Black tie in a recession

by Emily Belz
Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2009, at 4:19 pm

The glitterati from coast to coast, L.A. and D.C., turned out in the nation's capital for black-tie balls Tuesday night, celebrating Barack Obama's inauguration as the nation's first African-American president. Beyoncé sang a soulful "At Last" for the Obamas' first dance as president and first lady at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, the first of 10 celebrations they attended that night.

Inaugural balls are notoriously overrated-parties where everyone is waiting for the first couple to appear, and when the Mr. and Mrs. do show up, they leave almost as soon as they arrive. In this recession, party-throwers cut corners, serving run-of-the-mill food, filling in tables with cheeses and dips instead of shrimp and steak, and serving wine in plastic cups. Still, celebrities like Kanye West and Jennifer Lopez kept partygoers distracted from the thrifty fare. Tickets to inaugural balls typically cost around $250 each. Inaugural organizers oversold the $75 Youth Ball, leaving thousands of ticket holders outside-a theme of the day, as thousands of inauguration ticket holders didn't get into the ceremony, either.

I helicoptered into a black-tie ball at the dazzling Folger Shakespeare Library, where they didn't cut corners. The elite sipped martinis in real martini glasses under soaring stained glass windows, ate French green beans and steak, and talked about how they didn't like to use the valet because "six hours later, you get your car." I was the only thrifty-looking thing in the candle-lit room, wearing my boots and sweater next to women in satin gowns. It was icy outside, and I was not putting on a dress under any circumstances. George Lucas swept in to collect an award, and then a friend of Sen. Ted Kennedy accepted another award on his behalf.

"You're all wondering what's going on with the big guy," said David Johns, speaking about Kennedy's seizure earlier in the day. "He's happy and he's talking."

Your WORLD reporter finally had enough of the hobnobbing and left for something more entertaining than any black tie inaugural ball: Good Stuff Eatery's "Burger Ball," a $99-a-ticket party, with a scruffy red carpet leading inside.

"This isn't stuffy," said Heidi Jordan, who works at Good Stuff. "This is fun."

No black ties to be found here, just people dancing to a DJ, eating "good stuff," and watching clips of Obama's speech on television. Waiters brought the restaurant's homemade custard shakes around, mini burgers with goat cheese, and Good Stuff's famous red potato fries in tiny dishes. The "ball" sold out, partly because it was more affordable than other balls, but also because after an inauguration, people just wanted to celebrate, not stand around in huge ballrooms in the Washington Convention Center.

Spike Mendelsohn, the owner of Good Stuff and former Top Chef competitor on television, went to one of the black-tie balls the night before, and hated it.

"It was so pretentious," he said. "People want to be comfortable."

To celebrate the next president in a recession, what could be more appropriate than American comfort food?

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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