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How D.C. Restaurants Are Bracing for the Inauguration Onslaught

It's a tricky time to run a business in the capital

Thousands of people will arrive in the capital this week for Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. They’ll overtake the city — closing down streets and clogging public transportation — ready to celebrate with drinks and good food. Restaurants usually go crazy for this stuff, running gimmicky specials and hosting parties, but this time they face a dilemma: a full 90 percent of Washingtonians voted for Hillary Clinton in an election that divided Americans as never before. Their regulars have been in no mood to party.

In fact, they might feel like protesting. The day after the inauguration, the Women’s March on Washington will take over the National Mall with a rally against the new president and his policies. Thousands more out-of-towners are expected to come to Washington for that — and they’ll also be looking to drink and dine. “I feel like we’re at a tipping point in D.C.,” says Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owner of fine-dining restaurant Equinox, “where a lot of restaurants are going to declare themselves [politically].”

Most restaurant owners want to welcome and serve everyone, but the creep of intense partisanship across society has made everything more complicated. No one is talking about denying service to Trump supporters, but will they feel welcome if restaurants don’t offer their usual raft of inauguration specials? Do diners want restaurants to take political stances now? Do restaurateurs themselves feel a moral tug?

Like it or not, D.C. restaurants have already been drawn into these debates. In a country that’s become increasingly polarized, how can restaurants navigate the political confusion that may have only just begun? D.C. restaurants are feeling it out.

An ‘unprecedented’ inauguration

From her restaurant steps away from the White House, Gray has seen plenty of inaugurations. She and her chef husband Todd opened Equinox in 1999, less than two years before the first inauguration of President George W. Bush. A D.C. native, Gray has also witnessed the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. But she’s never seen an inauguration weekend like this one is shaping up to be. “This is crazy,” she says. “It’s unprecedented.”

“Let’s not mince words: It was a weird election,” Gray says. “It was not a very friendly tone. None of them ever are, but this was the most cantankerous I’ve ever lived through.”

That’s perhaps why bookings got off to a subdued start. Equinox, a favorite spot for power players, normally sees a rush to inauguration weekend bookings following an election. This year has been a bit slower. The same has been true for neighboring restaurants Oval Room and Bombay Club, whose owner Ashok Bajaj estimates bookings are about a week behind what they normally would be. Some restaurants even had cancellations from Democrats who had booked for parties before Election Day.

But it’s picking up. Inquiries about parties shot up at Equinox about two weeks before the inauguration; Bajaj’s restaurants have been booking up, too. “I think in a lot of ways people just want to come back together again because nobody really wants to live in a divided America,” Gray says. It’s up to restaurants now to figure out how — or whether — to bridge that divide.

Restaurants get political

It’s not so unusual anymore to see chefs in the political arena. Throughout the Obama years, they increasingly wielded their newfound celebrity for causes like sustainability, food waste, and hunger. Now, though, some chefs are taking politics a step further. “I feel like this is the first time a restaurant as a whole — not just the head chef or the popular bartender — has a political view,” Erik Bruner-Yang, owner of Maketto in D.C., says of the trend he’s been seeing in the local restaurant scene since the election.

Few local restaurants are going quite as far as the D.C.-area restaurant that introduced a Golden Showers burger — made with “self-tanning cheddar” — in mockery of recent claims made against the president-elect. But there has been a clear shift in approach. Some are advertising specials for the Women’s March on Washington rather than the inauguration, while Eater DC's roundup of specials finds a few restaurants bidding farewell to President Obama instead. Equinox is planning a Good Hombre brunch for the Sunday after inauguration, featuring favorite dishes from their staff members. “We are honoring those who we could not ever be in business without,” Gray says. “And that is specifically Spanish-speaking immigrants.”

Then there’s the Peace Ball. Busboys and Poets — a restaurant long known for its liberal politics — is throwing its third inaugural ball at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American, says this year’s sold-out event will be bigger than ever, featuring the likes of Angela Davis, Solange, Van Jones, and even chef José Andrés will be speaking. “I think people want to be around other people who also see a world that is less fearful, less hateful, less angry, less xenophobic, less racist, and so on,” Shallal says.

But the biggest movement has been toward more traditional charitable giving. More than 100 restaurants and bars have joined forces as part of a new All in Service DC campaign. Each participating restaurant has pledged to donate a percentage of their profits from inauguration weekend to a nonprofit that supports immigrants, women, or others in the community.

“The local people here were hoping for a more celebratory week,” says Scott Auslander, owner of Ventnor Sports Cafe, which started its charitable giving earlier this week by donating proceeds from its trivia night to Planned Parenthood.. “It’s something we can do as residents, as businesses, where we can be involved in the inaugural event, if you will, by creating our own inaugural event.” Auslander got involved because giving makes him feel better, but there’s some business sense to it, too: He expects people who want to go out during the inauguration will use All in Service DC’s list of participants as a guide on where to go.

All in Service DC’s founders stress that the initiative is not intended as a protest or even necessarily political, but rather they see it as an opportunity to practice hospitality. “We want to welcome everyone in to show what an amazing, thriving, eclectic, incredible restaurant or bar community we have,” says spokeswoman Sarah Massey. The point is to show that Washington, DC is not a swamp, but a real community of people who care for one another. It’s a statement that many D.C. restaurants can apparently get behind. “Our phones are still ringing off the hook,” she says.

A nonpartisan approach

With a name like Presidential Restaurant Group — and restaurants called Lincoln, Teddy & the Bully Bar, and Declaration — a presidential inauguration promises brisk business. It’s also an obvious time for marketing. But the latter has been a challenge this time around, says owner Alan Popovsky. Though his restaurants have kept Trump’s name out of the prix-fixe packages of bar bites and cocktails they’re offering on Inauguration Day, Popovsky has already gotten emails from customers who are upset the restaurants are marking the day at all.

It’s hard not to pick a side in D.C. sometimes, Popovsky says. But a number of Washington restaurateurs argue that getting involved in politics flies in the face of what hospitality is all about. “True restaurateurs don’t care one way or another,” Gray says. “They find common ground [with their customers]. No labels. They find a place and they laugh about it.” Robert Wiedmaier, owner of Marcel’s, agrees, adding that speaking out on politics — like Meryl Streep did at the Golden Globes, he says — is bad for business. “Why would you do that to yourself? I’d rather just say nothing, go on my way and put out great food.” Popovsky ultimately decided that not picking sides was right for him. “That’s what creates divisiveness,” he says.

From a marketing perspective, though, nonpartisan restaurants still have to consider whether to capitalize on the inauguration and risk alienating their regular clientele. Capitol Hill restaurant Bayou Bakery found a neat solution to that, scoring a partial buyout from the local NBC affiliate. “We kind of got lucky,” says owner David Guas. “It’s a nice safe play and gives us plenty of opportunities to advertise our business.” He’ll be offering a special a “Filet-O-Catfish” special in honor of the president-elect, but otherwise expects to stay out of it.

Finally, for Maketto owner Erik Bruner-Yang, Inauguration Day just doesn’t feel like the right time to get political. “I’m an immigrant, but I’m also an American citizen,” he says. “Something that has made America great is the peaceful transfer of power.” Though he notes that protests are also part of being American and he doesn’t want to be a part of “helping to normalize the situation,” he’s not sure if a restaurant is the right place to pass judgment. On Inauguration Day, he says, “our largest concern is that our employees working feel safe.”

The worst case scenario

Washingtonians can be a bit blasé about events like the inauguration, but the turmoil of this election cycle has put some restaurant owners on alert. Not necessarily about a massive terrorist attack — although there is always that — but there’s some concern about whether the country’s partisan rancor could make a restaurant a target.

It’s already happened. First, there was PizzaGate, in which the popular pizzeria Comet Ping Pong received death threats and was stalked by an armed man after conspiracy theories linked it to a nonexistent child sex ring. Then a local outpost of Italian chain Maggiano’s sparked outrage by inadvertently hosting a party of white supremacists. And, most recently, the Virginia nightclub Clarendon Ballroom was harassed online for declining to host a pro-Trump inauguration party. Nobody wants to be the next restaurant on this list.

“You don’t know who’s coming in your restaurant,” says Gray of Equinox. “What if they do turn out to be white supremacists? What are you going to do?” And so, for the first time in its 18 years, Equinox has begun screening anyone who requests to hold a private event. She’s not alone, she says: “I don’t think there’s a restaurant who’s not screening.” Indeed, the anxiety is so widespread that last week Washingtonian reported, with the assistance of legal counsel, that it’s okay for a restaurant to turn away white nationalists.

And, of course, there are terrorism concerns. “We’re in the sniper zone here,” Gray says of her White House-adjacent restaurant. “Of course the thought crosses your mind.” Worried that his presidential-themed restaurant group could become a target for harassment or worse, Popovsky has installed extra security cameras at each location and will be hiring security guards for Inauguration Day. There’s not much else you can do to prevent catastrophe, though. “What are we going to do — pat down all of our customers and profile people when they walk in?” asks Wiedmaier, which is right on Pennsylvania Avenue . “You just don’t know if someone is going to walk into a restaurant with a gun and start shooting people. But we’ve got to live our lives and not live them in fear.”

Life after the inauguration

Though Inauguration Day is bringing all these tensions to a head for Washington restaurateurs, the question of whether to engage in politics seems likely to remain in the air for the weeks and months to come. “I’m seeing restaurants become more political than ever,” Gray says.

She doesn’t know if that’s good for business or not. Conventional wisdom says that restaurateurs should remain neutral, but some of Gray’s customers lately seem to be seeking reassurance that she agrees with their opposition to Trump. She compares it to the rise of the farm-to-table movement, in that American consumers are looking to spend their money in restaurants that share their values. “Idealism and business are not that far apart,” Gray says.

For Shallal over at Busboys and Poets, getting political is a no-brainer. “We don’t shy away from the politics because politics don’t shy away from us,” he says. But the debate over whether it’s good or bad for business is sort of beside the point. “We like to think people come for the politics and they stay for the food.”

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.
Editor: Daniela Galarza

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