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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Morton’s and others brace as activists offer cash for SCOTUS sightings

Morton's in Tysons Corner in 2007. Protesters recently gathered outside the downtown D.C. location of the restaurant when they learned Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was dining inside. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

In a city where the hottest new restaurants feature globe-trotting flavors, creative cocktails and menus that change with the seasons, the Washington location of Morton’s the Steakhouse feels like a relic. Its lobster bisque and porterhouse chops recall a time when the nation’s capital was still thought of as a steakhouse town. But the downtown location of the national chain is suddenly finding itself relevant, though probably not as it might have liked, as the first known D.C. restaurant dragged into the protests over the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Days after a handful of people gathered outside to protest Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was dining inside and left via a side door to avoid the crowd, the steakhouse is feeling the heat: A Morton’s corporate executive warned managers around the country to prepare for “a massive wave ... of negative response,” according to a report by Politico, as well as callers tying up the phone lines and people making fake reservations.

Brett Kavanaugh is the latest target of protests at D.C. restaurants

The Post could not independently verify the memo reportedly sent to managers by Scott Crain, the company’s senior vice president and chief operating officer. He did not return an email for comment. He also did not answer phone calls to a cell number connected to his name. His silence mirrored the advice he reportedly gave managers.

“As I stated yesterday, our comment is always ‘No Comment.’ We don’t respond, we don’t retweet, we don’t post on Instagram or Facebook, we don’t do anything. Please remind your teams (especially the hourly employees) of this policy,” he wrote managers, according to Politico.

As of Monday morning, Morton’s was requiring a credit card for reservations on OpenTable, though it wasn’t clear if that was a policy it put in place in response to the flood of table-bookers with no intention to show up.

The backlash Morton’s is experiencing mirrors what several other restaurants felt after similar incidents — and it probably won’t be the last establishment to get thrown into the mix. The activist group ShutDownDC tweeted that it would pay restaurant workers to tip them off if they spot any of the six justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg suggested that more protests are likely. Asked about the Morton’s incident during a Fox News interview on Sunday, Buttigieg said public officials should “expect” to encounter people angered by the Roe decision — and he suggested that they had his support. “Any public figure should always, always be free from violence, intimidation and harassment but should never be free from criticism or people exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said.

ShutDownDC organized the Morton’s protest last week. The activist group Ruthsentus received a tip that Kavanaugh was dining at Morton’s, and ShutDownDC activated its network. The first protester arrived at Morton’s within 35 minutes of receiving the tip, according to a ShutDownDC source who exchanged messages with The Post on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing tensions around Roe v. Wade.

Like Morton’s, the group is likely to be inundated with bogus messages. Fox News host and leading conservative commentator Tucker Carlson urged his viewers to “flood them with reported sightings until they give up.” The group vowed to press on, though. “Honey DC could be literally under water (#climatechange) and we’d still be out here organizing for a better world,” ShutDownDC tweeted. “We’re not the giving up type.”

The protest networks may not be as tapped into the restaurant industry as they would like to be. Ashok Bajaj told The Post that SCOTUS justices dined outdoors at Rasika West End last week. He declined to provide their names.

“Nobody bothered them,” said Bajaj, founder of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes Rasika, Bindaas, the Bombay Club and Annabelle.

D.C. restaurateurs grapple with political protests

Dealing with protesters (and the sometimes long-term fallout from protests) is just one more thing for restaurateurs who, over the past two-plus years, have also had to confront supply line issues, labor shortages, hostile diners and the ever-changing guidance from public health authorities. Bajaj doesn’t yet have plans in place for handling protests at his restaurants, but he said his company handbook prohibits staff from using their phones during service, which theoretically would keep them from contacting organizers should a justice show up for dinner.

But “how much can you control anybody?” Bajaj asks rhetorically. It’s particularly fraught for restaurateurs right now, Bajaj says, when staff is in short supply and they can easily find another job. He isn’t sure how he would handle protesters should they appear at his front door.

“Each situation would be different. The first thing is, he’s a guest. We have to protect the guest. I don’t look at what his or her politics would be,” Bajaj says. If protesters are “going to go to the tables and try to harass them, we have to call the authorities. We don’t want to have a fistfight in the restaurants.”

Four years ago, after Stephanie Wilkinson politely asked Sarah Sanders, then press secretary for President Donald Trump, to leave her Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., the owner had to deal with a lot of blowback, including conservative protesters outside her business.

“As long as the protesters are outside, they’re exercising their rights,” she wrote in an email to The Post. “If it is really causing a disturbance — more than just a rubber-necking disturbance, let’s say, but a genuine ‘I can’t hear my dining partner speak’ — I would do what we do when there are other unexpected external impacts on the dining room, like loud construction in the street or a storm that takes out the air conditioning or a table that isn’t available at the appointed time — give a sympathetic ear, apologize for their discomfort and offer them a little something as compensation.”