Trump’s Washington Hotel Has Great Sushi. So Why Was It Empty?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Washington’s Sushi Nakazawa restaurant has received rave reviews, as one might expect from the creation of sushi master Daisuke Nakazawa. But in the nation’s capital it’s known as much for its location: inside the Trump International Hotel. In any case, I felt I had to explore both the food and the sociological experience.
When I arrived, on a recent Wednesday evening, the restaurant’s most striking feature was its emptiness. I sat at my table from 5 to 6:45 p.m., and not a single other diner entered. I enjoyed some of the best service of my life, with plenty of peace and quiet to contemplate President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the District, where he received only 4 percent of the vote in 2016.
You might think I was too early to see much of a crowd, but I’ve frequented top sushi restaurants in Manhattan and Los Angeles, and typically the 5 p.m. seating fills up with as many people as the restaurant’s service can accommodate. My waiter pointed out that the Manhattan branch of Nakazawa (not in a Trump hotel) is hard to get into.
Nor is the price a problem. The basic omakase menu is $120, plus tax and tip, and if you wish you can spend more on such items as truffles. That may sound outrageously high, but it’s below what sushi restaurants of comparable quality usually charge.
Unlike the main dining room, the sushi bar of 10 seats did fill up. I heard Japanese being spoken, and everyone sitting at the bar appeared to be Japanese. On the far left were two men who seemed to be Buddhist monks, wearing orange robes with one bare shoulder.
It is not that Trump is so popular with the Japanese. But I thought about why foreigners might feel less reluctant to patronize such a restaurant. I’ve been to Beijing, and have gladly dined in some of the excellent state-owned restaurants there without thinking too deeply about my opinion of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Simply visiting China at all, I figured, was putting money in Xi’s coffers. Furthermore, as an outsider, I wouldn’t know whether Xi’s relevant political opponents would be any better. So do I really have to take sides?
Nonetheless, a number of people objected strenuously to my visiting the restaurant, as they (like me) find Trump’s stances and rhetoric often offensive and divisive. Those same people did not criticize me for going to China or Russia or Nigeria, all problematic countries for various political reasons.
How much money did I funnel to the pockets of Trump? I don’t know the details of the restaurant’s contract with the hotel, but unless business picks up, I suspect I was merely limiting its losses. Still, there is a small chance that my single meal — or maybe this column — nudges its operators into extending their lease. Then again, if a sushi restaurant is a worse fit for the hotel than, say, another bar or steakhouse, I could just as easily be helping to keep the hotel’s profits down. I don’t feel I have committed a utilitarian sin.
And what about the food? It may be the best restaurant in Washington right now — and it was the second-best sushi meal I’ve had in America, behind only Masa, the Michelin three-star temple in Manhattan. Sushi Nakazawa flies in lots of sushi from Hokkaido, a premier source of supply, and the presentation is impeccable.
If I have a complaint, it is about the décor and atmosphere: the tacky carpet, highly visible fire alarm and annoying muzak were all magnified by the absence of human beings in the main dining room. The room is ugly without being informal or relaxing or culturally interesting.
And what of my sociological adventure? If the president manages to keep control of the Republican Party, one might expect Washington's cultural scene — bars, restaurants, parties and so on — to become more Trumpian, for lack of a better word. But at least when it comes to sushi, that transformation remains far away. Sushi Nakazawa is yet another illustration of how divided this country has become, as the number of Trump-tolerant sushi eaters in Washington still appears pretty small.
In the meantime, I view my culinary transgression as a victory for the separation of politics and food — indeed for the separation of politics and consumption decisions more generally. I don’t want America to have separate sets of stores for Republicans and Democrats, and I don’t feel obliged to take my vacations abroad in order to reduce tax revenue for the U.S. federal government. I’m also happy to spend money in states whose governments I do not like.
So yes, I will return to Sushi Nakazawa, and look forward to it. I’ll also use the experience as motivation to keep putting my ideas out there.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
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