Around 5 p.m. on Monday, May 22, when The Washington Post broke explosive news about Moon Rabbit’s failed fight to unionize staff and the domino-effect demise of the restaurant a mere five hours later, shell-shocked regulars dropped everything and beelined to the Wharf for one more taste of chef Kevin Tien’s contemporary Vietnamese cooking at the foot of the luxe InterContinental (801 Wharf Street SW).
The steady stream of somber guests trickling into the hotel’s star lobby-level restaurant included Anthony Nguyen, a devoted Moon Rabbit customer since its start in fall 2020. He immediately ordered an Uber from his house in Bowie, Maryland to snag the last available walk-in seat and soak up his favorite Southwest Waterfront spot he’s visited some 20 times before. Dressed in all black for his final feast for one, he went with Tien’s orange duck and a beautiful bowl of “Tiet Canh Vit” (raw bluefin tuna, beets, crushed peanuts).
Tien “pushes the boundaries of Vietnamese cuisine,” says Nguyen. “It is a wondrous joy to be able to dine in a space where you can enjoy the food of your traditional upbringing with a creative approach.”
Despite an ambitious debut during the darkest days of the pandemic, the Vietnamese fine-dining destination that explored Tien’s family history was consistently busy, recently expanded hours with daily lunch service, and experimented with playful pop-ups tied to Tien’s love for Taylor Swift and Hulu hit The Bear — all while racking up numerous national accolades like Tien’s James Beard semifinalist nod as Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and Food & Wine readers naming Moon Rabbit one of the 10 best restaurants in the country.
Moon Rabbit also doubled as the birthplace for Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, the nonprofit he co-founded with D.C. chef Tim Ma. Just last weekend, in honor of AAPI Heritage Month in May, Tien threw an inaugural festival out front on District Pier with food from more than 18 Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) chefs.
But during the first few weeks of May, a storm was brewing behind the scenes between management at InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) Hotels & Resorts and Wharf hospitality workers attempting to unionize.
Local officials from Unite Here Local 25 say a vast majority (83 percent) of the hotel’s food service employees supported the formation of a union, which comes with perks like higher wages, affordable health care, employment security, and being able to hold the hotel accountable for pay and tip-transparency problems like those that recently surfaced but were resolved, an IHG rep told DCist. Backers of the union-organizing campaign filed a petition on May 1 to hold a vote that was supposed to occur today.
“Closing Moon Rabbit on the eve of a union election shows a gross disregard for the people who helped turn Moon Rabbit into a national sensation,” says Paul Schwalb, executive-secretary treasurer for the union that represents 6,500 local hospitality workers. “This move by the hotel is cynical and disgusting.”
Tien and IHG Hotels & Resorts officially parted ways on Monday, May 22, according to a joint statement provided by a hotel representative. Around 2:30 p.m., hotel management informed workers that Moon Rabbit was abruptly shutting down after service that night. Some shocked employees walked out and were spotted getting an understandable drink at nearby Irish bar Kirwin’s.
Moon Rabbit’s website is already deactivated, but signage was still up as of Tuesday afternoon. Management is exploring options for a new restaurant to replace Moon Rabbit, which will be “announced in due course,” per the shared statement.
“It’s devastating,” says Moon Rabbit server Michael Cruz, who was pro-union for “stability” reasons and a desire to keep working alongside Tien. “For management to spit that back in our faces is a real betrayal of our work and the incredible restaurant we’ve built.”
Tien is taking it upon himself to help find jobs for his 16-person kitchen staff. Perry’s and Michelin-rated Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan already plan to bring a few on board.
Tien, who reportedly takes the proprietary rights to the Moon Rabbit name and recipes with him as part of the exit, hopes to revive the restaurant elsewhere and is already being approached about potential spaces.
Sporting a Swiftie T-shirt for consolation under his white button-up, a numb Tien spent the remaining hours left at his Wharf restaurant wandering around a packed dining room in between clearing out his office. Spontaneous hugs came from familiar faces and D.C. chef friends from Michelin-rated Rooster & Owl and nearby Fat Fish. Nearing its 10 p.m. closing time, Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate executive director Pamela Yee fought off tears as she passed around a huge tray of cookies she noted were “compliments of chef Kevin.”
Anyone who’s followed Tien’s D.C. restaurant career, which included short-lived Emilie’s and nationally regarded Himitsu, knows to order his crudo and fried chicken — and Moon Rabbit was no different. Other highlights included the five-spice foie mousse tart with tamarind onion jam and crawfish pasta.
Wharf resident Marcus Berzat, who made Moon Rabbit his weekly ritual every Friday night after work for the past few months, bonded with Tien over their shared Louisiana roots (Tien grew up in Lafayette and Berzat hails from Baton Rouge). “It’s been great supporting Moon Rabbit over the year and appreciating the taste of home while living in D.C.,” he says, pointing to his final entree of cornmeal-fried catfish dressed with pea tips and fermented cabbage.
While Moon Rabbit is closed as of today, multiple employees told Eater the space will immediately transition to a breakfast-only format under an unidentified name. Service will be mostly limited to its sleek 18-seat bar that was just recently a nighttime attraction for pandan-fueled Old Fashioneds and caffeinated cocktails made with chicory drip coffee. It’s unclear what the new food or drink offerings will be, but an employee did say the hotel’s Willard InterContinental D.C. sibling is involved in implementing its kickoff morning menu.
Having not yet read closing reports online, many of Moon Rabbit’s Monday evening diners — a mix of first-timers, out-of-towners, and locals — sat down without knowing it would be their last meal there. That included an entire circular six-top of colleagues attending an annual thoracic conference in D.C., who shared Tien’s popular banh hoi dac biet platter of woven noodles, lemongrass pork, salt-and-pepper shrimp, and short ribs. An Arlington resident who made the group’s reservation says she was looking forward to coming back this Sunday for her cousin’s booked birthday brunch. She had no idea the restaurant’s minutes were numbered until their server delivered the news alongside condensed milk flan for dessert.
The posh, 278-room hotel unveiled in 2017 is owned by the developers of the $3.6-billion Wharf project (Hoffman & Associates, Madison Marquette) and Carr Companies, which have refrained from commenting publicly on the unionization issue. The game-changing, mixed-use revitalization of the mile-long stretch along the Potomac got $300 million in public subsidies from the D.C. government, which included the promise of job creation.
Members of the D.C. Council, which signed off on the subsidies, told owners of the InterContinental Washington they support workers’ rights to unionize “without harassment or unnecessary delay,” per a letter obtained by the Post. Schwalb, who says Wharf workers will continue to fight for unionization, just called for a boycott of staying at IHG’s non-union area hotels. The company also operates the Willard InterContinental, the Kimpton Hotel George, and the Hotel Indigo Alexandria.
Here’s the full joint statement from IHG Hotels & Resorts and Tien:
The vision behind Moon Rabbit at InterContinental Washington D.C. - The Wharf was to open new doors for diners, to educate them and to excite them, which we absolutely have accomplished. Chef Tien cooks from his soul, showcasing the recipes inspired from his grandmother, and celebrating his diverse heritage.
IHG Hotels & Resorts and Chef Kevin Tien will part ways as of Monday, May 22. IHG wishes Chef Tien much continued success in his future endeavors.
Chef Tien says, “I am so grateful for the last two and a half years where my team and I were able to make my dream of Moon Rabbit into a reality. I’ve grown tremendously as a leader here and learned so many valuable lessons that I will take with me throughout my career. I’m thankful for my partnership with InterContinental Washington D.C. - The Wharf who allowed me to run with my dream of sharing contemporary Vietnamese cuisine with the world. I ultimately wanted to offer Moon Rabbit as a standalone concept and look forward to continuing to share Moon Rabbit with diners.”
Tien’s departure from the hotel conjures memories of July 2020, when culinary star Kwame Onwuachi — the head chef at Moon Rabbit’s predecessor Kith/Kin — suddenly resigned from his hit Afro-Caribbean restaurant where he won the 2019 James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in hopes of seeking an ownership stake in his next venture. (“Something that profits off of Black and brown dollars should be Black-owned,” Onwuachi told the New York Times at the time.) Onwuachi is making a big Southwest Waterfront comeback this fall at Sheila Johnson’s newly crowned Salamander hotel.
Despite the closure, Moon Rabbit remains a Rammys finalist in two categories — Chef of the Year and Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year — to be awarded at the D.C.-area restaurant association’s annual July gala. “Regrettably, [Moon Rabbit] will likely not be the last high-profile closing we will see at our independent restaurant scene faces pressure from many directions,” says RAMW’s new CEO Shawn Townsend.