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Sandra Bernhard on ‘Pose,’ ‘Drag Race,’ the ‘Roseanne’ reboot and more

Stand-up legend dishes freely in advance of Pride week D.C. appearance

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Sandra Bernhard, gay news, Washington Blade

SANDRA BERNHARD says finding a new stylist nearly two years ago was ‘a game changer.’ (Photo by Jordan Graham)

Washington Blade presents: Sandra Bernhard ‘Sandemonium’

 

Shakespeare Theatre Company

 

Harman Center for the Arts

 

Friday, June 8

 

7:30 p.m.

 

$59-99

 

washingtonblade.com/tickets

SANDRA BERNHARD says she’s always intrigued by the juxtaposition of life in Washington. (Photo by Jordan Graham)

These are dark days and Sandra Bernhard knows it.

“Are you gender neutral? Come face to face with a white supremacist? Swam through a flood? Run from a fire? Observed a chunk of the polar ice cap floating away? …,” the promos for her show “Sandemonium” read.

If so, well, Sandy is here to help.

She returns to Washington next week with a performance presented by the Washington Blade at Shakespeare Theatre Company. She spoke to the Blade by phone May 18 from her home in New York City. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: You were just in D.C. recently, weren’t you?

SANDRA BERNHARD: Exactly a week ago, actually.

BLADE: Where did you play?

BERNHARD: I was at the City Winery, a new venue and it was fantastic. It was packed and the audience was terrific. We had a great time. I hadn’t been to D.C. in a while and now I’m excited to come back again. I’ll be doing a lot of different material than I did at the City Winery. All the songs will be different and there’ll be a lot of material I didn’t do at City Winery plus a few little gay Pride surprises.

BLADE: This is your show “Sandemonium,” right?

BERNHARD: Well, that’s just a title, you know. I put a new show together every year at Joe’s Pub so I always have a new title, but essentially I’m always writing new material because of doing my (Sirius XM radio) show “Sandyland” every day, I’m constantly curating new material so it’s nice to keep things really fresh and there’ll be some of that and some newer stuff too. It’s always a work in progress.

BLADE: Are you always listening for songs you’d like to cover or do you keep a list or what?

BERNHARD: Kind of a little bit of both because a lot of times I’ll think my set list is all signed, sealed and delivered and then Mitch Caplan, who’s my musical director, we’ve been collaborating for years, he always laughs because literally a day before I’ll be doing a new show, I’ll find a completely different opening song or a totally different closing song because sometimes the spirit just moves me and then I’m trying to find the absolute right thing that really works so I’m always open to something new even if it’s just an hour before the show.

BLADE: You seem really jaded in your standup at times but yet in interviews you sometimes seem rather joyous and upbeat. Is that just naturally your personality? Is it hard to balance the two extremes?

BERNHARD: It depends on the situation. What’s fun about doing “Sandyland” is I’ve been able to tap into more of my positive side, you know, I think that part of my personality, I just think it registers better on radio and I’ll talk about what’s happening politically or gun violence or things that have a lot of emotion around them. But then day to day, I think I’ve been able to access that part of my personality that people have started coming to day in and day out, so it’s a surprise for me and it’s been a great self discovery.

BLADE: How did your radio show come about?

BERNHARD: I’ve been friendly with Andy Cohen for years and about three years ago, he put his channel Radio Andy together and we had lunch and he said, “I have this idea, I don’t know if you’d be into it, but I’ll be doing this channel on Sirius, I’d love for you to do this show.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds perfect,” because I kind of needed a platform and it’s harder and harder to get a talk show quote-unquote off the ground and they usually just don’t work and radio, especially Sirius, has this sense of freedom that you can’t find anywhere. Never once has anybody walked into my studio and said, “No, don’t say that, don’t do that.” Nobody cares. They just let you do whatever you want because after all, it is home to Howard Stern. How can you be more obnoxious or outrageous than Howard Stern? … It’s just been really cool.

BLADE: What’s the hardest part of doing your stage show that the average person wouldn’t ever think about?

BERNHARD: Well, behind the scenes, there’s just always the logistics. You know, like who’s going to the be the person to get your from point A to point B. I have a few different people who work with me in terms of tour manager and I don’t really go out on the road like Stevie Nicks or some big rock band. I do two or three dates a month and sometimes I’m off the road for two months doing other stuff. … It’s sort of a semi-well-oiled machine but sometimes gig to gig it takes a little more or less effort to make sure it goes smoothly.

BLADE: Speaking of Stevie Nicks, what was it like at the (April, 1998) concert for the “Stormy Weather” album? When you’re doing something like that, are the super A-listers like her, Joni Mitchell and so on, are they polite but kind of stand-offish or what?

BERNHARD: Well I’ve known all those ladies for years and I’ve been really lucky in the course of my career to get to be friendly with a lot of people in the music business. Chrissie Hynde is one of my best friends. I’m friends with Debbie Harry, Belinda Carlisle is one of my best friends and I don’t mean to name drop, but you know, music was really my first love. I wanted to be just a singer and I kind of got sidetracked into comedy and I have no regrets because I think the combination of both has been really very fulfilling for me and fun for the audience. But I know Stevie, I know Joni, I know all those people and you know, I don’t always get to see all of them all the time, but in that setting, of course, I’m a little bit intimidated because they’re the best at what they do. I consider myself a decent singer and pretty decent musical person but, you know, I always defer to those people. But they’re always totally supportive and lovely and most people think I have a pretty good voice, so I take that as a nice compliment obviously.

BLADE: Is there anybody of that ilk who is privately much different from their public persona? Maybe somebody who’s actually raunchy or shy or something we’d never guess?

BERNHARD: (laughs) No, nobody’s really raunchy. I think Belinda Carlisle is probably one of the most humble and shy people and so is Debbie Harry. Everybody who is really, really good, they play down what they do in their day-to-day life and almost all of them do something that is very grounding and they’re involved with a lot of different social causes so I don’t know — I just think people who are really talented are usually very complex and interesting and not full of themselves.

BLADE: Was it kind of trippy and surreal to see the “Roseanne” set so faithfully recreated for the reboot?

BERNHARD: Um, yes it was and yet also in a way not because it just sort of felt like, well, it’s not that shocking that it happened again because it was so iconic and it’s been on the air every single day since it went off the air, you know, officially. It’s been in rotation for 20 years so I think it was different than it would have been if it was a show we hadn’t seen at all in 30 or 40 years, then it would have been more weird. So it was and it wasn’t.

BLADE: Does it feel much different on the set this time?

BERNHARD: It feels a little different. There’s new kids and new writers but generally speaking, you know, Laurie Metcalf and all the main people, John Goodman, it has that continuity so it didn’t feel that much different. I think people have all evolved a lot emotionally and spiritually so I think things are a little more relaxed than they were maybe early on.

BLADE: What’s Roseanne like between takes? Is she high strung or kind of chill?

BERNHARD: She’s pretty chill. She gets tired out pretty easily you know. She’s not like a hard-charging person so I think sometimes she just needs to like, escape and regroup a little and she’ll kind of keep to herself, but you know, when she’s around, she’s friendly, she’s nice to everybody.

BLADE: How did you first hear of the reboot and are you going to be in more of it or do you know yet?

BERNHARD: Well, I sort of read about it like everybody else to be perfectly honest with you. And then I reached out to Sara Gilbert who was sort or rebooting the whole project and then I didn’t hear back from her for quite a while and then all of a sudden out of the clear blue, I did hear back from her and that’s sort of when it all came together for the last episode. It was the last episode they shot, even though it just aired a couple weeks ago. I’m sure they’ll have me back at least one or two more times during the next go-around, but they haven’t committed to anything yet. (Bernhard’s Blade interview occurred prior to the news this week that the “Roseanne” reboot was cancelled.)

BLADE: Now that it’s had a long time to sink in, what impact do you think your (lesbian/bi) storyline and the kiss and all that had culturally? Do you think it reached more people because of “Roseanne’s” demographic?

BERNHARD: Yeah, I think it reached everybody because the average weekly viewership of the show in its prime was 15-20 million … so I think it had a huge impact and opened the doors for a lot of different conversations about sexuality and, you know, certainly it’s gone to places nobody could have imagined and that’s a cool thing.

BLADE: Does Roseanne’s Trump support bother you, either on the show or in real life?

BERNHARD: I’m not happy about it. I think if it was strictly Roseanne the character, it would have been understandable but even then, not really because Roseanne and Dan were always liberals and he was a union guy and so none of it really makes sense at all and I think when they come back, I think it’s probably less political. I just read an article and the president of ABC, who’s a woman of color, she was saying, “No, it’s not gonna be this way next time around.” Because what’s the point of it? I mean, oh, to show people that Muslims are people too? Do we really need that primer in 2018? Really? I would hope people are smart enough and open enough to know that there are people in every path of life that are good and bad. I mean, how many more conversations do we need to have about this shit? I just don’t think it really resonates to me and I don’t think it resonates with anybody because I would hope people are intelligent enough to figure that out on their own.

BLADE: I heard Carol Burnett say recently that shows take way longer to tape than they did back in the ’60s and ‘70s. She was saying on her show, it was zip-zip-zip, they’d be done in a few hours and go home, now it’s like a 10-hour ordeal when she guests on something. How long is a normal day when you’re taping something?

BERNHARD: They’re all totally different. If it’s a four-camera show, which “Roseanne” is, in other words, you’re shooting in front of a live audience, it’s really like preparing a little play every week and it can be a Wednesday or a Monday, it depends on the shoot. But you start with a table reading and work out sort of like what needs to get changed out initially. Then you go to the set, you do a run through and then as the week progresses you do more and more rehearsals and you start blocking and the longest day on “Roseanne” is the shoot day. You usually get there by 11 or 12 and they start shooting by 6 and you’re kind of done by 8 or 9. Roseanne doesn’t like to be around for hours and hours, nobody does. If you’re shooting single camera, that’s a whole different ball game because you can be there for 12-14 hours because you’re setting up every shot and it’s a much more frustrating experience.

BLADE: You’ve been on so many shows — “DTLA,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “2 Broke Girls.” Are there any you felt had more life in them or you wish would have really taken off?

BERNHARD: Well I certainly would have liked more “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” because it was really fun playing Chelsea Peretti’s mom and I think she was a fun, blowsy, kooky character but now that they’ve been picked up by NBC, maybe I’ll get a chance to reprise the role. “2 Broke Girls” was great because they had a five-episode arc and I got to fulfill that character’s sort of destiny on that show. I should also tell you that this coming Monday and Tuesday I’m shooting a role on the new show “Pose,” the new Ryan Murphy show so I’m really excited about that. I’m playing a nurse in an AIDS ward in 1986 or ’88 and, you know, having lost a lot of friends during the AIDS crisis and having visited many friends in hospitals, it’s sort of a fitting role that I get to play opposite Billy Porter who’s a terrific actor and supposedly it’s a recurring role. So I’m really excited. It’s the first time I’ve done a Ryan Murphy project so I’m excited about it.

BLADE: I know you have a few things in development yourself. Is it any harder or easier to get a green light in Hollywood than it was, say, 20 years ago?

BERNHARD: It’s about the same. I mean there’s certainly more outlets for things. I have a couple of scripted projects but now two of the shows are back on hold again but one of them jumped ahead of the pack and I have a very well-known producer involved with it so it seems to be progressing and hopefully at some point this summer I’ll be pitching it to some of the different outlets. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. This is a little broader, kind of comedy than I’m normally, you know, thought of, so I’m kind of excited about that because I think it’s very accessible but still cutting edge and funny so we’ll see.

BLADE: What’s your favorite venue for your live show?

BERNHARD: Well I’d have to say Joe’s Pub. It’s my incubator for new material and I’ve done shows there now for well over 10 years. I’ve kind of lost track. People just come there, it’s intimate and it’s just the right setting for doing something new and people are very, you know, supportive and it just creates a vibe. I always do it the day after Christmas to New Year’s Eve and it kind of sets the tone for the end of the year and the beginning of the year. … It’s nice to have a little launching pad for everything.

BLADE: You don’t mind working that time of year? Most people like to lay low that week.

BERNHARD: No, I prefer it actually. I don’t love sitting around during the holidays and I certainly wouldn’t want to travel at that time. It’s crazy. I’d rather be on stage performing and engaged, then when it’s done, that’s when I like to go away when everybody else is going back to school and work.

BLADE: How are (partner) Sara and (daughter) Cicely?

BERNHARD: They’re great, terrific. They’re both super busy. Sara is doing a project for a magazine called Fast Company and Cicely just got home from college. She’s going to be doing an internship and working and volunteering this summer so everybody is fully engaged.

BLADE: Did you give up Kabbalah?

BERNHARD: No, but I do it on my own. I don’t go there to the center anymore. I go to a synagogue here in New York where there’s a very cool young rabbi and his wife and it’s just much less crazy. The scene there is more chill.

BLADE: I’ve heard you say you like the more traditional prayers and songs and such. I’m just wondering because it’s the same thing in Christianity — I want the progressive, gay-friendly churches and it’s great, but the music and prayers suck.

BERNHARD: I grew up conservative. It’s truly a crap shoot. I found this one place here in New York that’s totally LGBT friendly and even though it’s not a gay synagogue, there are a lot of gay people. … It’s a great mix and the kind of people I grew up with … so it reminds me of my family and there’s all these groovy young people and gay people and it’s very fulfilling to see everybody getting along and nobody judging anybody. That’s how I think the world should be. I don’t think people should just have to be with their own people all the time. I think we should all be able to be together and embrace the difference and have fun together.

BLADE: I sense you may be more of a traditionalist than people would guess. Are you?

BERNHARD: I like continuity in my life and day to day, I like things that are sort of mundane in a way, things that are familiar. I guess that’s why I embrace certain aspects of my religion. It’s just sort of the way I roll in life.

BLADE: Do you make it a point to put yourself out there more than you might otherwise be inclined to generate stuff you can use in your comedy?

BERNHARD: No, that happens naturally. There’s no way you could put yourself in a situation hoping something comes out of it because nothing ever does. It’s always when you least expect it. Literally shit happens when I’m in the grocery store or I’m trying to get a taxi or just my reaction to things in conversations with Sara, she’s really funny. We’ll sort of riff off each other and I’ll run to my notes and write things down. It just flows naturally.

BLADE: Have you ever been invited to be a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?

BERNHARD: No, I have not darling and I know RuPaul from the day. I don’t know why Miss RuPaul’s so shady with me ‘cause I was on RuPaul’s show on VH1 Hanukkah special and now Ru gets so shady with me and I don’t know why ‘cause I’ve never had any problem with Ru. I think I should have been one of the first judges because listen, “Without You I’m Nothing,” the film, all my background singers are drag queens. I embraced the drag world when I was like 19 years old. … I was hip to the drag world in the ‘70s when I was very, very young, so for me it’s sort of a natural but what the fuck? But whatever. I was a groundbreaking supporter of drag and every other kind of interesting gay, you know, anomaly, so I don’t have anything to worry about.

BLADE: What did you think of Michelle Wolf’s bit at the Correspondents’ Dinner?

BERNHARD: I thought it was brilliant. I thought she worked her ass off. It was A-list material. It was fucking brilliant. She went for broke and I thought her whole approach to taking down, you know, the journalists on both sides was brilliant and I thought what she said about smoky eye was fucking genius. She wasn’t trashing (Sarah Huckabee Sanders) for her looks, she was just saying how brilliant that she takes the ashes of lies and makes a smoky eye. How anybody could have interpreted that as saying she was ugly — no, you’re hearing that because is ugly is what’s going on inside the White House and it’s a reflection of people who don’t want to fucking face it. And the moral bankruptcy of this country and this particular moment and people don’t want to hear about it, even on the left, even that the Democrats have not fucking, you know, been able to squelch this thing as well, they should have a certain culpability in it. And that’s just the reality. So yeah, she fucking blew the roof off the joint.

BLADE: Do you enjoy doing “The Wendy Williams Show”?

BERNHARD: I love doing Wendy’s show. She’s always great, she loves me, she’s supportive, she’s fun, she’s not intrusive. I do it, I kiss her, we’re done and she’s totally cool.

BLADE: How do you stay so thin? Do you work at it or does it come naturally?

BERNHARD: Well I’m naturally skinny and then as I’ve aged, and once I had Cicely my body shifted a little bit. Now I gotta work on it but I think like Catherine Deneuve says, at a certain point you gotta keep an extra 10 pounds on your ass to make sure your face looks good and that’s the truth. … I’m 5’10” so that just makes a big difference in how the weight falls and I’ve just been lucky but yeah, of course I’m not as skinny and trim as when, you know, I was 25-30 or even 40 but I still think I look pretty good and I take excellent care of myself.

BLADE: Do you have jokes that are like your greatest hits people expect to hear?

BERNHARD: There’s a few lines. Like my Mom’s line about there must have been dust on those mints, I think that’s the one that’s most recognizable and it’s a great honor for my Mom. She passed away four years ago and she always got a kick out of that.

BLADE: How do you keep track of all your material?

BERNHARD: Most of it is printed out. I have, like, these folders of different shows I’ve done. Some are in storage in L.A., some are in script form like “Without You I’m Nothing” or “I’m Still Here, Damn It!” The shows that were more theatrical are in script form. But then shows where I’m more like going all all over the place, they’re written out on pads and I have them in various folders jammed into my closet.

BLADE: It seems like you have a nice level of fame where you can still go out to dinner and go shopping and not be hounded to death. Are people ever obnoxious when they recognize you?

BERNHARD: No, almost never. Sometimes they want to talk a little bit or say hi and take a quick picture but people are very cool with it. I’m always flattered when they say nice things. I ride the subway and feel very protected and safe maneuvering around and getting to do what I want to do. I’m really glad my life is like that.

BLADE: This isn’t really a question but whenever I see “Truth or Dare” and that dancer, I think Oliver, is fumbling with your name, I just want to scream, “It’s Bernhard — it’s not that hard.”

BERNHARD: Well, you know, it was probably just his way of pulling focus and getting a little extra attention in that huge miasma of ego that everybody was, you know, floating around in. I hope he’s OK. I’m sure he hasn’t been able to sustain that.

BLADE: Well, you know they did a reunion movie with all those dancers.

BERNHARD: Yeah, I know. I need to see that. I read about it but I didn’t see it yet.

BLADE: Are you a clotheshorse?

BERNHARD: Well I’m lucky, I get to borrow a lot of things from designers and that’s great because once you’ve worn something and been photographed a lot, you can’t really wear it again anyway so it’s nice to be able to give things back and I always try to give it back in excellent shape. I have a wonderful stylist. We’ve been working together about a year and a half, Scott Allgauer, he always pulls me terrific stuff and that’s sort of been a game changer.

BLADE: Is he gay?

BERNHARD: He is!

BLADE: Do you watch much TV yourself? What do you like?

BERNHARD: I always watch “Homeland,” that season just ended. Oh God, you know — it’s so funny, you kind of forget what you watch once it’s off the air. I like “Veep.” I like “The Affair.” I watch “Grace and Frankie” ‘cause I love Lily and Jane. I watched a great show called “Babylon Berlin” that was on Netflix. A German show, very well done. I watch a lot of tennis. I’m a Venus and Serena acolyte.

BLADE: Are you a “Handmaid’s Tale” person?

BERNHARD: I’m not. I literally can’t stomach it. It’s too much for me. It’s so painful and horrifying. I dip in and out but I can’t binge watch it. I did love “Top of the Lake” with Elisabeth Moss, which was great. And I loved “Big Little Lies” on HBO. That was one of my favorite shows last year.

BLADE: Do you have a favorite venue to play in D.C. or do they all sort of run together?

BERNHARD: No, they don’t really run together. I’ve played the Howard a couple times and the George Washington campus. I’ve been playing D.C. since the beginning of my career way back some comedy club that I doubt even exists anymore. But it’s like any town. You get a sense of it but unless you really spend time there, you don’t really know what it’s like. I played the JCC for a month, that was awhile ago. … D.C. is amazing. When you’re in the eye of the storm by the Mall and you see all the monuments, you think, “God, this is amazing.” Then you go out to the suburbs and you’re like, “Where is everything?” It’s kind of a crazy, mixed-up bag there. But I’m looking forward to coming back for Pride.

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The Washington Renegades: 25 years of kicking and camaraderie

Nation’s first LGBTQ rugby club heads to Rome for major tournament

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The Washington Renegades are celebrating 25 years.

In June of 2003, Ned Kieloch decided to go to an LGBTQ-inclusive men’s rugby practice on one Tuesday. He jokes that he never left. 

It was a long time coming — Kieloch had picked up a flyer for the team, the Washington Renegades, about three years earlier at Millennium March on Washington in 2000. He forgot about it until he moved to D.C. in 2003 when he got more information at Pride. Kieloch realized the practice was right down the street from where he lived at the time. 

Kieloch, who’s the current president of the Washington Renegades all these years later, has been actively involved since that first Tuesday practice. He took on his first officer position after just six months of joining the team.  

“I just fell in love with the game and with the guys, and I’ve never looked back,” Kieloch said. 

The Washington Renegades, founded in the fall of 1998 in D.C. as the first LGBTQ inclusive men’s rugby club in North America, is gearing up to commemorate its 25th anniversary. The group, made up of mainly men, is also traveling to Rome to play in an international gay rugby tournament this month. 

Kieloch played on the team for about a decade, then went on to support the team off the field. Since his time with the Washington Renegades, he’s seen the team through 100-point losses and winning seasons. 

Now, he’s heading to Rome with current players and team alumni to take part in the Bingham Cup, the biennial world championships of gay rugby. 

Washington Renegades (Photo courtesy of the Renegades)

Jetting to Rome 

This tournament first took place in 2002 in Mark Bingham’s memory, who was a gay rugby player among the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Along with a few others, he fought against hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. This effort resulted in the crash of the plane in Pennsylvania, which prevented the hijackers from crashing it into a building in D.C. Bingham played for the gay rugby team the San Francisco Fog and helped to organize the Gotham Knights team in New York City. 

The Bingham Cup has been hosted in San Francisco, Nashville, London, and Amsterdam, among other cities around the world. 

About 60 people with the Washington Renegades will travel to Rome for the Bingham Cup, which runs from May 23-26. More than 100 teams will be participating, with about 5,000 players in total. 

Kai Walther, the team’s community engagement chair, said he’s looking forward to connecting with and learning from other queer people from other global teams. The LGBTQ rugby community is only so big in the United States, he said, and he’s excited to meet more people with his same passion. 

“There’s an understanding,” he said. “We all play this sport. We all are putting our bodies on the line for this.”

Nick DiNardo, who’s been a part of the Washington Renegades for two seasons, was looking for a place to play sports that was also connected to his identity. He got in contact with Kieloch, and like his own experience two decades ago, DiNardo was immediately all in. 

Growing up playing sports and hiding his identity, DiNardo said having queer-focused teams like the Washington Renegades is integral to building safe spaces where people can bond while doing something they love. 

“I’ve really developed a family,” DiNardo said. “We … support creating a space that’s open, inclusive, and safe for anyone who wants to come and learn and have a good time.”

Straight people are also a part of the team, which Kieloch says reflects the team’s values. 

“I think that’s one of the best things about our club,” Kieloch said. “I just love the camaraderie of it.”

Walther joined the Washington Renegades in the summer of 2023. He loves being on the team for several reasons — to meet new people and be able to be a part of a team where he feels he can be his entire queer self.

Because of the nature of the sport, trust is necessary, he said. This comes easier when everyone on the team has the same inclusive and accepting frame of mind. 

“There’s so much happening on the field. Like hitting other people, we have to get really close to each other, and support each other on tackles against other teams,” he said. “And so when we’re all on the same page, it makes us a lot stronger.”

Washington Renegades (Photo courtesy of the Renegades)
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My Rehoboth Beach culinary tour

Myriad answers to the age-old question: ‘What’s the best restaurant in town?’

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(Photo by Ethan Bean)

I’ve had the privilege of indulging in Rehoboth’s evolving culinary scene for decades — from dining on Chez La Mer’s rooftop to sipping cocktails at the Blue Moon bar before the roof was installed.

The last 30 years have brought almost unthinkable change to the once seasonal small town getaway. New town homes that overlook Route 1 are going for more than $1 million. There’s not much off-season at all these days with food festivals and other events that draw tourists year round. Indeed, hotel occupancy rates for October’s Sea Witch Festival exceed those for July Fourth weekend. 

The upside to all this growth and change? Rehoboth’s culinary scene has exploded with high-quality restaurants and bars proliferating in town and thriving up and down Route 1 from Lewes to Fenwick Island and even Ocean City. In fact, the chef at Fenwick’s One Coastal was just nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award. Matthew Kern will be the first-ever Delaware chef in James Beard Awards’ history to be named a finalist in any culinary category, according to the Delaware News Journal. He will be among five chefs competing for the title of best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. The awards are announced June 10.

As a part-time Rehoboth resident, I frequently field questions from visitors wondering: “What’s the best restaurant in town?” That usually leads to a prolonged text exchange with me offering endless choices in various categories. In an effort to answer that age-old question in a more organized fashion, I offer this roundup of my favorite haunts in the Rehoboth area in a range of styles and budgets. (And please note: These are just my opinions based on lots of experience. Inclusions/omissions are not intended to slight anyone. These things are subjective so it’s OK if you don’t like my picks.)

HIGH-END DINING

Rehoboth offers a handful of options for a truly high-end experience. For a traditional steakhouse, there’s Houston White Co. (315 Rehoboth Ave.), where an eight-ounce filet runs about $45 and a USDA Prime Porterhouse is $85. Side dishes are priced separately and shared, ranging from a $6 baked potato to $11 onion rings. The setting is probably the most formal in town. A small bar in front is always busy and staffed by friendly, knowledgeable mixologists. 

Eden (23 Baltimore Ave.) has a beach chic vibe and the menu is probably the most reliable in town. The ahi tuna — my go to — is perfectly seared and delicious rare. There’s an extensive wine list and the bar is always lively with entertaining staff. The upstairs dining room is ideal for a large party or special event. 

By far the best new restaurant to open in recent years is Drift (42 1/2 Baltimore Ave.). If you’re looking for an upscale, special occasion seafood indulgence, this is the spot. The lobster French toast gets all the press, but the entire seafood menu is as good as any in D.C., from local oysters to the crispy Atlantic swordfish schnitzel. The coveted bar seats go fast and there are only a handful of them at the unique bar that opens to the outside so go early. And this isn’t the place for a large party; the kitchen is small so take a date here if you really want to impress. The outdoor patio is lovely in good weather but the interior is beautifully decorated so that’s the better bet.

Since 1981, the Blue Moon (35 Baltimore Ave.) has been at the forefront of Rehoboth’s restaurant and bar scene, constantly evolving and working to feed and entertain us all. The restaurant is consistently rated among the best in town. It’s intimate and charming and some of the wait staff have been here for many years making it feel like a homecoming when you arrive. The Sunday brunch remains among the best in town, complete with white tablecloths and welcome scones. In the off-season, you can’t beat Tasting Tuesdays, a three-course dinner with wine pairings for $49. Many of us miss the old days of the Moon as a sometimes-raucous bar and dance club, but happy hour is back with half-price cocktails and appetizers, Monday-Friday, 4-6 p.m. So go for a drink and stay for dinner and enjoy crab cakes, lobster risotto, duck breast, and more.

Ah, the Back Porch (59 Rehoboth Ave.) — a true pioneer in establishing Rehoboth as a culinary destination. So many naive tourists walk past the Back Porch because it’s set back from the street, down an alleyway. But those who make the stroll are rewarded with French-inspired food and a convivial bar that’s vaguely reminiscent of Key West. It’s not fancy and fussy; it’s worn and welcoming with an elevated menu and a spacious two-story outdoor dining room. Rehoboth is inexplicably lacking in outdoor dining spots; there aren’t nearly enough al fresco options for a beach town. If you’re on a budget, give it a try for lunch or brunch. The menu doesn’t seem to change, but that’s OK when the food is this good. A true locals place, there’s always a friendly face at the bar and everyone misses bartender Bee Neild who retired last year after nearly 50 years. The Back Porch is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year; let’s raise a glass to the next 50.  

La Fable (26 Baltimore Ave.) is owned by Megan Kee, a beloved restaurateur in town with an impressive track record (she also owns Houston White and Bramble & Brine in Lewes; more on that later). Kee’s unmistakable style — pairing antique furniture and tableware with modern flourishes — can be seen everywhere from the piano-turned-bar to the mismatched vintage china. She pulled off a remarkable feat, turning the rather unappealing basement setting at La Fable into an authentic and charming French bistro. You’ll find all the French favorites here, from escargot to boeuf bourguignon to steak frites. The space is small so make a reservation. 

I offer these high-end options with two caveats/pet peeves. When paying in excess of $45 for an entree, I do not expect to sit on a plastic chair. Also, I do not appreciate overly familiar service just because the waiter is “gay too!” At those prices, a comfortable chair and formal service should be the norm.

MID-PRICED DINING

The high-end scene may be small but there are a plethora of quality mid-priced restaurants that beckon. 

My favorite in this category is the always-reliable Henlopen Oyster House (50 Wilmington Ave.) with its wide selection of fresh raw oysters and equally impressive draft beer list. Henlopen does the high-low thing so well, for example pairing an indulgent dozen Wellfleet oysters with a pint of cask beer. There are lobster rolls, salads, the best steamed shrimp in town, and much more on the menu. It’s a popular place, usually with a line forming before it opens. So go early and be patient — it’s always worth the wait (they don’t take reservations). No matter how packed the bar gets, the two Amys always offer the best service with a welcoming smile. This is my go-to when asked for seafood recommendations in Rehoboth.

As I mentioned, there are too few places for quality outdoor dining/drinks in Rehoboth Beach. You’ll find a handful of touristy hotel restaurants on the boardwalk along with the requisite fast food and Grotto’s pizza joints but there just aren’t enough places for an elevated bite. Above the Dunes (101 S. Boardwalk, 2nd floor) has the best view in town; sit at the bar and try one of their grain bowls. One of the best outdoor spots is the rooftop at JAM (210 2nd St.). The space has seen multiple concepts come and go in recent years, including the aforementioned classic Chez La Mer, Papa Grande’s, the disappointing Unwined, and before that the much-missed Azzurro. But JAM took over the space last year after relocating from Baltimore Avenue and offers the same quality food (burger specials and the salmon salad are highlights) but with a view. Grab a seat on the second floor outdoor deck and enjoy the breeze.

JAM’s rooftop is one of the few places to enjoy a great meal al fresco in Rehoboth Beach. (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

Across the street from JAM is the charming and underappreciated Aroma Mediterranean Cuisine (208 2nd St.). If you like hummus with homemade pita, falafel, kebobs, koftes, and more from the Med, then this is your spot. Try the hummus flight with three samples, including sundried tomato. Delicious.

A Rehoboth stalwart, Café Azafran (18 Baltimore Ave.) never disappoints with its small plates, dinner specials, and, of course, bustling bar featuring Washington Blade three-time Best Rehoboth Bartender winner Holly Lane, who sings (sometimes in French) while pouring drinks. Take a group of friends and order an array of small dishes to share, like the shrimp a la plancha, stuffed arancini, and ratatouille Provencal. There’s no better way to embrace family style dining. 

One of the biggest and happiest surprises in Rehoboth’s dining scene came the night I reluctantly walked into Michy’s (19287 Miller Rd. on Route 1). Reluctantly because the restaurant sits unassuming in a strip mall off Route 1 surrounded by supermarkets and nail salons. You couldn’t find a more unexpected location for one of the area’s best restaurants. But don’t let the location deter you; inside, the décor is warm and eclectic with a small bar and lively dining room. There’s a top-notch menu, including short ribs, sea scallops, and a spicy horseradish crusted salmon, but the daily specials are the stars here so be sure to order whatever special the chef is offering. There’s always a local fish option with a creative preparation. 

AFFORDABLE DINING

Let’s face it: When you’re at the beach, you don’t always want inventive and elevated. Sometimes you just want to wander into a place in your bathing suit and still find a good meal at a fair price. 

For that moment, there’s nothing better than the Starboard (2009 Rt. 1), just down the highway from Rehoboth in Dewey Beach. The Bloody Mary bar is legendary and now comes with a dedicated “sommelier” to assist in choosing from dozens of mixes, hot sauces, pickled vegetables, and more. But the real standout here is the crush — orange, grapefruit, watermelon, lemon, and more — cranked out by the busiest and best bartenders in the area (especially Doug and Shelley). The food is consistent and satisfying, if heavy on the portion size. The crab cakes, burgers, and salads are a good bet. If you’re nursing a hangover, the breakfast skillets will ease your pain. You can design your own omelet or choose from many of their egg creations. Pro tip: Share an entrée as the portions are huge. This used to be dominated by college kids enjoying summer break, but a more mature crowd, including the gays, have discovered Starboard’s many charms, which include a DJ and live bands all weekend.

Back in Rehoboth, the gay-owned Goolee’s Grille (11 S. 1st St.) offers some of the best breakfast dishes in town, including chipped beef, waffles, sandwiches, and more with a mimosa or Bloody to wash it down. There are occasional drag brunches and watch for the popular Greek night dinner specials. If the lines are too long in town for breakfast, venture across the highway to the new Eggcellent (19730 Coastal Highway), a locally owned restaurant that is open seven days 7 a.m.-3 p.m., meaning no dinner. So the focus is breakfast all the time with omelets, avocado toast, pancakes, and more. Don’t let the strip mall vibe fool you; the interior is gorgeous. 

Need a break from pizza and crab cakes? Grab a table on the second floor deck at Mariachi Restaurant (14 Wilmington Ave.) and enjoy some of the best Mexican and Spanish fare in town. You’ll likely be met at the door by Yolanda, the tireless owner who greets locals with a gregarious hug before bringing pitchers of irresistible margaritas to your table. The vast menu offers traditional pollo asado and carne asada along with paellas and assorted seafood dishes. The chips are plentiful and the salsas perfectly spiced. Mariachi opened in 2006 and won over locals by staying open during the off-season so the crowd is always a spirited mix of tourists and residents. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

For the ideal rustic beach bar, complete with sand, the ever-popular Purple Parrot Biergarten (134 Rehoboth Ave.) beckons. The food is standard bar fare but go for the vibe — beers and cocktails outside served from a bar with a flower-covered roof and bartenders in bathing suits. Aqua Bar & Grill (57 Baltimore Ave.) offers outdoor dining and drinks as well and is always packed with gay revelers all summer long.    

Looking for something new? Check out the Libation Room in the back of Summer House (228 Rehoboth Ave.), a restaurant with a dark, speakeasy vibe or the brand new outdoor garden arranged around a gurgling fountain.

If you’re not counting carbs and are looking for a satisfying lunch to take to the beach, pick up a hulking sandwich at Frank & Louie’s (58 Baltimore Ave.) or the iconic chicken salad at Lori’s Café (39 Baltimore Ave.).

OUTTA TOWN

If you’re an old pro and have already exhausted Rehoboth’s many dining options, venture up or down Route 1 for something different. Ocean City isn’t known as a fine dining destination, but things are changing. Check out Liquid Assets (9301 Coastal Highway) and don’t be deterred by the entrance in a strip mall through the liquor store. The restaurant’s high-end menu includes Maryland crab, blackened rockfish, steamed local oysters, along with steaks and even vegan options. Browse the extensive wine list or, better yet, wander around the shop and pick a bottle from the shelves. Not far away is Ocean View/Millville with its own growing roster of appealing restaurants. One of the best is Melissa’s (35507 Atlantic Ave.), with a small menu featuring a fish of the day, seafood pasta, and shrimp or lobster fried rice. Back north in Lewes is a gem of a new discovery. Located behind Bramble & Brine (102 2nd St., Lewes, the former Buttery) is the Pink Pony, a bar and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner that pays homage to one of Rehoboth’s first gay bars of the same name. Owner Megan Kee can often be found on her laptop at the bar and seems to know everyone who walks through the door. It’s welcoming, friendly, and the décor a real throwback. Check it out.

Our independent restaurateurs and their dedicated staff need support, so skip the chains and enjoy the diverse array of Rehoboth-area restaurants this summer.

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What’s new at Rehoboth Beach for summer 2024

Higher parking fees, Pamala moves to Diego’s, and more

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Rehoboth favorites Magnolia Applebottom and Pamala Stanley are reunited this summer at Diego’s. (Blade file photo by John Bator)

Another Rehoboth Beach season is upon us. I have been going to the beach for more years than I can count, and always love it. Some now consider Rehoboth a year-round community, and in many ways they are right. But summer still brings out tens of thousands of tourists, from day-trippers, to those with second homes at the beach. Others book a weekend, or longer, at the many great hotels. They all come to the beach for the sun and sand, food, and drink. Some like to relax, others to party, and you can do both in Rehoboth. 

So here is some of the good (and a little of the bad) of what’s new this season. First the bad: Parking at a meter will now cost you $4 an hour. Meters are in effect May 15-Sept. 15. Parking permits for all the non-metered spaces in town are also fairly expensive. You can find information on both transferable and individual permits, online.

Now for the good — and there is lots of it. First, Aqua Bar & Grill has reopened for the season. During Women’s Fest they were packed, with many sitting around the outdoor heaters, and that included lots of good looking men. I recommend taking advantage of the Thursday Burger night. Then the Blue Moon just announced John Francis Flynn will be on the piano from May 26-June 26, Sunday to Thursday, 6-8:30 p.m. He will then be back again on the same schedule from July 30-Sept. 11. During July, Nate Buccieri returns to town for a month-long runs of shows.

My favorite place at the beach, The Coffee Mill, in the mews between Rehoboth and Baltimore Avenues, opens every morning at 7 a.m. Whenever I am at the beach I am there. Mel, who also owns Brashhh! on 1st Street, announced he is starting his own clothing line, called FEARLESS! 

The Purple Parrot, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year so be sure to spend some time there raising a glass. The Summer House last year opened the upscale Libation Room, with drinks like a Bacon Maple Old Fashioned. This year, they opened a nice garden looking out on Rehoboth Avenue, with a fountain. With the renewed interest in vinyl records you may want to stop in at Extended Play. Traveling a little beyond the town is the new 302 Local, located in Coastal Station behind Iron Hill Brewery. It is themed as a 1920s-era speakeasy. If you are in town on a Sunday for T-dance, you will have the chance to hear Pamala Stanley perform at Diego’s Bar and Nightclub. This is the perfect venue for Pamala’s talents in an indoor-outdoor setting that is already drawing packed crowds. Don’t miss it. Speaking of Diego’s, Pamala and Best Rehoboth Drag Queen winner Magnolia Applebottom are reunited there this summer. Don’t miss Magnolia’s Memorial Day Thursday party on May 23 from 8-10 p.m. featuring “naughtee bingo.”

If you are looking for culture Rehoboth has some of that as well. There’s Clear Space Theater on Baltimore Avenue. This year’s shows include The Bodyguard, The Roommates, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages and The Prom. Tickets sell fast so I suggest you book early and they are available online. Then there is the Pride Film Festival, June 14-16. More information on that can be found at CAMP Rehoboth, the LGBTQ community center. CAMP plans the annual Sunfestival each Labor Day weekend, a not-to-miss event each year. On the CAMP website you can also find information on its speaker series, concerts, and other special events that will be going on during summer. This year Rehoboth Beach Pride takes place July 18-21. Sussex Pride is taking the lead on the festival, which will happen at the Convention Center July 20 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. If you visit CAMP, or are just walking up Baltimore Avenue, make sure you pick up a copy of the Blade in the box in front of the building.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other restaurants and clubs in town. Just a reminder, during season you often need reservations. Come to the beach often enough, and you can try them all: The Pines (and their Monday steak night) and Top of the Pines are at the epicenter of the fun on Baltimore Avenue. Freddie’s Beach Bar and Restaurant offers a busy summer of events and entertainment. Rigby’s remains a go-to spot for the LGBTQ community on Rehoboth Avenue. Bodhi Kitchen is back in its second year offering delicious modern Asian cuisine “with a twist.” These are only a few of the great places to eat and drink at the beach.

Remember to book your reservations for hotels and restaurants early. Rehoboth is a happening place and very busy. Here’s wishing you fun at the beach. 

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