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Newsom pardons LGBTQ and Black icon Rustin, stained by ‘historic homophobia’

‘Laws have been used as legal tools of oppression’

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Bayard Rustin, Freedom Fighters, gay news, Washington Blade
Black History Month, Bayard Rustin, Freedom Fighters, gay news, Washington Blade
Bayard Rustin (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

It was a patch of blue in the dark storm stalled over the divided states of America. On Feb. 5, California Gov. Gavin Newsom parted the pall and pardoned Bayard Rustin, mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Though President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013, the gay civil rights icon still had the stain of a 1953 “morals charge” arrest in Pasadena on his lifetime of achievement.

“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

Excerpt of the pardon certificate

Rustin’s pardon launches a new clemency initiative for people who were prosecuted in California for being gay. In 1970, after the Stonewall riots and the movement for Gay Liberation, Assemblymember Willie Brown introduced the Consenting Adult Sex Bill to repeal the sodomy law and decriminalize gay sex. Five years later, with help from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the bill was finally passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 12, 1975. But those convicted of engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct remained on the Sex Offender Registry until 1997, when a new law established a process enabling individuals to request removal. However, the original criminal conviction remained.

Newsom’s announcement acknowledges the systemic persecution of LGBTQ people and offers legal reparation.

“In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target [LGBTQ] people. Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs,” says the press release.

“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus said Jan. 21 at a news conference with Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, formally asking for a pardon.

“I’m thrilled that Governor Newsom is pardoning Bayard Rustin and that he acted so quickly and decisively in response to our request. I also applaud the Governor for broadening this work to provide other criminalized LGBT people with a path to clear their records of wrongful convictions on homophobic charges. These actions are consistent with the Governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community,” Wiener said in a statement. “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”

“On behalf of the Black Caucus, I want to thank the Governor for granting this posthumous pardon. The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” said Weber. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”

“Civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ For our friend Governor Newsom, that time is today. We are grateful to the governor for demonstrating our California values by pardoning civil rights hero, Bayard Rustin — a trusted aide to Dr. King — and for creating a system for other LGBTQ+ people to seek pardon from unjust convictions, said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur. “Today, Governor Newsom, and indeed the entire Golden State, did the right thing.”

That the pardon comes at the beginning of Black History Month is notable. On the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote on The Root: “I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.”

For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay,” said President Obama, presenting Rustin’s medal to his longtime partner, Walter Naegle on Aug. 8, 2013. “No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”

Born in 1912, Rustin learned about racism early on learned from his a Quaker grandmother in his West Chester, Pennsylvania hometown. She was also a member of the NAACP and intellectual civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were house guests.

Seventeen-year-old Bayard Rustin, 1929. (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin)

In high school, Rustin challenged the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws by defying the rules to sit in the segregated balcony of a movie theater — for which he was arrested, as he recalled in the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.

I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.”

February 7, 1986 issue of the Washington Blade, featuring Peg Byron’s interview with Bayard Rustin.

Rustin knew he was gay in high school, he told Washington Blade reporter Peg Byron on Feb. 5, 1986. But he remained closeted until 1947 after an encounter with a child on a bus trip in the South:

“One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.

As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.”

Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in the back of that bus now, that child who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” That’s what people in the South would say.

So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.

Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting…

Peggy Byron: Sitting in the back, yeah…

BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.

But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.”

Bayard Rustin demonstrating in late 1940s Washington, D.C., to “Free Imprisoned War Objectors.” (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin)

During those closeted years, he organized strikes in college, advocated to free the Scottsboro Boys, in 1936 joined the Young Communist League which fought segregation but left disillusioned when they dropped fighting Jim Crow to fight to get the US into World War II. Rustin then found two other pacifists – A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who both became mentors.

By now Rustin was on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s radar. Muste hired him to handle race relations. In 1941, the three pacifist socialists proposed a march on Washinton to protest segregation in the military and employment. After a meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. As an act of good faith in response, Randolph cancelled the march over Rustin’s objections. The military was finally desegregated in 1948 by President Truman, meaning black Americans fought racism and the Nazis and fascism, only to come home to Jim Crow.

Meanwhile, Rustin came to California to try to help Japanese Americans who were losing their property and their rights as the federal government imprisoned them in internment camps. He also foreshadowed the Freedom Rides by trying to desegregate interstate bus travel in 1942, for which he was arrested outside Nashville, beaten but never charged.

By 1948, the year after he came out, Rustin was well-known enough to be invited to India for an international pacifist conference.

“Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. ‘We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,’ he wrote after returning to the States. ‘The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn,’” Prof. Gates writes.

The incident for which Rustin was pardoned happened in 1953. By now a respected organizer, Rustin traveled around the country giving speeches. After a speech one January night in Pasadena, police officers found him having sex with two white men in a parked car. Rustin was arrested, sentenced to jail for 60 days and was forced to register as a sex offender for the “morals charge.”

The arrest severely damaged his career in a country terrified by McCarthyism. He was forced to cancel speaking engagements and resigned from his leadership position with Muste’s Fellowship for Reconciliation.

Bayard Rustin (right) and Walter Naegle, 1986. (Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle/Estate of Bayard Rustin)

He struggled to find work, resorting to manual labor as a furniture mover, Naegle said later.

“I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” he wrote in a March 1953 letter.

In 1955, Rustin secretly wrote “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.“In 1956, he found his way back into the civil rights movement, traveling to Alabama to advise Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how to organize his Montgomery Bus Boycott using Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. The two were introduced by Rustin’s friend Coretta Scott.

“King really had a very, very limited idea about nonviolence,” Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “It is Bayard Rustin who really tutored him, who said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ Rustin was horrified to see these pistols in King’s home, you know, and these armed guards around King’s home, because it just went against everything he believed in about nonviolence. If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin, Dr. King wouldn’t have had any understanding, I don’t think, of nonviolence. And Rustin tutored him and made him into the person we know he became.”

But that arrest record and the “open secret” of his homosexuality haunted him. Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he co-founded after the powerful New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to tell the press that he and King were lovers.

Gay historian, John D’Emilio author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” told Amy Goodman:

Bayard himself was very aware that given social attitudes towards homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, he couldn’t wear it on his sleeve. He couldn’t, you know, be out there with the rainbow flag. This was before gay liberation. So Bayard himself was perfectly happy to keep this in the background and to move out of the way, if that was going to be good for the movement.

What made him unhappy and what made him feel like he had been done wrong was when people disavowed him. And there was a point, in 1960, when Rustin and Mr. Randolph and Dr. King were part of organizing major demonstrations at the presidential conventions, Republicans and Democrats, and at that point Representative Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem didn’t like the fact that these radicals, someone like Bayard Rustin, was getting so much attention and moving into his sphere in the Democratic Party.

And he put out the word to Dr. King that if you don’t distance yourself from Bayard Rustin, I am going to claim that there is something going on between the two of you. And that scared Dr. King, and Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early ’60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.”

That was around 1962,” Rustin told the Washington Blade via the special Making Gay History podcast. “And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older and had another year’s experience.”

A. Philip Randolph brought Rustin back into the fold to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but NAACP’s Roy Wilkins saw Rustin as a liability and forced him to take a deputy position.

But then FBI Director J. Edger Hoover slipped Rustin’s arrest record to rabidly anti-gay South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond – who had secretly fathered a child with his African-America maid. Three weeks before the march, Thurmond went public, trying to destroy the unprecedented event by denouncing Rustin as a gay communist and placing his arrest record in the congressional record.

Rustin told the Washington Blade:

“Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.

PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.”

 BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six black civil rights leaders.

When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.”

For what spans five pages in the Congressional Record, Thurmond not only submitted the arrest record but the news articles about the arrest and conviction.

“The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words ‘morals charge’ are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion,” says Thurmond.

“The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this,” Rustin said.

King and the other Big Six backed Rustin up this time because the attacks came from one of the worst Southern white supremacists. But after the march, Rustin was quietly denied his role as the seventh in the Bix Six group of civil rights leaders who called for the march: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young when the chief organizer of the march was disinvited to the White House to celebrate with President John F. Kennedy.

And yet, according to an extensive CNN report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march, it was Rustin who saved the march for the organizers – from a Kennedy take over.

“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march, told CNN.

“The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz. “When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place.”

“They kept a watchful eye on the planning of the march,” said John Lewis, the 23-year-old elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “They stayed in touch with the (march) leadership,” which had been broadened to include four white leaders, representatives of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, and civil rights advocate and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.

Reuther was recruited by the White House “to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action,” wrote Charles Euchner in his book “Nobody Turn Me Around,” about the historic march. “And so he did.”

Though JFK had come around to the idea of the march, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office inside the Justice Department’s room 5110 “was the command center,” Jack Rosenthal, who was the department’s assistant press officer at the time, told CNN.

“There was a proposal on the table that Kennedy speak to the March on Washington,” march planner Courtland Cox told CNN. “And Bayard knew this would have been a disaster because it would’ve been taken over by (Kennedy) just because he’s president. It would’ve been Kennedy’s march.”

From CNN:

“So, Cox said Rustin and he excused themselves from that particular meeting and took a walk to the bathroom. Clearly flummoxed about the problem, Rustin took a sip from his back-pocket flask and came up with an idea on the fly.

“And Bayard got back into the meeting and he literally made this up,” Cox recalled. “He said that he heard … if the president spoke the Negroes were going to stone him.”

After that, the idea of Kennedy speaking at the march was never considered.”

None of the feared outbreaks of violence occurred.

“After the March on Washington was over, President Kennedy had invited us back down to the White House,” Lewis said. “He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us. He was like a beaming, proud father. He was so pleased. So happy that everything had gone so well.”

Kennedy told King: “And you had a dream,” added Lewis.

Rustin’s role was overshadowed – as were his remarks at the march that August 28, 1963:

“We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?”

Rustin died of a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987, survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.

One last thing, Julian Bond told Amy Goodman:

“I could not think of anybody else who at the time would have stepped forward, taken hold of this March on Washington, pull together all these hundreds of thousands of peoples, the buses, the trains. You know, I saw something just recently: They made 800,000 sandwiches. Imagine that. And it was all done at Bayard Rustin’s desire.

One thing I think we’re not hearing about Bayard Rustin is his sense of humor. He once said that Dr. King couldn’t bring vampires to a bloodbath. That was the kind of organizer Dr. King was not. But Bayard Rustin knew he was an organizer and was just wonderful at getting people to do things that they didn’t think they could do or didn’t know they wanted to do. He was just a great, great person….

I think those of us who were there in 1963 didn’t immediately realize how significant this was. As you said during the program, we didn’t see many people there early in the morning. The crowd grew and grew and grew. But even when they were all there, you had no idea how many there were. You know, you can’t look out at this mass of people and say, “This is 250,000 people.” You just have no idea who they are. And I think, for me, driving back to Atlanta later that day and then reading newspapers the next day in Atlanta and hearing what other people had to say about it, only then would we began to understand the significance of this thing—the largest gathering ever at a civil rights protest.

People came together to demand civil rights in America, and that was tremendously significant. But, as you say, if you compare these demands that Bayard read at the march with where we are today, you can see that clearly most of these things have not been achieved, and we still have a long, long way to go.”

While Rustin didn’t attend the White House meeting, he and A. Philip Randolph did make the cover of LIFE magazine.

“Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century,” says historian John D’Emilio.

That 1953 arrest record hung like an invisible chain around Rustin’s neck. Now he is really, finally free.

If you think you are eligible and would like to seek clemency, you can apply for a pardon and receive updates and information on the clemency initiative at www.gov.ca.gov/clemency

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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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a&e features

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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