For President Barack Obama, even the location of a dinner date is a political decision.
And so far, he’s shown the same tendency to split the difference in his dining choices that some critics say he has in his policies.
Among the more than a dozen places at which Obama has dined since becoming president are the city’s trendiest hot spots. But a closer look at what he’s eaten shows Obama’s tastes are pretty traditional.
“The restaurants reflect a certain imagination, a certain taste for adventure,” said Todd Kliman, an award-winning restaurant critic and the dining editor at Washingtonian magazine. “There’s a progressive bent to the choices but a conservative leaning to what he’s choosing to order.”
Restaurant Nora, where Obama took his wife for her birthday last year, was America’s first certified organic restaurant. Two other spots on his list, Equinox and Blue Duck Tavern, strive for fresh local ingredients and culinary innovation.
But more often than not, Obama orders a steak or a burger.
Even at restaurants known for other specialties, such as Wolfgang Puck’s Asian-inspired restaurant, the Source, or Michel Richard’s upscale Citronelle, known best for its whimsical fish dishes, Obama tends to order beef.
That might be a nod to his Kansas-raised grandparents or simply because of the time he’s spent in meat-heavy Chicago.
Obama has also sampled the lower end of the city’s dining spectrum, stopping by Five Guys for burgers and Georgetown’s Thomas Sweet for treats with his daughters.
“For every pricey meal at a place like Citronelle or Komi, they seem to temper it with a burger or pizza run,” Amanda McClements, who runs the D.C. food blog Metrocurean, said in an email.
Kliman said that’s a good strategy for eating well.
“When you tend to eat the middle, you get more safe kinds of things. … If you really want to chow or just have a great sort of gastronomic experience, you tend to go high or low,” he said.
If he hasn’t already, Obama is well on his way to eating at more local restaurants than any president in recent memory.
Until Bill Clinton took office, few presidents ventured out of the White House to try the District’s dining. John F. Kennedy had a few favorite restaurants, but Ronald Reagan and his wife rarely dined out.
George H.W. Bush had a soft spot for the Peking Gourmet in Falls Church, Va., and his son once visited Cactus Cantina, but neither Bush dined extensively in the District.
Obama, however, comes to the District from urban Chicago rather than from a Texas ranch or an Arkansas mansion. In Chicago, he and first lady Michelle enjoyed Italian food at the upscale Spiaggia and frequented Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo, a critically acclaimed Mexican restaurant.
Their familiarity with the Chicago food scene has served them well in Washington, where the family has worked hard to engage with the city’s best and most-loved restaurants.
“This is the longest list we’ve seen in Washington in a long while,” Kliman said. “It’s a great boost for some of these restaurants.”
A visit from Obama certainly puts a restaurant on the map. His two stops at Ray’s Hell Burger helped turn it from a place for hard-core burger fanatics to a tourist destination.
His choices also reflect a broader engagement with the city of Washington — not just the city frequented by lawmakers and lobbyists, Kliman said. The choices are in keeping with his other outreach in the District. He held an inaugural ball for D.C. residents, while his wife has visited a number of nonprofits in the Washington area.
“You go to Ben’s Chili Bowl because it’s an experience and because it’s a part of the unofficial Washington, where people actually live,” Kliman said. “This list reflects a real engagement with the cultural life of the city, the Washington as a place where people live and work and play.”
Interested in following in the president’s footsteps? Below is a list of many of the restaurants at which Obama has eaten during his presidency. Where possible, we’ve included a list of the dishes he ordered.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
On Jan. 10, 2009, Obama visited this 52-year-old D.C. establishment, famous for its chili half-smokes and laid-back atmosphere, with then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. He ordered a chili half-smoke and cheese fries.
On Jan. 15, 2009, Obama took the first lady out for a birthday dinner at this award-winning establishment run by chefs Todd and Ellen Gray. It’s known for its fresh, local ingredients and classy American fare.
Obama ordered a mixed greens salad with Chablis-poached apples and pickled watermelon radish as a first course, while Michelle chose the pan-fried Rappahannock oysters. Both chose a grilled strip loin steak, and Michelle ordered crispy bananas for dessert.
On May 2, 2009, Obama and his wife dined at Citronelle, the restaurant owned by chef Michel Richard and consistently ranked among the country’s best.
Obama enjoyed braised short ribs, while his wife asked for an unadvertised lobster burger. They shared a soft-shell crab tempura appetizer and creme brulee for dessert.
After the meal, Michelle kissed Richard on the cheek, thanking him for her meal in French.
Ray’s Hell Burger
On May 5, 2009, Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden visited this Rossyln burger joint, known for big, juicy burgers piled high with toppings. He ordered a medium-well cheeseburger with spicy mustard and also offered to pay for the press pool’s food.
On May 29, 2009, Obama treated NBC’s Brian Williams to burgers from this national chain known for greasy-but-good fare. He chose a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, jalapeno peppers and mustard.
The Dairy Godmother
On June 20, 2009, the president treated his family to Wisconsin-style frozen custard in Alexandria, Va. He had vanilla custard with hot fudge and almonds.
His daughters, Malia and Sasha, had vanilla custard in a waffle cone and a brownie sundae with hot fudge and sprinkles, respectively.
They also ordered some frozen “puppy pops” for their dog, Bo.
Blue Duck Tavern
On Oct. 3, 2009, Obama and his wife celebrated their 17th anniversary at this Tony Chi-designed farm-to-table restaurant. It serves up classic American fare with an emphasis on local providers. The president and his wife shared crab cakes and seafood pasta.
On Jan. 16, 2010, Obama surprised Michelle with a birthday dinner at Restaurant Nora, the first certified organic restaurant in the United States. Chef Nora Pouillon serves up a menu of fresh new-American fare that changes daily. When they visited, then-Executive Chef Benjamin Lambert cooked a special lamb dish for Michelle and pan-seared Maine lobster and saffron risotto for Obama.
Obama surprised his wife for date night at Komi on May 7, 2010. The restaurant declined to comment on the couple’s menu, but it is known for offering a prix fixe menu beginning with a series of small plates and moving to more robust, heartier meals, including pasta and a shared entree.
Meals end with a cheese plate and dessert.
Ray’s Hell Burger
On June 24, 2010, Obama visited the restaurant again, this time with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He ordered a burger with cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles and an iced tea. The two heads of state split a plate of french fries.
On Jan. 17, 2011, Obama took Michelle to the Source for her birthday. Wolfgang Puck’s first D.C. restaurant is celebrated for its Asian fusion dishes such as suckling pig or Kobe sliders.
The Obamas enjoyed a four-course meal, starting with tuna tartare, sesame-miso cones, shaved bonito and tobiko. They moved onto a dim sum platter of scallop and shrimp sui mai, organic chicken and wild-field mushroom dumplings and crystal garlic chive dumplings.
The main course was a whole wok-fired lobster with Chinese garlic sauce and a prime filet with smoked onion chili sauce. Their meal ended with a 15-layer carrot cake with candied walnuts and ginger ice cream.
On May 7, 2011, Obama and Michelle dined at Tosca for Mother’s Day. The restaurant declined to comment on their specific menu, but Tosca is known for the fine Italian creations of Executive Chef Massimo Fabbri, who specializes in contemporary northern Italian cooking.
On June 6, 2011, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoyed beef tenderloin and beet salad at this Georgetown hot spot. Famous for its American antiques and period prints and china, the restaurant serves seasonal American cuisine.
On June 19, 2011, the president took Malia, Sasha and a niece and nephew out for ice cream at this Georgetown shop. The cash-only store offers a wide variety of toppings for its ice creams, custards and fudges.