D.C. Is O-Town

coverimages D.C. Is O TownWASHINGTON, D.C.—The day before Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, the lunch seating at Café Milano, the Italian restaurant in Georgetown, was booked solid.

Milano is the Michael’s of D.C. But it’s still in D.C. The air buzzed with the chatter of heavily hair-sprayed women wearing pink blouses, dangly earrings and bright shades of lipstick who, ever so subtly, craned their necks around the room to catch glimpses of some of the visitors who had descended upon their sleepy town, which until Tuesday was ruled by a teetotaling president and his charming but demure wife, a couple with a reputation for 6 o’clock dinners and early beddie-byes.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The day before Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, the lunch seating at Café Milano, the Italian restaurant in Georgetown, was booked solid.

Milano is the Michael’s of D.C. But it’s still in D.C. The air buzzed with the chatter of heavily hair-sprayed women wearing pink blouses, dangly earrings and bright shades of lipstick who, ever so subtly, craned their necks around the room to catch glimpses of some of the visitors who had descended upon their sleepy town, which until Tuesday was ruled by a teetotaling president and his charming but demure wife, a couple with a reputation for 6 o’clock dinners and early beddie-byes.

When was the last time, you could almost hear them thinking, that the comely young actress Olivia Wilde, who made her name French-kissing Mischa Barton on the late, lamented teen soap opera The O.C., was perched at a discreet round table in the corner? Or when Sharon Stone, in tight black leather pants and high-heeled booties (“She must work out a lot,” said a woman sitting at the bar), swanned in and double-kissed Milano’s suave owner Franco Nuschese before saying hello to still-blond Bo Derek (“Why is Bo Derek here? Isn’t she a Republican?”) and taking over Table 100, which had just been vacated by Senator Chuck Hagel and former World Bank president James Wolfensohn; or when Bill Murray had dined in the Washington Room, which has images of monuments painted on the ceiling, wearing what appeared to be pajama pants?

“There’s getting to be a real L.A. look around here from all the celebrities coming around,” said Milano’s publicist Janet Staihar. Saturday night the restaurant had been visited by Governor David Paterson, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose and Arianna Huffington, as well as Ms. Derek and Ms. Stone.

“D.C. seems a lot more accessible,” said Mr. Murray. We wondered whether a New York–type social scene would ever spring up in Washington. “You gotta get people committed to caring about the arts. But there’ll be an influx. There’ll be a lot more sizzle here than there’s been in a long time. It just seems like it might be a lot more fun.”

Mr. Nuschese, dressed in a well-fitted black pinstriped suit and orange tie, was clearly in his element; at various points he had his arm around Mr. Hagel, Ms. Stone and seemingly everyone else in the restaurant. “We can’t judge the next year by this week, but yes, obviously we’re getting a lot more interesting clientele,” he said in a heavy Italian accent. “But I think it’s probably going to be a very interesting year for us. During the Clinton years, we had a lot of celebrities here, too. I think we’re going to see a lot of international people around here and, of course, a lot of people from the entertainment industry, who will support and help whatever this administration needs to do.”

In the private dining room, the brunette Washington hostess Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, wife of the late Archibald Roosevelt (grandson of Teddy), was hosting a lunch. Ms. Roosevelt, who served as chief of protocol in the Reagan administration and is a registered Republican, was wearing a diamond-encrusted Obama 2008 pin on her lapel.

“Without meaning to be disparaging in any way, but I think money is a big factor in New York,” Ms. Roosevelt told The Observer. “Whereas here, your proximity to power is what the social scene is based on. I don’t know how the Obamas plan to entertain, but they look to me like they’re very outgoing—and utterly charming, I might add. I think they just like people.”

After eight years, the city’s grande dame hostesses—the ones still standing, anyway—are champing at the bit to start entertaining again. Really entertaining again. And based on this inauguration weekend, they think the Obamas will give them what they need to start the party.

“The Reagans was the last time this sort of thing existed,” Ms. Roosevelt, who was wearing an orange sweater and gray slacks, continued. “Mrs. Reagan was wonderful. As a first lady, she knew how to entertain and she did it beautifully. They liked doing it and they did a great many both official and unofficial events. Naturally, I was involved in a lot of those, and I had a chance to observe close up. But just to give you an idea, in the years that I was chief of protocol, they did 70—seven, zero!—state dinners. Whereas, in the entire last administration, in eight years, I believe there were six.”

Socially, it’s reminiscent of the Carter-Reagan transition to power; President Carter had banished liquor from the White House, banned the use of limousines and even sold the presidential yacht, The Sequoia, which had been used for entertaining. His staff was said to be insular and unschooled, if by choice, in the ways of Washington society. Reagan brought Hollywood glamour; Mr. Obama brings Camelot glamour.

Fred Cannon, a New Yorker who’s vice president for government relations at BMI, the music-licensing organization, was dining alone. “I think the energy here right now with Obama taking office has created an interesting integration between the Washington scene and the New York scene. They seem to be on the same wavelength for a change.”

He continued: “I think it was more insular under Bush. Now it’s a lot more open and a lot more transparent. And a lot more accepting of people from different genres.”

 

FRIDAY NIGHT, however, you could find most people from what might be called big Washington society at the Fairfax Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue for a party sponsored by the magazine Washington Life, which had dubbed its most recent issue “The Insider’s Guide to Obamaland: Special Collector’s Handbook.” On the guest list were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, who was leading the Obama transition team; and Warren Haynes, most famously of the Allman brothers but also a regular performer with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. Purple lights projected slow-moving lava-lamp bubbles on the ceiling, and crystal chandeliers reflected without prejudice off the bald pates of Washington power brokers with their frosty-haired wives, and those of middle-aged rockers, who wore what hair they had left in dreadlocks.

“The spirit of openness has really not been seen in this town for a very long time,” Mr. Podesta told The Observer. “Not just through the Web sites but through real dialogue, through listening to people and respecting each other and breaking down that sense of war. The town will definitely be a cooler place to live.”

Mr. Podesta’s sister-in-law, Heather Podesta, stepped over.

“It’s been really interesting to work downtown because all of a sudden we have a president,” she said. “What’s been amazing in the last few weeks is to realize that Bush never left the White House. And all of a sudden we have traffic jams.”

“When was the last time Bush went to Ben’s Chili Bowl,” Mr. Podesta asked. That’s the Washington institution favored by Bill Cosby, which has declared the Obama family nonpaying customers.