Tabard Inn: perfect for `power' people

There's nothing slick about the Tabard Inn -- Washington's quintessential small hotel -- unless it's the clientele. On the first day I lunched there, a journalist was interviewing a female ``mover and shaker'' on my right. On my left, a fresh-faced young man in a three-piece suit was discussing his chances in an upcoming election. And just about everybody else looked as though they felt right at home making momentous decisions in the corridors of power. What gave this scene its particular charm was that it took place in such a relaxed, friendly, and unpretentious setting as the dining room at the Tabard Inn.

The food at the Tabard is delicious and carefully prepared. Produce is delivered fresh from a private farm in Virginia. The atmosphere and the service couldn't be more pleasant. If you get there early enough, or are willing to wait long enough in the right season, you can have breakfast or lunch outside on the brick-enclosed patio, shaded by bright umbrellas and surrounded by potted impatiens and geraniums. Dinner is served only indoors.

Even waiting at the Tabard is no hardship. In the walnut-paneled lounge you can sink into one of nine comfy sofas and gaze at the venerable prints, paintings, and memorabilia that surround you. You can read the paper at a round, marble-top table in the corner, or, in winter, enjoy the warmth and cheer of the fireplace.

What's so refreshing about the inn, located in the heart of downtown Washington, is that the place is so homelike, cozy, and genuinely welcoming.

Having meals at the Tabard is rather like eating in an old, familiar club -- only the food is better.

I happened on the Tabard as I prowled down N Street, just off Scott Circle, looking for a place to eat. What I longed for -- but didn't dare dream of finding -- was something as different as possible from Musak-piping, air-conditioned, mass-market institutionality of the hotel at which I was staying. To my astonishment, I found just what I was looking for.

The Tabard Inn consists of three late-Victorian townhouses connected on the inside by several quirky, creaking staircases. There are 40 guest rooms on four floors and no elevators. The rooms range in size from palatial to small, and in price from $105 with bath, to $43 without. All have high ceilings and a delightful array of mostly period furniture, some picked up at auctions.

Room 24, for example, has a fireplace and drawing-room area, a snow-white candlewick bedspread on its wrought-iron double bed, and an upright piano in one corner. The vivid pink and green of its sofa and large, inviting armchairs are repeated in an oval of plasterwork molding on the ceiling. Light pours in through the three large windows facing N Street. The floral motifs and odd pieces of old porcelain recall the charm of small hotels in London.

Number 24 has a small, old-fashioned, spotlessly clean private bath. There is a telephone in the room, but no television. Anyone who absolutely must watch television during the evening is encouraged to repair to the lounge, thereby, incidentally, making friends with some other guests. Or, on the shelves of a quaint old secretary in number 24, there is a collection of well-thumbed books. Because there are no elevators at the Tabard, there is also no room service. Breakfast in the dining room or on the patio has become a tradition for local Washingtonians as well as for guests in the hotel. After all, ``movers and shakers'' need to get an early start -- but they obviously like their comforts, too.

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