"Filet of sole, okay. Cornish hen, okay. Roast beef will come back in a sandwich."
As a dining calamity caused by rain and postponed fireworks struck maitre d' Gustavo Jimenez and the Hotel Washington Sky Room, executive chef Felix Veirun remained calm. What else was he to do but plot the future of food prepared for some 200 dinner guests who never showed?
At noon, when the steady drizzle started, the steady phone calls started too at the Sky Room, and the callers all asked the same question: Fireworks or no fireworks?
Dinner guests with months-old and even year-old reservations at perhaps the best spot in Washington to see fireworks were on the line.
Would it, they asked, be a dinner overlooking a dazzling display of color and light -- or a gray mist and goggy lawns?
The sad answer was announced at 6 p.m. and by 6:30 most guests had either canceled their reservations or made then for identical times tonight. "But my phone is still ringing," said Jimenez, a veteran of 28 other 4ths of July at the Sky Room.
Only two tables of guests braved the chill on the outside terrace, and when people like the Robert Roes of McLean arrived, family discussions ensued on whether to sit outside and be miserable or go home and be warm. Nita Roe said all she wanted was a blanket.
In the kitchen, waiters and waitresses leaned idly against the walls. "I want to go home," said a bored busboy as the Cornish hen filet of sole went back into the refrigerator uncooked.
It was the premature end of a familiar day of bedlam to Jimenez, a veteran of 28 other Fourths of July at the Sky Room. From noon on, he had been overseeing the reservations, the food, the waiters, the waitresses, the bartenders, even the decorations, down to the two tiny American flags placed at each table.
And now, as Jimenez presided over a fraction of the crowd he expecting, he looked forward to the moment when he could really celebrate the birthday of his adopted country. He would sit down in the red, white and blue maitre d' outfit in a quiet corner of the Sky Room, look out toward the Washington Monument, sip a glass of house wine, and think about his holiday.
"It's like a Thanksgiving for me," said this Mexican immigrant who, like so many others, crossed the border in search of what he saw as the promised land "It's not what it means to many Americans -- a day of rest, a day of going camping, a day of getting drunk. It's a holiday that should be celebrated by thinking -- by thinking about the people who started this country."
Jimenez came to this country 20 years old and poor. Since then, first as part-time waiter and now as naturalized citizen and the man in charge, the Fourth of July fireworks display seen from the 11th floor of the Hotel Washington has been an annual event to him. "But," he said, "I haven't really watched the fireworks in all the years I've been here. It's always so crowded and I'm always so busy."
All day the tiny Jimenez, with his thin moustache and graying temples, had been darting amoung tables and chairs and balloons and chefs. In his striped blue sneakers and green striped T-shirt he directed the decor preparations for the 285 guests who were to arrive at 6 p.m. These were well-heeled and well-organized guests, some of whom made their reservations on July 5, 1978, and most of whom had to call by mid-December to get any table at all. For them everything had to be perfect.
And so Jimenez unfurled blue and white tablecloths, hung balloons, and conferred with a helper about "deuces," "threes" and "fours" -- restaurrant talk for two, three, and four-person place settings.
Jimenez also checked on the food, all 210 pounds of filet mignon, 100 pounds of carrots, 80 pounds of filet of sole, 30 pounds of vichyssoise, 120 Cornish game hens, and more. The dinner, with an appetizer, choice of entree, vegetable, salad and desserts cost the guests who showed up from $16 to $18.
At 7 p.m., Jimenez glanced at his seating chart on the stand near the entrance. He had worked on it for two months, but now it was full of chicken scratches and crossed-out names.
"If I lose my temper now, it'll only get worse," he said. CAPTION: Pictures 1, 2, and 3, Three faces on the Fourth: Linda Bezich, Gustavo Jimenez, Kenji Jasper; Martineaq, Lucian Perkins, Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post