If you look back at President Barack Obama’s restaurant track record, it’s clear that he cared about dining establishments for reasons beyond the food that they served. The president and his family were adventurous eaters who enjoyed visiting restaurants at the high-end, the low-end, and everything in between. They favored small businesses and places with touchstones to the past, as well as establishments that pointed toward the future of dining. And despite the gaggle of Secret Service people and reporters who followed the First Family on every one of their eating excursions, the president and his clan often managed to make connections with restaurant staff members and fellow diners. Here are 13 of our favorite President Obama dining moments, listed in chronological order:
Date Night at Blue Hill
Four months after taking office, President Obama took First Lady Michelle to Dan Barber’s farm-to-table gem Blue Hill in the heart of NYC’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. As would prove to be the case with most Obama date night dinners, this meal was not announced to the public ahead of time, and a circus formed outside the blocked-off streets near the restaurant. Eater tipsters immediately reported that Secret Service members were crawling all over the tops of the brownstones along Washington Place. After their meal, the Obamas headed to Broadway for the opening night of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. As far as pre-theater dinner choices go, the intimate and effortlessly inventive Blue Hill is an A+ pick.
Barack and Bill and Pasta on Monday
A few months after the Blue Hill dinner, another large chunk of Greenwich Village was blocked off during the middle of the day so that Barack Obama could have lunch with his presidential foodie predecessor, Bill Clinton, at clubby, well-regarded Italian restaurant Il Mulino. After their meal was complete, Clinton told the press: "We had fish, pasta, and salad. Even I was healthy." No matter how you slice it, having lunch at Il Mulino — a classic New York City Italian restaurant — on a Monday afternoon is a total power move.
On October 14, 2009, President Obama was in New Orleans for a mere four hours, but he somehow managed to squeeze in a visit to the Crescent City’s famed Dooky Chase’s restaurant, where Leah Chase served up fried chicken, shrimp Creole, and gumbo in portions that were “enough to share.” Obama had previously visited the restaurant while campaigning in 2008 (pictured above), and he also hosted Chase at the White House during his early days in office.
Instead of taking Dmitry Medvedev to one of Washington’s deal-making restaurants or trendy canteens, in June 2010 Obama chose to buy the Russian president an all-American lunch at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. Medvedev got a patty loaded with jalapeños, mushrooms, and onions, while Barack stuck to a classic cheeseburger. They split an order of fries. A photo of their modest meal landed above the fold on the front page of the New York Times the next day.
Barack and Michelle Hit MiniBar
On Valentine’s Day 2013, Michelle and Barack Obama spent a few hours inside José Andrés's forward-thinking D.C. restaurant MiniBar, where only 24 guests are seated per night at a tasting counter facing an open kitchen. At this hot-ticket restaurant, the chefs turn out around 20 courses of modern Spanish cuisine, including items like beef tendon churros and snow-cone cocktails. Andrés was a big supporter of Michelle’s Let’s Move campaign, and Barack gave him a National Humanities Medal in 2015.
The Government Shutdown Hoagie Run
In early October 2014, while Washington was in the throes of a government shutdown, President Obama and V.P. Joe Biden made a run to Philly-style sandwich shop Taylor Gourmet which, at the time, was offering special discounts (and free cookies) to furloughed employees. Barry and Joe picked up two sandwiches for themselves, as well as some extras for the members of Congress. Two years prior to this visit, President Obama met with the proprietors of Taylor Gourmet to discuss issues facing small business owners.
Obama and Abe Visit Jiro
Five years into his tenure as president, Barack Obama gained access to what might very well be the world’s most impenetrable restaurant: Sukiyabashi Jiro, the Tokyo train-station counter that was the subject of the hit film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In April 2014, the POTUS and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enjoyed a 90-minute meal prepared by sainted sushi master Jiro Ono. Upon leaving the dining room, Obama remarked: “That's some good sushi right there."
Barry and Joe Hop Behind the Counter at Shake Shack
President Obama hit up a lot of burger joints during his two terms as president including the D.C. area Shake Shacks. During one particularly memorable visit to Danny Meyer’s burger restaurant in May 2014, President Obama decided to jump behind the counter to take a photo with the staff, and Vice President Joe Biden followed suit. This spontaneous move was captured in one of the all-time greatest photos of the POTUS:
President Obama slides across the counter to pose for a photo w employees at Shake Shack in DC. The VP did the same. pic.twitter.com/J5YktRCP3p— petesouza (@PeteSouza44) May 16, 2014
As Times critic Pete Wells noted on Twitter, the timing of this visit was perfect, because earlier in the week, an MLB manager and player claimed to get food poisoning from the Citi Field Shake Shack. Wells quipped: “Advice for restaurants: If somebody claims they got food poisoning at your place, simply get POTUS & VP to eat there before the week ends.”
Obama Cuts the Line at Franklin
Getting to fly around in Air Force One is pretty cool and everything, but the greatest perk of being the President of the United States is skipping the world’s most notorious food line. President Obama did exactly that in July 2014 when he rolled up to Austin smoked meat mecca Franklin Barbecue and picked up $300 worth of lunch to-go. Pitmaster Aaron Franklin told Eater Austin: “No one's ever just skipped line and gone right up to the counter and ordered food, but if it's okay for someone to do it, it's him. Everyone was super duper excited and he bought people's lunches. It didn't seem to piss anybody off.”
The Obamas Arrive at Estela
During the week of the U.N. Assembly in October 2014, Barack and Michelle Obama closed down traffic on Houston Street in Manhattan by attending dinner at impossibly hip (and thoroughly wonderful) restaurant/wine bar Estela. Here’s where the Obamas showed that they had their finger on the pulse — this is the restaurant that all the gastronomes and New York scenesters were clamoring to get into at the time. In restaurant nerd terminology, scoring a dinner reservation at Estela in fall 2014 is akin to saying that you saw Bruce and the E-Street Band at some little Asbury Park dive back in 1971.
The Ultimate Daddy-Daughter Date Night
Carbone is an Italian-American restaurant not too far away from Estela that offers a distinctly cinematic experience — the waiters wear red tuxedos, Rat Pack tunes echo through its cavernous dining rooms, and the Caesar salads are mixed tableside. It’s a little silly, but also super fun and the food is terrific. All things considered, Carbone was an excellent choice for President Obama’s dinner date with his daughters Sasha and Malia in July 2015. The Obamas and their crew ordered the veal parm, the crab cakes, the porterhouse for two, the spicy rigatoni alla vodka, the meatballs, and the lobster ravioli, plus a bottle of Fenocchio Barbaresco 2010 for the adults.
All the Cinnamon Rolls, Please
Like most people, Barack Obama likes to treat himself to snacks when he travels. A generous soul, the POTUS also likes to surprise his staff and the reporters who follow his every move with travel treats. During a visit to Anchorage, Alaska in September, 2015, the leader of the free world stopped into local brunch spot Snow City Cafe and purchased the restaurant’s entire supply of cinnamon rolls, as well as a few sampler boxes of other goodies from the pastry case, for the presidential caravan.
America’s Coolest Dads Meet in Vietnam
During his last year in the White House, President Obama made a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam, where he met up with the food world’s biggest superstar, Anthony Bourdain, for a humble meal of pork noodle soup, washed down with a few brews. The lunch cost around $6, and Bourdain offered to pick up the tab. During their meal together, Obama told Bourdain a little bit about what it’s like to eat out as POTUS:
I don’t get to sneak out period, but once in awhile I’ll take Michelle out on a date night. The problem is, part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere and too often we end up getting shut into one of those private rooms in the back.
Although he probably won’t be able to cut the line at Franklin any more, now Barack should have an easier time hitting up restaurants with his family and enjoying the atmosphere.
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