A restaurant table has always been a popular place for deals to get done. The pandemic had put these kinds of meetings on hold, but they’re back, from New York to Tokyo.
In Washington, the wheeling and dealing dining scene has always had a different feel from other cities.
“New York City is exciting because you get actors, celebrities. In Washington, you get vice presidents, CIA directors, senators,” says Stephen Starr, owner of one of the capital’s premier dining spots, Le Diplomate. “You get people that run the world.”
What sells especially well at Le Diplomate? Steaks and cocktails: “Meat and alcohol, DC is a power food place,” says Starr, who also owns the high-profile Pastis in Manhattan.
But power meals have evolved in the nation’s capital, both from what they entail and where they take place. Even some of the always buzzing dining rooms have seen changes since the pandemic. At the Bombay Club, which sits steps from the White House and has hosted presidents and Cabinet members for three decades, owner Ashok Bajaj says he is seeing shorter meals and less mid-day alcohol. “The famous power lunches of Washington are certainly not what they used to be a decade or two ago,” he notes.
What hasn’t changed is that everybody needs to eat, and they like going out. Even presidents — and all their men and women. One of the best places to see President Joe Biden is the Jewish deli, Call Your Mother.
Now — around election season — is the time to get into these generally packed places. “It slows down a little bit now when everyone is on the campaign trail,” says Starr. “Soon after elections, we’ll be packed again.”
Whether you make it before the elections or not, following are 13 of Washington’s politically buzziest spots.
Call Your Mother
There are now a few locations of this bagel-wielding deli; it gets a lot of deal makers on the weekends. (One of the original investors was Jeff Zients, who was the White House’s Covid Response Coordinator.) In fact, Biden’s first dining stop as president was a Sunday trip to Call Your Mother. The menu boasts several sandwiches featuring the wood-fired bagels like Sun City, stuffed with pastrami or bacon, “bodega-style” eggs and cheese with spicy honey, and black and white cookies.
A trendy Italian dining spot to see political players, like Barack and Michelle Obama who recently dined there. The high-ceilinged space, lined with royal blue banquettes, has a wood burning oven, from which chef David Deshaies, who also owns the Unconventional Diner, offers blistered pies topped with pepperoni and smoked cheese. The pasta section includes a $36, 40-layer lasagna with short rib ragu, as well as whole grilled branzino and lobster thermidor.
Almost a decade ago, Stephen Starr opened the Paris-evoking brasserie on the 14 Street corridor; it’s still one of the toughest reservations in town, with packed tables at lunch and dinner. Staples include grand plateaus of seafood, escargot and platters of steak frites and half roast chicken. It’s the place to see everyone from senators to cabinet members, and from lawyers to lobbyists.
Soon after Imperfecto opened in the city’s busy West End neighborhood in March, Biden came in for dinner. The airy space has high ceilings and well spaced tables and a menu from Chef Enrique Limardo that broadly spans Mediterranean specialties. There are starters of burrata with hummus and tabbouleh and tuna tartare with shishito puree; larger plates include dry-aged duck with tangerine sauce, as well as a $175 tasting menu.
The bright, light coastal cuisine restaurant is one of the city’s ongoing power lunch spots; there’s usually a Cabinet member eating somewhere around the room. The seafood tower is monumental, with Calabrian chili shrimp cocktail, uni, and wild bluefin tuna in the mix. A cart loaded with a rotating selection of fish to be grilled wheels through the room. Chef/owner Fabio Trabocchi’s sister restaurant Del Mar on the Wharf, also gets a big, plugged in crowd at lunch.
Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab
Set in an old, marble columned bank, this handsome, multi-level restaurant gets a lot of traffic because of its proximity to the White House. (It’s less than a five minute walk.) Like its Miami flagship, the short, sharp menu highlights shellfish, from oysters to the signature Florida crab claws, with a handful of entrees. For dessert, pies, from key lime to Boston cream are helpfully available by the half slice.
When it opened in 2018, this DC branch of the acclaimed New York sushi spot was controversial for its location in the former Trump hotel. Now the building has become the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC, and the site is less polarizing. The omakase menu ($180 at the counter; $150 in the dining room) features about 20 pieces of sushi that might include a handful of cuts of maguro, or bluefin tuna.
Ashok Bajaj’s white table cloth Indian restaurant on Connecticut Avenue boasts a list of diners that includes presidents 42 through 44 and multiple secretaries of state. The draw is well-done Indian standards, like their classic thalis and lamb vindaloo, as well as crispy kale with date chutney whose legion of fans include ambassadors, lawyers and trade negotiators. Last year, the restaurant finished a major renovation and installed major art pieces spotlighting Indian dance. Across the street. Bajaj’s contemporary French restaurant, La Bise, also gets a notable crowd.
There are a few outposts of this quirky tea house. The Lafayette Park location is continually packed with White House staffers, as well as journalists looking to get comment from them and recruiters trying to hire them into the private sector. They specialize in bento box lunches that might include fried or grilled chicken with spaghetti squash, or tempura mushroom hand rolls. On the all day breakfast list: scrambled egg sandwiches and the Japanese omelet okonomkyaki. There’s also, obviously, a strong tea menu, including boba, or bubble tea.
Set in the historic, almost 100-year-old Hay Adams hotel that sits practically right outside the White House, the Lafayette continues to serve the ultimate power breakfast, starting at 6:30 a.m., with dishes like corned beef hash and hollandaise-topped eggs royale. Lunch and dinner are busy, too. The hotel’s cleverly named Off the Record bar labels itself the best “place to be seen and not heard.” It’s open until midnight.
One of the city’s seminal Italian restaurants, Tosca’s intimate main dining room is arrayed with white cloth-topped tables that are popular with lobbyists. (Related: there’s also a private dining room and a couple of semi-private areas.) The menu is stocked with standards, from plates of 24-month-aged prosciutto with chunks of Parmesan, to spaghetti with clams and beef filet. Negronis and martinis anchor the cocktail list, while the wine list leans Italian.
The clubby steakhouse on I Street is decorated with oversized dark caramel-colored leather booths and commanding wood tables. At lunch and dinner, there’s a selection of prime beef like a 28-day, dry-aged bone-in Kansas City strip and porterhouse for two, as well as all the requisite sides. Among the salads and sides at mid day is the namesake sandwich made with smoked bacon, special sauce and truffle fries.
For thirty years, Café Milano has loomed over the city’s political power restaurant scene. The colorful room was a favorite of former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and is also popular with the diplomatic set. The Italian classics are well represented on the menu: eggplant parmigiana; cacio e pepe tonnarelli; seafood risotto. There’s a healthy amount of Barolos, as well as premium American reds, like Screaming Eagle on the list.