What kind of je ne se quoi transforms a typical French bistro into the hottest power player magnet in Washington D.C.? Where do the creme-de-la-creme congregate over pasta and ritzy bottles of red wine? The intersection between food and politics gets juicy when you take it to the top of the food chain: Le Diplomate, Cafe Milano and the Palm. Out of more than 2,000 dining options in the District alone, only several boast a crowd that can truly be called a watering hole for those at the top. While the food at these places is good, it certainly doesn’t correlate with the consistently best-rated dining experiences in the city. We’d like to take this week’s column to see what elements of a restaurant experience draw in politicians and powerful Washingtonians, where the newest hotspots are and what makes them so appetizing. Of course luxury and privacy are at the top of the list. For those in the public eye, an elegant restaurant without distracting stares or impolite tourists is a commodity beyond price.

As impoverished college students, however, we are limited in our ability to make at-whim reservations for three-course steak dinners where the bill would easily run up to $100 per person. Lucky for us, there is no shortage of generous parents and food journalists in this city. Here’s what we came up with.

Cafe Milano is a politico dining stalwart. Located just a short walk from campus, in the heart of Georgetown, the high-price high-style Italian eatery boasts frequenters from Joe Biden to John Kerry to Wolf Blitzer. Its specialties include a full-fish Branzino, as well as all of the Italian clichés: calamari, pasta, pizza and generously cut meats. The food is classic, but there’s plenty of decent Italian food in the city for half the price. What maintains Milano’s exorbitant prices is the chance at rubbing shoulders with big names and feeling like a big name yourself. Katy fondly remembers being seated one night at a table within feet of Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Bloomberg on a double date. Too intimidated to take a selfie with them because of the attending security forces, it nevertheless made her shrimp scampi much more memorable.

Next comes Cafe Milano’s newer, hipper rival: Le Diplomate. All the way down on 14th street Northwest, the new French bistro has been a huge hit since it opened two years ago, with a two-week wait for reservations. According to a 2014 Washington Post article titled “How Stephen Starr Made Le Diplomate the Hottest Table in Town,” in addition to Michelle Obama, “Vice President Biden, Susan Rice, Newt Gingrich, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Mark R. Warner, White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard, and the country’s top diplomat, John F. Kerry, have all been spotted in one of the cozy leather banquettes or lingering at a sidewalk table.”

According to this reviewer and many others, the new bistro accomplishes that elusive, subtle feat of the quintessential “Paris vibe.” Stocked full of French antiques, wall decorations and a menu of French classics like steak frites and escargot, Le Diplomate is not the traditional Martini and steak type of place, and it doesn’t have the heavy, somber tone that Milano is famous for. Perhaps it is heralding a new era of powerhouse dining — where experience trumps that luxury-power combination.

This stands in stark contrast to the steak establishments dotting downtown, which are inevitable choices for power lunches and dinners. Predictably fancy and impressive, these places offer a standard political package of high-priced meat and high-priced hospitality. The best of these are Charlie Palmer, the decadent Georgetown Bourbon Steak and of course the Palm. Heavy on garlic and truffle, these industry titans cannot be ignored in the annals of political eating.

Political diners tend toward the reliable and the familiar. White napkins, over-attentive service, a wine list designed to max out credit cards and a little luxury are really all it takes to draw in the elite in this town. However, Le Diplomate is putting an interesting crack in that mold, and it leaves us wondering where movers and shakers are headed next.

 

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