WASHINGTON, January 17, 2013 — The grande dame of Washington D.C. hotels, only one block from the White House at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, has been the hotel of presidents for over 150 years.
Abe Lincoln and his family even stayed here before his first Inauguration, having been smuggled in to avoid assassination attempts, and he ran up a $773.75 tab, which he paid when he started receiving his Presidential salary. In today’s money that is $20,361.84.
Lincoln held his Inaugural luncheon at the Willard Hotel, unlike current day presidents who lunch with Congress in the Capitol building. The menu for the Lincoln luncheon was corned beef and cabbage, mock turtle soup, parsley potatoes, and blackberry pie. Quite a simple lunch for a Commander in Chief.
With that kind of history, it’s no wonder that the Willard is now a whirlwind of preparations from the chef to the concierge. Once again with its choice parade spot on Pennsylvania Avenue and only a short walk to the Mall, the Willard is the place to be this Inaugural.
Thanks to a year’s worth of planning, the rooms are booked, the parties platters ordered, the staff primed, and the Beaux Arts lobby is festooned in patriotic bunting, so when guests walk through the front door, everything will run like proverbial clockwork.
With an experienced staff, which has witnessed many inaugurals, they know what to expect and are ready for any surprises that comes their way.
Steve Blum, the Uniformed Service Director, who oversees the bellmen, started at the Willard as a bellman himself, and has been working every inauguration since President George H.W. Bush’s inaugural in 1989. Blum has been called the “Mayor of Pennsylvania Avenue” because it’s a rare politician, dignitary or celebrity that he hasn’t met in his job.
He has especially warm memories of President Gerald and Betty Ford and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and remembers doing a fist bump with then-Senator Obama.
Concierge Michael McCleary says he expects everything to run as smoothly as ever, having done Inaugural weekends seven times before. He is undaunted by the possibility of the unexpected, and if the Inaugural weekend is anything like past years, the problems that arise will most likely be on the night of the Inaugural balls.
Suddenly guests find that they forgot their cufflinks or cummerbund. No problem, McCleary can get it for you. Once it was something as simple as a safety pin to save a gown from a “wardrobe malfunction.” Another guest decided at the last minute she needed peacock feathers to complete her fashion statement. It took extra searching, but he found them for her. One gentleman wanted a white rose as a boutonniere. Florists were closed, but McCleary called around to other hotel concierges and one them snipped a rose from his lobby’s bouquet and sent it over just in time.
Probably the two most surprising requests were the celebrity who insisted he had to have two SUVs immediately, even though the tight security prevented them from pulling up front, and the partygoers at a President George W. Bush’s Inaugural party who wanted a President Clinton impersonator. McCleary to the rescue. This year, he is ready just in case someone requests a Bush impersonator.
Tight security surrounds the hotel since it is a prime viewing point for the parade, both from the street or from one of the many parties overlooking the parade route. The front entrance is closed down, with the only access being by foot from F Street, where security will check to see anyone entering is either a guest or holds an invitation to one of the many parties in the Willard.
The whole hotel bustles with energy, catering equally to its famous and not famous guests. Everyone is treated like a VIP. Then suddenly at the very moment of a president’s Swearing-in, McCleary says, a hush falls over the hotel as guests and staff stand rapt, watching the Chief Justice swear-in the president. Within 15 minutes, the hubbub resumes.
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Executive Chef Luc Dendievel has never been busier than he has been this week, getting ready for the round-the-clock parties that will start on Friday night and run through the wee hours of the morning following the Inaugural balls.
He and his staff of 45 have started the prep work so that each Inaugural party will have taste treats to remember. Sticking with all-American food, Chef Luc has concentrated on the requests of each Inaugural party, offering buffets and stations of food that can rival even mom’s best home cooking, whether she is from Venice Beach or Vietnam but with a gourmet flourish.
His kitchen has a line-up of food that reflects good American eating from coast to coast as well as the ethnic diversity of the country. Sample vicariously some of what is on the menu this weekend and see if you don’t get hungry just reading it:
Champagne and melon soup in a shot class
Jicama and green papaya Vietnamese rolls
Maryland crab cakes
Coney Island franks with sauerkraut
Chicken cordon bleu, meatball, and porker sliders
East Coast oysters, shucked
Snow crab claws
Poached Maine lobster
Rack of lamb
Black Angus tenderloin of beef
And for dessert…
Miniature cupcakes, chocolate to Key Lime
Miniature tarts, cakes, mousse cups and dipped strawberries
And when the revelers return from dancing the night away, they will find a sumptuous breakfast waiting for them at 1 in the morning. Only as dawn is breaking will Chef Luc and his staff finally put their feet up.
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