Food

DC Restaurants Are Working the Back Channels to Get a Visit From Biden or Harris

The lobbying campaigns for a presidential meal have officially begun

The Biden motorcade at Call Your Mother bagel shop in Georgetown. Photograph by James Culcasi.

Restaurateur Alan Popovsky knows a guy who knows a guy. In the ’90s, the owner of presidentially themed Lincoln Restaurant and Teddy & The Bully Bar ran a spot called Felix where members of the Clinton administration would gather for $3 Absolut martinis and Frank Sinatra cover bands. Now, one of those staffers, Ernest Baynard, runs his own Capitol Hill public affairs firm with connections in the Biden White House. Hopefully—fingers crossed—he can finagle the one thing every DC restaurant would die for right now: a visit from Joe Biden or Kamala Harris.

“Yes, we are going to work some back channels that we have, people that go way back with me—they’re longtime Democratic operatives who work in different industries now,” Popovsky says. His strategy is to go after the VP first; She’s known to order takeout, and Biden may be on lockdown a little bit more.

“Word travels, and if the word travels to the right people, then we’ll have a great opportunity to get someone in there, for sure. If we get a speech writer or someone else, it leaks out into their sphere,” Popovsky says.

After four years of a president who never dined anywhere beyond the steakhouse in his own hotel, many DC restaurateurs are downright giddy about the prospect of a White House resident who actually leaves 1600 Pennsylvania for a meal. Last weekend, Biden made his first eating outing as president to Georgetown bagel shop Call Your Mother, which is co-owned by the administration’s Covid czar, Jeff Zients. Now others are hoping to get in on the action. And as with so many things in Washington, it helps to know someone.

“Once we see who’s who and heading up key positions…then we will get more invitations than executive orders in front of the President to consider,” says Martin’s Tavern owner Billy Martin.

The 88-year-old Georgetown establishment likes to boast that it hosted every president from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush. Barack Obama broke the streak, despite Martin’s best lobbying efforts. In the early years of the administration, Martin had his then-school-aged kids write a letter to the President. A Georgetown friend with connections in the White House personally delivered it. Afterward, Martin got a call from an Obama scheduler, but ultimately, a visit from daughter Malia was as close as the restaurant got to the leader of the free world.

“Look, I knew a lot of people in the White House anyway—the press secretary and stuff like that,” Martin says. “I tried to get through. ‘Oh yeah, we’ll see what we can do. We’ll see what we can do.’ I always heard that.”

During the Trump years, Ivanka had lunch at the restaurant twice, and Martin attempted a direct appeal.

“We just said, ‘Hey, we’d really like to get your dad in here if we can,'” Martin says. “She would just say, ‘Yeah, I’ll mention it to him. We’ll see what we can do.”

Now, Martin is set on restarting the legacy of feeding presidents. He hasn’t made any entreaties to the Biden camp just yet, but you can bet he will.

“When I heard that President Biden was at Call Your Mother right up the street, I’m like, ‘No! He should have just come a little further down the street and had a really good meal instead of just eating some bagels.”

Meanwhile, all eyes are on which DC ice cream shop Biden—well-known for his love of chocolate chip—will frequent first. Woman- and minority-owned Ice Cream Jubilee seems to be a natural choice. Founder Victoria Lai previously worked for the Obama administration as a Department of Homeland Security lawyer. Many of her former colleagues and friends now work for Biden.

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“When I would have ice cream parties, tasting out new flavors at my apartment, they would just come on the weekends as somebody supporting a friend’s hobby,” Lai says. “Now a lot of people who are back in the White House—as secretaries and assistant secretaries—are people who’ve tried my ice cream and have been eating it for years.”

Lai, though, isn’t interested in arm twisting anyone to bring Biden in. She’s taken a more subtle, transparent route, simply tweeting at the @POTUS account to let him know she has him covered.

Then there’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, the Ohio-based chain with three local shops, whose owner Jeni Britton Bauer claims to be chummy with Biden. She’s posted photos of herself hugging Biden on Instagram and says she considers him “a friend, and even something of a mentor.” A spokesperson for the ice cream maker says they don’t have any efforts underway to bring the President in.

Still, Ice Cream Jubilee and Jeni’s are currently offering rivaling Biden-themed chocolate chip flavors—just in case.

In the early Obama years, every restaurant hoped for the “Obama bump.” A visit from the then-president was a sure-fire way to boost businesses overnight. Popovsky says Lincoln saw in 80-percent spike in sales the day after Obama had lunch there in 2012.

Popovsky doesn’t see Biden delivering quite the same surge, especially given Covid-related dining limitations. But he thinks Harris will generate a lot of buzz. Beyond a temporary bump in sales, though, DC restaurant owners say they’re thrilled by the idea that nation’s top leaders will also be citizens of the city again. And they’re hopeful that the frenzy that comes with a simple takeout order will also bring attention to the plight of an industry that’s been devastated by the pandemic.

Plus, let’s be honest, in Washington, politicos are the celebrities and VIPs. Over the years, Popovsky’s restaurants have been frequented by plenty of bold-faced names, including three Supreme Court justices. (First came the late Antonin Scalia, who told Elena Kagan. Sonia Sotomayor followed.) Popovsky says one time he witnessed Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney get into a “very heated conversation” with then Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in his dining room. “They stormed out together.”

Now, Popovsky is working his network to bring in Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

“I have another avenue in pursuing him,” he says. “We’re going to try every angle possible to get these people. But if we don’t get the leads, we’ll take the supporting actors, for sure.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.