The Bidens' dinner date at Fiola Mare shows they're still creatures of habit

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President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden's Saturday night dinner date made headlines, including particularly gleeful ones in conservative media, for the president's mask mishap: He was seen exiting Georgetown's Fiola Mare without a face covering, seemingly a violation of D.C. law that mandates masks in eateries when a patron isn't drinking or eating.

But the visit drew also attention from those waiting to see what kind of dining out the first couple would do.

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The Bidens' tenure as the nation's diners-in-chief has been complicated, of course, by the coronavirus. For months after the Delaware Democrat took office, restaurants in Washington and across the country were often closed or offered limited services.

But a picture is slowly emerging of what will be on the Bidens' plates when they do step outside the White House gates to dine: their personal, mostly traditional tastes, along with a side of carefully crafted messaging.

Related video: Biden warns staff while picking up lunch, 'These are my tacos!'

"That's the soft diplomacy of politics," says Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio state senator and the author of the cookbook "United We Eat." "The everyday mundane actions, the things you and I don't think about, come with meaning and consequence."

A look at the few places the first couple have visited since taking office indicates that they (and their staffs, let's be real) are aware of the optics their dining choices create.

This weekend's jaunt to Fiola Mare seemed almost inevitable: The Georgetown restaurant is known for accommodating VIPs (and their security details) from the Obamas to Oprah, and classic Italian fare is known to be a favorite in the Biden household. Previously, the couple had a Memorial Day brunch with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at upscale French bistro Le Diplomate. Some critics painted it as out-of-touch - but that pick was pure Biden, too. It's a place he has visited before (where he has been known to order the American-style burger) - and he's a creature of habit, that reliable Biden.

Presidents aren't expected, after all, to dine like college kids, notes Ruth Tam, a producer and host of the Dish City podcast, which examines Washington's food scene. "Call me when the president waits in line at George's King of Falafel or gets a jumbo slice at 1 a.m.," she says, referring to a takeout spot favored by Georgetown students and the city's traditional post-boozing meal of massive pizza portions, respectively. "We don't want them to be too relatable."

Beyond the expected establishment-style dining that Le Dip, as locals refer to it, and Fiola Mare represent, the couple has made a point of also picking a handful of small, independent businesses around Washington to patronize for takeout, some of which are women- and minority-owned.

The president made a post-church bagel stop at the Georgetown branch of the Call Your Mother deli in January, which could have be seen as a gesture of support for struggling small businesses. Call Your Mother in particular was seen as a mid-pandemic success story, opening a second location on Capitol Hill amid lockdowns.

And does Jill Biden merely like sweet French treats? Perhaps, but a pre-Valentine's Day shopping trip to the Sweet Lobby, a pint-size bakery noted for its multihued macarons, similarly had the effect of boosting an establishment led by a woman of color and an immigrant: Owner Winnette McIntosh Ambrose is originally from Trinidad.

And in a more direct alignment of food and politics, the president used a May visit to Taqueria Las Gemelas not just to pick up a quartet of tacos and a few quesadillas, but also to inform the owners in person that it was the first restaurant in the country to be approved for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund included in the administration-backed stimulus bill.

That's a return to the kind of strategic dining that the Obamas engaged in during their eight years in the White House. They had their personal favorites, often eating, too, at established restaurants used to accommodating VIPs, especially those with Secret Service details. But they often combined dining with messaging: Obama treated the Russian president to an all-American meal of fries and cheeseburgers at Ray's Hell Burgers in Arlington, Va., and he brought along his then-VP for a visit to Taylor Gourmet in 2013, just as the Philly-style sub joint was offering discounts to furloughed federal workers.

That the Bidens are visiting restaurants at all is a welcome statement, Tam says. "Seeing the Bidens and the Harrises out is a sign that yes, nature is healing," Tam says. "There are different ways to find this reassuring, whether it's a vote of confidence in small businesses or because they're eating out at all - or because they're simply not Trump."

President Donald Trump famously didn't patronize any establishment outside the White House that didn't bear his name; his only and infrequent meals outside the White House in his four years in Washington took place at the steakhouse down the street in the Trump hotel.

And while they're no homebodies, the Bidens aren't expected to mirror the Obama's restaurant preferences completely. The Obamas often preferred newer and buzzier spots, like when they celebrated the former first lady's birthday at chef Spike Gjerde's A Rake's Progress in the hip Line Hotel before it even opened to the public.

The Bidens' tastes run to classic American and Italian fare. And the president's penchant for a humble ice cream cone is well-documented. "He's pretty much a basic eater," Jill Biden once told Parade magazine of her husband.

"I don't think they're going to be trying to get to the most trendy hot spots," Cafaro says, noting that the Bidens have been around Washington for decades, and have had a chance to find spots where they feel comfortable. "I don't think they see themselves as tastemakers, but they're really trying to live their priorities."

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