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Gay-welcoming straight bar Ugly Mug makes up for losses on Barracks Row

Owner was intent on 15-year-old bar retaining sports flair that made it famous

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The Ugly Mug, gay news, Washington Blade
General Tso’s burger at The Ugly Mug. (Photo courtesy Ashley Mason-Greene)

When one bar’s doors close, another bar’s doors open even wider.

The gay scene in Capitol Hill has felt some pain over the past several years after the closing of Remington’s and Phase 1. Enter The Ugly Mug, an unlikely replacement to as host for that neighborhood’s LGBT community. 

It’s like Nellie’s in reverse.

An unassuming sports bar, The Ugly Mug sits along 8th St., S.E. on busy Barracks Row. The far side of swank, it attracts Capitol Hill staff, Southeast locals and sports fans seeking a no-judgment atmosphere and classic pub snacks. During its 15-year tenure, the bar has added some elements, a new retractable roof, for instance, but has maintained its relaxed, no-pretense atmosphere. Yet over the bar’s service of slinging beers and burgers, the city has changed and the bar’s clientele with it.

At its outset, owner Gaynor Jablonski (who’s straight) says he, “saw a need for a place where Hill interns, neighbors and everyone in between could just grab a drink and watch the game. And that’s still at the core of our business — sports and beer.”

He says the bar has always been an inclusive space. As the LGBT-forward bars closed, “the customers who frequented them are still here,” he says. Plus, Barracks Row still has its charm — it’s its own little community — so it’s really about reminding everyone that they’re welcomed here.”

While those same customers reported having trouble finding bars that were truly open to them, “that was never an issue for us,” Jablonski says.

The beginning was simple. A local LGBT group held one event there. Later, “the organizers realized that their crowd really enjoyed the experience and our team also enjoyed it,” he says. 

Of course, Jablonski recognized that taking in these new customers signifies business gains, especially on nights that might otherwise be quiet. But at the same time, the bar has explicitly created an atmosphere of welcoming inclusivity. 

“We’re glad that we can provide a safe space,” he says. 

Some local organizations that now make a home at The Ugly Mug include D.C. Rollergirls and Ebony Pyramid. For D.C. Rollergirls, a flat-track skating league with a strong lesbian presence, the bar provides food and drinks during the team’s exhibitions. Ebony Pyramid, a social and charitable group with a mission to serve African-American and minority LGBT communities, hosts many of its own events at the bar, including weekly gatherings on Tuesday evenings.

The Ugly Mug will play host to Black Pride events in association with Ebony Pyramid. 

Jablonski says The Ugly Mug has stayed true to its roots, offering “all the great things about sports bars,” like rotating draft beers, a full bar and pizza, burgers and wings, as well as karaoke and live music nights.

Yet because The Ugly Mug recognized that the neighborhood residents needed a place to go and be comfortable, to carve out a niche that no longer existed, the bar has become more than just a place to catch a Nats game. 

The owner and staff don’t consider The Ugly Mug to be a gay bar, but the establishment’s evolution to a space that is treated and understood as one sets it apart. More than accepting, it actively supports the LGBT community. As some LGBT bars close, and others completely or purposefully lose their LGBT identities, The Ugly Mug represents a move in the opposite direction. 

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Dining

Restaurants have history as places for protest

ShutDownDC solicits tips for whereabouts of anti-Roe justices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dining

Double dose of D.C. dining deals

Black Restaurant Week, RAMW Summer Restaurant Week return

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Derek Robinson, Falayn Ferrell and Warren Luckett. (Photo by Unique James)

D.C. is about to receive a double dose of dining destination deals over the next several weeks: Black Restaurant Week (July 18-31) and RAMW Summer Restaurant Week (August 15-21).

Black Restaurant Week

Founded in 2016, Black Restaurant Week is holding its third annual celebration of African-American, African, and Caribbean cuisine in the D.C. and Baltimore region July 18-31. During Black Restaurant Week, participating venues create their own promotions, rather than being constrained to a specific meal or prix-fixe menu.

For this iteration, BRW is partnering with the National Urban League Conference, and has extended the promotion from 10 days to 14. BRW, according to its founders, was developed to shine a light on minority businesses – aiding them in building community awareness to increase their bottom line. The mission: celebrate African-American, African, and Caribbean influences in the culinary industry, educating consumers on the abundance of cultural cuisines.

More than 100 restaurants are participating in the area. A short, non-comprehensive list includes 2 Southern Belles, All Set Restaurant & Bar, Austin Grill, Cloudy Donut, England Eatery, FishScale, Melange, Money Muscle BBQ, and Negril the Jamaican Eatery.

As part of the campaign, BRW hosts events to better bring together the dining community. The promotion begins with a Kickoff Mixer at The Delevate on July 19; other events include a happy hour, an open mic night, and a date night, all at different participating venues.

Black Restaurant Week has supported more than 2,000 restaurants, bars, bakeries, caterers, food trucks, and other culinary establishments across the country since the organization’s founding.

Kristal Williams, co-owner of Fishscale, says, “Black Restaurant Week provides an opportunity to discover and celebrate Black-owned restaurants and Black chef-owned establishments.”
Ferrell, one of the BRW co-founders, notes that, “during our Black Restaurant Week campaigns, we see an average of 15% to 20% increase in sales for participants, which helps tremendously as businesses are in a continual recovery status from the pandemic and as we are in an inflation season.”

She continued that, “Black Restaurant Week has an immediate financial impact with participants. The goal is to invest dollars back to the business. With our nonprofit organization, Feed the Soul Foundation, we have been able to provide $52,000 in financial support to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore-based, minority-owned culinary businesses.”
A full list of participants and more information can be found at blackrestaurantweeks.com.

RAMW Summer Restaurant Week

The semi-annual Summer Restaurant Week, run by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), will take place Monday, Aug. 15, through Sunday, Aug. 21. The area’s signature summer dining promotion invites diners to experience regional restaurants in a variety of ways.

Participating restaurants will offer on-site multi-course brunch and lunch menus for $25 per person, and multi-course dinner menus for $40 or $55 per person. Many restaurants will also offer cocktail pairings.

Returning again this summer is the “RW-To-Go” dinner meals, available at two price points: $70 or $100 for two people and $140 or $200 for four people so that those uncomfortable with indoor dining can take the meal home.

“Diners across the region can look forward to what will be a delicious promotion celebrating the season’s summer flavors with menus at great price points,” says Kathy E. Hollinger, president and CEO of RAMW. “We have the return of the popular RW cocktail, wine, and mocktail pairings, as well as RW-To-Go dinner meals for diners who may want a great night out or picnic outdoors. This promotion is designed to give the most options for patrons as they dine their way around our great region.”

Restaurants stretching from Alexandria to Friendship Heights to Woodley Park are participating.

A number of 2022 RAMMY Awards Finalists are participating in the promotional dining week including Annabelle, Baan Siam, Blend 111, Bindaas Cleveland Park & Foggy Bottom, Bresca, China Chilcano, Convivial, Cranes, Dauphine’s, La Bise, La Cote D’Or Cafe, Mintwood Place, Modena, Nama, Slate Wine Bar, Rasika, Rasika West End, and Sababa. The 2022 RAMMY Awards will take place on July 31.

New participating restaurants include Annabelle, Dolce Vita, Dovetail Bar & Restaurant at the Viceroy, and Il Piatto.

Longtime participant Alan Popovsky, co-founder and principal of PRG Hospitality (Lincoln Restaurant, Teddy & the Bully Bar), says that “for our downtown locations, Restaurant Week provides an opportunity to make new guest relationships and fortify our existing ones. It’s essential in our industry today.”

A full list of participants and more information can be found at ramw.org/restaurantweek.

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Dining

Crazy Aunt Helen’s to host ‘Pride-a-palooza’

Barracks Row restaurant celebrating all month long

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Crazy Aunt Helen’s ‘serves American comfort food with a southern slant.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Shane Mayson’s restaurant is as colorful as his language. His multi-hued American eatery Crazy Aunt Helen’s debuted last July on Barracks Row, just a few days after Pride concluded. But as Pride is 365, this restaurant has spent its first year with flair and fanfare, and this June, Mayson, who identifies as gay, isn’t holding back.

“I LOVE PRIDE MONTH,” Mayson wrote (caps are his). “I love everything we have at Crazy Aunt Helen’s for Pride. Check out our events and get blown away,” he says.

This isn’t Mayson’s first Pride – but it is his first as owner of Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a delightfully fabulous neighborhood restaurant in Barracks Row.  

Thus far in June, Mayson has already held comedy shows, book readings, a ladies’ tea dance, play readings, bingo, and a Story District event. Coming up on June 25, to end Pride month with even more color, is “Pride-a-palooza,” featuring a host of drag queens, food, drinks, prizes, and plenty of surprises that MayD.C. Mayor Muriel Bowserson has been waiting an entire year to showcase.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s “serves American comfort food with a southern slant,” explains Mayson. Taking over the space of Irish pub Finn McCool’s, Crazy Aunt Helen’s spreads over two floors, plus a patio and streatery. The interior is wildly bright: a Prince-esque purple host stand and staircase welcome guests, and a highlighter-green wooden banquette runs the length of the dining room. A set of wicker chairs and flower-print cushions recall that southern influence.

Mayson enlisted Pixie Windsor – the very same of eponymous Miss Pixie’s – to design the restaurant (the two have been friends for years). “Pixie has a way with creating fabulous comfortable spaces,” Mayson says. 

Windsor and Mayson partnered to craft the whimsical aesthetic, from the brilliant paint job to a bright-pink neon sign.

Mayson is quick to note that his Aunt Helen “was charming, warm, and funny, with an amazing laugh, and I wanted my restaurant to have that same feeling,” he says. “I wanted our guests to feel like they are getting a big’ol hug each time they walk in the doors.” 

The menu is just as homey and eclectic. Mayson waxes poetic about the fried green tomatoes, the chicken fried steak smothered in chicken sausage gravy, and a Jewish-style braised brisket. Yet many of the dishes are also vegan and vegetarian, like the “fab” cakes made of soy and mushroom and a vegan steak.

As for the drinks, Mayson says that the “signature cocktails are also seasonally driven, and I only use local distilleries like Republic Restoratives, another LGBTQIA business.” There’s also a list of beer, wine, and zero-proof drinks.

Mayson has been in the restaurant business since he moved to D.C. in 1984, working first at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, and most recently as director of business development for the restaurant group of the highly lauded restaurant industry leader, and lesbian, Jamie Leeds.

Mayson is using Pride this year as Crazy Aunt Helen’s coming out, both as a restaurant and a safe space. “I can say that I have had experiences in my life where I didn’t feel welcomed places. The staff and I work very hard to make sure everyone who walks into Crazy Aunt Helen’s feels welcome,” he says.

“I find it’s the small things that build to allow folks to feel safe,” he notes. There’s no required uniform, allowing staff to dress however they feel most comfortable. Mayson also makes an effort to support local LGBTQ artists and performers, giving them space in the second-floor Peacock Room to share their talents.

To that end, Mayson is offering The Rainbow Theatre Project, a theater group that has been dark since pandemic closings, a home until they are back up and running. During June, they performed four staged readings from four LGBTQ playwrights. “I can’t wait to have the Peacock Room buzzing with entertainment every night of the week and to hear all the people laughing and enjoying the food, each other and the show,” Mayson says.

Mayson’s goal at Crazy Aunt Helen’s is twofold: create a space “that’s welcoming and nourishing to both our bellies and our spirits.”

Shane Mayson (Photo courtesy of Mayson)

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