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The D.C. power lunch: Where Washington's elite go to eat

By Emily Sherman, CNN
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Where DC's elite eat
  • The power lunch is a constant of Washington's elite
  • Executive chef of Charlie Palmer says every member of Congress has been in
  • Most presidents since Nixon have dined at The Palm
  • The Oval Room, Bombay Club and Old Ebbitt Grille are steps from the White House

Washington (CNN) -- While administrations come and go, and power in Congress teeters between political parties, one thing remains constant in the lives of Washington, D.C.'s, elite: the power lunch.

Between noon and 2 p.m., brokers meet to clinch deals, with the emphasis more on power than on lunch.

Just steps from Capitol Hill, Charlie Palmer is one of the places to see and be seen at lunchtime. Depending on the week, the modern American steakhouse serves between 70 and 80 congressmen and between 20 and 30 senators.

"I'd bet we've had every member of Congress and every senator in the restaurant at some point," says Matt Hill, executive chef for the famed eatery.

It's not just the proximity to Capitol Hill that draws Washington's elite to Charlie Palmer. The restaurant has several private dining areas -- including a rooftop with scenic views of the city -- and an executive chef who prides himself on serving homemade, inventive fare.

"We do anything, we've got senators from Hawaii that come in, and they ask for Hawaiian hors d'oeurves, we've got, you know, people from Texas that ask for things from Texas," Hill says. "So, we can really vary the menu, and it makes it interesting for me to try to come up with new ideas."

Thirty-seven years ago, Tommy Jacomo moved to Washington with his brother and built The Palm with his bare hands. Now, as executive director of the famed power spot, Jacomo is known by Washington's elite as the keeper of the keys to The Palm. Everyone knows him.

"It's pretty frightening, yeah, you can't even walk down the street sometimes, Jacomo said. "People say, 'Hey, Tommy! Put me down for two at 12:30,' and I don't even know who the hell they are."

The Palm has hosted every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. President Obama has yet to make a visit.

But it's not just presidents who visit The Palm. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has frequented the restaurant since the Clinton administration. Cabinet secretaries including Madeleine Albright, administration officials, senators and representatives, Supreme Court justices, the city's top lobbyists, lawyers, strategists and media elites are all regulars at the Dupont Circle steakhouse.

And if you become a regular, you get your picture on the wall.

"People used to think when we first opened up that we had all the [portraits of] Republicans on one side and all the [portraits of] Democrats on the other side," Jacomo said. "It's not really as much thought behind it. It just goes up, it's good customers, loyal customers, famous people, infamous people, and I decide where I want to put them when I get the chance," he joked, pointing out the minimal space left on the wall.

Not everyone is willing to put their picture on the wall. James Carville and Mary Matalin, who are political strategists and CNN contributors, chose to have their dogs' portraits on the wall instead of their own.

While steakhouses remain a favorite, not all power restaurants dish out filet mignon. Steps from the White House are three of Washington's oldest power spots: The Oval Room, which serves up American fare; Bombay Club, which is Indian; and Old Ebbitt Grille, which also specializes in American cuisine.

Cafe Milano, in Georgetown, and The Monocle and Johnny's Half Shell, on Capitol Hill, also remain abuzz with some of the most prominent people in Washington.

Italian restaurant Posto on 14th Street has become a favorite among younger administration staffers because of its laid-back atmosphere and expansive dining room. Posto's sister restaurant Tosca, owned by Paolo Sacco, has kept D.C.'s top lobbyists and politicians coming back since it opened in 2001. Not only known for the power scene and homemade Italian cuisine, Tosca has set itself apart from others by having some of the most attentive waitstaff in the city.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, known by friends as a big foodie, has dined at Tosca, as have Emanuel and Obama adviser David Axelrod. The Washington Post reported that former Sen. Tom Daschle convinced then-freshman Sen. Obama to run for president at the Italian eatery.

The newest member of the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is known by friends as a "very adventurous diner." She is a fan of Lebanese Taverna, in Woodley Park, which serves up Middle Eastern fare.

Serving up inventive sushi dishes like a fish-and-chips roll, or wasabi guacamole with wonton chips, SEI in Penn Quarter has established itself as a newcomer to the power scene, along with its neighbors Rasika and Oyamel -- all reported to have recently hosted first lady Michelle Obama.

"One of the things that's been sort of fun to watch over the course of this year is the Obamas have eaten out in a wide variety of places," says Garrett Graff, editor of Washingtonian magazine. "You've seen them come and get burgers up here on the Hill, you've seen them go out for burgers in Virginia, you've also seen them go out to some of the nicest restaurants in the city, like Citronelle and Blue Duck Tavern, where they went this fall for their anniversary dinner. But then you see Barack eating on his own -- he's going to a place like Ben's Chili Bowl or he's going to a place like Ray's Hell Burger."

Graff points out one top restaurant at which the Obamas have yet to dine.

"They still haven't been to what is widely considered to be the city's best restaurant, which is a small Greek place near Dupont Circle called Komi," Graff said. "But one of the challenges with a place like Komi is that it's very small and books up far in advance, so it might be hard for the Obamas to sort of drop in there like they've been dropping in at a lot of these other restaurants."