03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No Recession Special On The D.C. Power Lunch Menu

There's no recession special on the menu at D.C.'s hottest power lunch spots. At a time of double-digit unemployment, when one in eight Americans is on food stamps, the bistros and steakhouses that serve the Capitol crowd seem to to be doing fine -- with no reduction in business and no fewer fawning media profiles.

In September, the Washington Post offered a peek at the rich and famous powerbrokers who dine at Ristorante Tosca. On Monday, CNN visited the Palm, the Capital Grille, the Monocle, and Charlie Palmer Steak, where the executive chef boasts that every member of the House and Senate has dined at some point.

"You're going to be seen, you're going to see who else is there, and to sort of hobnob and be part of the club," said Washingtonian editor-at-large Garrett Graff. "The private rooms, the private dining is an important thing if you're holding a fundraiser or you're trying to bring together a group to try to have a private conversation."

But is it really elevated hobnobbing that brings the big spenders to these restaurants? Or is that they are the favored places for moneyed interests to quietly exchange favors among themselves and our elected representatives?

At least in part, it's the cold-hearted and nonstop quest for cash. The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation obtains invitations to fundraisers happening at places like Charlie Palmer and the Monocle almost every single day -- and Sunlight doubts that the invites it receives constitute the majority of fundraisers happening at any given time.

Here's a sampler of upcoming fundraisers: On Tuesday, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is having lunch at Bistro Bis. On Thursday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will have breakfast at the Monocle and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) will dine at Charlie Palmer Steak. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) will be at Capital Grille for a "financial services dinner" later this month.

Lawmakers need so much money to fund winning campaigns that more than 40 such events can take place on a single day, regardless of whether the event interferes with a hearing. The venues are already expensive, but the price of admission for a fundraiser is typically a campaign contribution ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. That's one powerful lunch!

What happens if you show up at Bistro Bis and tell the host you're there to see the senator? The host looks at a schedule and asks, "Which one?"