The Great American Saloon Series

A Stone’s Throw From the White House

The Off the Record Bar at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

By From the March 2013 issue

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Once upon a time, old friends John Hay (personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln and later secretary of state for both Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft) and Henry Adams (scholarly descendant of our second and sixth presidents and the author of the classics Democracy and The Education of Henry Adams) decided that it would be a nice idea to live on the same block. And they didn’t choose just any block. Their adjoining family mansions stood on H Street, directly overlooking Lafayette Park to the south, just a stone’s throw from the White House. Given his low opinion of Woodrow Wilson, Henry Adams was probably sorely tempted to take advantage of that proximity in his later years. Unfortunately, the man didn’t have much of a throwing arm.

By the late 1920s, all the Adams and Hay inhabitants of the two mansions had either passed away or moved on. Their properties were purchased, their homes demolished, and Harry Wardman, the doyen of Washington builders, erected a tastefully luxurious, state-of-the-art hotel on the site. At 139 rooms, the inevitably named Hay-Adams was just the right size to accommodate a select clientele of the great and the famous, with room to spare for the merely well-heeled.

An elegant, beautifully proportioned building in the best Beaux-Arts style, it was the creation of Harry Wardman’s senior architect, Mihran Mesrobian, who had served as palace architect to the last sultan of Turkey—not that all that many new palaces were going up in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire—before beginning a new career in the New World. I knew him as Uncle Mihran because he was married to my grandmother’s sister. Uncle Mihran died in 1975, but I suspect he was present in spirit at the Hay-Adams in 2003 when I served as master of ceremonies for the hotel’s 75th anniversary gala. One of the speakers—along with a bevy of celebrated authors and public figures—was my cousin, Caroline Mesrobian Hickman, granddaughter of the architect and a scholarly expert on his work.

A COZY SPACE located at English basement level, the Off the Record Bar has been designated one of the “World’s Best Hotel Bars” by Forbes.com, and John Boswell, its senior dispenser for 15 years now, has been given Washingtonian magazine’s “Best Bartender” award not once but four times. While it charges top prices, the pours are generous, the liquor selection and wine list are superb, and the menu draws from the same kitchen that produces gourmet fare for the formal dining room and frequent banquets hosted by the hotel. In this small space at least, everything—at any rate, everything edible and potable—is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Under John’s skilled if slightly Falstaffian stewardship, and ably assisted by impeccable bartenders David Metzner and Michel Rivera and a polished waiting staff, the Off the Record has become a landmark-within-a-landmark, a Mecca for journalists, visiting literary and entertainment types, political bigwigs, and younger, aspiring wannabes from all of the above categories.

Just as Charles Lindbergh, Sinclair Lewis, senior members of the Barrymore theatrical dynasty, and Amelia Earhart typified the hotel’s A-list in its early days, more recent guests and bar visitors I happen to have observed include Brad Pitt, Henry and Nancy Kissinger, present and former national security advisors, members of Congress, labor and industry bosses (the hotel is flanked by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO national headquarters, making its bar a demilitarized drinking zone of sorts), and famous authors like David McCullough—appropriately enough, the distinguished biographer of John, the Founding Adams. A longtime fan of the hotel, McCullough first stayed in it with his young bride many years ago, and he was one of the most amusing speakers at the 75th anniversary gala, as entertaining and insightful in person as he is on paper.

Indeed, you never know who will amble into the Off the Record on any given evening. I remember a particular night about eight years ago when I stopped by after dining elsewhere for a few postprandial Dewars and sodas, and noticed a familiar but rather morose figure sitting by himself at a table close to the bar. It was a famous news broadcaster and, though I didn’t know it at the time, he had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Fortunately, most visitors to the Off the Record Bar don’t come there to contemplate their looming mortality. A good time is usually had by all, and on many nights group conversations tend to spill over and intermingle in serendipitous ways. And then there are the pleasant surprises that reconnect faded friendships and revive old acquaintances. On one summer evening last year, as I stood with my back to the entrance, focused on skewering a rather promising Kalamata olive in the nibbles dish, I heard a booming voice with a Southern accent call out my name.

It belonged to a former Hill staffer I hadn’t seen for years, but who had just snagged the nomination for a safe House seat in his native state—which, like him, will remain nameless. He has since been elected, and I’m looking forward to many a future conversation with him at the bar...although, like the name of the bar itself, they will all be Off the Record.  

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About the Author

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan and writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts.