How Big Shots Hide and Dine

Posted March 3, 2010 at 3:43pm

It was a typical hot July evening at José Andrés’ tapas haven, Oyamel. Dozens of diners hovered around the bar, sipping on margaritas waiting for their tables. But on this particular evening, something was different.

The large windows that usually look out onto Seventh Street Northwest were obscured by several large, black SUVs. Two men wearing suits and wires in the ear stood at the front door of the restaurant, rummaging through purses. In the restaurant’s glass-enclosed private dining room sat first lady Michelle Obama, White House chef Sam Kass and at least one other guest. Diners craned their necks and slowly walked by the dining room, gawking at Obama and her companions.

Try as they might, the restaurant staff had little luck keeping their special guest’s identity a secret — within moments Twitter was abuzz. Such is the plight of the power dining spot.

Restaurants try to be discreet, but then “there are like six black Escalades outside,” says Adam Crocini, general manager of the Source, a restaurant accustomed to having big shots walk through the door.

Since it opened in 2008, the Source has welcomed such power players as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in addition to Obama. Typically, the news of a high-profile diner passes only between the restaurant management and the kitchen management to protect the person’s privacy. Once the guest arrives, staff are told and the VIP is seated at a special table that obscures his face from the rest of the dining room.

“We have a booth that’s off to the far back right of the restaurant, and unless you walked all the way to the end of the dining room and came to a wall, you’d never know who was there,” Crocini says.

It’s a problem particular to Washington’s high-end restaurants: what to do with VIPs who want to come and dine just like regular folks, but who also need a certain level of security and privacy.

Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons boasts a table similar to the Source’s. The restaurant, which has hosted Oprah and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), has a booth that is far from the entrance and looks out a window. Most diners in the restaurant are able to see only the back of the guest’s head, while a nearby round table is perfect for seating Secret Service members.

One floor below Bourbon Steak lies Seasons Restaurant, well-known for its power breakfast. Seasons has been playing host to power brokers for 30 years. The restaurant offers two hidden tables — Nos. 43 and 32 — that have been visited by former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actor George Clooney. The tables are located in a corner, and the restaurant will even put up a partition to conceal who is seated there.

“Privacy is our utmost priority when we have celebrities dining in our restaurants. These high-profile clients stay with us because they know they will be able to enjoy their meal or walk around the hotel without being bothered or interrupted by staff or guests,” says Christian Clerc, Four Seasons regional vice president and general manager.

While obscured tables are often available, some restaurants take privacy one step further and put the famous in private dining rooms, as Oyamel did with the first lady. Seasons offers two private dining rooms that have traditionally been reserved by secretaries of State for a morning breakfast meeting. One holds 22 guests, while the other holds 12. The rooms are also accessible by a separate entrance.

Upon visiting B. Smith’s at Union Station, Michelle Obama was seated in a private dining room. The historic restaurant is housed in the section of the station that was once the president’s private waiting area in the age of train travel. The eatery features two private dining rooms that once served as the president and first lady’s quarters.

“In Michelle Obama’s case, her experience was treated very low-key with the utmost of privacy,” General Manager Lionel Holmes says. “First ladies have received guests in that room since the early 1900s, and her party was no different.”

On that day, the first lady was able to sneak out a side entrance after her meal.

Hiding a power player from onlookers is only half the battle. Making sure the restaurant staff respects her privacy is of equal importance. The Source waits until the very last minute to alert wait staff to a high-profile guest, though restaurateur Ashok Bajaj says he doesn’t try to keep it a secret.

The staff “knows when the Secret Service is hanging around beforehand,” says Bajaj, whose restaurants the Bombay Club and the Oval Room have seen VIPs such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “Working in Washington, you get used to it.”