A sampling of offerings from D.C.’s best restaurants. From top left: Charred steak from Del Campo; Crab Pepper Masala from Rasika West End; Bloody Mary from Acadiana; Greek yogurt and apricot parfait at Zaytinya; the kitchen at Blue Duck Tavern. (Photos: Greg Powers; Scott Suchman; handout; Greg Powers; Taggart Sorensen)
By John Mariani
It’s been said that dining out for a large segment of Washingtonians means subsisting on canapés and white wine at receptions, and that the city’s restaurants slow way down during those long, frequent congressional recesses. Money, lobbyists, and lawyers fuel the capital’s dining scene, even if our stalwart legislators can no longer accept more than a $25 meal from BP, the NRA, the AMA or the NFL.
D.C. is, then, highly dependent on the flow of powerful people to keep them in the spotlight, and pols and celebs do their best to oblige. Indeed, though George and Laura Bush rarely ventured out of the White House to dine, the Obamas have made their presence felt consistently, celebrating their anniversary at the Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt, Mother’s Day at the Italian Ristorante Tosca and the first lady’s birthday at Equinox Restaurant, a favorite of Jill Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Bhindi Amchoor Okra with Mangos from Rasika. (Photo: Michael J. Colella)
Indeed, Michelle Obama eats out often with friends and official visitors, frequenting the Indian restaurant Rasika, José Andres’ Mexican restaurant Oyamel and the Creole/Cajun restaurant Acadiana, which has also proven a magnet for celebs like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who come here to dig into the fried green tomatoes, jambalaya, and fried catfish with grits.
Of course, there is always a political element to entertaining dignitaries in Washington, so when Germany Prime Minister Andrea Merkel came to town, Obama took her to the historic 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown, which has strüdel on the menu and gets its ducks from Hamburg, Penn. Condoleeza Rice said her favorite restaurant was the urbane Oval Room, especially because it was just steps from the Oval Office.
A seafood sampling from Oval Room. (Photo: Michael Colella)
There are still some old-line restaurants near the Capitol and Union Station that draw legislators between debates and votes, like The Monocle, which opened in 1960, and has served every president since Kennedy and almost every Senator and Congressman. Owner Nick Valanos estimates that three-quarters of his customers “are people coming to the Hill to do business or to show friends or family what Washington is all about. They stop to see the photos on the wall, to experience some of the history that makes us unique.”
The Old Ebbitt Grill, which dates back to 1856 and was once home to William McKinley before he became president, is just two blocks from the White House, and is still a place local media head to for oysters, beer, and gossip for tomorrow’s columns.
Octopus Santorini at Zaytinya. (Photo: Greg Powers)
Today, however, restaurant-entertaining in Washington is geared to and driven by a far more inclusive, global crowd. Italian-Americans like Supreme Court Justice Scalia and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano go for pasta to Al Dente, whose location in the neighborhood called Ambassadors Row draws a cross section of internationals, along with media like “Meet the Press” host David Gregory and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Young interns and lobbyists take up the community tables at the Middle Eastern restaurant Zaytinya, a big space with 200 seats and 50 at the bar, and the hot new Del Campo, serving Peruvian grilled food, which has drawn Mrs. Obama, comedian Chelsea Handler, and Bob and Elizabeth Dole.
The dining room at Plume. (Photo: Stirling Elmendorf)
Of course, Washington would not be a crucible of secrets and intrigue if it didn’t have places where the high and mighty meet. And so private dining rooms in D.C. hotels work well for complete discretion. When Obama wanted to raise funds for his re-election, he collected $8.5 million from financial backers at private lunches held down in the wine cellar at Plume at the Jefferson Hotel, whose clientele also includes Bill Cosby and Martha Stewart.
Indeed, the management of the new Capella Hotel in Georgetown refuses comment on any politicians or celebrities who dine and stay there. Still, on any given night at Bourbon Steak, on the lower level of the Four Seasons Georgetown, you’ll find a sure number of pols, foreign ambassadors, generals, and lobbyists who might well be on the front page of tomorrow’s papers.
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