2016-10-19 13:00:11
Heads Up: The Dish on the Washington Power Dining Scene

On a recent September evening in Washington, D.C., there wasn’t a seat to be had at Fiola Mare (fiolamaredc.com), a seafood-centric Italian restaurant in Georgetown. Smartly dressed visitors in the spacious dining room and at the patio tables savored the piercing sunset while tucking into towers of cold seafood and sipping Champagne and white wine.

All the while, three security men trolled the area, keeping a watchful eye on the crowd. Who were they there to protect? Was it Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, seated at Table 65 along the back wall with three other men in suits, or the Portuguese ambassador, Domingos Fezas Vital, and his companion dining alfresco?

They were working for neither, specifically, yet all of them at once, said Maria Trabocchi, who co-owns the two-and-a-half-year-old restaurant with her husband, Fabio, the chef. “High-profile political people eat here often so we have our own security to make sure that they’re not bothered,” she said.

The next night, the political boldface names at Fiola Mare included Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California; the Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen; and Gloria Borger, CNN’s chief political analyst, who were at one table, while Tina Tchen, the chief of staff to Michelle Obama, held court at another.

The power dining unfolded at one of the new-guard restaurants in the nation’s capital. And with the presidential election just weeks away, the scene has been heating up throughout town.

Washington’s political set has long had its old-school dining spots, often near the White House or Capitol Hill, including the Palm (thepalm.com), which opened in 1972, and the Capital Grille (thecapitalgrille.com), which opened in 1994. The Italian restaurant Cafe Milano (cafemilano.com), in Georgetown and around since 1992, was also part of the mix.

These old guards remain relevant — the same evening that the ambassadors ate at Fiola Mare, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had a family dinner at Cafe Milano in celebration of his granddaughter, Finnegan Biden, turning 18.

But there’s a fresh cadre of stylish restaurants where the political action is part of the main course, and they’re not necessarily near the seats of government.

This shift is partly because new restaurants have arrived on the scene, said Missy Frederick, the editor of the Washington edition of the restaurant site Eater.com. “The hot restaurants have shifted to neighborhoods like Logan Circle,” she said, “so it makes sense that the political crowd would want to venture out to see what these new restaurants are about.”

The Panamanian ambassador, Emanuel Gonzalez-Revilla, a regular at Fiola Mare, agreed. “I like to consider myself a foodie and loved Fiola Mare instantly because they have fantastic seafood,” he said.

Ms. Frederick and others said that credit for the expanded list of see-and-be-seen restaurants also goes to the Obama administration.

Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer on politics for The Washington Post, said that President Obama and the first lady have fueled an excitement about eating out because they’re avid restaurant-goers (Eater has a map that chronicles Mrs. Obama’s restaurant whereabouts).

“The Obamas set a new tone when they came into office because they like to go out and try what’s new, and that gets their staff members and other political types enthusiastic about doing so as well,” Mr. Capehart said.

Mr. Capehart counts the three-year-old French brasserie Le Diplomate (lediplomatedc.com) as one of his favorites.

The restaurateur Stephen Starr, known for popular New York spots such as Buddakan and Upland, is behind the restaurant in Logan Circle, which is about a 20-minute drive from Capitol Hill. The vice president is a frequent patron. Other sightings include the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, and Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state.

Another coveted dinner reservation is Masseria (masseria-dc.com), a Southern Italian restaurant near Union Market, north of Capitol Hill, that opened in August 2015. The intimate space is designed to evoke a farmhouse in Puglia and is popular with members of Congress, according to the chef and owner, Nicholas Stefanelli. One patron is Mrs. Obama, who has dined there several times.

Of course, political power brokering doesn’t just transpire over dinner.

During lunch, the 48-seat dining room at the year-old Centrolina (centrolinadc.com), a contemporary farm-to-table Italian restaurant near Chinatown, buzzes with influence makers. Brian Johnson, a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute who also runs the food blog hungrylobbyist.com, is a regular. “It’s hard to go in there and not see someone you know,” he said.

Another newer midday staple for Mr. Johnson and other politicos is Fiola (fioladc.com), the Italian restaurant near Capitol Hill owned by the Trabocchis that’s more formal than Fiola Mare. If you spend a few hours people-watching, a political sighting is almost guaranteed. The former Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz and Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president, have eaten there, as have the Obamas.

One block from the White House, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (joes.net), a nearly three-year-old restaurant housed in a former bank, is a popular lunch spot. Members of the Obama staff have a penchant for the healthful entree salads, the general manager, Matt Hollis, said.

If, as some political observers suggest, the power-dining climate is influenced by who is running the country, the elections could mean more “it” restaurants are in store. But one thing is certain: Power dining in Washington will always be a thriving sport.