480 7th St. NW, (202) 628-7949; other locations in Maryland and Virginia
Powerful Because: It introduced tapas to D.C., and manages to still seem relevant.
Admit it. You remember the first time a friend told you about this place and the ridiculous miscommunication that ensued: Topless? No. Tapas. This Penn Quarter pioneer, opened in 1993, and its executive chef, José Andrés, get a lot of credit for popularizing the Spanish-style concept of small plates around town. Consider all the imitators it has spawned: Bodega, Sabores, La Tasca, Estadio, to name a few. Almost two decades later, it remains the standard-bearer of the genre and the anchor of a once forlorn neighborhood now teeming with upscale eateries. —CS
9. Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St. NW, (202) 667-0909
Powerful Because: It’s an instant bestower of local credibility.
No campaign for city office is complete without the obligatory half-smoke and photo op at Ben’s. You want power on the local level? First you must contend with the spicy homemade chili sauce. A few world leaders have been known to drop by as well. Of all his presidential visits to various D.C. eateries, the U Street institution was Obama’s first stop—and he hadn’t even been sworn in yet. Beware the boomerang effect of such political patronage. Occasionally, the tables are turned, with Ben’s imposing its own agenda on the politicians. Consider proprietor Kamal Ben Ali’s later criticism of Obama’s health-care reform plan and its potential impact on small business. Most eateries aren’t generally afforded a spot on the soap box. But Ben’s has sway. Concerns about the venue’s soaring property taxes in 2006 led to relief legislation informally dubbed the “Ben’s Chili Bowl Bill.” —CS
8. OVAL ROOM
800 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 463-8700
Powerful Because: Guys in shades routinely stand watch.
The combination of prolific restaurateur Ashok Bajaj and heralded chef Tony Conte, a disciple of New York’s celebrated Jean-Georges Vongerichten, could be the city’s most powerful one-two punch in terms of reputation. And sous chef Tamesha Warren adds some pop culture points with her star turn on last summer’s Top Chef. But of all the power spots operated under the Bajaj umbrella, this one is his most precious. The place is so close to the White House and so often frequented by high-ranking officials that Secret Service agents reportedly sweep the restaurant multiple times each week. —CS
1509 17th St. NW, (202) 332-9200
Powerful Because: People are willing to spend five hours at a time there.
Often cited as D.C.’s best restaurant, chef Johnny Monis’ salty Greek and Italian-influenced 12-table hotspot has seduced even the world’s most influential would-be food critic: President Obama, who alongside the first lady, reportedly took Table 11 one night last July. For most folks, the place books up a full month in advance, but in this case, we’re betting the White House played its executive privilege card. Thankfully, no national security crisis erupted during what we expect was a marathon meal for the quintessential power couple. Like a gustatory Guantanamo, Komi holds the power of seemingly infinite detention. You may be held captive for upwards of three to five hours during a single seating. And you’ll likely walk away with the gastronomic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, relishing every minute of it. Gushing critics sure do. —CS
6. BUSBOYS AND POETS
1025 5th St. NW, (202) 789-2227;
2021 14th St. NW, (202) 387-7638; one location in Virginia
Powerful Because: It can make moving to Hyattsville seem cool.
Owner Andy Shallal’s original location may not have single-handedly made the 14th Street corridor the hip spot it is today. But don’t tell developers that. Forced to make do without the traditional federal tenants that once helped spark new construction in places like Greenbelt, Laurel, and Suitland, developer EYA offered the Busboys boss loads of money for build-out and low, low rent to open a satellite location in Maryland, within Hyattsville’s so-called “Arts District.” Having landed Busboys–and the yuppie clientele it’s sure to attract–EYA was able to go to Prince George’s County and make a case for incentives that could move the project along. After that, the developers approached Yes! Organic Market’s Gary Cha, who said, “If Andy Shallal wants to be there, I want to be there, too.” Next came Tara Thai, a small local chain. Finally, EYA was able to land the biggest coup of all: Chipotle, which had passed on the project originally. The snowball effect soon continued with a yogurt shop and day spa joining the mix. Moral of the story: If you’ve got Busboys and Poets, who needs Uncle Sam? —Lydia DePillis
5. MICHEL RICHARD CITRONELLE
3000 M St. NW, (202) 625-2150
Powerful Because: Tom Sietsema says so.
Four stars, baby! Up from three and a half. The one restaurant to appear in every Washington Post dining guide since 2000. Well, except the most recent one, but even Komi didn’t make that list. Michel Richard might just be the only chef in town who can slay the city’s senior food critic with a single amuse-bouche—and reduce him to multiple exclamation points! Ratatouille tacos! Eel schnitzel! Parmesan-flavored cupcakes! Are you kidding me? This place practically writes its own reviews. Now that’s power. —CS
4. CASHION’S EAT PLACE
1819 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 797-1819
Powerful Because: All the hottest chefs in town eat here.
Ann Cashion may have abandoned her namesake eatery in Adams Morgan, but the rest of D.C.’s culinary elite still flock to it. Head into the bar any Friday and Saturday post-midnight and you’re likely to find a cadre of kitchen bosses dining out after their own eateries are closed. I’ve spotted Corduroy’s Tom Power wolfing down a Philly cheese steak with his wife at 1 a.m., Cork’s Ron Tanaka making the rounds with a rocks glass, and Komi’s Johnny Monis catching up with co-owners John and George Manolatos. Fifteen years after it opened, Cashion’s remains a gastronomic attraction in a part of town more commonly associated with jumbo slices and jello shots. —MEM
3. GEORGIA BROWN’S
950 15th St. NW, (202) 393-4499
Powerful Because: D.C. wants to believe in racial harmony—and greens.
The genesis of this pioneering upscale Southern-style eatery, opened in 1993, was kind of a no-brainer. “There was a pretty obvious hole in the market in a city that is essentially Southern,” co-founder Ron Gaines once explained to The Washington Post, which early on dubbed the place “Washington’s Rainbow Room.” Beyond introducing the nation’s capital to the unique concept of greasy fried chicken served upon pristine white-clothed tables, the place earned particular notoriety for attracting a provocatively interracial crowd during an especially divisive time in the city’s history. Change may have come to America since then, but the notably integrated customer base seems intact. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden dined there together as recently as 2009. —CS
2. OLD EBBITT GRILL
675 15th St. NW, (202) 347-4800
Powerful Because: It’s much, much, much older than you.
There’s no doubt that Old Ebbitt Grill, located across the street from the Treasury Department and around the corner from the White House, occupies one of the most powerful restaurant locations in the city. And lucrative: It raked in a reported $24 million in 2009, making it D.C.’s top-selling independent restaurant. The Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns and operates the place, touts its longevity and powerful patrons on its website: Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding all dined there, the proprietors say, and it’s “still a popular meeting spot for political insiders, journalists, celebrities and theater-goers.” Powerful! As far as the kitchen goes, the price of power at Old Ebbitt is not execrable food. Instead, the menu is familiar and accessible, a formula that cycles through mobs of diners between breakfast and the oyster happy hours. Oysters, by the way, are thought to have their own special powers, too. —MG
405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812
Powerful Because: Booking a reservation is harder than rescheduling a flight during a hurricane.
Perhaps no D.C. restaurant has more clout in the culinary world right now than José Andrés’ six-seat, 30-plus-course restaurant-within-a-restaurant in Penn Quarter. The pioneering tasting-menu-only eatery has it all: star power, staying power, and exclusivity to the extreme. Certainly, no other place in town controls diner behavior to the same extent—requiring resy-seekers to synchronize their watches. (Call at precisely 10 a.m. everyday for the foreseeable future and you might get lucky.) Such hoop-jumping would seem silly were the experience not worth the effort: Anthony Bourdain may have hated the deconstructed guacamole with crumbled corn chips (“Have you ever made out with a girl with Fritos breath?”), but critics by and large keep it on their short lists of must-eats. The once experimental concept has grown so successful that it is now on the verge of expanding (upwards of 18 seats total) to the point of pushing out the restaurant that spawned it. R.I.P., Café Atlántico. Branding may be its only setback: At triple its original size, the little bar may get too big for its mini moniker. —CS
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