Food  |  News & Politics

Protests of Public Officials in Restaurants Aren’t Going Away

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is the latest to have his dinner interrupted

Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court nomination hearing. Photograph by Evy Mages

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh tried to have a dinner out at Morton’s downtown DC steakhouse Wednesday night, but Politico reports the meal was interrupted by protestors rallying against the overturn of Roe v. Wade. They showed up in front of the restaurant and called on the manager to kick out Kavanaugh. The group ShutDownDC tweeted that the justice snuck out the back with his security detail, allegedly before he got to dessert.

A rep for the restaurant chain told Politico’s Daniel Lippman that Kavanaugh and other patrons were “unduly harassed by unruly protestors… Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner. There is a time and place for everything. Disturbing the dinner of all of our customers was an act of selfishness and void of decency.”

This confrontation of a public official enjoying a meal is among the first to make headlines since Trump and his cadre of divisive Cabinet Secretaries and White House staffers left office. It’s also an indication that this form of political protest isn’t going away anytime soon.

Restaurants used to be reliable safe havens for Official Washington types. They were steadfastly bipartisan spaces where ideologies and the day’s news mattered little more than what wine came with dinner. That all changed in the Trump era, when the administration’s controversial policies and heated rhetoric turned dining establishments into yet another political battleground.

A watershed moment was the 2018 protest of then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at Mexican restaurant MXDC. Nielsen had just defended the separation of children from their parents at the border when she was spotted having dinner. Word quickly spread to activists with the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America, who put out a call on social media for their members and followers to meet at the restaurant. The group walked up to Nielsen’s table chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” and “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!”

“This administration just rises to a whole new level where we need to break the rules of etiquette,” Amanda Werner, who was among the protestors, told Washingtonian at the time. “People are more willing to reconsider our old social constructs of respect and politeness and realizing there are more important things that are at stake.”

The break in social norms only continued: A mom with her toddler confronted then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt at Teaism, urging him to resign. Protestors shouted at Senator Ted Cruz at pricey Italian joint Fiola over his support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Congresswoman Maxine Waters called on the public to “push back” on Trump Cabinet members they encountered, and dining decorum and “civility” dominated the national conversation. (It wasn’t just public places like restaurants; protesters started showing up more regularly at the private homes of officials.)

Activists weren’t the only ones interrupting dinner either. Many restaurateurs started getting more political too. Perhaps most famously, Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, asked then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family to leave her establishment, leading Trump himself to attack the restaurant’s cleanliness on Twitter.

The vast majority of DC-area restaurants still try to stay out of the political fray, but they’re no longer sacred temples of neutrality. When the Supreme Court ruled on Dobbs v. Jackson, a wide range of eateries and bars ran promotions and hosted events to raise money for abortion rights and access. Last week, a tweet went viral for offering $1,000 to any DC restaurant server who served a plate of raw egg to a “forced-birth pol” who orders chicken. And following the protest of Kavanaugh at Morton’s, ShutDownDC tweeted that it will Venmo DC service industry workers $50 for a confirmed sighting of any right-leaning Supreme Court justice and $200 if the justice is still there 30 minutes later.

“Decent” or not, the boundaries of time and place aren’t the same anymore.

This story has been updated with additional info from ShutDownDC. 

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.