Raquel Brule glares at her foamy latte at the Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro.
''Can I have a plate?" she asks the waitress. When it promptly arrives, Brule spoons off the foam, clanking against the china loudly, a pained expression on her face. ''This is a cappuccino, not a latte," she says politely, as the waitress watches her empty the cup. ''Can I have a latte, please?"
Such theatrics punctuated Brule's sweep through Boston's finest hotels, restaurants, and shopping destinations last week with her partner, dapper Swiss socialite Eric de Lavandeyra. The couple recently founded Carnet, a luxury travel website that gives a walking tour of several cities' premier destinations with a fictional guide named Eva Hamilton-Clarke. With zero tolerance for garish brand names, subpar restaurant experiences, and anything bling, Brule and de Lavandeyra have toured Milan, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York over the past year and a half for Carnet (pronounced Car-nay), a guide targeted at women with a flair for classic luxury. Backed by private investors, Brule and de Lavandeyra say they spend as much as $5,000 a day doing ''research" for the guide. And now up on Carnet's refined radar: Boston.
The city's old-world charms have struck a chord with Brule and de Lavandeyra, who recently made the last in a series of trips here. Aside from the lackluster latte, Brule and de Lavandeyra sing the praises of the Beacon Hill Hotel, compared with the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, where they spent the previous night. Leaning forward, Brule says in a low, confiding tone, ''You know, there's this new trend, to build these fancy-looking hotels at discounted prices. They try to be Westins, but they use foam pillows!"
''But here, the room is smaller, but the linen's much better quality than the Park Plaza," de Lavandeyra chimes in, speaking enthusiastically in his French accent. ''It's classic old-fashioned America."
Leaving the Beacon Hill Hotel after tucking away the rest of their breakfast, the couple head down Charles Street, combing the area for the third time before they make Carnet Boston available online in a couple of weeks. A two-year subscription to one of Carnet's cities costs $50 and comes with access to the online walking tour (at carnettravels.com) and a Carnet passport, a little blue booklet listing the city's top attractions. More than 5,000 people have visited the site in the past two weeks, Brule says. Carnet's ''shopping cart" opened with Milan and Paris guides on July 19 and the New York guide on July 26. After the Boston guide comes out, Los Angeles and Amsterdam guides will soon follow.
Seen on the street, Brule and de Lavandeyra are an odd pair, Brule intermittently negotiating with Manhattan financiers on her T-Mobile Sidekick (an all-in-one e-mail provider, cellphone, and planner), and de Lavandeyra walking a few steps ahead or behind her, marveling at the architecture of some historic building and snapping digital photos that will inspire illustrations on the website. De Lavandeyra, who looks considerably older than Brule, declines to reveal his age.
In the lilting voice of a Southern California girl, the 30-year-old Brule points out that Carnet is not just for multimillionaires. It's ''totally" for people like herself, on the upswing into a high-class lifestyle, she says. The daughter of marketing executives, Brule grew up in Los Angeles and attended Boston University. After a few years working as a Manhattan advertising consultant, she acquired a second home in a gated community in the Dominican Republic, where she met de Lavandeyra, who also has a residence there. An old-world aristocrat who is rarely seen wearing anything but a crisply pressed suit with a pocket square and matching
When Brule and de Lavandeyra talk, it becomes clear that Carnet -- which in French refers to a woman's little black address book -- conveys far more than a company name. Carnet has evolved into a standard the couple uses to measure their every experience. The latte at the Beacon Hill Hotel, for instance, was ''definitely not Carnet."
Another thing decidedly off the Carnet list are the famous Boston Duck Tours. When their taxi passes by one of the bus-boats headed to the Charles River, with the driver loudly advising the passengers to be patient in the traffic, de Lavandeyra clucks disapprovingly and Brule rolls up her window in a huff, rolling her eyes as well. ''Oh, that's smelly!" she complains. (To avoid such experiences as well as directionally challenged cab drivers and poor leg room, Brule says Carnet will advise Boston visitors to use a car service when a destination is out of walking range.)
Eva Hamilton-Clarke would definitely avoid the Duck Tours, Brule explains. Eva, the online tour guide, is ''a sophisticated philanthropist. Definitely an art history major, definitely not interested in backpackers in cargo shorts," according to Brule, who has a degree in communications. ''There's a bit of Eva in all of us."
Using their ''Eva filter," Brule and de Lavandeyra immediately gravitate to Elegant Findings, a tiny antique store on Charles Street run by Janice and Cal Ross, a gracious couple who seem to know the history of every Limoges or Meissen porcelain item they carry. As Cal Ross delightedly tells Brule all about an intricate pair of grape shears she was admiring, de Lavandeyra whispers to himself, ''And they're friendly here, too." As they exit the store, the couple's smiling faces give away the verdict: Elegant Findings is unquestionably Carnet.
Brule points out she probably wouldn't have noticed Elegant Findings as a BU student, even though she was ''a little adult" in college, partying on Lansdowne Street at night and frequenting the Capital Grille and Legal Sea Foods for meals. ''I can't believe what's happened to Legal Sea Foods," she says, shaking her head. The restaurant's shift into a more corporate, casual atmosphere bothers her.
But Brule still plans on listing the Capital Grille and J.P. Licks in Carnet, because ''they're just so good." Brule brought de Lavandeyra to the ice cream store the day before, a place where the suited patrician would look decidedly out of place if he went alone. ''It was fabulous," de Lavandeyra says.
He clearly caters to the whims of the glamorous Brule, a slim woman who carries a blue Chanel bag and fields all Carnet questions with a glistening white smile. While donning the ''Eva filter," de Lavandeyra, formerly a Parisian stockbroker and a consultant to the UN, has been subjected to a battery of unfamiliar activities: multiple manicures and pedicures, heavy-duty facials, and even back waxing. He now gets manicures and pedicures even when off-duty from Carnet, Brule proudly notes.
The reason de Lavandeyra is helping create this guide, he says emphatically, is his love for women, not women's grooming activities. He was married once to Catherine Hennessy, heiress to the cognac fortune, and another time to the French singer and actress Marie Lafôret. He loves his women dressed to the nines and hopes Carnet will convey the value of an elegant dress code to a jeans and T-shirt generation. ''It's what creates memorable moments. It's never, 'Oh, remember that sunset, when I was wearing my dirty jeans and you wore your pink cargo shorts and flip-flops?' " he says, as though no one could possibly disagree.
But there is a fine line where dress codes can go overboard, as the couple learned when they tried to have dinner at Locke-Ober one snowy February evening this year. Brule showed up wearing dark denim designer jeans with a Ralph Lauren jacket and high-heeled shoes, and was turned out into the blustery night. The host told her she did not fit in with the ''no-jeans" policy. ''That's one instance where Boston conservatism goes too far," de Lavandeyra says. ''That would never happen anymore in Paris or New York, even in the finest restaurants."
What stung Brule the most was that the two men who walked in after her wore plain khaki pants and button-down shirts and coolly entered the restaurant. ''There's something weird about that, for sure," she says. Locke-Ober, the couple decided, is not Carnet.
But on this day, as the pair eat their second test lunch of the day at Radius, the sleek restaurant near the financial district that serves delicacies like croque Saigon of pate maison as midday fare, Brule eyes several men suited up in full jacket and tie, despite the outside heat. ''Mmm," she says. " I like a city where men still wear jackets to lunch."