Key to the City

Why You Shouldn't Leave DC Without Having a Three-Martini Power Lunch

For those of us eating $12 salads overtop our keyboards, the idea of the “power lunch” seems pretty foreign. Is it Mad Men executives sipping one too many martinis with clients? Or, perhaps, the thought of not-so-fashionable 1980s pantsuits and banker briefcases come to mind.

But, in DC, the power lunch is alive and well -- and it denotes big names making big deals. Presidents, civil rights leaders, and dignitaries have all had their fair share of white tablecloth meetings that shaped the course of history. Throughout the mid-20th century, the power lunch was practically analogous with DC’s dining scene. Though it’s come a long way from those days, this distinctly Washingtonian tradition is still going strong.

The term itself was first coined by Esquire magazine in 1979 -- describing midday meals at the legendary Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan that would end “with the decisions and the deals that will keep you in books, clothes, wine, and ideas for the rest of the year.” 

But the phenomenon had been taking place in DC long before that. “It fits Washington really well,” explains John DeFerrari, the author of the book Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. “It evokes a sense of people with power and influence getting together. Some version of power lunches has been going on here for decades -- not just since the 1980s when the word became common.”

Silver-haired and soft-spoken, DeFerrari has made a career of studying the history of his beloved hometown, which he chronicles in his blog, Streets of Washington. While he notes there was never one definitive restaurant for power dining, a few distinguished themselves over the years as go-to establishments.

Whether you want to pay homage to historical moments from the Kennedy era, rub elbows with current DC elite, or create new power lunch memories of your own, plenty of restaurants in the District are still open to remind you that you’re dining in the den of democracy.

The two big players still open today

The first and perhaps the most iconic power lunch spot is The Occidental on Pennsylvania Avenue, which you can still dine in today. The original location opened in 1912 and was only open to men for the first three years. The walls were -- and still are -- adorned with signed photos of the most famous patrons, who frequently ordered the restaurant’s most notable dish, London Broil.

“If you were one such VIP, exactly where and how your photo was placed on the wall was extremely important,” DeFerrari says. “One of the skills of the owner was juggling the placement of photos so that no feelings were hurt and everyone's ego was properly stroked.”
 
On Capitol Hill, members of Congress could often be found in The Monocle Restaurant, which has been open since 1960 -- so frequently that congressional clerks would call the restaurant to announce when votes were taking place. As a senator, John F. Kennedy often ordered roast beef sandwiches in the front bay window with Jackie.

Plenty of restaurants in the District are still open to remind you that you’re dining in the den of democracy.

Nancy Reagan, pickles, and the power lunch restaurants of yore

Near the White House, long-gone spots like Sans Souci, Duke Ziebert’s, Paul Young’s, and Mel Krupin’s saw plenty of famous faces. Every president from Truman through Clinton dined at Duke Ziebert’s, where the signature dish was garlic-infused kosher dill pickles. This was also the place to spot numerous sports icons -- like Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Joe Gibbs, and Jack Kent Cook.

“Duke Ziebert's famously was kind of like a sports bar in the way it was laid out,” DeFerrari says. “Ziebert was a big sports fan and he had caricatures of himself playing different kinds of sports on the walls. And he'd have jars of pickles on the tables for people to munch on and apparently the smell hung over the restaurant.”

Paul Young’s eschewed the traditional steakhouse stereotype, as DeFerrari says it was known for delicacies like Long Island duckling, Everglades frog legs, and Florida Pompano. It was also one of only 13 restaurants to be recognized in The New York Times’ list of DC eateries in 1966.
 
Then there was The Jockey Club, which played into the exclusive atmosphere. “It wasn't actually a club, but it looked like a horse club,” DeFerrari says. Nancy Regan was a famous regular, and the Kennedys were known to dine there, along with notable Hollywood figures like Marlon Brando, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, and Kirk Douglas. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, reportedly not too grumpy, once shared an order of crab cakes.

Only a few power dining restaurants managed to stay in business for decades. Others haven’t been as lucky. “They go in and out of favor the way fashion and culture does,” DeFerrari says. “By the ’90s, famous French restaurants like Sans Souci or Le Maison Blanche were no longer stylish. People were into fresh, local, and lots of different international cuisines. 

Trends like the exclusive, male-dominated dining rooms also waned quickly. “I still think that important people want to be recognized and want to be given the tables that they like. But the sense of snobbery and certainly, the idea of the old boys’ network, is a little out of date now.”

Tip your host and maybe run into Quincy Jones

In today’s power dining landscape, the fall of old standbys has made space for newer hot spots, like Bistro Bis, Charlie Palmer Steak, Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel, and BLT Prime in the Trump Hotel. But DeFerrari has found that all power lunch spots -- no matter the era -- have shared a few critical qualities, things to look out for when you dine out today. 

“A good power lunch spot is always going to have some degree of formality because it's going to want to have an air of exclusivity,” DeFerrari says. “It's not going to be super casual because then there's nothing special about going there to broker your big deal.”

Of course, many of these restaurants center around the Capitol Building and the White House and, though most restaurant reviews these days focus on the all-important chef in the kitchen, the primary player in a power lunch will be the very first person you see.

“The social skills of the host are key,” DeFerrari says. “The host has to know the people, what they like to eat, which table they prefer. If you have two famous political rivals showing up to lunch the same day, you want to sit them so that they're not staring at each other.”
 
Stephanie Carre, the general manager of The Occidental, sees power dining clientele every day, and has personally had run-ins with Quincy Jones, Ted Kennedy, Alan Greenspan, Forest Whitaker, Darrel Green, Marion Barry, and Gabrielle Union. Carre says: “I kind of joke that we are an extension of the White House's dining room.”

“I kind of joke that we are an extension of the White House's dining room”

So, next time there’s a deal to be brokered or a history-making conversation to be had, reserve a table at one of these power dining spots that are still taking care of DC VIPs.

The Occidental

Downtown
A true dining institution in Washington, The Occidental is where you’ll find a nostalgic power lunch experience. Make a reservation and you never know who you might end up sitting next to. A few notable moments in history include the Washington Senators’ World Series victory celebration in 1924, the meeting between John Scali and Alexander Fomin that brought closure to the Cuban missile crisis, and a visit from Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 while he was staying at the Willard Hotel. At this location, which opened in 1986, there are more than 1,500 photos of guests -- including presidents, congressmen, and senators.

The Monocle Restaurant

Capitol Hill
A popular congressional hangout throughout history, you can still brush elbows with legislators and their staff at The Monocle Restaurant. If you want a Nixon-inspired lunch, order the chopped Wagyu beef stuffed with blue cheese. One fun anecdote? Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t a regular because of an unfortunate incident. “LBJ once came into The Monocle for lunch when he was vice president under Kennedy and the tables were all taken,” DeFerrari explains. “LBJ asked if they could put out an announcement if someone would be willing to give up their table for him. There were no takers, and he apparently stormed out in a huff and never came back.”

The Palm

Dupont Circle
The Palm is newer to the scene, opening in 1972, thanks in part to President George H.W. Bush, who was supposedly instrumental in encouraging the New York restaurant to open a branch in DC, which is now still one of the established power dining places in the city. This transplant has been wholeheartedly adopted by the DC power dining crowd, thanks to its “classic American fare,” like steaks and lobster. Don’t forget to take a gander at the cartoon caricatures of all of The Palm’s famous guests.

Bistro Bis

Capitol Hill
Newer to the power lunch scene, this modern French bistro is frequented by neighbors -- both Capitol Hill residents and congressmen from the Capitol. It’s open for early, so you could get an early start with a power breakfast. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, political candidates and committees spent $419,121 here in 2018.

Charlie Palmer

Capitol Hill
It’s not just about steak at Charlie Palmer’s DC outpost. The menu stars American beef alongside local seafood, health-conscious salads, and a robust cheese program offering a cart full of selections from both coasts paired with spirits, dessert wines, and beers. Popular with politicians from both sides of the aisle, this steakhouse is popular for fundraising parties, known for a roof deck that offers views of the Capitol Building dome and Washington Monument.

Bourbon Steak

Georgetown
Located inside the luxurious Four Seasons hotel in one of DC’s most historic neighborhoods, Michael Mina’s steakhouse certainly attracts its fair share of celebrities, business leaders, and politicians, including Nationals players and the Obamas. The menu puts a focus on top-of-the-line cuts of beef and locally foraged ingredients. Don’t skip Mina’s signature lobster pot pie.

The Fourth Estate

Downtown
The only area of the 112-year-old National Press Club open to the public is the white tablecloth restaurant called The Fourth Estate. Since she took the helm in 2009, Chef Susan Delbert has steered the ship toward local ingredients and international flavors while maintaining the club’s staples -- including crab cakes and strip steak. Many celebrity chefs have hosted their book parties at The Fourth Estate over the years, including the late Anthony Bourdain when he launched his Les Halles Cookbook in 2004.

BLT Prime

Penn Quarter
There’s no doubt about the current political affiliation of this steakhouse inside the Trump Hotel. During your meal, you might even overhear the latest gossip from power diners at the next table, like when a New York Times reporter overheard White House attorneys blatantly talking about how the President should respond during the Mueller investigation. Clearly, the power lunch is alive and well today.

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Lani Furbank is a freelance food writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at LanisCupOfTea.com.