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For the eatery, a presidential seal of approval

Scripps Howard News Service

Must credit the Toledo Blade

By DANIEL NEMAN

Toledo Blade

WASHINGTON â€" Shortly before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, he decided to stop into Ben's Chili Bowl, a Washington institution, for a bite to eat.

Four minutes before he got there, the Secret Service arrived. One of them, noting the Obama button the cashier was wearing, announced what was going to happen by saying, "The guy on the button is on the way in."

Relating this story recently to a meeting of the Association of Food Journalists, the restaurant's co-owner, Nizam Ali, said he and his staff saw an important symbolism in the president-elect's choice of the first Washington restaurant he came to after winning the election. Ali saw it as an indication that the new president would support both Washington businesses and the African-American community in general.

When someone asked President Obama why his first culinary stop was at Ben's Chili Bowl, his answer was, "I wanted a hot dog," Ali said.

At the food-writers' conference, a number of restaurateurs regaled the writers about what happens when a local restaurant gets the biggest celebrity in town.

Rikka Johnson, general manager of The Source restaurant, said she got the call shortly before the first family was going to come in for Michelle Obama's birthday. Fortunately, she said, the restaurant was full -- you don't want the president to come to an empty restaurant.

She didn't tell anyone what was going on, other than the chef. The hostess, she said, "had no idea what was going on," and she even forgot to tell the restaurant's owner, Wolfgang Puck. Although she picked a waitress to do the serving, she told her it was Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, who was coming in. When the president walked in the door, one diner was so surprised that she spilled her cocktail down the front of her dress.

Cathal Armstrong, the chef and owner of Restaurant Eve, had the advantage of knowing in advance he would be cooking for then-President George W. Bush. The dinner was to be at a local residence. Armstrong had caught a rockfish, and he saved the best piece to serve to the president.

He knew it was free from bones, which was important because Bush had recently choked on a pretzel.

The owners of the house had put their dog and cat together in a cage. The president took one look at them and said, "That's what we're trying to do over there in Iraq."

The owner of Mintwood Place, Saied Azali, also knew in advance that he was going to host a dinner for President Obama. It was to meet small donors who had given $3 or more to his campaign, and then had their names picked at random to eat with the president. Secret Service agents swarmed over the restaurant and the neighborhood for a week before the secret event was scheduled to take place, and as with all the other restaurants, the streets were completely blocked off for two blocks. No one could get in, and as Ali said, "no one wanted to get out."

When the president came into the restaurant, Azali said, "I really wanted to tell President Obama, 'When are you going to get out of Afghanistan?' But I held my tongue."

That's probably a good thing, because he heard the first lady tell the president, "This is the hippest new place in Washington." And then the president asked her, "Do you think I'm hip enough to be here?"

According to Ashok Bajaj, who has had several presidents come to several of his restaurants, "It doesn't matter if it is a Republican president or a Democratic president. A president is a president. Everyone applauds when they come into the room."

However, he said, Bill Clinton once came to one of his restaurants when he was at the depth of his presidency, enmeshed in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When he walked through the door, the place went quiet, Bajaj said. It took a minute or two, but finally a table in the back rose and began to clap.

After that, everyone stood and applauded.

Though the restaurateurs were not willing to compare one president to another, Armstrong said that among the congressmen he serves, he has noticed that Democrats are more willing to try what he called "interesting foods," while the Republicans were "comfortable with their steak and potatoes."

On the other hand, Ellen Gray, co-owner of Equinox, said she has noticed that Republicans tend to spend a little more than Democrats.

And it is always their own money they are spending. When they go out to eat, the president's family is required to pay for themselves, so that no tax dollars go to feed them unless it is in an official capacity.

Johnson said she naturally wanted to make a big impression on the president, so she had the kitchen send out plate after plate of food. She did not realize at the time that she had to charge them for all of it, she said. She still sounded a little embarrassed.

When the Clinton family first went to one of Bajaj's restaurants, the Bombay Club, the president said he was in the mood for chicken. The restaurant had five chicken dishes on the menu -- so they gave him all of them.

"For us, it was a great experience, and it put Indian food on the map," Bajaj said.

The chefs and owners were in agreement that the Obama family goes out to local restaurants more than any of their predecessors, and they see that support as a boost to their business. If people know that a president has eaten at a certain restaurant, they always want to sit at his table and order what he ordered. They also want to know how much he tipped.

And from a larger perspective, it also encourages the culture of dining out, they said.

Azali was perhaps the most enthusiastic of all.

"I'm very honored that the president has come to my neighborhood, to where I live, to where I work. It's the greatest thing that has ever happened to me."

(Contact Daniel Neman at dneman(at)theblade.com)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)