Thursday, January 24, 2008

Washington Social Diary

One year from now, January 20, 2009, a new president of the United States will be sworn in at high noon on the steps of the Capitol. Short of rain or snow, this view, photographed on January 22, will likely be the president's view as he or she gives their first inaugural address. The only addition will be bunting, media, security and thousands of people crowded on the Capitol lawn and the Mall.
Inauguration Hotels
by Carol Joynt

While it may seem this presidential election has gone on forever
and will continue to go on forever it will, in fact, come to a close. There will be nominating conventions and a hard fought duel between the final two (or three?) candidates, a national election and then, a year from this very week, on January 20th, an inauguration here in Washington. For those of us who live here, a national election is different than it is for those who don’t. Sure, it’s about politics but it’s also more personal. One group of people leave town and a new group arrive. If there’s a party change, then the loyalists who were hibernating in law firms and think tanks queue up for their security screenings and move into the White House, while those who had the power take the back bench or leave town altogether.
Through these gold double doors the outgoing and incoming presidents, plus numerous dignitaries will pass to take their seats on an elaborate and sizable stage that will be built over the Capitol fountain.
Much clamor surrounds a government tome officially titled United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, but actually referred to by everyone as what it really is — “The Plum Book.” It’s published by Congress right after the election and lists all the often plummy government jobs that can be handed out by the new administration, and you can be sure the president-elect’s followers are on it like ants at a picnic. The clamor is to be the first campaign insider to get their mitts on the book.

At ground level a national election disrupts social and family life here. Friends and loved ones go off to work the campaigns and are not seen or heard from except for random, weary phone calls, and that includes the advisors and volunteers who don’t even leave town. In the end, a White House assistant or an elected official who loses a job or a race may decide to return to the home state, taking away perhaps the school’s star athlete or your daughter’s best friend. Old neighbors move out, new neighbors move in. It is the defining center of Washington’s transient heart. Those who have lived here for decades come to rely on it, and find renewal in it, like the change of the seasons.
Just imagine a big stage built over this fountain, festooned with the red, white and blue, crammed with men and women dressed against the January cold, and you will have the view accorded those seated down below, fortunate enough to be guests of the new president for the swearing in.
The other side of an election for us is the coming inauguration. Its impact on the city is like a Super Bowl come to town, but we get it only every four years. And you can be sure, planning for the week’s festivities and official ceremonies already has begun.  The hotels have started to sell rooms. While we may not know the outcome, it’s not too soon to hedge your bets with a reservation, particularly at the city’s top hotels.

Later we can tell you how to get invited to inaugural balls and where to shop and eat and tour, but for now you may want to make a pre-emptive deposit on a suite or double. If your candidate doesn’t win, cancel, or you may decide to experience the historic moment regardless. It is the first time we’ve had an election without an incumbent in the running since 1928. It may also be the first time an African American or a woman stands up at the Capitol to take the oath of office.
Quiet at noon on January 22, 2008, a year from now this scene will be crowded with chairs, celebrants and massive television and media stands.
Here, with a year to go, we’ve pulled together a list of six hotels to consider.  Each could expect a minimum stay and may boost rates. It’s an arbitrary list but we hope fair. There are many good hotels in Washington. These are six I like best. What I considered is overall quality and level of service, but also that each has good concierge staff, essential during an inauguration week, because there’s so much going on.

Also, relative proximity to events, lots of Internet and good televisions, and good food, and some razzle dazzle. For example, last fall, while making a film, Russell Crowe stayed at the Park Hyatt and Leonardo DiCaprio stayed at the Georgetown Ritz Carlton. The Mandarin Oriental hosts the Kennedy Center Honors brunch and many of the attending stars. The Hay-Adams and Four Seasons have revolving doors of notables, though the latter has the distinction of Marla Maples once pitching her stilettos at Donald Trump in the lobby in the middle of a marital dispute. The Madison has a glamorous past and a youthful new identity. Two other favorites — The Jefferson and The St. Regis — are undergoing renovation, so it’s too soon to tell how they’ll turn out, but undoubtedly they plan to be major players January 17-22, 2009. We’ll let you know.
The Park Hyatt's understated, and patriotic, front entrance.

The Park Hyatt Hotel, built by Mort Zuckerman in the l980s and now owned by the Pritzker family of Chicago, the family who founded Hyatt hotels, is one of Washington's smartest hotels. It is the chain's highest end of luxury, and on a prime corner in the city's low-key West End part of town, a hub for many hotels because of its proximity — close to Georgetown, close to downtown. Newly renovated, the hotel has a youthful look and feel. The rooms are spare, sleek, handsome and have something unique for hotel bedrooms — a great smell, the scent of calm. The beds are low and cozy, with beautiful linens and well-made pillows, the bathrooms are downright sexy with stone showers and tubs.

The lobby lounge is convivial, and often lively, but discreet. There are nooks for cocktails and afternoon tea. Those seeking absolute privacy can gather at a table inside a glass cube near the bar. While it sounds odd, it works: see and be seen, but enjoy relative quiet. Notably, the hotel has The Blue Duck Tavern restaurant, one of the city's best; a relaxing spa with swimming pool; a 5 minute walk to Georgetown; good location for runners.
Clockwise from top left: The Park Hyatt's elegant check-in; The lobby lounge is decorative, smart, fun, with nooks for afternoon tea, and glass cubes for quiet, if not private, imbibing (3).
During an inauguration week, creature comforts, like a good bathroom, matter. One needs to soak off the chill, soothe one's tired feet, and feel glamorous.
The Park Hyatt's one-bedroom suites are big enough, and comfortable enough, for the several days of an inaugural week visit. A useful office separates the living room from the bedroom. The televisions swivel between rooms.
A jacuzzi and pool to come "home" to after a long day of inaugural activities.
The Blue Duck Tavern, a delicious place for lunch or dinner, where food is cooked in a flaming hearth.

Of the hotels in this group, The Mandarin Oriental is relatively young, having opened in 2003, and it started with a considerable challenge. It's location, for Washington, is off the beaten path, but rather than letting that fact become an impediment the hotel turned it to an advantage. It made itself, basically, an oasis. Though located in a cluster of drab government buildings, there's nothing drab once inside the Mandarin. It is lush. It is beautiful. It is serene. It is spacious. It is on the water with many water views, and it has one excellent restaurant in Cafe Mozu, and one sensational restaurant in CityZen, where chef Eric Zeibold is a culinary star for this or any city. Dinner there might make you feel like you were just sworn in as president.
What the doorman will tell you is true: from the Mandarin's front entrance you can look across the Potomac to Arlington Cemetery and the Lee Mansion. There are also views toward the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. From the rear, the hotel overlooks the city's harbor.
In addition to all that good food, and all those priceless views, and the usually astute Mandarin service, there is a very good spa and a sizable indoor pool and a good gym. These are essentials in a busy week of inaugural parties and late-night events, and lots and lots of canapes and cocktails. And, as for the location. No big deal. The Mandarin, while tucked away in its own little corner of the city, is a mere 5 or 10 minute cab or limo ride from anywhere. The Capitol is a right turn. The White House a left turn. And all those museums are a doable walk from the front door. Notably, it is the host hotel each for The Kennedy Center Honors and fills up with celebs.
Once inside, the lobby is spacious and luxurious, with an expansive lobby lounge, some whimsical art, and staff always busy keeping the ambience and service up to snuff.
Cafe Mozu is the Mandarin's "anytime" restaurant, but with always good Asian tinged cuisine, and prime tables have views of the Jefferson Memorial and the harbor.
The Mandarin's spa is extensive, and includes "quiet rooms," treatment rooms, a gym and a large indoor pool.
A suite at the Mandarin comes with good views.

The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown is a groovy small hotel. Groovy enough for Bono and for Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not like any Ritz I know. For this hotel, they used a different architect than their standard. Maybe that's because the project was unique: they converted Georgetown's eons old and abandoned incinerator into a chic, charming and very romantic hideaway. I guess where there's once been heat there should always be heat.

What it lacks in size it makes up for in good rooms, good service, and easily the city's very best lobby lounge, with soaring ceilings, low slung sofas, a marvelous fireplace and reliably unobtrusive piano music. There's a full-fledged bar off the lobby, but really, you'll only want to hang out by the fire. On a winter night it feels like apres-ski in Aspen.
The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown.
The hotel's restaurant, Fahrenheit, has been through a few chefs, but it’s good and good looking. Besides, you're in the heart of Georgetown. There are options, including room service, or a very private dinner for two in the incinerator's old chimney stack, which was lovingly preserved.

There's even a movie-date option because the hotel's complex includes a well done and popular Loews multi-plex. Notably, the Ritz has a Prada spa, with massage, and rooms that are plush, comfortable and ideally suited to making more heat, given that some have fireplaces. What more could revelers want after a half dozen inaugural balls? 
It sits on a block-long street only steps from the Potomac River, but still in the very center of Georgetown. The lobby is a destination for romantics and those who savor privacy. There is quiet, there is art, there are ancient bricked hallways, and plenty of Atomic Fireballs.
Clockwise from top left: Fahrenheit Restaurant is very attractive, though still not on the city's culinary radar, which means it is popular with who are powerful enough they don't need to be seen. Especially pretty in daylight (3); This table sits at the bottom of a very tall chimney stack. While the room comfortably seats 8, why not have them set a table for two?
The rooms at the Ritz-Carlton have views of the Potomac and Georgetown. Some have fireplaces.

What do many inaugural week visitors want? A hotel next to the White House. In Washington, at the moment, there's only one, the venerable Hay-Adams, with only Lafayette Square separating it from the Executive Mansion and the main viewing area for the Inaugural parade. The Hay-Adams has operated as a hotel since the 1920s, and pretty much anybody who was or is anybody in Washington has walked through its doors. Years ago I sat adjacent to Shirley Temple Black as she dined with Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt, no doubt to negotiate a "60 Minutes" profile.
The Hay-Adams.
On another occasion, Peter Duchin played for a New Year's Eve party and brought some New York glamour to Lafayette Square. When I lived in New York and stayed here on visits to Washington, it seemed my room was always next to the suite occupied by Pearl Bailey and her husband. Through the walls I could hear her warm up before going over to dine with and entertain President Nixon. When Vanity Fair magazine featured Marlena Chalmers Cooke, they photographed her writhing on a Hay-Adams bedroom floor in skimpy clothing clearly chosen to set off her on again/off again husband, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

So it may look like a stodgy old hotel, but it's got action, and it's got a load of rooms that overlook Lafayette Square and the White House. If you are high enough up, you can watch the parade from your room (with Secret Service permission, no doubt). Notably, the TV networks keep booths up on the roof, so don't be surprised if you see famous network faces sweeping through the lobby.
The hotel's facade, and the front portico, through which the White House is visible across Lafayette Park.
The lobby is warm and important.
The Hay-Adams dining room, a veritable White House dining annex, offers the money view of the President's house. St. John's Church, the "president's church," is directly across the street. It is also the scene of one of Washington's most popular "power breakfasts." Tom Friedman at one table, Helen Thomas at another, the White House chief of staff at another.

Since there's a whole industry that's evolved out of what Frank Sinatra wore, where he partied, how he talked and where he slept, then meet The Madison Hotel. It was born in the swinging 60s, opened by President and Mrs. Kennedy, and was where Frank often spent the night when he was in Washington. And, at a later time, Mick Jagger, too. And whole delegations of Russians back when the Soviet Union was the Soviet Union. It was created by the late developer Marshall Coyne, a character himself, who filled the lobby with precious antiques and created a hotel that was to Washington what the Carlyle was/is to New York. But that was then.
To know the Madison is to know it then and now. The black and white photograph is when it first opened in 1963, and hangs in the hotel's offices. Below that is The Madison on a snowy day in January 2008.
Competition deflated the old Madison's panache, Coyne died, and the hotel's future seemed in doubt. But then Jonathan Tisch nabbed it for his Loews Hotels and, voila, it was brought back to exuberant life and feels like it stopped by the Fountain of Youth along the way. It's as hip and young as Sinatra ever was, and with The Washington Post directly across the street, is fully connected to the city's power carotid artery. Notably, out of town Post board members still call it home when they’re here for meetings. During inaugural week it will have a decided snappy pulse, not unlike the notion of a new president, a new administration and a new era. I can hear Sinatra crooning, "You Make Me Feel So Young."
The lobby has the original marble floors, but a decor updated for a new century. Regardless, the elegance remains intact.
Palette is The Madison's restaurant, with a casual bar and a private dining room.
Bedrooms are made for kicking off one's shoes and relaxing. Many feature big leather massage chairs, all the better for unwinding after a long day of inaugural activities.

What's left to say about a Four Seasons Hotel that hasn't already been said a dozen times in a dozen glossy travel magazines and websites and on award plaques? We know they get it done — seamlessly, uniformly, unrelentingly — here, there and everywhere. I'm reminded of a conversation with a Four Seasons executive who, when I probed their service philosophy, said, "When they are in our hotel, we make sure every guest gets the same service, whether it's Little Bow Wow or King Abdullah or the business traveler from Minneapolis. Nobody's any different from anybody else."

That is a phenomenal ode to service, and likely explains why The Four Seasons is Washington's only Mobil 5-star hotel, the industry's sweetest accolade.
Two views of The Four Seasons on two different days. First, in the snow, because it could look like this on Inauguration day 2009. The snow view is the hotel's front. Then, the next day, in the sun, because that could happen, too on January 20. The sunny view is the hotel's rear side that overlooks the C&O Canal.
This hotel has the chain's reliable luxurious qualities plus the city's best concierge staff and a compact but excellent fitness center. The lobby lounge is a magnet for locals for intime business tete a tete, afternoon tea, cocktails, after dinner drinks; in a city of power meals, the Seasons dining room hosts the premier power breakfast, with regulars like Vernon Jordan, George Will, David Bradley, and occasionally Mayor Adrian Fenty or candidate Hillary Clinton; in winter the lobby is often busy with very tall men because the NBA stay here when playing the Wizards; and it's basically a runway of celebrities at almost any time, but most certainly at inaugural time, but don’t try to snap pictures or management will frown.

It's location in Georgetown only adds to the specialness. They also have a notable hair salon, George, whose clients have ranged from Queen Noor to Linda Tripp; many mornings it is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's first stop en route to Congress.
The lobby is the hub of all activity at The Four Seasons. It is almost like another boulevard of Georgetown.
The Four Seasons concierge staff are outstanding. On duty in this photo, Javier Loureiro, Julie Saunders, Mehmet Uzun, Jerry Oritz.
The Four Seasons Fitness Club is for hotel guests but has a membership of many locals. Don't be surprised to see a familiar face on the next treadmill. At the very least, what's better than a steam bath and massage after a long day out in the cold?
The Four Seasons recently redecorated their rooms with a new, more nature-derived color scheme. This room is a standard double.
Above: And this is a suite. Below: The hallways feel like living rooms.
Hotel Contacts:

The Four Seasons

The Hay-Adams

The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown

The Madison

The Mandarin Oriental Washington

The Park Hyatt Washington
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.