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An All-American Beauty:  The New Park Hyatt in Washington D.C.

"We’re busy servicing guests while at the same time doing finishing touches. And we’re handling tons of requests from people all over the world wanting to stay with us.” Kim Lur, the attractive dynamo, executive assistant to general manager  Michel  Morauw  pauses to catch her breath. Who could blame her?  It's been a heady year at the Park Hyatt, the glamour hotel  in Washington’s Foggy Bottom, just a few blocks east of the M Street Bridge which crosses Rock Creek into Georgetown.

 

In June of ’05 when we were last in town, our D.C. proverbial “home away from home” was due to close down for a $24 million makeover under the direction of internationally renowned designer Tony Chi. Now it’s a year later, and the transformation is nearing completion in time for the Park Hyatt’s twentieth anniversary. We’re back for the “soft” opening; the official “hard” opening won’t  happen until the fall. Last-minute furniture and accessories have yet to arrive. Painters have yet to apply final coats in little corners of the premises. No matter. The re-conception is readily apparent.

 

A huge American flag hanging down two stories beside the entrance makes a bold statement about the new mood and dynamic of the hotel. In the gardens along the façade, the beds of pansies, petunias and impatiens have been replaced by a collection of American grasses, largely native to the Maryland/Virginia countryside. They undulate before low stone walls before giving way to the small birches and brick patio with its lovely fountain -- happily these are untouched and continue to perpetuate the graceful southern mood we always found so appealing. Still the total effect makes a statement: “This is no longer the front of  any-hotel but an indigenous American landscape.”

Michel affirms the impression: “The Park Hyatt Washington is an American hotel, and it celebrates America,” he says. “It is true to Washington but  not in a nostalgic way.”

We enter the soaring split-level lobby where a neo-modern vision of cherry trees in bloom rises up from the lower level to the ceiling above, anchoring the Park Hyatt in its locale. They are actually film strips enclosed in a pair of gigantic glass boxes. Magnified and repeated endlessly in the boxes’ mirrored ceilings and floors, they project life-sized and life-like images of Washington’s most beautiful and romantic symbol. Behind them, the far wall, now sheathed in red burlap, has become a vibrant backdrop that continues the all-American theme.

The once formal and distant reception area on the lower level has been moved forward creating the sense of a smaller, more intimate environment. The long counter is gone. Instead three separate desks are manned by attractive greeters at the ready to smooth the check-in process and escort arriving guests to one of the 215 renovated  rooms and suites. These, too, reflect the American ambience in classically American materials like the gray limestone of “drop-dead” spa bathrooms, the novel craft accessories, the collection of books dealing with American arts and heritages – all in a context of sleek yet distinctive contemporary furnishings that go far to create the illusion of being a private apartment instead of a standard issue hotel room.

From the reception area, the lobby level stretches out, a long, wide hallway of gleaming wooden floors and marble and mirrored walls that reaches the elevator bank and lounge area before concluding at the Park Hyatt’s signature restaurant: the Blue Duck Tavern. There is a sense of spaciousness, of an easy flow from one area to another. What had been an attractive but conventional and sealed off function room is opened up so that light from its ceiling-high windows pours into the hallway.

General Manager  Michel Morauw - click to enlarge
General Manager  Michel Morauw

Redecorated with striking modern tables and comfortable sofas and chairs in neutral shades, the lounge is divided into conversation niches and glass-walled booths which, furnished with Windsor-style benches, are perfect for power Capitol Hill get-togethers where participants can be seen but not overheard. An elegant yet causal setting for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, it will also house the Park Hyatt Washington’s Tea Cellar, an innovative offering of rare and limited production teas from the Far East.

 

The Tea Cellar had not yet opened during our stay, but the Blue Duck Tavern was up, running, and already drawing a crowd.  Certainly the return of Chef Brian McBride, home from his world travels while the hotel underwent renovations, has something to do with it. A long time fixture at the Park Hyatt Washington restaurant scene, famed throughout the mid-Atlantic region for his singular crab-cakes, Brian had used his time abroad to visit restaurants and study, in particular, open kitchens. He came home with a good sense of what his ideal kitchen should be like.

One requirement was that it had to go beyond the single counter where three people in white hats display pyrotechnic skills, and clearly the Blue Duck Tavern fulfills that need. The open kitchen is a complete, working kitchen,. The entire operation, from the moment the server submits the order until the prepared dish is placed before the diner, can be seen from every table in the spacious and modern dining room.

 

It’s hard to concentrate on polite dinner conversation with so much theater going on. The kitchen is a stage whose spectacular set consists of a giant cooking island beneath a huge steel hood, marble work tables, and a massive wood-burning oven. Reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” mirrors multiply the scene, not of dancers in this case, but a cast of ten cooks and preparers who go through their steps without missing a beat. And through it all, Brian, like the master choreographer, moves in and out, keeping the momentum going, checking to see every motion in the performance is correct.

 

It’s more than “One Singular Sensation,” however, for the adjacent “wine library” gets it share of ogling where a substantial collection of mostly Californians (to be expected in this environment) are arranged on floor to ceiling spot-lit-glass shelves in theatrical display.

 

In line with the Park Hyatt’s all-American theme, Brian has discovered local purveyors in the nearby Amish and Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania. A creamery owned by a Mennonite woman  provides his dairy products; the most delicate and delicious tiny eggs come from an Amish farm. He’s discovered three different kinds of heirloom tomatoes in the region. The sea bream we dined on came from local Atlantic waters. The duck a bit further north in Long Island. The breast was cooked slowly at a low temperature, cooled then roasted with the leg confit in the wood-burning oven. It was excellent. So were the  thick, finger-length French fries which are blanched three times and fried in duck fat.

The Blue Duck Tavern is casual and comfortable, the kind of place where one would like to drop in after a long day. Servers, dressed in blue T-shirts under black jackets, are to a man and woman, engaging, informed, enthusiastic about being in this new and exciting environment. Food and Beverage Manager Judy Hou is on the scene, all over the operation, checking out tables, making sure everything is running smoothly.

“This kitchen and this hotel reflect something about the American spirit,” the Belgian-born Michel said. “In America, you can get the best designer, the best art, the best food products, the best woodwork. We have chairs in the restaurant hand-carved by an artisan in Vermont. We have Shaker pieces. Brian has found producers and farmers that are supplying us with the best products. No one in the world can tell us they can do it better than we can do it here.”

The staff seems to share Michel’s optimism. They reflect the nation’s diversity, its informality, its open spirit. "That’s what America is all about,” he adds. “A lot of people on our staff who have come here recently are so proud to be here. I feel that way too.”

The Park Hyatt Washington D.C.
1201 24 St. NW
Washington, DC 20037

Phone: 202 789-1234419-6696
Web: 
http://www.parkhyattwashington.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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