On a Tuesday afternoon in 2001, someone from the White House telephoned the El Paso Cafe in Arlington to announce that a small group of people would be coming for dinner. The caller, according to the restaurant's owner, Mario Arbaiza, did not identify the guests except to say that they were VIPs of the highest order.
Just after 6 p.m., President Bush, Laura Bush and four friends sauntered in, accompanied by a retinue of Secret Service agents who kept a careful eye on the smattering of stunned diners, as well as the chef preparing the president's cheese enchilada. Bush's party sat to the right of the entrance, beneath a mural of a cactus tree and two sombreros.
President Bush has eaten at Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW but does not frequent area establishments. "He's not known for sipping white wines and going to the finer places," former spokesman Ari Fleischer says.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
At the end of the meal, when waitress Maria Baires asked whether he had enjoyed the food, the president smiled and promised to return. Recalling the exchange last week, Baires, 24, said she did not exactly believe him, if only because she figured that he had far more important places to be than a Tex-Mex joint next door to a Popeyes. She was right. Three years later, the only evidence of Bush's visit are several photos hanging inside the entrance and the wooden chair he sat on, now painted red, white and blue and hanging from the ceiling.
The foray to the El Paso was a rare night out for a president who since taking office has demonstrated a clear preference for staying behind the White House gate, or flying to Camp David or to his ranch in Crawford, Tex. On those few occasions when the president ventures into the metropolitan area, his stops have included Andrews Air Force base to play golf and a Secret Service training facility in Beltsville to ride his mountain bike.
Catching the latest Tom Cruise flick in Georgetown or leafing through a John Grisham novel at the downtown Barnes & Noble is not at the top of his wish list.
"He likes sports, he likes biking, outdoor activities; that's how he unwinds," said Ari Fleischer, the president's former spokesman. "He's not known for sipping white wines and going to the finer places."
Another reason that Bush is not a president-about-town has less to do with his interests than his job, one that requires what often seems like the world's largest entourage, which invariably forces traffic shutdowns wherever it travels. "If he wanted to pop into Borders and enjoy a cappuccino, he'd have around 100 people and 25 vehicles with him, including a physician, a military aide with a nuclear football and a couple of dozen reporters," Fleischer said. "There's no such thing as just dropping in."
Compared with such cities as New York or Chicago, Washington can seem like a village, with fewer than 600,000 residents and a relatively small array of shopping and dining hubs. For presidents, the city is smaller still, often no larger than the 18 acres of White House grounds. While past presidents have been known to leave the mansion on occasion -- Bill Clinton enjoyed dining at the Bombay Club and once took his daughter Chelsea Christmas shopping at Union Station -- most have preferred living in relative seclusion and spending weekends at Camp David, a predilection that has grown more pronounced as security concerns have heightened in the past few decades.
"Starting really with the postwar presidents and really going back to the 1920s, most of the presidents were either obsessed with their work and lived within the confines of the mansion, or they had a vacation place that was a working White House," said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian who has written extensively about the lives of presidents and their wives. "Starting with the Reagans, the security and the threats posed to the president -- not just by what they once called a crank but more of a darker plot by any kind of international terrorist -- became much more of a reality."
When Bush took office in January 2001, he hoped to integrate the city into his new life, Fleischer said. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon, however, "changed his focus." His trips about town have been limited to dining at the home of Clay Johnson, an adviser and college roommate who lives near American University, and at the home of Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist who lives in Northwest. Last year, the president and his wife went to dinner at Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW (he ordered his usual cheese enchilada and she got fajitas), where the managers allowed them to skip past the usual line and be seated as soon as they arrived.
"They had a great time; they sat down in one of the dining rooms, which was filled with people," said Jamie Sanchez, a manager at the restaurant. "There was a lot of picture-taking and he was very accommodating."
For the most part, though, the president seems to prefer to get away. As of earlier this month, Bush had spent a total of 567 days -- more than one-third of his presidency -- either at his ranch or at Camp David since taking office, according to a log maintained by Mark Knoller, a CBS News White House correspondent. Ronald Reagan, who also liked to get out of town, spent nearly a year at his Santa Barbara ranch over the course of two terms, Knoller said.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Laura Bush, cautioned that the frequency of the president's travels to the ranch and Camp David should not be viewed as an expression of the family's attitude toward Washington.
"If they didn't like Washington, do you think they would have campaigned for another four years?" he asked.
The Bushes, he said, feel connected to the city, having lived near American University for two years during the 1980s when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush ran for president. They enjoy Camp David and their ranch in part because they can move around freely. "If affords them a level of privacy that's difficult to get anywhere else," Johndroe said. "It allows them a more flexible schedule."
Laura Bush, he said, is able to travel the city more easily than her husband, eating lunch at such restaurants as Cafe Deluxe on Wisconsin Avenue NW and Lauriol Plaza on 18th Street NW, and shopping for antiques in Georgetown. Although it's a rare event, the first lady has been known to go for an early morning walk on the Mall with friends, Johndroe said.
On Nov. 4, two days after her husband's reelection victory over Sen. John F. Kerry, Laura Bush celebrated her birthday with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian, where she viewed the exhibits with her daughters, Jenna and Barbara, and Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Cheney. "She had lunch and a tour," Johndroe said.
The Bushes' predecessors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had their own methods for dealing with life cooped up at the country's most famous address.
Theodore Roosevelt, for one, enjoyed riding his horse through Rock Creek Park. Warren Harding liked to play poker with pals at what was known as the "Little Green House" on K Street. Jacqueline Kennedy took her children to Glen Echo Park, and her husband was known to have slipped out of the White House to catch a showing of "Spartacus" at a movie theater.
When they weren't traveling to Santa Barbara, the Reagans liked to stay within the White House, though on one occasion they traveled to Southeast to eat dinner at the one-bedroom apartment of a woman whose young son, Rudy Hines, became the president's pen pal in 1984.
When President George H.W. Bush went out to dinner, his favorite restaurants included the Peking Gourmet Inn, in a strip mall in Falls Church. He learned about Peking Gourmet Inn in the mid-1980s from his son Marvin, said Lily Tsui, the restaurant's treasurer and the daughter of the owner.
Peking Gourmet Inn has been in business for nearly three decades, but its fortunes soared once the former president made the restaurant a destination. Now, photographs of the Bushes and well-known faces from their administrations -- including Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- line the walls.
"Before George H.W. Bush, we were a local restaurant and our guests were local politicians," Tsui said. "It took the business to another level. People call and ask, 'Is this the restaurant where the Bushes go?' "
At the El Paso Cafe, the owner said that Bush's visit that Sept. 25 had minimal effect on his business. But Baires, who was Bush's waitress that night, recalled that it made an impression on her wallet.
The president left a $50 tip.
"If I'm lucky, I'll get to serve him again," she said, smiling as she went back to work.