Food  |  News & Politics

The Ultimate Restaurant Amenity for Washington VIPs? The Secret Back Door.

That's how Brett Kavanaugh reportedly evaded protesters at Morton's steakhouse.

A back VIP entrance at Carmine's leads into one of its private dining rooms. Photograph by Evy Mages

When abortion rights protestors showed up at downtown DC steakhouse Morton’s to disrupt Brett Kavanaugh’s recent dinner, they never directly confronted the Supreme Court Justice. His security detail reportedly whisked him out a back door before he got to dessert.

Sure, pretty much every restaurant in America has a rear exit, but in optics-conscious and protest-prone Washington, it’s not uncommon to find back doors devoted specifically to VIPs who want to dine out discreetly. And perhaps ironically, these covert access points are a bragging point for some establishments.

“We knew that a big part of our business model would be doing events for Capitol Hill, political fundraisers,” says restaurateur Fritz Brogan about the Navy Yard location of his Mexican spot Mission. “Part of our design process was to make sure we had an area that we could bring VIPs in, or allow them to leave privately if they needed to.” As a former political operative, he had a good handle on how to design the space for easy VIP access—after all, he’d been an advance guy for the likes of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

Now, a back staircase leads to a back hallway, which leads directly into Mission’s “Cactus Room,” a private event space with its own bar, bathroom, and balcony. The back door gets put to use once or twice a month, often by security for political types who appreciate that they don’t have to idle their black SUVs in front of Nationals Park.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is among those to make a sneaky exit from the margarita destination. So is rapper Post Malone. After performing at the Something In the Water festival in June, he rolled up with his entourage through the front door. But because of all the fans, he left out the back.

Italian-American behemoth Carmine’s, another political fundraiser hotspot in Penn Quarter, was also designed to have a covert entrance into one of its nine private dining rooms. “We sent the plans to the Secret Service for comment and review, and I’m going to stop at that point about what transpired after that,” owner Jeff Bank says.

Exactly how you get to the door, he won’t say, but he does reveal it’s not just one door—it’s technically three. And while his other restaurants in New York and Las Vegas also have back entrances, none are as secure as the DC one.

Bank is hush-hush on most of the bold-faced names who’ve passed through, for obvious reasons, but most are political—think Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. One he will share: former Speaker of the House John Boehner, who has used the secret door at least 30 times. Another is Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who came for dinner with family after her swearing-in ceremony.

“She didn’t want to look like she was out partying in town,” Bank says. “And we all laugh—we’re like, Carmine’s is not really known as the party place.”

The Four Seasons in Georgetown has five VIP private entrances—including direct access to its restaurants Seasons and Bourbon Steak—with special locks that only the security team and Secret Service can open. But the most exclusive of all goes from the parking lot to guest suites with its own private elevator and a red carpet. “I can’t give too many details, but it stops at several floors,” says the hotel’s director of public relations, Anina Belle Giannini. It’s used at least once a week by high-profile guests: royalty, heads of state, major CEOs, famous athletes, international celebrities.

Another celeb fave, RPM Italian in Mt. Vernon Square, has an entrance from an underground parking garage to an office building lobby to a back hallway to a private dining room. That’s where Escalades dropped off K-pop superstars BTS so they could enjoy some chicken parm after a White House meeting. One of their dining companions—Coldplay frontman Chris Martin—also used the back entrance, but was slightly less covert, entering the office building from K Street.

Meanwhile, Washington’s resident celebrities—politicians—aren’t usually as secretive as the pop-stars. According to RPM Italian general manager Boo Kim, their high-profile political clientele tends to use the regular entrance, even when they’re controversial figures like congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Most of the people that dine with us are not shy in dealing with the public,” he says. “Usually, there’s not been any kind of drama.”

And a longer motorcade does not always mean a more secretive entrance. Consider the highest-ranking government official to eat at Carmines. “When Biden was vice president,” Bank says, “he just came in the front door.”

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.