D.C. Restaurants Grapple Over Decision to Close With Pro-Trump Protests in Town

Wednesday is typically the busiest prep day of the week for Rose Ave Bakery, but this week, owner Rose Nguyen told her staff at the Asian-American sweets shop downtown to stay home. With the Senate set to certify Electoral College votes that determined Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election on Wednesday, January 6, supporters of Donald Trump have organized protests in D.C. to amplify the lame duck president’s baseless claims of election fraud. Nguyen’s staff would normally be preparing doughs for pastries like passionfruit curd doughnuts and matcha chocolate chunk cookies, but after consulting with them, she decided it would be difficult — and potentially unsafe — for them to commute to the food hall stall on Vermont Avenue and L Street NW, about four blocks away from the White House.

“The rally and keeping up with the news makes us more and more concerned that this one might have more violence,” Nguyen says. “We’re just trying to take extra precaution just so we don’t put ourselves in a position in harm.”

For D.C. restaurant owners such as Nguyen, this week’s demonstrations prompt decisions over whether to close, further squeezing operations during a period of the pandemic in which D.C. has paused indoor dining, or stay open and risk slow business, safety hazards for staff, and the possibility of serving a potentially volatile group of customers known to flout mask regulations. Eating and drinking establishments around downtown, Penn Quarter, Chinatown, and Mt. Vernon Triangle have needed to make these calculations since the social justice uprisings of the summer, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

The city’s government is anticipating chaos. Two previous rounds of pro-Trump demonstrations in recent months sparked violent confrontations between election deniers, counterprotesters, and D.C. police. The District has shut down parking and closed off streets in large swaths of downtown and areas surrounding the Ellipse on the National Mall, where the National Park Service expects a demonstration Wednesday to draw a crowd of 30,000 people. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday urged D.C. residents to stay away from downtown yesterday and Wednesday, telling Washingtonians “not to engage with demonstrators who come to our city seeking confrontation.” Every officer in the Metropolitan Police Department will be on duty, and D.C. has also mobilized the National Guard.

Rose Ave only opens to customers from Thursday through Saturday, doing the majority of its business through preorders. Nguyen says without the bakery’s Wednesday prep, she can’t open Thursday, normally the one day a week she accepts walk-in customers.

“Not being able to prep on one of the busiest days of the three days is monumental,” Nguyen says. “That’s one-third of the business for that week.”

a bearded man in a red trump shirt and hat stands, arms raised, in front of the U.S. Capitol building.

Trump supporters were praying outside the U.S. Capitol before Congress was scheduled to certify Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

At the end of December, tourist-minded Hotel Harrington announced it would close from January 4 to 6 “to protect the safety of our visitors, guests, and employees.” Harry’s Bar, which is attached to the hotel but separately owned, also posted on its website that it would close during the demonstrations without citing a reason. Harry’s has become a gathering place for pro-Trump groups such as the white supremacist Proud Boys, and four people were stabbed near the bar after last month’s election protests turned violent.

Restaurants such as Baan Siam, a respected Thai outfit in Mt. Vernon Triangle, and the Penn Quarter location of pan-Asian cafe Teaism already announced Monday night that they would close Tuesday and Wednesday. On Tuesday, Chinatown ramen shop Daikaya moved to stop accepting takeout and delivery orders at 7 p.m., and to close for the entirety of Wednesday.

Baan Siam co-owner Tom Healy says previous street closures taught the restaurant that it couldn’t get deliveries in or out, and takeout customers have trouble getting to the restaurant. Its outdoor dining business has slowed to a crawl while winter temperatures drop into the 30s and 40s.

“It becomes a lost day for us. We actually lose money off of it,” Healy says.

Baan Siam has proven popular enough since opening in June that it has managed to keep its full staff. Healy says forfeiting a couple days of mostly takeout and delivery business could result in thousands of dollars in losses. As of Tuesday night, two of Baan Siam’s neighbors — fast-casual Indian counter Rasa and Italian restaurant Alta Strada — both planned to remain open but told Eater they would monitor the protests and could move to close if employees felt unsafe. By Wednesday morning, Schlow Restaurant Group decided to close Alta Strada and Nama sushi next door “to ensure everyone’s safety,” according to executive pastry chef Alex Levin.

As of Tuesday, nearby Capital Burger and Busboys and Poets planned to continue business as usual. Hummus chain Little Sesame, which offers delivery and takeout from its downtown and Chinatown locations, also planned to operate as of Tuesday, then decided to close early Wednesday. Late Tuesday, the D.C. group behind Founding Farmers told Eater D.C. it planned to continue operating its high-volume Pennsylvania Avenue NW location and the Farmers and Distillers on Massachusetts Avenue NW. On Wednesday morning, Founding Farmers said it had decided to close outdoor dining at 4 p.m. while continuing to offer to-go orders.

“Our team wants to work (and anyone who isn’t comfortable doesn’t have to),” co-owner Dan Simons says in a statement sent to Eater. “We’re putting our trust in Mayor Bowser to keep the city safe. As a neighborhood restaurant, we have guests who count on us to be open. We respect free speech, but we have no respect for or tolerance of racism or hatred in any form.”

Five people walk across a street at night holding a large american flag. One woman wears an American flag sweater.

A group of Trump supporters make their way through downtown D.C. early Wednesday morning.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Other large hospitality groups took a different tack. Celebrity chef and Spanish immigrant José Andrés, an early critic of the outgoing president, opted to close his cluster of Penn Quarter eateries completely for January 6. That includes Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, and Barmini, which offer a mix of takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining. Clyde’s Group also elected to close all its D.C. locations Wednesday, including the takeout- and delivery-only operations at historically popular downtown spots Old Ebbitt Grill and the Hamilton. A public relations representative says the company feared third-party delivery drivers would have too many problems parking and picking up orders.

In Capitol Hill, decades-old sports bar Union Pub planned to close, but eschewed an announcement on social media. The bar is a popular stomping ground for politicos on both sides of the aisle and typically hosts watch parties for debates and confirmation hearings.

Fast-casual spot Immigrant Food turned its boarded-up windows into a “Wish Wall” for 2021.

Fast-casual spot Immigrant Food turned its boarded-up windows into a “Wish Wall” for 2021.
Immigrant Food [official]

Immigrant Food, a fast-casual restaurant that serves global fusion bowls with a helping of “gastroadvocacy” on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, found out Tuesday afternoon the landlord planned to board up their storefront. They opted to close at 2 p.m. Tuesday and turned one of the wooden boards into a “Wish Wall” that encourages passersby to share in Sharpie what they wish for in 2021. Scrawled sentiments so far include “stability, unity, and prosperity for all” and “families to become one.”

Amy Brandwein, the chef and owner of seasonal Italian staple Centrolina and sister cafe Piccolina, says protests don’t always spell trouble. “When the women’s march happened, it was one of our best days of business ever,” she says.

Brandwein says she “welcomed” the social justice protests that took place downtown over the summer, but her restaurants suffered from vandalism in their posh area among the luxury fashion retailers in CityCenter. Broken windows forced her to close for 10 days. She boarded up her restaurants for Election Day but didn’t like the expense — thousands of dollars to put up boards and take them down — or the message it sent to the community. During the last round of pro-Trump protests, Brandwein kept her restaurants open but says she struggled to get to work while demonstrators clogged the streets. She says the scene on the streets started to get worrisome enough that the restaurants urged patio customers to wrap up their meals and check out.

As of Tuesday morning, Brandwein was still unsure of her plans for the week but decided later in the day to close at 4 p.m. Tuesday and not open at all Wednesday. The bizarre climate raises a host of contradictory feelings for Brandwein. She understands the mayor’s desire to protect residents by telling them to stay away from downtown, but it directly hurts her business. She supports free speech, but she doesn’t condone pro-Trump protesters like the Proud Boys inciting hatred and violence.

“I’m proud to be in a city where people come to demonstrate and express their opinions,” Brandwein says. “That’s what we’re about. We’re a democracy.”

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