Photos: DC Spotlight Newspaper/Drew Angerer
November 1, 2012
By Alex Barron
For D.C. restaurants, not much is better for business than a visit from a president. Case in point: After the Obamas dined at the Blue Duck Tavern for their 17th anniversary in 2009, the restaurant became one of the hottest reservations in town.
Three years after the fact, any reference to this West End
restaurant is often accompanied by a mention of the presidential milestone that it hosted. A president’s word on DC food tends to be trusted more than that of any critic—and a mere trip to a local restaurant is the equivalent of a positive review.
With less than a month to go until the 2012 election, here are a few of D.C.’s presidentially-approved restaurants:
1. Ben’s Chili Bowl:
Prior to the 2008 election, a small sign (no more than a piece of white paper taped to the wall) hung above the main stove and below the illuminated menu at Ben’s. It read: “List of People who eat Free at Ben’s Chili Bowl: Bill Cosby, NO ONE ELSE.” Shortly after Obama’s inauguration and his first visit—as a guest of then mayor Adrian Fenty—Ben’s updated its exclusive VIP list. The Obama Family has made the cut—albeit beneath Cosby, who serves as Ben’s de facto ambassador of goodwill.
The fact that Fenty chose to take the new president, not to Citronelle or CityZen or Minibar, but to this modest U Street hot dog stand, says everything you need to know about Ben’s position in the D.C. restaurant scene. Founded in 1958, it is a relic from a time in culinary history long predating the trends of sushi and fusion. To scarf down one of Ben’s chili half-smokes is to engage in a D.C. tradition that transcends age, race, and social status. Stand in line on any given night and you will find yourself rubbing elbows with hipsters, jazz musicians, lobbyists and taxi drivers: No other spot in the city brings in such a representative cross-section of the District’s diverse population.
The original Ben’s on U Street is already a landmark whose stature ranks only slightly behind that of the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument. In 2008, a branch opened in Nationals Park. (Would D.C. baseball really be complete without D.C.’s favorite hot dog?) The more upscale (but still relatively casual) Ben’s Next Door opened its doors in 2009 in the space adjacent to the original location. Ben’s made another splash earlier this year when it announced the opening of a new branch in the trendy H Street Corridor.
Fine dining this is not, but Ben’s Chili Bowl can feel secure in its status as the most fun restaurant in D.C., and probably the most famous. When you have all of that to begin with, a presidential endorsement is just the icing on the cake—or the chili on the dog.
Being the president of the United States means getting to go to Komi for your anniversary. In 2010, President Obama took the First Lady to this Dupont Circle standout, consistently rated one of D.C.’s very best.
3. Georgia Brown’s:
One of D.C.’s preeminent soul food joints, Georgia Brown’s has played host to politicos and celebrities, including Jesse Jackson and Michelle Obama. But it was a particular favorite of Bill Clinton, who popped in from time to time for a dose of home cooking.
According to their website, every sitting president from Truman through George W. Bush has made a visit to this classy, clandestine bar in Georgetown. Founded in 1938, the bar was a particular favorite of John F. Kennedy and above his favorite booth hangs a plaque bearing his name.
Ray’s Hell Burger:
Obama has made two trips to this Arlington burger joint: the first with Vice President Biden and the second with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Count him among the legions of Washingtonians who view Ray’s as the best place to grab a burger inside the Beltway.
6. Taylor Gourmet:
In May, Obama stopped by the 14th Street location for some of the area’s best hoagies. After enjoying lunch, he reportedly picked up a few for the road.
7. Peking Gourmet Inn:
Located in a Falls Church strip mall, this large, festive Chinese restaurant serves the best Peking Duck in the area. The Bushes—both Sr. and Jr.—certainly seemed to think so; both made multiple appearances during their presidencies.
Among the District’s better Chinese restaurants — and almost certainly the best within the delivery range for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — this was Clinton’s go-to place for take-out, although his favorite dish was reportedly boring old chicken and broccoli.
9. Cactus Cantina:
George W. Bush and Laura made a surprise visit in 2003, and by all accounts, the president couldn’t get enough. He tried the cheese enchiladas, while the first lady chose the fajitas.
10. Kenny’s BBQ:
On Father’s Day, Obama stopped in with a large entourage, ordered a heaping plate of ribs, cornbread, and black-eyed peas, and at the end of the meal, made headlines when his group momentarily forgot to pay the bill. (The mistake was quickly corrected.)