For many, Town & Country Lounge's last call hard to swallow

As the Mayflower hotel's bar Town and Country closes, customers have to say goodbye to Sam Lek, a bartender that has served the politicians, lobbyists and journalists faithfully for 35 years.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 7:40 PM

On Saturday night, Sambonn Lek, head bartender at the legendary Town & Country Lounge, where he's worked since Gerald Ford was president, will don his white shirt, red tie and black vest, stand behind the bar, and make some of the best sidecars around, along with even better small talk.

He will make $20 bills levitate (he loves magic tricks), and he will insert the word "sir" into every other sentence (he is unfailingly polite). He will recognize people he hasn't seen in a decade, somehow recalling what they had the last time they dropped in for a drink at the storied, mahogany-paneled saloon just off the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue NW.

And then, around 1:30 a.m., Lek will announce last call - with finality, because, after more than six decades, the Town & Country is closing for good, the latest in a series of farewells among Washington's old-school hotel bars.

"And then I might cry," said Lek, known as Sam to anybody who's passed through the Town & Country over the past 34 years and nine months, a tenure during which he has collected White House pins from seven administrations, gifts from staffers who come by to decompress after long days doing the nation's work. "It's going to be very sad, sir. Very sad."

As part of a $5 million renovation, the Mayflower is shuttering the clubby old watering hole that's long served Washington elites, from presidents and senators to lobbyists, business leaders and journalists. (Even Eliot Spitzer drank here, before his infamous tryst up in Room 871.)

In 2008, the insider crowd found shuttered doors at the St. Regis Hotel's beloved old Library bar, which was transformed into the more modern Bar at St. Regis to complement a new restaurant, Adour. Out: Books and everything else that screamed library. In: Metallic wall finishes, floating orbs and violet upholstery. ("I know, it's really different," a St. Regis bartender recently told a visitor who seemed perplexed by the makeover. "If you're looking for that classic, old-school thing, try the Round Robin at the Willard.")

Similarly, the serene, thoroughly civilized Garden Terrace Lounge at the Four Seasons was replaced in 2008 by Bourbon Steak, a bustling restaurant and high-energy, high-decibel Georgetown bar.

The transformation did not sit well with some Four Seasons regulars. "No one likes change. It always takes some time to adjust," said Debra Silvi, the hotel's director of marketing. "But some of the folks who were not happy at first have become some of Bourbon's strongest supporters. We've become very attractive to another generation. It's all about staying relevant, staying current."

Change happens - even in Washington, where locals tend to hold their tradition dear and visitors bring checklists filled with must-visit landmarks.

"I know time marches on, but one too many dominoes have been falling lately," said Jason Meath, a Washington media consultant who said he's still broken up over the loss of the Library bar and the Four Seasons lounge. "The Town & Country is a real Washington institution. All the stories that wood paneling could tell! Now they're going to rip it to shreds and put a men's clothing chain in there? It's a real loss of character. These are the places that set your city apart and make it unique."

The Mayflower's bar will be replaced by a clothier, Thomas Pink, that's currently leasing space just across the lobby. That shop will become a street-side restaurant. And the hotel front desk will move across the lobby, ceding its current space to a more modern bar and lounge.

This merry-go-round of change in some old-line, upscale hotels is driven by several factors - all related to the idea that a hot city never stands still. Washington's bar and restaurant scenes have upped their game in the past decade, giving hotels a run for their money. And hotels have jumped into the celebrity chef competition, adding restaurants, sometimes where bars once sat.

"You have to preserve your history, especially in D.C., but you also have to constantly reinvent yourself," said Keith McClinsey, the Mayflower's director of sales and marketing. "If hotels don't stay relevant, they go out of business. But we put a lot of thought into closing the Town & Country. It's a big deal."

The lounge opened in 1948 in a space previously occupied by a men's-only bar and, before that, a drugstore. The Town & Country's opening announcement said it was "designed as a pleasant informal retreat." It became a place for martini-saturated deal-making and power-socializing, Beltway-style.

"When I came to town, the Town & Country, I will acknowledge, was the downtown bar," said Sam Donaldson, the longtime ABC News man. "It was better than a bar - it was a place where the elite meet and greet."

Now it will be shipped off to history's hotel bar, all in the name of currency, which often trumps tradition in the calculus of business. That hotel bar in the nevermore might be a good place to grab a drink; if you're lucky, Duke Zeibert will greet you personally.

One recent night at the Town & Country, Matthew Boettcher, the Mayflower's director of restaurants, ordered a Manhattan on the rocks. It was 6 o'clock, and the place was packed, mostly with locals, who make up 80 percent of the bar's customers, Boettcher said.

"Look at all the ties," he said. "Locals."

The irony of these closings is that the bars were profitable. And in a way, the 63-year-old Town & Country is even trendy; new watering holes are busy trying to re-create that old-school look and feel. "Tradition is hot," Boettcher said. "We're actually en vogue."

But the management team's research determined that closing Town & Country would ultimately be good for business, even if it meant first bracing for some negative response.

They've added extra security for the last few nights - "in anticipation of people taking things as souvenirs," Boettcher said. (Don't bother trying to boost any of the six-dozen leather barrel seats or 30 barstools; the old ones, along with the carpeting - musty from decades of cigar smoke - were torn out in a late 2009 update.)

Lek is ordering extra alcohol, because a lot of old-timers have been coming back for a few final rounds. "People are surprised and disappointed, but nothing you can do," he said. He plans to kiss the bar before he leaves on the last night.

And then, the end. Eighty-six the local landmark.

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