One of the most acclaimed restaurants in Washington, D.C. closed suddenly on Tuesday amid what some are describing as a move to squelch union activity there.
Moon Rabbit, a modern Vietnamese concept helmed by chef Kevin Tien, closed at the InterContinental Washington, D.C., a hotel in the city’s popular district known as The Wharf, without explanation.
Paul Schwalb, executive-secretary treasurer of the union Unite Here Local 25, which represents hotel workers throughout the city, said the decision to close the restaurant immediately followed a petition for a union election filed on May 1 by hotel and restaurant workers there. Unite Here said 83% of workers in the bargaining unit have signed union authorization cards.
In response to the news of the restaurant closure, the group organized a picket line outside the hotel on Wednesday and Thursday.
Great crowd this morning outside Moon Rabbit and @IHGhotels at the Wharf. The chants were excellent and the vibes were great. Keep it up @UHLocal25pic.twitter.com/3Kk2hWjCVs— Zac Hoffman 🌹 (@zac_hoffman) May 25, 2023
“This move by the hotel is cynical and disgusting,” said Schwalb in a statement. “Closing Moon Rabbit on the eve of a union election shows a gross disregard for the people who helped turn Moon Rabbit into a national sensation. Nobody should do business with a hotel that treats workers as disposable.”
InterContinental parent IHG Hotels & Resorts declined to comment beyond an emailed statement, confirming that Tien and IHG have “parted ways,” and wishing the chef well. The decision was “in no way impacted” by the union’s efforts to organize workers there, the statement said.
“The vision behind Moon Rabbit at the InterContinental Washington, D.C-The Wharf was to open new doors for diners, to educate them and to excite them, which we absolutely accomplished. Chef Tien cooks from his soul, showcasing the recipes inspired from his grandmother, and celebrating his diverse heritage,” hotel officials said. “IHG wishes Chef Tien much continued success in his future endeavors.
Options for the restaurant space are still being explored, hotel officials added.
Tien, in the same statement, said, “I am so grateful for the last two and a half years where my team and I were able to make my dream of Moon Rabbit into a reality. I’ve grown tremendously as a leader here and learned so many valuable lessons that I will take with me throughout my career. I’m thankful for my partnership with InterContinental Washington, D.C.-The Wharf who allowed me to run with my dream of sharing contemporary Vietnamese cuisine with the world.”
Tien added that he ultimately wanted to offer Moon Rabbit as a standalone concept, “and look forward to continuing to share Moon Rabbit with diners.”
Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment further.
The split comes at a time when Moon Rabbit had been enjoying the kind of attention most hotel restaurants can only dream of.
Tien, who has Vietnamese roots but grew up in Louisiana, has been a James Beard Award semifinalist multiple times at his prior restaurant Himitsu. Moon Rabbit this year was named by Food & Wine among the 10 Best Restaurants in the U.S. It has also been nominated for a Rammy Award from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. And in 2021, Esquire named it one of the country’s best new restaurants. And Tien cooked for Vice President Kamala Harris at her residence for the Lunar New Year.
Union organizers called for a boycott of the InterContinental and other non-union hotels in Washington.
Michael Cruz, who was a server at Moon Rabbit, said in a statement provided by the Local 25 that the closure was devastating.
“I’ve been organizing the union at Moon Rabbit because I wanted stability, and I wanted to spend my career working here with Chef Kevin,” Cruz said. “For management to spit that back in our faces is a real betrayal of our work and the incredible restaurant we’ve built.”
The $3.6 billion Wharf development on the waterfront of a Potomac River channel is owned by developers Hoffman & Associates, Madison Marquette and Carr Companies. It was developed with close to $300 million in subsidies.
City Councilmember Zachary Parker, meanwhile, joined the picket line on Thursday, saying in a Tweet, “When taxpayer money goes to helping the development of destinations like the Intercontinental and Moon Rabbit, we expect workers to be treated with dignity and respect. Union busting is unacceptable.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.