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D.C. version of The Meatball Shop brighter, less cheeky than New York originals

Straight-owned but inclusive chain has matured since 2010 Big Apple launch

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Meetball Shop, gay news, Washington Blade
Various entrees at The Meatball Shop. (Photo by Liz Clayman)

Tongue in cheek? Try ball in mouth.

The Meatball Shop (1720 14th St., N.W.), in all its suggestive glory, landed on the busy 14th Street corridor late last year with a nod, a wink and heaping handfuls of ball-shaped opportunities for dinner. And puns.

“We wanted to find someplace that would speak to the culture and vibe of The Meatball Shop,” says CEO Adam Rosenbaum. “We saw a rowhouse in the high-energy neighborhood of 14th Street that felt New York brownstone style, and knew this was it.”

Childhood friends Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman, both culinary school graduates, founded The Meatball Shop after food careers spanning the globe. And a passion for meatballs. They launched their mini-chain (there are now eight locations) in the Lower East Side of New York City in 2010 to hours-long lines, a late-night lounge vibe and plenty of fanfare.

“The Meatball Shop was one of the first restaurants to focus on a single food item that’s not fast-casual,” Rosenbaum says. Even though it’s a table-service spot, it focuses on one specialty: its balls.

Tucked into a long narrow space with exposed-brick walls, D.C.’s version is The Meatball Shop, matured. Risqué-red walls found in New York shops are now white and the light has gone from moody to bright (“the better for today’s Instagram users,” Rosenbaum says). 

While deftly mincing meat, The Meatball Shop does not mince words when it comes to what’s on the plate. The starter menu, for one, offers mozzarella, risotto, Buffalo and crab cake balls.

The shop’s mains come in all flavors, shapes and sizes: classic (the traditional pork-beef-breadcrumb mix), pork, chicken, salmon, lobster and veggie/vegan; the menu then offers six suggested-but-not-mandatory sauces with which to pair. For $10-17, diners can choose to have the balls served as sliders, in a sandwich, naked (i.e. with sauce and focaccia), or in an on-trend bowl over a side.

The shop also offers Baller Plates, which are dishes priced in the mid-$20 range. The Classic is an homage to an Italian grandmother’s kitchen, with meatballs served over mashed potatoes and bacon in a red sauce; The Spicy is more elegant, with pork meatballs in creamy Parm sauce over broccoli and rigatoni. 

When The Meatball Shop launched, the founders served innuendo with every dish. As The Meatball Shop grows up, “we’ve moved away from this tactic — it’s a different time, both politically and socially,” Rosenbaum says.

“We also we don’t want to alienate any staff, though our job listings still say that ‘you have to be OK with a ball joke,’” he says.

And though Rosenbaum isn’t gay, “the LGBT community has been part of The Meatball Shop since day one,” he says. “The Meatball Shop is a family, and we hire intentionally for diversity. Our atmosphere is all about inclusivity.”

The restaurant’s ethos makes sense given locations in neighborhoods with large gay populations, like New York City’s Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and West Village, and D.C.’s 14th spot. “We tell our team to let their freak flag fly,” Rosenbaum says. He wants customers to see themselves reflected in the staff and environment. 

In June, during Pride month, The Meatball Shop sponsored a float in New York and ran a contest among its bartenders to create a charity Pride drink. A Hell’s Kitchen bartender prevailed with the “RuPaul-oma” that spiked a traditional Paloma with tequila and mezcal. Before it opened in D.C., the shop catered a gay wedding for a couple that frequented the restaurant on trips to New York. 

Rosenbaum dished on designs for D.C.’s location bolder than his spicy heritage pork meatballs. 

“We know we’re not Michelin-starred, nor with hot new chef. We just want to enjoy work and represent the people we work with.”

In D.C., that means obvious partnerships: Jose Andres lent his spice to Spanish-style pork meatballs. Ice Cream (ball) sandwiches are sourced from Moorenko’s, based in Maryland. 

“Since we make the best meatballs, we thought we’d try to make the best crab balls too,” Rosenbaum says. Chefs now serve these nickel-sized specialties spiked with Old Bay and covered in crushed potato chips.

In tamped-down style yet just enough sauciness, The Meatball Shop will never attain Millennial-magnet status of Barcelona, nor the determined refinement of Le Diplomate. Clearly attentive to consumer preference shifts, the restaurant may just attain its “unpretentious yet elevated” target for a formerly homely food. 

To wit, the it takes care to offer dishes free of gluten or of any meat or animal products. The shop crafts its veggie meatballs with express care, and it shows; the blend of lentils, vegetables and proprietary spice mixture that the D.C. location manager would not divulge is a true standout.

The meatball shop represents a place “with a fun environment and food sourced properly. We look to celebrate individuality, but at the end, have a great party,” Rosenbaum says.

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Dining

Union Market’s Last Call Bar a welcoming oasis for all

Mixologist Britt Weaver expresses her pride and identity every day

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Britt Weaver is head mixologist at Last Call Bar.

Amid the development of the fast-growing Union Market district, spanning dozens of eateries (including a duo of Michelin stars), embracing and inclusive spaces are tough to come by. Last Call Bar is one of those — and head mixologist and proud member of the LGBTQ community Britt Weaver is making sure this divey spot stays that way.

While buzzy restaurants take the spotlight, Weaver and Last Call are embracing the different.

“I’ve made it a personal mission to ensure that the bar continues to be a place where everyone feels welcomed and accepted,” she says. “Being behind the bar, I see a lot of people — I try to make sure every guest feels safe, seen, and cared for when they visit.”

Last Call exudes a laid-back spirit, aiming to fill that neighborhood-style gap that might be missing among prix-fixe tasting menus and shiny boutiques. Eccentric décor that includes painted lockers, old posters hung from the ceiling, artfully peeling paint, and arcade games feeds into the homey spirit. Patrons are welcome to bring in stickers and slap them on the bar, adding even more personality to the space.

Launched in 2019 serving sub-$10 drinks and having survived the pandemic, Last Call still maintains an unconventional vibe that extends to the menu. It’s one of the few bars that serves flavor-changing Jello shots, with the option to add nostalgia-inducing pop rocks; as well as an hour-long “teeny tiny ‘tini hour” for those who want a taste but not an entire glassful of liquor. Keeping things cool: koozies are also for sale. The food menu’s grown since opening, with sandwiches in addition to bags of chips and shareable dips.

Last Call welcomed Weaver in 2023. While working as a bartender during grad school, Weaver was drawn to the excitement of the bar scene. After COVID, she says, she leaned into her career in the hospitality industry.

In the freewheeling, demanding bartending industry, Weaver has fought to be seen.

“Previous jobs and ownership teams have urged me to conceal my identity, but that is something I refuse to do. It is so incredibly important for me to be able to express my pride and identity every day,” she says.

Last Call has a pedigree from its ally owner Gina Chersevani, who also runs decade-old Buffalo and Bergen stall inside Union Market and a sister Buffalo and Bergen on Capitol Hill. Chersevani is deeply rooted in the D.C. hospitality industry, which Weaver says has a culture that celebrates creativity and expression.

Chersevani ensures that “I’ve been celebrated and encouraged to express my identity,” says Weaver. “She has given me the freedom to cultivate a space that is welcoming of the LGBTQ+ community while also still remaining true to the Last Call spirit.” This year, during Pride month, Chersevani launched a Pride punch card, in which patrons who visited all of her spots won free drinks.

Weaver further notes that being proud of her identity and committing to it behind the bar and in the fast-paced service industry “opens more space for other LGBTQ+ industry members to feel safe to express their own identities. Visibility is so critical in making safe spaces for the queer community.”

Looking forward, Weaver remains steadfast in her commitment to learning and growing in the space and in D.C. She promises that Last Call Bar has plenty of events and programming, new cocktail menus, and a welcoming community spirit.

To celebrate the summer, Weaver offered a cocktail recipe to have at home with friends: Strawberry Piña Colada.

Ingredients

· 2 ounces silver rum

· 1 ounce strawberry purée

· 1 ounce fresh pineapple juice

· 1 ounce coconut milk

· .5 ounce lime juice

Combine all ingredients, then shake. Serve in a Collins glass, over crushed ice, and

garnish as desired.

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Dining

RAMMYs honors restaurant industry professionals

A busy summer for D.C.’s dining scene

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D.C.’s Summer Restaurant Week runs from Monday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 18.

Representing the ever-growing, increasingly recognized restaurant industry in Washington, D.C., the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) held its first-ever RAMMYs Honors Event on June 18 in the lower level of the Watergate Hotel. Restaurant and hospitality industry professionals, leaders, and community members gathered to celebrate RAMMY special distinctions. 

The event took place as an extension of the traditional RAMMY Awards Gala, which honors “the exceptional ability and accomplishments” of the region’s restaurants and foodservice community. The 42nd Annual RAMMY Awards Gala will take place on Sunday, July 21, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The RAMMYs Honors event kicked off with a cocktail hour, and was hosted by author, seasoned democratic strategist, and co-host of MSNBC’s The Weekend, Symone Sanders Townsend.

While there were several awards presented, this inaugural event only held onto one announcement until the event itself: the RAMMYS Joan Hisaoka Allied Member of the Year Winner, presented to an associate member who best exemplifies commitment to and support of RAMW. This year, the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School won, a school supporting adult immigrants that includes a culinary arts program.

Other honors that evening included the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award Winner, which was given to Greater Washington Partnership CEO Kathy E. Hollinger “for her excellence and community leadership, increasing the profile and success of the metropolitan Washington foodservice community.” Prior to joining the Partnership, Hollinger was president and CEO of RAMW. Hollinger sat for a wide-ranging interview on stage with Sanders Townsend, who is married to Shawn Townsend current president and CEO of the RAMW. 

Finally, the 2024 Honorary Milestone RAMMY Award recipients were also honored, celebrating a significant number of years serving locals and visitors in Metropolitan Washington: The Dubliner (50 years), Black’s Bar & Kitchen (25 years), Equinox on 19th (25 years), KAZ Sushi Bistro (25 years), Marcel’s (25 years), and Passage to India (25 years).

As the restaurant industry grows in the city, for the first-time, the RAMMYS Honors event allowed for a unique opportunity to highlight a range of special distinctions determined by RAMW’s executive committee. Instead of being public-facing, the Honors were dedicated to industry professionals, to give extra attention and the spotlight to those that often get overlooked at the main RAMMYs Gala. These awards were chosen by RAMW’s executive committee whereas the other awards, given at The RAMMYS, are chosen by both the public and an anonymous panel of judges.

Summer, traditionally a slower time for the restaurant industry, means that RAMW is pulling out the stops for diners to try out new and favorite spots across the area.

First, finalists for Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s 2024 Wine Program of the Year will take part in promotions planned for the second week of July. From Monday, July 8, through Sunday, July 14, the region’s top wine programs will showcase their outstanding varietals and pours. The 2024 Wine Program of the Year Finalists include: Apero (Dupont Circle), Era (Mt. Ranier), Irregardless (H Street), Lulu’s Wine Garden (Shaw), and St. Anselm (Union Market). Each will have discounts, tasting parties, special blends, flights, and other ways to savor the area’s top wines.

Finally, the season also sees the return of Summer Restaurant Week, celebrating the region’s restaurant industry from Monday, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 18. Participating restaurants will offer multi-course brunch and lunch menus with updated tiered pricing for $25 or $35 per person, and multi-course dinner menus for $40, $55, or $65 per person for on-premises dining. Many restaurants will also offer cocktail, wine, and non-alcoholic pairings.

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Behind the bar with Moon Rabbit’s Thi Nguyen

Cocktails work in harmony with thoughtfully executed Vietnamese dishes

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Moon Rabbit’s Thi Nguyen

Thi Nguyen’s hands move purposely behind the bar, her all-business, cobalt blue nails gleaming under the warm lighting of recently relocated – and highly celebrated – Moon Rabbit. A dash of simple syrup infused with pandan – a shrub native to Southeast Asia with vanilla-scented leaves – moves deftly in her hands to lightly spice a cocktail that will soon receive another kick from ginger bitters.

Nguyen, Moon Rabbit’s celebrated bar manager, cannot be accused of holding back flavors from her drinks. Nor can she hold back her identity and her journey. Her journey from Saigon to Maryland to California and finally to D.C., but also her journey as a proudly out lesbian, unafraid to bring her whole self to all her pours.

Boundaries, borders, conventions: these matter little to Nguyen, who left several homes to finally find herself where she’s most comfortable, and where she acts as a leader and mentor for others to do the same. Just as she doesn’t hide her identity, she also doesn’t hide that her cocktails complement Moon Rabbit’s vibrant, contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. Owner/chef Kevin Tien pays tribute to his heritage as a first-generation Asian American, using Moon Rabbit as a platform for expressing his love for Vietnamese culture and food through a determinedly modern lens.

Her cocktails, then, work in harmony with thoughtfully executed dishes like chewy rice cakes under a tofu crumble and cured egg, deconstructed crab Rangoon, and wagyu-stuffed perilla leaves brightened by fermented honey.

Sitting with the chefs and acclaimed owner Kevin Tien, “we begin by exploring cookbooks together,” in a collaborative process, “to find inspiration and potential flavor combinations. It involves a lot of research and development, trial and error, experimentation, and technique.”

“And while this sometimes leads to failures, it ultimately helps us discover the perfect pairings.”

Her menu arrives without flavor hesitations. Cocktail names are given in both English and Vietnamese (as are the dishes), a signal that she is asking diners and drinkers to join her and trust her as unapologetic about her Vietnamese craft. 

The Hết Nước Chấm (Out of Dipping Sauce) drink is composed of vodka, passionfruit liqueur, a squeeze of lemon, and a simple syrup based on nước chấm– also known as fish sauce. While nodding to the popularity of the savory martini, this cocktail also reflects the ubiquity of fish sauce on the Moon Rabbit menu and across Southeast Asia.

Other ingredients? Sesame oil, coconut milk, palm syrup, and chrysanthemum all show up in various drinks, alcoholic or otherwise. She also creates cocktails that highlight and celebrate gay icons, drawing inspiration not just from the menu and research but also LGBTQ history and culture.

This pride in her work is reflected in the pride in her identity.

“Being part of the LGBTQ community has taught me the importance of authenticity, resilience, and inclusivity. I am unapologetic about who I am and show up at work proud of my identity, which helps create a space where others feel comfortable and supported.”

Tien, Nguyen, and his staff are highly intentional in staffing. “This commitment to inclusivity is reflected in our hiring practices; we intentionally build a diverse bar team that includes members of the LGBTQ community,” she says.

Just like her physical journey, arriving in this place of leadership and comfort took a circuitous path. In the face of microaggressions and ignorance, comments and assumptions, lack of understanding and respect, she has been able to “strengthen my resolve to create an inclusive and supportive environment.” She ensures that she’s active in events that raise funds for LGBTQ non-profits around the DMV area, including SYMAL, CCI Health Services, and KhushDC.

 “I hope to encourage other LGBTQ individuals to pursue careers in hospitality and to advocate for greater inclusivity and acceptance in their own workplaces.”

Moon Rabbit, formerly located at the InterContinental Hotel on the Wharf, closed with a shock last year (its closure took place among a unionization drive by the hotel’s staff that the hotel had opposed). Debuting in its new location in Penn Quarter in January, Moon Rabbit quickly retook its place as a top dining destination: the restaurant was recently added to the Michelin guide. In June, Nguyen herself was named one of the best new bartenders in 2024 by Punch magazine. As Pride month closes out, Nguyen remains as dedicated to her craft – and her advocacy – as ever.

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