In the nation's capital,
power-seekers follow the powerful, especially when it comes
to dining. We checked out the D.C. restaurant scene to
discover where the Bush White House - and therefore everyone
else in Washington - is eating and meeting.
Step through the bourbon-scented vestibule of The Caucus Room, the newest, plushest A-list restaurant in Washington, D.C., and you are met by big men. Elsewhere, you might expect these fellows to be bouncers, or the guys who scowl and squint as they check your ID. But here, they turn out to be your host and maitre d', and they wear immaculate dark suits and prove the most perfect of gentlemen as they lead you, with purposeful strides, to your table.
Soon the drinks arrive. These too are big. The martini glass could double as an umbrella. The wine goblet would serve equally well as a decanter. Whiskey tumbler, poured tall, feels like a barrel in the hand. This is all prelude, you know, to food, so you sit back and relax, and check out the crowd. The main dining space fairly glows with senatorial-style hair, those long shimmering silver locks set off by dark suits. If you look closely, you'll see that they, too, are scanning the crowd, wondering whom they will see and by whom they will be seen.
You see, in Washington, power dining is an art form. Lobbyists, White House aides, lawmakers, Cabinet functionaries, news reporters - all rely on the power breakfast, lunch, and dinner to get their jobs done. Since power is perception, being seen in the right place, with the right companion, can make a career.
No matter how wonderful a restaurant's food, rarely will the gaze of these distinguished guests focus long on their plates. Eyes seem always to scan the room, searching for someone worthy of a smile or a wink. And when new diners arrive, they tend to wander from table to table, dispensing handshakes and flattering observations ("You were marvelous on Nightline last night").
The most successful political hangouts know that the crowd is paramount. Unlike in New York or Los Angeles, where restaurant hosts cater to starlets, directors, high-tech millionaires, and Wall Street bankers, hosts here keep running lists of senators, administration staffers, and other functionaries who visit their dining rooms. And if you're the president's favorite dining spot? Your reputation is secured - at least until a new one takes office.
No wonder restaurants went into a flutter in January as they jockeyed for position with the new White House guard. Granted, the Democrats didn't fall off the face of the earth, but in Washington, trends start and end on Pennsylvania Avenue. Where the president and his Cabinet and their accumulated staffs go, the city follows.
So the Occidental Grill hung a painting of the new president next to the can- vas of his father, according to the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau. Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, who owns Bombay Club and The Oval Room, got busy counting Bush-team customers such as Vice President Dick Cheney and G.W.'s sister and brother-in-law, Dorothy Bush Koch and Bob Koch. "You've got to have the right clientele, that's the secret," says Tommy Jacomo, longtime manager of the Palm Restaurant, which is regularly packed with politicos.
And if you don't have the right clientele? Many still speak, in hushed tones, of the fate of the old Jockey Club. A favorite of the Reagan White House, the restaurant spiraled into virtual oblivion soon after the Gipper went west and Bush the elder sent Ristorante i Ricchi into the restaurant stratosphere.
This year, there was much fretting over the future of The Oval Room, Bajaj's elegant little dining room a block from the White House. The problem, it seems, is that The Oval Room was a well-known hangout of high-level Clinton staffers. But then, one day Dubya's mother, Barbara, showed up for lunch. Soon thereafter, it was National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and the White House's new Chief of Staff Andrew Card. A sigh of relief fluttered the orchids on the tables.
Two of Washington's newest ventures have taken this bull right by both horns and proclaim proudly and loudly to be "bipartisan." West 24 is fronted by Washington's favorite two-party couple, James Carville, the "ragin' Cajun" of Bill Clinton's first campaign, and Mary Matalin, a once-and-again high-level advisor to Bush White Houses. Then there is The Caucus Room, apparently designed to allow top lobbyists to funnel their expense accounts straight into their own bank accounts. Investors include 64 lobbyists and politicians, about half Republican and half Democrat, such as Terry McAuliffe, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But those in the know are keeping watch on Swissôtel Washington, The Watergate. This hotel's main dining room brought David Garrido, chef at the president's favorite Austin restaurant, Jeffrey's, to give a "taste of Texas" to Inauguration Week. Republicans flocked to the hotel restaurant all week.
The idea was so successful that the restaurant converted in mid-April to Jeffrey's at The Watergate. Presi- dent Bush and family were frequent diners at the original Jeffrey's and its sister restaurant, the Shoreline Grill, and many expect the habit to continue in the capital. Why not? The Bushes love new Southwestern food like that featured at Jeffrey's. One of the president's favorite dishes is Garrido's signature crispy oysters on yucca root chips with habanero honey aioli. Garrido plans to check in twice a month, while an Austin colleague, Robert Rothe, will be chef de cuisine at the new Jeffrey's.
Appealing to the president and his party's palate seems to work for other restaurants. In designing the menu at Equinox, co-owner Ellen Kassoff says she and her husband, chef-owner Todd Gray, "try to envision a good old Fourth of July picnic." Republicans, she says, "like very traditional American food gone upscale. We could probably serve them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dessert."
Party differences extend beyond the plate. Republican diners, we learn, tend to be older, better dressed, quieter. Democratic parties, our sources confirm, tend to be younger, more boisterous, less elegant.
There are exceptions, of course, many many exceptions. But when it comes to spending money, the two parties fall just about as you would expect. Republicans are generally willing to pay more for their food and wine, which makes the owners happy. Democrats, meanwhile, tend to tip better, which pleases the wait staff and bartenders.
"Republicans tend to have a bit more money," says Joseph Hurst, general manager of The Oval Room. "That doesn't mean they have a better palate or are more refined, but they do tend to be more experienced diners."
A TRIUMPH FOR BEEF?
Back at The Caucus Room, you sneak a glance at the plates that adorn the tables nearby. Big? Of course. The food is big. Is that a lobster tail, or a pink armadillo? Baked potatoes look like watermelons.
Creamed spinach arrives by the boatload. Yet these, you soon realize, are mere distractions. On most plates, the central (the only) object is meat. Massive, towering slabs of beef.
It's a common sight in Washington these days. Perhaps in keeping with Republican traditions, power more and more demands beef. The steakhouse boom happened early here, and it hasn't stopped. New ones still open by the week, long after new steakhouses stopped sprouting elsewhere. Is this because of the advent of Bush the younger and that long-standing link between Republicans and beef?
It's true that many lobbyists, like Roger Herrera, still prefer to handle their business in quiet venues, like La Colline or Obelisk, instead of a bustling steakhouse. "I want a restaurant where you can go and not be overheard by anyone," says Herrera, who represents the interests of Arctic Power, a group that favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Otherwise, I'd prefer to go home and read a book."
But ask the proprietors of most any high-end restaurant in Washington - steakhouse or not -if, since Inauguration Day, they have noticed any difference in the eating habits of those who bend under the weight of elective office (and the many who vie to bend their ears). The restaurateurs may blush, they may stammer even. "No, no, of course you cannot tell a Republican from a Democrat." They are fibbing, so they lower their eyes. So keep prying (always with a smile, of course). Ask the wait staff, the busboys. Ask the chefs, after hours. The answer you will eventually receive, albeit whispered, is clear - "thicker, bigger, better, more."
"We are serving more and bigger cuts of meat," admits Kathleen Pantano, general manager of West 24. "Republicans are just more into meat."
"And potatoes," says Equinox' Kassoff. "It's like a personality thing."
"Democrats seemed a little more health-conscious," says Hurst of The Oval Room. "Republicans just don't seem to worry about it as much."
But are these comments too subjective? A single chef can have so much power over what their patrons order, you point out, quite correctly. So let's phone up the wholesalers. "A big spike upwards in meat," says a woman at A.M. Briggs, who asks that her name never be mentioned on any page, anywhere. "Especially in filets and bone-in products," she adds.
And the caterers? "It's no secret that Republicans eat meat," says Susan Lacz Niemann, one of the owners of Ridgewells, a Washington institution in the food-on-a-folding-table business. "Rules are rules are rules."
Finally, a phone call, to Morton's of Chicago, the one that moved into the Connecticut Avenue space made famous by Duke Zeibert's, that Washington lobbying gridiron of yore. "The president has already dined here twice," says a spokesperson from Morton's, with evident pride.
"And his dad is a regular."
david hollenbach is an illustrator whose work has appeared in the new york times and u.s. news & world report.
eat and greet
the caucus room, (202) 393-1300
dish: bone-in filet
who's been spotted here: "now people wouldn't come here if we talked about them, would they?" restaurant staff say. but word has it that former sen. bob dole stops by regularly. the high-profile owners include former republican national committee chief haley barbour and gop pollster frank luntz, who brags that, "the changing of the guard means that we'll have more white house personnel dining there."
jeffrey's at the watergate, (202) 298-4455
dish: herb-crusted sea bass with vanilla rice and smoked red-pepper sauce; duck and shrimp with black bean ravioli
who's been spotted here: the restaurant converted to jeffrey's april 18. republicans galore hung out here during inauguration week, when jeffrey's austin chef, david garrido, was in residence.
the capital grille, (202) 737-6200
dish: dry-aged porterhouse
who's been spotted here: "we see everyone here. it would be impossible to single out anyone."
morton's of chicago, on connecticut avenue, (202) 955-5997
who's been spotted here: dubya's eaten here at least twice. his dad is a regular.
palm restaurant, (202) 293-9091
dish: new york strip, jumbo maine lobsters
who's been spotted here:"everyone who's anyone." 60 minutes calls this steakhouse the "fourth center of power in washington."
sam & harry's, (202) 296-4333
dish: signature bone-in strip steak
who's been spotted here: "we know who comes in, and we don't talk about it." conventional wisdom is that this is a lobbyist's favorite.
west 24, (202) 331-1100
dish: chicken and sausage gumbo, pork tenderloin
who's been spotted here:congresswoman mary bono
the oval room, (202) 463-8700
dish: almond-and-sesame-seed-coated yellowfin tuna
who's been spotted here: barbara bush, condoleezza rice
equinox, (202) 331-8118
dish: barbecued norwegian salmon
who's been spotted here: actor and nra lobbyist charlton heston, former rep. fred grandy (aka gopher on the love boat)
bobby van's steakhouse, (202) 589-0060
dish: porterhouse, filet
who's been spotted here: sen. john mccain; the west wing president martin sheen and deputy communication director rob lowe
kaz sushi bistro, (202) 530-5500
dish: sea trout napoleon
who's been spotted here: world bank and imf functionaries
kinkead's, (202) 296-7700
dish: pepita-crusted salmon who's been spotted here: "too many senators to list."
la colline, (202) 737-0400
dish: seasonal items
who's been spotted here: "you name them, they've been here. we've seen them come; we've seen them go."
michel richard citronelle, (202) 625-2150
dish: crunchy napoleon with apricot-ginger sauce for dessert. "this we cannot remove from the menu."
who's been spotted here: "ambassadors, senators; they have to go out, so they come here." -