Swarms of Secret Service officials, Twitter all a-twitter, and tasters in the kitchen are part of the scenery and complex machinery when the president and first lady dine out on their town. Restaurateurs shared their experiences during “What Happens When The First Couple Dines Out?,” a panel at the AFJ Washington, D.C., conference.
The Obamas have made a point of stepping out for dates and dinners since they arrived in D.C. They spread their charm, wealth, taste, food-friendly agenda and President Obamaʼs preference for Grey Goose with a splash of cranberry around the capitolʼs high- and lowbrow restaurants. They pick up their tab—donʼt worry, your tax money is not paying for the presidentʼs cheese fries or lamb vindaloo—and leave generous tips.
Thatʼs the scoop from a handful of D.C. restaurateurs who have entertained the first couple. And it hasnʼt been only the Obamas who eat out: the Clintons and the Bushes—both 1 and 2—came calling as well.
Sometimes the White House notifies the restaurants in plenty of time, but not always.
Ashok Bajaj, owner of The Bombay Club, Rajika, Bibiana and the newest, Rajika West End, heard well ahead of time of the presidential visit. He panicked and called a friend at The Washington Post for protocol tips. That was 1993, well before Twitter
When former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton walked into his swank yet restrained The Bombay Club, close to the White House, he was ready. Clinton fancied Indian food when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. The former president professed his familiarity with the cuisine, his desire for chicken and his preference for moderate spice. Bajaj and his team brought him all five chicken dishes on the menu (Hillary went for spicier food than Billʼs), while 30 to 40 Secret Service men patrolled outside.
“It was like a Mafia movie,” Bajaj said, adding along with other restaurateurs that business spikes after presidential visits, as did a steady stream of questions from customers about the presidentʼs culinary choices.
Everyone wants to sit at the table where he dined, as well. “We tell them that one and that one,” Bajaj said, joking that every table was the presidentʼs table.
Bajaj, who has since hosted the Obamas at his restaurants, said Clintonʼs gregariousness went into gear the instant he stepped into the restaurant. He stopped at table after table, shook hands, jawed and laughed. At least 30 minutes passed before he worked the room and took a seat. The Clintons stayed for 2 1/2 hours, and later diners wanted to know what they ate, drank, left on their plates and talked about
Unlike Bajaj, not every chef or restaurant owner has been blessed with adequate heads-up.
Ellen Gray, owner with her chef-husband Todd Gray of 13-year-old Equinox, a block from the White House, received last-minute word that the Obamas were dropping in to celebrate Michelleʼs birthday. Gray drove—rather—sped from her home in nearby Bethesda, MD, to orchestrate the dinner on inauguration weekend. She arrived at Equinox as the Obamas pulled up in an official car.
Gray grew up in the capitol and has entertained countless power-brokers. She has watched administrations come and go. The Obamas make food central to their agenda, she argued, wondering if a Republican administration might put a damper on the progressive food culture, including “pouring concrete” over the huge White House garden.
Republicans and Democrats do eat differently from each other, chefs say. “Democrats prefer more interesting food. The Republicans go for steak,” said chef Cathal Armstrong, the Dublin-born co-owner of Restaurant Eve. “Of course thatʼs a broad generalization,” but he should know. He has fed them for years throughout his star-studded career in the D.C. and Virginia areas.
(Armstrong, who caught and cooked a rock fish for a Bush Two dinner, recalls President Obama smoking a cigarette “out back” at another visit. That was before Obama was president, and when he arrived in a Jetta.)
As well as celebrating food, the first coupleʼs “hip factor” doesnʼt hurt business. They are pacesetters, the chefs said.
“They are young in soul,” said Saied Azali, owner of Perryʼs Restaurant and Mintwood Place, where he hosted the Obamas with a group of diners who won a lottery to eat with the president.
Azali described the First Lady as “very tall and very beautiful and in very good shape … I wanted to kiss her.” He recalled the Secret Service milling around Mintwood for a week setting up “command center central” to ensure everything went off without a security hitch. And he remembered the jittery and excited lottery winners who dined with the Obamas. “They could barely eat. One lady said she got a piece of chicken caught in her teeth on the first bite and just decided to listen after that.”
Obama was Mr. President-Elect at the time when he dropped in at the 55-year-old family-owned Benʼs Chili Bowl. Owner Nizam Ali had taken a day off and was on a firehouse fieldtrip with his son when he got the call on his cell: Obama and his entourage were on their way, looking for downhome hotdogs.
Ali set off for his place and hosted Obama, who ordered cheese fries and the signature “half-smoke.” Obama insisted on chowing downwith the restaurantʼs diners, and “was very gracious,” Ali said, remembering people-watchers pressing their noses against the Chili Bowlʼs windows as the historical meal unfolded.
The TV media were everywhere, Ali said, and the presidential visit to what he calls his “low-brow place—an everyman kind of place” became national news. Benʼs Chili Bowl has remained a hot draw, and was recommended to the Sarkozys when they visited from France. You can bet President Obamaʼs business lengthened its lines, as it has in such a culturally diverse neighborhood as Adams Morgan, home to Mintwood.
These days with social media as rapid-fire as Twitter and Facebook, word spreads quickly when the first couple leaves the White House to dine out. Not only do these restaurateurs appoint their savviest wait people to take care of the presidentʼs table, they protect the privacy of politicos. If they spill food, itʼs nobodyʼs business but the restaurantʼs.
“Politics is our industry,” said Equinoxʼs Gray. “We have to maintain their integrity and dignity.”