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President Obama dines out; Washington chefs speak out

For the president, dining out isn't always just about the cuisine and ambiance. Obama has also used Washington-area restaurants as backdrops for official White House events and campaign stops.

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As Obama's first four years in the Oval Office come to a close and the next term remains to be decided, The Hill took a look at some of the restaurants that have received a presidential seal of approval.

One of the first couple's recent stops was to Mintwood Place in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The site was chosen to host "Dinner With Barack," a campaign event in which supporters got the chance to sit down for a meal and share their stories with the Obamas.

Mintwood Place's managing partner, Saied Azali, began to tear up while talking about the president's August visit.

"It affected me personally and ... that's one of the best things that's happened to me in my life, so it has affected me, in a sense. The money-wise, I don't really know. It's not that important to me right now, as long as he came in here, I saw him, shook his hand, took a picture with him. How many times do you get the chance to shake hands with the president?" said Azali.

Azali, who has been in the restaurant business on and off for the past 30 years, pointed out that politicians are local "celebrities" who can have a big influence on businesses.

Ben's Chili Bowl got a visit from then-President-elect Obama 10 days before inauguration. 

The president's outings have helped fuel the city's transition into a "foodie town," said part-owner Nizam B. Ali, whose family has operated the U Street NW fixture since 1958.

"The whole gambit of people come here and I think it really says, it said that he was going to be a Washingtonian and he was going to go out in the city … and it's that kind of rite of passage, unofficial rite of passage, that you know when you come to D.C. you've got to come to Ben's, so it was perfect," Ali said.

Across town, Kenny's BBQ Smokehouse, a lesser-known Capitol Hill joint, got a very welcome surprise when Obama showed up with little notice for a Father's Day lunch event in June.

"Just a surprise, just, you know, fantastic," said Kwang Jeon, the owner of Kenny's. "I could not explain by my English knowledge, but it was very, very, very, very fantastic. I was very, very happy."

The purveyor of ribs, red beans and rice and collard greens suspected that Michelle Obama, whom he said ate at Kenny's a few years ago, might have encouraged her husband to check out the eatery.

Another restaurant choice influenced by the first lady was Restaurant Nora, known for its organic menu. Nora Pouillon has been serving guests, including past presidents and current White House officials, at her Dupont Circle establishment since 1979.

Pouillon, whose restaurant hosted a surprise birthday party for Michelle Obama in January 2010, pointed out that not all presidents experienced the Washington restaurant scene with as much enthusiasm during their time in office.

"I think it has a big impact on Washington. I think Washington people ... like to know that their president, you know, comes to the restaurant and appreciates what they're doing and wants to see how a community functions and be part of it. I think it's great. I think it's great. I think that it's a big plus that President Obama does that," she said.

— This story was reported and produced by Geneva Sands and Adele Hampton.