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When the president comes for dinner

Thursday - 1/3/2013, 12:00pm  ET

Restaurant_Nora512.jpg
Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington D.C., poses with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama when they came to celebrate Mrs. Obama's birthday on Jan. 16, 2010. (Courtesy of Restaurant Nora)
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Hitting up the D.C. dining scene

WTOP's Megan Cloherty reports on the Obamas dining in the District.

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Stephanie Steinberg, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Ellen Kassoff is used to the Secret Service randomly sweeping through her restaurant.

Over the past 14 years, Equinox on Connecticut Avenue has served a slew of high profile customers -- the Israeli prime minister, Hillary Clinton, President George Bush Sr. and the occasional celebrity like Jon Bon Jovi just to name a few.

But Kassoff was caught off guard after one security inspection when then President- elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle waltzed through the doors.

"We're used to security sweeps quite frequently so we thought it was just another routine check for another type of dignitary," Kassoff says. "We didn't know it was actually the president."

A few days before the 2009 presidential inauguration, a party of 11 people celebrated Mrs. Obama's 45th birthday at the restaurant that appears to falls in line with Mrs. Obama's healthy eating initiatives. Chef Todd Gray, Kassoff's husband, strives to use organic ingredients grown within 100 miles of Equinox, according to the restaurant's website.

Though it was four years ago, Kassoff hasn't forgotten the Obamas' orders: Mr. Obama had striploin steak and winter field green salad with roasted beets, shaved parmesan and cherry walnut vinaigrette dressing. Mrs. Obama chose pan-fried Rappahannock oysters with pineapple caper brown butter sauce — an instantly popular dish once word got out that Mrs. Obama ordered it. The oysters have yet to be removed from the rotating menu.

Kassoff says Equinox was the first restaurant in which the Obamas dined in Washington, and the news went viral overnight. By the next morning, it was evident the couple went out to eat just like regular people.

Throughout the president's first term, he and Mrs. Obama have hit up various hot spots in the D.C. area: anniversary dinners at Bourbon Steak and Restaurant Eve, a pre-Mother's Day celebration at Ristorante Tosca and a quiet date night at Georgetown's Citronelle.

And then there's the president's drop ins at Five Guys Burger's and Fries, Ben's Chili Bowl and Ray's Hell Burger.

The majority of restaurants frequented by the first family are independently owned and committed to buying produce from local farmers, says Nycci Nellis, publisher of thelistareyouonit.com.

When the president ventures outside the White House for a meal, Nellis says there's a strategy behind picking where to go.

"He's not going to The Cheesecake Factory," she says. "He's going to places that mean something to the city."

Kyle Rees, spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington which represents 500 establishments in the D.C. area, says the Obamas are "more adventurous eaters" compared to former families in the White House.

"When Clinton was in office there would always be pictures in The Washington Post or some other local newspaper about him going out, but it was usually at a fast food place," Rees says. "We know that the Bushs liked to dine out, but it was usually at a Tex-Mex place or (for) Chinese food."

The Obamas, on the other hand, have embraced a food culture that goes beyond the restaurants they dine at.

"Food seems to be really important to this first family," says Rees, citing a spectrum that includes Mrs. Obama's healthy eating movement and the brewing of beer on White House grounds.

But it's their patronage at D.C. eateries that has won over local restaurateurs.

In August, chef Cedric Maupillier served the president a burger and two sides of vegetables when he, Mrs. Obama and three lucky couples dined at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan for a campaign event called "Dinner with Barack."

Maupillier says one of Obama's meal coordinators confided to him that Obama rarely finished all his food, but in this case, he ate every morsel. "He was probably very hungry, or it was because the food was delicious, which I tend to believe more," Maupillier jokes, sitting in a booth a few feet from where the president devoured his burger just a few months ago.

A 35 year old from France, Maupillier says in his French accent it was "like a little dream come true" to host the president of the United States in his restaurant and present him with the menu for the night.

Days before Obama and his guests sat at the center table in the Mintwood Place dining room — no other customers were there since it was a private event — the Secret Service came for their routine check. They swiped the walls, peered behind mirrors and stuck their hands between the brown booth cushions. They found nothing suspicious.

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