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D.C. women restaurant vets overcome sexism, homophobia

Small gayborhood launches were key to early footing for Leeds, Gresser

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Jamie Leeds, left, and Ruth Gresser are longtime D.C. restaurant owners who say they’ve seen many changes over the decades. (Leeds photo by Ana Isabel Photography via JL Restaurant Group; Gresser photo courtesy Savor PR)

When dinner is more than just food, when acceptance and inclusion are on the menu and when dishes come with a side of equality, it’s possible Ruth Gresser and Jamie Leeds had a hand in your meal.

These women are experienced veterans in Washington’s restaurant scene. They are also out, loud and defining what it means to be queer women dominating their work.

Thirty years ago, there wasn’t much to write about when talking dining in D.C. Yet 30 years ago, Gresser and Leeds were both getting their start as out lesbians in the challenging, yet rewarding, culinary space.

It seemed that I was not the only lesbian with an interest in food,” Gresser says. “I immediately found a community of friends who supported each other in the mutual struggles of being gay in a hostile society and being a woman in a male-dominated field.”

Gresser never hid who she was.

“I’m sure I have faced discrimination because of it,” she says. “From not getting a loan years ago to not being recognized as the owner and operator of my own business.”

Leeds concurs.

“I never felt like had to hide it,” she says, even when working in upscale restaurants in New York. “I was never in an environment where had to not be who I was; I was always accepted.”

She attributes this to her work ethic and passion. One difficulty she did have was looking for mentors, especially in financial aspect of the business.

“Back in the ‘80s when I was starting, there were really not many famous women chefs,” Leeds says. “Raising money was a challenge.”

Today, there are many more options for support. When both women were starting, there was only one place to go in the city: Dupont Circle, the gayborhood of the time, just close enough to chic Georgetown and just close enough to edgy, scruffy 14th Street as a snug space where the LGBT community could thrive in a neighborhood atmosphere.

Gresser made it a point to settle in the area.

“This was the gay neighborhood and also the location of my first jobs in D.C., so I have always been connected to the local gay community,” Gresser says. “While Dupont Circle was known a the gay neighborhood, the neighborhood was often easier to locate than gay people. In the late ‘80s many gay people lived in the closet, only emerging at the bars and on Pride.”

When she decided to open her award-winning restaurant Pizzeria Paradiso in 1991, she refused to keep her identity hidden and set the restaurant on P Street.

“I was not going to be closeted. Paradiso was always out as a lesbian-owned restaurant,” she says. “During a gay Pride parade, we hung a gay flag in front of the restaurant.”

Leeds’ life took a similar trajectory. When she arrived in Washington, she also sought out Dupont. And when she opened Hank’s Oyster Bar, the flagship restaurant in her mini-empire of “urban beach food,” and all things shellfish, it was only logical to be in Dupont. She eventually settled on Q Street, right off 17th. The area was ripe for a casual, intimate, neighborhood-style restaurant.

“The fact that I am a lesbian, the gay community came to support me,” Leeds says. “It was very crucial in us becoming successful.”

That support allowed them to dominate and expand in time. There were still echoes of discrimination, however. One year, while watching the parade, Gresser heard a woman comment that she’d never frequent Paradiso after seeing it fly the gay flag. Gresser made sure to let this woman know that her business wasn’t needed — her restaurant was already a runaway success.

Today, both have gone on to open several other ventures, yet their identities as lesbians are central to whom they are. A strong work ethic, they agree, has been crucial to their success. In their early years, they had to prove themselves often.

“I have done what women have always done,” Gresser says. “Put my head down and do my job.”

Leeds agrees.

“This industry is very big mix of personalities and backgrounds, about creativity and what you produce. I’ve always worked very hard, being in trenches with everyone else. From that, I gained the respect of everyone around me.”

Contemporary D.C., though, is a far cry from 2005, let alone 1995.

“The changes in acceptance by the larger society have changed this dynamic, and it is much easier to be gay and out in restaurants and in the world,” Gresser says.

Leeds says fewer women in the field are choosing lives in the closet. It helps, she says, that more women in general are in the field.

To help create more safe spaces, Leeds founded  a ladies’ tea, held in spring and summer at Hank’s in Dupont each month. It has become a destination during the warmer seasons, a homey gathering place where women can be themselves.

Nevertheless, there’s work to be done. The recent #MeToo discussion has hit the service and hospitality industry hard. Sexual harassment is rife in bars and restaurants, and recognition of female chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and other leaders is only just now taking shape.

Gresser says she’s felt confident to be out and loud, only perhaps because she’s a veteran and a successful, self-employed woman. But others are not always so lucky.

“I hope that the world will change and right now there is lip service towards that end,” Gresser says. “But the issue of women’s discrimination is so systemic in our society that I wonder if the lip service will result in real change.”

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Dining

Pastry chef Alex Levin creates desserts with global influences

And now he’s on a quest to bake the perfect chocolate chip cookie

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Alex Levin

A decade as a decorated pastry chef in Washington, D.C., and Alex Levin knows how to create a global realm of desserts. But he also knows that the whole is tastier than the sum of its parts.

Levin serves as Executive Pastry Chef and as part of the executive team for Schlow Restaurant Group, where he’s worked since 2017. He’s crafted desserts for the group’s breadth of restaurant cuisines, from Spanish at Tico (recently rebranded as Japanese Nama Ko), American at now-closed Riggsby, Japanese at Nama and Nama Ko, and Italian at the several Alta Strada spots. He also throws an annual sold-out bakery pop-up for Thanksgiving and for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. “There’s something fun and so meaningful to spend nine straight days making food that will be a part of so many people’s celebrations,” he says.

Yet as a gay man, he also strives for representation and a focus on supporting the LGBTQ community.

After graduating from Yale and focusing on a career in management and finance, Levin fled that industry to attend the Culinary Institute of America to follow his passion for pastry and restaurant management. After graduation, he trained at restaurants like Jean Georges and Cafe Boulud in New York, and moved to D.C. in 2013 to open Osteria Morini as pastry chef. There, he made a name for himself, earning a spot on Eater’s Young Guns in 2015 and in 2016, he earned the title of Best Pastry Chef from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. 

It was a time of invention in the dessert space. Levin was deeply embedded in some of that boundary-stretching.

“When I first became a pastry chef, all of my mentors were pushing me to create deconstructed desserts. I really fell in love with that approach, because it challenged me to think very far outside of the box to have a guest really understand that a plate with five components on it could be considered a lemon tart.”

Yet at Schlow, running dessert programs across the city for an increasingly demanding clientele, his approach evolved. The deconstructed version might look more beautiful, but he realized that it also has to taste even better than its classic counterpart.

“I realized that sometimes there is no reason to alter a classic dessert but to add perhaps a modern shift. That’s where I feel most comfortable now. It allows me to continue to express creativity both visually and with flavor to create the best version of a classic dessert.”

At Alta Strada (which has landed in the Washington Post’s Dining Guide for several years), Levin leans in to the restaurant’s homey style, with a touch of his signature flair, in the several desserts he makes. Traditional bomboloni get a glow up, given depth and tang with ricotta, vanilla, and orange in the batter and receiving a liberal dusting of cinnamon sugar; they’re served on a platter with chocolate hazelnut crema (i.e. liquid Nutella). He also crafts a brownie-cheesecake mashup: a whipped ricotta (sense a theme?) cheesecake sits atop a rich brownie, the black-and-white dessert set off by a single Luxardo cherry on top.

At Nama Ko, Levin’s menu is more concise but takes some additional liberties. The star is the Miso Honey Black Truffle soft serve ice cream, drizzled in chocolate sauce and caramel, under a shower of chocolate and toffee (there’s also a passionfruit sorbet with ube shortbread crumble). Now an expert at adjusting his soft serve machine to the right ratio of sugar, dairy, and flavor, Levin matches the sushi restaurant’s entrees with the ice cream’s balanced umami. Speaking of matching: he also plates a matcha crème brulee.

“When planning the dessert program for Nama Ko, I wanted to do something totally different for dessert — something the restaurant could be known for all on its own. The program had to be fun and allow the guests to have a Japanese dessert but with a twist. Once we landed on soft serve, the proposed flavors needed to have a level of simplicity and complexity.” The rollout received accolades, including in Washington City Paper and Eater’s Soft Serve map.

Levin, though, also serves as director of Strategic Business Initiatives. He coordinates operations, recruiting, reporting, marketing, menu design, and photography. He is constantly rethinking: refining his rotating selection of chocolate bonbons for special events, using colored cocoa butter for visual effect. He stays up on cookbooks, YouTube, and Instagram as resources for explanations and demos, “even how to braid a challah dough using a new technique.”

After coming out in 2000, Levin says he never encountered much homophobia in the culinary industry. In D.C., he works to support LGBTQ groups, personally and through his restaurants. “That might mean making Thanksgiving desserts for SMYAL’s annual Thanksgiving dinner for the kids, or even transforming one of our restaurants into a destination for D.C.’s annual Pride.” Levin also picks up a shift at the special seated dinner tables at the annual Chefs for Equality event, one the largest (and most fabulous) fundraisers for Human Rights Campaign.

Levin won’t rest on his soft serve laurels, continuing to find creative space. Stay tuned to his latest project, going on three years: to create “the best chocolate chip cookie. The current version is pretty close, but I continue to make some small modifications to improve the outcome.”

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D.C.’s Restaurant Week is back with expanded pricing structure

‘More dining options to customers at a variety of price points’

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Jamie Leeds’s ever-popular Hank’s Oyster Bar is among venues participating in Restaurant Week. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The wintertime culinary highlight is back: Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) Winter Restaurant Week returns Monday, Jan. 15, through Sunday, Jan. 21.

The big news: Restaurant Week is expanding its pricing structure. Participating restaurants can offer multi-course brunch (including on Jan. 15, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day) and lunch menus for $25 or $35 per person. Dinner menus now run for $40, $55, or $65 per person. And again, many restaurants will also offer cocktail and wine (and non-alcoholic) pairings, giving diners various ways to drink (or not) along with their meals.

RAMW President & CEO Shawn Townsend said that the new “menu prices have been added to the promotion to allow more restaurants to participate and have these participants offer more dining options to customers at a variety of price points that fit every budget.”

More than 250 restaurants across the city, Maryland, and Northern Virginia are participating this year.

A non-comprehensive list of new restaurants:

• Latin-inspired Flora at luxe Wharf hotel Pendry

• Modern Malaysian restaurant Makan in Columbia Heights

• Mita in Shaw, a showstopping vegetarian restaurant that opened less than a month ago

• Ceibo in Adams Morgan, a unique Uruguayan restaurant that opened in October

• Code Red in Adams Morgan, a halfway hidden mood-lit speakeasy-style spot

• Mercy Me at Yours Truly Hotel, which just debuted a new menu

• Little Black Bird, a cozy wine bar

• Michelin-starred Xiquet DL in Woodley Park, where the everyday tasting menu runs a cool $265

• Big-name celebrity chef Jose Andres’ blockbuster new restaurant The Bazaar.

In NoVa, there are also a few first-timers, including Ingle Korean Steakhouse, Sabores, and Makers Union; first-time Maryland participants include Charley Prime Foods in Gaithersburg and several Milk and Honey locations.

RAMW is highlighting the H Street, N.E., neighborhood (which this author noted is struggling in his 2023 D.C. Dining Year in Review) through the participation of an overflowing handful of new (Ethiopic, Granville Moore’s, Irregardless, Paste & Rind, Pow Pow, The Queen Vic, Sospeso, and Sticky Rice) and returning (Mozzeria, Maketto, Stable, and Sticky Fingers Diner) spots. In fact, H Street is home to the only two vegan restaurants participating, Sticky Fingers and Pow Pow.

To support LGBTQ-run restaurants, diners could visit Hank’s Oyster Bar (Dupont Circle and on the Wharf), owned by Jamie Leeds. Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design is involving its restaurants in the promotion. The group’s restaurants include Gatsby, Mi Vida, The Grill, and more.

The “RW-To-Go dinner meals,” a program popular during the pandemic, has ended. As Restaurant Week was originally created for people to dine-in, “we would love for people to get out and enjoy meals in restaurants,” said an RAMW representative.

Some spots are offering additional deals, extended timelines, and other options. For example, Buena Vida Gastrolounge and Ambar are extending promotions through Jan. 28.

Winter Restaurant Week is also offering a Diner Rewards Program. Participants are entered into prizes for each Washington Restaurant Week cycle, including gift cards, cookbooks, and event tickets.

“Restaurant week is important because it brings people together, boosts the economy, and puts a spotlight on all of the wonderful restaurants in the region,” says Townsend.

The Washington Blade held a short interview with two restaurateurs: one returning, and one new (responses have been edited for space and clarity).

Returning restaurant: Trummers. Responses by Stefan Trummer, owner.

 BLADE: Why is your restaurant participating in Winter Restaurant Week?

TRUMMER: We are excited to offer our guests a fun menu to encourage diners to try both our lunch and dinner experience. We haven’t participated in RW since before COVID and it feels right to get back on track with this promotion. 

BLADE: What do you like about the promotion?

TRUMMER: Restaurant Week often attracts new guests to the restaurant. It gives us a chance to meet some new diners and offer our menus to a wider audience.

BLADE: Tell us something unique and specific about your restaurant

TRUMMER: Trummer’s is a modern bistro in a beautiful historic building and town. Each room of the restaurant offers different experiences from the bar with specialty cocktails and a massive whiskey list to the Winter Garden with bright airy dining or the Wine Room with a large picture window looking into our expansive wine cellar.

New restaurant: Fireclay. Responses by Frank Gray, executive chef at the Hotel Washington.

BLADE: Why is your restaurant participating in Winter Restaurant Week?

GRAY: Fireclay at Hotel Washington is a newcomer to the downtown D.C. gastronomy. It is joining the rooftop bar, Vue at the Hotel Washington. (Formerly POV at W Hotel). This is Fireclay’s inaugural Restaurant Week and we want to showcase all it has to offer.

BLADE: What do you like about the promotion?

GRAY: It gives newcomers such as Fireclay extra exposure in the D.C. market alongside some of the best restaurants in D.C.

BLADE: Tell us something unique and specific about your restaurant?

GRAY: It is a “kissed by fire” food and beverage concept. All dishes and drinks have a component of smokiness and the majority of dishes are finished in wood burning Argentine-style ovens.

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Top 5 developments in D.C. nightlife, dining in 2023

Food halls, Union Market, and gay bars flourishing

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The Square opened in September on K Street. (Photos by Scott Suchman)

D.C.’s nightlife and dining scene continued its post-COVID rebound in 2023. Here are our picks for the top five developments in dining and nightlife for the year.

#5 Gay Bar Renaissance

As the dual losses of Town Danceboutique and Cobalt fade, LGBTQ nightlife is experiencing an exciting expansion. The city celebrated the opening of several new gay bars this year. Back in February, co-owner Zach Renovates (of KINETIC parties) kicked off 2023 with a high-energy bang in his fallout shelter-themed subterranean club space, Bunker. Not far behind, longtime gay bar industry fixtures Dito Sevilla, Dusty Martinez, and Ben Gander partnered to open Little Gay Pub. This upscale indoor/outdoor cocktail lounge in Logan Circle is now infamous for its glitter-bedecked cocktails and a visit by Nancy Pelosi. 

Over the summer, owners Justin Parker and Daniel Honeycutt of Dirty Goose opened Shakers, a relaxed bar located near the 9:30 Club and known for its indoor/outdoor patio and bright-red Imperial Shaker to make cocktails. Finally, in December, owners Brandon Burke and Shaun Mykals opened Thurst just off U Street, N.W., that centers Black LGBTQ experiences; they say that this bar will help fill a gap for Black-owned-and-operated business for the gay community. As D.C. gets ready to host World Pride in 2025 (a mere 18 months away), these openings point to optimism and creativity for the local LGBTQ community and signs of preparedness for the crowds that will arrive.

H Street Hardships

The H Street Corridor suffered in 2023. Lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll across the industry and city, but have been especially hard on this strip. In addition, business owners and residents have reported an increase in crime. Restaurateurs also mentioned unsustainable cost increases and inflationary pressures as reasons for closure. Just in the past couple months, Pursuit Wine Bar & Kitchen and Brine Oyster and Seafood House both closed. Earlier this year, mainstay and H Street classic H Street Country Club also shut it doors; it opened in 2009 and was one of the first of a new wave of bars and restaurants to open on the rapidly changing strip. Nevertheless, H Street is still a cradle of innovative restaurants, like the Afrofuturist Bronze and the combo retail-restaurant-cafe Maketto.

Breakfast Bonanza

Breakfast meetings may have taken a hit with the increase in remote work, but trendy breakfasts are having a moment. Both of the city’s new Michelin Bib Gourmand nods, which highlight “good quality, good value restaurants” went to La Tejana (Mount Pleasant) and Yellow (Georgetown and Navy Yard). La Tejana, a tiny Tex-Mex taqueria, was already making headlines with its long lines by early birds eager to get their hands on Ana-Maria Jaramillo and Gus May’s flour tortilla-wrapped packages. Yellow is a bakery helmed by Michael Rafidi, who brings his Middle Eastern background to his sweet-and-savory offerings like a za’atar egg croissant. His sit-down restaurant Albi won a Michelin star. Meanwhile, celebrated D.C. chefs Scott Drewno and Danny Lee’s pop-up I Egg You selling sandwiches and tots (and eggs) opened a brick-and-mortar spot in Capitol Hill, with a bigger menu, all-day hours, and a liquor license. Finally, longtime LGBTQ community ally Perry’s, famous for its drag brunch (more than 30 years old!), kicked off Japanese breakfast service from its new chef, Masako Morishita.

Union market continues to expand

While H Street grapples with closings, Union Market is hotter than ever. Retail, hotels, galleries, bars, and restaurants are opening at a dizzying pace, and the mixed-use area hosts everything from fitness classes to drive-in movies. Most recently, atop the new Union Market Hotel is Treehouse, a bar/restaurant/club with inspiration provided by Tulum’s nightlife. Philly-based restaurateur Stephen Starr (Le Diplomate) opened buzzy El Presidente, a Mexican restaurant spread over several lushly decorated rooms. Starr’s French restaurant Pastis is set to open nearby next year. Plus, FreshFarm, one of the bigger farmers’ market programs in the city, began operations in September on Sundays 9 a.m.-1 p.m. New vendors in and around Union Market itself continue to sprout; this year includes ice cream import Van Leeuwen and bakery Maman, among many others. The area is not losing steam: several big-name openings are in the works for 2024.

Food Halls Flourish

Perhaps with Union Market as the driving force (and historic Eastern Market going strong), 2023 was the Year of the Food Hall in D.C. Food halls offer benefits to the small-biz restaurateur (sharing resources and utilities) and to the customer (diverse options, one roof). Food halls are casual, well-priced, and social spaces. This year, we saw a bounty of new openings. One of the splashier ones was The Square, run by local hospitality veterans Richie Brandenburg and Rubén García, which opened in September on K Street. More than 25,000 square feet, the Square is an indoor/outdoor Spanish-inspired collection with more than 15 vendors and a sit-down restaurant. The long-awaited Love, Makoto also opened this year. The 20,000-square-foot “culinary love letter” to Japan offers a sushi spot, steakhouse, bar, and fast-casual café. Most recently, The Heights Food Hall, slightly smaller at 10,000 square feet in Chevy Chase, started serving in December. At least 10 vendors and a sit-down restaurant share space here. Finally, out in Vienna, The Kitchen Collective straddles the food hall as patrons can pick up from a window or order delivery from the several vendors.

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