Here's a bit of architectural trivia for you: The Washington Plaza Hotel was designed in 1962 by Morris Lapidus, the man who gave Miami its glamorous Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels. In the 1950s and '60s, those resorts were popular with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and the Fontainbleau itself featured prominently in films like "Goldfinger."
Washington's International Inn, as it was known, never drew the same high-wattage starpower. Fast-forward 40 years, though, and the International Bar (10 Thomas Circle NW; 202-842-1300) at the Washington Plaza Hotel is trying to recapture the magic of that era with retro-inspired theme nights, including fondue parties and DJs spinning '60s lounge music.
"This was a popular place in the 1960s, and we're trying to highlight that heyday in everything that we do," says bar manager Renee Pastore. "That's why we have James Bond movies -- Sean Connery only, of course -- playing on the flat screen behind the bar, as well as these events."
Everything started with a massive redesign of the bar and lounge last fall, giving it a funky style (think muted warm colors and a carpet covered with plant designs) instead of the trendy, minimalist '60s Swedish look so popular elsewhere. There are tufted leather couches just outside the bar, perfect for a bachelor pad. Seating options in the huge lounge area range from large, U-shaped booths along the walls, to coffee tables and low bench seating to funky couches that wrap around pillars. Exotic touches abound, from the leaping gazelles on the lampshades to the back-lit green bar, which is made from recycled Heineken bottles. Recently, the most coveted place in the lounge has been the seats near the small, stylish gas fireplace.
Wednesday is fondue night, when you can settle into a banquette for an evening of dipping and conversation, '60s dinner-party style. Served in tall silver dishes, orders of fondue are available for two, four or six people. You can choose the traditional model, dipping small chunks of bread into creamy cheese, or go the dessert route with gooey chocolate and hunks of soft poundcake, which is made in the hotel.
The atmosphere is more swingin' at Thursday's Snap! night, where Mr. Majesty spins '60s exotica, lounge, bossa nova, boogaloo and soul tracks. Compared with Wednesday, there's more of a cocktail party atmosphere, with plenty of mingling at the bar -- probably helped by the $5 martinis. Sadly, the bar lacks a dance floor, but people groove where they can find room.
Those are the only theme nights for now, but Pastore says she plans to have parties around the hotel's prominent pool later this year, "when Mother Nature tells us that people would rather be outside than sitting around the fireplace with fondue."
If you can't make the midweek events, the International is still worth a visit. Its bartenders make some of the best martinis in town, and the drink menu includes some interesting options, like the Blond Bombshell, made with Stolichnaya Vanil vodka and white cranberry juice. If you've been having cocktail wishes and caviar dreams, check out the Presidente platter for two: two martinis made with Lithuanian vodka and served in Cartier crystal glasses with a bowl of Beluga caviar. It's delivered to your table on a silver Tiffany tray, and costs $100.
Despite its appeal, I've been frustrated with the service during my visits, especially when the bar is crowded. Pastore says the kinks are being worked out, and for fondue and boogaloo, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
-- Fritz Hahn (Jan. 31, 2003)