By now Americans are used to seeing presidential candidates chomping on corn dogs, pizza, Philly cheese steaks, and other hearty food of the people. For some – but not all — food eaten on the campaign trail has been quite a departure from their usual preferences when eating out.
It is certainly hard to imagine that John F. Kennedy normally patronized down-home restaurants such as the N-Joy Restaurant in Cornell WI which he visited on a campaign stop. The N-Joy was known for its homemade salad dressing and chicken dumpling soup, but not for chicken in champagne sauce, a specialty of the elite La Caravelle in New York. La Caravelle also supplied a French chef for the Kennedy White House and edibles for JFK’s airplane trips. He also enjoyed Washington’s Jockey Club, which he made famous through his patronage and later became a favorite of the Reagans.
Like the Kennedys, the Reagans enjoyed dining in the best restaurants, at least before Ronald Reagan was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt. They liked Le Cirque in NYC and Jean-Louis in Washington, the latter visited by the Reagans just eight days before the shooting. But even apart from security pre-checks, a presidential visit to a restaurant could be a very complicated matter. Before the Reagans dined with friends for an after-theater repast at Le Cirque the restaurant was visited multiple times by the city’s health and fire departments as well as FDA inspectors. Ronald Reagan’s birthday dinner at Jean-Louis required that the restaurant accept no other guests that night.
It’s hard to know how often presidents ate in restaurants in the 19th century. Possibly it was easier for them then, before 1902 when the Secret Service was created following President McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Probably many of them made their way to Delmonico’s and many, many hotel dining rooms. Harvey’s in Washington claimed it had been the “Restaurant of the Presidents since 1858” – the administration of James Buchanan – and it became famous in the Civil War when the Lincolns ate there. Presidents Garfield and Grant were said to enjoy Francesco Martinelli’s table d’hôte in New York City. Martinelli’s and Harvey’s were pretty nice restaurants compared to the cheap New York cellar where Chester Arthur ate corned beef and coffee just as he was about to take office in 1881.
Theodore Roosevelt showed a taste for lively night spots. As Governor of New York, he patronized Shanley’s, a popular NYC resort, and as president was known to frequent the Café Boulevard [pictured above]. He also visited Antoine’s in New Orleans, as did Presidents Taft, Harding, and Coolidge.
Miserable meals on the campaign trail were a hallmark of the failed presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1908, and of his political career generally. According to a Collier’s magazine article, in over 12-years traveling the country he had earned the dismal honor of being a “Quick Lunch Hero.” He had eaten at over 1,700 railroad lunch counters, gulping down “mummified food” and “historical eggs.”
President Wilson might have applauded Bryan for his no-frills meals. During WWI Wilson called upon the country to embrace “the simple, wholesome, nourishing dishes which mother used to make,” gladdening the managers of the earnest, squeaky-clean Childs restaurant chain which quickly shifted to a wheatless wartime menu by substituting rice and corn meal dishes.
Whether by circumstance or taste, Harry Truman was a humble diner. He was a fan of Dixon’s Chili Parlor in Kansas City MO, where the chili was made without onions, garlic, tomatoes, or chili powder. He is shown above visiting Dixon’s on his way home for the holidays, on December 23, 1950. After leaving office he and his wife Bess drove across country, according to a 2009 NY Times story, eating “a lot of fruit plates at roadside diners.” One of their stops was at the Princess Restaurant in Frostburg MD, still in business today complete with a “Truman booth.” In 1958 Truman’s finances improved when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, ensuring former presidents would get pensions and Secret Service protection, but somehow I doubt that this transformed him into a gourmet diner.
Although it’s probably true that Truman genuinely enjoyed Dixon’s chili and JFK really liked La Caravelle’s chicken in champagne sauce, it’s hard to know how much presidential restaurant choices were based on esthetic as opposed to political factors. President Carter had a tendency to eat in popular restaurants – such as KC’s Arthur Bryant’s [pictured above], NYC’s Mama Leone’s, and (surprisingly) Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Were those strategic choices? If still in business today, it’s certain that Aunt Fanny’s Cabin would not be on the approved list.
According to John Mariani in America Eats Out, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter generally weren’t big on restaurant going. Nixon, who came from a restaurant family, would sometimes go for dinner at Trader Vic’s in the Capitol Hilton near the White House. He was also said to be a devotee of NYC’s Colony where he was allowed to bring his dog into the main dining room. But the president who was hardest to keep in the White House was George H. W. Bush who enjoyed Italian (I Ricchi, DC), Chinese (Peking Gourmet Inn, Falls Church VA), seafood (Mabel’s Lobster Claw, Kennebunkport ME), and Tex-Mex (Rio Grande Café in Texas).
Apart from patronizing restaurants, often making them famous overnight, presidents can greatly influence the entire industry. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s election was responsible for the repeal of prohibition in 1933, so critical to restaurants’ survival, while President Carter’s dislike of the three-martini lunch led him to champion cutting the deduction on business meals as part of a tax reform plan. He failed but eventually the deduction was reduced to 50%. Apparently the reform was not as disastrous to the industry as they had predicted.
© Jan Whitaker, 2016