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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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Queer Wino’s William Ferguson on a mission to queer wine

Educational website elevates stories of LGBTQ figures in the industry

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William Ferguson elevates the stories of other LGBTQ people in the wine field.

William Ferguson likes talking about wine. His mission: queering wine. Ferguson, who uses he/they pronouns, runs Queer Wino, a wine sales and education website.

When Ferguson began in the industry, he stood in the face of discrimination for his sexuality and gender identity. In search of support and community, he set out to forge his own path of visibility and leadership for LGBTQ people in wine. He now holds a Level II certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), but formal certifications and education were only the beginning.

With Queer Wino, his aim is simple: to raise awareness of the unique issues LGBTQ people face in the wine industry and to raise their profile. When buying wine, he endeavors to focus on smaller producers, unknown regions, and wines made by anyone outside of cis, straight, white men.

Ferguson’s work is neither pedantic nor esoteric. Breaking down barriers, he focuses on presenting the idea of wine – buying, tasting, pairing – approachable and enjoyable. His Instagram and TikTok feeds are full of thoughtful, candid posts about wine.

“The idea that only red wine can age is false, however, the whole story is complicated. Before I explain, let’s set the record straight — or gayly aligned — and acknowledge that there are age-worthy white wines, rosés, and sparkling wines,” reads one.

In another, Ferguson is strolling down a street in a simple white T-shirt. He posts an image with text that reads, “Red wine is more complex than white wine.” In the caption he states, “Ummmm. No. Just no. It’s not true. Both can be equally complex or simple.”

“Wine and food is a great way to create a space for people to connect,” he notes. “When people share food and wine it increases their feeling of connection and community. I just want this to be available to everyone, not just an elite few. So, I think what we can learn is that the magic of food and wine doesn’t have to be only one type of experience,” but an experience for all, he says.

Ferguson’s most impactful work began in 2020, when he launched a series titled, “Pride in Wine,” which highlights LGBTQ “wine nerds and professionals.” Pride in Wine is a series of profiles of queer people involved in the wine industry. Thus far, the series has profiled wine educators, vineyard managers, wine label owners, and more. The series is available on his website.

Wine is his profession, but also his passion. He looks for inspiration from people “who love it, and take it seriously, but still have a sense of humor about it.” As for other wine inspiration, he looks to the likes of writer Jancis Robinson and the activism of Justin Trabue, Darwin Acosta, and Elaine Chukan Brown. 

“There are countless situations where I just can’t tell if someone is taking me seriously or not because of how they may be perceiving me. Then there’s job-based discrimination. In a way, you can’t win. If you’re closeted on the job to protect yourself and seem to avoid things, people will think you’re lying, and if you’re out they may just not hire you or fire you or discriminate. I’ve even had an employer say there was just something about me at some point before firing me. It just makes you think and wonder.   

“A big part of visibility and representation is getting more people to see who you are authentically while doing what you love,” he says. Whether that’s debunking wine myths on Instagram or highlighting and elevating the stories of other LGBTQ people in the wine field, Ferguson is ensuring that there will always be space for queers in wine.

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An expansive vision leads D.C.’s Elcielo to a Michelin star

A conversation with Pedro Mendoza, Colombian restaurant’s ambassador

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D.C.’s Elcielo was awarded a coveted Michelin star earlier this year. (Photo by @Fleetstreetwriteup Rachel Paraoan)

Behind the 22 courses of Elcielo, the Michelin-starred, transportive Colombian restaurant that anchors the far end of La Cosecha in Northeast is a jack-of-all-trades translator. He is Pedro Mendoza, officially the Corporate Communications Officer of the Elcielo group, but more of a charismatic conductor, ensuring that the restaurant hits all the right notes coming from the composer – JuanMa Barrientos, owner and head chef, with a dozen-plus restaurants and bars and a hotel.

 Colombian-born Mendoza, a gay man, has worked with the Elcielo group since 2016 across its restaurants (Bogota, Medellin, Miami, and DC). He has been based in the D.C. outpost since its opening in 2021. While he works front of house many evenings at Elcielo, his day is filled with public relations and operational work for the other Elcielo spots and JuanMa’s many other restaurants. He also works in outreach for the Elcielo Foundation, a nonprofit that supports victims of Colombia’s civil war violence.

Mendoza has a long history in the culinary space. He has worked various events across Colombia, including the wine exposition Expovinos, the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival, and other performing arts, culture, and health fairs and festivals.

 Through his writings and work, Mendoza connected with Barrientos, who had by then established himself in the lofty Medellin food scene. He had founded Elcielo, a multi-sensory restaurant using modern, avant-garde techniques enmeshed with Colombian flavors and ingredients. Elcielo was what may have been the first fine-dining restaurant in Medellin, a tasting menu influenced by the country’s rich history but plated by JuanMa’s international vision. “It’s a fun luxury, not stuffy or rigid, it’s a fluid luxury,” says Mendoza. 

When he moved to Elcielo full time in 2016, Mendoza was focused on producing editorial content and promoting the brand. In 2019, he moved to D.C. to open this local project, acting as everything from designer to waiter to press officer. 

Mendoza also acts as ambassador of Colombia and Elcielo to D.C. and the world. “I am diplomatic and respectful, but also authentic and transparent,” he says. 

“As a gay man with 11 ethnic ancestors from four continents (my DNA test says so), I feel like a citizen of the world. My imprint is to do everything with passion and dedication.” 

Mendoza has seen plenty as an out Colombian who came of age during the terrors of its civil war. For that reason, working with the Foundation, which offers education and culinary training to wounded soldiers, ex-combatants, indigenous people, and other victims, is especially important.

“I love being a Colombian, succeeding in a market as demanding and cosmopolitan as D.C. is. Colombia is a special country whose inhabitants have suffered a lot from violence and the drug trade, which is a global problem, not just ours.” He is as proud of his Colombian heritage, of its bounty of fruits and vegetables and biodiversity, as he is of his personal life. “I was a flight attendant, I sang opera in a professional choir, I served in the army of my country. I don’t mind so much saying my sexual preference, because I think that belongs to people’s privacy; however, I don’t hide it, I show it with pride. If it is necessary to show myself as a 49-year-old gay man, I do.”

After just a year in business, Elcielo in D.C. was awarded with one Michelin star: the very first Colombian restaurant to attain this achievement. Earlier this year, the Elcielo outpost in Miami was also awarded one star, as part of the Michelin Guide’s first-ever selections for the Florida region. Michelin noted the expression of creativity and “serious culinary sorcery.” 

It’s JuanMa’s expansive vision, a reflection of Elcielo’ s name (meaning “sky” or “heaven” in Spanish), “so we try to ensure that everyone is treated with special care,” says Mendoza. This goes for the food, the customer, and the employee, Mendoza adds.

 “Elcielo is a very inclusive company,” says Mendoza. “I have had more diverse LGBTQ colleagues throughout the company: in administration, outreach, in the kitchen, and on the dining room floor, both in Colombia and in the U.S. I was able to start Elcielo DC from zero, and have now run communications and even visa logistics for other Colombian staff. This is an example of the company bringing opportunity to all types of people.” 

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Wharf celebrates fifth anniversary on Oct. 12

Live music, sidewalk sales, food, and drink on Southwest waterfront

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The Wharf in Southwest, home to Pride on the Pier in June, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Five years in, the sweeping Wharf is only growing. On Oct. 12, the city’s glittering renewal project that established the Southwest neighborhood as a waterfront destination, is celebrating a two-fold event: its fifth anniversary and the substantial near-completion of the entire development. With Phase 1 built out and Phase 2 tantalizingly close, this mile-long stretch along the Potomac River has come to life with restaurants, retailers, residences, hotels, shops, and businesses, surrounded by monumental views and a vibrant culture.

The celebration on Oct. 12 runs from 5-8 p.m., with activities, live music, sidewalk sales, outdoor vendors, and food and drink specials along the entire strip. Jarreau Williams will take the stage for live music on the Transit Pier floating stage, followed by The JoGo Project at 6:45 p.m. The event concludes with a fireworks finale just before 8 p.m. Meanwhile, an indoor ceremony kicks off at the new Pendry Hotel at 5:30 p.m., featuring remarks by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The Killers headline at The Anthem at 8 p.m. for that venue’s fifth anniversary show.

Phase 1 of The Wharf opened in 2017, with more than two million square feet of residences, offices, hotels, shops, restaurants, and a marina. It also featured intentional public areas, including parks, promenades, piers, and docks. Phase 1 also saw the establishment of a new water taxi system, the Southwest Neighborhood Shuttle, and a new bike lane. Some of the city’s most popular restaurants kicked off during Phase 1, like Del Mar, Grazie Grazie, ilili, Kaliwa, and Mi Vida.

Phase 2 will include a robust roster of chef-driven restaurant concepts, and 1.25 million square feet of development, including offices, hotels, restaurants, and shopping, in its own section of redeveloped waterfront. It will also include 225 boat slips and a 1.5-acre green space. New restaurants planned include:

• Flora Flora (655 Water St., S.W., 2nd Floor): Latin-influenced poolside restaurant combining the cuisines of Mexico, Peru, and Argentina.

• Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips (665 Wharf St., S.W.): Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay’s British-themed counter offering elevated fish & chips.

• Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen (652 Wharf St. SW): Ramsay’s surf-and-turf restaurant, which pays tribute to his hit “Hell’s Kitchen” TV show, with steak and seafood offerings, including its famous Beef Wellington and lobster risotto. Located in a two-story building directly on the water.

• Kinfolk Southern Kitchen (685 Wharf St., S.W.): Americana bourbon and barbecue restaurant featuring spirits and smoky flavors.

• Philippe by Philippe Chow (635 Wharf St.): Iconic New York City restaurant for almost two decades. Philippe Chow has become a staple with a world-renowned menu of Beijing-style dishes that has pioneered the way for elevated Chinese cuisine in the U.S.

• Slice of Match Box (664 Maine Ave SW): Wood-fired pizza eatery taking the best of regional brand Matchbox in a fast-casual setting with table service and a full bar.

At full build-out, the mixed-use neighborhood will feature more than 3.2 million square feet of development along a mile of Washington, stretching from the Municipal Fish Market at the north end to Fort McNair in the south. In total, the Wharf will have 300,000 square feet of retail space, featuring more than 85 restaurants and retail shops. And beyond the boats, there is also a free kayak and paddleboard launch.

This event kicks off The Wharf’s “Season of Celebration,” featuring nine months of community events and experiences commemorating the completion of The Wharf. This includes everything to a Dia de Los Muertos celebration, a holiday boat parade, Mardi Gras, and, of course, Pride on the Pier in June.

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