In late February, President Donald J Trump arrived at BLT Prime, David Burke’s modern American steakhouse, for dinner with his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. Governor Rick Scott of Florida and former British politician Nigel Farage were also in attendance. The most powerful man in the world ordered his go-to dish – an aged New York strip loin steak served well done with ketchup (no pink, hot centre, the way he likes it) – while his family and friends shared appetisers and jumbo shrimp cocktails.
Just a low-key dinner, you might think. In fact, this splashy repast at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue was the Commander-in-Chief’s first public meal since his inauguration and it set the tone, in many ways, for the type of presidency he is fast becoming known for. Trump posed for photos, wished patrons a happy birthday with awkward grab-and-yank handshakes, and joined the restaurant in a chant of “USA, USA” before leaving with the Secret Service.
The media lapped it up – as it was intended to. By making sure everyone knew where he was eating, Trump lit the touch paper for DC’s newest steakhouse. Its location? Inside the shiny new Trump International Hotel, of course, the former Old Post Office Pavilion now with the president’s name inscribed in giant letters above the front door.
While the saying is that business is often conducted on the golf course, in Washington DC it’s very much over the dining table. Sporting jacket-and-tie combos or power dresses, senators, congressmen and West Wingers chew the fat and close deals with ambassadors, governors and captains of industry. Sometimes even with presidents. And business is booming.
“Power-dining is a phenomenon in DC that existed long before President Trump, and will remain long after President Trump is no longer in office,” says BLT Prime’s David Burke, who, with his horn-rimmed glasses, piercing eyes and jowly neckline, resembles a hawkish presidential advisor. But the chef, who first cooked for the 45th President of the United States aboard the billionaire’s yacht in 1989, has also witnessed the DC scene explode in recent years.
“It’s seen tremendous growth, in large part due to a great collection of extremely talented chefs,” he says, singling out for particular praise Spanish-American chef José Andrés, whose nationwide empire is spearheaded by his two-Michelin-star DC flagship, Minibar by José Andrés. But while other cities slavishly seek out the culinary zeitgeist, DC’s restaurants do things differently, he explains. “New York and Los Angeles are always looking for the next thing, but DC doesn’t follow trends too closely – it doesn’t jump on the bandwagon.”
According to the chef, it’s all about executing the classics with aplomb – and providing a plush backdrop against which to eat them. So where are the current hotspots for those looking to dine and deal? Burke cites BlackSalt Restaurant for fish and seafood, Robert Wiedmaier’s Brasserie Beck for modern European fare and Dirty Habit for drinks. Frank Ruta, a hardly press-shy former White House chef, has opened pseudo-French affair Mirabelle a block away from his former employer, while power players like The Source, run by restaurant mogul Wolfgang Puck, and The Monocle are booked out for weeks ahead when Congress is in session.
For a guaranteed sighting of Washington’s big beasts, there’s long-time Georgetown fixture Café Milano (where former vice-president Joe Biden and Bill Clinton regularly work the room) and Stephen Starr’s Le Diplomate (frequented by Ivanka Trump and her entourage). Not that politicos get preferential treatment, according to Burke. “The overall goal of the restaurant, from the first greeting they receive upon arrival to the last bite of dessert, is to impart the highest-quality dining experience; to wow the guest from start to finish,” he explains. “No matter who the guest is, it’s the same goal every single time.”
Marcus Samuelsson is another chef with a clear political affiliation. The Swedish-Ethiopian restaurateur is well known for his culinary love affair with Barack Obama, and that relationship continues to attract patrons to his DC flagship, Marcus at the MGM National Harbor Hotel. “The first time I cooked for President Obama was the State Dinner at the White House, which was a remarkable evening and a privilege to be invited to,” he says. “It was nerve-wracking and exciting to be cooking in that historic place at such an incredible moment.” No one-off, Samuelsson went on to cook for Obama in 2011 on the chef’s home turf at his Red Rooster hot spot in Harlem, New York. “That’s when I pulled out the short ribs,” he says of his executive-order-turned-signature-dish at Marcus. “I mean when you really want a slam dunk with something succulent and delicious, you have to go for some slow-braised goodness.”
In DC’s dining scene, prestige plays a big part in popularity and the visit of a president has the biggest knock-on effect. The “Obama bump”, as it’s known, was also felt by DC chef Aaron Silverman after the president spent his 54th birthday with the First Lady at the insanely popular Rose’s Luxury in Barracks Row (for the full Obama spread, order the goat confit, sausage-lychee salad and chocolate mousse). Even today, you still need connections in Congress to get a table.
Of course, the arrival of every new administration brings with it new favourites for day-to-day political hobnobbing, but there are some old-school touchstones that never go out of fashion. Seventy years ago, Richard Nixon could regularly be found in the train-car booths of Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, chowing down on meatloaf. He was joined by Senator John F Kennedy, who favoured the Sunday brunch there. Today, Billy Martin Jr, the fourth-generation owner, continues to woo the political elite with everyman dishes like pot roast and corned beef and cabbage. The restaurant’s influence is such, he’s embarrassed to admit, you could write a political almanac about the deals done over the shepherd’s pie.
“We’ve had the honour of serving every president from Harry S Truman to George W Bush, all before they were president, as congressmen, senators and governors,” he says. “During the campaign last year, it was reported that President Trump is a big fan of a hamburger and fries. We’re known for our great burger, so that’s what we’d suggest should he drop by.”
Democrats and Republicans, while they may be at each other’s throats all day in Congress, put down the sword to pick up the dinner fork. The bipartisan spirit on display is perhaps the most laudable thing about the DC food scene: when it comes to choosing a lunch venue, political tribalism goes out of the window. It’s a tradition nearly as longstanding as US democracy itself, and in a time of political polarisation, a reassuring one.
“Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that The Willard may be much more justly called the Center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House or the State Department,” says veteran executive chef Peter Laufer of the historic Willard InterContinental, a cross-party meeting place so old it hosted President Abraham Lincoln and his family prior to his inauguration in 1861. “This rings true today. Walk through the hotel’s lobby to dine at Café du Parc, the French brasserie, and you’d be hard pressed to not see the town’s movers and shakers.”