Imagine you’re standing at the corner of 10th and E NW. Tell me where the nearest bar is. Not a restaurant with a cocktail lounge, not a lunch spot that serves beer with sandwiches to staffers who can’t afford a real lunch, and definitely not a chain. Definitely not the Hard Rock Cafe. No, really, I’m being serious here; try and think of someplace you could sit down, get a beer, and talk to strangers the same way you talk to your best friends. Someplace downtown to get a drink, that isn’t either a tourist trap or a national franchise operation. Bars should have character, shouldn’t they?
Harry’s has plenty of character to spare. One look inside, and the environment is completely understood. It’s a mix of conventional Americana and genuine history. It’s the bar where the tourists from the hotel rooms upstairs can mingle with the D.C. lifers. This bar wears its heart on its sleeve, never pretends to be something its not, and is proud of where it came from. That’s the kind of place where I wouldn’t mind buying a beer.
The Hotel Harrington has been at the corner of 11th and E st. for over a century, and remains the oldest continually-operated hotel in the District of Columbia. At the turn of the last century, the District saw unprecedented growth, and a rise in tourism. Smithsonian’s brand-new Natural History Museum drew visitors from all over the country. Seeing the demand, and snagging the right piece of real estate at the right time, Harrington Mills opened up shop at 11th and E, with a 6-floor, 80-room hotel. They’ve never closed, and they’ve never sold.
When it first opened in 1914, the hotel boasted lavish appointments. The hallways and lobbies were decked out in mahogany and marble. It was an instant hit, so much so that Harrington expanded with a 12-story annex that held an additional 100 rooms. 1932 saw the installation of the then-new Art Deco canopy over the entrance. In 1938, the hotel became the first in D.C. to offer in-room air conditioning. Since then, the owners (it’s still in the same family) have modernized the building a bit. They’ve reduced the ceiling height in the lobby, changed out the fixtures for a more modern touch, but still kept the Art Deco entryway.
The hotel’s restaurants have changed, too. As their memorabilia case down the front hallway shows us that Harry’s was first known as the Pink Elephant Lounge, offering cocktails to hotel guests, and locals alike. It first opened just after prohibition ended in ’34, and despite a couple name changes, has been pouring drinks at the Harrington ever since. Harriet’s was once called the Kitcheteria, which catered to out-of-towners looking for familiar foods from wherever they hailed. It was basic, affordable, simple, American fare. Harriet’s, the slightly updated version of the old restaurant, aims to satisfy with the same style.
By comparison, the Trump Hotel, standing only a couple blocks away, exudes wealth, affluence, and the kind of opulence that would make a Vanderbilt blush. It could not be a starker contrast to the noble proletariat Hotel Harrington, where $6 still gets you at least a beer and some popcorn. Whether it’s 8th grade field trips from Iowa, choir groups from Georgia, Mormons from Utah, or Boy Scouts from Arkansas (who I have all personally seen eating at Harriet’s), the Hotel Harrington welcomes all with open arms.
Eddie, the bar manager at Harry’s, tells me they see plenty of tourists, domestic and international alike, whether it’s from the hotel rooms upstairs, or just folks looking for a beer and a bite in between museum visits. Behind the bar, they’ve got two phones: one as a land-line, and one for room service. The guy pouring beers for customers downstairs is the same guy who makes the martinis for the couple in room 304. Strung around the phones is one of the biggest collection of police patches I’ve ever seen. Police Week is evidently kind of a big deal at Harry’s.
Eddie also tells me that, although they cater to a ton of tourists, a lot of their business comes from local regulars, specifically service industry-types. Most of the restaurants close around Midnight, and Harry’s stays open until 2:30. It’s the perfect spot for hard-working servers to get a drink and unwind before heading home. Late night, while usually full of regulars, is just as welcoming as their happy hour.
In a city where a new bar opens every weekend, and during an administration hell-bent on implementing an exclusionary vision of America, wouldn’t you rather have a drink at a bar that will welcome you, regardless of where you come from? Isn’t that, at its heart, more American than anything else?