WASHINGTON - Hamburger lunches from the local carryout joints, the occasional big dinners at white-tablecloth restaurants: On the face of it, Barack and Michelle Obama's dining-out picks may seem a lot like everyone else's, or at least what we aspire to.
But local gastronomes who've been studying the new first couple's dining habits through four months of restaurant visits - including the president's lunch break at Five Guys on Friday, and the Obamas' trip to New York's chic Blue Hill on Saturday night - see a pattern of deliberate and politically aware choices.
Time and again, they've picked restaurants with the enviro-fashionable ethos of "sustainable" and "locally grown," in keeping with an agenda that includes vegetable gardens and healthy eating. And whether going high or low, the family that promised to be active members of the local community is gravitating toward places with strong local roots.
"Whoever is doing their scouting work for them is very smart about picking places," said Washington City Paper food columnist Tim Carman. "They're very savvy choices about D.C. dining and who's important in it." Food blogger Amanda McClements agreed: "They've certainly given themselves some foodie cred in town, in a short amount of time."
President Obama sent strong signals with his first two D.C. dining picks in the weeks before he took office. First, a lunch with Mayor Adrian Fenty at folksy 50-year-old Ben's Chili Bowl - "not just a restaurant, but a cultural institution," said Web restaurant critic Don Rockwell. Days later, for his wife's birthday, dinner at Equinox. Said Carman: "It was a nod to one of the deans of D.C. cooking," chef Todd Gray, "the forerunner of the local sustainable movement, so a nice political move." In New York to see Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the Obamas stopped first at Blue Hill, which touts its reliance on produce and animals raised in the region.
Venturing to the four-star Citronelle last month was a similar move, Carman said, "paying homage to the city's signature chef," Michel Richard - though, Rockwell notes, it's also a place "used to handling secure situations," such as an Alan Greenspan/Dick Cheney/Don Rumsfeld dinner he once witnessed. Absent from the list, Carman notes: popular high-end restaurants like BLT Steak or Olives, which are part of out-of-town chains. However, Michelle Obama paid allegiance to her home town with an Art and Soul dinner by Chicago chef Art Smith.
Just after Citronelle, the president and Joe Biden made a lunch trip to a casual if haute burger joint, Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., triggering a media frenzy that, Rockwell said, "quickly erased any memory of fine dining in the public's mind-set" - while tipping a hat to owner Michael Landrum. Then on Friday, cheaper burgers at a branch of the Arlington-based Five Guys chain, "the forerunner for the fresh fast-food concept," Carman said.
Is it possible to be too political at mealtime? "It's clear they have some savvy food folks on staff, and that's smart," McClements said. "No need to waste precious time on bad food."