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D.C.’s restaurant scene bustling again

Western Market, range of new eateries arrive as COVID wanes

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(Image courtesy of Western Market)

From pandemic slumber to summer awakening: the D.C. dining scene is wasting no time in opening back up after restrictions were lifted in June. Make the best of eating and drinking inside or outside with a full plate of what’s to come in summer 2021. Check out all the openings and happenings in this list:

To take in the entire dining scene, take part in Metropolitan Washington Summer Restaurant Week, running Aug. 9-15. Unlike the previous restaurant week, this will return to a focus on on-premises dining, but keep the family-to-go dinner meals and cocktail pairings for those who still want the takeout or at-home experience.

In Barracks Row, Crazy Aunt Helen’s is a new spot from a veteran in the D.C. food industry. The all-day casual comfort food and diner-style spot is run by first-time owner and former marketing director of lesbian-owned Hank’s Oyster Bar, Shayne Mason. Images of icons like Jackie Kennedy line the wall, with dishes like fried chicken, house-cured pastrami Reubens, and mushroom “crab” cakes.

The Line Hotel closed two of its restaurants during the pandemic, but is now set to open No Goodbyes. It will serve Chesapeake-based dishes, with crab cakes as the star. Fried chicken and catfish will also be on the menu.

Replacing the B Too spot in the heart of 14th Street will be Maiz 64, an upscale Mexican spot to highlight small-batch mezcal. It is a “modern homage to authentic Mexican cuisine,” that uses local ingredients. Check out the ceviche raw bar, as well as the creative taco bar with creative options like charred broccoli mole and suckling pig with pork rinds and avocado.

On the wharf, the enormous Ilili brings elegant Mediterranean-Levantine cuisine to D.C. “with a New York attitude” as it is the second spot outside of its first Manhattan location. The chef tops labneh yogurt with Petrossian roe, and stuffs kibbeh with steak tartare. 

Just north of U Street, taking over the vacant former Quarter & Glory space, will be St. James. The owner and chef is Peter Prime, who currently runs Cane on H Street, N.E. (Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant). He is now overseeing this sister project with a much larger footprint. Named for a city in his home country of Trinidad, the restaurant brings flavors from across the Caribbean through Prime’s modern lens.

In Adams Morgan, a pop-up brings Bolivian cocktails and street food courtesy of Carla Sanchez and her brother. Called Casa Kantuta, the pop-up runs until Aug. 8 in the bottom level of the Spacycloud restaurant-shop. Bartender Luis Aliaga slings drinks using Andean ingredients and inspiration with fun names like the Angry Llama.

Just north in Adams Morgan is Shabu Plus. In the same building as Death Punch Bar and Shibuya, the same owners (Chef Darren Norris and wife Candice) bring a Japanese hot pot experience. Diners start with a choice of one of three broths, plus vegetables, and the order meats like wagyu and lobster tail by the ounce.

Over in Shaw, the former Bistro Bohem space is set to be refreshed as Quattro Osteria. The owners, originally from Naples, bring an Italian flair, with well-known and modern dishes and drinks.

In Foggy Bottom, a huge new marketplace called Western Market will open later in the fall. The 12,300-square-foot space will transform a historic market, originally built in 1802, into a hall with more than a dozen food and beverage vendors. Taste everything from lobster rolls to sushi to arepas, and even sub sandwiches from Shaw’s Capo Deli.

Chef Alfredo Solis already has three Mexican restaurants (Anafre, El Sol, Mezcalero). His next venture travels farther afield in the form of Mariscos 1133 on 11th Street. Mariscos 1133 celebrates the coastal cuisine of the entire continent of communities, with inspiration from California, Pero, Mexico, and beyond. Diners can expect dishes like Brazilian moqueca (fish stew), ceviches, and with a nod to the local, a spin on crab cakes. 

Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s latest opening is Mi Casa in Dupont Circle. Inspired by Chef Roberto Santibañez’s years living in Texas and his Mexican heritage, Mi Casa’s “border cuisine” concept aims to marry Mexican, TexMex, and the American Southwest. 

Hungry now? Get a taste of restaurants that opened during the spring:

Las Gemelas Cocina. This dual-concept restaurant in La Cosecha brings a casual taco bar as well as an upscale sit-down Mexican menu. It comes from the operators of Espita in Shaw. 

The Point. This enormous seafood restaurant anchors new development in Buzzard Point, near Audi Field. Crab doughnuts are the star, plus lots of fish and lobster rolls. It’s run by the owners of Ivy City Smokehouse and Tony & Joe’s.

Dauphine’s. This elegant homage to cuisine from New Orleans brings not only a raw bar (for seafood) but a boucherie, a whole-pig butcher style of service popular in Cajun cooking. Casual dishes like po’ boys are offered next to headcheese and caviar.

La Famosa. This Navy Yard spot channels Puerto Rico through a relaxed, waterside vibe and lots of fried plantains and rum.

Makan. This Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights narrows Southeast Asian dishes to hone in on this particular country. Taste the unripe mango salad, as well as the pandan leaf that appears in both drinks and dishes.

Caruso’s Grocery. This homey Italian spot by Matt Adler (from Osteria Morini) is set near the Potomac Avenue Metro. A deep wine list accompanies dishes like burrata, shrimp scampi, and chicken Parm.

Chicatana. This Mexican restaurant lands in an area of 14th Street of Columbia Heights with several other Mexican eateries nearby – but has a twist. It’s named for a type of ant used in traditional Oaxacan cuisine, tossing a couple tiny crunchy ants (similar to chapulines, or grasshopper) on anything from ceviche to cocktails. The menu, instead of focusing on tacos, offers a broad and modern take on Mexican food. 

Lupo Pizzeria. This 14th Street location comes from the same group as Lupo Verde. Lupo Pizzeria offers a menu of elevated Italian street food, Italian cocktails, and lots of bubbly. The signature from the chef is pizza made with handmade black squid-ink dough.

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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)

Shayne Mason’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, Mason, who identifies as gay, isn’t holding back.

“I LOVE PRIDE MONTH,” Mason 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 Shayne Mason’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, Mason 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 Mason has been waiting an entire year to showcase.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s “serves American comfort food with a southern slant,” explains Mason. 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.

Mason 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,” Mason says. 

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

Mason 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, overseen by chef Mykie Moll. Mason 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, Mason 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.

Mason 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.

Mason 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. Mason 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, Mason 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,” Mason says.

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

Shayne Mason (Photo courtesy of Mason)
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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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