Skip to main content
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the protests over George Floyd’s death, restaurants become flash points of class disparity

Brasserie Beck reopened its patio on Saturday afternoon for the first time since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants across Washington. Chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier had 100 reservations on the books. At around 5 p.m., with things in control at Beck, Wiedmaier drove to Marcel’s, his high-end restaurant in the West End neighborhood, to check on the pickup operation there. Not long after arriving, Wiedmaier received a call from Brian McBride, executive chef for his restaurant group.

“Brian goes, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened.’”

“I go, ‘What?’” Wiedmaier said.

“He said, ‘We just had about 100 people go through our patio, yelling and screaming at our guests.’”

‘Let my building burn’: Minneapolis restaurateur prioritizes justice for George Floyd, while others bemoan the damage

McBride told the boss that protesters had moved through the patio, not the sidewalk to the left, yelling phrases that this paper can’t print, including comments about what to do with “the rich.” The protesters were shaming diners for eating “food like this” while they fought for justice for George Floyd, who died after an encounter with Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

As protests continue a week after Floyd’s death, those marching in the streets are expressing a desire not just for justice, but for economic equality. As the presidential election heats up, income inequality has become a central topic. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 the “top fifth of earners (with incomes of $130,001 or more that year) brought in 52 percent of all U.S. income.” Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced 40 million Americans to apply for unemployment benefits. People dining out during a pandemic, no matter what they’re eating, seem to be a symbol for the haves, in a country with many have nots.

The graffiti in downtown Washington would suggest that many protesters have had enough of the wealthy in America, starting with the billionaire in the White House. “Eat the rich” was spray-painted on the sheets of plywood covering the BB&T bank location on Connecticut Avenue NW. On a post outside Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab, someone had spray-painted, “F— steak. I want justice.” On the windows to the Oval Room on Connecticut Avenue NW, someone had painted the phrase, “The rich aren’t safe anymore!”  

In Los Angeles, looters stole computers and wine from acclaimed chef Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza, Mozza2Go and Chi Spacca, according to the Los Angeles Times; a small fire was set inside Mozza2Go. Other restaurants that sustained damage included chef/owner Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec and Petit Trois. In Richmond, many storefronts were damaged; the boutique Quirk Hotel and its lobby-level restaurant Maple & Pine was broken into, according to news reports.  

As people followed the protests in far-flung cities over social media, one of the images that drew viral attention focused on dining — and disparities. A Cincinnati photojournalist this weekend shared a photo of a group of diners sipping beers on the patio of a restaurant as protesters streamed by. Comedian and writer Ziwe Fumudoh posted it in a tweet that has been shared nearly 140,000 times, captioning it,  “there are two americas: one fights for black lives and the other fights for brunch.” 

But as online fury over the image swirled, Nick Swartsell, the news editor for City Beat who captured the photo, said it has come to represent something he didn’t intend. It was simply supposed to capture a newsmaking event that happened to move through a regular, everyday scene in the neighborhood, he wrote in follow-up tweets

“I believe personally that America is facing grave structural injustices around race and class,” he wrote. “An image of one moment where folks were enjoying a meal on a Friday afternoon while a protest moves past isn’t foremost on that list. Please stop using this photo to shame.” 

In the past few years, Washington’s power-dining spots have become used to serving as protest zones, as the long-standing unofficial code dictating that politicians were off-limits when they were off the clock has unraveled. Trump-era rage and social-media tracking of public figures led to heckling of then-Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen in 2018 at upscale Mexican restaurant MXDC Cocina Mexicana over family separations at the border and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and his wife, Heidi, at the elegant Fiola later that year during the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. 

Some restaurants, including Fiola and Georgetown hotspot Cafe Milano, have been contacted by the FBI and their staffs have received training on how to detect and handle security threats and protests in their dining rooms, their owners have said. Maria Trabocchi, who owns six restaurants with her ex-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 last year during a panel discussion about restaurants and politics.

After the encounter at Brasserie Beck, Wiedmaier’s wife, Polly, sent out a tweet from the restaurant account that read, in part, “Hate is not welcome here and apologies to our customers.” A second tweet went out moments later, apologizing for the first one, saying it was “meant as an apology to customers and not offend.” Both tweets were later removed as the anger mounted over the restaurateur’s posts. Beck was getting “lambasted with threats” online, Wiedmaier said.

Wiedmaier said he and Polly are not haters. They’re just in the hospitality business, where they take care of the people who enter their establishments. They both support the Floyd protests, he said.

“It was so horrible. It was horrible,” Wiedmaier said about Floyd’s death, captured on camera. “And I think they should lock all four of those cops up and throw away the key, even the ones standing there and watching it go on. They should have stopped that guy. … A lot of people are upset, and they have every right to be upset. But, my God, don’t burn down your city. Don’t burn down and vandalize businesses that have nothing to do with it.”

Despite the class-related language of some of the graffiti and protesters, upscale eateries aren’t the only ones targeted. And in some cases, owners have aligned themselves with protesters even as their property was damaged. In Washington, after protesters wreaked havoc on Teaism, a tea shop across from the White House that draws lunchtime crowds from nearby office buildings, its owner tweeted, “Before anyone puts a single word in our mouths. Black lives matter.” In Minneapolis, after Indian restaurant Gandhi Mahal was burned to the ground, Hafsa Islam, the owner’s daughter, wrote in an essay published in The Washington Post that “after the flash of pain, it is important to name what is happening to cause this in the first place, and to empathize with the fury and frustration of the people it’s happening to.”

My family’s restaurant caught fire in the Minneapolis protests. Let it burn.

When he saw the protests on television, Ashok Bajaj, the man behind nearly a dozen respected restaurants in Washington, went down to the Oval Room, his high-end restaurant filled with museum-quality artwork. He stood outside the place, feeling mostly helpless as protesters twice tried to set the restaurant on fire. The first time, a security guard put out the fire, Bajaj told The Post. The second time, the owner put it out himself. “I got lucky there,” Bajaj said. “The artwork was saved.”

Despite the warning spray-painted on the building, Bajaj didn’t think protesters were targeting high-end restaurants in particular. He saw damage to eateries all across the economic spectrum. “There’s obviously a divide here,” he said. “People who are not doing well feel they’re not being looked after and that they’ve been left behind. Is the anger coming from that angle? I don’t know.”

Sixty years of D.C. history and culture, slathered in chili

In Richmond, Alex Zavaleta, co-owner of Charm School Social Club, also said he saw damage inflicted on neighboring businesses of all kinds — including chains and places owned by African Americans or other people of color. His ice cream shop remained relatively untouched, he thinks, because he and several friends remained there during Saturday night’s melee, staying until the early morning-hours and offering protesters a place to rest, get a bottle of water or a spray of a concoction of Maalox and water that he’d read was a good treatment for tear gas. 

Zavaleta, who grew up in Northern Virginia, says he was inspired by Ben’s Chili Bowl, which was one of the only businesses that remained open during the riots of 1968, feeding both police and black activists. He says he can’t remember exactly when he heard the stories from those days of civil rights protests — maybe it was at the famed eatery on U Street, late night, after catching a show at a nearby club. 

Growing up as a first-generation immigrant (his parents are from El Salvador) in an international city and being part of the punk and hardcore music scene instilled some lessons. “If I had not retained one thing about maintaining and protecting your community, I’d be a lost cause,” he said. 

More from Voraciously:

As restaurants reopen, here’s what you should know about air conditioning, air flow and the coronavirus

How solo cooks are managing in the pandemic — without resorting to cereal for dinner