A restaurant can be powerful because it draws raves, or draws developers, or just draws a line of TV-addled tourists. A list of D.C.’s 44 heaviest hitters.
“Food is the most powerful thing we have in our hands,” José Andrés said. “Not only chefs, but everyone in the food community. The right use of food can end hunger.”
Andrés made that speech last month at the 2011 James Beard Awards, after taking the restaurant industry’s top prize. Singled-out in a pack of gastronomic gurus from towns more frequently mentioned as culinary capitals, the proprietor of D.C.’s illustrious Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Café Atlántico, and Minibar had elevated Washington’s culinary cred yet again.
With his national reputation and love for the spotlight, Andrés often seizes the bully pulpit to champion the power of food and its ability to change lives. The guy is prone to voicing some pretty deep thoughts, even if he sometimes risks sounding a bit like Jack Handey. A crusader for mindful consumption, Andrés encourages people to talk to their tomatoes, among other things.
But the soaring riffs on the “food is power” theme ring especially true in the District these days. The city has always had its power haunts: As long as insiders have gathered over meals here in the capital to decide the fates of small countries, there have been power lunches. And yet, even as local restaurateurs try to go one step farther—this year saw the opening of a much-hyped “power breakfast” joint—the ways to measure culinary muscle are more varied than ever.
D.C. in the 21st century has seen restaurants that can revive a neighborhood. It has places that aim to alter perceptions about what constitutes a meal. Most jarringly, it has places that are famous by virtue of being chronicled in real-time on television, a form of dining power that scarcely existed a decade ago. Of course, the city also has places that manage to draw steady crowds despite middling kitchens or indifferent service. That’s power, too.
And while we may once have been able to forget the potency of a meal, we also now get constant reminders of it from the most powerful man on the planet. No, not Andrés. We’re talking about that arugula-chewing elitist in the White House, Barack Obama.
Perhaps no presidential administration since the era of bread lines has so clearly defined nourishment as a national priority, launching initiatives to combat childhood obesity, improve food-safety standards, and even reshaping the antiquated food pyramid into a more satisfying pie chart.
And, for a guy whom critics tend to portray as anti-business, Obama couldn’t do more to empower the local food sector. Whether chowing down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Ray’s Hell Burger, or escorting the first lady to an extravagant dinner at Komi, the commander-in-chief has out-promoted the most powerful restaurant publicists in town.
With the dietary dominance of the nation’s 44th president in mind, Washington City Paper has identified an equal number of D.C.-based centers of food power, places that flex their muscles in ways ranging from culinary influence to market supremacy to televisual ubiquity. Their combined efforts may not eradicate hunger. But why would they? It’s in their best interest to keep us salivating for more. —Chris Shott
44. PASTA MIA
1790 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 328-9114
Powerful Because: It serves as an endless magnet for new arrivals to D.C.
Nearly nine years ago, City Paper dubbed the hordes that gather nightly outside this no-frills red-sauce joint in Adams Morgan the city’s “fakest in-crowd.” The joke is on us. Almost a decade and countless cooler hangout openings later, the attraction hasn’t worn off. The line still gathers like a moth to flambé—even though the food is nothing to flap your wings about. One recent Tuesday, I counted an even 30 line-standers waiting for the restaurant to open its doors at 6:30 p.m., but my ravioli dish a week later was swimming in a creamy soup almost deep enough to drown a Capitol Hill intern. Owner Roberto Broglia’s tortellini temple seems to draw its enduring power from the District’s ever-revolving door of fresh-faced young staffers, for whom the wait to enter has become a bizarre rite of passage. —CS
43. OPEN CITY
2331 Calvert St. NW, (202) 332-2331
Powerful Because: Who needs an olive branch when you have animal crackers?
Open City might not be your typical power spot, but it sits at an enviable confluence for any restaurateur: nestled between two gigantic convention hotels at a neighborhood crossroads with high foot traffic near Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo. Many restaurants and retailers have tried to harness that powerful convergence. Few have succeeded in such a demonstrative way. The place is often packed, service is generally quick (sometimes too quick), and the polished American diner/gastropub fare is accessible for almost anyone’s tastes. Finally, a place where neighbors, tourists, and conventioneers can peacefully coexist over coffee and animal crackers. —Michael Grass
42. Belga Cafe
514 8th St. SE, (202) 544-0100
Powerful Because: It moved Barracks Row beyond 7-Eleven.
Marines bunking at the barracks on 8th Street SE were never starving: Sandwiches from Capital City Sub could sustain them. And, in a pinch, there’s always 7-Eleven. But, until 2004, nobody considered that dumpy retail strip a particularly appetizing destination for a nice dinner. That’s when Bart Vandaele opened up his venerable moules frites and waffle shop. The tiny restaurant ushered in a new scene: Since Belga’s arrival, a slew of other places have moved in nearby: Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin, Cava Mezze, and The Chesapeake Room, to name a few. The neighborhood now throws an annual block party called “Taste of 8th” to give people a chance to try them all. Vandaele helped pave the way. And his Belgian fare has not, um, waffled, even if the service can sometimes seem like the place has joined the European slow-food movement. —Stefanie Gans
41. POSTE MODERNE BRASSERIE
555 8th St. NW, (202) 683-6060
Powerful Because: The space alone is worth the trip—and the kitchen is fine, too.
Tucked inside the courtyard of the Hotel Monaco, Poste Moderne Brasserie inhabits space in one of three Robert Mills-designed 19th-century federal buildings downtown, the former home of the General Post Office and Tariff Commission across F Street NW from the National Portrait Gallery. How many meals do you eat inside buildings raved about by the American Institute of Architects’ guide to D.C. architecture, which calls Poste’s home “beautifully restrained?” Poste, which opens onto the Hotel Monaco’s courtyard and garden space, benefits from the grand architectural aesthetic—and a glass addition that illuminates the courtyard at night. And if you reserve the garden-side group table for a special “Poste Roast,” you may feel a bit of imperial grandeur, eating a whole roasted lamb, baby goat, pig, or some other delicious beast. After all, unlike the cuisine at a lot of other beautiful-looking restaurants, the food, overseen by executive chef Rob Weland, here is also worth the trip. —MG
40. JOHNNY’S HALF SHELL
400 North Capitol St. NW, (202) 737-0400
Powerful Because: It’s D.C.’s most convenient restaurant for TV talking heads!
In 2006, when chef Ann Cashion and her restaurant partner John Fulchino moved their popular and modestly sized Dupont Circle seafood restaurant to a valuable perch in the Hall of States building—home to news pundits broadcasting from Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN studios—it seemed like a power grab of sorts. But a smart one! The fusty old French restaurant La Colline occupied enviable real estate close to the Capitol, but had run its course. When the new and much larger Johnny’s Half Shell was ready for prime time on North Capitol Street, it was an instant success, bringing Cashion and Fulchino into a place where they could cater to those who seek power, as well as those who simply seek pan-roasted littleneck clams, fried oysters, or soft-shell crabs. —MG
39. RAY’S THE STEAKS AT EAST RIVER
3905 Dix St. NE, (202) 396-7297
Powerful Because: It shows that a nice sit-down restaurant might just survive in Ward 7.
Michael Landrum took a big gamble in opening this no-frills steakhouse east of the Anacostia River, a longtime dead zone for any restaurant concept beyond the traditional carry-outs and fast-food chains. But he tried to be smart about it, incorporating elements of soul food like collard greens instead of creamed spinach, and keeping prices somewhat reasonable. Recently passing the one-year mark, Landrum’s gambit hasn’t flopped yet. On a recent visit, the place seemed busy enough, catering to a handful of big families with multiple children and several couples at two tops. Not bad for a Tuesday night. The beer-battered fried shrimp and bone-in ribeye were perfectly satisfying. But looking around the room, I really envied everyone who ordered the ribs. —CS
38. LAURIOL PLAZA
1835 18th St. NW, (202) 387-0035
Powerful Because: It boasts a magical ability to draw massive crowds despite dull food.
Once the reputed weekly brunch spot of Mark Halperin’s illustrious “Gang of 500”—that is, the lobbyists, strategists, journalists, and politicos who purportedly made up official Washington’s conventional wisdom in the early to mid ’00s—the monstrous Tex-Mex stalwart with the expansive, voyeuristic sidewalk café carries considerable sway with the larger D.C. transplant community, as well. It is likely the first restaurant you ever went to upon moving to D.C. and the last place you ever want to go again before moving out. Its magnetism is indisputable. Fustercluck doesn’t begin to describe the crowds on weekends. Maybe somebody slipped something powerful into the strawberry margaritas, because you can get better tacos at Chipotle. We could find no reports of Obama having ever dropped by. But there’s a life-size cardboard likeness of him waiting to greet him at the counter whenever he arrives, just in case. —CS
821 Upshur St. NW, (202) 722-7475
Powerful Because: It’s good for the neighborhood—even when people gripe.
There used to be a steak place near my brother’s Manhattan apartment that The New York Times had reviewed somewhat condescendingly, calling it “good for the neighborhood.” The backhanded compliment moved my brother to love the restaurant even more than he would have just from eating there. Domku sometimes benefits from the same vibe among its Petworth neighbors. Yeah, we all know the service is often slow. But don’t gripe about it if you don’t live within walking distance, because then you’re asking for trouble. That loyalty, dating to when Domku opened in 2005 as one of the area’s only spots catering to arriviste yuppie types, is part of the place’s charm. Locals bring people in from all over the city, turning the restaurant into an informal ambassador to the rest of the District. (Tell someone in Dupont Circle you live in Petworth, and watch them bring up Domku.) Of course, from the house-cured gravlax to the kielbasa and sauerkraut stew, the food’s delicious—for any neighborhood. —Mike Madden
36. KRAMERBOOKS AND AFTERWORDS CAFÉ
1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 387-3825
Powerful Because: It figured out a way to keep bookstores in business: Serve dinner!
“Meet me at Kramer’s,” you’ll hear people say. While bookstores may be in trouble financially, Kramer’s has successfully pulled off the bookstore-restaurant combination in a sought-after area where people meet up: Dupont Circle. When a commercial establishment, like Kramerbooks, is commonly used as a geographic reference point, it asserts its power through its brand. And while it’s easy to waltz into the bookstore and browse, seats in its modest-sized café can, at times, be extremely difficult to snag. The glassed-in patio area is a perfect venue for people-watching. And in a city with far too few late-night options, the kitchen is open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays. That, in itself, is a powerful asset. —MG
35. GRANVILLE MOORE’S
1238 H St. NE, (202) 399-2546
Powerful Because: It conferred grown-up status on H Street.
Consider all the decent H Street dining options these days: Atlas Room, Smith Commons, Liberty Tree, and the long-awaited Toki Underground, where patrons are sometimes turned away because the kitchen runs out of food in the face of heavy demand. (It’s happened to me twice.) All of them owe a debt of gratitude to Teddy Folkman’s Belgian-themed gastropub, which finally elevated the neighborhood standard for good food and drink beyond, well, just the drinks. His signature moules frites, which bested celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s version in a televised showdown, have kept steady lines out the door, and Folkman isn’t content to stop there. In late 2010, he set out to conquer D.C.’s overflowing brunch scene with a sandwich called “The Good Doctor.” Even with so many other tantalizing options now available on H Street, it’s still hard to get an appointment. —Nick DeSantis
34. GEORGETOWN CUPCAKE
3301 M St. NW, (202) 333-8448
Powerful Because: Have you seen that line?
Leave it to idealist campus activists to point out the District’s real power dons: Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne. Consider the protest placards that Georgetown University students have routinely posted outside the sisters’ corner bakery at M and 33rd streets NW: “You look lost. The White House, Smithsonian Museum, National Archives, and literally dozens of the world’s best museums are not at the end of this line.” “There are a lot of really exciting things to do in our nation’s capital. Standing here in line is not one of them.” The sarcastic signage is directed at the lengthy queue of patrons, many of them tourists, who regularly assemble to sample what appears to be D.C.’s smallest cupcake. I counted a whopping 117 of them waiting patiently along the sidewalk one recent weeknight. Local foodies are quick to suggest a tastier confection awaits just a short walk away at Baked & Wired. But that place has nowhere near the star power of Kallinis and LaMontagne, whose TV show D.C. Cupcakes seems to cast a hypnotic effect over sweet-toothed lemmings across the country. —CS
701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 393-0701
Powerful Because: It’s beloved by lobbyists who don’t go to jail.
During George W. Bush’s first term in office, it would have been easy to put Signatures, located on the west side of the Navy Memorial, toward the top of any power list. That’s where superlobbyist Jack Abramoff held court, crafted deals, and plotted his path to amass more power—and money. On the east side stood 701, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj’s now-20-year-old restaurant, among the first fine-dining establishments to take a chance on D.C.’s near-dead downtown. Signatures is long gone. Abramoff, after a prison stint, is reportedly working at a Baltimore pizza place. But 701 is still around and Penn Quarter is booming. Bajaj, unlike Abramoff, doesn’t take foolish risks, and 701 remains stately without being stodgy. Chef Ed Witt’s cooking keeps people coming back. Bajaj says that when he got advice to scrap 701’s name and try a new approach with a new identity, he replied, “Why would I do that?” With a reputation for quality and consistency—and as a haven for the city’s powerful types—701 has staying power. —MG
32. THE MONOCLE
107 D St. NE, (202) 546-4488
Powerful Because: If senators still decided history over drinks, they’d do it here.
It’s far too easy to forget about The Monocle, the 51-year-old Senate-side restaurant nestled up against the Capitol Police headquarters at the edge of a large parking lot. While its traditional menu focused on seafood and steak might seem quaint to more contemporary diners, it has enviable proximity to the nation’s most powerful legislators. Tradition reigns supreme—portraits of members of Congress dot the walls—but it’s a place surprisingly at ease with itself. While modern-day political conflict has killed off bipartisan camaraderie on Capitol Hill, The Monocle is a good reminder of the days when the politically powerful would find time to relax and recharge at a nearby watering hole. —MG
701 9th St. NW, (202) 638-0800
Powerful Because: You still want to eat there, years later.
Almost every week brings a new restaurant to the city. Crowds flock. Crowds decline. Crowds move on. But not at Zaytinya. Eight years after it opened (when Penn Quarter was just starting to push its neighborhood branding northward), José Andrés’ homage to Turkish, Greek, and Lebanese cuisine continues coaxing crowds with a balance of refinement and familiarity. Locals and tourists alike are drawn to the sleek, white, bright interior, well put-together food, and affordable menu. Sustaining such a full house almost every night of the week is no easy task in this transient town, where new restaurants—whether good or bad—command attention. Besides an array of tempting mezzes, Zaytinya pumps up the star power in the kitchen. Andrés is not the only boldface name protruding from this dining scene staple: Two-time Top Chef alum (and owner of the forthcoming Graffiato) Mike Isabella once plated lamb shanks and tabbouleh in the 230-seat Mediterranean haven. —SG
30. ARDEO+ BARDEO
3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-6750
Powerful Because: It may be strong enough to break the curse of Cleveland Park.
Just two years ago, Cleveland Park felt like a ghost town. High rents and a tough economy put a damper on the Connecticut Avenue commercial strip. Even Starbucks closed. Restaurateur Ashok Bajaj’s side-by-side eateries, recently joined and relaunched after a sharp-looking renovation, were among the few survivors. The neighborhood has seen a renaissance of sorts this year on the restaurant front, with the opening of Medium Rare, Tackle Box, and Palena’s retail market. But it’s unclear whether the newcomers will ever demonstrate the same kind of longevity. When Bajaj opened Ardeo in 1998 (its sibling Bardeo would later open next door, but recent renovations have fused the two in one space), it brought sleepy Cleveland Park a bit of downtown sophistication. Bajaj says the place became a sort of reference point for the real estate market. “They would say, ‘It’s near Ardeo.’” And who can argue with the power of local real estate? —MG
29. Birch & Barley/ ChurchKey
1337 14th St. NW, (202) 567-2576
Powerful Because: It gets to order drinks for the whole area.
The biggest name in beer bars these days is but one gem in the crown of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which counts Virginia’s Tallula, Vermilion, and Rustico among its nine-restaurant assembly. Beer director Greg Engert oversees suds selection for the whole group, which gives him tremendous clout in deciding what you’ll be drinking. In fact, brewers tend to grant Engert first dibs when hawking the latest seasonal releases to D.C.-area sellers. Engert says his buying power derives more from extensive quality controls—religiously cleaning tap lines, pouring at precise temperatures—than the sheer breadth of his business. But the result is the same: suds galore. —Orr Shtuhl
28. Founding Farmers
1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 822-8783
Powerful because: Sorry—and seasonal—only seem to be the hardest words.
Founding Farmers was pretty much bitch-slapped by The Washington Post in 2009. Former Post reporter Jane Black revealed its supposed farm-fresh menu was not as local or seasonal as it preached. The restaurant put forth a nasty rebuttal. But it has since re-shaped its message, acknowledging its menu may not always reach perfection with the most sustainable or organic items, though the restaurant will surely strive for it. If there’s power in the mea culpa, then Founding Farmers swallowed a heaping helping of pride. (It doesn’t waver, however, in its green leadership, as the first D.C. restaurant to be LEED Gold certified.) The sniping over vendors and sourcing may never have reached the masses, though; Founding Farmers still does a whopping 1,240 covers a day, a testament to its staying power. And no wonder: It shares a building with the International Monetary Fund and sits just three blocks from the White House. With neighbors like that, Founding Farmers must have known how to keep calm and carry on. —SG
27. FIVE GUYS BURGERS & FRIES
Various locations, fiveguys.com
Powerful Because: It’s a rare example of a local export taking the country by storm.
Ask any out-of-towner to name one thing synonymous with the D.C. food scene, and this is probably their answer. While the chain technically originated in Arlington and now has its headquarters in Lorton—nine locations are inside the District line—there’s a slice of D.C. pride embedded with every four pickles under each patty sold outside the metropolitan area. With more than 700 locations in the U.S. and Canada and plans for another 100 in the pipeline, that’s a lot of pride to swallow. This past May, the holding company that doles out franchises under the Five Guys moniker secured some $55 million in new capital and a $45 million revolving credit line, ensuring that the region’s most powerful fast-food chain keeps acquiring new plots for its peanut-oil fryers at a zippy pace. —CS
2029 P St. NW, (202) 872-1180
Powerful Because: They don’t care who your boss is.
There are two reasons why it can be difficult to get a reservation at Obelisk, Peter Pastan’s unassuming Italian restaurant in a Dupont Circle rowhouse. First, there are only a few tables, greatly reducing your chances of nabbing a seat on any given night. Then, there’s the James Beard Foundation-nominated chef, who has been long respected in the D.C. dining community. While those two ingredients create a powerful combination, Obelisk’s power is also understated. Though the restaurant, which opened in 1987, is certainly a temple to fine dining, it’s far from stuffy. In some ways, this chill dining environment seems the polar opposite of a power spot. Pastan put it succinctly in an interview with the Current newspapers: “We’re very democratic in our approach to reservations. It doesn’t matter who you are, who your boss is, if you are the boss: If we’ve got a table, you can have it.” Shunning the powerful can be its own act of power. —MG
25. Pizzeria Paradiso
3282 M St. NW, (202) 337-1245; 2003 P St. NW, (202) 223-1245
Powerful Because: They know a lot more about beer than you.
Knowledge is power, and when it comes to knowing malt and hops, there’s no beating the, ahem, highly educated servers behind the stick at Pizzeria Paradiso. D.C.’s pioneering gourmet pizza place, now with three area locations, also greatly influenced the enduring craft-beer craze. Whether it’s the latest local brew or the hottest experimental Danish-Belgian cult collaboration ale (for real; it’s called Mikkeller USAlive), the bartenders will tell you its provenance, its recipe, and whether or not the brewer puts cream in his coffee. Those who seek power may not be worthy of attaining it, but those who seek suds in Georgetown, Old Town, or Dupont Circle will find in Pizzeria Paradiso riches of the mind as well as the gullet. —OS
24. CHARLIE PALMER STEAK
101 Constitution Ave. NW (202) 547-8100
Powerful Because: D.C. sightlines are valuable—and so are TV chefs.
If this place were any closer to the Capitol, the hostess would have to seat you in the reflecting pool. The big white dome is practically across the street. Lobbyists, staffers, and other power brokers pack in every morning for breakfast. But not all power rests in the dining room. With one celebrity chef name-dropped on the sign out front and another, Top Chef alum Brian Voltaggio, previously in charge of the kitchen, the swanky steakhouse at the foot of Capitol Hill pulls some serious culinary cred, as well. As for the current kitchen boss: Can you really ask for a more apt name for that location than Matt Hill? —Melissa E. McCart
23. Art and Soul
415 New Jersey Ave. NW, (202) 393-7777
Powerful Because: Everyone wants to eat like Oprah.
If Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement helped deliver the White House to Obama, imagine what her simple mention might do for your restaurant. Owner Art Smith spent 10 years as the mega talk show host’s personal chef. These days, he caters to the slightly less influential powers that be on Capitol Hill. Opened in 2008 in the Liaison Hotel, a short walk from Senate offices, the 221-seat Southern-style eatery ensures that dirty deals can be done over “dirty rice.” It may not garner the triplicate star ratings of other power spots in town. But, as Winfrey shows time and time again, even a single star can carry a lot of, um, sway. —CS
1515 14th St. NW, (202) 332-8613
Powerful Because: The Obama crowd is a bunch of suckers for thin-crust pizza.
This modern Italian brasserie isn’t particularly close to the Capitol or the White House. Yet it’s become known as a de facto Obama administration club house. Reported sightings have included a slew of White House aides, notably former political adviser David Axelrod as well as Attorney General Eric Holder. And, before he split for the deep-dish capital of Chicago, then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel appeared so regularly as to suggest a potentially mayoral career-threatening thin-crust habit. Even Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano paid a visit. You know, authentic Neapolitan pizza has been done to death in the District. Perhaps it’s time to introduce a new twist: the Napolitano pie. It’s cooked in a metal detector. Please remove your shoes before you eat. —CS
2007 14th St. NW, (202) 797-7171
Powerful Because: It’s the hub of D.C.’s hippest hospitality empire.
Star power? Come on. This is Eric Hilton’s house. The guy from renowned D.C. recording group Thievery Corporation. Hilton and his businessman brother, Ian, are the brains and financial backers behind a vast network of restaurants and nightspots in the city, beginning with Dupont Circle stalwart Eighteenth Street Lounge and extending to the Gibson, Patty Boom Boom, Dickson Wine Bar, American Ice Company, and U Street Music Hall, with another three hotspots currently under development. Marvin is their flagship. The kitchen, helmed by Hilton’s stepson James Claudio and highlighted by a pretty mean rendition of chicken and waffles, also cranks out grub for sister sites Dickson and American Ice. Reviews haven’t been great, but who cares? The place oozes cool, with lines out the door every weekend. People come for the patio and, of course, the DJs. —MEM
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 296-1166
Powerful Because: Kennedy Center pre-show meal turns the ordinary diner into a chauffeured elitist.
Robert Wiedmaier’s first restaurant, opened in 1999, is generally considered among the most expensive places to eat in the city. But with the right timing, its Foggy Bottom location offers the unique ability to make you look more rich and powerful than you truly are. Roll up to the nearby Kennedy Center in an executive town car, courtesy of the restaurant, as part of its $58-per-person, three-course, pre-theater package, until 7 p.m. each night. That’s not to say the venue’s cachet is all show. Marcel’s carried enough sway last year to finally break the strange stranglehold that Palisades sushi temple Makoto had maintained at the top of the Zagat Survey rankings, leapfrogging from sixth to first place in the food category, while the previously first-placed Makoto dropped out of the top five for the first time in 13 years. —CS
633 D St. NW, (202) 637-1222
Powerful Because: It’s the new Bombay Club.
This Penn Quarter restaurant offers an eloquent combination of gorgeous food (crispy spinach, tandoori salmon) and chic interior, all at a price point guaranteed to impress guests by how much you’re dropping on them. Sure, you could lose just as many rupees at Bombay Club (same owner), that stately old-school power spot with the crusty piano player. But the younger power set prefer to chew their naan some place a bit more hip. Yes, the nouveau Indian restaurant, which is planning a second spot for the West End, claims the loyalty of The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd. But the city’s true commander of cool, Michelle Obama, also anointed it with her presence, knowing its role as a place to be spotted but not disturbed. —SG
1112 F St. NW, (202) 367-1990
Powerful Because: The seating chart is like a civics class.
When Ristorante Tosca opened on F Street NW a decade ago, it was taking a bit of a risk: It made its home in a then-still-blemished section of downtown, within sight of the downmarket free-for-all at the now-defunct Polly Esther’s dance club. But as the forces of revitalization remade nearby Penn Quarter and Gallery Place, Tosca matured as a venue for power-brokers interested in fine Italian dining. Regulars include former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who met with then-Sen. Barack Obama after the 2006 elections, “talking about Mr. Obama’s chances late into the night over Italian food and wine at the restaurant’s chef’s table,” The New York Times wrote. Will that earn Tosca a historic marker on a future Obama heritage trail? Time will tell. What is for certain is that those in the know know where which Tosca regulars sit. According to The Washington Post, Table 26 is the “domain of Tom Daschle,” while “influential Republican lobbyist Mark Isakowitz gets whisked to Table 62 along the back wall’s ‘Power Section,’ the one with the panoramic view of who’s coming and going.” —MG
17. CENTRAL MICHEL RICHARD
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 626-0015
Powerful Because: It serves the only D.C. hamburger endorsed by Men’s Health.
Yes, Zagat Survey recently deemed this place D.C.’s best power lunch spot, earning 26 out of a possible 30 points for food, 21 for décor and 23 for service. So what? Perhaps more impressive is the way that chef Michel Richard swayed the calorie-counting, washboard-abdominal obsessives at Men’s Health magazine. That’s right. The same publication that strongly suggests you “skip the secret sauce” and “ask for a dry bun” at your typical fast-food joint nonetheless endorsed the buttery breaded hunk of beef at Central as part of its May 2011 “Guy Food Guide.” The fitness fanatics gave Central high marks for the burger’s “juicy, meaty, char” flavors. No mention, however, of Richard’s bucket of crispy fried chicken. —CS
818 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 331-8118
Powerful Because: It passed through fire.
The president and first lady selected this acclaimed seasonal and locally sourced American restaurant as the site of their first date night in the District, just days before his January 2009 inauguration. It’s good to get to know the new neighborhood. Husband and wife team Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray opened up the eatery in 1999 in a coveted spot, about a block away from the White House. Almost a year after they got to know the new neighbors from Chicago, a late-night kitchen fire heavily damaged the place, but the Grays didn’t budge from their powerful perch. They rebuilt, opening six months later to welcoming reviews. One ironic selection for the relaunched restaurant’s new menu: the char. —SG
15. BOURBON STEAK
2800 Pennsylvania Ave NW, (202) 944-2026
Powerful Because: Real estate is destiny.
Celebrity chef Michael Mina’s sleek meat market warrants a mention by sheer virtue of its leasehold. To select a location in more close proximity to Washington’s power set, you’d need to open a restaurant under Obama’s desk in the Oval Office, or under the bed of Benjamins where Ted Lerner rests his estimated $3 billion head at night. You’re inside the Four Seasons, D.C.’s most exclusive hotel, playground for the rich and famous, visiting dignitaries, diplomats, and Hollywood douchebags. Talk about an idyllic setting for fat cats. The steaks are poached in butter and the fries are cooked in duck fat. Oh, and did I mention the pork cupcake? —CS
3236 M St. NW, (202) 333-9180; 707 7th St. NW, (202) 349-3700; other locations in Maryland and Virginia
Powerful Because: Borders went out of business.
Back in 2004 when Rachael Ray’s $40 a Day food-travel show visited D.C., Ray swung by the original Clyde’s in Georgetown to witness a “power lunch.” While watching powerful men in suits presumably making deals, she somehow also snagged a $10.50 grilled sirloin steak and declared in the end that she wouldn’t “veto” Clyde’s because the place is “bipartisan.” Sure, Ray was peddling capital-city stereotypes. (Real power-brokers spend a lot more than that on their red meat). But Clyde’s has perfected the art of peddling an insiderish simulacrum to the masses that visit outposts adjacent to Georgetown shopping or the Verizon Center—where a Gallery Place location has two levels and four bars. Other locations far from the corridors of power include Reston and Columbia. And its biggest new project is slated to go into the old Borders Books and Music storefront at 14th and F streets NW, a gigantic piece of valuable real estate. In a testament to Clyde’s influence, the restaurant group got some of the last of D.C.’s tax-incentive financing for downtown development to make its new venture a reality. —MG
1330 Maryland Ave. SW, (202) 787-6006
Powerful Because: Thomas Keller don’t raise no fools.
The fate of this super-expensive, four-star dining destination, located in the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel, seems to rest entirely on the star power of its famed chef, Eric Ziebold. Mentored under the irrepressible Thomas Keller at Napa, Calif.’s renowned French Laundry, Ziebold seems to harbor his former boss’s zeal for the finest ingredients, whether he’s arranging for a shipment of special peppercorns from—cover your eyes, locavores!—China, or lugging crates of fruit from the farmers market. When he’s on his game, the kitchen showcases plates that offer a balance of beauty, whimsy, and an interplay of flavors, emphasizing the season’s best. When he’s out sick, well, you hope Tom Sietsema doesn’t stop by. Such an illness may have cost the place its usual rightful spot in The Washington Post’s Fall Dining Guide (as City Paper reported last October). —MEM
12. THE SOURCE BY WOLFGANG PUCK
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 637-6100
Powerful Because: The boldface names love it.
The Source by Wolfgang Puck shows up in D.C.’s gossip columns so often that it ought to be renamed the Reliable Source. It appeared in the similarly-named Washington Post column six times over the course of six months ending in April—four more than Georgetown’s Café Milano—drawing a mix of the famous-for-Washington (Lindsey Graham) and famous-for-everywhere (Paul McCartney). The eatery is also perfectly happy to capitalize on reflected star power: After the Obamas had a date night there back in January, the restaurant offered fans an $85-per-person menu that re-created the first couple’s meal, which included a dim sum platter, spicy tuna tartare, and wok-fired lobster. Not that the gossips care, but The Source also trumps Café Milano in the kitchen, where chef Scott Drewno is proving to be one of the most elegant toques in town. —MG
11. RED HOOK LOBSTER POUND
Location varies, (202) 341-6263, twitter.com/lobstertruckdc
Powerful Because: It established food trucks as a legitimate D.C. dining option.
When Red Hook Lobster Pound’s food truck launched in D.C. last summer, there were waits of more than an hour at Farragut Square for a lobster roll. Kicking things off during the dog days of August, the lobster wagon was a major hit on the local news. There was even a report—tweeted, of course—of a lobster roll scalper, selling one for $20. While the local food truck community likes to imagine itself a coalition of equals, the sweet and juicy lobster rolls at Red Hook deserve the greatest share of credit for selling the District on the concept. Trucks went highbrow years ago in other towns, but in Washington, they’d stubbornly remained the province of dingy hot dogs. That popularity, in turn, has helped spark a movement to change the way D.C. regulates eateries: Reason magazine used the truck in a video showing the benefits of government deregulation, and the Wilson Building has been grappling with a large-scale re-write of food-on-wheels rules. —MG
480 7th St. NW, (202) 628-7949; other locations in Maryland and Virginia
Powerful Because: It introduced tapas to D.C., and manages to still seem relevant.
Admit it. You remember the first time a friend told you about this place and the ridiculous miscommunication that ensued: Topless? No. Tapas. This Penn Quarter pioneer, opened in 1993, and its executive chef, José Andrés, get a lot of credit for popularizing the Spanish-style concept of small plates around town. Consider all the imitators it has spawned: Bodega, Sabores, La Tasca, Estadio, to name a few. Almost two decades later, it remains the standard-bearer of the genre and the anchor of a once forlorn neighborhood now teeming with upscale eateries. —CS
9. Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St. NW, (202) 667-0909
Powerful Because: It’s an instant bestower of local credibility.
No campaign for city office is complete without the obligatory half-smoke and photo op at Ben’s. You want power on the local level? First you must contend with the spicy homemade chili sauce. A few world leaders have been known to drop by as well. Of all his presidential visits to various D.C. eateries, the U Street institution was Obama’s first stop—and he hadn’t even been sworn in yet. Beware the boomerang effect of such political patronage. Occasionally, the tables are turned, with Ben’s imposing its own agenda on the politicians. Consider proprietor Kamal Ben Ali’s later criticism of Obama’s health-care reform plan and its potential impact on small business. Most eateries aren’t generally afforded a spot on the soap box. But Ben’s has sway. Concerns about the venue’s soaring property taxes in 2006 led to relief legislation informally dubbed the “Ben’s Chili Bowl Bill.” —CS
8. OVAL ROOM
800 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 463-8700
Powerful Because: Guys in shades routinely stand watch.
The combination of prolific restaurateur Ashok Bajaj and heralded chef Tony Conte, a disciple of New York’s celebrated Jean-Georges Vongerichten, could be the city’s most powerful one-two punch in terms of reputation. And sous chef Tamesha Warren adds some pop culture points with her star turn on last summer’s Top Chef. But of all the power spots operated under the Bajaj umbrella, this one is his most precious. The place is so close to the White House and so often frequented by high-ranking officials that Secret Service agents reportedly sweep the restaurant multiple times each week. —CS
1509 17th St. NW, (202) 332-9200
Powerful Because: People are willing to spend five hours at a time there.
Often cited as D.C.’s best restaurant, chef Johnny Monis’ salty Greek and Italian-influenced 12-table hotspot has seduced even the world’s most influential would-be food critic: President Obama, who alongside the first lady, reportedly took Table 11 one night last July. For most folks, the place books up a full month in advance, but in this case, we’re betting the White House played its executive privilege card. Thankfully, no national security crisis erupted during what we expect was a marathon meal for the quintessential power couple. Like a gustatory Guantanamo, Komi holds the power of seemingly infinite detention. You may be held captive for upwards of three to five hours during a single seating. And you’ll likely walk away with the gastronomic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, relishing every minute of it. Gushing critics sure do. —CS
6. BUSBOYS AND POETS
1025 5th St. NW, (202) 789-2227;
2021 14th St. NW, (202) 387-7638; one location in Virginia
Powerful Because: It can make moving to Hyattsville seem cool.
Owner Andy Shallal’s original location may not have single-handedly made the 14th Street corridor the hip spot it is today. But don’t tell developers that. Forced to make do without the traditional federal tenants that once helped spark new construction in places like Greenbelt, Laurel, and Suitland, developer EYA offered the Busboys boss loads of money for build-out and low, low rent to open a satellite location in Maryland, within Hyattsville’s so-called “Arts District.” Having landed Busboys–and the yuppie clientele it’s sure to attract–EYA was able to go to Prince George’s County and make a case for incentives that could move the project along. After that, the developers approached Yes! Organic Market’s Gary Cha, who said, “If Andy Shallal wants to be there, I want to be there, too.” Next came Tara Thai, a small local chain. Finally, EYA was able to land the biggest coup of all: Chipotle, which had passed on the project originally. The snowball effect soon continued with a yogurt shop and day spa joining the mix. Moral of the story: If you’ve got Busboys and Poets, who needs Uncle Sam? —Lydia DePillis
5. MICHEL RICHARD CITRONELLE
3000 M St. NW, (202) 625-2150
Powerful Because: Tom Sietsema says so.
Four stars, baby! Up from three and a half. The one restaurant to appear in every Washington Post dining guide since 2000. Well, except the most recent one, but even Komi didn’t make that list. Michel Richard might just be the only chef in town who can slay the city’s senior food critic with a single amuse-bouche—and reduce him to multiple exclamation points! Ratatouille tacos! Eel schnitzel! Parmesan-flavored cupcakes! Are you kidding me? This place practically writes its own reviews. Now that’s power. —CS
4. CASHION’S EAT PLACE
1819 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 797-1819
Powerful Because: All the hottest chefs in town eat here.
Ann Cashion may have abandoned her namesake eatery in Adams Morgan, but the rest of D.C.’s culinary elite still flock to it. Head into the bar any Friday and Saturday post-midnight and you’re likely to find a cadre of kitchen bosses dining out after their own eateries are closed. I’ve spotted Corduroy’s Tom Power wolfing down a Philly cheese steak with his wife at 1 a.m., Cork’s Ron Tanaka making the rounds with a rocks glass, and Komi’s Johnny Monis catching up with co-owners John and George Manolatos. Fifteen years after it opened, Cashion’s remains a gastronomic attraction in a part of town more commonly associated with jumbo slices and jello shots. —MEM
3. GEORGIA BROWN’S
950 15th St. NW, (202) 393-4499
Powerful Because: D.C. wants to believe in racial harmony—and greens.
The genesis of this pioneering upscale Southern-style eatery, opened in 1993, was kind of a no-brainer. “There was a pretty obvious hole in the market in a city that is essentially Southern,” co-founder Ron Gaines once explained to The Washington Post, which early on dubbed the place “Washington’s Rainbow Room.” Beyond introducing the nation’s capital to the unique concept of greasy fried chicken served upon pristine white-clothed tables, the place earned particular notoriety for attracting a provocatively interracial crowd during an especially divisive time in the city’s history. Change may have come to America since then, but the notably integrated customer base seems intact. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden dined there together as recently as 2009. —CS
2. OLD EBBITT GRILL
675 15th St. NW, (202) 347-4800
Powerful Because: It’s much, much, much older than you.
There’s no doubt that Old Ebbitt Grill, located across the street from the Treasury Department and around the corner from the White House, occupies one of the most powerful restaurant locations in the city. And lucrative: It raked in a reported $24 million in 2009, making it D.C.’s top-selling independent restaurant. The Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns and operates the place, touts its longevity and powerful patrons on its website: Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding all dined there, the proprietors say, and it’s “still a popular meeting spot for political insiders, journalists, celebrities and theater-goers.” Powerful! As far as the kitchen goes, the price of power at Old Ebbitt is not execrable food. Instead, the menu is familiar and accessible, a formula that cycles through mobs of diners between breakfast and the oyster happy hours. Oysters, by the way, are thought to have their own special powers, too. —MG
405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812
Powerful Because: Booking a reservation is harder than rescheduling a flight during a hurricane.
Perhaps no D.C. restaurant has more clout in the culinary world right now than José Andrés’ six-seat, 30-plus-course restaurant-within-a-restaurant in Penn Quarter. The pioneering tasting-menu-only eatery has it all: star power, staying power, and exclusivity to the extreme. Certainly, no other place in town controls diner behavior to the same extent—requiring resy-seekers to synchronize their watches. (Call at precisely 10 a.m. everyday for the foreseeable future and you might get lucky.) Such hoop-jumping would seem silly were the experience not worth the effort: Anthony Bourdain may have hated the deconstructed guacamole with crumbled corn chips (“Have you ever made out with a girl with Fritos breath?”), but critics by and large keep it on their short lists of must-eats. The once experimental concept has grown so successful that it is now on the verge of expanding (upwards of 18 seats total) to the point of pushing out the restaurant that spawned it. R.I.P., Café Atlántico. Branding may be its only setback: At triple its original size, the little bar may get too big for its mini moniker. —CS