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Don't Blame Acclaimed Restaurant Sixteen For Being In Trump Tower

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 15, 2016 4:20PM

The dining room at Sixteen.

Wednesday afternoon, Vanity Fair published a scintillating review of the Trump Grill, the Trump-themed (literally, there's a salad named after Ivanka) restaurant in Trump Tower. It combined political commentary and restaurant review in a way that would have been unusual in the pre-Trump age, and led me immediately to think: "Gosh, I feel kid of sorry for the folks at Sixteen," which is the fine dining restaurant in Trump Tower Chicago.

The Vanity Fair piece tore apart the food, the decor, and, horror of horrors, Trump's signature taco bowl at the Trump Grill.

The fried shell, meant for one, contained a party-sized amount of lettuce and ground beef suspended in sour cream and “Dago’s famous guacamole”, which NASA might have served in a tube labeled “TACO FILLING” in the early days of the space program. Sadly, the taco bowl, perfectly adequate as it was, is not good enough to prevent Trump from deporting millions of Hispanics.

This, presumably, was what led to Trump tweeting, out of the blue, this morning:

Sigh. The ridiculousness goes on. But I immediately thought about how the talented people at Sixteen must be feeling today, yesterday, and throughout this entire election cycle. Sixteen, as you may know, is the Michelin 2-star restaurant in Trump Tower in Chicago. It's led by Chef Thomas Lents, and I've had some genuinely incredible meals there. It's got a great view of the river, and the bar outside the restaurant is (was?) one of the city's rooftop hot spots.

But I've also heard rumors for the last year that things have been getting a little complicated at Sixteen. Nothing definite, just third-hand whispers that traffic was down, and diners made the occasional comment. After all, how could you avoid the fact that during this election cycle, if you wanted to dine at Sixteen, you had to walk under a giant lighted sign that said Trump? These days, there's a fairly good chance you're going to be trying to pass through a crowd of protestors in order to get to your dinner, and I can only imagine how the people trying to keep the business running from day to day are holding things together.

To Sixteen's credit, unlike the Trump Grill, they're actually running a good restaurant without any of the ridiculous Trump branding. Sixteen isn't "a cheap version of rich" (as Vanity Fair called Trump Grill). It's a rich version of rich, where the service is impeccable, and the staff would be horrified if they sent out an overcooked steak or found a typo on the menu. But... it's still Trump.

Which leads me to my moral conundrum for the day. On the one hand, these are innocent employees running a good business. The chefs and servers at Sixteen didn't endorse Trump's policies. I have no idea if they voted for him or not, and I don't particularly care. They are hard working, talented, people running an acclaimed restaurant who were thrust into the middle of the world stage.

On the other hand, every dime I (or anyone else) spends there potentially puts cash into The Donald's pocket. He's been incredibly vague about how he plans to divest himself from his business interests, and the hotel and restaurant part of Trump Tower Chicago are actually owned and operated by the Trump organization—it's not just a name licensing deal. No one forced any of those employees to work in that particular building, and the market for talented restaurant employees is booming right now.

Here's the bottom line: Can I, as a responsible citizen and a responsible restaurant critic, actually go from protesting outside Trump Tower one night (and getting death threats for writing articles about it) to sipping fine wine inside the restaurant the next day? I want my radical answer to be "absolutely not." I can't stomach the idea of funding Donald Trump, and in my head it feels a little bit like crossing a picket line to shop at a business that is trying to bust a union. I also know that some of my friends and colleagues will jump to an instant judgement that i'm a bad person and a sellout because i'm not sneaking in, lighting fire to the edges of the tablecloths and running out of the building screaming "Not my president" at the top of my liberal lungs.

But I also wonder if, as a food writer, it's unprofessional to boycott a restaurant because of its corporate parent's political views. I also wonder if skipping anything related to Trump is even productive, in this time when our new president is also a brand and a business. Will I stop watching NBC (and MSNBC) because they are writing Trump checks to produce The Apprentice?

I wish I had a great answer, but honestly, for right now, it's a wait and see that makes me feel bad for everyone involved. Will I move Sixteen into the "no" column if construction starts on Trump's wall and my friends get deported? I'm genuinely not sure. Will I spend my own money on Sixteen in 2017? Well, you'll just have to wait and see. Thankfully, because of the price, Sixteen isn't at the top of my date night list (you won't find it on my list of restaurants where I spent my own money last year), but it's often a place I recommend for a certain type of out of town guest. I guess that doesn't have to change for the moment, and they can make their own decision about whether to walk in under the giant lighted letters spelling out the name of our (gulp) new president.