Lunch at the 'Power Section'

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Noon at Ristorante Tosca. Time to feed the lobbyists. They're all at their regular tables in this F Street hangout, communing over lobster risotto.

Table 45, tucked discreetly behind the servers' station, always goes to Steve Elmendorf, a hot hand these days in Democratic lobbying circles. He can see everyone from there; everyone can't necessarily see him. The influential Republican lobbyist Mark Isakowitz gets whisked to Table 62 along the back wall's "Power Section," the one with the panoramic view of who's coming and going.

Table 26 -- like a display case, smack-dab in the elevated, look-at-me center of the room -- is the domain of Tom Daschle. Can't miss him. (And yes, Mr. Daschle, you're not technically a registered lobbyist, but as a "special policy adviser" -- wink, wink -- to the legislative strategists at Alston & Bird, you count.) Then there's the "TARP Section" in back, habitat of lobbyists for bailed-out companies. Citigroup's Nick Calio can be found there, ordering a nice bottle of red at midday for his crew at the biggest table in the restaurant.

These regulars dine on the edge of Penn Quarter, the newly hip locus of Washington lobbying power, the product of a migration east from K Street to the glossy new offices and trendy brick fixer-uppers. You can't underestimate the power of cool.

They are migratory creatures finding their new feeding ground, a reminder that the business of the national company town isn't confined to stale committee rooms; deals are also made in hushed conversations over martinis and steaks (or, in the case of Tosca, over carrot-flavored pappardelle with a rabbit ragu in a white wine sauce and fresh thyme).

Washington is small enough -- and single-mindedly obsessed enough with its interlacing business of governing, lawyering, lobbying and journalism -- for power to concentrate in just a few places, rather than dispersing across the length and breadth of, say, a New York or London. Our company-townies -- the mighty and the not-so-mighty -- are herders.

See the Secret Service guys at Old Ebbitt Grill (convenient to the White House); the administration's youngsters at Oya; low-level Hill staffers at Tortilla Coast; the older society crowd at Cafe Milano (Dick Cheney and his SUV entourage stopped by for a private-room meal and a bottle of the good stuff earlier this month); and so on. Few places in town, though, seem to have been embraced with such distilled dedication as by the lobbyists nesting at Tosca.

A Clubhouse Feel

Come lunchtime, they all arrive in Armani and tailor-made shirts, in two-piece, neutral-toned suits and Helmut Newton-ready heels. There are half-waves and sideways glances to scope the room (Who's that eating with my client?!). Even though Cabinet secretaries, $900-an-hour lawyers and a first lady or two are prone to stop by, Tosca mostly feels like a clubhouse for the lobbying and influence crowd -- a clubhouse, mind you, where lunch for two can easily run well north of $100, even without the bottle of wine. The lobbyists are the ones with the regular tables, the ones nodding to each other across the room, the ones promising to return that call . . . after lunch, but of course.

This is the same crowd that some poor out-of-the-loop souls still call K Streeters. Never mind that that old shorthand for the lobbying biz is soooo Clinton-era, given the shifting center of gravity in the lobbyist world. Big lobbying shops like Bryan Cave and the Glover Park Group are in the 'hood; so are boutique operations, such as the health-care-focused firm founded by Linda Tarplin (Table 42). Gravitas brokers like Marty Gold (Table 60) can simply stroll over for lunch on a nice day.

"K Street got too crowded," quips John Breaux, the former Democratic senator from Louisiana who now runs a lobbying business with Republican Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader from Mississippi. "We all had to move."

This new Lobby World is closer to the Capitol.

Closer to Tosca.

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