Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009 | 7:44 p.m.
My first full day in Washington was pretty cold and pretty low-key.
I woke up, made my airbed and had one of the coldest showers of my life. While the water was warm enough, the townhouse where I’m staying wasn’t exactly well-insulated and the shower is set alongside an exterior-facing wall.
It was about 10 degrees outside; “chilly” would have been an understatement.
The early part of my day was equally unremarkable. I spent it making phone calls and writing, breaking up the work with occasional trips to the kitchen to see what I could scavenge from my friend, Brian’s, fridge.
Brian is my den mother for the week and was gracious enough to put me up during my inaugural adventure. That said, he is not a chef and is very much a bachelor. As such, my quest for breakfast was a remarkable failure. Still, three-quarters of a semi-stale bagel and several glasses of tea were all I really needed.
While a normal person would have probably gone down the street to one of the cafés, I did not afford myself the luxury. After all, there was work to be done – and it was oh, so very cold out there.
Later that night, however, I bundled up and walked, briskly, to the Metro, hopped a train, transferred at Metro Center and popped up at the Smithsonian station.
Despite my proximity to the famed monuments of the nation’s capitol, again, I could not see them. This didn't bother me, however, as I had a different destination in mind.
While Las Vegas is home to many big-name chefs, my favorite restaurant in America is still one that I discovered last year in Washington. It is called CityZen and is just steps from the Smithsonian Metro stop, past the Federal Communications Commission building and in the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
The restaurant is one of those “special” spots where the atmosphere is sleek and the clientele is sophisticated. Not surprisingly, the bill -- while worth every penny -- is usually in a league of its own, as well.
It is also where Hawaii will hold its inaugural celebrations in a few days.
After camping out in the lounge for about an hour, my companion and I scored two seats at CityZen’s coveted bar.
It was a busy night at CityZen; the staff was in constant motion and the large dining room was at capacity.
We hadn’t been seated for more than 10 minutes before I happened upon a successful doctor from New York City.
He told me how he and his family had come to D.C. for the inauguration and we took turns quizzing each other about which inaugural events we planned to attend.
Since he had fundraised for Barack Obama’s campaign, he planned on attending several events for the fundraising set, he said.
His wife expressed her desire to go to a Vanity Fair party that she heard about. I had heard about the same party a few days earlier, actually -- and had since learned that the party was no more than a rumor. I delivered the unfortunate news and gave her some suggestions for other worthwhile soirées that were being planned.
The couple’s teenage son was a pale, quiet kid with long curly hair. He didn’t say much so I tried to engage him and asked what he was looking forward to the most.
“Well, the inauguration, of course,” he said.
Naturally, the affluent family all had tickets.
His father reminded him of the volunteering he would do as part of the so-called “Day of Service” on Monday, honoring Martin Luther King.
“They gave us a list of, like, a hundred different things to do but I haven’t decided which one I’ll do yet,” the teen reported.
The doctor assured me they’d pick something and stick to it, and threw in how he was going to do lunch on Monday with a dean at Howard University.
“He asked me to set up a scholarship, so I said I’d do it,” he said nonchalantly.
Later that night, after my luscious meal was safely stowed in my belly and the crowed began to thin, I asked the bartender, Sal, about the recession.
“It really hasn’t affected our business at all,” he said.
Judging from the full house of well-dressed and well-heeled clientele earlier in the night, I didn’t disbelieve him.
Still, he acknowledged that while CityZen had so far weathered the economic storm, other areas of the four-and-a-half-year-old hotel had been struggling.
Thanks to the upcoming inauguration, business is good throughout D.C. There’s a sense of anticipation in the air and people seem almost dizzy with excitement. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what the mood will be a month from now, after the inaugural high wears off and the crowds have cleared, taking their tourist dollars and corporate expense accounts with them.
Sal acknowledged the positive impact the inauguration had on the hotel and city as a whole, and noted that the 4-star restaurant would be closed several days next week because of “buy-outs,” which are when corporations or organizations play a flat fee -- $35,000 to $45,000 in this case, apparently -- to close the eatery down and literally buy an entire evening at the restaurant.
Sal said he was looking forward to the Hawaii function.
“They’re not sparing any expense,” he said of the president-elect’s home state. “They’re going all out.”
Sal said several inaugural banquets -– and an inaugural ball or two, too –- would be held elsewhere in the hotel.
After settling my tab I headed across town to the popular U Street district. The area is chock full of restaurants, shops and bars and is always good for people-watching.
Some friends told me to meet them at a restaurant called U-topia. While the cab driver kept trying to take me for Ethiopian food -- another very common (and tasty) U Street characteristic -- we eventually found the eclectic eatery I was looking for.
As I walked inside, I nearly knocked over not one, but two trumpet players. It was jazz night and the several-man band that was playing was too big for the small bar-side stage, leaving a few unfortunate musicians to stand in front of the doorway.
I apologized, sheepishly, and darted out of sight, toward the back.
An eccentric manager quickly showed me to a table. I didn’t realize he was the manager at first; he was wearing jeans and a three-quarter-length black leather jacket. On his head was a silly looking wool hat with a brim and in one hand was an unlit cigarette.
The establishment was split into two rectangular rooms: a main room with a big wooden bar, several small tables and the over-sized band near the front, and a second, more spacious space with several tables fit for dining.
I quickly took my seat and ordered myself a Diet Coke. After a few minutes I pulled out my camera to snap a few pictures of the funky space. Original artwork hung on the exposed brick walls and a chandelier cast a dim light from the ceiling above.
The wacky manager spotted my camera and soon became nervous. He told me to stop, then demanded I erase the digital stills.
As a member of the press I am used to making people nervous. Friends and associates often joke that their words will soon wind up in my stories or, worse yet, the headlines.
In this case, however, the manager didn’t know I was a reporter; as far as he knew I was just a snap-happy tourist with a Cannon camera around my neck. His insisting I cease and desist was kind of strange but his unsolicited explanation was even more bizarre.
“We get mafia in here,” he said. “I'm not mafia but some of the guys who come through here are.”
Later, I asked him if I could take a photo or two of the band “for a souvenir.”
“We don’t really do that here,” he said.
I gave him a genuinely puzzled look.
Again, his response was curious.
“That's why we've been here 17 years and (former) mayor (Marion) Barry comes here and still feels safe.”
Barry's term is was defined in 1990 when he and his girlfriend were caught using cocaine in a D.C. hotel room. The then-mayor was charged with three felonies, 10 drug possession offences and one misdemeanor but was later granted a mistrial.
He did not seek reelection but shassince plead guilty to tax evaision and has also been charged with driving under the influence and driving an unregistered vehicle, among other infractions.
Suddenly I didn’t feel safe. I paid my tab and went home.