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
||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
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
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
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
|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
|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
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
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.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights