In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against DC restaurateur Mike Isabella (Requin, Arroz, Kapnos, etc.), many diners are wrestling with whether to keep eating at his prominent establishments. (Isabella denies the charges and has not stepped down from his company.) But is the controversy having an impact on his empire? To get a sense of what’s going on, I set out to visit three of his spots last Saturday evening. Here’s what I found:
Arrive at Isabella’s original restaurant, Chinatown pizza place Graffiato, where the bar is almost full, as are the seats downstairs. Several groups of people are making their way to the second floor dining area.
I approach a group of women and ask why they chose to dine here. Two of them are out-of-towners and know nothing about the restaurant. The third is a DC local who came to Graffiato during Restaurant Week last year and enjoyed it. Does she know who owns the restaurant? She responds, “Miiiiiiiike? Someone?” She has not heard any news about Mike Someone’s recent sexual-harassment allegations.
A group of three—two women and a man—exit Graffiato. I ask them why they chose to eat here and they say because the food is good. Did they know who owns the restaurant when they picked it? The women say they did. The man had no idea, but his companions filled him in about the allegations during dinner. One woman says that while they were conflicted about coming tonight, Graffiato had the shortest wait of the restaurants they had tried.
I walk over to Arroz and quickly realize that the restaurant’s entrance, which is connected to a hotel lobby, makes it impossible to loiter outside discreetly to approach customers who have just finished their meals. I head toward G by Mike Isabella and Kapnos on 14th Street, Northwest, instead.
Every table at G is filled and the bar at Kapnos is similarly packed. It is unusually cold, and no one at G seems to be budging from their tables. I decide that the best course of action is to wait out the diners across the street at Judy, which serves Mexican and El Salvadoran food.
I order dinner and periodically walk across the street to peep in the window at G. Same people at the same tables.
I return to the G/Kapnos entrance. Most people are only exiting right as their Ubers arrive. I understand and respect this strategy to minimize exposure to freezing weather and reporters interrogating you about your dining choices.
I throw myself in front of two women as they hurry toward their Uber. As I try to ask about their meal, they look at me in a manner that can only be described as “contemptuous confusion” and get into the car without answering.
A group of four comes out of Kapnos, and I ask why those chose to eat here. A man and his wife are in town visiting their son and his girlfriend, who live here. The son tells me that he used to drive by the other Kapnos in Virginia and decided to take his parents here, especially after his girlfriend read good reviews. I ask if they know who owns the restaurant. She says, “Mike Isabella, but that’s all I know, I don’t know anymore.” This seems like an odd answer to my question. I suspect–but cannot prove–that she does actually know more. But if so, I can understand not wanting to explain to your boyfriend’s parents that they just enjoyed a meal at a restaurant whose guiding light is an alleged serial sexual harasser. Awkward. Freezing and tired of chasing down patrons, I call it a night.
What did I learn from this experience? For one thing, few people seemed to think too deeply about who owns the places where they eat. Not that we can blame them; a quick Google search for Graffiato, Kapnos, or G didn’t yield anything on Isabella’s sexual-harassment lawsuit on the first search page. Only when I searched “Who owns Kapnos” did an article about the lawsuit come up, halfway down the page. Given that many patrons are from out of town and many others don’t even know who Isabella is (much less that he’s been accused of harassment), it makes sense that many diners are in the dark. And there are no doubt people who know about the news and decided against eating at Isabella restaurants, which meant they weren’t there and I didn’t talk to them. So it’s quite possible that significant numbers of former fans are now patronizing other places. Still, the restaurants I went to were full. So far, it seems like Isabella’s reservations might not be suffering too much due to the controversy.