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The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D. C.
A Capitol Experience

There’s a new Ritz-Carlton in the nation’s capital these days. It’s in a new locale, with a new style and new dimensions that set it apart from even the other truly great DC hotels. In the year and half since it opened, the complex of 300 rooms and suites, 160 residences, and 4,000-member sports club in Washington’s West End has become the place to spot high-powered personalities from CNN journalists to folks on the Hill.

The Ritz Carlton - Washington, D. C. - click to enlarge It’s approached via a sleek sweep of a circular drive that runs up to a cool study in glass, brick and concrete. But facades can be deceiving. Step inside and you’re transported into the warmth of a 19th century English club with a flamboyant 21st century aesthetic.

In a departure from the huge lobbies that typified hotels built in the 90’s, the Ritz-Carlton interior ushers one from one intimate space to another. Walls covered with rich and finely detailed wood, mirror-bright marble floors set off by antique carpets, comfortable couches upholstered in traditional fabrics all contribute to an ambience of serene luxury. But every here and there, touches of the unexpected appear: cobalt-blue glass in the shape of elongated twisted balloons hanging from ceiling fixtures; an arrangement of apples on a commode which emulates in real life the content of a still life hanging above; a trio of exceedingly tall, slim vases filled with long-stemmed tulips; pale orchids in rectangular containers supported by a grid of bamboo.

And then there is the glass art -- radiant plates and bowls of abstract shape and intricate design on tables, in china closets, and lining the wall beside the grand stairway that leads to the lower level. This last group was created specifically for its site by Chijuli, the noted Seattle glass designer. 

The objects capture light from every perspective, throwing fantastic patterns against the opposite wall, making for a dramatic descent to the floor that houses Washington’s largest luxury ballroom, a junior ballroom, and meeting rooms aptly named for Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

“Having a ballroom with the ability to do a thousand people for dinner combined with our other public spaces gives us a great advantage over hotels of equal quality,” says general manager James McBride. “Before the Ritz-Carlton, guests staying at high-end properties had to go elsewhere to attend large conferences. We can accommodate such events right here. In this way, we are filling a specific niche.”

McBride maintains the convenience of in-hotel public rooms that can handle a major event like the recent Larry King Cardiac Foundation Gala has contributed to a guest list that reads like a ‘Who’s Who.’ “You get used to it after a while, but if you look at our guest book, it’s mind boggling,” he says. “We have heads of state, famous Hollywood figures, CEO’s of companies like IBM, Levi Strauss, General Electric. Last weekend we had  Trilateral, an organization that works on world peace that’s headed up by Tom Foley, former Speaker of the House. August Busch is coming Monday. But that’s Washington. Everyone who is anyone comes to Washington at least once a year.”

James McBride, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Washington DC - click to enlarge
James McBride, General Manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Washington DC
The South African-born McBride arrived in DC in 1999 to supervise the Ritz-Carlton’s rise from the site of a parking lot in the neighborhood between Georgetown and the White House that has of late zoomed from obscurity to high definition. He’d spent the previous thirteen years at Ritz-Carlton properties in North America and Asia. “It was a great honor to come here,” he told us. “Washington is a very small but great city. You can only understand its power once you’ve lived here.

“The branding of Ritz-Carlton has been very successful,” he added. “And our combination of hotel, sports club, and residences – the most expensive real estate of condominiums sold in Washington -- has had a tremendous impact on this West End location.”

The condominiums are housed in their own building facing 23rd Street, while the hotel faces 22nd . From our room, we looked out on the multi level Japanese garden replete with waterfall that separates the two wings transfixed by the enchanting setting and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Ritz-Carlton’s most famous resident: Michael Jordan.

But he was nowhere to be seen, not on a condo balcony, not at the bar where he regularly hangs out, not at the Ritz-Carlton’s Sports Club LA where he regularly works out. But we did get to see some serious basketball shooting at one of the two basketball courts in this mother of all sports clubs that has every conceivable type of exercise machine, two swimming pools, four squash courts, a sundeck, spa, and interactive video monitor that  provides peeks into yoga, jazzercise, step, stretch, and spinning classes. “Spread out over two acres and taking up two floors of  hotel space, the Sports Club never seems too crowded,” sales and marketing director John Haprer told us, “except on January 2. That’s the only time the parking garage with room for 700 cars is so full I have to park on the bottom level. Within two weeks though, New Years’ resolutions are beginning to be forgotten, and I’m back to my usual spot.”

Though it was April and not January, we made a couple of resolutions: 1) to return to the Ritz-Carlton the next time we are in DC; 2) to try out the manifold Sports Club offerings which are available free of charge to all guests; and 3) to arrange our next stay so that we can partake of the Ritz-Carlton’s Sunday brunch. “It’s a buffet but the whole idea behind it is dim sum,” head concierge John Dignan had told us. “Everything comes in tiny portions: foie gras, steak, chops, caviar, sushi and sashimi, lobster tails, oysters. You go down the line and pick up a portion on a tiny plate. You can have six of these little plates on one dinner plate. And the Moet Chandon champagne is free flowing. It’s very beautiful and very popular.”

Although we couldn’t make the Sunday brunch this time around, we did do a Friday breakfast and Saturday lunch at the Ritz-Carlton’s Grill, a spacious and light-filled dining room with an open kitchen at one end, a cooking stage whose props are a pile of white plates and a collection of pots hung from wrought iron fixtures, and whose cast is a group of cooks costumed in chefs’ whites.

For breakfast, we opted for the elaborate buffet, a new offering according to restaurant manager Jeff Conally, designed for those who are anxious to get their day going and don’t have the time to wait and be served.  We did have the time though to sample a range of offerings from Scottish-style oatmeal to New York-style bagels, lox, and capers, to made-to-order waffles and omelets, and a stunning selection of fresh fruits, breads and pastries.

And as if to make up for missing Michael Jordan, we did get to have a nostalgic chat about Brooklyn high schools with Ritz-Carlton regular Larry King who was seated at the next table.

En route to celebrity status is the Ritz-Carlton’s executive chef, Paolo Venzeni. Originally from Milan, Venzeni had worked in American restaurants for five years before taking on his present position a few months ago. “I’m still learning what the local preferences are,” he told us. “I plan to stick to the basics but add a little creativity. For example, you have a basic product like salmon and you add something creative like saffron chutney. Or we do a lasagna filled with cheese fondue, mushrooms, cooked ham, green peas, and a little truffle juice that is folded and baked in a soufflé pan. What happens is the top gets crusty, but when the ring is removed, the sides are soft. It looks like a flower. And for dessert, we serve a cotton candy surrounded by petit fours. What happens? The guests forget about the petit fours, they’re so busy pulling at the cotton candy. We present it in an elegant way, but it still brings back the memory. These are the kinds of things I like to do. They are familiar, but also daring and different.”

Executive Chef Paolo Venzeni with John Harper, Director of Sales & Management and Colleen Evans, Director of Public Relations - Click to Enlarge
Executive Chef Paolo Venzeni with John Harper, Director of Sales & Management and Colleen Evans, Director of Public Relations
In this era of celebrity chefs, restaurant chef Emery Santos seems also destined to join the pantheon. An Italian-American from Whitestone, Queens whose youthful appearance belies years of experience in prestigious kitchens both in Europe and America, Santos came to the Grill by way of the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton because he always had a yen to work in DC.

We had a yen to try Santos’ crab cakes which we’d heard so much about. Given Washington’s close proximity to Chesapeake Bay, one is hard pressed to find a restaurant in the nation’s capital that doesn’t offer this mid-Atlantic staple. But Santos adds avocados to the mix and turns out miniature crab cakes that are delicate, delicious, and decidedly distinctive. There were other distinctions to our lunch at the Grill: a tangy compote made of lemon zest that accompanied the traditional shrimp cocktail, a carrot risotto served with asparagus and sun dried tomatoes in a red wine reduction, a vegetable tart of beets, leeks and goat cheese in a cracked pepper crust, and – lest we forget, a Bloody Mary that was a real eye opener. Dave, the bartender, revealed to us his secret ingredient: celery seed.

Two members of the team: Corinna Simon and John Harper in the Club lounge - click to enlarge
Two members of the team: Corinna Simon and John Harper in the Club lounge
From Dave to Emery Santos to Corinna Simon the engaging manager of the Ritz- Carlton Club, all the members of the team we encountered communicated an enthusiasm for the property and their role in the entire enterprise.

Perhaps the example is set by James McBride who, as we noticed when he showed us around the premises, did not miss an opportunity to greet every associate from porter to desk clerk to health club technician to valet parker. Perhaps it was set at the very opening of the hotel on October 11, 2000, a time recounted to us by John Dignan who had come to the Ritz-Carlton two months earlier. “I worried how it would ever come together,” he told us. “I was scared to death. One week out, it was still a construction site. Everyone kept reassuring me, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry. You’ll be surprised.’ And I thought I’ll have to be surprised at this point.

“But like magic, we opened on schedule. It was a big event in DC with hundreds present. Larry King did the ribbon cutting with Mr. Marriott. There were a bunch of speeches.

“The best part, however, took place the day before at the employees’ pep rally. We all congregated outside on the driveway wearing t-shirts that said “Opening Team -- the Ritz Carlton, Washington DC, October 2000.” The chefs banged metal spoons on their pots and pans (it was very un-Ritz-Carlton). There was as much energy as at a homecoming football game. Then we all paraded downstairs to the ballroom where they had a little party for us. An espirit de corps was developed that day that has lasted.” And John Dignan seems to be its personification.

“The key to being a concierge is not knowing everything; you can never do that. The key is knowing whom to ask, how to get the information,” he said. It seemed to us there was no request John could not handle. All we asked of him was tickets to the recently opened and sold-out “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes at the Corcoran. For a man who would be catering repasts for three private jets later in the week and had arranged for the purchase of a Hummer for a guest the week before, this was a piece of cake.

How right it seemed to view the scenes of those Camelot years just a few blocks away from the White House, how poignant and moving an evocation of that brief and hopeful time. In retrospect, it seemed fortuitous that we had missed the show when it was in New York and were able to see it so close to its rightful home.

The exhibit that continues until the end of  September will be part of a Ritz-Carlton event organized by the hotel’s effervescent public relations director Colleen Evans. “We’re going to call it ‘Jackie and Me,’” Colleen said. “We’ll provide tickets to the show, bring people to the Cochoran and back to the hotel where we’ll have a tea along with an informal modeling of vintage clothing from the early 1960’s and a lecture by an expert on Jackie’s years in Washington.”

Our visit to Washington came to an end the day after we saw the exhibit. We checked out after breakfast, leaving our luggage with the bellman as we had several hours to tool around DC before our flight. On the way out, we stopped to say goodbye to John and mentioned how much we appreciated the small but memorable touch that seemed to epitomize the care and attention to detail that characterized our stay: the slender vase maybe three feet high that had been placed in our room with a single golden lily, one bud opened, several yet to bloom.  

Some time later when we were about to depart, we saw the lily in the vase had, along with our luggage, been placed in the car.  Yet another touch to add to our memories of the dimensions of the experience that is the Ritz-Carlton, Washington DC.   

The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C.
1150 22nd Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20037

Phone: 202-835-0500
Fax: 202-835-1588

Photos 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

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


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