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With Obama Dining Out, Washington's Restaurant Scene May Benefit From Spotlight

The Obamas dine out

Since his election, Barack Obama has provided the Midas touch for a score of small vendors and gift shops in the nation's capital and elsewhere who have found success selling anything featuring the 44th president's image.

Now Obama is raising similar hopes among Washington restaurants after visiting two dining establishments within one week.

Last Saturday, Obama had lunch with District Mayor Adrian Fenty at Ben's Chili Bowl, prompting cheers and applause at the landmark D.C. restaurant.

On Thursday night, cheers and applause greeted Obama and 12 others at Equinox where he celebrated his wife's 45th birthday.

Now competition is breaking out among other restaurants to be the next destination for Obama, said Amanda McClements, a food writer and author of the blog metrocurean.com.

"I think there's certainly going to be invitations handed out to the president and the first lady," she told FOXNews.com. "Especially restaurants right by the White House."

McClements said even some of the city's best restaurants will struggle to stay afloat because of the economic crisis.

"We hope with Obama hitting these places, there will be renewed interest" in the DC dining scene, she said.

Dining enthusiasts expect Obama to eat out much more often than President Bush, who rarely ventured out to restaurants during his eight years in Washington.

"I think that he's made it pretty clear that he's not going to be a homebody," McClements said. "He hasn't even moved in yet and he's already been to two important DC restaurants."

Obama drew laughs from the Ben's staff and nearby patrons when he walked up to the counter and asked, "Where's the food at?"

They ordered a house specialty, a Chili Half-Smoke -- a quarter-pound half pork, half beef smoked sausage on a steamed bun with mustard, onions and chilli sauce. They also picked up some chilli-topped French fries and iced tea.

Ben's Chili Bow celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer. Asked if this was his first visit, Obama replied: "It is, actually, and it was terrific."

The owners of Equinox, which is celebrating its 10 anniversary, had to stop diners from coming in after word spread that the Obamas were there.

"I was trying to be fiercely protective of their privacy," said Ellen Gray, co-founder of the restaurant. "I didn't want people hanging out and bugging out."

Gray said Equinox has always been a dining destination for high-powered players in Washington, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Bono. But Obama, she said, is by far the biggest star to dine there.

"He is a tremendous presence and we were blown away," she said. "We got a snapshot of the Obamas in a personal moment, all politics aside. It was their moment of celebrating and it was great to see them as regular people."

Gray said she wouldn't try to promote Obama's visit to attract more diners, explaining that she and her husband are "down to earth."

"We want people to come in because the food is terrific," she said.

But McClements said the Grays won't have to do anything to promote Obama's visit.

"You can't buy that kind of publicity," she said. "Straight up, there is no better publicity than having the president dine at your restaurant. The Equinox meal has already circulated across the news wires. I also think that national media will be taking another look at the DC dining scene."

McClements said frequent dining appearances by Obama could propel the restaurant revitalization that began in Washington in recent years, something beyond the capacity of President Bush if he was night owl.

"I think it's always an honor to host a president of the United States but I think Obama is bringing a sort of celebrity that we haven't seen in Washington in a long time," she said. "He is young and charismatic and for a lot of people, it's akin to seeing a major Hollywood celebrity. I'm not sure I would say the same about President Bush."