When you go to your friend’s house, do you steal shot glasses? How about wall art or an expensive bottle of booze? Hopefully not, but for whatever reason, people feel comfortable taking these sorts of items from D.C. dives to high-end restaurants.
The seemingly benign (and frequently alcohol-induced) practice can be pretty serious to many restaurants in the long run — setting them back tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Some thieves have gotten pretty bold in the past year or two. In 2022, someone famously stole — but, within a week, mailed back — Jane Jane cocktail bar’s large “Please don’t do coke in the bathroom” sign. Management has since hung up the sign so it’s out of reach, now nailed to the wall, and a newly installed security camera in the back helps prevent future thefts. Patrons have now taken to stealing the tiny magnets that accompany every check instead.
At Capitol Hill sandwich shop Fight Club, some customers’ exit plan is to take the vintage blue-and-white Blockbuster DVD cases used to hold their checks.
“I think it’s pretty shitty to steal something from a business that is just trying to create a fun experience with curated decor and accent pieces,” says Fight Club owner Andrew Markert. Some stolen items are irreplaceable gifts from regulars or rare antiques, he adds. “I would hope people would think about that before deciding to swipe something from a restaurant,” he says.
Some restaurants are resigned to the fact some things will be stolen, and take a more optimistic view of the situation. Management at AYCE Balkan standby Ambar on Capitol Hill used to be more protective of their Serbian rakia glasses, but now they see it as a way for their guests to become “Rakia Ambassadors.” In the 10 years since opening, guests steal an estimated 10 to 20 of these imported glasses each week. At $3 a pop, plus transportation costs from Serbia, it adds up.
“We want to believe that behind every stolen rakia glass, there is an interesting story, that they shared their good experience about Ambar’s hospitality to someone else,” says Ambar’s director of operations Uros Jojic. “If that is the case, we believe our investment is worth it.”
While taking barware is nothing new in D.C. and other cities, owners are starting to fight back by charging customers for thefts and taking lengths to track down the perpetrators themselves. Recent petty thefts are also coming at a time when restaurants are facing more serious burglaries — a cluster of H Street bars and restaurants dealt with a big break-in wave this spring — and a suspect was just arrested and charged this week.
Here is a closer look at things brazen customers throw in their purse or pocket before heading out the door.
Even menus aren’t immune. Customers frequently steal the elaborate, 23-page menus from Allegory, the acclaimed speakeasy tucked inside downtown’s Eaton DC hotel since 2018. In addition, three of its five metal water pitchers have gone missing since opening. The frog-shaped Arthur Court collectables cost around $200 to $300 each. The bar recently sourced two more off eBay, only to have one stolen three weeks later. “It’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening because these are vintage pieces and not something readily available,” says Allegory bar manager Deke Dunne. “Also, who the hell steals a water pitcher?”
Whenever Whitlow’s DC owner Jon Williams sees a package without a return address, he knows it’s going to be good. Eight years after stealing several antique bowling pins on a shelf by the bar, the guilt-ridden thief mailed them back in a package, says Williams.
A decade passed before another thief sent back a poster-sized photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt they had stolen from the bar. The Clarendon resident enclosed an anonymous note of apology.
“They grew up and matured and realized they did the wrong thing, and I think his wife had pushed him to get rid of it,” says Williams. “It’s nice when people do the right thing, no matter how long it takes.”
His historic watering hole, which closed in Clarendon in 2021 after nearly 30 years, now resides in D.C. at an iconic Shaw corner. Cocktails with complimentary toy ducks floating inside may offer a fix for future criminals thinking about grabbing salvaged memorabilia on its walls.
At Adams Morgan’s months-old Bolivian cocktail bar Casa Kantuta, co-owner Carla Sanchez says customers have swiped dozens of handmade, fabric-covered llama pens that she bought from her native Bolivia, and even “decapitated” one of two such pens remaining.
“I guess they really just wanted to take the little llama, they don’t care about the pen,” says Sanchez. “But I’m just like, ‘What the hell. At this point, just take the entire pen.’”
Patrons have also stolen nine out of 10 vintage bronze shot glasses that cost her $15 each. Sanchez was hoping to give customers a traditional experience with standout glassware to shoot singani, but now she’s keeping it simple with simple glasses and basic pens.
Sanchez does, however, keep a dozen vintage shot glasses that belonged to her late grandmother, Elena Avila, behind the bar that she reserves for special occasions and guests like family and friends.
“We don’t use them for the public; it’s mainly for decor because it’s of family value and I just feel like you can’t replace that,” says Sanchez. “I would be heartbroken if they ended up missing.”
Tiki on 18th
Tiki on 18th typically drops $1,500 each year to replace 150 to 200 tropical mugs that customers steal. Bar manager Rico Wisner recently devised a system to charge patrons’ credit cards $36 for each missing mug from the table or at the bar — a policy that appears on its menu under the QR code for beer and wine. He’ll charge $50 for larger, foot-tall mugs that serve shareable cocktails.
The charge goes to whoever paid the tab, and Wisner maintains a spreadsheet of credit card numbers and affiliated customer names who used them. He also frequently reviews camera footage of people stealing mugs that he uploads to his Google Drive, so if someone complains about the extra charge, he’s got hard evidence.
“We’re not perfect, but I think our staff is getting better and better,” says Wisner. “There’s that slight joy in me when I can actually catch them.”
Wisner remembers the time he tracked down a woman standing in line at nearby Madam’s Organ who had walked off with two mugs. Another time, a friend at Town Tavern texted Wisner a photo of a spotted unicorn mug that belonged to Tiki on 18th. The friend took the mug away from the customer and held it until Wisner arrived to collect his property.
“We have friends in the neighborhood that look out for us,” Wisner said.
Because Tiki TNT is a drinking establishment, “people feel a little bit more liberated to steal things, once they have a little bit of Dutch courage in them,” says owner Todd Thrasher.
Since opening along the Southwest Waterfront in 2018, he estimates his stolen tiki-mug tab has risen to the tune of $20,000. But that doesn’t begin to cover what people steal from the rum bar. The mugs have essentially become disposable, and like Tiki on 18th, Thrasher charges customers $20 for the stolen mugs.
Besides mugs, Thrasher remembers a server successfully chasing down a man who had stolen a $130 bottle of Foursquare rum — and got the bottle back (to be clear, Thrasher tells servers not to chase suspected thieves).
Another time, Thrasher caught a woman on camera stealing one of his favorite South Pacific masks. He posted the footage on his Instagram feed and urged followers to rat her out.
“I shamed the hell out of her,” admits Thrasher. “I said, ‘If you know this girl, let her know I’m looking for my mask.’”
The call to action worked, and she returned the hard-carved artifact the next night.
“The funny thing is, she was actually in the restaurant business,” he says. “She got drunk, took the mask, had her friend watch out for her, and put it in her purse.”
Last summer, someone picked up one of Thrasher’s massive wooden tiki figures standing outside by the bar. Wharf security found it later that night in a nearby alley behind concert venue the Anthem. Thrasher has since strapped six-some figures together, making it impossible to take just one. And he now screws his artwork into the walls to ward off would-be thieves inside.
“The idea of stealing anything in general is a bad idea,” says Thrasher. “A lot of times, in general, [they] don’t think about other people — they think about themselves, and that’s where we are.”
If it’s not bolted down, people will take it. That’s the observation from Mission Group co-founder Fritz Brogan, who’s seen it all throughout his 20-year career in D.C.’s millennial-driven bar business.
“When people start having a couple of drinks, inhibition goes out the window is part of it, but people also make connections with spaces,” says Brogan. Whether that’s meeting a significant other or celebrating a life milestone like a new job, “they want to take something physical with them to remind themselves of it.”
In the early 2010s, when he was a partner at Georgetown’s now-closed preppy tavern George, he remembers a large portrait of President George Washington being stolen — only to have it quickly returned after Brogan assured a friend of a friend of the thief that the culprit would receive amnesty.
“The next morning, this sheepish-looking guy with a sheepish grin on his face carried it in, handed it to us. I didn’t ask who he was, and he ran out,” says Brogan.
These days, he instructs his staff at Navy Yard’s new Royal Sands Social Club to overlook customers who steal custom white mugs with a gold trim. That’s because the attractive coupes not only help patrons revive fun memories at the Floridian-themed hangout, he says, but they also serve as a reminder to come back.
“At the end of the day, we view it as a marketing expense,” says Brogan, taking a similar view to Ambar’s staff.
But other thefts on his watch appear just meaningless. At his Mexican restaurant Mission in Dupont and its newer edition in Navy Yard, people tend to take items as unexciting as patio chairs and fake cactus planters.
—Tierney Plumb contributed to this report