By Chad Kaydo, with additional reporting by Courtney Thompson Posted May 3, 2011, 12:45 PM EDT
Washington’s biggest annual party weekend, anchored by the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, continued to balloon this year, with a growing roster of pre- and post-parties. What had already morphed years ago from a journalist-focused dinner into a celebrity-soaked spectacle has become a multiday circuit of parties competing for high-profile guests.
While the face-off between President Obama, dinner host Seth Meyers, and pseudo presidential candidate Donald Trump drew the attention of television viewers, many of the 2,600 dinner guests at the Washington Hilton on Saturday—and countless more who didn’t sit for dinner but swung through the swirl—were more concerned with navigating the parties from the likes of Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, and MSNBC.
As the clashing personalities from Washington, Hollywood, and New York made their way through the weekend’s event, they saw several repeating motifs—mini cupcakes and photo booths being the biggest repeat offenders—but some hosts pulled off more original party concepts, with a dizzying array of fairly ambitious small plates being served by big local caterers as well as new restaurants. (For many, the Hilton Washington’s dinner of filet and scallops was probably their only seated meal of the weekend.)
This year’s star wattage was dimmed slightly: The royal wedding on Friday morning kept away some of the more famous TV news faces, and with Congress not in session, fewer members were on hand. But a familiar phalanx of movie and TV celebrities parachuted in: Chelsea Handler, Jon Hamm, and Zach Galifianakis were among those sparking excited requests to pose for photos with less-famous faces.
For years the dinner has been called “nerd prom”—a play, in part, on the high number of people present who look awkward in formal wear. And the high school analogy can be helpful in delivering a taxonomy of hosts and parties.
MSNBC’s popular, populist bash at the Italian Embassy—with Cee Lo Green singing three songs (Maryland Sound handled audiovisual production) and Rachel Maddow dutifully making drinks behind her own bar—might be the bash thrown by the football star and the pretty blonde cheerleader. Produced by Philip Dufour, the party gave the grand, open Piero Sartogo-designed space little embellishment, letting just some red drapes, a single crystal chandelier, and lots of lighting from Atmosphere Inc. add some pomp. Outside was a tent from Perfect Settings with hand-rolled cigars and a Johnnie Walker bar.
Among Occasions Caterers’ many modern passed hors d’oeuvres were tiny veal and pork meatballs served on forks with a twirl of spaghetti, and melon balls topped with prosciutto dust and fried parsley. On the sweet side were tiramisu in mini mason jars and push pops in two flavors. Also on hand: Sponsor Starbucks returned with a coffee bar, and on the way in, guests received $10 gift cards for DonorsChoose.org.
Meanwhile, the party hosted by Vanity Fair and Bloomberg—the hardest invite to snag—might show what happens when the rich, handsome student council president (that would be Bloomberg LP) takes up with the snobby boarding-school girl who just moved to town, and doesn’t see the point in hanging out with his boring high school friends. (Vanity Fair signed on to co-host and run the guest list for Bloomberg’s long-running party in 2009.)
This year the duo returned to the residence of the French ambassador, with its now-trademark mix of pastel lighting, pillows with political quotes, and a starry guest list that included Sarah Palin, Seth Meyers, Sean Penn, Scarlett Johansson, Arianna Huffington, and Newt Gingrich. Design Cuisine served mini steak sandwiches, fish-and-chips, and pigs in a blanket.
The other two big post-parties were less concerned with politics and media; the point was to give Washington’s young social set—and the sponsors who want to reach them—a place to go. This year Capitol File’s long-running party, produced by Gala Events and overseen by mag publisher Sarah Schaffer, was prominently sponsored by Bing, with logos on tables and projected on the wall of the Ronald Reagan Building.
While it might be stretching the high school metaphor to say Capitol File was the party for the status-seeking strivers—the preppy future business majors—(with some celebrities from the Creative Coalition, an event partner, mixed in), the Washington Life entry truly felt a house party where someone’s parents were on vacation. The magazine entered the after-party fray for the first time, at a temporary venue in an Embassy Row mansion, with the festivities sponsored by Grey Goose.
Earlier in the night, the dinner crowd floated between the Hilton’s meeting rooms, for celebrity gawking and cocktails hosted by various media outlets. Most blurred together, with just a few perks meant to make their hosts stand out: Thomson Reuters worked with First Protocol to reel in Samantha Ronson to DJ in its white-clad room, and CBS News and Atlantic Media co-hosted on a large tented terrace.
The weekend kicked off with a busy Friday evening. The Creative Coalition used its party to announce a new anti-bullying campaign, and put out cans of Red Bull—a style mismatch in the stately Washington Club, but a fitting choice for the earliest call time of the string of events that went late into the night, with many people making stops at several.
The refreshments at the dinner put on by Atlantic Media owner David Bradley for National Journal and The Atlantic had a decidedly different style: José Andrés's ThinkFoodGroup was on hand to serve his edgy fare, including liquid olives. Susan Gage handled the dinner (and decor) inside a tent over Bradley’s back yard.
The New Yorker returned to its venue from last year (the W Hotel's rooftop), as did Time and People. The Time Inc. sibling magazines created possibly the New Yorkiest vibe of the evening, with artistic installations made of past covers, and loud dance and lounge music, at the St. Regis. A large, heavy gift bag—not the kind easily toted along to the next party—was loaded with snack food and beauty products from the likes of L’Oréal and StriVectin.
There was also a photo booth (from Onomonomedia), a touch echoed at the hospitality suite hosted by Tina Brown’s Newsweek Daily Beast (this one from the Digital PhotoBooth) on Saturday. Brown also entered the Friday night fray with her own party.
Another new host was former Senator Chris Dodd, the new chairman and C.E.O. of the Motion Picture Association of America, with a party in the group’s offices, just around the corner from the St. Regis, with Seth Meyers. Also produced by Philip Dufour, the party did double-duty as a preview of Graffiato by Mike Isabella, the 120-seat Penn Quarter restaurant from the Top Chef alumnus, who served substantial food on small plates: crispy chicken ravioli; gooey, cheesy beef panini; and pancetta frittata with leeks and basil cream. (There were also mini cupcakes with the M.P.A.A. logo on top.)
Friday night’s festivities ended with a rollicking “First Amendment” party at the raw, all-white Longview Gallery, hosted by Funny or Die, National Journal, and The Atlantic. While a younger set crowded big bars in the main space, Google hosted a tent in the back, packed with people trying to get a look at Jon Hamm and Chace Crawford.
Saturday’s traditional daytime stop—the garden party long known as “Tammy’s brunch,” though host Tammy Haddad has a list of co-hosts (including BizBash C.E.O. David Adler)—moved from Haddad’s backyard this year to the fabled former home of Katharine Graham. Now owned by Mark Ein but uninhabited for years, the venue required considerable build-out—including plaster and paint inside, plus a platform over the pool in back—from producers at Design Cuisine.
The caterer’s extensive menu of savory and sweet small plates included sopaipillas with cinnamon and sugar, French toast crème brûlée, and mini croque-monsieurs—and more mini cupcakes, this time with the logos of the two causes being honored: the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and CURE: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy. Event Farm handled registration, and check-in was done on iPads and iPhones.
Susan Axelrod and Wendi Murdoch were the co-chairs, and their husbands were on hand—that would be David and Rupert, of course—as was a considerable celebrity factor (Matthew Morrison, Jeremy Piven, Joan Rivers). But the person getting the biggest reaction was Sarah Palin.
The McLaughlin Group’s Sunday brunch, co-hosted since last year by Thomson Reuters, has made the Hay-Adams roof the longtime morning-after destination. This year guests got to check out the hotel’s recent redo of the space, with its views of the White House and monuments.
Meanwhile, at the Georgetown manse of Politico publisher Robert Allbritton, Politico executive director of events Beth Lester filled a tent in the backyard with Asian touches—blue and white vases, and food from Asian fusion restaurant the Source by Wolfgang Puck, making its off-site catering debut, with help from Design Cuisine. On the menu: mini curry jumpo lump crab salad sandwiches and braised pork belly over a crispy grit cake, plus more traditional breakfast fare, a sushi bar, and a coffee bar with nine variations—perhaps much needed after the long weekend.