Monday, December 2, 2013

Washington Social Diary

The Italian ambassador, Claudio Bisogniero, has reason to raise a glass – the dinner parties he hosts with his wife, Laura, are stand outs.
by Carol Joynt

In the realm of big dinner parties the year 2013 has been the most robust in Washington since before the market crashed and the Great Recession took hold. This is not scientific, but based on going out many nights of the week; the mood is brighter, more people show up, the settings feel more festive; and flowers, extravagant lighting, music, premium brands, red meat and swag have returned with increasing verve. Not that they’d ever entirely gone away, but the high-end amenities – as with any signs of splash or excess – were toned way down after the fall (literally) of 2008.

It’s ironic, because the average person is not better off. Making ends meet is still a profound challenge. The cost of living goes up but not the take-home pay. The people who work the parties – the cooks, the servers – don’t have nearly the bank balances of the people who buy the $1000 per person tickets. But when business is good the benefits trickle down. Event planners and caterers say the fall has been strong, and for some the best ever.  Not that it’s crazy and over the top, but better, feeling more solid.
Beautiful flowers dominated the tables at the Wolf Trap Ball -- and in a good way.
Looking back over the year in photos, here are some thoughts on 2013 and the gala life. While they are in part the result of my own selfish desire to be entertained, they also reflect what I hear from the people who are seated on my left and right. When a whole table stares down at their devices, or checks the time, rather than looking at the stage or talking with each other, it’s because manners have eroded, but it’s also because the event didn’t succeed in distracting/enchanting them with something more interesting.

Too many dinners follow a tedious pattern; they do what’s expected rather than breaking the mold. Event planners lament: “They want it the way it was last year.” I would say, argue with that approach. And invoke this rule: endless speeches are death to a good night out.
The presentation of the colors, a ritual that is a signature of Washington and should be used as often as is legitimate.
The people who bought the gala tickets (and put on the tux, and the dress and shoes, and the jewels, got the refresher Botox, and dropped a few hundred on hair and make-up) already are in the corner of the host organization. They don’t need to be sold. A few prizes or awards are a nice thing, as well as a spotlight on real talent and accomplishment, but every member of the board and the executive staff do not need a speaking part.  Highlight them in the program with as much purple prose as is necessary. Make the evening a well-paced show.

Do use the Old Guard, aka the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard, as often as is legitimate. It’s a signature of Washington, and just the right dose of patriotism. Ditto a good military band. One of the stand-out moments of the year was the Navy Memorial Foundation “Lone Sailor” awards dinner held only two days after the September 16 Navy Yard shootings, where a gunman killed twelve people and injured three others. It was okay that the dinner wasn’t cancelled, but the guests were in mourning, and their deep emotions were answered by the presentation of the colors and a heart-tugging performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps.
A memorable moment: the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, playing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the Lone Sailor awards dinner.
Location. Attendance numbers are rising, but until they are back up, rather than booking a huge space and half filling it – such as the cavernous National Building Museum and the Mellon Auditorium – consider a smaller space (the Library of Congress, for example) or a tent (as the Kennedy Center put to good use with their wintertime “Nordic Cool” gala). Hotel ballrooms can be pleasant but it would be helpful if the servers did not put the coffee cups down with the entrée. That one gesture flips the mood from gala to insurance industry convention.

In DC at least, the Four Seasons Hotel and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel have smaller, more intimate alternatives to their ballrooms, and even their ballrooms aren’t too mammoth. Kevin Spacey hosted a dinner for his foundation at the Mandarin, and it felt just right. The lighting, the flowers, the tables had the feel of a small dinner party.
The Kevin Spacey Foundation dinner at the Mandarin Oriental felt small and intimate thanks to lighting and flowers and the use of a smaller party room.
National Geographic achieved the nearly impossible at their 150th anniversary dinner: they made the cavernous National Building Museum feel intimate. It was one of the best galas of the year.
When the setting is as special as this, Mount Vernon, guests don't mind if the cocktail hour goes long. The lawn is lovely and the mansion is open for private wandering.
Drinks. Premium brands. Please. Do I need to invoke YOLO? Guests brighten up when they arrive for the cocktail hour and see what they drink or what they aspire to drink. It’s a dubious sign, as I recently experienced at a private club, when the booze is hidden under the bar. If you have a white rug or white upholstery you are forgiven for serving only white cranberry juice. But everybody else, no.

Don’t skimp on the wines. The cheaper wines generally are younger and translate as “hot,” or higher in alcohol and thus a quick path to unwelcomed hangovers. Find a way – an underwriter or generous wine importer – to serve quality wines. To all event hosts who offer good Champagne, thank you. To caterers who keep that good Champagne on ice, a double thank you.
Premium brands, here at the Opera Ball.
Champagne on ice at the gala dinner at Mount Vernon estate celebrating the opening of the Fred W. Smith Library.
Lighting. Keep the lights low but not so low that people can’t see each other or their food. Candles are a lovely touch, but again, people need to be able to see. The Mark Twain Prize gala at the Kennedy Center – in a tent – had candles on the tables and interesting lighting hanging overhead. Nice touch.
The Mark Twain Prize gala and dinner at the Kennedy Center. Short on speeches, long on entertainment. On stage Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein welcomes honoree Carol Burnett.
Clever lighting and seating for the dinner after the Mark Twain Prize program, where Carol Burnett was honored.
Beautiful flowers, beautiful lighting – a dinner party at the Italian Ambassador's residence, Villa Firenze.
The Symphony Ball, held in the Kennedy Center's party tent, mixed up table shapes and sizes, with romantic lighting.
Flowers are back and in a big way – here at the Hillwood gala in June.
Food. Canapés matter. For some busy people it may be the first food since breakfast. But make them easy to pop in the mouth and easy to chew and swallow. A lamb chop is delicious but can be challenging while being introduced to the guest of honor. Likewise, soup. Wielding a drink, un-manageable food and a conversation all at the same time is a bridge too far (and a potential Heimlich event).  Little sandwiches are satisfying and provide a landing pad for the alcohol. Smoked salmon and caviar are winning classics, of course.
Smoked salmon canapés at the July British Embassy party celebrating the birth of Prince George.
Easy to eat canapés -- Pimiento Sandwiches -- at the Hillwood gala.
Foie gras, another easy to manage canapé, by Susan Gage Caterers, at the Hillwood gala.
Red meat is showed up a lot in 2013. Here at a private luncheon hosted at home by architect Hugh Jacobsen and prepared by the chef of the French Embassy.
Welcomed: a mostly fruit dessert at the National Geographic Society 150th anniversary gala.
Chocolates and cookies are a welcomed dessert alternative. These were served by Bryan Voltaggio at the opening of his restaurant, Range, in February.
If you’re serving oysters (a nice touch, btw) set up an oyster bar with a counter for proper oyster eating. They get it almost right at the awesome Louisiana State Society Mardi Gras gala – lots of oysters and a place to eat them right there by the shuckers. That party is so off the chain, though, where do I begin?
CJ at the Loiusiana State Society Mardi Gras gala. Need we say more? Partner in crime (because you can't go to a party solo), Shane Harris of Foreign Policy at the Louisiana State Society Mardi Gras soiree.
No guest will ever hate the host for serving lighter, less carb-heavy main courses. It’s terrific that beef and lamb tenderloin are again prevalent on event menus, but how about some alternatives to the slab of red meat? Stews, for example: Coq au Vin or Beef Bourguignon.

The Washington Ballet served Bouillabaisse at its wonderful spring gala at the Library of Congress, where everything about the evening felt re-thought and fresh. Make the vegetarian alternative something other than the basic entrée minus the protein. Perhaps a vegetable terrine with greens. Consider fruit and cheese for dessert. Maybe accompanied by premium chocolates and cookies. I asked for fruit at a recent Four Seasons gala and when my plate arrived everyone nearby stared with envy.
The annual gala of the Washington Ballet had a special setting at the Library of Congress, and a special menu, too: Bouiallbaise.
Seating. When a dinner is large, use smaller, more intimate tables. A round table for 10 or 12 multiplied by 50 or 60 sucks the oxygen out of a room. Worse still is a sea of large round tables in a giant room with a stage at the far end. Distance also uses up oxygen. Go square, go rectangular, go small round (for 8) or, as at the “Nordic Cool” dinner, or the Italian ambassador’s, do King’s seating.

The stage is a fixture, I know, but those seated up front feel too close and those in the back recognize they are in Siberia. Consider putting the show into the room. Put microphones on your speakers and seat them at different tables. Have them stand up and speak from their table. It’s fresh and keeps your most far-flung table included. Or, if you must use a stage, keep the script fast-paced. Break it up with some breathing room. I’d bring up videos – which I don’t like at dinners – but I fear they are here to stay.
King's seating at the "Nordic Cool" gala at the Kennedy Center in February.
A nice combination: big event, small tables. Here is a post-opera opening night dinner party at the Kennedy Center.
Small and intimate: tables for 8 at a March dinner hosted by Connie Milstein at her Jefferson Hotel.
More music. The Washington Performing Arts Society at its annual gala has the guests up and dancing even before the first course hits the table. This year they encouraged guests to get up and dance while Glee’s Matthew Morrison performed part of his act. It was liberating, because it’s logical for people to want to dance when a showman like Morrison is channeling Frank Sinatra.
Fun for everyone: Matthew Morrison enjoyed putting on his show, and the guests of the Washington Performing Arts Society danced and went home with a good memory.
At the Washington Performing Arts Society gala, while Matthew Morrison sang on stage, guests took to the dance floor.
Dancing at the Wolf Trap Ball started before 10 pm, which is just right for a Sunday night (and almost any night).
Timing. Set a tight schedule and follow it. If you have to cut along the way, do it. Don’t drag on, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. This can’t be emphasized enough and everyone who goes out to galas knows what I mean. Think of the guests. You’ve got their money, you’ve got their good graces, now don’t take advantage of them. Don’t give them a reason to slip guiltily toward the doors before the dessert course. Give them a good time, and a reason to pay twice as much next year.

Obviously, if the main event is a notable speaker, go with it. But make that IT. Because face it, few people can give speeches as well-trimmed and timed as Vice President Joe Biden or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (But, hey, aren’t they running for office?)
Keeping the speeches short and snappy and about the talent: Washington National Opera Francesca Zambello, after she introduced the cast and crew of "Norma" at the opening night dinner.
If the event is going to have a long speech, try to keep it to one or two people and make them showstoppers, such as Hillary Clinton, appearing at the Vital Voices event, her first public appearance in Washington after leaving the State Department. Actually, she did not talk for long. She knows. Vice President Joe Biden at the Opera Ball -- brief remarks followed by dancing to a big band. Score!
Here Arvind Manocha, the new president of the Wolf Trap Foundation, welcomes guests to his first ball. Short speeches came after dinner and before dancing. Well timed.
Oh, last but not least, swag. You don’t have to do swag but if you are going to do swag please make it something more than a magazine, an annual report, advertisements from your sponsors, and an envelope for gift giving. Something that feels gifty. A little box of chocolates is ideal swag. Or cookies. Something sweet to take home and that triggers a happy memory of the occasion. When they hosted the Opera Ball, the United Arab Emirates set up a candy buffet. Little bags and scoops were provided. The guests had a blast choosing between all kinds of different colorful candies to take home for their children (or themselves).

In sum: think of it this way when the co-chairs and gala committee gather to plot the big soirée: designing a party is like putting on jewelry or editing a résumé. Edit, cut, and tighten up. Go with the quality. Less is more. Follow that rule and all will go well, and everyone will say, and honestly, that it was “a winner.”

Next: most memorable events of 2013
Perfect swag: cookies to take home after a summertime Mexican dinner party hosted by Larry Calvert and Mike Mitchell at their Georgetown home. Nice touch: Larry, in addition to being a realtor, is also a baker, and made the cookies from scratch.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

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