Inside the Beltway, politicians seem to agree on very little, but there is consensus around the old saw: “An empty stomach is a poor advisor.” To wit, the grilling of pollsters by politicians, the courting of media by lobbyists and the glad-handing of everyone by lawyers happens at a few select D.C. restaurants. Whether the table is set at a Capitol classic or a casual newcomer, networking takes plates.
Few players can wait until lunchtime to start their pitch — perhaps that’s why bold-faced names breakfast at Seasons Restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. Hani Roustoum, director of restaurants for Four Seasons says, “D.C. has a special feel and it is power. Here are the people who make the decisions that affect millions of lives. It’s the real deal.”
Like eggs, power can be poached. At Seasons, tables 53 and 54 are the most visible and, of course, most requested. “When you sit there, it is a matter of experience. It’s see and be seen,” says Roustom. Lawyers from top-five firms frequently claim the round eight-person table in the center of the restaurant — own that perch and you own the room and, by extension, the town. Also available to any Seasons diner upon request: a laptop and all major national newspapers.
For diners with discreet agendas, Roustoum encourages reserving table 43. The concealed corner is preferred by accompanying security details, and as such is the frequent choice of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. George Clooney and Robert Redford also prefer this perch.
Perhaps no spot is more formal than at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Two blocks from the White House and steps from the lobby that inspired the term “lobbyists,” the Willard Room is in its second century of VIP service.
The distance between tables in the Willard Room is enviable. “We sell discretion here," says Barbara Bahny-David, the hotel's public relations director. "It’s one of the few places where famous faces come, and no one approaches their table.” Upon being seated, women are invited to rest laptops (or Birkin bags) on purse stools.
Elsewhere in the capital, attitudes are loosening up. K Street’s dimly lit steak palace The Prime Rib no longer requires a jacket at lunch (although they do keep 50 blazers on hand for the suitless after 5 p.m.). Menus have lightened up, too. Tommy Jacomo, executive director of The Palm, agrees. “The younger generation, and I mean anyone under 50, is all sparkling water and fish. The three martini lunches — those really good lunches — are gone with the ‘70s. Older guys still get steaks,” he says, but adds, “sometimes.”
If anyone knows who is eating what in this town, it’s Jacomo. After 36 years at the front of the Palm, he’s professor emeritus of political camaraderie. “You come here because you’re getting your foot in the door. You’re getting face time with congressmen and senators,” he says. He’s too modest; VIPs come to see and be seen with him. Director of publicity for the Ritz-Carlton hotels, Colleen Evans, agrees, “If you want to impress someone, you go to the Palm. When Tommy throws his arm around you and whispers a dirty joke, everyone in the room’s thinking, 'Tommy likes that guy. Who is that guy?'”
Jacomo has greeted every president since Richard Nixon at the Palm, and has yet to spill a bean. But if loyalty is his first commandment, geography is his second. “Some people come to hide and some people want to be seen,” he says. “When Vernon Jordan comes in, he sits in the back. When lobbyist Tommy Boggs come in, he sits in the middle of the room.”
If Jacomo plays the puckish host at lunch, Café Milano's Franco Nuschese is dinnertime’s ringleader. He’s earned his pinstripes seating Democrats and Republicans side-by-side. “Terry McAuliffe and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sat at adjacent tables one night,” he says. Platters of antipasti, rustic-style pizzas and grilled fish underline the breezy, social mood of this Georgetown spot. Cafe Milano is also where the Hill meets Hollywood: President Clinton with Quincy Jones, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with rapper Ludacris.
Nuschese is humble about his talent for mixing established players with freshly minted tech-entrepreneurs and the ever-changing ambassadorial community. “We are in the entertainment business,” he says. “Everybody wants to go to casual places.”
As if heralding the call to casual, celebrity chefs have raced to establish open kitchens in the District. Since 2003, Charlie Palmer’s eponymous steakhouse has been the toast of Capitol Hill (and his cellar of 10,000 exclusively American wines doesn’t hurt). The restaurant hosts the majority of signature fundraisers on their rooftop terrace where the mini-burger is the suits’ choice of canapé.
With a lust for beef that rivals New York’s, the capital is a gracious hostess to oodles of pricey steakhouses. Of the best, Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak, is very close to the headquarters of the AF/CIO and MPAA, and serves a $45 rib-eye. Eric Ripert opened The Westend Bistro in the Ritz-Carlton last October, and the spot is so busy, the hotel offers an overnight package called "The Seat of Power” — the only sure way to score last-minute reservations on Friday and Saturday nights.
Insiders in need of face-time with newsmakers have one more option at Nathan’s, an informal spot in the heart of Georgetown. Once every few weeks, September through June, owner and former journalist Carol Joynt hosts the Q&A Café there. Reserve in advance for a $30 lunch where insiders answer questions from Joynt and the audience. Guests have ranged from Senator Mark Warner to late newsman Tim Russert.
Says Joynt, “It’s a real cross section. Classic Georgetown dowagers and Jim Kinsey [co-founder of AOL] attend almost every time.”