The Washington Post
Bidens fan flames of food debate
The first couple ordered the same entree, setting commenters ablaze
Where and what presidents eat is an enduring fascination. We love to scrutinize former president Donald Trump’s ketchup-doused steaks or the Obamas’ penchant for culinary hot spots.
So when President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, recently dined out in Washington at the popular Red Hen in Bloomingdale, their order — a chicory salad, grilled bread and butter, and two bowls of rigatoni — drew attention, and ultimately set off a virtual food fight.
It wasn’t what they ate, exactly, that got people all worked up. Their choices were on-brand: The Bidens are well known to be fans of redsauced pasta. And they hadn’t opted for some culinary lightning rod, such as foie gras or pizza topped with pineapple. It was the mere fact that they both ordered the same entree that set group chats and social media sideline commenters ablaze across the land.
For many, it’s verboten to choose the same entree as one’s dining partner. Hannah Madden, a 24year-old Washington resident who does fundraising for a political nonprofit, is firmly in this camp.
“Getting the same thing as the person you’re eating dinner with is silly,” she says. “The whole point of going out to eat is getting to try as many things as possible.”
For her and others, the discussion that ensued after the Bidens made news for their matching order revealed just how deeply people hold their beliefs about how couples (and friends, even) should handle restaurant orders. “At first, I thought it’s funny that everyone is in such a twist about this,” Madden said. “And then I realized, ‘Oh wait, I’m in a twist about this!’”
That all came as a surprise to Red Hen chef and owner Michael Friedman. Restaurants often enjoy a bit of buzz following such a highprofile visit, but he wasn’t expecting the direction the chatter took. “It’s such an honor to have a presidential visit, but it’s funny that this is what came out of it,” he said. “It’s a fascinating thread people have chosen to follow, and I’m just really enjoying the banter.”
Friedman has been in the restaurant business long enough to see all kinds of joint orders. Personally, he said, he and his wife often order different things, though not because of a grand strategy. He just happens to be the more adventurous diner. “I’m the guy ordering the offal, while she’s getting the salmon,” he said. “But maybe we’d get the same thing if it’s what we both wanted.”
But for many, the idea of ordering identical dishes and depriving themselves of the chance for maximum menu sampling leads to serious culinary FOMO.
Couples’ openness to sharing dishes exists on a spectrum. Some might treat their restaurant order like a battle plan, strategically gaming out their communal choices to maximize variety. Or they might be like me and my husband: Typically, we will get separate dishes, perhaps with a quick consultation — I’m more opposed to ordering the same things than he is — then we’ll trade a few bites.
There are those who aren’t on the same page at all. Maybe one’s a sharer and the other isn’t. And we all know that competitive orderer who’s eager to crow about getting the better dish than their partner.
Christine Gwinn, a 31-year-old government lawyer from Silver Spring, Md., takes a more situational approach to the decision. She and her husband of two years have unspoken “soft guidelines” of not ordering the same thing — at least most of the time. “If it’s our first visit to a restaurant, I would want to try more things,” she said. “But for a second or third visit, I’m not opposed to it if there’s something we thought was really delicious and if one of us would be sad that we didn’t have all of it.”
Not all couples are so simpatico, said dating coach Damona Hoffman, who also hosts the “Dates and Mates” podcast. Dining is fraught with potential for conflict, she noted, whether it’s the question of ordering the same thing or differing views on sharing food. Hoffman said people often read more deeply into their partner’s stances. “It’s a dividing line. In dating, we’re always looking for red flags, and you might think, ‘If you’re not willing to share a meal, does this mean you’re not a sharer?’”
Of course, she noted that people might not feel comfortable going splitsies on a first or second date, while older couples have probably established their routines.
Lori Nave and her husband certainly have. The 68-year-old professor from Toronto said the couple have been having the same conversation for the past 40-some years of restaurant visits. “It never fails. We sit down, and his first comment is, ‘I’ll order this, and you can order that,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait, I haven’t even looked at the friggin’ menu yet!’” she said. After so many years, she’s gotten used to it and only rarely insists on picking her own dish, regardless of his plan, which means they almost never get the same dish.
Nave discovered that her husband didn’t reserve that strategy only for her. Years ago, he traveled with a colleague, and after a very successful business trip, the company rewarded them with dinner for four. The two couples sat down to eat, and her husband launched into his usual routine. The colleague, she said, laughed. “She said he had done that at every meal of their trip,” Nave said. “He’s shameless.”
In conversations I had about this story, to anyone who expressed disdain for the first couple’s doubledown order, I would ask: “But have you had the Red Hen’s rigatoni?” Because it might just make you question your commitment to diversifying your order. Personally, I’ve encountered only a few dishes that would make me diverge from my let’s-order-different-entrees preference when dining with my husband. The first was a decadent braised rabbit at a now-shuttered bistro in our neighborhood. When we started going there years ago, my husband would always order it, even in the dead of summer, while I would resist following suit, always wanting to try something else. Inevitably, I would prefer his dish, and I would reach across the table for bites until he grew annoyed and I mildly jealous. Eventually, I wised up and started ordering my own.
Another dish that might fall into that category? Yep, it’s the rigatoni — a homey bowlful of fennel-flecked sausage and tomato-slicked pasta that’s showered with salty pecorino cheese — that the Bidens ate. It’s the restaurant’s signature dish, one that Friedman has served since the Red Hen opened 10 years ago. He figures they still sell 50 to 70 orders a night. “When I worked the pasta line, I would dream about it,” Friedman said. “But I’m still passionate about it because of the love it’s gotten from around the world.”
Even for the most ardent of always-sharers, there are some dishes so good, you just might want your own.