Lawmakers Spend Heavily at Top D.C. Restaurants and Bars

Members of Congress spend heavily at D.C. hot spots.

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Congressional candidates don't spend all of their campaign money on TV ads. They have to eat, too, and Federal Election Commission data shows exactly where and how much they spend on dining. Aside from promoting transparency in campaign spending, the FEC's itemized disbursement information also helps to identify some of the hottest spots in Washington.

Proximity to Capitol Hill is a deciding factor for many candidates in their eating choices. Three upscale Hill-area restaurants took in a vast majority of D.C. food money from congressional candidates. According to data obtained from the FEC on July 1, 2010, Charlie Palmer Steak tops the list. Since January 2009 candidates have reported spending a total of $392,602 at the restaurant. Nearly as popular are two other restaurants on the north side of the Hill--seafood eatery Johnny's Half Shell ($361,392) and Bistro Bis ($340,884). Also high on the list are area favorites Sonoma ($184,399), the Monocle ($135,363), the Capital Grille ($124,692), and the Caucus Room ($98,766). Only one more distant restaurant makes the list--Bobby Van's on 15th Street, with $176,529. [See which industries give the most to members of Congress.]

The data seems to show a partisan slant in certain restaurants' clientele. Bistro Bis and Sonoma have seen markedly more Democratic traffic, with 88 percent and 75 percent of their campaign business, respectively, coming from Democratic candidates. The Capital Grille and Caucus Room, on the other hand, have received more Republican business, with over two-thirds of all reported campaign money spent at those restaurants coming from GOP candidates.

Chef and owner of Bistro Bis Jeffrey Buben says that he has never had interest in his restaurant being associated with one party in particular. He recalls, "When we first opened, somebody came in and said, 'Are you a Democrat restaurant or a Republican restaurant?' And we said, 'Love all, serve all.' We try to stay out of the politics." Among the Bistro Bis regulars are Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from California, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was also a frequent visitor, says former Bistro Bis general manager Herb Kaplan: "We kind of miss him. He was always a delight. He sparked up the room." [See where Pelosi's campaign cash comes from.]

When it comes to establishments known more for cocktails than cuisine, candidates tend to stray into Southeast Washington. Pennsylvania Avenue sports bar The Pour House (together with its upstairs and upscale establishment, Top of the Hill), has seen the most action, with nearly $21,000 spent there this election cycle. Lounge 201 ($19,284), Bullfeathers, ($17,756) and The Dubliner ($17,666), all also located blocks from the Capitol, are the second-, third-, and fourth-most-prominent watering holes on the list. Bullfeathers also boasts the greatest variety of candidates reporting expenditures there, with 34 congressional candidate patrons there since January 2009, according to the data,.Two other haunts along Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, Hawk & Dove and the Tune Inn, are also among the bars where Congressional candidates have spent significant money this election cycle.

Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of these expenditures come from incumbents, who clearly choose these establishments for the proximity to their workplace. As Buben put it, "We're right there in the neighborhood, so the greatest impact is location. It's about convenience. They start work at six o'clock in the morning, and they go until 10, 11 at night. ... And think about it: they don't go home for lunch." [See which industries give the most to DeMint.]

Some establishments top the list of expenditures purely because of the patronage of one or two candidates. Ozio, a lounge on M Street, is the number-four bar in terms of spending, but all of the $7,800 spent there has come from one person: Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Nearly 80 percent of the $4,500 taken in at Pennsylvania Ave. hole-in-the-wall Tune Inn has come from Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi. Of the $17,666 reportedly spent at the Dubliner this cycle, over one-quarter of it--$4,873--has been spent by New York Republican Rep. Peter King. [See where Jackson's campaign cash comes from.]