This Inauguration Day, the majority of out-of-towners arriving in D.C. will wear camouflage fatigues and combat boots. Instead of an influx of tourists excited to cheer on the president-elect from a spot on the National Mall, the District is hosting an estimated 20,000 members of the National Guard. The novel coronavirus pandemic was always going to dampen the atmosphere for Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony. But heightened security measures necessitated by a pro-Trump mob’s violent insurrection in the Capitol will make Wednesday, January 20, even more unusual. D.C. restaurants and bars would normally look look to Inauguration Day as a festive event full of packed bars, banquets, and sold-out private rooms. Instead, eating and drinking establishments around the city are deciding whether it makes sense to open at all.
A significant chunk of businesses, especially around heavily secured areas in the center of the city, have decided that closing makes the most sense. Others are polling workers about whether they want to work, and deciding to cautiously move ahead. Takeout deals and political-themed cocktails have persisted. For many spots, the party will go on, but only with the aid of outdoor seating reservations, emergency exit plans, and added security.
Union Pub, which prides itself on its status as a bipartisan bar in Capitol Hill, made the call Tuesday to close that day and for the inauguration because “there is no way” to get to the bar “safely,” spokesperson Sam Sanchez says. “We’ve already missed so much in the past year … so this just added to [it],” Sanchez adds. “We’re past the denial point — we’re just in the acceptance point.”
The lockdown scenes that provide appealing visuals to TV crews represent a relatively small section of the District, but bars and restaurants farther away are still wondering if hostile demonstrators will show up or traffic will slow down.
Service Bar, which had a Peruvian pop-up menu attracting customers to a built-out streetside patio on cold nights last week, made a decision Monday to shut down for Inauguration Day. Co-owner Chad Spangler says although the U Street NW bar is more than two miles away from the Capitol, he expects business would be slow. Spangler says Service Bar’s revenue has been down 20 to 30 percent since D.C. imposed a 10 p.m. alcohol cutoff. Planning for a potential curfew and figuring out logistical hurdles for staff members who commute into work made opening seem like too much trouble. Peers he consulted, including at popular Middle Eastern cocktail bar Green Zone in Adams Morgan, came to the same conclusion.
“Something I’m trying to get my finger on is if people are going to be too afraid to go out and do anything,” Spangler says.
Last week, during a phone call with a fellow D.C. restaurant owner, Micheline Mendelsohn Lund listed the reasons she felt she would have to close We the Pizza, her family’s Capitol Hill pizza shop, for Inauguration Day. She remarked that the imposing military presence and the labyrinth of closed off streets would make it too tough to operate. Maybe it should join the other restaurants across town that already decided to close, she mused.
On the other end of the line, Gina Chersevani, the owner of soda jerk-style bagel and cocktail bar Buffalo & Bergen, rebuffed her friend with a trademark dose of chutzpah. Chersevani felt the riot at the Capitol was an attempt to scare District residents off from Biden’s big day. She didn’t want to cave to the extremists.
“You can’t fucking close! What are you talking about?” Chersevani said on the call. “Michy, if you close, hate wins.”
Since late last week, National Guard troops have been securing a perimeter around downtown, the National Mall, and the Capitol complex. Fences and concrete barriers are up in areas surrounding We the Pizza that typically appeal to tourists, forming militarized checkpoints and color-coded zones with different levels of restrictions. Streets are closed off across a section of the city 25 blocks wide, and seven bridges have been shut down to incoming traffic. Indoor dining is closed through Thursday, and the mayor could still order a curfew at any moment.
Despite all that, Mendelsohn Lund says she took Chersevani’s words to heart, spurring a decision that We the Pizza would continue to run. She feels it’s important to stay open for walk-ins and her neighborhood regulars.
“The rest of the country and the rest of the world looks at us as a government city. But we are a community,” Mendelsohn Lund says. “There are livelihoods here and businesses here.”
Lund would love to be on the National Mall, watching with her two daughters as Kamala Harris officially becomes the country’s first female vice president, but she’ll watch remotely and stay in constant contact with workers to ensure they feel safe.
“We have a plan if things get crazy,” Mendelsohn Lund says. “We’re going to be in touch with people all the time.”
Chersevani says she also plans to keep Buffalo & Bergen open for contact-free pickups near Union Station and received the blessing from her staff to keep running. She says they’ve made a plan that includes an evacuation route in case of an emergency.
Mendelsohn Lund had already made a creative plan to bring in some money outside of the family restaurant, packaging brownies as part of inauguration gift baskets that included goodies from 13 women in the D.C. food and bar scene (Chersevani made a cocktail). Both women have also turned their businesses into kitchens donating hot meals to National Guard troops who are in town to protect the proceedings.
Dan Simons, a co-owner of Founding Farmers, said the group of high-volume restaurants also wants to be a resource for the community on Inauguration Day. A D.C. location three blocks away from the White House will keep its heated tents open, he said last week. All D.C. area locations will offer all-day happy hour, and an inauguration special celebrating the 46th president includes three bottled cocktails for $4.60 with a $20 food purchase. Simons says Founding Farmers workers are able to opt out of working Inauguration Day if they’re not comfortable. Everyone who is working for company carries an ID that explains they’re “essential workers” in case they run into any trouble at security checkpoints.
Dmitri Chekaldin, a co-owner at Dacha, says he and his partners decided to keep the brand’s popular beer gardens open after getting the go-ahead from staff. In Shaw and Navy Yard, neither Dacha is directly adjacent to the Capitol. They’ll be open for food and drink specials on Inauguration Day, albeit with added security.
Chekaldin says Dacha already works with private security guards who can step in to cool off customers who protest mask laws or other public health rules. He’s increasing the number of guards, from one person to two or three, and may ask the city to increase its police presence. Otherwise, he predicts a successful day, especially at Navy Yard, where chef Jerome Grant is rolling out a new winter lodge pop-up with fried chicken, a gumbo with bratwurst and shrimp in it, and miso cheddar cheese fries. He says Dacha’s crew is eager to get to work.
“Believe me, they were all super excited about it,” Chekaldin says of the staff.
“It wasn’t even, ‘Oh, should we open?’ We should open. We should absolutely celebrate the incoming president.”
Kalina Newman contributed reporting to this story