In May 2016, the Vietnamese noodle store Bún Chả Hương Liên went from relative obscurity to being on television screens all over the world, after two of the world’s most famous men chose it as their dinner spot in Hanoi.
Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama came for the slippery noodles or fragrant pork patties—but the world tuned in not for the food, but to see these two icons sit on blue plastic stools and drinking chilled bottles of local beer.
At the time of the meal, Bourdain was filming the CNN series Parts Unknown. A year earlier, he told the network, the White House had reached out to try to arrange a meal between the president and himself: something fun and unexpected. This relative hole-in-the-wall, where the total cost of the meal came in at under $10, fit the bill. (Bourdain picked up the check.)
Footage from the series shows the men laughing and chatting over their noodles like two old friends. “Is it appropriate to chuck one of these whole suckers in your mouth?” the president asks, gesturing at a patty with his chopsticks. “Well, slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world,” Bourdain replies, with a laugh. They received no directive from the White House about which topics were and were not up for discussion, Bourdain later told the network. “We spoke like two dads, and Southeast Asian enthusiasts, and had a good time.”
Today, the restaurant continues to thrive. It looks much as it did when Bourdain and Obama sat down to eat there, but there are a few key changes. Guests hoping to relive the experience can now order a “Combo Obama” from the menu: bun cha, a seafood spring roll, and a bottle of Hanoi beer for a total of 85,000 VND, or about $3.60. But what they can’t do is sit down at that same table, in those same blue plastic stools. The restaurant’s encased the entire set-up in glass for posterity. (From time to time, they also pop a decorative plant on top.) The metal-topped table’s still set, as if waiting for the return of its diners, ready with plates, bowls, chopsticks, and beers.
When Bourdain died in June 2018, Obama tweeted a photo of the two men drinking their beers in that restaurant, with the caption: “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”