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Restaurant roulette?

Spotluck offers discounts with the spin of an app wheel

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Spotluck, gay news, Washington Blade
Spotluck, gay news, Washington Blade

Spotluck adds a new dimension to D.C. dining. (Photo courtesy Spotluck)

It’s Friday night and you can’t decide where to go out for dinner, a first-world problem if there ever was one.

A couple of decades ago in the District, this was really not an issue because there weren’t nearly as many choices, but nowadays the selection can require serious contemplation. However, if you’ve got a yen for gambling, a smartphone app called Spotluck is here to make your dining-out adventures more interesting.

The brainchild of two D.C.-area entrepreneurs, Cherian Thomas and Brad Sayler, Spotluck offers randomly discounted restaurant meals, all with the spin of a virtual wheel. With participating restaurants organized into “hubs” by neighborhood, including Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill and the U Street Corridor, the Spotluck app’s discounts are dependent on the day of the week, time of day and even the weather, with a premise that meals should be less expensive during slow times, such as a frigid Tuesday evening when diners are less likely to venture out.

“We spent a lot of time analyzing the downsides of existing discounting platforms,” Thomas, Spotluck CEO, says, “to create a merchant-centric product that protected the bottom line while still hooking consumers up with preferred pricing.”

Once users download the free app — ranked no. 1 in the iTunes app store in the dining category, ahead of GrubHub and OpenTable — they get a chance to try out a little restaurant roulette, in the form of one spin a day to receive a random bonus discount from one of the participating restaurants in each neighborhood.

“We saw the frustration restaurants had when it was a Monday at 2 p.m. or if a thunderstorm was on the radar, so Spotluck discounts surge during periods of less demand,” says Thomas. It’s basically the opposite effect of other demand-driven services like Uber, because the focus is to bring customers into the restaurants that have seats to fill at that moment.

Some of the D.C. restaurants that you might land on during a spin include Perry’s, Smoke & Barrel, Big Stick, Indique and Duke’s Grocery — or even a hidden gem you’ve never heard of. The app has become so popular among locals that people lined up throughout the day to find out more about it when Spotluck visited last weekend’s Cherry Blossom Beer & Wine Festival.

“People like telling friends that they knew about us when we only had 30 restaurants,” Thomas says.

Eight of those first 30 restaurants were in the Rockville neighborhood where the app got its start back in 2014. For Spotluck founders Thomas and Sayler, the app was both a leap of faith and a labor of love, taking 18 months to develop, during which they focused first on finding out from restaurant owners what kept them up at night — from rained-out weekends to negative online reviews — and worked to build a concept that would be useful for both the merchants and the consumers, looking to help restaurants build a consistent customer base while diners could enjoy up to 30 percent discounts on food and drink, available only for that day and maybe even only for an hour or two.

With more than 300 restaurants now participating in Spotluck and more than 50,000 downloads, the dining discounts can be found all across the region, from Annapolis to Leesburg to Tenleytown. A new hub is being launched in Falls Church this week, featuring local hot spots like Lebanese Taverna, Mad Fox Brewing Company, Caribbean Plate, Panjshir, Tara Thai and Yayla Bistro. Once Spotluck has finished mapping out deals in the D.C. area, they’ll start expanding to other East Coast cities, with an eye on Philadelphia next.

“Some of our predecessors expanded way too quickly in terms of adding restaurants, but neglected the fact that a strong user base is necessary to support the other side of the platform,” Thomas says. “We won’t expand until we’ve done our work.”

 

Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures at @kristenhartke.

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Dining

D.C.’s creative culinary scene thriving post-pandemic

The Wharf continues to expand and other highlights

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D.C. is getting plenty of new restaurants this fall.

Colorful foliage, colorful openings: While the dining industry has struggled under the weight of the pandemic, staffing shortages, supply chain crises, inflation, and a spate of closings over the summer, the spirit of colorful creativity in the District hasn’t slowed. This fall, we look forward to visiting brand-new ideas, creative concept changes, additional spots from beloved chefs, an ever-expanding Wharf, and more. Note that some of these restaurants have opened already, while others have planned opening dates through the rest of the year.

Bar Spero

From the owner of Georgetown’s tasting-menu Michelin-starred Reverie comes Bar Spero to the Capitol Crossing complex. Taking inspiration from San Sebastian, Spain, Bar Spero is named for its owner and chef Johnny Spero, with a dynamic energy, modern dishes, raw bar, and fiery grill that touches nearly all the dishes. Check out highlights like grilled imported Spanish turbot and lobster knuckle tossed right on the embers.

Butter Me Up

The little bakery that could is now opening its second brick-and-mortar shop just off 14th Street, N.W. The breakfast sandwich concept that began as a pop-up in May 2020 at HalfSmoke is now plating its celebrated breakfast sammies on toasted brioche butter rolls baked daily, as well as superfood bowls, toasts, and tots. On the liquid side, look to house-pressed juices, smoothies, and brunch cocktails.

Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips and Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen

Michelin-starred and TV shouter Gordon Ramsay is anchoring himself twice over on the expanding Southwest Wharf with new locations of his Fish & Chips and Hell’s Kitchen chains. Fish & Chips is Ramsay’s take on the classic British pub grub, with cod dusted and deep-fried under a crust of custard powder batter. The massive 14,000-sqaure-foot Hell’s Kitchen, with three other U.S. locations, takes cues from Ramsay’s fiery TV show (and personality). The menu will include the British chef’s signatures like Beef Wellington, the “HELL’S KITCHEN Burger,” and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Don’t miss cocktails like the Notes from Gordon (gin, green tea, peach), complete with a message from Chef Ramsay himself.

Le Mont Royal

French disco is back with a vengeance and a Canadian accent in Adams Morgan. With “the idea of a French wine dance party” in mind, the bar will specialize in “juicy” natural wines, grower Champagnes, and funky cocktails. Look out for offbeat plates like poutine with elevated add-on options like truffle, and a foie gras-ice cream-stuffed twinkie. The first floor will feature velvet banquettes for lounge seating; upstairs will include touches like a pool table, large-group seating, and plenty of space for dancing to enjoy the house collection of soul, funk, and disco vinyls. 

Nama Ko

14th Street mainstay Tico has closed its doors after eight years, making way for a new concept by the same owner, Michael Schlow. Schlow also operates sushi restaurant Nama and Italian restaurant Alta Strada. Nama Ko opened this week and offers a large cellar of Japanese whiskeys and sakes, plus a raw bar, full entrees, and its spectacular sushi selection with items like foie gras and golden eye snapper.

Nick Stefanelli at The Morrow

NoMa’s sleek new hotel entrant, the Morrow, will house three dining options care of Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli, who runs tasting-menu Masseria in nearby Union Market. The ground-floor French-inspired Le Clou is a chic, brasserie-style restaurant (with an adjoining lobby cocktail bar), while the energetic rooftop bar, Upstairs at The Morrow, pours elegant cocktails and offers wide city views. The sophisticated Vesper lounge, with craft cocktails and live music, will open in the winter.

Philippe Chow

Celeb fave Philippe Chow drops down I-95 from Manhattan to another new spot on the Wharf for Chef Chow’s spin on fine-dining Chinese. Known for his modern and theatrical style, Chef Chow’s brings a menu of lavish, Beijing-style dishes like glazed spare ribs and tableside-carved Peking duck. The restaurant features sweeping waterfront views of the Potomac.

Tigerella at Western Market

The creators of celebrated Mt. Pleasant morning Mecca Elle have opened Tigerella in Foggy Bottom’s Western Market. This all-day locale begins with café-style coffee, toasts, and sandwiches, but the dining room adds shareable snacks, meat and cheeses, and Italian entrees. A happy hour will begin soon. Western Market will also soon welcome a fistful of new openings in the coming months, from Alitiko, a Greco-Middle Eastern concept, to ExPat, a sports betting bar, to Hippo Taco, an Asian-fusion concept.

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Dining

Mi Vida bringing customers together on 14th Street

Striking new location invites group-friendly grazing

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Mi Vida took over the massive former Matchbox pizza location on 14th Street. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

The striking new Mi Vida’s location in the heart of 14th Street, N.W., is no coincidence. Opened in early August, it’s an outgrowth of the gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design restaurant group’s wildly popular location on the Wharf. 

Mi Vida meets its customers where they are: on a bustling, pedestrian-friendly corridor where the soaring, three-story interior welcomes group-friendly “grazing” shareables, refined cocktail flights, and a mole as rich as the Oaxacan culinary culture that it draws from.

KNEAD founders and husbands, Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, explain that they feel fortunate to meld their brand into a vibrant neighborhood that is a melting pot of nightlife and residential communities. “We are bringing Mi Vida to the people,” says Berry.

As with the Wharf Mi Vida, the duo brought on Chef Roberto Santibañez, who is also gay. Here, he extends to the lively neighborhood crowd with no-fork-needed skewers of agave-marinated chicken and sea bass enlivened by earth pumpkin seed salsa macha.

While the core menu is similar, Santibañez puts the festive in the “fiesta de botanas” platter: a “very fun, more communal” option, he says, for sharing, tasting, and intimately connecting with the food. Each platter comes with a bounty of the resto’s most popular apps and snacks, from crab empanadas to skirt steak skewers, accompanied by piquant habanero and creamy avocado salsas.

Berry notes that they “spared no expense” reimagining the hundred-year-old building that once played host to billiards, bowling, live jazz, and most recently, a Matchbox pizza. An “old building with a new core,” he says, the historic façade got a glow-up too: splashed atop a pink background is a vibrant mural of riotous shapes and patterns, a nod to what a diner might expect inside. Soaring pink fin panels greet guests at the entrance, flying across the 10,000-square-foot space. A patio on T Street promises heat lamps for cooler months.

From the top of the menu to the bottom, Mi Vida offers a “dulce suenos” shareable dessert platter that includes items like an ice cream volcano and espresso flan.

Beverage director Darlin Kulla took the group assignment to heart. “We are launching our Vuelo a Mexico, a flight of four of our favorite cocktails for groups to share.” Included sips are drinks like El Suave, a take on a margarita shot through with ginger, and the Ponche de Lola, a drink with the same mango vodka base that Reginbogin fine-tunes at each of KNEAD’s restaurants, whether with gin (The Grill), bourbon (Succotash), or tequila (Mi Vida).

New to this location is a trio of increasingly specialized tequila flights. Several imported Mexican beers and more than 100 agave-based spirits (tequila and mezcal) round out the extensive spirits menu.

Breaking into the birria trend, Berry ensured that this popular dish appears across the menu. It’s available as a short rib entrée, or the spiced stewed meat can be tucked into a quesabirria (“my weakness,” says Berry) – a tortilla that’s stained ocher by being tossed in a spicy broth before being slapped on the griddle. Santibañez also draws from his Oaxacan roots for his mole negro that masterfully combines the seeds of several chilies toasted in a comal and ground into powder.

The KNEAD and Santibañez collab was a logical one: Berry and Santibañez first met while working at Rosa Mexicano almost a decade ago, and stayed in touch since. Santibañez came on to the KNEAD team to act as culinary director for the Wharf Mi Vida opening.

As an institution, KNEAD supports a host of LGBTQ causes, including sponsoring the Pride run this year and fundraising for the Trevor Project. “We do what makes sense to be part of the fabric of this community,” Berry says. “It’s important to plant our flag.” Santibañez added that when bringing on staff, the team is highly intentional. “Our staff is diverse and inclusive,” he says.

In Mexico, the phrase “mi vida” is also used as a term of endearment for close family and friends to signify love and care, which is how the owners and chef see each other, the neighborhood, and even the cuisine through Santibañez’s expression from his upbringing in Mexico City.

“14th Street is a special place. It’s the heart of the city, a gay-friendly neighborhood. We’ve always had our eye on this location. It was the right next step for our team,” says Berry. 

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Dining

Restaurants have history as places for protest

ShutDownDC solicits tips for whereabouts of anti-Roe justices

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Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the target of a recent protest at Morton’s Steakhouse. (Photo public domain)

Food is inherently political — including the spaces that serve them. Restaurants, as “third places” in the public arena (outside of home and work), are accessible and open, a convener of society. Politicians in D.C. have traditionally treated restaurants as a half-third space: a semi-private location outside of the office to conduct business, utilizing restaurants as an extension of their workspace. This public presence, however, implicitly invites the public in — and lawful protesters have taken note.

On July 6, the dimly lit downtown location of Morton’s The Steakhouse chain became a protest stakeout. According to media reports, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was having dinner at the steakhouse when protesters learned of his whereabouts, convening a small demonstration.

The gathering was put together by an organization called ShutDownDC, which has called for peaceful action against the justices who voted for the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade. Politico reported that Kavanaugh may not have even seen or heard the protests, but he did leave before dessert.

And while the Supreme Court did not release a statement, the restaurant’s management was perturbed. It sent a statement to a Politico reporter noting:

“Honorable Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and all of our other patrons at the restaurant were unduly harassed by unruly protestors while eating dinner at our Morton’s restaurant. Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner. There is a time and place for everything. Disturbing the dinner of all of our customers was an act of selfishness and void of decency.”

The response to Morton’s plea was swift and fierce. Commentators noted that protest is enshrined in the Constitution, while the right to eat dinner is not.

Notably, Morton’s The Steakhouse parent company is owned by billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who also owns the Houston Rockets. According to The Counter, Fertitta is one of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s biggest donors, providing more than $100,000 annually since 2015. His family has given several hundred thousand dollars of donations to other Republican politicians, including President Trump.

After this protest, ShutDownDC stated on Twitter that it will offer up to $250 to industry staff for tips of the whereabouts of justices who voted for Dobbs.

This incident, however, was not the first time that citizens have engaged restaurants as a space for protest. Restaurants, as these third spaces, have offered fertile ground for previous demonstrations – especially during the Trump administration.

Washingtonian noted that one of the most infamous was against former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at Mexican restaurant MXDC in 2018 during a controversy regarding DHS and treatment of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Several other expressions of peaceful demonstrations against Trump officials took place during the rest of his term in office. Restaurant owners themselves are not immune to taking political action – during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, many restaurants offered food and other support.

During the tumultuous conclusion to that presidency, restaurants also had to contend with the specter of aggressive action. In preparation for what would turn out to be the Jan. 6 insurrection, many restaurants and other businesses closed their doors and fortified their exterior walls. In comparison to the peaceful restaurant protests, the Jan. 6 actions turned violent, denying restaurants revenue – and leaving many fearing for their safety.

Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was safely ensconced in his steakhouse, without fear of violence. Groups like ShutDownDC will continue to “use strategic direct action to advance justice and hold officials accountable,” according to its website, supporting nonviolent action in public places.

Anthony Aligo, a gay man and owner of wine bar Barkada, noted that, “This isn’t anything new. We believe everyone should be treated with respect and believe in the constitutional right to exercise your first amendment rights.”

This most recent event reinforces that restaurants, especially those known to harbor power lunches, must contend with the possibility of this type of protest. And leaders, when they decide to go out in these public spaces, must be aware that the people they represent also can be present there as well.

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