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The Bush motorcade making its way past Old Ebbitt Grill during the 2005 Inauguration.
Doug Mills/For Old Ebbitt Grill

For D.C. Restaurants, Inauguration Is a Lost Opportunity for a Much-Needed Sales Boost

Without tourists, packed bars, or private parties, eating and drinking businesses will miss out on thousands of dollars in sales

Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

If today looked anything like a normal inauguration celebration in D.C., Georgetown fixture Peacock Cafe would be busy preparing its white-clothed tables for A-listers and black-tie gala-goers ready to toast to the next president of the United States. But this year — and this presidential transition — is anything but normal, so owner Shahab Farivar won’t be surprised if he’s stuck with extra bottles of sparkling wine after President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in.

“I have plenty of Champagne,” Farivar says. “I stocked up for it.”

Restaurant owners around the city say that Inauguration Day is normally a huge financial opportunity, a chance to cash in on a festive atmosphere with tourists in town ready to celebrate, sold-out private dining rooms, catering gigs, and parties galore, all of which have the potential to turn a typically slow January into a banner month. But considering the novel coronavirus pandemic, a ban on indoor dining, pleas by public officials to stay home, and heightened security locking down central D.C. in the wake of a violent insurrection a the Capitol, this year’s toned-down inauguration won’t provide much help to an ailing industry.

On the night of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, in 2013, entertainment industry nonprofit Creative Coalition bought out the restaurant to wine and dine a Hollywood-heavy guest list. Past and present stars like Viola Davis, Paula Abdul, Omar Epps, Nathan Lane, and John Leguizamo came out that night, posing for photos at Peacock Cafe before clinking glasses and racing to glitzy balls around the city. Some waved over staffers to speed up dinner service before they piled into a bus to make it to the balls, Farivar recalls.

“People knew it would be Obama’s last Inauguration, so the city was crazy. There was so much traffic,” Farivar says.

Peacock Cafe is committed to celebrating Biden and Harris in some form or fashion. Tucked off a quiet residential strip on Prospect Street NW, miles away from the locked down perimeter surrounding the Capitol, Peacock Cafe’s location makes outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery relatively viable on Inauguration Day. Farivar estimates that lunch and dinner sales this week will be just a tenth of what they could have been.

Peacock Cafe owner Shahab Farivar with Paula Abdul at the restaurant’s 2013 Inauguration night party.

During the peak three- to four-day period around inauguration festivities, a “moderately priced” restaurant like Peacock Cafe could expect to generate $60,000 to $70,000, he says. This year, he estimates the restaurant will rake in just $4,000 to $6,000 on orders of its popular seafood jambalaya, steak frites, rigatoni and grilled chicken, and Champagne.

During past inaugurations, even selling pizza could be huge. Micheline Mendelsohn Lund, whose family runs We the Pizza on Capitol Hill, says the influx of tourists and added demand for catering and deliveries meant the shop could do between $15,000 and $20,000 in sales, or double what a normal good day would look like. She says Obama’s first inauguration was We the Pizza’s top sales day ever. Even President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, a far less festive affair in majority-Democrat D.C., brought in excited supporters who spent money.

Restaurants like Peacock Cafe may be lucky to earn anything on Inauguration Day. Old Ebbitt Grill, an iconic restaurant right by the White House, has shut down entirely due to street closures and security measures. One of D.C.’s oldest and highest-grossing independent restaurants in the country, it would easily shuck around 6,000 oysters behind its mahogany-lined raw bar during a typical inauguration week. Going without an Inauguration Day bump could cost parent company Clyde’s Restaurant Group $1 million in revenue. That includes shutting down Old Ebbitt, the crown jewel that pulls in $35 million a year, and nearby live music venue the Hamilton until Friday, January 22, spokesperson Molly Quigley says.

Big bucks also stem from star-studded events surrounding the swearing-in ceremony. The night before Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, Old Ebbitt’s interior atrium was the stage for surprise performances by Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers. On the night before Obama’s second inauguration, then-Chicago mayor and former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel hosted a 1,000-person party at the Hamilton, where Will.I.Am DJed in its basement-level music venue.

Ashok Bajaj, who owns D.C. restaurant like Bombay Club and Rasika and is a consummate host for D.C.’s power-dining crowd, says past Inauguration Day sales at his downtown properties could boost January revenue by 30 or 40 percent.

“There’s a lot of parties going on, hours are extended, people are coming to Washington from all over the country and the world to celebrate this,” Bajaj says of a typical inauguration. “It’s a big deal.”

The Oval Room, his high-end modern American dining room right by the White House, closed for a rebrand during the pandemic. Nearby, the Bombay Club, where he hosted members of the Bush clan before one of George W. Bush’s inaugurations, is closed through January 25.

In downtown’s Penn Quarter, a cavernous location of Cuba Libre has gone dark for nearly two weeks out of of concern for the safety of patrons and staff. It won’t reopen until Monday, January 25, for limited indoor dining, alfresco service, takeout, and delivery.

Co-founder Barry Gutin observes the average check is “high” during an inauguration week because diners are willing to splurge on more courses and expensive items like rum flights and $68 surf-and-turf “plato gaucho” platters for two.

“They’re there to celebrate or entertain — and they have the money,” he says.

The 286-seat location has pulled in $150,000 to $200,000 during “normal” inauguration weeks over the past 10 years, he adds. Cuba Libre banks on business from mammoth hotels nearby like the Grand Hyatt, Marriott Marquis, and Renaissance, which have about 1,000 rooms each.

“This would have been a good week. Since it’s on a Wednesday, it would have been a robust, midweek walk into the weekend ... but the events of January 6 really colored the entire security approach to the inauguration,” he says.

While Cuba Libre opted to close entirely over a week before inauguration, other big-name restaurants held on to plans to stay open until the eleventh hour.

A policeman adjusts his cap before directing traffic at the intersection of 15th and K Street last week.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Prime Rib, on the lawyer-and-lobbyist corridor of K Street NW, was scheduled to email blast its inauguration week to-go specials to its devoted customer base on Friday, January 15. Late that afternoon, the 45-year-old restaurant made the tough decision to close entirely after looking out the door and seeing National Guard trucks moving in.

“The whole street is blocked off. They aren’t letting anyone in here,” manager Larry Bravman said late Friday. “The only thing I see working right now is Domino’s.”

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser extended an indoor dining ban through Inauguration Day last week, Prime Rib had to cancel already-booked reservations for inauguration week.

“It broke my heart,” Prime Rib general manager James MacLeod says.

The Prime Rib’s target takeout and delivery audience this week was nearby hotel guests, and MacLeod phoned concierge contacts at the Ritz Georgetown, Four Seasons, and Embassy Suites for updated occupancy figures. Some hotel restaurants are not operational right now, he says, which means guests would likely be on the hunt for dinner spots.

That includes superstar power couples such as Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez or Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. They’re reportedly staying at the St. Regis, where Spanish steakhouse Alhambra is closed. On Wednesday morning, Teigen tweeted a video looking out her hotel room window and pointing out how Starbucks was “just outside the [security] bubble.”

Despite literal and figurative roadblocks, other West End restaurants managed to stay open this week with big-ticketed offerings for takeout and delivery. Nobu, the pricey sushi chain co-owned by actor Robert De Niro, rings in its first inauguration in D.C. with a $600 dinner for four available Wednesday, January 20, through Sunday, January 24. The celebratory spread includes yellowtail jalapeno, black cod with miso, a taco box with lobster and tuna, and tenderloin beef to go along with with high-brow, portable cocktails like a Matsuhisa Martini 12 filled with Belvedere vodka and Hokusetsu Junmai sake.

The Prime Rib plans to restart takeout and delivery right after Inauguration Day, on Thursday, January 21, and indoor dining when it resumes on Friday. At 25 percent capacity, the Prime Rib can seat 50 diners at a time.

With 100 outdoor seats, Cuba Libre’s pandemic-era pivot, which includes tricked-out cabins outfitted with Bluetooth capabilities and fire pits, is one of the biggest alfresco arrangements in Chinatown/Penn Quarter.

“It was a big investment and we continue to invest in ways to try to lose less money — we are losing lots, but we want to keep our audience engaged,” says Gutin.

Some city-center hotel restaurants do remain open, including the Willard Intercontinental’s Cafe du Parc (for takeout only). Although it’s one of the few hotels along the usual parade route, the hotel typically closes a terrace dining area that faces Pennsylvania Avenue NW during the event for security concerns. Located two blocks from the White House, the Willard sits within the tightest “red zone” security perimeter; prohibited by cars and extremely limited by foot, it’s akin to entering Fort Knox. Guests at the 120-year-old hotel must pass through a security checkpoint on 14th and F Streets NW.

“This inauguration is unlike any inauguration we have ever witnessed,” says Willard senior marketing manager Janet Scanlon. “It isn’t a secret, nor a surprise, that the numbers of visitors, nor the revenue generated from past inaugurations, are nowhere close to that this year.”

Bravman has seen almost 10 inaugurations over 36 years at the Prime Rib, where waiters wear tuxedos and a live pianist plays. He recalls the inauguration heydays of the 1990s, when Roseanne and Tom Arnold ordered steaks during Clinton’s inauguration.

“Clinton was a good year — that was the most star-studded one I’ve seen. That was the end of an era for stars and stuff in that realm. After that it all kind of got muddled,” Bravman says. “A lot of times Democrats and Republicans [would] eat together and talk to each other. Now no one wants to talk.”

Gabe Hiatt contributed to this report

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