Obama's coming to Washington, but will he go out?

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- At Ben's Chili Bowl, the soon-to-be first family has an open invitation to dine for free on chili-smothered sausages.

A couple of miles away, the owners of the city's only Kenyan restaurant know exactly what they'll serve if Barack Obama stops by for a taste of his African heritage: tilapia smothered in onions, tomatoes and cilantro.

Washington residents far from the city's power center are hopeful the 44th president will differ from his predecessor in more ways than just politics.

The expectation is that Obama - already at ease in big cities from his time in Chicago - will venture into town more than President George W. Bush, who rarely made forays into unofficial Washington.

"There's a joke that around Lafayette Square, in the bars and restaurants, you had to turn the music down at 9 p.m. because the president went to bed," said William Hanbury, president of the city's tourism bureau. With the Obamas, "we're hoping that they'll be able to get out more and enjoy D.C."

Many recent presidents have had a somewhat distant relationship with the district, rarely venturing beyond downtown, presidential observers say. Bush prefers spending time in Crawford, Texas, and President Ronald Reagan seemed far more content at his California ranch.

George H.W. Bush also wasn't known for mixing with the locals, though he did put a Chinese restaurant on the map with frequent trips to the Peking Gourmet Inn in the suburb of Falls Church, Va.

Bill Clinton was the exception. The former president's forays included frequent jogs through the city, even stopping to refuel at McDonald's. Shortly before taking office, he strolled through a business district in a black neighborhood, shaking hands with the locals.

Lynne Breaux, head of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, said a president's social habits are important. They set the tone for everyone else - particularly in difficult times.

In October 2001, for instance, as the city's economy reeled following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush made a rare public appearance by joining then-Mayor Anthony Williams at Morton's of Chicago on Connecticut Avenue. Diners stood and chanted "USA! USA!"

"That was major for our city, especially at that time," Breaux said.

There's an unfortunate side effect, though, for any leader seeking to escape the White House bubble - nightmarish gridlock caused by road closings for the president's motorcade.

Vehicles have even been hauled off city streets with little warning to eliminate the threat of car bombs as the commander in chief makes his way around Washington.

And while security concerns have been heightened since Sept. 11, authorities won't get into specifics about how that affects the president's outings.

"Presidents end up being very sensitive to disruptions they cause when they go out," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "They want to make sure they don't do things that create problems."

Still, Ornstein doesn't expect that will keep the Obamas put. The Obamas seem intent to stay connected as much as security allows.

"Both Barack and I believe that we can have an impact in the D.C. area," Michelle Obama recently told "60 Minutes." "You know, in terms of making sure we're contributing to the community that we immediately live in. That's always been something that we try to do."

And locals are already lighting up the blogosphere with suggestions of where they should go.

"The new family to join the White House has to try 2Amys pizza," one poster identified only as Roxanne wrote on Washingtonian magazine's dining blog. "The kids love it and the wine selection is amazing."

Amy Morgan, the co-owner of the Neapolitan pizzeria near the National Cathedral, said the restaurant is already accustomed to big-name personalities like George Stephanopoulos and Jim Lehrer.

But Obama is generating a sense of anticipation in areas less accustomed to brushes with Washington's elite. On a blighted stretch of Georgia Avenue, William and Alice Mukabane are hopeful the first family will dine at their Kenyan restaurant Safari DC.

Posters and photographs of Barack and Michelle Obama hang behind the bar in an area they call "Obama Corner." The centerpiece is a large white banner where customers have scrawled well-wishes. Four squares remain empty - reserved for the first family's signatures.

"We know he has so much in his hands, but we have faith he'll be able to make it here to sign it for us," Alice Mukabane said.

At Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, black owned and operated since 1958, a small sign hanging behind the counter where chili hot dogs and burgers are served up announces a very brief list of those who eat for free: Bill Cosby and the Obamas.

"We don't have any anticipation he'll be a regular, but if he loves chili we're happy to deliver," said Kamal Ali, who runs the family business with his brother.

Ali also had some advice for the soon-to-be president: Order the signature half-smoke, a type of sausage found in D.C., and get it smothered in chili.

"If you come in here and just order a bowl of chili, we know you're not from Washington," he said.

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