Since the 2008 election, the Obamas have made dining in D.C. one of their top recreational priorities. Though the First Lady has a chance to eat out more often, POTUS has been spotted supping everywhere from José Andrés’ Oyamel and Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak to Blue Duck Tavern and Smith Commons.
Obviously, it’s not an average evening in the dining room when the Leader of the Free World is in the house. The Secret Service’s exact methods for selecting, screening, and securing a restaurant are closely guarded procedures, which the agency doesn’t reveal. Luckily, a pair of restaurateurs was willing to discuss their experiences.
Vetting the establishment begins well before the Leader of the Free World sits down, according to Ashok Bajaj, who has hosted three presidents – the Obamas dined at Rasika West End, George H. W. Bush ate at both the Bombay Club and the Oval Room, and Bill Clinton has visited a number of Bajaj’s restaurants, including Rasika and 701. The day before a presidential visit, Secret Service do a thorough examination of the property. “They want to see everything from the air ducts to how they can get the President out in the case of an emergency and where they’re going to seat him,” says Bajaj.
Numerous high-profile dignitaries require such precautions, so the restaurant still doesn’t know just who is coming to dinner. Key restaurant staff will be officially notified the day of the event, though the visit may be canceled at the last minute due to pressing affairs of state. “You don’t know it’s the President for sure until all of his armor shows up out front,” says Ellen Gray of Equinox, which Barack and Michelle visited while he was President-elect. “You could launch a world war from the artillery he drives around with. Plus, there’s always an ambulance following the motorcade.”
Throughout the meal, Secret Service agents are stationed around and throughout the restaurant. “The kitchen staff loves it,” says Gray. “It’s great for morale. If the agents they get in the way, we just politely ask them to move.”
Restaurants are asked to not confirm or publicize the President’s presence during the visit, but the news gets out nearly instantaneously regardless. “People are tweeting, putting it on their Facebook, calling, and texting about it,” says Bajaj, who notes the visit can be disruptive for restaurants because guests linger longer than usual and are unwilling to give up their tables.
All the hassle is worth the honor and distinction of having the President as a diner. Both restaurateurs confirmed presidential visits to their restaurants yielded a big uptick in reservations and a bevy of press. They’re both hopeful that whoever occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next, they continue to regularly patronize D.C. restaurants. “Clinton used to eat at McDonald’s,” says Gray. “George and Laura Bush didn’t go out at all. What the Obamas did was unprecedented.”
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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.