Bright and early yesterday (1:04 AM, to be exact), the Washington Post’s “Reliable Source” published a piece examining the Obamas’ restaurant choices and ascribing political import to those decisions. To bolster the argument, they went to three truly reliable sources: Washington City Paper restaurant critic Tim Carman, freelance food writer Amanda McClement (Metrocurean), and Don Rockwell (of the eponymous message board).
Although we have the utmost respect for all three, we here at Capital Spice couldn’t help but scratch our heads at the conclusion that the article came to: “a pattern of deliberate and politically aware choices.” That may be a bit of a stretch.
The fact of the matter is that the Reliable Source’s premise is based on a rather selective reading of the record. Sure, the Obamas have hit a couple of DC landmarks and a few places known for their commitment to local and/or seasonal ingredients, but there are a few glaring omissions and a couple of clunkers that make it hard to say that Obama is doing anything more calculated than any other food-lover in Washington. A closer look at the evidence:
- Sure, Ben’s Chili Bowl is an icon in the DC dining scene. But that’s just it: Ben’s Chili Bowl is an icon. Anthony Bourdain stopped there. Samantha Brown stopped there. Our friends from California who were just in for a visit stopped there (at our suggestion). Add to that the fact that they just celebrated their 50th anniversary, and you’ve got a restaurant that transcends politics.
- Equinox - It’s possible to read this one the way Carman did in the Reliable Source piece – as “a nod to one of the deans of DC cooking” – but it’s just as likely that this one was chosen for its decade (another anniversary) of quality cooking and its proximity to the White House. Equinox is one of the closest upscale restaurants to the Obamas’ residence, and it has been a go-to spot for Administration celebrities for years. No one cheered Tom Ridge or Condoleezza Rice for their political acumen when they dined here.
- Citronelle – Arguably the most well-known fine dining restaurant in the city, Citronelle is on most foodies’ to-try list. Once again, this doesn’t come across as a calculated destination as much as a highly-recommended fixture on the DC dining scene. If the Obamas are going to be dining out regularly, it’s probably only a matter of time before they cross off the rest of the Washingtonian 100 Best Restaurants list.
- Ray’s Hell Burger – Seriously? This was a calculated move to make sure people didn’t make too big a deal over the Citronelle dinner? Say it ain’t so! Can’t two bros just decide to take a quick road trip to check out the place that their staffers tell them has the best burgers in the area? Maybe this was a ‘man of the people’ stunt…but we’d rather believe it wasn’t.
- Five Guys – Another local burger; another bit of lofty significance? Do you really think they hit Five Guys because it’s the ‘forerunner for the fresh fast food concept,’ or could it be that they’re now trying to avoid playing favorites in the oh-so-contentious DC burger wars? If someone had argued the latter point as playing politics with lunch, we’d have been far more likely to buy in.
But what about some of the Obamas’ choices that don’t fit this theory? A few of those – not to mention some of their glaring omissions – after the jump.
If the Obamas have been so careful to pick and choose their dining experiences based on scoring points locally and sending coded messages about organics to the electorate, what do these choices mean?
- Bobby Van’s – The DC location, just a few blocks’ walk from the White House, opened more than 30 years after the original (and several other New York branches) in Bridgehampton. Although Obama visited back in January – before he took office – it’s still got to count as we look at their dining decisions. It’s no TGIFriday’s, but it certainly doesn’t send the pro-local message. And I’m pretty sure those well-marbled, aged steaks weren’t grass-fed, either.
- Georgia Brown’s – President Obama may not have been there, but the First Lady and the Vice-President’s wife dined with Mayor Fenty and his wife at Georgia Brown’s at the end of January. The food has a definite Southern flair, but the only menu item identified as organic are the stone-milled grits. Once again, proximity to the White House may have played a roll in this choice.
And what about these rather noteworthy oversights? Whoever the suspected restaurant scouts are, they’ve missed a few key choices:
- Nora – If there’s a grande dame of the organic movement around these parts, it has to be Nora Pouillon. Her restaurant was the first one in the COUNTRY certified organic in 1999, and anyone who’s serious about organic and sustainable produce in Washington owes it himself or herself to check out the delicious things Nora is doing year-round. Maybe for an upcoming date night or a birthday dinner…
- Hook – Even with Barton Seaver’s departure, Hook’s focus on sustainable seafood complements the push for more fresh, local fruits and vegetables. And the M Street location in Georgetown is easily accessible by motorcade, especially during Sunday brunch! By highlighting locally sourced fish whenever possible, Hook helps to introduce diners to a world of options beyond salmon, tuna and trout.
- Elevation Burger – Grass-fed beef. Hand cut fries. Classic milkshakes. On the surface, Elevation Burger appears to be right up the President’s alley. Their mantra – Ingredients Matter – is a home run, and their status as a locally-grown chain makes them doubly attractive. Seems like there’s at least one more burger run in the President and VP’s near future.
Long story short, the Reliable Source piece seemed like a bit of an overreach, even for a lighter piece about the President’s dining habits. The first commenter on the story, tslats, hit the nail right on the head: “You guys are thinking way too much.”
From where we’re standing, these aren’t the makings of a Delicious Revolution; they’re just a few encouraging signs that our new neighbors in the White House enjoy good food and drink just as much as we do.