Monday, December 21, 2009

Washington Social Diary

The Washington blizzard at its peak on Saturday afternoon.
by Carol Joynt

With apologies to my friends who own shops or restaurants, the Blizzard of ’09 was the perfect storm, a pause in the frenzy that Washington needed. It gave a moment’s quiet to the tumult of holiday shopping and parties, as well as the official stress load of politics and business. Even so, the President and members of Congress actually worked – believe it or not – and Democrats broke a stalemate in the health care debate. Maybe the agreement was thanks to the quiet that comes with snow; it’s possible to hear one’s self think.

Apart from the business of running the country, the record snowfall forced the city to shut down. We don’t do well with weather here, we’re not tough that way, and usually only an inch or two of snow closes schools and causes the cancellation of events. So, imagine the impact of almost two feet of snow! The Smithsonian closed, shopping malls closed, the ballet was canceled, the airports (save for one runway at Dulles) closed, the buses stopped running, there was no mail delivery; hospitals issued pleas for volunteers with 4-wheel drive, pedestrians walked in the middle of what usually are the most trafficked boulevards. Starbucks closed. Even many of the saloons closed. Imagine that.
Georgetown row houses in the snow.
Some pictures need no caption. Puppy's first snow.
My local coffee shop is Georgetown’s Marvelous Market, and it valiantly opened on Saturday morning. A black SUV pulled into the empty parking lot, turned around and parked facing toward the street, ready to make a hasty exist if necessary.

A man emerged. He had watchful eyes and a telltale earpiece. Ah, Secret Service. Then out popped another man in sweat pants, boots, winter jacket and cap. It was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. He stepped into Marvelous for a cup of coffee. Said hello to some of the customers and then climbed back into the SUV, which remained parked.

Then another black SUV pulled up and parked behind it. Word must have got out among the Secret Service that here was one coffee shop that was actually open.
Dr. Sam Harrington between runs to the hospital to visit patients.
City council member Jack Evans caught in the act of shoveling his own steps, if not the city streets.
Putting the snow to good use.
A usually very busy P Street, quieted by the storm.
Friday night I had dinner with a friend, Elizabeth Powell, at the bar of Citronelle Restaurant. The snow had started to fall, sticking to the streets and sidewalks in a pretty blanket of white. In walked Mayor Adrian Fenty and his wife Michelle, with another couple. Blizzards are prime time for urban mayors. A storm poorly handled can seriously damage a career, especially for a mayor, like Fenty, who is up for re-election. But he was smiling, at ease, confident. Maybe it’s because the dinner was to celebrate his 39th birthday, snowstorm or no snowstorm. It seemed he was ready for what Mother Nature had in store.

It’s too soon to know how Mayor Fenty’s blizzard performance will be assessed officially, but on Sunday morning, in Georgetown at least, the major streets were clear and the buses were beginning to run again. More than that, the village couldn’t have been more winter postcard pretty. Bring on the White Christmas.
The Morning After the Blizzard of '09, Georgetown sparkles in the snow and sun, as residents and visitors emerge with dogs, plows, suitcases and wonder ...

One of the virtues of Washington is that New York is a simple train, plane or car ride away. Whether for shopping, eating or culture, it is an exciting getaway to a city completely different from home. (Face it, New Yorkers have to go to Paris for the same jolt of “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”).

I love any excuse to visit New York, and so jumped at the opportunity to try a one-night getaway at The Plaza Hotel. I’m old enough to have Plaza memories as long as a runway, dating back to a first indelible visit to the Oak Bar at age 21, an experience that, as far as I was concerned, bestowed heaps of sophistication.
The train to NY. Speed and relaxation at the same time.
I didn’t want to be Eloise. I wanted to be Zelda. That was the old Oak Bar, smoke-filled, masculine, heavy with wood, leather and legend and a kind of “Mad Men” soundtrack of scotch on the rocks.

By the time I was 22 I’d moved into a coach house on West 4th Street and had an uptown boyfriend. We were madly in love, with fire in our hearts, not to mention passion that made every second together crazy. But it was complicated, as romance so often can be. There’d been a woman before me, and he was heavy with guilt. Add to that he was a writer, which fueled his personal drama.
Plaza suite, circa 2009 ...
A personalized pillow sham.
On Christmas Eve we made a date to meet at the Palm Court for champagne. Inspired by the pearls and perfume aura of that great venue, I eschewed my usual Village mufti and showed up in a black dress, with pearls and perfume, and even wore a hat. I also bought us a Plaza suite for the night, with a Park view – for a whopping $75 dollars – and tied a red bow to the room key. It was to be a Christmas surprise for him.

But he never showed. I sat at the table for two – waiting, waiting, waiting – as the waiter gave me ever more sorrowful looks. The band played Christmas music that became an unrelenting dark torture. Finally I asked for a check.
In the fabled Oak Bar, the paintings remain the same ...
Tacos a la Oak Bar: Maine Lobster ($18), Yellowtail Hamachi ($16), and Bigeye Tuna ($16).
The Oak Bar place-setting, with champagne.
The scene at lunch in the Oak Bar.
A service of oysters.
The Oak Bar ceiling, as exquisite as ever.
The bread basket.
The cheese plate, with jams and dried raisins on the stem.
Instead of enjoying sweet nothings, on Christmas Eve I walked Fifth Avenue, ducked into the Paris theatre to watch a Romy Schneider film, and then sat in the big window of my empty room, looking at the Park, crying. Later my boyfriend told me he got to the hotel, as close to me as the lobby, but was consumed by guilt and fled to the ex-girlfriend. He begged my forgiveness, and we were back together for several months, but it didn’t last.

Two years later I was dating an artist. It was Christmas Eve. We stopped by his parents Park Avenue apartment for their annual party when he pulled me aside. “Let’s go to the Palm Court for champagne.” The musicians vibrant Carols cheered me. At the table he slid something my way. It was a room key. He smiled. I smiled. Earlier I told him about my great Plaza Christmas heartbreak of before. We got to the room and on the pillow was a little package, and in it a string of pearls. “I wanted to make up for the last time,” he said.
The basement shopping hall.
Delicious Demel's.
Cream puffs at Demel's.
The selection of interesting beauty projects from Dianne Brill.
A treat for Eloise fans, a boutique and party space all their own.
A list of some of what's available in the Plaza basement. The ceiling of the Palm Court, which is scheduled to re-open next year.
Cut to December 2009 and I’m back at the Plaza. I’m not the same and neither is the Plaza. It’s the new Plaza, and rooms with Park views are mostly private residences. I could spend a week lamenting what’s no longer there of the old Plaza, but decide on the spot not to live in the past and to assess the hotel with new eyes. Basically this is how I see it: it has the potential to be a nifty getaway in the midst of the maelstrom.

My room, a suite, is large and comfortable, and lists on their website for $1,000 a night. Its theme is “Edwardian.” There’s lots of gold, but it feels new and clean and fresh. (The old Plaza in its last years did not feel clean and fresh). The bed is plush, the amenities plentiful and of good quality. The mosaic-tiled bathroom is the size of some studio apartments, the shower the size of some walk-in closets. A large bowl of fresh fruit greets me with a nice note from the general manager, Shane Krige.
A serene arrival at the Caudalie spa.
Entry to the spa.
The pedicure salon.
A private massage room that can be shared by friends, including the "barrel bath" on the left.
The entrance to the Warren Tricomi salon.
Check in is quick.
My goal is to spend the entire day in the Plaza, pampering myself as if at a resort or spa, and avoiding – at least for a day – the holiday crush outside. I start with lunch at the Oak Bar. A glass of champagne and Kumumoto oysters on the half shell to start. Mini-tacos are, well, not old school but they are tasty. I look around. The windows are as grand as ever, with the occasional horse-drawn carriage passing by. The paintings are the same and deeply sentimental. Most of the other patrons eat hamburgers and French fires. C’est la vie moderne.

Back in the room I slip on my Plaza bathrobe and descend to the lower level to the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa. It is serene. Two women sit in the wine lounge in their bathrobes and slippers, sipping and chatting. My esthetician, Oksana Usherenko, greets me and leads me to a treatment room where she scrubs my flesh to a newborn softness with crushed Cabernet grape seeds, followed by a hot shower and a massage with grapeseed lotion. All the treatments at Caudalie are based on the almighty grape. They even offer a red wine “barrel bath.” There are single treatment rooms and a treatment room for two, which has its own barrel bath, shower, and a table for a private meal.
Jillian starts my blow-out.
Eva working on my manicure. After the fluff and buff: CJ with Jillian Halouska and Eva Finkestein at the Warren-Tricomi salon.
The make-up with Elsa Zamora of Warren-Tricomi. Elsa moves in with the mascara.
The wine lounge, for relaxing between treatments.
Some of the offerings in the wine lounge.
Oksana greets me for my "Crushed Cabernet Scrub," which costs $145. Oksana lays this bikini out and says, "it is all you will need to wear for you scrub."
My treatment room.
Clients can select their own music to accompany treatments. Oksana wraps me in plastic after my scrub.
Still in my bathrobe, I wander through the lobby to the Warren-Tricomi salon to get fluffed and prettified. Jillian Halouska gives a fine blow-dry, and then I move on to Eva Finkestein for a manicure. I’m looking good, but make-up is needed. I float out to the Plaza shopping area – a likeable collection of boutiques that’s pleasantly not crowded – where Elsa Zamora sits me down to paint my face. What she uses on me smells as good as fresh baked cookies. Elsa tells me that was the intent of Dianne Brill, who created the eponymous beauty line. Fortunately it also looks good and wears well, too.

Before returning to the room, I stop by Demel for a cappuccino and cream puff. I’m in New York but my tastebuds are transported to Austria.

When it’s time to go out into the world I am so utterly relaxed that no amount of holiday frenzy will break my calm. I dress and meet “Real Housewives of New York” star Alex McCord and her husband, Simon van Kempen, for cocktails in the Rose Bar. It’s a level up from the lobby and has a funky vibe that makes me think of the Algonquin lobby with fushcia lights. There’s an actual bar, but also lots of armchairs, sofas and cozy tables for two.
The Rose Bar for cocktails.
Cocktails and conversation in the Rose Bar.
Another view of the Rose Bar, perched over the main lobby.
A view of the Plaza lobby. The stairs to the right lead to the Rose Bar.
Alex, Simon and I head to 57th Street for a party at Dior and then I break off to meet DPC for dinner at Swifty’s. From dinner it’s a fairly quick cab ride down to Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street to catch the last hour of the annual “Christmas Show” put on by Harry Shearer and Judith Owen. Paul Shaffer makes an appearance, ripping up the piano with a killer rendition of “Run, Run Rudolph.” Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, who are the band Fountains of Wayne, perform their “whole playlist” of three holiday songs.

When I return to The Plaza I do not mind being alone. I need sleep. I’m flattered when I see the hotel embroidered my initials into the pillow sham.
The imposing Plaza Hotel rules the intersection of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The Plaza entrance at midnight.
It’s 7:30 in the morning when the room service Continental breakfast arrives. I need my coffee. I love the blast of cold New York air as I walk the few blocks to The Brooklyn Diner to meet Rick Kaplan for a bigger breakfast of “Tony Bennett’s French Toast.” Rick is the executive producer of The CBS Evening News, and a friend for decades. Notably he makes it through the meal having to take only one call.

I have a couple of hours before the NYSD holiday lunch and spend one of them in Bergdorf Goodman, remarkably not spending one dime. A first.
The Plaza's continental breakfast - bread, juice, coffee - plus a plate of sliced ham and cheese. The cost is approximately $50.
A second breakfast at the Brooklyn Diner with Rick Kaplan.
Rick Kaplan at breakfast; a television executive's life is rarely at rest.
My view of holiday lunch with the "family" from NYSD.
Lunch is warm and friendly. It’s a pleasure to meet my colleagues at New York Social Diary, most of whom have just been bylines up till now.

Forty eight hours after my arrival in New York, I’m back on the Acela, headed south, having successfully managed a relaxing getaway at The Plaza. I would like to say I added a new Palm Court memory, but the Palm Court hasn’t reopened yet. So, there’s time ...
Back home: walking out of Union Station with a view toward the Capitol.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: