Past presidents have dined here
The scene: President's Day weekend has us thinking about where presidents like to eat. While President Donald Trump has been known to eat KFC and McDonald's, Great American Bites has visited many notable establishments patronized by past presidents — all the way back to George Washington. These spots can be found in politically historic destinations such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and less obvious spots such as Boulder, Colo., and Biloxi, Miss. These are the great American restaurants where presidents have dined.
City Tavern in Philadelphia: This historic spot is America’s oldest restaurant (though not in continuous operation) and chef Walter Staib, who has run the place for nearly a quarter century, is the Emmy Award-winning host of the PBS series A Taste of History and author of four Colonial-era-themed cookbooks. Back in the 1770s, George Washington ate here often, formulating strategies with other Colonial leaders at the watering hole. Today it revels in its 1770s glory, complete with historically accurate furniture, pewter pitchers and tankards, flickering hurricane lamps as lighting, even staff in Colonial-era garb.
Most importantly, City Tavern serves authentic, historically correct, 18th-century American cuisine, a meal that travels back in time. The restaurant’s bestseller is Martha Washington’s turkey pot pie recipe, and it is delicious. The individual serving, round and tall like a soufflé, is full of big chunks of turkey, red bliss potatoes, mushrooms and baby peas, all in a rich sherry cream sauce with a tender crust. Another signature is West Indies Pepper Pot Soup, a common Colonial-era dish imported from the Caribbean, made with beef, green vegetables and taro root. Staib’s version, fortified with allspice and habanero, is based on the one Washington served his men before the wintry crossing of the Delaware at Valley Forge.
Colonial diners made heavy use of rabbit, duck, lamb, trout, salmon, oysters, chicken, pork and beef, and all are represented, as are sauces made with madeira, cream, butter and mustard. Staib also applies historical accuracy to the drinks, including “shrubs,” cocktails that mix Champagne with fruit vinegars. He found beer recipes from renowned home brewers including Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and commissioned them to be remade by Philadelphia’s acclaimed Yards Brewing Company.
Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport, Maine: Few eateries have been so regularly patronized by a First Family as this spot in the popular summer coastal destination of Kennebunkport, Maine, which the Bush clan has long called home — just about every family member has been here repeatedly, including both presidents. While far from fancy, it’s more of a full-service, sit-down restaurant than most coastal Maine lobster spots, and one of the few in the area open all year. There are lots of lobster (and non-lobster) dishes on the lengthy menu, and the signature is the excellent baked stuffed lobster, a forgotten dish of which a good version is hard to find these days. It’s basically a large lobster with the body cavity cleaned out and then jammed full of large sea scallops and a little seasoned breading. Mabel’s serves several other uncommon upscale lobster presentations, including Lobster Savannah (with scallops, shrimp and Newburg sauce), Newburg and Fra Diavolo. The traditional “shore dinner” combines a cup of the excellent clam chowder, a choice of 1 1/8 or 2-pound lobster, and a heaping bowl of “steamers,” steamed Maine clams.
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House in Biloxi, Miss: One of my all-time favorite Great American Bites venues, Mary Mahoney’s has been a family-owned Biloxi, Miss., landmark for half a century. It occupies the oldest home in Biloxi, built in 1737, yet sits within easy reach of the many large casino resorts that form the city’s tourist center. It is a classic New Orleans restaurant that happens to not be in New Orleans, but is cut from the same elegant cloth as Commanders Palace, Galatoire’s or Arnaud’s. The restaurant was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and today the wall outside is marked to indicate the astonishing height to which the water rose, 15 feet, filling the first floor. But Mary Mahoney’s was painstakingly repaired and has not lost a step.
You enter through a dark, welcoming and well-used bar, adorned with photos of famous patrons like former presidents George H.W. Bush and Reagan, who once had the restaurant cater a meal on the White House lawn. Seafood, fresh from the Gulf of Mexico (across the street) is the specialty, and appetizers include shrimp or crab meat cocktails, crab cakes, crab claws and fried soft-shell crabs. New Orleans classics such as shrimp or crab meat remoulade, crawfish etouffee and oyster stew are also well represented, along with an award-winning seafood gumbo so locally popular that it is sold to go by the gallon. Many seafood entrees are adorned with crab meat, such as the Flounder Imperial, a whole deboned flounder stuffed with crab — not crab salad, or any kind of bread stuffing, just pure lump crab meat.
The standout signature dish is the St. Patrick, created when a customer saw a waiter serving escargot in traditional Burgundian fashion, and asked them to sub Gulf shrimp for snails. This incredible recipe uses a dimpled escargot dish, each recess filled with a whole shrimp topped with lots of chopped garlic, butter and spinach, then baked. Of course, this being Mary Mahoney’s, the plate is then topped with lump crab meat. Since not everyone eats seafood, the restaurant also offers a wide array of grilled meats, including rib eye and strip steaks, lamb chops, veal and pork chops, and the quality is very high. There is an extensive wine list and the desserts are excellent, especially the pecan pie, Mississippi mud pie, praline parfait and signature bread pudding with rum sauce.
Rao’s in NYC, Las Vegas, L.A.: The tiny original Rao’s in New York City is a power broker enclave and the single hardest restaurant reservation to get in the country, so it helps to be a celebrity with the stature of former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, who have dined here. In 2006, the family owners opened a larger, more accessible and whimsically authentic satellite location in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which has been extremely popular for more than a decade, and in 2013, a similar replica opened in Los Angeles.
The Vegas and L.A. outposts do a good job of recreating the look of the original and a great job of recreating the food, which is red sauce Italian-American with a lot of seafood. The most famous dishes are the tender and giant meatballs, served as an appetizer; another starter, the cold seafood salad; lemon chicken; rich, creamy penne all vodka; and on-the-bone veal chop Milanese.
Rao’s also makes a full line of jarred sauces and other items sold in supermarkets and gourmet stores, has several cookbooks, and has been showcased on numerous food shows: long-time former chef Carla Pellegrino famously beat chef Bobby Flay and late co-owner Frank Pellegrino, Sr., had a recurring role on the HBO hit series, The Sopranos.
Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.: Ben’s is a Washington, D.C., institution that has been popular for 60 years and occupies the middle of a block on U Street in a recently trendy neighborhood (along with a less colorful but surprisingly authentic outpost in the presidentially named Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport). Ben’s has traditionally been a photo-opp meal stop for politicians, and former president Barack Obama was the most famous regular during his time in office. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy notably ate here with his wife on a D.C. visit.
Ben’s is a diner-like spot with a huge menu, including a broad breakfast selection with staples like hot cakes, French toast and egg sandwiches, along with rarities such as scrapple and salmon cakes. Lunch and dinner focuses on the flattop grill and burgers, dogs and sausages. The main reason to go to Ben’s is the legendary half-smoke, especially when topped with chili. The half-smoke is a slightly spicy sausage unique to Washington, D.C., and generally agreed to be the city’s signature dish (though there are proponents of Navy Bean soup). There are three popular theories as to what it is and why it is so named. Some say it was traditionally smoked less than other smoked sausages, or “half smoked.” The typical recipe calls for a 50-50 split between pork and beef, which some believe explains the half. The oddest theory is that it is spiced halfway to the level of the other sausage product it most resembles, the polish sausage. In any case, it looks like a hot dog, except it's about twice as thick, and has flecks of hot pepper in it, so some bites are spicier than others.
Many pundits believe Ben’s serves the district’s best half-smoke, and the restaurant certainly does a great job cooking it, consistently pulled from the carefully tended flat-top grill when just slightly charred, giving the exterior a perfect snap. The namesake chili is a saucy style, with flecks rather than chunks of meat, the consistency of Cincinnati’s famous version but flavored like Texas’ take. While it is offered solo, I think it is too thin and soupy to be eaten as chili, but it works perfectly as a topping for hot dogs, burgers and especially half-smokes, as well as on the strangely addictive chili cheese fries.
Capriotti’s, nationwide: When it comes to fast food, the nation’s most famous chain is bipartisan — McDonald’s is a favorite of President Trump, and was so popular with former president Bill Clinton that Saturday Night Live did skits about it. Obama was a Five Guys fan. Of all the fast-food chains with presidential ties, our favorite at Great American Bites is this turkey specialist from Delaware. Former vice president (and former Delaware senator) Joe Biden has been a regular for more than 40 years, and when the first location opened in D.C., he went down and picked up lunch for himself and his boss.
The original opened in Wilmington, Del., in 1976, where the brother and sister owners roasted a whole turkey every night. Soon they were roasting and hand carving a dozen turkeys daily, and the rest is history — today Capriotti’s is a national sandwich chain built on home-roasted turkey, a sort of upscale take on the Subway concept. The chain now has a full slate of sandwiches, though turkey is still the reason to visit, as it is fresh, hand shredded, and much better than the unnaturally formed stuff many delis use. Signature turkey subs include the original and bestselling Bobbie, with cranberry sauce, stuffing and mayo. The Cole Turkey has cole slaw, Russian dressing and provolone, and the Cran-Slam Club is another top seller, a triple decker on sliced white or wheat bread, combining turkey with ham, cranberry sauce and lettuce.
Others: Great American Bites has visited too many presidential restaurants to go into detail on each. One notable restaurant is Boston’s Legal Harborside, the big location of the Legal Sea Foods chain. Harborside has a distinct menu, and the same famous clam chowder that has been a traditional dish at every presidential inauguration from Reagan to Obama. Doe’s Eat Place is a legendary steakhouse way off the beaten path in Greenville, Miss., that earned a James Beard Foundation Award for America's Classics and was a favorite of former president Clinton. Highlights include first-class steaks cut in house, uniquely Mississippi-style tamales and money-saving BYOB wine.
Obama put more Great American Bites restaurants on the map than any other president, though he has also been the source of bad luck for some: both Virginia’s Ray’s Hell Burger and New York’s famous Carnegie Deli have closed since he visited. Some other notable Obama spots this column loves include The Sink in Boulder, Colo., a legendary burger and pizza spot famous for its honey-drizzled puffy crust pizza, the unusual but delicious Colorado-style “Ugly Pizza.” The version Obama ordered, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, green pepper, black olive, red onion and mozzarella, is excellent and has since been renamed the POTUS. The whole Obama family loved Maine’s Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream and went to the original in Bar Harbor. When Obama visited New Orleans, he made a great choice to try the famous local sandwich, the po’ boy, at Parkway, one of the oldest and most beloved po’ boy institutions in The Big Easy. While the locals offered to let the commander in chief go ahead, he waited on the long but fast-moving line just like everyone else does. The best sandwiches are the fried shrimp, roast beef, turkey, and surf and turf, while a side of gumbo is awesome and you cannot miss the exceptional French fries with “debris,” gravy with bits of roast beef in it.
See the photos above for the places Great American Bites and America's past presidents have visited, in honor of President's Day.
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.