Wilkinson described the evening that affixed a political lightning rod to her tiny restaurant, saying she consulted with her staff, who collectively determined they didn’t want to wait on the controversial member of the Trump administration. But contrary to some speculation, she said the decision wasn’t premeditated, since the reservation was made under Sanders’s husband’s name and the staff didn’t recognize it.
“This was not a considered thing. This was not something we planned to do,” she said. “We didn’t intend to become the resistance restaurant.”
Since then, the Red Hen has been visited by sympathetic Washington VIPs, Wilkinson said, in a show of support, although she wouldn’t name names. “It’s lovely, and very low-key.”
The restaurant owners described a new era in which the city’s dining rooms have become political stages, one where protesters, active shooters and suspicious backpacks figure into their concerns alongside the specials of the day and overflowing reservation books. Long gone, they said, is the old idea that politics stopped at the water’s edge of dinnertime.
“It’s a new era, it’s a new time,” said Laurent Menoud, the general manager of Cafe Milano, whose clientele reads like a lineup of Sunday-morning talk show guests — and includes VIPs from both sides of the aisle. “You have to be very careful.”
His own restaurant was targeted in 2011, when an alleged plot by the Iranian government to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador included bombing the Georgetown restaurant. Milano sometimes hires plainclothes security agents to mix in, undetected, with guests, he says, and the staff has been trained to be vigilant about suspicious behavior of guests, including those wearing coats in summer or carrying backpacks.
Several restaurants represented on the panel, including Milano, have been contacted by the FBI about possible threats and with offers to conduct training for their staff. Maria Trabocchi, who owns six restaurants with her husband, Fabio Trabocchi, said the threat levels go up and down depending on global events, visits by dignitaries, or other factors. “There are times when it is more ‘hot’ around the city or in the world, so they’ll come in and do a reminder,” she said.
Ruth Gresser, the owner of Pizzeria Paradiso, said she had active-shooting training for her staff before Trump’s inauguration. She said she feared her company might be a target for the Trump supporters flocking to Washington, either because of its “progressive” reputation, the fact that she is an out lesbian, and because her restaurants are pizzerias, which took on a frightening meaning after the development of the debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. That viral theory, which fomented among members of the right-wing fringe groups on Reddit and social media, posited falsely that John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, used code words, including pizza, in emails that actually described the operation of a human-trafficking and child-sex ring. One adherent to that bizarre belief traveled to Washington to investigate and fired shots inside Comet Ping Pong in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington.
“There were a lot of things that potentially made my organization a target,” Gresser said.
Although the restaurateurs had similar stories, they offered differing visions of whether politics has any place in a restaurant.
“Everyone’s always welcome,” said Trabocchi, whose restaurant Fiola was in the news when protesters confronted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) there while he was dining with his wife. “People complain. They’re like, ‘How can you serve them?’ Everyone’s got to eat, and our mission and our job is to be hospitable.”
But for some, that hospitality might have limits.
In the District of Columbia, it’s illegal for a restaurant to discriminate against customers based on their political affiliation. Still, Gresser described her company as having a “social justice presence.” “Restaurants are becoming community centers,” she said. “What we have had to learn is how to do what we do — which is to feed and take care of people — and do it in a broader world.”
“We have almost an obligation to participate in this larger community,” she said.
While Wilkinson said she wouldn’t want the restaurant world to be divided into Republican and Democratic establishments, she said there are times that a restaurant owner can’t stay neutral. “Our world is turning toward a place that obliges us to stand up for some sorts of … conscience things we have to stand behind,” she said.