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Presidential dining good for business

Published October 2, 2012 2:27 pm

VIP customers • Restaurant owners talk about the publicity boost of a chief executive's visit.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Restaurants always appreciate a good review from a local food critic, but an eatery can really gets a boost when the president decides to dine.

"It doesn't matter whether they are Republican or Democrat, there's an aura about them when they come into the restaurant that makes it fun," said owner Ashok Bajaj, one of several Washington, D.C., restaurateurs who have fed a U.S. president. These owners came together recently to share their presidential dining stories with members of the Association of Food Journalists, who were in Washington for an annual conference.

Bajaj said President Bill Clinton visited his restaurant, The Bombay Club, for the first of many visits in August 1993. He came with First Lady Hillary, daughter Chelsea and a friend.

"It put Indian food on the map," said Bajaj.

Before the presidential visit, more than two dozen Secret Service agents visited The Bombay Club to make sure the premise was secure. "It was like being in a movie," Bajaj said.

Once the President got to the restaurant, it took him nearly 30 minutes to get from the front door to his table, as he shook hands and greeted fellow diners.

"They were there for two-and-a-half hours," said Bajaj, who recalled Clinton asking for chicken. "We have five [entrees] on the menu, so we gave him all of them."

Ben's Chili Bowl is a popular gathering place for Washington's black community. Comedian Bill Cosby comes by often enough that a hot dog is named after him. But the restaurant's hip factor increased exponentially when President-elect Barack Obama stopped in to have lunch 10 days before his inauguration in 2009.

Nizam Ali, whose parents started the business in 1958, said an employee was wearing a campaign button with Obama's picture on it when the Secret Service agents arrived. An agent said, "The guy on the button is on his way in."

A few minutes later, Obama walked in the door and ordered the signature hot dog and shared an order of cheese fries with his dining partner, Adrian Fenty, then the mayor of Washington. When the two were finished, Obama posed for photos with customers.

Ali said with the restaurant's importance in the black community Obama's visit "had a lot of meaning for us."

In years past, restaurants would call newspaper and television reporters to let them know that president was in the house. Today, social media takes care of that.

"It's shocking how quickly word gets out," explained Rikka Johnson, general manager of The Source, a Washington restaurant owned by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. "My parents found out on Twitter" when First Lady Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday there.

While the president cannot ask a restaurant owner to close his or her business to the public to accommodate his entourage, often the owner will do it anyway.

Another rule that must be followed: The restaurant must charge the president for any food that is brought to the table. And, for his part, the president must pay the bill.

In return for the exposure, restaurant owners say they follow their own presidential honor code, refusing to share details about what the president ate or what they discussed with the guests at their table.

Even six years after then-President George W. Bush spent a night at Salt Lake City's Grand America Hotel, Anthony Bartholomew, director of operations, will divulge few details of the president's visit.

"It's important to us that we are known for our discretion. We never want to compromise the integrity of the guest's stay," he told The Tribune in a recent telephone interview. "In fact, this is the first time I've really spoken about it. We have quite a lot of famous guests that we just don't talk about — much to my family's disappointment."

Zane Holmquist, the chef at Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City, is a little more open about his presidential experiences. During his career, he has cooked for three presidents: George W. Bush, Clinton and Ronald Reagan, as well as former Vice President Dan Quayle, and a few kings and an ambassador. This June, he cooked for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the current Republican presidential nominee, who was in Utah for a fundraiser.

Holmquist said whenever he has cooked for a president, there is usually a valet — someone from the president's staff — in the kitchen overseeing the meal preparation so it meets the president's taste.

Despite the security measures, "it's always a pleasure to cook for them," he said. "They have such chaotic lives, my goal is to make sure they have a great dining experience. That for the next 10 or 20 minutes while they eat, they can turn off the complications of their jobs and duties."

Holmquist may have done that in 2008 when George W. Bush stayed at the Lodge and ordered from the Glitretind restaurant, through room service, the $16 Stein Burger: an 8-ounce Angus patty topped with white cheddar cheese, crispy fried onions and served on a sheepherder roll.

"Later, I ran into one of the valets, who said the president, on several occasions, said that was one of the best burgers he had ever had," Holmquist said.

Holmquist said he doesn't get nervous cooking for presidents. In fact, it was another high-profile guest that really had him star struck.

"When I met Mick Jagger," he said, "I got some butterflies then."

kathys@sltrib.com