If anyone can talk about the intersection of restaurants and lobbyists, it's Brian Marshall Johnson. The founder of The Hungry Lobbyist has spent the past few years blogging about lobbyist hangouts, reviewing restaurants and working on a cookbook that would modify D.C. classic recipes to fit the "toothpick rule" (the law that states lobbyists can't really accept free food beyond the little bites available at receptions). Eater talked to Johnson, whose day job is a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, about the lobbyist dining culture, his favorite under-the-radar spots and what's next for him.
So what made you start the site in the first place?
I've always been really into cooking, and really into food. I remember one day I was up here lobbying and I left the Hill and I was remarking to one friend, 'I'm starving,' and he responded, 'Weren't you just at a big event, one of those fundraisers?' I said, 'Well, yeah.' 'Weren't they serving lobster and steak?' 'No, is that what you think happens?' Then I started explaining the [lobbyist restrictions] that recently went into affect, and I thought to myself, 'Even if a food has to be on a toothpick, it doesn't still have to be crappy.' So that was the original impetus for the concept and the cookbook, and it's evolved from there.
With the new relaunch [of the site], I put a lot of thought into it, and I'm pretty happy about where we are now. There are restaurant reviews, and we help lobbyists navigate the K Street classics, the off-the-beaten-path places. I even have a "lobbyist on the run" section for food trucks and stuff. I'd like to add a lifestyle section as well that talks about tailors, custom suit-makers. Basically, why no lobbyist should carry a man bag.
So, on account of all these restrictions, has the lobbyist restaurant culture changed a lot since?
It's really interesting. In 2006, 2007, the rules changed but the economy was still booming, and everyone seemed to be flush. Now, we're certainly better off than other places in the country. But you can't fly a Senator to a ski chalet for a week, and that's probably a good thing. Does it make sense you also couldn't buy them a $30 dinner? I don't know. But as long as you have D.C., you're going to have lobbying. I think the great thing about D.C. is you don't just have places like Solly's and the Brixton, and then on the other end places like BLT Steak and Citronelle. There are all these places in the middle. I think people like Spike Mendelsohn and Mike Isabella and José Andrés (well, except for Minibar), people like that have found this middle ground where you can spend $40-50 on food and it's really, really good food.
So despite the economy, law changes, etc., are there still the big ticket lobbyist meals going on?
Oh, absolutely. Just go to The Palm on any given night, look at the five tops and the six tops. Have dinner, a couple bottle of wines, and you're hitting a $1,000 bill pretty quickly. But people think it's a D.C. thing, and it's not. The state lobbyists in Oklahoma are doing the exact same thing.
What do you see as the main haunts for lobbyists in DC, generally?
Tosca, downtown. That's a really good power lunch place. Classics like Bobby Van's Grill, Capital Grille, old school staples like the Prime Rib. They still get business.
P.J. Clarke's since they made the bar downstairs private — that's been a really good spot. It's really cool, sort of quintessential D.C., even though they're based out of New York. It has a really cool atmosphere.
It's funny though, you go out to Franklin Park or McPherson in the middle of the day, and you see all these guys in suits on park benches, eating Korean tacos.
But yes, places like Tosca, Blue Duck Tavern, Brasserie Beck, Sei in Chinatown, they're constantly full of folks. Even new places like Kushi, you'll see a bunch of guys eating yakitori and sushi.
What are some of your favorite places?
Off the Record at the Hay Adams has a really cool atmosphere. P.J. Clarke's Sidecar is certainly unique and provides a different atmosphere. I even like heading down 14th Street — places like The Pig, Estadio, Masa 14. You wouldn't consider them a K Street staple, but it's only four blocks away, why not venture over there? On the Hill, why go to the Monocle when you can go to Belga Cafe and get some amazing food? If you're going to have lunch anyway, why not try something new — you don't have to get a $40 lunch at Bobby Van's; you can head to Mandu and have some bulgogi. Just because you're a lobbyist or a consultant, you shouldn't feel like you have to stick to certain places because of your profession.
Is lobbying over a restaurant meal effective?
You're breaking bread, right? It's a good way to get to know someone. We all have to eat. It's something we have in common. Not everyone plays golf, not everyone rides bike. The commonality brings us together.
What kind of crazy lobbying meal stories have you heard?
You certainly hear about the seven hour lunches. People going to The Palm for lunch, and you join them, and go back to the office. They call you around 5:30 and say, 'Let's go to happy hour,' and you say, 'Ok, where?' and they say, 'We're still here'. Those marathon events usually happen when someone comes into town, a group of guys are getting together for someone's birthday. There's a friend of ours in government relations who moved out West and every time he's in town there's a big lunch that usually lasts all day Friday. But these aren't occasions when you're raiding your expense account. That's pretty irresponsible. I think the six hour lunches on the company tab are certainly few and far between.
What's your drink of choice?
It depends on lunch or dinner or where I am. If I'm going to Off the Record, it's a Rob Roy, up. If I'm at Del Frisco's, Tom, who used to bartend at the Capital Grille, makes the best martini in DC. If I'm going to Cafe Belga, I'll get a Kasteel Rouge.
It also depends on the time of year. At Poste's outdoor courtyard in the spring or P.J. Clarke's, I'm probably having white wine. If it's winter, and we're indoors, it's a heavy red or something like that. But I'm certainly a vodka martini, dry, extra dirty, up kind of guy.
Any other upcoming plans for The Hungry Lobbyist?
One of the cool things is that Famous DC approached me back in September on collaborating on a series called Feasting Famously. I talk to politicos and politicians and chefs and bloggers, people like Bart Vandaele from Belga Cafe and Tucker Carlson. It's an interesting niche, looking at these people who are famous for D.C. and where they're eating.