Food

Inauguration Has Always Meant Huge Business for DC Restaurants. This Year, Many Are Closing.

January could be one of the worst months yet for the already hard-hit industry.

Fencing goes up around the US Capitol in preparation for Joe Biden's inauguration. Photograph by Evy Mages

On inauguration day four years ago, Old Ebbitt Grill was packed to the brim. Trump supporters celebrated with Fireball shots and crowded around the window booths to watch the presidential motorcade drive by. The two Obama inaugurations were even more bustling. In 2005 and 2009, the place was teeming with lines out the door and fully booked with private events. Old Ebbitt and its sister restaurant the Hamilton historically bring in millions of dollars in revenue in the days surrounding the inauguration. Servers and bartenders can count on enormous tips, and purveyors see a big spike in business as well.

Before the pandemic, Old Ebbitt had long prided itself on never closing its doors for snow days, holidays, or any other days—with the rare exception of Sept. 11 and 12, 2001. But the dining institution steps from the White House won’t be open for Biden’s inauguration. Between the indoor dining ban and street closures to avoid violence, the management made the decision to suspend operations from Jan. 13 to 22.

“We are 110-percent supportive of what the Mayor is doing to secure the city right now,” says David Moran, Director of Operations for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns Old Ebbitt. “Of course, we’d rather be open and do business, but it’s just the right thing to do.”

Old Ebbitt is one of many  downtown and Capitol Hill businesses planning to close on inauguration and the days leading up to it, especially as Mayor Muriel Bowser urges locals to avoid the central business district. Others remaining open throughout the city won’t have the usual surge in sales that comes with an influx of out-of-town revelers. January is already known as one of the slowest periods of the year for restaurants. Add on extended dining restrictions and political turmoil, and some fear this could be one of the worst months yet in an already terrible year.

“For restaurants, this entire 10 month period has been apocalyptic,” says Cuba Libre co-founder Barry Gutin.

At a MAGA rally last year, Gutin says there was a “tussle” between protesters coming down the street and diners in the parklet. Nobody was hurt, but it made staff more sensitive to the danger. Gutin doesn’t want to take any chances now. Cuba Libre shut down Jan. 12 and will be boarded up through inauguration.

“It’s more important to keep people safe than keep people working,” says owner Barry Gutin. “We are carrying payroll and expenses.”

Meanwhile, Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken co-owner Elliot Spaisman isn’t sure he and his staff will be able to physically access the downtown location even if they want to in the days leading up to the inauguration.

“We’re most likely going to have to close in the next two or three days, but I just don’t know when. It could be today. It could be tomorrow. It could be Saturday,” Spaisman says. He’s asked police in the area and even emailed his DC councilmember for clarification on street closures, but has gotten any clear answers.

“It’s hard to navigate and operate like this, because you’ve got to order food, you’ve got to tell employees to come in,” Spaisman says. The closure would have a ripple effect, because the downtown kitchen also supplies Astro’s food truck and Falls Church outpost. “Everyone’s safety is the most important thing, but as a business owner, just give me some direction.”

Over in Capitol Hill, We The Pizza had people coming in without masks and carrying confederate flags leading up to the January mob attack. As things turned violent at the Capitol building, the restaurant shut down and sent the entire staff home in Ubers for safety. Co-owner Micheline Mendelsohn says they’d considered closing altogether over inauguration, or possibly locking the front doors and limiting business to delivery through a back alley entrance. Ultimately, though, they’ve decided to stay open.

“Hate can’t win. Love wins. We can’t let them close us,” she says.

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Still, it won’t be one of the biggest sales days of the year as it has been at the past. What’s more, the parties and the fun, festive mood just won’t be there.

“January will 100-percent be the worst month for our Capitol Hill location,” says Mendelsohn. We, The Pizza’s sister restaurants Good Stuff Eatery and Santa Rosa Taqueria are already closed.

Pizzeria Paradiso owner Ruth Gresser has experienced more than 30 years of inaugurations.

“Frankly, January of an inaugural year is one of the busiest times in a four year cycle,” she says. “The entire month is just charged in a positive energy. Over the years, up until the most recent election, it didn’t matter which party was coming in. The city was alive.”

This time around, she’d considered closing some locations but her staff voted to stay open. Still, she expects sales to be even less than a typical pandemic day. Already, she’s seen a drop off in the past week.

“It could be the worst month we’ve had since the pandemic started, and that is quite likely,” Gresser says. But she puts a glass half-full spin on it: “It could also be the worst month of 2021, which then means as you look forward, it’s going to get better.”

As of now, the Hamilton downtown is also planning to stay open to serve takeout to whatever law enforcement are in the area. “We’re not operating for profit at this point at the Hamilton. We’re literally trying to feed people who may need to eat,” Moran says. Still, he is monitoring the situation and will pull the plug if staff don’t feel safe or can’t commute in. Moran says his chefs and managers (no hourly employees are working at this point) were already having trouble getting to the restaurant as of Wednesday because of all the checkpoints and barriers. The restaurant gave all its employees letters that they could show law enforcement to be able to get to work.

For Moran, the storming of the Capitol last week created fear and uncertainty he hasn’t experienced since 9/11. “On 9/12 and 9/13, we sort of knew we had secured the Capitol and we were all beginning the process of rebuilding and coming back. Here we are a week later, and I think there’s still legitimate fear of what’s to come in the next week or so and probably even post-inaugural,” he says.

Like Pizzeria Paradiso’s Gresser, though, that hasn’t stopped Moran from being optimistic that 2021 will be a year of redemption for the restaurant industry and the city.

“This has to be the worst of it, right?”

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.