Staying Hospitable During Our Nation's Division

Local restaurateurs discuss civility at the table

Eldorado owner Joel Fried (Photo by John Anderson)

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural speech, delivered in March 1865 when the Civil War was winding down and the South had all but been defeated, was not a celebration of victory or even a kumbaya moment gesturing toward unity. It was a grief-sodden sigh, an acknowledgment that both sides believed themselves to have God's blessing in their fight. It was also an appeal to Americans to move forward together as a singular body, members of the same team once again: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds [...] to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead, shot in the head while watching a play. So much for that "with malice toward none" thing.

One hundred and fifty-three years later, we're still marinating in malice, probably reaching a boiling point similar to those that precipitated the Civil War. It's impossible to go to a concert, or to school, or to church, or to the southern border of the United States without being met with malice, in the form of bullets or forced separation of families. In 2018, it's possible, likely even, to witness dedicated members of modern America's two sides bring the fight to the dinner table.

Consider Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As the now infamous Washington Post story from June 2018 goes, when Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of Red Hen, a 20-something-seat farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Va., was made aware by her staff that the White House press secretary was dining there with a party of eight, she asked her staff if they felt comfortable continuing to serve Sanders in the restaurant. They made clear that despite having already served the table as usual, they would prefer if Sanders was asked to leave. Wilkinson politely asked; Sanders politely obliged. From the article, Wilkinson said, "I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation."

Then, as with so many incidents in the Trump administration era, a social media storm ensued – one that included remarks on Twitter from Sanders' boss, Donald Trump. The subsequent online melee eventually manifested physically, with both protesters and supporters vehemently arguing in-person outside the restaurant, forcing a temporary closure.

Similar incidents involving current government officials (Trump's senior adviser Stephen Miller, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) have followed suit in other cities, with patrons and/or restaurant staff actively vocalizing their distaste for those public figures' support of the Trump administration's increasingly anti-immigrant, anti-LBGTQ, racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, oligarchic actions. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has openly encouraged citizens to continue to express their critiques of elected officials in public spaces, whereas House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi firmly disagrees, citing a dire need for civility.

Back to Lincoln again real quick: He also famously declared, "A house divided against itself cannot stand ..." In contrast, it's a safe bet that America's 45th president believes more in deliberately divisive tweets that pander to his base than actually being proactive about governing the nation.

Restaurants have frequently been sites of protest, from the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement, to demonstrations against restaurants offering foie gras, to "Day Without Immigrants" protests, to anti-gentrification activists picketing Austin's Blue Cat Cafe. But that doesn't mean that Austin restaurants actively encourage such behavior.

In The Great Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes a "third place," a space that isn't home or work where people can gather to relax and interact with others. He argues that places like restaurants, bars, libraries, shopping malls, swimming pools, and so on are foundational to a sense of community, civic engagement, and a functioning democracy, because they facilitate and foster broad interactions and exchanges of ideas. Third places are a community hub, where all are welcome to pass through.

Because Austin is, generally speaking, a progressive city, one might think that given the opportunity, restaurant owners and operators might be more inclined to decline the business of someone whose values are antithetical to theirs. Especially considering that many restaurant employees have skin in the game when it comes to the current administration's bigoted policies and actions. And yet, I interviewed several people in the Austin restaurant industry for this story, and not a single one of them said that they would invite someone like Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Ted Cruz to leave their restaurant. Austin restaurants, it seems, are not in the business of being inhospitable.

"At the Eldorado Cafe, all are welcome. Our only rule is 'be nice or leave,'" says chef/owner Joel Fried, who has long been a fixture in the Austin music and restaurant scenes. "I told the staff that we would never throw out Ted Cruz or Alex Jones or anyone unless they violate the nice rule."

Fried adds, "We view our restaurant as a comfort zone that welcomes all and serves as a break from the demands of the intense outside world. We want to be a place where people of all political affiliations can break bread together. This holds true across all social spectrums. Like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca."

Brian Batch of Bird Bird Biscuit (Photo by John Anderson)

Brian Batch, who co-owns Bird Bird Biscuit with Ryan McElroy, says, "For me, that stuff doesn't belong in a place like this. It doesn't belong in a restaurant. When you're able to view people as people, everybody has desires, wants, dreams. If you can build a judgment-free environment and have a product that can appeal to a lot of different walks of life, you invite people in to an opportunity to experience that they can all be unified around – like joy, delicious biscuits, and love – you don't even have to try to avoid all this other stuff. It all just naturally falls away."

Other restaurateurs are similarly circumspect, and emphasize the importance of remembering that, despite our political differences, we all have to live together. "We're all in the same boat. Watch any meteor movie," says Alex Dubey, general manager of Pitchfork Pretty. "It doesn't take long for everyone to start hugging each other."

Alex Dubey (Photo by John Anderson)
“We’re all in the same boat. Watch any meteor movie. It doesn’t take long for everyone to start hugging each other.” – Alex Dubey, general manager of Pitchfork Pretty

Dubey continues, "Community is huge – it's what supersedes negativity in knowing each other. That's why it's important to create more of an extensive community, through participating in local events and knowing who your neighbors are. Community is huge. We want to be safe, transparent, and inviting, even if you are Sarah [Huckabee] Sanders."

Along similar lines, the New Waterloo restaurant group prefers to enact its values beyond the dining room floors of its various concepts. Says Alexis Lanman, director of marketing, "We aim to align with community and charitable organizations that are near and dear to our team's hearts and passions. We work collaboratively with our people to determine the best partnerships based on shared values." New Waterloo has donated percentages of their sales to Equality Texas, GENAustin, Meals on Wheels, Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, and the Sustainable Food Center. The New Waterloo group earmarks more than $65,000 each year for donations to charities, schools, and organizations in the form of gift cards, events, and silent auction items.

When you think about it, it doesn't make a lot of sense for a restaurant to willingly step into the political fray by excluding anyone. The entire mission of the hospitality industry is to be hospitable, after all. And, as Batch explains, while you can't control what people do in your restaurant, you can control the environment and the vibe. For most of these restaurants, all are welcome. "Ted Cruz, come on in, man! I'll make you a bomb biscuit," laughs Batch.

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