp cocktail, steak (albeit cooked to medium instead of well-done) and fries with the menu. All were delicious.
While not the priciest items on the menu, they still weren’t the cheapest — the shrimp cocktail was $30 while the steak frites went for $42. For those wanting to do more damage to their wallet with red meat, a wagyu ribeye was on the menu for $95.
My biggest gripe at dinner was that a few conversion pains were showing through. I asked for help picking between two wines for the steak and the waiter just laughed it off as, “The menu is new.”
On the one hand, I found this to be entirely reasonable, as there was a quick turnaround on the property. On the other, my inner monologue reared its head: This room costs nearly $1,500 a night!
Service also wasn’t the fastest on Friday evening, with dinner taking almost two hours to get through. I brought a book to read, so maybe they were just giving me time to make some headway.
This is where I think there is the most opportunity to transform the space. Because of the atrium design, it gets dim inside the lobby at night, and the glow from four massive TVs over the bar is distracting and takes away from the desired luxurious vibe — especially when two cable news stations are on. Finding a way to make Peacock Alley a bit more intimate rather than so out in the open could be a nice upgrade. Maybe it’s different during the week, but it didn’t appear anyone on Friday night was there to tune into Fox News, CNN or even the games playing on ESPN.
They also might want to do something with the bar. It’s a perfectly ornate design from ground level, but from above, you’ll notice it is in the shape of a giant “T” — yet another Easter egg one can only imagine awaits an overhaul.
Service the following morning for breakfast was impeccable and breezed through without feeling rushed. Again, I went for not the priciest items on the menu, but Peacock Alley isn’t a place you would go for a diner breakfast deal. (I don't have any status with Hilton, which eliminated its free breakfast benefit late last year. If I was a Gold member or above, I would have received a nightly $25 food and beverage credit; $50 if somebody else was staying in the room with me.)
I decided to go with avocado toast after the prior night’s red meat. It cost $26, so maybe this is the avocado toast Australian mogul Tim Gurner was talking about in 2017 when he said millennials can’t afford to buy a house because they’re too busy shelling out for the breakfast treat. However, one could do worse: An egg white omelet was on the menu for $32 while a lobster waffle was available for $49.
The avocado toast was divine: a thick, toasted piece of bread slathered in smashed avocados and accented with feta and tomatoes. The waitstaff was extremely friendly and attentive. I didn’t see the bottom of my coffee cup for the duration of the meal.
Overall, breakfast is where the service at Peacock Alley is a major standout.
One thing of note: D.C. is now a town of two Peacock Alleys. It might be a little confusing for Washington regulars, as the nearby Willard InterContinental hosts weekend high tea at its own Peacock Alley. Make sure you’re heading to the right spot if you’re just going for a meal or a drink.
The employees are the best part of the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC. This shouldn’t come as a shock, as many have been with the hotel since before Hilton and CGI Merchant Group entered the fray. Everyone was hospitable without being aloof or sterile.
This is clearly a team that knows how to run a hotel. It is exciting to think about what they will be able to accomplish, once logistical glitches are worked out, under new ownership that (hopefully) refreshes the property where early signs of age are beginning to appear.
Pretty much all the main issues during my stay appeared to have something to do with the switch to a new brand. Of course, it’s been two days since I checked out and my inner monologue still can’t stop with: That room cost nearly $1,500 a night! The price and points redemption was steep, and a quick scan showed rooms at other five-star hotels in the area like the Mandarin Oriental, St. Regis and Rosewood all going for significantly less.
Maybe the high room rates are to scare people off from booking until the rebirth can set in.
It’s only natural to immediately snoop on this space to see how much of its predecessor’s vibe remains with the property. There aren’t copies of “The Art of the Deal” lingering on bookcases, and Rudy Giuliani and the My Pillow guy aren’t in a corner (that I saw) doing whatever it is those two do. The closest Trump-branded merchandise I found for sale in the vicinity was wine from Trump Vineyards, which was at a bar two blocks away from the Waldorf.
Nevertheless, this — for now — very much still feels like Trump’s hotel.
Hilton didn’t know I was coming down for a stay, but a company spokesperson did indicate last week that changes were in store for the property.
“We are proud to bring Waldorf Astoria’s commitment to personal service and unforgettable experiences to this iconic location – and look forward to sharing more information in the coming months about the exciting amenities and services that will be available at the hotel,” the spokesperson said upon news that the property had reopened as a Waldorf.
Hilton finally has a Waldorf in the nation’s capital. Now it’s time to make sure it has an identity distinct from its past — and hopefully faster than the Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas, which, as of last year, still had elements of the Mandarin Oriental that occupied its building until 2018.