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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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Dining

D.C.’s creative culinary scene thriving post-pandemic

The Wharf continues to expand and other highlights

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D.C. is getting plenty of new restaurants this fall.

Colorful foliage, colorful openings: While the dining industry has struggled under the weight of the pandemic, staffing shortages, supply chain crises, inflation, and a spate of closings over the summer, the spirit of colorful creativity in the District hasn’t slowed. This fall, we look forward to visiting brand-new ideas, creative concept changes, additional spots from beloved chefs, an ever-expanding Wharf, and more. Note that some of these restaurants have opened already, while others have planned opening dates through the rest of the year.

Bar Spero

From the owner of Georgetown’s tasting-menu Michelin-starred Reverie comes Bar Spero to the Capitol Crossing complex. Taking inspiration from San Sebastian, Spain, Bar Spero is named for its owner and chef Johnny Spero, with a dynamic energy, modern dishes, raw bar, and fiery grill that touches nearly all the dishes. Check out highlights like grilled imported Spanish turbot and lobster knuckle tossed right on the embers.

Butter Me Up

The little bakery that could is now opening its second brick-and-mortar shop just off 14th Street, N.W. The breakfast sandwich concept that began as a pop-up in May 2020 at HalfSmoke is now plating its celebrated breakfast sammies on toasted brioche butter rolls baked daily, as well as superfood bowls, toasts, and tots. On the liquid side, look to house-pressed juices, smoothies, and brunch cocktails.

Gordon Ramsay’s Fish & Chips and Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen

Michelin-starred and TV shouter Gordon Ramsay is anchoring himself twice over on the expanding Southwest Wharf with new locations of his Fish & Chips and Hell’s Kitchen chains. Fish & Chips is Ramsay’s take on the classic British pub grub, with cod dusted and deep-fried under a crust of custard powder batter. The massive 14,000-sqaure-foot Hell’s Kitchen, with three other U.S. locations, takes cues from Ramsay’s fiery TV show (and personality). The menu will include the British chef’s signatures like Beef Wellington, the “HELL’S KITCHEN Burger,” and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Don’t miss cocktails like the Notes from Gordon (gin, green tea, peach), complete with a message from Chef Ramsay himself.

Le Mont Royal

French disco is back with a vengeance and a Canadian accent in Adams Morgan. With “the idea of a French wine dance party” in mind, the bar will specialize in “juicy” natural wines, grower Champagnes, and funky cocktails. Look out for offbeat plates like poutine with elevated add-on options like truffle, and a foie gras-ice cream-stuffed twinkie. The first floor will feature velvet banquettes for lounge seating; upstairs will include touches like a pool table, large-group seating, and plenty of space for dancing to enjoy the house collection of soul, funk, and disco vinyls. 

Nama Ko

14th Street mainstay Tico has closed its doors after eight years, making way for a new concept by the same owner, Michael Schlow. Schlow also operates sushi restaurant Nama and Italian restaurant Alta Strada. Nama Ko opened this week and offers a large cellar of Japanese whiskeys and sakes, plus a raw bar, full entrees, and its spectacular sushi selection with items like foie gras and golden eye snapper.

Nick Stefanelli at The Morrow

NoMa’s sleek new hotel entrant, the Morrow, will house three dining options care of Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli, who runs tasting-menu Masseria in nearby Union Market. The ground-floor French-inspired Le Clou is a chic, brasserie-style restaurant (with an adjoining lobby cocktail bar), while the energetic rooftop bar, Upstairs at The Morrow, pours elegant cocktails and offers wide city views. The sophisticated Vesper lounge, with craft cocktails and live music, will open in the winter.

Philippe Chow

Celeb fave Philippe Chow drops down I-95 from Manhattan to another new spot on the Wharf for Chef Chow’s spin on fine-dining Chinese. Known for his modern and theatrical style, Chef Chow’s brings a menu of lavish, Beijing-style dishes like glazed spare ribs and tableside-carved Peking duck. The restaurant features sweeping waterfront views of the Potomac.

Tigerella at Western Market

The creators of celebrated Mt. Pleasant morning Mecca Elle have opened Tigerella in Foggy Bottom’s Western Market. This all-day locale begins with café-style coffee, toasts, and sandwiches, but the dining room adds shareable snacks, meat and cheeses, and Italian entrees. A happy hour will begin soon. Western Market will also soon welcome a fistful of new openings in the coming months, from Alitiko, a Greco-Middle Eastern concept, to ExPat, a sports betting bar, to Hippo Taco, an Asian-fusion concept.

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Dining

Mi Vida bringing customers together on 14th Street

Striking new location invites group-friendly grazing

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Mi Vida took over the massive former Matchbox pizza location on 14th Street. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

The striking new Mi Vida’s location in the heart of 14th Street, N.W., is no coincidence. Opened in early August, it’s an outgrowth of the gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design restaurant group’s wildly popular location on the Wharf. 

Mi Vida meets its customers where they are: on a bustling, pedestrian-friendly corridor where the soaring, three-story interior welcomes group-friendly “grazing” shareables, refined cocktail flights, and a mole as rich as the Oaxacan culinary culture that it draws from.

KNEAD founders and husbands, Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, explain that they feel fortunate to meld their brand into a vibrant neighborhood that is a melting pot of nightlife and residential communities. “We are bringing Mi Vida to the people,” says Berry.

As with the Wharf Mi Vida, the duo brought on Chef Roberto Santibañez, who is also gay. Here, he extends to the lively neighborhood crowd with no-fork-needed skewers of agave-marinated chicken and sea bass enlivened by earth pumpkin seed salsa macha.

While the core menu is similar, Santibañez puts the festive in the “fiesta de botanas” platter: a “very fun, more communal” option, he says, for sharing, tasting, and intimately connecting with the food. Each platter comes with a bounty of the resto’s most popular apps and snacks, from crab empanadas to skirt steak skewers, accompanied by piquant habanero and creamy avocado salsas.

Berry notes that they “spared no expense” reimagining the hundred-year-old building that once played host to billiards, bowling, live jazz, and most recently, a Matchbox pizza. An “old building with a new core,” he says, the historic façade got a glow-up too: splashed atop a pink background is a vibrant mural of riotous shapes and patterns, a nod to what a diner might expect inside. Soaring pink fin panels greet guests at the entrance, flying across the 10,000-square-foot space. A patio on T Street promises heat lamps for cooler months.

From the top of the menu to the bottom, Mi Vida offers a “dulce suenos” shareable dessert platter that includes items like an ice cream volcano and espresso flan.

Beverage director Darlin Kulla took the group assignment to heart. “We are launching our Vuelo a Mexico, a flight of four of our favorite cocktails for groups to share.” Included sips are drinks like El Suave, a take on a margarita shot through with ginger, and the Ponche de Lola, a drink with the same mango vodka base that Reginbogin fine-tunes at each of KNEAD’s restaurants, whether with gin (The Grill), bourbon (Succotash), or tequila (Mi Vida).

New to this location is a trio of increasingly specialized tequila flights. Several imported Mexican beers and more than 100 agave-based spirits (tequila and mezcal) round out the extensive spirits menu.

Breaking into the birria trend, Berry ensured that this popular dish appears across the menu. It’s available as a short rib entrée, or the spiced stewed meat can be tucked into a quesabirria (“my weakness,” says Berry) – a tortilla that’s stained ocher by being tossed in a spicy broth before being slapped on the griddle. Santibañez also draws from his Oaxacan roots for his mole negro that masterfully combines the seeds of several chilies toasted in a comal and ground into powder.

The KNEAD and Santibañez collab was a logical one: Berry and Santibañez first met while working at Rosa Mexicano almost a decade ago, and stayed in touch since. Santibañez came on to the KNEAD team to act as culinary director for the Wharf Mi Vida opening.

As an institution, KNEAD supports a host of LGBTQ causes, including sponsoring the Pride run this year and fundraising for the Trevor Project. “We do what makes sense to be part of the fabric of this community,” Berry says. “It’s important to plant our flag.” Santibañez added that when bringing on staff, the team is highly intentional. “Our staff is diverse and inclusive,” he says.

In Mexico, the phrase “mi vida” is also used as a term of endearment for close family and friends to signify love and care, which is how the owners and chef see each other, the neighborhood, and even the cuisine through Santibañez’s expression from his upbringing in Mexico City.

“14th Street is a special place. It’s the heart of the city, a gay-friendly neighborhood. We’ve always had our eye on this location. It was the right next step for our team,” says Berry. 

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Dining

Restaurants have history as places for protest

ShutDownDC solicits tips for whereabouts of anti-Roe justices

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Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the target of a recent protest at Morton’s Steakhouse. (Photo public domain)

Food is inherently political — including the spaces that serve them. Restaurants, as “third places” in the public arena (outside of home and work), are accessible and open, a convener of society. Politicians in D.C. have traditionally treated restaurants as a half-third space: a semi-private location outside of the office to conduct business, utilizing restaurants as an extension of their workspace. This public presence, however, implicitly invites the public in — and lawful protesters have taken note.

On July 6, the dimly lit downtown location of Morton’s The Steakhouse chain became a protest stakeout. According to media reports, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was having dinner at the steakhouse when protesters learned of his whereabouts, convening a small demonstration.

The gathering was put together by an organization called ShutDownDC, which has called for peaceful action against the justices who voted for the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade. Politico reported that Kavanaugh may not have even seen or heard the protests, but he did leave before dessert.

And while the Supreme Court did not release a statement, the restaurant’s management was perturbed. It sent a statement to a Politico reporter noting:

“Honorable Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and all of our other patrons at the restaurant were unduly harassed by unruly protestors while eating dinner at our Morton’s restaurant. Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner. There is a time and place for everything. Disturbing the dinner of all of our customers was an act of selfishness and void of decency.”

The response to Morton’s plea was swift and fierce. Commentators noted that protest is enshrined in the Constitution, while the right to eat dinner is not.

Notably, Morton’s The Steakhouse parent company is owned by billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who also owns the Houston Rockets. According to The Counter, Fertitta is one of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s biggest donors, providing more than $100,000 annually since 2015. His family has given several hundred thousand dollars of donations to other Republican politicians, including President Trump.

After this protest, ShutDownDC stated on Twitter that it will offer up to $250 to industry staff for tips of the whereabouts of justices who voted for Dobbs.

This incident, however, was not the first time that citizens have engaged restaurants as a space for protest. Restaurants, as these third spaces, have offered fertile ground for previous demonstrations – especially during the Trump administration.

Washingtonian noted that one of the most infamous was against former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at Mexican restaurant MXDC in 2018 during a controversy regarding DHS and treatment of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Several other expressions of peaceful demonstrations against Trump officials took place during the rest of his term in office. Restaurant owners themselves are not immune to taking political action – during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, many restaurants offered food and other support.

During the tumultuous conclusion to that presidency, restaurants also had to contend with the specter of aggressive action. In preparation for what would turn out to be the Jan. 6 insurrection, many restaurants and other businesses closed their doors and fortified their exterior walls. In comparison to the peaceful restaurant protests, the Jan. 6 actions turned violent, denying restaurants revenue – and leaving many fearing for their safety.

Kavanaugh, meanwhile, was safely ensconced in his steakhouse, without fear of violence. Groups like ShutDownDC will continue to “use strategic direct action to advance justice and hold officials accountable,” according to its website, supporting nonviolent action in public places.

Anthony Aligo, a gay man and owner of wine bar Barkada, noted that, “This isn’t anything new. We believe everyone should be treated with respect and believe in the constitutional right to exercise your first amendment rights.”

This most recent event reinforces that restaurants, especially those known to harbor power lunches, must contend with the possibility of this type of protest. And leaders, when they decide to go out in these public spaces, must be aware that the people they represent also can be present there as well.

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