Mickael Damelincourt is managing director of Trump International Hotel in Washington. Earlier this week, he borrowed a page from his sometime boss over at the White House: Damelincourt tweeted a complaint about a list that broke down the “11 D.C. Restaurants That Crush Dessert.”
Spoiler alert: The Eater DC list doesn’t include the hotel’s steakhouse, BLT Prime by David Burke, or the Benjamin Bar and Lounge, which hosts a weekly “dessert night,” featuring a spread from executive pastry chef Fabrice Benezit in the grand lobby.
The omission didn’t sit right with Damelincourt, who fired off a Trumplike response on Twitter (minus the president’s trademark “Sad!”):
Earlier in the month, Damelincourt had retweeted photos of Benezit’s end-of-the-week sweets, a decidedly sumptuous spread every Friday for $28 per person (or $14 for children ages 14 and younger).
This got us thinking: Do the food media ignore the Trump International Hotel and its BLT Prime steakhouse in their coverage?
Trump International Hotel, in the Old Post Office Pavilion, opened on Sept. 12, 2016, and BLT Prime debuted a few days later. Since then, there has been plenty of coverage of BLT Prime, the hotel and even the property’s forthcoming sushi restaurant, Nakazawa. The early food coverage focused a lot on prices, what President Trump ordered when he dined at BLT Prime and how Anthony Bourdain would never set foot in the sushi spot. Controversy seemed key for the media to cover the hotel and its restaurants, whether a racial discrimination complaint filed by black employees at BLT Prime or the inflammatory remarks of Nakazawa owner Alessandro Borgognone, who bashed Washington’s dining scene.
But a year and a half later, the hotel and the steakhouse have to fight for coverage, just like every other business in Washington. It would seem they’re losing the battle, and Patricia Tang is not happy. She’s the hotel’s director of sales and marketing at Trump International Hotel, has done similar work for 15 years at other upscale properties, including the Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Va., and said she never before encountered such resistance from the press.
Tang said events and activities at the hotel rarely, if ever, make the local roundups and listings. She mentioned not just dessert night, but also cheese night, holiday events and other activities around the hotel.
“It’s very obvious,” Tang said about why journalists seemingly ignore the hotel. “I think they are determined to attach us to the White House, even though we have nothing to do with it.”
The hotel operates independently from Trump, she said. “I don’t know what the financial arrangement is” with the president, she added. “I know that he’s not involved in the business.”
That point is arguable: Despite turning over control of the Trump Organization to his sons and his chief financial officer, the president has reportedly been able to draw money from the company, leading critics to say Trump still has his hand on the wheel of his vast business empire. Other news reports say Trump has actively made inquiries into the D.C. hotel.
Publicity for BLT Prime is handled by the steakhouse’s parent group, ESquared Hospitality, and a local public relations company. They’re not thrilled, either, by the response from the D.C. food media, despite the involvement of Burke, a decorated chef who, in 2009, was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.
“Since BLT Prime opened, we have noted that multiple publications have chosen to omit our restaurant from coverage,” emailed Rachel Wormser, vice president of PR and marketing for ESquared. “While we understand the current political climate, from a hospitality perspective, ESquared Hospitality and David Burke have worked diligently to bring an excellent dining program to Washington DC, and we are naturally disappointed that our hospitality and culinary efforts have not been recognized.”
Aside from Tom Sietsema’s 2½-star review of BLT Prime in December 2016, there seem to have been no other serious critiques of Burke’s steakhouse. The Washingtonian has not published a formal review. Nor did the magazine find room for BLT Prime on its recent 100 Very Best Restaurants list.
“So BLT Prime opened around the time I went on maternity leave in late 2016, which is why I never reviewed it,” emailed Ann Limpert, executive food editor and critic for the Washingtonian. “Even so, I didn’t feel super-compelled to cover it when I got back — more because it was yet another chain steakhouse in a hotel, it wasn’t that new anymore, and we have pretty limited review real estate in the magazine.”
Limpert said she visited the steakhouse once while researching the Very Best Restaurants issue. She was underwhelmed. Had she liked it, Limpert said, she would have included it among the 100 best, no matter how disgusted some of the magazine’s readers might have been. “My feeling is that our readers are smart and decisive and opinionated enough to figure out whether to spend their money there on their own,” Limpert added.
Neither BLT Prime nor the Trump hotel fare well on other lists.
Gayot’s top 10 list from this year has no mention of BLT Prime (though it includes sister restaurant, BLT Steak on I Street NW). Eater DC’s countdown for “16 Superior Steaks Around D.C.” mentions the “Kansas City 20-ounce prime bone-in strip” at BLT Steak but nothing from BLT Prime. Even Yelp’s best steakhouse list doesn’t mention BLT Prime until the second page at No. 18, even though the restaurant has a four-star rating, better than four steakhouses ahead of it.
BLT Prime and the hotel’s Benjamin Bar don’t fare any better on dessert lists. Neither appeared on Eater DC’s recent rundown. Nor did they make the cut on a November compilation of sweets by The Washington Post or Brightest Young Thing’s list of best desserts of 2017 or Zagat’s November roundup of “13 New Decadent Chocolate Desserts in DC.”
“Contrary to the conspiracy theories Trump International Hotel managing director Mickael Damelincourt has taken to posting on social media, there’s been no editorial decision here to ‘exclude the most popular dessert venue in #WashingtonDC,’ ” emailed Warren Rojas, editor of Eater DC.
The dessert map, he said, is a semiregular snapshot of local restaurants that the staff and freelancers consider noteworthy at the time. “It is not intended to be all-inclusive,” Rojas added. The editor noted that as a one-night-only offering, the hotel’s dessert spread is “much harder to evaluate compared to competing restaurants in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, that proudly showcase their sweets throughout the week.”
As far as not including Burke’s restaurant on the steaks list, Rojas said Eater DC “saw no need to include both BLT Prime and BLT Steak on the same map given the limited scope.” There were 16 selections.
Fritz Hahn, The Washington Post’s nightlife reporter, who often compiles events roundups for the paper, said BLT Prime’s holiday events have been expensive: $125 per person for an Easter buffet or $175 per person for a New Year’s Eve five-course meal. “These are simply more expensive offerings than anything we included in our seasonal roundups or weekly columns,” Hahn noted. Another factor to consider: Hahn checked his email and found that he was not receiving news releases from Tang at the Trump International Hotel.
But some editorial judgments are not based on the merits of the food or the price of the holiday buffet. Rina Rapuano, a freelancer for Zagat, said she wrestled with her conscience over the idea of writing about BLT Prime and the Trump hotel.
“BLT Prime is unique because no matter how good the food is, the restaurant will always be more famous for who owns it than what’s on the plate,” she emailed. “Whether you agree or disagree with the president, eating there forces you to feel like you’re voting with your stomach. Luckily, as a freelancer, I get to choose which restaurants I cover and can avoid these ethical minefields fairly easily. That said, if I were a staff writer and my editor expected me to review BLT Prime, I would do my job with fairness and professionalism.”