As the president eats, so eats Washington

If the nation's cattle knew enough to lift their heads from the clover and sniff the political winds, they'd be trembling by now. They are, you see, back in culinary vogue here in Washington - meaning the power-brokering that goes on in restaurants across town is increasingly likely to occur over a plate of rib-eye.

So far, the shift is a subtle one. But then again, George W. Bush - whose affinity for his home state of Texas seems to extend to that state's cuisine - has been in the White House only a few weeks. But history shows that where the city's food culture is concerned, a change in the Oval Office is the biggest change of all.

While Mr. Bush has kept a low profile mealwise, those watching the new foodscape can count on one rule: The party in power sets the table.

"Republicans tend to eat

more beef, and Democrats tend to eat more free-range chicken," says Sally Quinn, doyenne of the Washington party scene. Now that the GOP controls all three branches of government, the implications for all those cattle are, well, you know.

In this town, that's no small thing. For most Washingtonians, food is much more than simple nourishment.

Food and the city

Washington night life tends to revolve around restaurants. There is no theater district to speak of, no late-night scene, really. But restaurants provide this city's striving, call-it-a-night crowd a chance to do what they enjoy most: work.

This city is working even when it isn't working. In the on and off hours, schmoozing is a high art, and its principle tools are witty banter and a well-appointed menu.

This is not to say Washington is a dining Mecca. It lacks the adventurousness of, say, New York. But within the limited range of D.C. food, there is movement when the White House changes hands.

"It changes at the margins," says Phyllis Richman, food critic at The Washington Post. "Whenever we get a Republican, the steakhouses tend to be more prominent, and there is a flurry [of restaurants] that open based on the president's home state. We may finally get a good Texas barbecue."

But overall, Ms. Richman says, it's not geography that matters, but rather "the style and attitude of the [president's] henchmen and cohorts." With John Kennedy, she says, there was a wave of French restaurants. With Ronald Reagan, it wasn't so much what was on the menu, but what it cost. The city's pricier joints saw better business. Bill Clinton had "eclectic tastes" that probably added diversity to the scene.

And Bush? "He doesn't really have much of a serious food preference," Richman says. "Remember, he says his favorite food is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

And that may mean steakhouses are back.

"Overall, Bush is definitely a hamburger guy," Richman says.

A hamburger guy? Maybe. The White House refused to comment on Bush's favorite restaurant.

Losing control

Of course, to some extent the White House's culinary influence - like other forms of presidential power - is waning.

Gone is the time when a new administration meant a dramatic turnover in the local population. A shrinking federal government means metropolitan D.C. has 30,000 fewer civil servants than it did in 1980. At the same time, the area's population grew by more than 1 million.

Then, too, Washington is no longer just a political city. It's now flush with dotcom money and 20somethings who don't even own a pair of wingtips, but who are happy to blow $100 on dinner.

If the steakhouse movement rises under the watchful rule of the rancher who occupies the White House, it is not exactly slumping right now.

"D.C. is cattle country," says Heather Freeman, a spokeswoman for Blackie's House of Beef, the carnivore's paradise that was a favorite of former Washington power broker Dan Rostenkowski. "We have a steakhouse every five blocks now, and at the rate they're opening, there'll soon be one every block."

Why? Some say good economic times. Others say that in Washington, where the point of dinner is often the conversation, the simplicity of a steakhouse menu requires less time perusing and allows more time for schmoozing.

Neither is steak as partisan as everyone thinks, says Chandler Keys, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It's not Democrat versus Republican, it's liberal versus conservative," he says. "Liberal tofu types are not going to go Morton's for a New York strip, but moderates and conservatives will.

"Clinton ate a lot of steak. We think Gore didn't eat enough."

The menu that divides

But the old hands in town maintain that differences do still exist. Bush, they say, will likely leave some sort of culinary footprint when he leaves office - even if it isn't only about the food.

"There have been a lot more people in suits and ties, and a lot more people in mink coats," says George Ronetz, assistant general manager at Kinkead's, which opened its doors seven years ago. "So far anyway, it's just a more formal crowd."

Tommy Jacomo, general manager at the Palm, the dark, subdued steakhouse where the president's brother, Neil, showed up twice in the same day during inauguration week, says one difference will be earlier nights for his staff.

"We've been here through a lot of administrations. The main difference between Democrats and Republicans is the Republicans show up a little earlier."

Dinner rush for Democrats is 8 p.m. or 8:30, Mr. Jacomo says. With Republicans, it's 7 or 7:30.

But lest one think the red-meat divide between Democrats and Republicans is a myth, consider last week's White House meeting between Bush and House minority leader Richard Gephardt. Over lunch, the two celebrated Mr. Gephardt's birthday and talked of compromise as they cut the cake.

But anyone who wanted to know the score had only to look at the lunch plates.

Gephardt dined on fish, filet of orange roughy to be precise. Bush had a burger.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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