Donald Trump ate in his first D.C. restaurant as POTUS on Saturday night, an opportunity for the 45th president to sample what’s been hailed as the country’s top restaurant scene, show the industry some love and build a bridge in the city he’s derided as a “swamp.”
Instead, he took the predictable route, venturing less than a mile from the White House to the 263-room hotel that bears his name, where he supped with family members and politicos at BLT Prime by David Burke, a (yawn together now) steakhouse. Benny Johnson, a writer with the Independent Journal Review — and with the good fortune to have been tipped off to the presidential stopover for popovers — reported from a table away that jumbo shrimp cocktails were among the shared appetizers.
Also: Trump ordered a strip steak, which he ate per his preference, well done and with ketchup, as if the entree would be accompanied by a sippy cup. (Insert a moment of silence for the cow, the condiment and what most chefs would call a forced marriage. Really, I feel the same way about masking the flavor of a $54 dry-aged steak as I do about guys who wear baseball caps indoors: Just don’t. Anyone who knows anything about cooking meat knows the longer it stays on the grill, the drier and tougher it becomes. Plus, some chefs respond to “well done” with a lesser cut of steak, figuring the recipient isn’t respecting the ingredient.)
For real, Mr. President? In a market where residents can practically point to a spot on a globe and find a nearby dining room that serves its cuisine? In a city where some of the country’s best contemporary Greek, Indian and, hello, even American restaurants are about as close to your door as the steakhouse in the Trump International Hotel? (Not that the president has to wait in traffic.)
BLT Prime, set on a balcony with a sweeping view of the hotel lobby, has much to recommend it. The venue’s steaks, some dry-aged in lockers lined with Himalayan salt and shimmering with butter, are choice eating, and if you fancy Dover sole, this is one of the best places in town to enjoy the imported delicacy. (Pity the new kitchen lead, chef de cuisine Brian Drosenos, who had to deal with the ultimate VIP in his first week on the job.) The attention lavished even on non-billionaires is noteworthy, too. Small wonder Trump was photographed slipping cash to a service member on his way out. BLT Prime is the kind of place where extra attention begets extra attention.
No one should have expected Trump to break bread at, say, one of the worldly restaurants by celebrity chef José Andrés, whom he is suing for pulling out of a deal to open in the Trump hotel. News of Trump dipping into Jaleo, Oyamel or the futuristic Minibar would have been a shocker of Oscarian proportions. But Trump is already familiar with BLT Prime, having dined there before he became commander in chief. By booking at his own place, he demonstrated yet again his penchant for tooting his own horn, hawking his own brand.
He also showed a remarkable lack of curiosity. Typically competitive, Trump could have staked out another steakhouse, if only to see how similar establishments compared with his. (For future reference, sir: Bourbon Steak in Georgetown counts a superior meat program, and for homegrown charm, there’s the vintage Prime Rib downtown. Think of it as the poor man’s 21 Club in New York, another restaurant Trump visited without initially informing the press pool.)
Bon Appétit loves Washington so much it called it “Restaurant City of the Year” in 2016, the same year Michelin deemed the District worthy of its own guide. So far, Trump seems stuck in a less-than-fresh way of thinking. Before he was elected to the highest office in the land, he denied the abundance of great eateries here. (“There aren’t that many in Washington, believe me,” he said in a deposition relating to another lawsuit, against New York restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian.) What better way for him to score points with locals than to dine outside his comfort zone, that being anything with his name attached?
On Saturday at BLT Prime, the president was initially joined for his favorite meal of the day by British politician Nigel Farage, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. More of an eater than her father, Ivanka Trump has shown an interest in both breakfast and Italian fare as first daughter, having been spotted by day at Open City, the Four Seasons and the Hay Adams and by night at RPM Italian and Tosca, all in Washington. If she’s sharing any dining intel with her father, however, it’s not obvious by where he’s eaten since Inauguration Day.
Food is often referred to as a bridge, a form of communion, a way to connect with people. Trump, a Queens native known to eat pizza with a knife and fork, views food in tinier terms. Unlike his pie-loving, almond-popping, restaurant-savvy predecessor, the current occupant of the White House appears to see food as something to be dispatched without much thought, like tweeting reviews of “Saturday Night Live.”
On the campaign trail, Trump routinely knocked back Big Macs and Filet-O-Fish with Diet Coke, confirming son Donald Trump Jr.’s depiction of his father as “a burgers-and-pizza kind of guy.” Nothing wrong with that, in moderation, except daughter Ivanka fretted once to Barbara Walters that she wanted her father to eat healthier and less quickly, “but it’s the only speed he knows.”
Evidence of fine dining is as rare in Trump’s world as a genuine Trump Steak. A notable exception was the dinner the president-elect shared in New York last November with Mitt Romney, whom Trump briefly considered for secretary of state. Among other dishes at the esteemed Jean Georges — tucked in the Trump International Hotel, wouldn’t you know — the men had young garlic soup with frog legs.
In the White House of late, high-profile visitors, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have been greeted at the president’s table with meatloaf, so beloved by Trump that his mother’s recipe is on the menu at Mar-a-Lago, the winter White House in Florida.
“This is what it’s like to be with Trump,” Christie said during a New York radio show. “He says, ‘There’s the menu, you guys order whatever you want,’ and then he says, ‘Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.’ ” It was clearly an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Everything the leader of the free world does — the books he chooses to read (or not), the clothes he opts to wear, the food he reaches for — is examined for meaning. If Trump’s maiden D.C. dinner is any indication, we’re looking at four years of imitation vanilla.