Obama and Biden Make a Burger Run
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Their standing weekly lunch is served by butlers on the finest china in a private White House dining room. President Obama and Vice President Biden sit at opposite ends of a polished mahogany table, a golden chandelier hanging overhead and a cerebral John Quincy Adams staring down at them from a portrait.
Yesterday, however, Barack and Joe wanted to show they're still in touch with the people -- and what better way than waiting in line for a big juicy burger. An aide knew just the spot. So at 12:26 p.m., they hopped in their motorcade, zoomed across the Potomac River into Virginia, and pulled up outside 1713 Wilson Blvd. The popular joint in a plain Arlington strip mall has no sign, but neighbors know it as the home of Ray's Hell Burger, and the spot is beloved as much for its premium aged 10-ounce hamburgers as for its bare-bones decor.
The world's most powerful man, and the guy a heartbeat away, waited patiently in a single-file line as the lunch crowd gawked -- and as two customers in front of them at the counter pondered the menu leisurely, apparently oblivious to whom they were holding up. Then it came time to order.
Obama tilted his head to read the menu, but took a pass on Ray's specialty burgers, like the "Let's Get It On," or the $17.50 burger with foie gras and white truffle oil. Obama, customer No. 42, opted for something more simple: "Your basic cheddar cheeseburger, medium well."
No ketchup, the president said, but lettuce and tomato. And: "Have you got a spicy mustard or somethin' like that? A Dijon mustard?"
Biden ordered a Swiss cheeseburger with jalapeno peppers and ketchup, medium well, and a root beer.
"Are your fries pretty good? Can you vouch for your fries?" Obama asked.
Ray's doesn't do fries, said the guy behind the counter, Tim Murray. But Murray suggested the president try "Cheesy Tater Puffs," which are pureed potatoes with cheddar cheese and chives flash-fried like Tater Tots. Obama looked skeptical, but asked for one order for him and Biden to share.
Obama and Biden went Dutch -- basic cheeseburgers cost $7.95 -- as each pulled a wad of cash from his wallet to pay. But Obama bought burgers for reporters, cameramen and staff, including personal aide Reggie Love. "We're paying, or these people are gonna write about how we're freeloading," Obama said, pointing to members of the press corps, whom he dismissed as "cheap dates."
The president left $5 in the tip jar.
Murray said he was impressed the two carried cash -- and thankful, too, since the burger joint is cash-only. "I didn't want to say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. President, we can't take your credit card. You've got to use the ATM.' "
Yolanda Pineda, 29, manned the grill and cooked the burgers with special care. "For Obama," she said, "especial!"
Owned by Michael Landrum, an iconoclastic local restaurateur whose other restaurants are Ray's the Steaks in Arlington and Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring, Ray's Hell Burger is critically acclaimed and has developed something of a cult following. White House legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro, who lives in suburban Virginia and is a big fan, recently recommended Ray's to Obama.
The lunch date lasted 34 minutes and by the time Obama and Biden stepped back into their motorcade, after posing for cellphone pictures with the restaurant's staff, dozens of people had gathered outside the restaurant to cheer. The outing was broadcast on national television. And as a public relations move, it appeared to be a success:
Bonnie Cosby, 51, a technology consultant who picked up burgers on her way home from work, opined: "It shows that he's in touch with the people, that he's not up in the ivory tower. He's a real person -- with a burger."