DC Restaurants and Bars Serve Empty Plates to Congress

The demonstration aims to gain attention for a proposed $120 billion independent restaurant grant fund

Restaurant and bar workers and owners delivered empty plates with the names of closed businesses to the East Lawn of the Capitol. Photography by Evy Mages

Johnny’s Half Shell. Capitol Lounge. Mrs. K’s Toll House. Dozens of DC-area restaurants and bars have already closed due to the pandemic. But businesses are bracing for the worst months yet as Covid cases climb, indoor dining capacity is reduced, temperatures drop, and the post-holiday slump looms.

So last week, Columbia Room owner Derek Brown floated an idea on Twitter: deliver thousands of symbolic empty plates to Congress. The demonstration would be the latest effort urging elected officials to pass the RESTAURANTS Act. The legislation would create a $120 billion grant fund for independent restaurants and bars nationwide to cover rent, payroll, PPE, and more. The fund is not currently part of Congress’ most recent $908 billion stimulus aid proposal.

“Literally we have these empty plates just sitting there,” says Brown, who considers himself “one of the lucky ones” doing half of his normal business.

Friends and colleagues—along with the DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance and the Independent Restaurant Coalition—seized on the idea. In a few days time, it was a full-blown campaign, complete with press releases and hashtags.

This afternoon, workers and restaurant and bar owners brought their own plates to the East Lawn of the Capitol building and inscribed them with the names of people who lost or feared losing their jobs, as well as the names of establishments that have shuttered.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch bar and restaurant after bar and restaurant close. It seems like a daily occurrence,” Brown says. “We have to do something about it, and we have to make our voices heard, and that has to be a little bit outside of social media.”

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.