Where Presidents Go to Dine in the Nation’s Capital
A survey of DC restaurants beloved by everyone from Ulysses S. Grant to Joe Biden
Being the leader of the free world can be a hunger-inducing job sometimes, and for most U.S. presidents that has occasionally meant stepping outside of the White House doors for a bite to eat. From the days that our Founding Fathers used to frequent Gadsby Tavern Inn in Alexandria to Barack and Michelle Obama’s booming influence on DC’s local food scene, hosting a president for a meal has always been an exceptional opportunity for local restaurants to officially put their name on the map.
Though the Oval Office’s most recent tenant was not known for patronizing local restaurants (save for BLT Prime, the steakhouse in his own downtown hotel), President-elect Joe Biden is known for his distinctly American sense of taste. He’s been photographed about town during his time as Vice President devouring cones of ice cream, cutting into slices of pizza and ordering classic cheeseburgers.
So, as DC restaurants look forward to hosting the President-elect in their own spaces once again, let’s take a look back at where our country’s leaders have filled their stomachs over the years.
Much like the DC food scene itself, the way that presidents have dined out has evolved over the decades. Toward the end of the 20th century, presidents seemed to rely heavily on word of mouth, frequenting the same tried and true restaurants of their predecessors. Legendary Dupont Circle steakhouse The Palm DC played host to every president from Richard Nixon through George H.W. Bush according to executive director Tommy Jacomo, and even the restaurant’s existence has the Oval Office to thank — its New York owners were encouraged by George H.W. Bush, the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, to bring their “good American fare” to Washington back in 1972.
Another presidential hotspot over the years has been DC’s oldest saloon, The Old Ebbitt Grill, which, despite its founding back in 1856, has actually changed locations multiple times and used to be located at the edge of present day Chinatown. While it’s still open for business, the historic restaurant has seen earlier leaders such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding saddle up for drink at the bar. According to its website, the animal heads displayed on the restaurant’s walls were even bagged by Teddy Roosevelt.
More recently, presidents have found their own groove and expanded their dining options outside of the American food bubble. President George H.W. Bush is an excellent example, as he reputedly ate at a Chinese restaurant called Peking Gourmet Inn, located at a Falls Church strip mall, more than 50 times during his tenure in the White House and beyond. Set out before him without nary an order given would be the “Bush menu,” which consisted of a four-course meal that included Peking duck. George W. Bush visited the restaurant as well, though he was known to stay in more frequently than his father.
DC’s food scene makes headlines
When celebrities step out to eat in places like Los Angeles and New York City, a swarm of paparazzi soon reveals where they’ve chosen for their meal. In Washington, DC, the kind of celebrity we’ve had dibs on look a little different — they’re politicians and Oval Officers — and their ability to drum up excitement for a restaurant is next to none in this city.
When Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the once-bumping, now-closed Red Sage back in the ‘90s, it made national news. Then came along the president that many DC restaurant owners partially attribute to the boom of the Washington dining scene: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle.
Never in our country’s history have a president and first lady chosen to dine out so frequently, nor been so experimental in their restaurant selections. From regular date nights at fine dining Indian restaurant Rasika to Jose Andres’s gastronomically adventurous Minibar, national attention was finally brought to many of the restaurants dined at by the Obamas.
Since then, hundreds of new restaurants and bars have popped up, and entire new streets and neighborhoods have become dining destinations in our nation’s capital. In fact, the city was named “Restaurant City of the Year” by Bon Appetit in 2016, and DC is now one of only five cities in the country to claim an official Michelin Guide.
“I’ve been living in DC for over 30 years and in this time DC has grown from its sleepy Southern town roots to a bustling technology hub, food center and seat of culture,” says Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. “The governmental transition every four years is probably the most unique aspect of life in DC, and while DC’s permanent population has grown, the movement of people into and out of the area on such a regular schedule makes DC a dynamic city in which to live. In the last 10 or so years many of these people have been young and food focused, which has kept life in the restaurant industry vibrant, engaging and fun.”
Gresser tells InsideHook she was invited to a couple of White House events during the Obama-Biden administration, and President-Elect Biden visited Pizzeria Paradiso when he was Vice President. You can even find a framed menu signed by the President-Elect displayed in their Dupont Circle location.
“I was really struck by the huge personality of these leaders and by their ability to make a connection. Experiencing the whirlwind of Secret Service personnel entering the space, followed by the larger-than-life president and vice president, is almost disorienting. Then they turn to you with genuine engagement and for at least a moment, you are the person in the world that truly matters.”
Finding privacy in a highly publicized time
There are perhaps no two people who have a better grasp of the political dining scene than husband-and-wife team Todd and Ellen Gray, the owners of the prolific Equinox, which is located just a stone’s throw from the White House.
The Grays have not only fed every President since George Bush, Sr., within their restaurant’s walls — they’ve witnessed the overturning of administrations, noticed the gathering of rival political parties and catered many a private townhouse dinner, which Ellen says is becoming more frequent now that the immediacy of Twitter has made it nearly impossible for politicians to find a peaceful place to have a meal.
Just like Gresser, Ellen Gray can distinctly remember the excitement and star power of having a president walk through your doors. She tells us that while she isn’t easily starstruck nowadays, an experience she’ll never forget is First Lady Michelle Obama visiting Equinox for her birthday, and the moment when Gray was greeted by then-President-elect Barack Obama.
“I forget everything because I’m old but I’ll never forget this moment in life,” Gray jokes. “We were sitting at the bar when he walked by us to go into the bathroom and we all just stopped. He took a look at us and said, ‘Why do I get the feeling you aren’t all this quiet usually, what’s up?’”
“It was just so cool the way he said it … he was very gracious to understand that it’s nerve-wracking to be around the president-elect.”
She also emphasized that despite the fact that President Donald Trump did not visit a single local restaurant during his presidential tenure, she has welcomed members of his cabinet, his former counselor Kellyane Conway and plenty of staffers into Equinox over the last four years. As a self-described hippie, the restaurant owner insists that she’s not one to judge: “If you sit in a chair and you enjoy your food and pay your bill — great, that’s all we’re here for.”
Mealtime among politicians, Gray tells us, is pretty much the great equalizer. No matter your political views, and no matter who is in the Oval Office at the time, one thing we can all agree on is enjoying a great lunch.
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