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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

D.C.’s restaurant scene bustling again

Western Market, range of new eateries arrive as COVID wanes

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(Image courtesy of Western Market)

From pandemic slumber to summer awakening: the D.C. dining scene is wasting no time in opening back up after restrictions were lifted in June. Make the best of eating and drinking inside or outside with a full plate of what’s to come in summer 2021. Check out all the openings and happenings in this list:

To take in the entire dining scene, take part in Metropolitan Washington Summer Restaurant Week, running Aug. 9-15. Unlike the previous restaurant week, this will return to a focus on on-premises dining, but keep the family-to-go dinner meals and cocktail pairings for those who still want the takeout or at-home experience.

In Barracks Row, Crazy Aunt Helen’s is a new spot from a veteran in the D.C. food industry. The all-day casual comfort food and diner-style spot is run by first-time owner and former marketing director of lesbian-owned Hank’s Oyster Bar, Shayne Mason. Images of icons like Jackie Kennedy line the wall, with dishes like fried chicken, house-cured pastrami Reubens, and mushroom “crab” cakes.

The Line Hotel closed two of its restaurants during the pandemic, but is now set to open No Goodbyes. It will serve Chesapeake-based dishes, with crab cakes as the star. Fried chicken and catfish will also be on the menu.

Replacing the B Too spot in the heart of 14th Street will be Maiz 64, an upscale Mexican spot to highlight small-batch mezcal. It is a “modern homage to authentic Mexican cuisine,” that uses local ingredients. Check out the ceviche raw bar, as well as the creative taco bar with creative options like charred broccoli mole and suckling pig with pork rinds and avocado.

On the wharf, the enormous Ilili brings elegant Mediterranean-Levantine cuisine to D.C. “with a New York attitude” as it is the second spot outside of its first Manhattan location. The chef tops labneh yogurt with Petrossian roe, and stuffs kibbeh with steak tartare. 

Just north of U Street, taking over the vacant former Quarter & Glory space, will be St. James. The owner and chef is Peter Prime, who currently runs Cane on H Street, N.E. (Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant). He is now overseeing this sister project with a much larger footprint. Named for a city in his home country of Trinidad, the restaurant brings flavors from across the Caribbean through Prime’s modern lens.

In Adams Morgan, a pop-up brings Bolivian cocktails and street food courtesy of Carla Sanchez and her brother. Called Casa Kantuta, the pop-up runs until Aug. 8 in the bottom level of the Spacycloud restaurant-shop. Bartender Luis Aliaga slings drinks using Andean ingredients and inspiration with fun names like the Angry Llama.

Just north in Adams Morgan is Shabu Plus. In the same building as Death Punch Bar and Shibuya, the same owners (Chef Darren Norris and wife Candice) bring a Japanese hot pot experience. Diners start with a choice of one of three broths, plus vegetables, and the order meats like wagyu and lobster tail by the ounce.

Over in Shaw, the former Bistro Bohem space is set to be refreshed as Quattro Osteria. The owners, originally from Naples, bring an Italian flair, with well-known and modern dishes and drinks.

In Foggy Bottom, a huge new marketplace called Western Market will open later in the fall. The 12,300-square-foot space will transform a historic market, originally built in 1802, into a hall with more than a dozen food and beverage vendors. Taste everything from lobster rolls to sushi to arepas, and even sub sandwiches from Shaw’s Capo Deli.

Chef Alfredo Solis already has three Mexican restaurants (Anafre, El Sol, Mezcalero). His next venture travels farther afield in the form of Mariscos 1133 on 11th Street. Mariscos 1133 celebrates the coastal cuisine of the entire continent of communities, with inspiration from California, Pero, Mexico, and beyond. Diners can expect dishes like Brazilian moqueca (fish stew), ceviches, and with a nod to the local, a spin on crab cakes. 

Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s latest opening is Mi Casa in Dupont Circle. Inspired by Chef Roberto Santibañez’s years living in Texas and his Mexican heritage, Mi Casa’s “border cuisine” concept aims to marry Mexican, TexMex, and the American Southwest. 

Hungry now? Get a taste of restaurants that opened during the spring:

Las Gemelas Cocina. This dual-concept restaurant in La Cosecha brings a casual taco bar as well as an upscale sit-down Mexican menu. It comes from the operators of Espita in Shaw. 

The Point. This enormous seafood restaurant anchors new development in Buzzard Point, near Audi Field. Crab doughnuts are the star, plus lots of fish and lobster rolls. It’s run by the owners of Ivy City Smokehouse and Tony & Joe’s.

Dauphine’s. This elegant homage to cuisine from New Orleans brings not only a raw bar (for seafood) but a boucherie, a whole-pig butcher style of service popular in Cajun cooking. Casual dishes like po’ boys are offered next to headcheese and caviar.

La Famosa. This Navy Yard spot channels Puerto Rico through a relaxed, waterside vibe and lots of fried plantains and rum.

Makan. This Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights narrows Southeast Asian dishes to hone in on this particular country. Taste the unripe mango salad, as well as the pandan leaf that appears in both drinks and dishes.

Caruso’s Grocery. This homey Italian spot by Matt Adler (from Osteria Morini) is set near the Potomac Avenue Metro. A deep wine list accompanies dishes like burrata, shrimp scampi, and chicken Parm.

Chicatana. This Mexican restaurant lands in an area of 14th Street of Columbia Heights with several other Mexican eateries nearby – but has a twist. It’s named for a type of ant used in traditional Oaxacan cuisine, tossing a couple tiny crunchy ants (similar to chapulines, or grasshopper) on anything from ceviche to cocktails. The menu, instead of focusing on tacos, offers a broad and modern take on Mexican food. 

Lupo Pizzeria. This 14th Street location comes from the same group as Lupo Verde. Lupo Pizzeria offers a menu of elevated Italian street food, Italian cocktails, and lots of bubbly. The signature from the chef is pizza made with handmade black squid-ink dough.

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After pandemic, local gay restaurateurs thriving at Knead

Berry, Reginbogin plan to open several new spots in coming year

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The glam atmosphere at Gatsby showcases a focus on space and design as much as menu. (Photo courtesy Knead Hospitality + Design)

At the outset of 2020, D.C.-based Knead Hospitality + Design founders and co-owners (and partners for more than 20 years) Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin envisioned big plans for their rapidly expanding realm of restaurants across the D.C. area.

“In March 2020, however, we thought that we were going to lose everything,” Reginbogin says.

Today, Knead has recovered, and then some. In the context of the sweep of more than 100 restaurant closings in D.C. since then, Berry and Reginbogin pulled out four restaurant openings, with several more planned for the rest of this year alone.

Not since the (somewhat slower) growth of Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup has the city seen a locally based firm with a diverse set of concepts open so widely. Andres launched the first Jaleo back in 1993; his ThinkFoodGroup now runs 10 restaurants in D.C., plus stalls at Audi Field.

Yet Berry and Reginbogin promise that it’s not size that counts. “Biggest isn’t always best. We want to be the best operator in the city for the types of restaurants we offer.”

This spring’s opening of glitzy-retro diner Gatsby speaks directly to Reginbogin’s vision for that “our restaurants are experience-driven. They focus on the visual as much as the food and beverage offerings.”

Gatsby, located in Navy Yard, is a direct outgrowth of Berry’s belief that “like the Roaring ‘20s after the Spanish flu, there’s all this pent-up demand…. People will want to celebrate life, and they want to be part of that return to society,” he says.

In 2014, Berry served as COO for the Rosa Mexicano Restaurants, and Reginbogin had been working as director of operations for other large brands like B.R. Guest Restaurants, TAO, Milos, and Sushi Samba. After living in cities like Los Angeles and New York, they decamped for Washington, D.C., a city they’d visited dozens of times for work, with an idea of creating their own style of dining experience.

Both having attended the University of Southern California, the two met on AOL in their early 20s and started dating soon after. They have worked in the restaurant industry for their entire careers.

“D.C. is a beautiful, diverse city,” says Reginbogin, “but of all the cities we had lived in, we felt there was the most opportunity in D.C. The growth of the restaurant industry has been because of a welcoming regulatory environment as well as a city of quality, unique, and amazing restaurants. We want to surround ourselves with peers who are of the same philosophy.”

He says that they felt at home, welcomed “both professionally but also personally.” To further connect them with the LGBTQ community, the pair ensured that they were prepared for Pride month, setting up drink and food specials at their restaurants, with proceeds going to LGBTQ organizations.

“There was always the question of being able to both live and work with your partner,” Berry notes, “but because we excel at different areas, it works out. Our background in the restaurant industry gives us the perspective on how the restaurant should be constructed.”

When Berry and Reginbogin plan each new concept, they first analyze its urban and social geography. By understanding the restaurant’s space, interior and exterior, they put together a concept and then a menu (often along with a celebrity chef) to follow. But they also target specific parts of town.

“We tend to favor neighborhoods that are not reliant on one demographic for attracting a guest base,” says Reginbogin. “We tend to open where we can establish roots…. The pandemic taught everyone that it’s easy to lose a prized group of guests. You don’t want that one type to be the only guest you attract.”

This outlook led them to Navy Yard, the Wharf, and Penn Quarter, among other neighborhoods.

When they kicked off in 2015, opening Succotash in National Harbor, they invested some of their own capital, raised money from friends and family, and took on loan debt. “Our newer big restaurants are roughly $6-7 million projects. We are also opening smaller restaurants that cost significantly less, in the $2 million range,” said Reginbogin.

As of June, Knead operates five other concepts: Succotash, Mi Vida, The Grill, Gatsby, and Mah-Ze-Dahr, which abuts Gatsby and is run by baker Umber Ahmad, a 2019 James Beard semifinalist. They also run four quick-service stands inside Swingers, the massive adults-only minigolf concept out of London that just opened in Dupont Circle. Berry promises there is more to come in 2022 and beyond.

Knead’s other planned openings this year include Bistro du Jour, Mi Casa, another Succotash location in Penn Quarter, and another Mah-Ze-Dahr by the new Amazon HQ.

Back to Gatsby, the glam atmosphere showcases the group’s focus on space and design as much as menu. As the location is across from Nationals Stadium, the two envisioned an all-American restaurant. Yet the interior and atmosphere did not express to them a stereotypical diner with an Airstream and laminate-covered booths. Instead, the two visualized the swinging, Art Deco style of the 1920s when diners started to become popular. As it translates to plating, this means the overflowing bowl of pasta that might appear on a multi-page diner menu is lightened and elegantly served; the Caesar salad is vegan. No detail is spared, from soaring ceilings and retro prints to translucent silver plates with textured patterns.

“We want people to eat with their eyes,” Berry concludes. “Everything is important: the lighting, music, tableware, even the restrooms. If everything looks good and feels good, then everything tastes better, too.”

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Dining

D.C. restaurants, bars ready to celebrate Pride

Many drink, food specials to benefit local LGBTQ charities

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A bartender at Dacha pours a Pride Pils from DC Brau in 2019. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Capital Pride looks different this year as the city wakes from its pandemic closures. While official Pride events are mostly virtual in June, bars and restaurants will still have plenty going on to celebrate and commemorate LGBTQ+ Pride in DC.

Selected options for drinks, food, and events are listed below.

Food & Drinks

Aslin Beer Company (847 S Pickett St., Alexandria) made news this spring with an announcement of a planned second location on 14th Street where Dacha had sought to open a location. The brewery will again produce its “Now More Than Ever” beer, an 8.6% double IPA hopped with citra and sabro, in recognition of Pride month. It will be $20 for a pack.

Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken (1308 G St., N.W.) is circling the Pride square with fried goodies. At all three locations, the Pride doughnut ($3.75) is a vanilla glazed with rainbow sprinkles – plus other decorations, including one with a non-edible rainbow ring that can be worn after the doughnut is enjoyed. A portion of proceeds go to SMYAL.

ANXO Cidery (300 Florida Ave., N.W.) is producing a Pride cider, with a portion of proceeds benefitting Casa Ruby. It will be a Northern Spy apple cider, fermented dry in in stainless steel. It is sugar-free and gluten-free, and will sold nationwide. The can will be decked out in rainbow colors.

Karma Modern Indian (611 I St., N.W.) is offering a special cocktail for the month of June: the Banyan Shade ($14). It’s made with Tito’s Vodka, Domaine Canton, and “Spinach Aqua” and has a garnish resembling a colorful flag. Karma will be making a donation to Casa Ruby from the proceeds.

Dirty Habit DC is having “Colors of the Rainbow,” a month-long series during which the restaurant will feature a different color themed food and beverage offering each week. A portion of sale of every “Colors of the Rainbow” signature item will be donated to the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG.

As an LGBTQ-owned business, KNEAD Hospitality + Design is supporting the Capital Pride Alliance by donating a portion of proceeds on punch cocktails at all KNEAD restaurants: The Grill, Succotash, Gatsby, and Mi Vida, on June 12 and 13.

Foxtrot Market (1267 Wisconsin Ave., N.W.), the new upscale corner store and café in Georgetown, is partnering with Brooklyn artist Cute Brute to create a Confetti Cake Brownie for the month of June. Proceeds from sales of the brownie will go to Casa Ruby.

In keeping to its annual tradition, DC Brau Brewing is making its hops queer, with a limited run of a special PRIDE PILS. Proceeds will go to benefit SMYAL. DC Brau will do a second run of PRIDE PILS in October, benefiting The Blade Foundation, set for the weekend of National Coming Out Day.

El Tamarindo, the Mexican-Salvadoran restaurant more than three decades old, is serving a Walter Mercado cocktail ($11), garnished with an elegant orchid. The front window display is dedicated to Walter Mercado and his cultural influence. Proceeds from the drink go to Casa Ruby.

The eco-friendly plant-based fast-food joint HipCityVeg is mixing up its first-ever Pride drink: The Love Shake, served all June long. This strawberry shake is topped with rainbow and glitter sprinkles and gets a compostable rainbow straw. A percentage of sales go to SMYAL and Whitman-Walker. “We wanted something colorful and festive that would both raise spirits and raise funds for organizations that serve the community,” explains Director of Marketing Aviva Goldfarb. “We have tons of LGBTQ+ staff members and customers and knew this would also be meaningful (and fun) for them. Plus, we have seasonal strawberry shakes in stores in June so adding the colorful and glittery sprinkles and the rainbow straw made sense.” 

Events

Dacha Beer Garden (1600 7th St., N.W., and 79 Potomac Ave., S.E.) is hosting a Cause Tuesday fundraiser with Gay for Good on Tuesday, June 7, and a Dacha Beer Club with local brewery 7 Locks on Wednesday, June 8. The Beer Club event will showcase the 7 Locks Surrender Dorothy beer, part of the sour series Bitch Monkey. Dacha will have a Dorothy Drag surprise, and guests are encouraged to wear their Wizard of Oz best. Special Dacha brand tank tops will be on sale at both locations.

Via the Capital Pride Alliance is its official weekly mixer of Pride Season, Hooked on Capital Pride! It will take place at Hook Hall (3400 Georgia Ave., N.W.) in Petworth. Every Wednesday beginning June 9, there will be drink specials, music, and celebrations. A portion of the proceeds from this event will support the Capital Pride Alliance and partner Pride organizations through the GivePride365 Fund. Every reservation will include a bottle of Rose Bubbly, and a celebration kit. This event will take place on June 9, 16, 23, and 30 from 3-9 p.m.

Bark Social (935 Prose St, North Bethesda, Md.) is partnering with Montgomery County Council member Evan Glass to celebrate D.C. Pride with a PAWrade and canine costume contest on Saturday, June 12 from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. This beer garden and coffee house for dogs and humans will create a rainbow-filled canine festival of pride + paws. The bar will pour a special Pride-inspired cocktail with proceeds donated to the Moco Reconnect Center to work with other local creating inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.

Capital Pride is hosting a citywide Sunday funday on June 13 to support local LGBTQ businesses with the first-ever city-wide Taste of Pride Brunch. Various local restaurants have made a commitment to support Pride and local LGBTQ+ charities, featuring food items, drink specials, and entertainment. The event will raise awareness and resources for the GivePride365 Fund, benefiting local LGBTQ+ charities, and help to ensure the return of a full-scale Pride in 2022.

The speakeasy-style back room at Capo Deli (715 Florida Ave.) rounds out Pride weekend parties with an post-brunch event Sunday, June 13, 2-5 p.m. The event, called Bubbles & Bass, features DJ Babbitt and DJ Chris Adam playing disco over rose, Champagne, and other drink specials.

Caboose Commons (2918 Eskridge Rd., Fairfax, Va.) and its dog-friendly patio is hosting an event for Pride on Saturday, June 19 with Beer Babes Drag. There will be two seatings (12 p.m. and 3 p.m.) and a portion of sales (including items sold) will support PFLAG and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

Celebrate PRIDE with a staycation, via Kimpton Monaco. This hotel is the Trevor Project’s “Premiere National Hotel Partner.” When guests make a reservation at Hotel Monaco D.C., Kimpton will donate $10/night to The Trevor Project, and guests receive 15% off the hotel’s “Best Flexible Rate.”

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