President and Mrs. Obama Party at Fashionable Cafe Milano

On the eve of the inauguration weekend, they celebrated the First Lady’s 49th birthday with friends.

Cafe Milano. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

For any restaurant a presidential visit is a boost, but for Cafe Milano the 49th birthday party Thursday night for First Lady Michelle Obama was especially so.

The last time Milano made any significant headlines was October 2011, when reports circulated that a would-be Iranian bomber had planned to attack the place in an attempt to murder the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir. That’s definitely not good for business. A birthday dinner creates a much better buzz, especially at the beginning of a weekend when Cafe Milano will host some of the city’s more popular inauguration parties.

President and Mrs. Obama are known for picking the city’s culinary hotspots, and for having “date nights” on special occasions. For other birthdays they’ve visited BLT Steak, the Source, and Restaurant Nora. While the food is good, Milano is not exactly a culinary hotspot. It is, however, the city’s most fashionable bistro and an enduring go-to for the power elite. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife are regulars, as are former president Bill Clinton (sometimes with Hillary), John Kerry, who is nominated for Secretary of State, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid and his wife. The restaurant served Pope Benedict XVI’s 81st birthday luncheon at the Vatican Embassy during a 2008 visit to Washington.

The presidential party, reported to be 20 to 25 people, arrived at approximately 7 PM, reliably tying up traffic in Georgetown, which is not a difficult feat at that hour on any night. Cafe Milano is on a tight two-way side street. According to the White House pool report, the birthday party was held in the upstairs dining room, which makes sense (from a Secret Service point of view), since the downstairs is almost all windows—front and back. 

Cafe Milano has the distinction in Washington of handling high-profile visits with aplomb. On any given night, there might be some dignitary with security in the room. But it’s equally popular with visiting celebrities and the local hoi polloi, at lunch and dinner and on weekends. It is one of the city’s most establishment restaurants, and if there are any tea leaves to read in the Obama visit it could mean that in the second term the First Couple may mix more with the establishment scene.

The food? We don’t know what the President and First Lady ordered, but if they stuck to the specials and the pasta, they did well. The sea bass is quite good, if pricey at $46; the shellfish stew is also good, at $33. A veal chop will set you back about $46.

What Cafe Milano gives customers is a feeling of being at the heart of the power scene in a room where just about everybody can see everybody else (unless squirreled away in the upstairs private dining room). The waiters are generally affable, but the maitre d’, Laurent Menoud, is a standout and one of the best at his job in the city. He’s a ringmaster of a colorful crowd that blends famous-for-DC types, money and political power, Botoxed divorcées, diplomats, sports moguls, Hollywood names, high and low society, party girls and boys, and wide-eyed tourists. Notably, the restaurant treats tourists quite well. There’s one “A” table, number 100, adjacent to a wall of highly visible “B” tables, and one can only imagine the deftness required of Menoud on a night when the highest of high rollers all want that one table.