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.”
“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.”
“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.”