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
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
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
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
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.
probably serve them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
"And potatoes," says Equinox' Kassoff. "It's like a personality
"Democrats seemed a little more health-conscious," says Hurst of
The Oval Room. "Republicans just don't seem to worry about it as
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
"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
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
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
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)
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
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
west 24, (202) 331-1100
dish: chicken and sausage gumbo, pork
who's been spotted here:congresswoman mary
the oval room, (202) 463-8700
dish: almond-and-sesame-seed-coated yellowfin
who's been spotted here: barbara bush, condoleezza
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
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
kaz sushi bistro, (202) 530-5500
dish: sea trout napoleon
who's been spotted here: world bank and imf
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." -