Q&A Cafe host Carol Joynt chatted with prominent local restaurateurs — Fiola, Fiola Mare and Sfoglina co-owner Maria Trabocchi; Cafe Milano manager Laurent Menoud; Ashok Bajaj, owner of Bombay Club and Rasika, among others; Pizzeria Paradiso chef/owner Ruth Gresser; Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein; and Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia — at a National Press Club event on Oct. 14. The topic? How they handle the heated political climate in their dining rooms.
The event was organized by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international charitable organization of professional women in food, wine and hospitality. D.C. members include TV personality Carla Hall and chef Nora Pouillon.
Wilkinson, who had asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary at the time, to leave her boutique restaurant, said it was a matter of “conscience.” The resulting media firestorm brought serious personal threats, as well as support.
In D.C., where it is unlawful to refuse service on the basis of politics, restaurants are challenged. Trabocchi recalled handling a tricky situation when protesters surrounded the table of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Now restaurants sometimes hire extra security and ban backpacks from their dining rooms.
Yet these incidents can have a positive outcome, too. A much-publicized attempt to assassinate a Saudi diplomat at Cafe Milano was aborted. Menoud related that the resulting publicity generated reservations from customers wanting to see or sit at the targeted table. Indeed, while celebrity sightings are an everyday occurrence at his restaurant, stars like longtime customer Bradley Cooper, who waited tables there during his Georgetown student days, remain under the radar. Menoud knows how to protect their privacy while keeping their public pleased.
Security sweeps with trained dogs and plainclothes personnel seated at strategic tables have long been commonplace at high-end D.C. dining rooms, Bajaj, Menoud and Trabocchi acknowledged. It’s part of doing business at spots frequented by heads of state, ambassadors and legislators. But lately these precautions have intensified. Gresser, a lesbian who fosters a “social justice presence” in her pizzerias, held live-shooter training for her staff.
Where is this going? Joynt wondered. Gresser suggested that the challenge for restaurants today is “to feed and take care of people — and do it in a broader world.”