This restaurant was trapped behind the Capitol razor wire

Trophy location ‘not such a trophy at this moment,’ says owner of the Monocle

National Guardsmen walk past the Monocle restaurant inside the security perimeter at the Capitol on Wednesday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
National Guardsmen walk past the Monocle restaurant inside the security perimeter at the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 1:17pm

Inauguration is usually a good day for the Monocle, the staid and stately restaurant that sits just a block from the Senate office buildings. Even this year, amid the pandemic, the private event spaces were getting booked at 25 percent capacity for socially distanced luncheons.

“Then Jan. 6 came around,” said owner John Valanos.

The fencing came a day later, a day late. Workers barricaded the congressional office complex, along with the Monocle, behind razor-topped, chain-linked walls. Ten weeks later, it’s still keeping Valanos’ customers at bay as much as any would-be insurrectionists.

“It’s pretty intense,” Valanos said. “It’s kind of difficult to ask our customers to climb the barbed wire.”

When you tack on the three-week indoor dining ban that D.C. started in December, the restaurant has been shuttered for nearly three months now. While restaurants across the nation have suffered from the coronavirus, the Monocle is the only one that’s been forced to close because of the extra security that’s turned Congress into a fortress.

(Eateries located within the Capitol’s office buildings remain open — at least those that weren’t shut down because of the pandemic.)

Valanos first heard about the fence from the news. Thanks to the District’s public health measures, the Monocle was closed, and he was out of town when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. When he came back to town, the barriers were already built.

No one called Valanos to say his restaurant, which has been a Capitol Hill landmark since Valanos’ parents opened it in 1960, would be surrounded by siege defenses manned by a few thousand National Guardsmen.

He suspects someone from the Capitol Police would’ve stopped in and said something had the restaurant been open — the HQ is right next door, after all. “This has never happened before, so I’m sure they would have,” he said.

At first, Valanos figured the fencing wouldn’t last very long. He was wrong. The outer perimeter, the one that separates the Monocle from the rest of D.C., is set to start coming down late next week, two months after the inauguration.

The added security features are wearing out their welcome around Capitol Hill. The District’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, led a protest over the weekend, and a CQ Roll Call survey of 101 congressional staffers found that 86 supported removing the fence while just 10 wanted to retain it. (The remaining five were unsure.) Still, Congress has largely deferred to Capitol Police on the matter. 

Given the Monocle’s location, Valanos has a Senate parking pass that, along with a few phone calls up the chain of command, helped him get through security to check in on his restaurant shortly after the fences went up. Besides the lost revenues, Valanos had to throw out some meat and cheese, but the inventory losses weren’t too bad. He consolidated the rest of his stock, mainly beer and wine, into a single walk-in fridge and turned off the other three to save on electricity.

Since then, he and his 20 employees have waited in the dark, unsure of when they’d be allowed to reopen. Even though Valanos has sources on the Hill that most reporters can only dream of, his guess is as good as anyone’s.

“It’s very frustrating,” Valanos said. “The thing is the uncertainty.”

“I’m not the only restaurant in town, obviously, or in the country. And I have friends in New York and they’re just really having a tough time,” he said. “But the uncertainty about the fencing, they don’t have that situation. That’s unique to us, I guess because of our fabulous trophy location. It’s not such a trophy at this moment.”

The long closure, coming on top of a year ruined by the pandemic, has strained the business’s finances. “I like that I don’t have a financial partner because I can make my own decisions, but at the same time, this was probably the last year I kind of wish I didn’t have a financial partner,” Valanos said, adding that a Paycheck Protection Program loan has helped keep the Monocle afloat. “It’s been pretty challenging.”

Valanos is used to security measures, since his tables are regularly filled by senators and ambassadors. He remained open during the anthrax attack in 2001, handled a Cabinet dinner during the Obama administration that filled D Street with 40 security-detail SUVs and had the place swarming with Secret Service last year when Vice President Mike Pence wanted to grab a bite with his brother, Rep. Greg Pence. “But nothing like this,” he said. 

The aftermath of 9/11 was a relative blip, one bad month caused by the sudden fear of flying that kept tourists and local trade associations away from Washington for a bit. The added security itself was hardly a bother.

Even though Capitol Police haven’t given him an exact date, knowing that the fence will come down soon means Valanos can finally start making plans. “When I heard they were going to extend the National Guard through May 23, I was not happy about that — that’s another two months plus,” he said.

It’ll take Valanos four or five days to get the Monocle up and running again, for a professional cleaning crew to sanitize the place and food suppliers to fill its pantries. Even stocking the bar is a process. One of the Monocle’s fancy cocktails, the Ginger Manhattan, uses bourbon seeped in fresh rosemary and orange peel. That takes 48 hours.

I joked that Valanos should operate the senatorial haunt as a dive bar — no food or fancy drinks — while getting up to speed.

“I thought about that,” he replied with a laugh. “Believe me, I thought about a Thursday night happy hour or something to get things going.”

While the Monocle has a loyal following of Congress members and staff within the fence, Valanos said it’s a place they usually use to meet with those on the outside, like lobbyists, constituents or simply friends.

That loyalty is why Valanos is sure the Monocle will see brighter days ahead, once it’s freed from its temporary prison.

“It’s going to come back. It’s going to come back strong,” he said. “I feel it and I know it, and that’s why I’m willing to keep pouring funds into this.”