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MailTribune.com
  • Big-time rush

    Presidential diners give D.C. restaurateurs a wow moment
  • WASHINGTON — Are presidents good for the restaurant business?
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  • WASHINGTON — Are presidents good for the restaurant business?
    They are if the first families are inclined to dine out, as the Clintons were in their time and the Obamas are now.
    Ashok Bajaj credits President Bill Clinton with putting "Indian food on the map" after visiting his Bombay Club here in Washington in August 1993 and eight to 10 more times after that during his two terms.
    "There's definitely a spike in business" after a president dines in your establishment, Bajaj said. "It's very much like if you get a very good review.
    "People want to sit where the president sat," he added. "So you work up five or six tables where he sat."
    Bajaj and other restaurateurs assembled on a panel shared their excitement with food journalists this month about having once, or regularly, served a U.S. president. The journalists were gathered for the Association of Food Journalists' annual conference.
    Longtime Washington restaurateur Saied Azali recalled a presidential dinner at his restaurant Mintwood Place hosted by the Obamas for a group of grass-roots donors. In preparation, Secret Service agents came into the restaurant every day for a week, Azali said. During the dinner they closed off two blocks around the restaurant.
    Having to keep the visit a secret, Azali told his staff those men in suits were caterers.
    "I'm very honored that this president goes out to eat like a normal person," Azali said. "This (dinner) is the greatest thing that has happened to me."
    It isn't only white-tablecloth establishments that get to roll out the metaphoric red carpet for the commander in chief. And they don't often get a month's notice, as Azali did.
    Ten days before President-elect Barack Obama was sworn in, he stopped in at Ben's Chili Bowl with the mayor of Washington. The popular establishment on U St. (once known as "Black Broadway"), open since 1958, had already been made famous by Bill Cosby and other black performers.
    Second-generation owner Nizam Ali recalled that a member of the Secret Service walked in that day, pointed to Obama's picture on a campaign button worn by an employee and said, "The guy on the button is on the way in." Four minutes later, Obama walked in the door.
    These days, there's no need to call the press to let them know the president has dined in your establishment, the restaurateurs agreed. Social media gets the word out.
    "Everybody in the restaurant is tweeting," said Bajaj.
    Rikka Johnson, general manager of The Source restaurant, said her parents first learned from Twitter — not her — that she had served Obama.
    Restaurateurs know the rules of presidential dining. One, the president can't ask them to close the restaurant to the rest of the public. And two, the president has to pay. Conversely, the restaurant has to charge the president for any food he and his family are served.
    The restaurant owners also play by their own rules.
    "We make it a policy not to tell what we overhear" when serving any politicians, said Ellen Gray of Equinox restaurant. "You have to have integrity as an owner to maintain the privacy and dignity of your high-profile customers."
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