The Diner in Chief

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Now that the president-elect has assembled his Cabinet and the future first lady has settled their two daughters in a new school, Barack and Michelle Obama can focus on another weighty issue: where to eat in Washington.

Yes, they'll have a kitchen staff at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. at their disposal 24-7. But the record shows, and the Obamas' staff confirms, that the next first couple like to dine out, and they appreciate a variety of flavors. If their time in Chicago, a top-rated restaurant town, is any gauge, the Obamas gravitate to Italian restaurants (specifically the elegant Spiaggia), Mexican establishments (the spirited Topolobampo) and comfort food with a Southern accent (as served at Dixie Kitchen in Hyde Park).

"They've loved living in Chicago," says a spokesman for the Obamas, who are also partial to potluck meals shared with friends. "But they're very excited about their new home. They won't be homebodies, for sure."

That's music to the ears of local restaurateurs, few of whom can recall George W. Bush eating out other than shortly after 9/11, when he and then-mayor Anthony Williams made an appearance at Morton's on Connecticut Avenue with their wives. It isn't just an honor when a sitting president drops by for a meal. Ashok Bajaj, whose six Washington restaurants include the recently renovated Bombay Club (815 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-659-3727) near the White House, says Bill Clinton's first visit there in 1993 "put Indian cuisine on the map." Afterward, Bajaj says, he fielded media inquiries from "all over the world: Australia, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Tokyo. You can't put value on that."

Note to pastry chefs around town: A disciplined eater, Barack Obama doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, although his daughters revealed on "Access Hollywood" that he has a soft spot for pumpkin pie. Michelle Obama is crazy for french fries and apparently left no barbecue untasted while traveling around the country during her husband's presidential campaign. Kid-friendly restaurants are apt to receive new scrutiny here, as the Obamas' offspring, Malia and Sasha, join their parents for meals away from home. The same is true of private dining spaces; the Obamas like to travel with friends in tow.

To help the incoming occupants of the White House get better acquainted with the local dining scene, I've put together a cheat sheet to guide them: an action plan for their appetites.

Two of my favorite restaurants in town should satisfy the first couple's desire for both Italian fare and the occasional "date night." Obelisk (2029 P St. NW; 202-872-1180) is the more intimate of the picks, a spare townhouse with soft lighting and a five-course menu that begins with so many antipasti that I always wonder if I'll make it to the finish. Somehow, I do; the breads, the meats, the fish, the pasta have never been better than now.

A second place I'd suggest for Italian (actually Italian with French and American influences) is Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-537-9250), home to Frank Ruta and some of the most exquisite food -- a perfect veal chop, hand-cut spaghetti tinted with squid ink, salads that look like still lifes -- around. Famously reluctant to make the rounds in his restaurant, Ruta could break the ice with the Obamas by talking about his tenure at the White House as chef for the Carters and the Reagans. The coziest nook is a corner banquette, Table 31.

I have a hunch Marvin (2007 14th St. NW; 202-797-7171) would appeal to the Obamas. Named after singer Marvin Gaye, the sepia-toned bistro off U Street is a melting pot of faces and ages, one of the few routinely integrated dining rooms in the city. The menu is half Belgian and half Southern, and the kitchen does well by both scallops on melted leeks and chicken perched atop waffles. Although the tables are jammed close together, the president and first lady shouldn't have to worry about eavesdroppers; for better or worse, Marvin is one of the loudest restaurants around.

Another source of modern comfort food is the youthful Art and Soul (415 New Jersey Ave. NW; 202-393-7777), which probably would draw the couple's interest even if it didn't have a Southern accent. Its top toque is Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's former chef and a neighbor of the Obamas in Chicago. A homier option might be the Hitching Post (200 Upshur St. NW; 202-726-1511), a long-running mom and pop watched over by husband and wife Alvin and Adrienne Carter, whose fried-to-order chicken, juicy shrimp and winning side dishes have kept the place busy for more than four decades.

Penn Quarter remains the city's hottest restaurant neighborhood, and that's where the Obamas can get their fill of Mexican cooking, at Oyamel (401 Seventh St. NW; 202-628-1005). The most powerful man in the world and his wife can graze the night away on sparkling seviche, sassy margaritas and even grasshopper tacos if they're up for it.

One of the youngest presidents in recent history also might want to sample the cooking of one of the youngest food stars in the community, 29-year-old Johnny Monis, at Komi in Dupont Circle (1509 17th St. NW; 202-332-9200), whose epic Greek-inspired tasting menu is also long on pleasure.

A world capital deserves world-class restaurants, and Washington counts a handful of chefs, including Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and Eric Ziebold at CityZen on the Southwest waterfront, whose work would taste impressive anywhere. When the Obamas have something special to celebrate, they should keep Michel Richard Citronelle (3000 M St. NW; 202-625-2150) in mind. There are high-end restaurants with prettier dining rooms and better service, but none is led by a more accomplished talent than Michel Richard. Years after eating them, I can still see, and taste, in my mind the French maestro's lamb edged in a brilliant herb crust, snails served with an ethereal garlic flan and "steak tartare" coaxed from tomatoes, spices and beet juice (Richard loves a good food joke).

Presumably, the president and first lady will not have to worry about the cost of eating in Washington's best restaurants, given his income from his best-selling books and a new $400,000-a-year salary (a raise of $230,700 from his Senate post). Then again, Michelle won't be drawing a salary, and the Obamas are sending their two daughters to a private school, Sidwell Friends. And given the economy, it would look good for the couple to be seen eating in places where the appetizers aren't priced like entrees. They'll also certainly want to find a spot where they can eat as a family.

An entertaining place to start is Comet Ping Pong (5037 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-364-0404), which takes its name from its design -- the lights resemble giant Ping-Pong balls, and the tables look as if you could play a game on them -- and the presence of actual Ping-Pong tables in the rear. If Mom and Dad want to linger over one of the joint's signature pizzas, the girls can go play in the back awhile. Surfside (2444 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-337-0004) brings the tropics to the city with a lush beach mural that is sure to make the president wistful for Hawaii and a menu of grilled meats and fish paired with lively, fresh-tasting sauces. The warm chips and guacamole, marinated steak tacos and chalkboard specials are standouts.

On Sunday nights, the first family might consider "Nana's Sunday Dinner" at the cheerful Majestic (911 King St.; 703-837-9117) in Old Town Alexandria. The deal, served family-style, costs a mere $78 for four ($25 more if, say, Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, joins them). January at Majestic features pot roast, radicchio-pear salad and coconut cream pie; the next month highlights chicken pot pie, a green bean and beet salad and (attention, Mr. President!) sweet potato pie.

Although I continue to hunt for memorable barbecue close to the city, I'm happy to report that Washington can more than satisfy Michelle Obama's craving for french fries. At the top of my list are the twice-fried potatoes served at Central Michel Richard (1001 Pennsylvania Ave.; 202-626-0015).

As we all watch to see what President-elect Obama eats and where he dines, a bit of advice to restaurant owners from someone who has hosted a lot of VIPs in his dining rooms over the years. Be prepared, offers Bajaj of the Bombay Club, to buy drinks for diners with reservations who can't reach their tables on time because the leader of the free world is in the house.

As long as the president remains in the restaurant, Bajaj says, "no one will leave."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company