Nothing sells newspapers faster than a scandal. In Washington, D.C., where scandal is quickly becoming the new (and inflating) currency, restaurants and bars are asking whether Americans will want to eat a scandal as badly as they want to read about one.
Last week, after Buzzfeed published pages from an unverified dossier that suggested President-elect Donald Trump might have deep and sordid ties to Russia, a diner in Bethesda jumped on the scandal train. Playing off one of the meatier allegations in the dossier-that Russia might have R-rated and incriminating footage of Trump-Community Restaurant & Lounge released a special Golden Showers burger for the day.
Less than 24 hours after the speculative furor began, Nevin Martell, freelance food writer and co-creator of the Golden Showers Burger, announced the dish on Instagram. The burger was “drenched with self-tanning cheddar and yellow mustard leaking down the sides, and topped with a very small pickle.” If you happened to visit Community on the 11th, $20 would have bought you the sizeable Golden Showers Burger, fries, a lemon-glazed doughnut, and a five-dollar donation to Planned Parenthood—the latter is likely the explanation for Martell’s promise, “Happy ending included!”
Perverse gastronomic references to political controversies—namely ones that concern Trump—may be taking over the D.C. area. In the weeks before the election, a popular whiskey bar just down the street from the Capitol gained massive popularity off its “secret” Trump-themed basement bar. Barrel’s basement area, Elixir Bar, featured wall-to-wall Trump/Pence posters, enormous menus (to make customers’ hands look small), and drinks named after the various appalling things Trump has said throughout his presidential campaign. Bar director Brad Ingwell told the Independent Journalism Review that the “Grab Them by the P*ssy” vodka-based cocktail was the most popular menu item.
No matter the message or movement, the prime beneficiary of an exclusive and upsold experience will always be the upseller. In the case of Community, the business owners have at least tried to extend this benefit to people and organizations directly affected by Trump’s abusive statements and backwards policies. But charity isn’t always a top priority. Barrel gained more publicity in the past months than its pop-up peers, and hasn’t donated any of the basement bar’s profits to causes that it deems worthier than the Trump presidency.
Bar manager Parker Girard complained to Washington City Paper that Barrel had received harsh criticism about the pop-up from Capitol Hill locals. While he insisted that the bar was satirical, he also told the Paper that the popular “P*ssy” drink featured Civic Vodka from Republic Restoratives, a local, woman-owned distillery. “If we’re going to promote this kind of language, the main beneficiary should be the company that sells the liquor,” he said.
Jessica Lazarus was one of the Capitol Hill residents who wrote in to Barrel expressing her concern over Elixir’s content and message. Lazarus, 32, told the bar owners she thought the Trump basement was “tone deaf,” and asked them to reconsider their branding. “By chalking up what Donald Trump says as jokes, it helps to normalize the disturbing sentiments behind them,” Lazarus wrote. “Moreover, the fact that you aim to profit from all of the racist, demeaning and sexual predatory comments Donald Trump has made is just plain offensive.”
Lazarus’s exchange with Barrel was unsuccessful for both parties, with Barrel unwilling to concede that the pop-up was anything more than harmless satire and Lazarus frustrated by their perceived indifference to issues as critical and sensitive as sexual violence.
I followed up with Lazarus, who told Paste that Barrel’s basement bar “failed as a piece of satire,” and that it was more a ploy to bring in new business than a political statement. Lazarus added that one of the most frustrating parts of her back-and-forth with Barrel “was to see them using the talking point over and over again that what they were doing was OK because they were using a woman-owned vodka” (for the popular “P*ssy” cocktail). “It just seemed like a means for justifying and rationalizing their despicably named drink.”
After Community sold their unofficial “Golden Showers” burger for one day, they raised a modest but meaningful $50 for Planned Parenthood. After Bar Ilegal set up shop for a week, they continued making charitable donations through “Pendejo” t-shirt sales and supported Hispanic businesses through their menu offerings. But at Elixir Bar, Election Night lacked any sense of closure or satisfaction. Brad Ingwell admitted to the Independent Journalism Review that when Trump won, the entire concept “became not very funny for a minute.” But the taste of defeat didn’t linger too long in his mouth.
On Tuesday, IJR got a sneak peek at Barrel’s next basement theme. They’re continuing with Trump, but adding several shots of Russian conspiracy into the mix. The menu features drinks like the Moscow Mule and the Red Scare, and the ceilings are lined with Russian and American flags. Taped to the walls are printed tweets of Trump’s insults to almost everyone (except, notably, Russia), serving as feeble reminders that Barrel does not endorse Trump. But with his face and campaign merchandise covering every other surface of Elixir, it’s difficult to conclude that the pop-up is meant to be at Trump’s expense and not his benefit.
Most local establishments that made a few extra bucks during the election understand that these are short-lived publicity campaigns: easy ways to ride the news cycle through a day or two of heavier business, and perhaps help causes dear to the owners’ hearts. The trend—and the subversive sentiments that fueled it—fizzled out quickly in D.C. after November 8. But Barrel has stumbled onto a model that it thinks will continue to serve them in Trump’s America: the age-old notion that any publicity is good publicity. This was arguably the same mentality that Trump used to wriggle his way to the White House, and one that business owners should be challenging, not spoon-feeding, if they don’t want satire to become realism.
Note: A previous version of the story mistakenly implied that Bar Ilegal had “played its pop up event like a savvy business move.” Ilegal Mezcal reached out to us confirming that they “did not take a profit from its Bar Ilegal pop up,” and did donate the proceeds to charity.