Sometimes it’s nice to make an entrance. Charlotte, wearing a floor-length dress, sashayed into Peacock Alley, positioning herself under the row of Beaux-Arts chandeliers, stepping past the potted palms and gilded pilasters. She found her place on the gold settee flanked by glittering sconces and felt like royalty. The harpist, having noticed her blue Mirabel dress, welcomed her by performing “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from “Encanto,” 4-year-old Charlotte’s favorite movie. She smiled like the combination heroine and fairytale princess she imagined herself to be.
Such is the magic of Peacock Alley at the Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C. One of the capital’s best places for an indulgent afternoon tea, the historic hotel, whose roots date back to 1818, has served the refreshment since the 1920s. The sophisticated room embraces a diversity of clientele — hotel guests, women celebrating birthdays, romantic couples and bridesmaids — but just a few kids. Chalk that up to the price.
But after a health challenge I was celebrating my life and gladly splurged, happy to be together with Ann, my daughter, and my granddaughter. After all, Charlotte often invites me to tea in her bedroom, pretending to pour a mint brew into tiny pink cups. I looked forward to showing Charlotte the real thing, plus Ann and I like a bit of luxury.
Along with choosing from a dozen blends, tea-goers select one of five menus — children’s, standard, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan. The breadth of choice is rare and essential to us. Since Ann and I are lactose-intolerant, we can’t eat the wonderful custard-filled tarts, creamy eclairs or whipped-cream-topped pastries plated at traditional teas. At other venues we have settled for dry scones and bland sandwiches.
At The Willard, however, the staff brought us a delectable selection. We enjoyed a beet chutney and tomato-basil tart, marinated grilled vegetables in a spinach wrap, pumpkin shortbread, a raspberry chocolate verrine and a chocolate mendiant so good it was hard to believe it was dairy-free. Charlotte’s favorites from the children’s menu included a brioche, cherry jam and turkey sandwich (she politely asked for another one), a strawberry-ginger choux and a chocolate tart flecked with edible gold leaf, something Charlotte deemed appropriate for princesses.
As the name suggests, Peacock Alley is a promenade lined with settees and wing chairs that leads from The Willard’s lobby to F Street. Legend has it that the term “peacock” derived from the see-and-be-seen strolling of ladies in finery and the strutting of self-important businessmen. Mark Twain traversed Peacock Alley as a showy way to enter the dining room. Charlotte grew wide-eyed as a stunning bride in a flowing white gown appeared with her videographer.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Willard Hotel blooms with a storied past. In 1853 Franklin Pierce became the first president to stay at The Willard. Since then, almost every president has either lodged or attended an event there. Many, like Abraham Lincoln, stayed at the hotel before their inaugurations.
In 1862 Nathaniel Hawthorne, referring to the many politicians, journalists, diplomats and office-seekers at the hotel, stated that “Willard’s Hotel could more justly be called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department.” When President Ulysses S. Grant chose The Willard’s lobby to escape the pressures of office with a brandy and a cigar, he found himself besieged by powerbrokers hawking their causes. Legend has it that Grant’s situation gave rise to the term “lobbyist.”
After tea we lingered in the two-story lobby. The faux marble pillars, the 48 hand-painted state seals adorning the coffered ceiling and the elaborate wrought-iron railings on the upper windows create an impressive space.
Charlotte admired the center table flush with fresh flowers. When she spied a curving staircase, she begged to investigate. What we found was an open door to a ballroom not set for an event. Charlotte rushed in to jump and twirl on the dance floor, making the room momentarily her own like any joyous princess-heroine.
When You Go
Afternoon Tea at Peacock Alley, Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C.: www.washington.intercontinental.com/food-drink/peacock-alley-tea
Visit Washington, D.C.: www.washington.org