Monday, August 24, 2015

Washington Social Diary: The New Jockey Club?

In a rare photo of the original Jockey Club, Martin Garbisu, the expert maitre'd, stands by the main entrance.
by Carol Joynt

For Washington players of a certain seasoned vintage, there is mostly heartache when they hear the name The Jockey Club. Opened in 1961 at the Fairfax Hotel, it was the city’s 21 Club as well as its Michael's. It embodied the heart and soul of what makes a restaurant fashionable – patrons who are or who wannabe the ruling class, a look of privilege without pretense, and food that is both sophisticated and comfortable.

The restaurant was three main rooms – front section, middle and back – with a windowless speakeasy décor of dark wood, red leather, windowpane check red and white tablecloths, and paintings and sculptures of polo players and thoroughbreds. It got closed in 2001, stupidly, by new owners of the hotel, who didn’t appreciate the intrinsic value of a Washington dining room loyally favored by Kennedys, (Ethel and family favored tables in the back), White House residents (Nancy Reagan liked the highly visible left corner banquette in the front), Vernon Jordan, (the front section, banquette on the right), and all the high wattage celebrities of its time, whether Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra or Warren Beatty; and a slew of on their way up or on their way down socialites.
The Fairfax Hotel, once home to The Jockey Club restaurant.
When it closed the restaurant was renovated, and by that I mean destroyed. Out the door went the corner banquettes, the paintings and bronze horse sculptures, the rack of crops, the walls that absorbed the voices of Jackie Kennedy and Lauren Bacall, and Roy Cohn, too, and that marvelous creaky, hardwood floor. In came “Cabo,” which needs no description. Faux and pointless, it was over as fast as it opened, but the damage had been done. The next owners of the hotel tried to revive The Jockey Club, in 2008, but it was a sad reinvention, too little too late.

Can a dead and buried restaurant be reborn? In truth, no, though it is possible to aim for the spirit and heart and soul of what made it a draw. A modern homage to The Jockey Club would embrace its quiet quality, insidery, see-and-be-seen ambience, and precisely scripted menu. The news is maybe that has happened.

A month or so ago a new restaurant opened in a hotel on one of the city’s leafiest and most elegant boulevards, and like The Jockey Club, not far from Dupont Circle. The hotel is the Carlyle (how about that?) and the restaurant is The Riggsby. It is too early to know, and August after all, but it has potential. My enthusiasm is based on one visit and some early buzz.
Washington's own Carlyle Hotel, on New Hampshire Avenue NW, home to The Riggsby.
The lobby of The Carlyle.
The Riggsby entrance, from the inside.
The look is smart. Dark green and plum walls, with the occasional swath of colorful wallpaper; burgundy leather banquettes; photographs, prints and posters are hung on or propped just so; the bar is handsome and convivial, with Persian rugs and an adjacent window nook with sofas; the kitchen is open but does not dominate the room.

The Riggsby menu, designed by Michael Schlow with Phillippe Reininger (a protege of Jean-Georges Vongericten), as executive chef, is 21st century American, what we once called “continental.” It uses Reininger’s French provenance in the best way. The gazpacho was a silky smooth Andalusian-style soup rather than a bunch of vegetables chopped in a blender with tomato juice, and the sandwiches were “country club” in style – a classic Club on toasted white and a “truffled” egg salad with house made potato chips – followed by Strawberry Shortcake for dessert. This was a terrific summer lunch. The meal plus one beer and an Arnold Palmer came to $75 plus tip. We did not have wine but the wine list looked geared to modern eclectic tastes and varied budgets.
The Riggsby bar.
Could this be Riggsby?
A siitting area by the bar.
Looking into the dining room from the bar.
Banquettes line one side of the room, booths on the other, free standing tables in between.
There are a few of these round, corner banquettes.
Looking across the booths to the kitchen.
The food media are sure to swarm. To be successful on the social circuit a restaurant does not have to win four-star reviews, but they help. The Jockey Club, which was French with a few regional touches (Chesapeake Bay shad roe and crab in season), went in and out of favor with critics. The menu was successful because it was right for its place and time, and it didn’t get in the way of the main event: the patrons.

It’s easy to be sentimental for that menu, The Jockey Club Salad, Senegalese Soup, Sole Veronique, flaming Steak Diane, and of course the Pommes Soufflé, Crepes Suzette and Strawberries Romanoff, but they are not modern dishes, unfortunately, and modern is what moves us forward.
An Arnold Palmer made with fresh-squeezed lemons. A pretty beer in a pretty beer glass.
Gazpacho at The Riggsby.
The Riggsby has good, crusty bread.
The Club sandwich.
The Club up close.
Truffled egg salad with greens and house made potato chips.
Strawberry shortcake in a strawberry broth.
The Riggsby menus, slightly different for lunch and dinner, feature roasted chicken, Cote de Boeuf, seared scallops, wild striped bass, schnitzel, “fresh” spaghetti, pork chops, grilled shrimp. Those are some of the entrees. The first courses, in addition to the gazpacho, include oysters, classic Caesar salad (would they make it tableside?), beef carpaccio, mussels “mariniere,” burrata with tomatoes and bottarga, sardines with fennel and pine nuts, chopped salad. There’s always an “All-American Tavern Burger,” too, and they serve breakfast, with all the major newspapers on hand.

Obviously, much is to be determined and success will rest, too, on the quality of service. The Jockey Club had some of the best servers in town, (dear Gilbert, wherever you are) and a maitre’d (Martin Garbisu) at the door who knew how to coddle the high octane personalities and also run the room. The people watching was unparalleled. Lunches and dinners were scenes and the casts of characters were entertaining, even as they shifted and changed with fashion, mortality and administrations, but that is the secret sauce of Washington.
A skylight is centered over the room. Very bright on sunny day, but probably fun when it snows.
I have one tiny quibble with the Riggsby. There is a skylight in the dining room that shines bright sunlight on the tables below. Is that a problem? Hmmm. Dunno. It was bright, but it won't be an issue on a cloudy day or at night.

The Riggsby is in a gorgeous neighborhood, and if you go – and you should go -- be sure to also take a stroll up and down New Hampshire Avenue. The buildings are splendid. Many of them were built as homes for the rich of another era and now serve as embassies, clubs, association headquarters, or CIA fronts.
Leafy New Hampshire Avenue.
The Riggsby's block.
A little tour of New Hampshire Avenue within strolling distance of The Riggsby ...
You'll notice two grand Beaux-Arts buildings that are side-by-side construction projects. One is the Sulgrave Club, getting an exterior rebuff. The other is 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, built in 1917 as a luxury apartment building where, among others, the Mellon family owned a penthouse duplex, and, famously, art dealer Joseph Duveen also kept a flat. He hung "for sale" Old Masters on the walls and when he was away he left the key with Andrew Mellon. Clever man.
On the left, the AEI renovation, on the right the Sulgrave Club.
1785 Massachusetts Avenue, a one-time home to Washington's richest.
The Sulgrave is giving its exterior a lift.
The Sulgrave, viewed from Dupont Circle.
In modern times, the building was home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which two years ago sold it to the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. It will be AEI’s new headquarters. Directly on the Circle is The Patterson Mansion, home in the early 1900’s to Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson and a temporary White House for President Coolidge in 1927. It, too, is being renovated – into micro apartments.

The Riggsby
1731 New Hampshire Avenue NW
The Patterson Mansion, on its way to becoming part of a micro-apartments complex.

On Julia Child’s recent August birthday, The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History held a party to announce big plans for the fall – a first-ever Smithsonian culinary arts red carpet gala, where in partnership with the Julia Child Foundation they will bestow the first Julia Child Award, all part of a new “Food History Weekend.”

Celebrity chef Carla Hall was on hand to announce the first recipient of the award: Childs great friend Jacques Pépin.
At the far end of this photo is Carla Hall, announcing the first Julia Child Award.
The award gala is October 22nd and its menu will be created by Daniel Boulud. Other food stars playing a role include Marcus Samuelsson, Alton Brown, Sara Moulton and cocktail connoisseur and writer Derek Brown (who, by the way, will be interviewed by me at The Q&A Café the next evening).

Among the guests at the party was Rory Veevers-Carter, who we recently profiled as the new owner of The Julia Child House in Georgetown. He got to see the Smithsonian’s prized Julia Child kitchen, which is preserved as part of the History Museum’s food exhibition hall.
The preserved Julia Child Kitchen, part of the Smithsonian's National American History Museum food exhibition
Rory Veevers-Carter and Carla Hall, practically inside the Julia Child Kitchen.
Ris Lacoste, Rory Veevers-Carter and Carla Hall, all talking Julia Child.
Rory Veevers-Carter and Carla Hall with the Julia Child Award. The first will be presented to Jacques Pepin in October.
Warren Brown, founder of CakeLove, did a cake-baking demo at the Julia Child Award reception.
Rory and Carla Hall are long-time family friends and as they discussed his plans for the house, and her new NYC restaurant, Southern Kitchen, they were joined by chef Ris Lacoste, owner of Ris, who talked about cooking with Child and some of the memorabilia she has from their friendship. She volunteered to “counsel” Veevers-Carter on all things Julia and throw in some kitchen design advice, too.

Fittingly, after the Smithsonian party a few of us headed to Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen + Bar for dinner. Synergy, baby.
John Gray of the Smithsonian American History Museum, chef Carla Hall and Erick Spivey of The Julia Child Foundation.
Photographs by Carol Joynt

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