As Donald Trump’s motorcade rolled past Old Ebbitt Grill on inauguration day, the restaurant crowd pressed toward the windows, cheering and snapping photos. “Fireball! Fireball!” yelled one Trump supporter, calling for a round of cinnamon-spiked whiskey shots. “For all my Republican friends, Fireball!”
“It feels good to be a Republican again,” another guy said, to no one in particular. Even the TV at the bar had been switched from NBC to Fox.
There’s plenty of debate about what a Trump presidency might mean for the local restaurant and bar scene, and where members of the new administration might hang out. But few places will feel the transition as acutely as White House neighbor Old Ebbitt Grill, a favorite watering hole for politicos of all stripes.
“A lot of times people think it’s some kind of a gradual shift,” says David Moran, Managing Director for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which operates Old Ebbitt. “But it’s really not. It’s literally that day, our customer base changes.” Familiar faces from the previous administration will vanish, and a new group of people will start to establish themselves as regulars.
When George W. Bush first took office, many of the regulars were previously patrons under George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Moran recalls one undersecretary reappearing after a long absence saying, “Good to be home again…’ Like it could have been yesterday to him, and it had been eight years.”
Moran and Clyde’s President Tom Meyer remember a stark change between the Reagan-Bush and Bill Clinton years. “People came up from Arkansas, that was pretty glaring,” Meyer says. “It’s a cliche: you went from martinis to draft beer—like that. It was like a switch.”
Tastes between administrations have been less pronounced in recent years. Whether the Trump crowd has any particular dining preferences has yet to be seen, but there are some early indications that the bar might want to stock up on Fireball. Old Ebbitt sold 56 shots of the flavored whiskey on inauguration day and 27 the next day during the Women’s March. Normally, it sells around 10 shots on Fridays and Saturdays.
That the restaurant was even open to the public on inauguration day was atypical. For the first time in nine inaugurations, Old Ebbitt, which has a prime spot along the parade route, wasn’t booked for a private party by either the Republican or Democratic National Committees. Moran says the Democrats had actually booked the spot but were given an out if the election turned the other way. The Republicans never stepped in to take the space.
It was also the first inauguration where the bitter partisan divide had Meyer a little on edge. “It’s always been a hard-fought election, and it’s always been whoever loses is disappointed,” he says. “But this time, it was the most contentious. And to be honest with you, I had my eyes and ears open, but that didn’t manifest itself in any measurable way. Everybody behaved.”
Meyer’s concerns weren’t without merit: In late November, Old Ebbitt’s sister restaurant the Hamilton had booked a private party for an organization called the National Policy Institute. The restaurant’s management had no idea it was actually a white nationalist group. Then, the day before the event, the Hamilton was flooded with hundreds of angry and threatening phone calls and messages on social media. Meyer looked up the group and discovered who they were.
“That’s putting our employees in a bad situation, and our other guests, and I don’t want any part of that,” Meyer says. “It’s the first time in my 40 years in this business that I’ve had to refuse service.”
A general manager called the organizer, Richard Spencer, and canceled the contract.
“[Spencer] said, ‘I understand. Can I get my $100 deposit back?’” Moran recalls. “I’m guessing he’s probably been canceled on somewhere in the past.”
Instead, the National Policy Institute ended up taking their event to Maggiano’s Little Italy. The Friendship Heights restaurant also says it didn’t realize the nature of the group at the time of booking, but it quickly found out when an attendee tweeted a Nazi salute and protestors swarmed the restaurant. Maggiano’s ended up apologizing and pledging $10,000 from the dinner to the Anti-Defamation League’s DC office.
Because of the incident and others like it, local restaurant operators are having conversations for the first time about if and when they should turn away such patrons. (The DC Human Rights Act prevents businesses from discriminating on the basis of political affiliation, but lawyers say that doesn’t include fringe ideological groups.)
“Are we supposed to ask political beliefs at the front door? It’s a slippery slope,” Moran says.
“We’ll draw the line at Nazis though,” Meyer says. “That’s not that slippery to me.”