The mission at a restaurant where the Obamas dine: Remain calm.

March 15, 2011

As a former chef-restaurateur, I always wondered what must go on in Washington restaurants when the Obamas come calling. Not just from the usual angles — What did they eat? Where did they sit? How did they tip? — but from an operations standpoint.

How and when does the management learn that POTUS and/or FLOTUS are coming? Who waits on them? Do they order off the menu? Is there an official food taster?

When I received a tip a few weeks ago that the first lady would be lunching at Equinox, Todd and Ellen Gray’s quietly chic farm-to-table eatery, I rushed downtown to see firsthand.

This was Michelle Obama’s second visit to Equinox. On Jan. 17, 2009, days before the inauguration, she celebrated her birthday there with the president-elect and 11 others. Restaurateurs hoped it was a harbinger that the Obamas, as they famously were in Chicago, would be very good for business here.

And they are.

One or both of them have eaten in restaurants across the Washington area, at tony spots such as Michel Richard Citronelle, the Source, Rasika and Komi and at more casual destinations such as Good Stuff Eatery, We the Pizza, the Majestic and Ray’s Hell-Burger. When they show up, a restaurant takes on the vibe of the Peanuts character Pig-Pen: a placid interior surrounded by a cloud of chaos. Ensuring that everything at the center remains calm essentially rests on the shoulders of the management. Maria Chicas, general manager at the Majestic in Old Town Alexandria, says she has to make sure the staff is on point with everyone, not just the VIP tables.

“We are in the business of creating perceptions,” she says. “We can’t freak out, and we can’t put all of our energy into that one person. The guests see everything.”

The Secret Service doesn’t share operational information, of course, but the arrangements described by restaurant owners are similar. There is little warning. On the day of an outing, a small Secret Service detail might show up (in the morning, for lunch; in the afternoon, for dinner) to do a walk-through with the restaurant manager, choose a table and inform the manager if other tables will be needed for Secret Service agents. About an hour before FLOTUS and/or POTUS arrive, 20 to 30 more agents appear.

Next comes the motorcade, which, in the president’s case, includes police motorcycle and sedan escorts, armored limos, multiple black Suburbans and assorted vans, an ambulance and more police cars and motorcycles. The first lady’s motorcade is shorter.

When the Obamas dined at the Source in January for the first lady’s birthday, general manager Rikka Johnson says, “someone from [the president’s] staff and someone from his detail stopped by in the afternoon. No call. They asked to speak to me by name. It was very easy. They were very kind and thorough and walked the restaurant with me without anyone really knowing.”

Often when the president dines out, the event is more public, in that his staff might specifically ask that other diners sit at tables directly around Obama. But when the first lady and/or their children are the featured guests, the Secret Service is more intent on ensuring some level of privacy.

Micheline Mendelsohn, who handles public relations for chef Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery and We the Pizza, described the drill when Sasha and Malia show up at those Capitol Hill establishments, with or without their mother.

“We usually get a call, or the Secret Service just shows up 20 to 40 minutes beforehand. [The agents] go upstairs, sit at whatever table they want and hold it until the party arrives. Once they do, they’re taken upstairs, and there are Secret Service people at the door who wand anyone else who comes in after.”

The stealthy nature of these excursions means that chefs and owners won’t necessarily be on hand for a visit they might not even be told about. Chef Cathal Armstrong found out that Michelle Obama, her daughters and her mother were eating at the Majestic in July 2009 via a text message from a restaurant regular who was there. Armstrong had to run several blocks from Restaurant Eve, another of his Old Town Alexandria restaurants, and arrived to find a mob scene.

“It got very busy very quickly,” he says. “The bar, people outside pressed against the window. There was a line to come in.” In the age of Twitter, Facebook and texting, word of Obama sightings spreads instantaneously.

“Crowd control becomes an issue for us,” Micheline Mendelsohn says. “People come in and buy a piece of pizza, thinking they can get upstairs. But once the seating is full, we don’t let anyone go up.”

Once the Obamas are in place, they conduct themselves like experienced diners. They relax, have a drink, order, eat and ask to see the chef afterward. They pay with a credit card and leave a nice, but not crazy, tip. (On the two occasions when Michelle Obama dined at Rasika, she and her friends went Dutch.)

In the kitchen, there’s close scrutiny but no official tasting.

“There was one Secret Service agent in a black suit assigned to me, like my shadow,” says Scott Drewno, executive chef at the Source. “He watched everything I cooked for them. He was also a chef, so he knew his way around a kitchen.” The chef/agent expressed culinary interest in the food but declined offers to eat anything, Drewno says.

As with any VIPs or friends who dine at the Source, Drewno sent signature items to the Obamas’ table: tuna tartare cones, squares of suckling pig, tandoori Arctic char. The first couple make a point of having those items added to the bill. (We clearly travel in different circles.) Drewno made sure to take the beets off that Arctic char dish because the president doesn’t like them, a tidbit he had known beforehand.

At that point, the server asked whether they wanted to look at a menu. The Obamas said they wanted the chef to continue to send out what amounted to a 10-course tasting menu that the restaurant is now offering to the public. But the first couple did request that vegetables come with the last course. That night, Drewno made them a seven-dumpling sampler, garlic-style lobster, Kobe beef, Hunan-style eggplant, stir-fried bok choy, wild field mushrooms, noodle dishes and a carrot-cake birthday cake with ice cream and miniature chocolate souffles, which they only sampled.

Whatever stress the Obama experience creates for the restaurant, it seems to be worth it. The media attention that follows often translates into a tangible uptick in business. (Ever been to Ray’s Hell Burger or Ben’s Chili Bowl the day after an Obama visit?) Drewno notes that the night after the Obamas were at the Source, reservations jumped from 120 to 160; the bar was three-deep for several nights thereafter. People want to know what they ate, what they celebrated, where they sat.

Back at Equinox for lunch, several Secret Service agents were posted on the sidewalk. Three agents in the foyer wanded anyone, including me, who arrived after FLOTUS’s party, which included the first lady of Mexico and three other women.

All in all, the entire visit was as unobtrusive as the circumstance allowed, given that 13 agents, some of them from the Mexican government, stood in the small bar area and near the two entrances to the dining room. Another was posted in the kitchen, eyes planted on the cooks behind the line about 10 feet away.

The VIPs sat in the corner (Table 21) farthest from the front windows and closest to the kitchen. Their server was the one who was normally assigned to that station. They ordered chicken salad and macaroni and cheese from the menu, plus an order of lemon ricotta fritters for dessert. Chef Todd Gray also sent out an order of Jerusalem artichoke gnocchi. After lunch, Obama asked the Grays to stop by her table.

Other restaurant guests came and went as usual — except for being searched on the way in — trying to act unimpressed by the swarm of agents in the tiny bar and gamely attempting to steal glimpses and sneak texts during lunch.

Note to self: Nobody looks more uncool than someone trying to look cool.

Do you have presidential dining questions for David Hagedorn? Join him for Free Range chat March 16 at noon.

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