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No Power Restaurant Is Safe From Political Protests Now

The confrontation of Ted Cruz at Fiola is the latest example of Washington's changing code of conduct

Screenshot from a video posted on Twitter by Smash Racism DC.

The nation’s most powerful politicos have long been able to lead double lives in DC. In the professional realms, they’re celebrities recognized and discussed around the world. But in their off-hours, they get to feel like they’re anonymous. It’s an unspoken code of Washington that we allow high-profile officials to dine at Le Diplomate, shop at Trader Joe’s, or see the latest Star Wars movie without being harassed. Maybe they end up as a “spotted” item in Playbook, but for the most part they lead a kind of Superman/Clark Kent existence.

Lately, though, the rules have been changing. To the liberal majority living in Trump’s Washington, Cabinet members and White House insiders aren’t superheroes with secret civilian identities. They’re villains. And in an era when social media fuels a heightened fervor, Lex Luthor doesn’t get the luxury of blending in with the crowd.

This new reality became clear when a group of protesters confronted Kirstjen Nielsen as she dined out in June. A day before, the Homeland Security chief had defended the separation of immigrant families at the border, and here she was at a Mexican restaurant, of all places? A diner tipped off an activist friend, who used social media to quickly organize a group who rushed to the scene chanting, “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Nielsen was essentially shamed out of the restaurant, and suddenly dining decorum and “civility” were the hottest topics in the national political conversation.

“This administration just rises to a whole new level where we need to break the rules of etiquette,” explains campaign strategist Amanda Werner, who was one of the protesters. “People are more willing to reconsider our old social constructs of respect and politeness and are realizing more important things are at stake.”

That change in etiquette was further cemented when protestors chanted “We believe the survivors” as Ted Cruz and his wife, Heidi Cruz, dined at Fiola Monday night. This time, the incident took place at a so-called “power spot” that caters to VIPs and prides itself on its discretion. It’s a place that thrives off the city’s political set by staying out of politics. That the confrontation happened here, a safe haven for Washington’s elite, is proof that no restaurant is exempt from this new normal.

Most businesses, like Fiola, make a point of staying apolitical. Yet even that seems to be changing under the Trump administration. Last year, for example, the founder of the local gym Solidcore criticized the President after Ivanka Trump worked out there. More notably, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave.

In the aftermath, Congresswoman Maxine Waters called on the public to “push back” on Cabinet members they encounter. Already, we’re seeing examples, such as teacher Kristin Mink urging EPA chief Scott Pruitt to resign while he lunched at Teaism. “They have the responsibility to hear us, too, and they should expect that,” says Mink. “That is completely fair and reasonable. There is nothing uncivil about it.”

While Lexington’s Red Hen opened the door for closing the door, most businesses here aren’t likely to abandon their inclusive ethos. (Plus in the District, unlike in Virginia and most of the rest of America, discrimination based on political affiliation is illegal.)

But the thing is, neutrality isn’t that neutral anymore. When DC’s Red Hen—which is unaffiliated with the one that booted Sanders—got bombarded by confused Trump supporters, owner Mike Friedman made a point to say his place serves everyone. Likewise, Fiola has built a reputation off catering to boldface names on both sides of the aisle. But in hyper-partisan times, it’s nearly impossible to stay above the fray. While Fiola owner Fabio Trabocchi says the management tried to “diffuse” the situation and called the police, the restaurant is still being bombarded online by those who think it should have done more to stop the protestors from entering the dining room. Meanwhile, to those who heed Waters’s words, serving Sanders is a show of support, just as eating silently alongside Nielsen is an act of complicity.

Like it or not, Washington’s old unspoken code is being replaced by a new one: Pick a side.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.