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D.C.’s culinary scene shakes its pandemic slumber

COVID-safe events planned along with slew of restaurant re-openings

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More than 100 food and drink specials have been set up to align with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

As the city emerges from its winter and its pandemic slumber, the culinary scene is also awakening. The spring is shaping up to be a dynamic, exciting season for restaurants and bars.

Even if in-person dining is not as easy this year as in the past, there is nothing stopping D.C. from celebrating one of its most storied events, the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Peak bloom is expected for the window of March 30 to April 3, perfectly timed for the Passover and Easter holidays. The (virtual) opening ceremony will be held on March 20, featuring live performances from Japan and D.C. The festival this year will have “an innovative format that honors the tradition of the Festival, while prioritizing the health and safety of participants amidst the coronavirus pandemic,” notes the National Cherry Blossom Festival website. 

More than 100 food and drink specials have been set up to align with the festival. To name a few participating places that have announced specials: Annabelle, Blue Duck Tavern, Immigrant Food, Karma Modern Indian, Napoli Salumeria, Sababa, and Slate Wine Bar. 

A couple standouts include a Sakura flower pastry from famed New York City import Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, as well as vegan cherry blossom cupcakes from Sticky Fingers. Penn Quarter’s Dirty Habit will not only have cherry blossom drinks specials, but the cocktails can be enjoyed on its outdoor patio dotted with cherry blossom trees.

Shilling Canning Company in Navy Yard, where beverage director Jacob Weinstein is gay, is offering a “Ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb” cocktail, a take on an Old Fashioned with floral bitters.

To really get into the spirit, the National Cherry Blossom Festival has launched the Festival Flavor Pass. The program gives participants the opportunity to taste and sip on specials and discounts across the city. The Flavor Pass booklet lists included restaurants and their offerings, the story behind each location, and how to redeem it in person or through takeaway. The program runs March 20-Apr 11.

Similarly, a new subscription program called Summerlong Supper Club began this month to give Washingtonians the chance to give back while dining on meals from some of DC’s most acclaimed restaurants: Albi, Anju, Cane, Centrolina, Rose’s Luxury, and Sushi Taro. Subscribers receive six weeks of the opportunity to dine on exclusive three-course prix fixe tasting menus. 

Lesbian-owned Pizzeria Paradiso is celebrating Women’s History Month by partnering with Cheesemonster Studio, owned by Alice Bergen Phillips and Kara McGrath. The artisanal cheese shop has provided Paradiso with three cheeses made by women cheesemakers for a limited-edition pizza: Boxcarr’s Campo, Meadow Creek Dairy’s Appalachian, and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese’s Original Blue. 

Meanwhile, Oyamel’s annual Tequila & Mezcal Festival is running through March 14, with its fanfare of a limited-time food menu, events, and of course, fanciful tequila and agave-based drinks. 

Beyond seasonal specials, the city will also see a number of new restaurant openings – and re-openings. For example, restaurateur-brothers Eric and Ian Hilton closed a handful of their acclaimed bars and restaurants last fall. However, the duo recently announced that pizzeria Echo Park and bars American Ice Company, Brixton, and the Gibson are set to reopen soon.

For bar goers who don’t want to leave Fido at home, Bark Social just opened in Bethesda. This spacious indoor/outdoor beer garden and coffeeshop combines cocktails with a private and monitored off-leash dog park. The pups get their own “dog treat bar” and a dog wash station.

Those looking to elevate their outdoor game should look to Hi-Lawn, located on the roof of Union Market. It’s one of D.C.’s largest rooftops, and well-positioned for COVID-safe socializing. The space is hosting a St. Patrick’s Day event March 13-14 to kick off the season.

Knead Hospitality, the team behind Mi Vida and Succotash, has an ambitious expansion strategy for a number of new concepts over the next few months. Some of their upcoming openings include upscale American diner Gatsby by Nationals Park, Mexican restaurant Mi Casa in Dupont Circle, and another outpost of Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery. The group is also planning an expansive food hall in the Dupont area, to encompass Mexican, Southern, and pizza options. 

Navy Yard’s Sandlot Southeast, launched in 2019, is reopening on March 18. Uber Eats is partnering with this outdoor food space “to showcase and celebrate local Black-owned restaurants and chefs,” according to the website. Running Thursdays-Sundays until the end of the year, Sandlot Southeast is partnering with Uber Eats to feature Black-owned restaurants, chefs, caterers, and food truck operators in D.C., and their dishes will be available on the Uber Eats app. “Sandlot Southeast will provide an incubator platform for Black chefs to build an audience in Capitol Riverfront,” says Michael Stevens, president of the Capitol Riverfront BID.

Finally, look to Buzzard Point, Southwest’s rapidly expanding neighborhood hugging the new Audi Field, for plenty of openings in 2021. One of the first new spots will be a waterside seafood house called The Point, slated to serve a large menu of fresh seafood cooked over a huge wood-fired grill. It comes from the same group that runs the large Tony and Joe’s in Georgetown’s waterfront. Another yet-unnamed restaurant will open next to The Point later this year. 

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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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Relish Market offers a space for wellness

Lesbian entrepreneur a supporter of mission-driven brands

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Stephanie Freeman and daughter Alexia Yates own Relish Market. (Photo by Kea Dupree)

From urban farmer to wellness provider, Stephanie Freeman has been a caregiver to the earth and to her customers for more than a decade. Freeman, who identifies as lesbian, owns Relish Market with her daughter, Alexia Yates. Located in Brentwood, Md., Relish offers housemade drinks, herb and spice mixes, condiments, wellness products, and a host of proudly D.C.-made products.

Freeman founded Relish Market in 2018 and opened a storefront inside of miXt Food Hall in October 2019 upon the inauguration of the hall. (miXt co-hosted the Arts, Beats, and Eats festival in May, which featured several LGBTQ artists.)

Freeman began in the food industry in earnest in 2013 as an urban farmer and food entrepreneur selling her hot sauce and condiment brand, Pepperly Love, at farmer’s markets and events throughout the area. Her daughter Yates focuses on the catering and custom beverage aspects of Relish. With a background as a chef, she brings experience and creativity to the goods at Relish.

Although Freeman came from the corporate world, she grew up in a home with a big, productive garden. She has cherished memories of canning produce with her grandfather.

Among its offerings, Relish may be best known for its beverages. It serves a rainbow’s worth of smoothies: everything from strawberry-banana to peanut butter, kale, and whey. The shop offers more than 20 add-ons to boost the drinks, including new superfoods like sea moss gel and black seed oil. There’s also a range of juices and proprietary tea mixes like elderberry echinacea chai. All the options are made in house, just like her own spice and herb blends: she’s packed everything from butterfly pea flowers to valerian root to adobo lime spice mix.

When the opportunity came up to open the marketplace within MiXt, Freeman jumped at the occasion. The food hall allowed her to further express her creativity and provided her with a platform to showcase her talents – and put her in front of a bigger, broader audience, but also one that seeks to make close connections.

“I’m proud,” she says,” because there aren’t so many places for healthy choices where customers can ask questions while also supporting local.”

Having opened at the end of 2019, Relish soon had to confront pandemic restrictions. While customers couldn’t stay to eat at MiXt and many vendors were closed, Relish was able to stay open. It was during this challenging period that Freeman leaned in to her wellness background.

The gray of the pandemic cloud therefore offered something of a silver lining. Relish became a community space when so many other vendors and food establishments were shuttered. It was through these in-person interactions that Freeman has found her calling.

Freeman has embraced her role as caregiver and supporter of mission-driven brands. She stocks products from more than 20 local vendors in addition to her own in-house-crafted products. Being in front of so many customers, she’s proud to show that people like her can create wholesome, welcoming spaces.

“People see the shop as more than just selling food, but create a space for wellness,” she says.

Referring to other LGBTQ people in the food space, she says that the community is “often underrepresented and underreported on.” She also notes her ability to “pass” as a straight Black woman unless she specifically speaks about her identity. She therefore ensures to recognize others who need that recognition. When sourcing her products, she always looks to organizations that are supportive. She has also participated in Black Pride events in the past.

“I’m excited to show to other would-be entrepreneurs to know that it’s possible here, as an example. I want to emphasize that I certainly had to overcome obstacles, whether its Black, or female, or otherwise, but it is possible, even with the odds stacked against you.”

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At Michele’s, sophisticated cuisine in an inclusive space

Executive sous chef Rachel Bindel brings her full identity to work

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‘Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too,’ says Michele’s executive sous chef Rachel Bindel. (Photo courtesy Michele’s)

Both traditional and chosen, it’s all about family at Michele’s. Michelin-starred chef and owner Matt Baker named the restaurant after his late mother, but it’s also where Executive Sous Chef Rachel Bindel, who identifies as a lesbian, feels at home. 

“I have never felt comfortable enough to be completely open about myself until I met this team,” she says.

As Executive Sous Chef, Bindel oversees daily operations at Michele’s, located in the mission-focused Eaton Hotel. She also plans menus and runs scheduling, sourcing, and events.

The menu at Michele’s is a reflection of Chef Baker’s upbringing in Houston and New Orleans, resulting in a sophisticated, French-American cuisine. Both Baker and Bindel are trained in classical French techniques, and both also spent time cooking and studying in East Asia. The combination of their background and vision come together at the tables at Michele’s.

Bindel also oversees the chef’s table 10-seat, 14-course, Lorraine’s Counter. Each dish is inspired by specific food memories, designed and cooked by the chefs to tell the story of Michele’s and who they are as chefs. 

Driven and creative, Bindel, who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region, recalls food nostalgia as far back as the wafting aromas of her mother’s baked ziti fresh from the oven. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, steeping herself in French cooking and a specialized focus on Advanced Japanese Techniques.

But it was also while studying at the CIA when she met her wife Marissa. Both were CIA students moonlighting as staff at the on-campus restaurant. A back-of-house romance soon blossomed and they married last month. 

After graduating, the two relocated to Charleston, where Bindel worked at acclaimed restaurant Husk. “While I loved living at the beach, eventually it was time to move back home,” she said. She came to D.C. in June of 2019, landing at Tail Up Goat. 

In September of 2021, she joined 101 Hospitality (the parent company run by Chef Baker that also manages Gravitas and Baker’s Daughter) to run research and development for Michele’s. The restaurant opened last November.

When Bindel graduated, she moved to Charleston in search of the best place to expand her cooking chops. But it was also not the most open space she has encountered in her young career.

In D.C., “a more welcoming city,” she notes, she has the ability to look at both the cooking and the environment for the staff, where everyone can be open about who they are.

“Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too. I don’t have to hide, so I can explore even more who I am as a chef.” 

Her work is on full display for the restaurant’s current seasonal menu. A highlight: the Parisian gnocchi, a flour-based dough pocket in the French style, in place of the traditional potato. The pasta spheres are bathed in a rich Parmesan cream, snuggled by foraged mushrooms and brilliantly green spring peas and asparagus. Other veggie-forward items include a duo of tarte flambee: potato and black truffle, and squash blossom and ricotta. The restaurant also serves fresh French bread, cheese and charcuterie plates, and lofty seafood towers.

“At Michele’s,” she says, “we have created not only a safe space for our diners but also all of our staff. We have adopted a more inclusive standard of service. We no longer serve all females first, and we have eliminated the need for gender pronouns when addressing tables. Being on the management side, I can create space for everyone to be comfortable.”

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