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Bill Clinton, the ultimate restaurant reviewer
Bill Clinton has dined at Bukhara, a restaurant in New Delhi, on just two occasions, but the afterglow of those visits has never worn off. Since that first meal in 2000, so many customers have uttered some variation of "Give us what the president had, " that the restaurant has started serving a mixed-meat sampler - a one-off prepared for Clinton - as a special. The Bill Clinton platter, as it is known, is an aromatic spread of mixed meats, lentils and oven-baked bread. You can also ask for "the Clinton table, " the six-seater said to be his perch of choice.
It may sound improbable, but few phrases in the word of food are more bankable than "Bill Clinton ate here". Somehow, the former US president has become an arbiter of international fine dining, conferring a sort of informal Michelin star just by showing up. He routinely pops up in guidebooks and articles about restaurants, with the implication that a beloved gourmand has attached his seal of approval. If you travel enough, you will eventually hear a tip that goes something like: "When in Madrid, try Casa Lucio. Bill Clinton ate there. " Or "Check out Le Pont de la Tour in London. Clinton loves it. "
How did Clinton become earth's top restaurant maven in the non-US category ? He has good connections everywhere he visits, so he's unlikely to wind up at a dud. And when Clinton visits a restaurant, everybody knows it. Douglas Band, an aide, says his boss introduces himself to every diner, every waiter and every kitchen staff member. He poses for photographs and signs guest books. Someone from his staff sends a thank-you note a few days later.
Clinton's taste in restaurants, when he selects them, runs to the bright, lively and unfussy. The white table cloth, 10-course prix fixe experience is not his style. For health reasons, he is a vegan when travelling in the US. Overseas, however, he's been know to stray. "He had the filet mignon when he was here, four months ago, " says Javier Blázquez, owner of Casa Lucio. "The doctors tell him not to, but he does anyway. "
Though Clinton's patronage to restaurants in the US has provided PR boosts for places like Il Mulino in Manhattan, the upside is on a far greater scale for overseas restaurants. Managers from Beijing to Iceland say an appearance by Clinton can be transformational, launching an obscure eatery to fame and cementing the reputation of well-known favourites. Best of all, the impact lasts for years. "We had 25 people from Sweden here last night, " says Detlef Obermuller, owner of Gugelhof, a Berlin restaurant that hosted Clinton and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2000. "I asked them, 'How do you know about this place? And she took a newspaper clipping out of her pocket. I can't read Swedish, but she told me it was about Clinton eating here. "
Not that Obermuller has forgotten the details. He was given a 20-minute heads-up by German security before Clinton and company arrived. News spread quickly and by the time dessert was served, a crowd of 2, 000 had gathered on the sidewalk to greet the man. The next day, a German newspaper ran a photograph on its front page.
Clinton doesn't research where he eats. In fact, he rarely chooses the restaurants. Typically, restaurant ideas come from a member of his team, convenience often weighing as heavily as flavour. Other times, the choice is left to local dignitaries.
Good fortune, it seems, plays a surprisingly large role in the Bill Clinton international restaurant sweepstakes. He helped a hot dog stand in Reykjavik called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur achieve worldwide acclaim after he stopped there during a visit to Iceland in 2004. But the ex-president nearly walked right by.
"I have this woman who has been working for me for 30 years. She saw Clinton and shouted at him to stop and try one of our hot dogs, " said Gudrun Kristmundottir, the stand's owner. "And he did. " In 2006, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur ("city's best hot dogs" in Icelandic) turned up on The Guardian's list of the top five European food stalls.
One warning: there is a lot of misinformation out there. Yahoo's Travel site, for instance, implies Clinton was one of the famous patrons of Kosebasi, a kebab joint in Istanbul. Not true, says the restaurant's manager, Piero Ciantra. "But we had Chelsea Clinton here once, " he said. "She's a vegetarian, so we made her kebab out of eggplant. "
A few days after her Kosebasi meal, a man who'd been in the restaurant that evening showed up and bought the chair in which she had sat. The Clinton magic apparently extends to the former first daughter too.
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