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A table and stage for the Obamas

By eating out often, the president and first lady elevate the restaurant scene in Washington while sending a message about their values.

July 06, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • The Obamas leave dinner at Komi, a Greek and Mediterranean restaurant near Dupont Circle in Washington.
The Obamas leave dinner at Komi, a Greek and Mediterranean restaurant near… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Theirs was a love affair that began in the glow of a candlelit table. It was a white tablecloth and red wine evening. The food was refined, the service impeccable. The private room with the glass door was discreet, but the couple behind it could not go unnoticed.

It's been a year and a half since that meal at Equinox, a chic and sleek restaurant a couple of blocks from the White House, in which Barack and Michelle Obama dined on greens with poached apples and pickled watermelon radish, pan-fried Rappahannock oysters, all-natural strip loin steak, crispy bananas and zabaglione gelato.

The romance between the Obamas and Washington's foodies has been going strong since.

This president, like no other in recent memory, appears to be one of us, they say. He seems to know just where the hot spot is. Someone must be whispering in his ear.

Don't even get them started on Michelle, she of the organic garden and state dinner menu designed and cooked by Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless.

For a town that for years has tried to upgrade its image from wonky workaholic to cultural sophisticate, the food-friendly Obamas are an opportunity. The couple has made appearances in local restaurants a regular event. Their "date nights" are anticipated occasions for gossip and speculation. Food writers and bloggers attempt to chronicle each bite and morsel. The persistent question raised between sips of Viognier and bites from small plates: "Where will they go next?"

Some claim it can be easy to predict. The Obamas have shown a deliberate and careful — perhaps calculating — approach to dining out. They prefer independents over chains. Locally raised fare over air-shipped. Burger joints over pizza dives (more on that later). Unfussy and modern over wood panels and leather seats.

But they're also hard to pigeonhole. They've dined at established staples (Equinox) and up-and-coming hide-outs (Komi). They've been fed by great chefs (Michel Richard) and grabbed hamburgers to go (Five Guys Burgers).

Much is at stake. A presidential visit can put a restaurant on the map, boost business, bring publicity you can't buy, and — given the first lady's now formal effort to engage chefs in her anti- obesity campaign — spark a door-opening relationship with the first family.

The president and first lady also have cards on the table. They've used restaurants to send a message about their values, their public promotion of healthy eating and their image as a close-knit, average family. Last month, the president used a restaurant for a bit of diplomatic stagecraft when he took off his suit coat and took his Russian counterpart out for a cheeseburger.

The message: U.S.-Russian relations are so calm that the president isn't afraid to get ketchup on his chin. (Of course, this came before the arrests of alleged Russian spies in the U.S.)

The setting was Ray's Hell-Burger, now the most famous hole in the wall in Virginia and one of the few places Obama has visited twice. Since the first presidential visit last year, owner Michael Landrum has opened a fourth restaurant and expanded his original dining room.

"Over a year has passed and we're still scrambling to keep up," Landrum said just a few days before another presidential appearance put his place in the headlines again.

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The Obamas' culinary curiosity is most notable in contrast to their immediate predecessors.

Where did the Bushes go?

"That's a rhetorical question, right?" said Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Assn. Metropolitan Washington. "They did not go out."

By his own admission, George W. Bush was a fan of the White House food. His 2003 trip to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant was memorable for its rarity.

But almost every modern White House has had a favorite haunt, and some had several, said Barry Landau, a historian and author of "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy."

The choices show how closely presidential preferences track the evolution of American cuisine. No president had a bigger influence than John F. Kennedy, a foodie before the term existed. (He employed a vichyssoise-serving French chef on his campaign plane.) A small explosion of French fare followed the Kennedys to Washington, previously considered a culinary backwater.

Still, the political players were for years primarily drawn to steak-and-chop houses. A Kennedy inaugural party put Paul Young's Restaurant on the map. Lyndon Johnson held court at Duke Zeibert's.

"Guys' restaurants," Landau said.

Richard Nixon, whose palate Landau describes as underrated, was a devoted fan of the Polynesian-themed Trader Vic's. He liked the mai tais. The Reagans — Nancy more than Ronald — were associated with the Jockey Club, a horse-and-hunt-themed hangout once described in the Washington Post as having the look of "relaxed money."

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