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Delectable debuts on the D.C. dining scene

Jose Andres triumphs, Mi Vida expands, and more

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The Square (1850 K St.) is D.C.’s newest food market.

This year is already turning out to be a dynamic one for dining and nightlife. The effects of the pandemic, inflation, and the supply chain are still being felt, but there is a sense of optimism with a host of new openings for the first half of the year. And this season, of course, is often defined by cherry blossoms. Peak bloom is predicted for March 22-25, and festival activities begin on March 18. Enjoy all the pink, and read on for some dining highlights for the first few months of 2023.

Bazaar

Jose Andres triumphantly returned to the Old Post Office building in a coup for the celebrity restaurateur. The building, which is now a Waldorf Astoria hotel, most recently housed a hotel run by the organization of a disgraced former president. Andres had his eyes on the space for two decades and was set to open a restaurant there, but refused because of the new owner. Bazaar, which opened in February, serves sophisticated Spanish cuisine. It has locations in Los Angeles and Miami, plating specialty dishes like Iberico ham with caviar.

Uncaged Mimosas

It’s all flowers and bubbles at Uncaged Mimosas in Truxton Circle, which opened in February. Here, brunch is served every day of the week. Chef Damian Brown pours 20-plus kinds of mimosas, with flights available, plus frozen daiquiris. Neon signs, fake flowers and vines, and lots of color gives it a permanent party vibe. Brunch dishes include chicken and waffles, salmon and grits, and red velvet pancakes.

Ambar

Ambar, one of the only all-you-can-eat dinner restaurants in the region, is opening its second spot in D.C. proper and third in the area. The new two-story restaurant, which opened March 6, sits in Shaw across from Dacha. Owner Ivan Iricanin brings in dishes from across the Balkans, like hearty country slow-cooked dishes from the interior, to seafood specialties from the Mediterranean. There are more than 60 bottles of wine from the Balkans, plus fruit-infused rakia, the popular Balkan spirit. Ambar offers unlimited prix-fixe brunch, lunch, and dinner menus, with optional drink pairings at brunch and dinner.

Owl Room

The U Street Corridor welcomes this new nightlife destination in the former Marvin space on March 10. Run by Marvin owner Eric Hilton and others, Owl Room has transformed the spot into more of a music and concert venue, with a dance floor and stage that will feature live music and DJ sets. The upstairs has a more relaxed patio for cocktails.

Mi Vida

Gay-owned KNEAD Hospitality + Design continues to expand its Mexican hit restaurant, Mi Vida, with a new outpost set to open in April in Penn Quarter. This will be the largest Mi Vida to date, boasting a huge 10,000-square-foot space. Design flourishes include the iconic tree of life that has been showcased at all three locations, as well as a new custom rope art installation by Mexican artisans.

Alfresco

On the southern end of Adams Morgan, Alfresco is a new “American tap and grill” restaurant from the owners of Lauriol Plaza, located just down 18th Street. The 300-plus seat restaurant is set to open in April. Its menu is a distinct departure from Lauriol’s Mexican food; this one serves sandwiches, pizza, pasta, salads, and steaks. True to its name, there is a central courtyard with a retractable pergola roof, as well as two other outdoor patio seating spaces.

Van Leeuwen

New York import Van Leeuwen Ice Cream and its super premium brand of dessert is opening three shops in the next few months: Union Market (418 Morse St. NE), Adams Morgan (2421 18th St. NW), and Georgetown (3245 Prospect St. NW). Founded in 2008 as a New York City ice cream truck, Van Leeuwen is known for both traditional and vegan ice creams. Unique flavors include mac ’n cheese and honeycomb. These are its first shops in D.C., though there are more than 20 across the country.

The Square

The Square (1850 K St.) will be D.C.’s newest food market, opening later this year. The Square is slated to open in 2023 within International Square, and will feature a collection of more than 15 artisanal food vendors, a full-service restaurant and bar, an expansive bar in the central atrium, and outdoor dining seating, plus retail. Richie Brandenburg and Rubén García co-founded The Square, both well-established chefs, bring globally inspired food to the expansive food hall.

Bunker

While not falling into the food sphere, the opening of Bunker has upended nightlife destinations for the LGBTQ community in D.C. Kinetic Productions owners Zach Renovatés and Jesus Quispe debuted the subterranean spot in late February, bringing in local and national DJs, dancers, drag queens, and entertainment. The bar/club is open Thursday-Sunday, playing different music genres each night.

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Dining

D.C. restaurants offer something for everyone this Valentine’s Day

From romantic prix-fixe options to a ‘single AF mixer’

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Try the 40-layer lasagne at L’Ardente. (Photo by Mike Fuentes Photography)

Whatever Valentine’s Day means to you, there are plenty of places around D.C. for an excellent prix-fixe dinner or raging party with pals/gals/side pieces. Below are just a few options for what’s available:

Couple Options

Hot new French restaurant L’Ardente and its infamous 40-layer lasagne is offering an extended Valentine’s Day dinner, from Friday, Feb. 10, through Tuesday, Feb. 14. Couples can choose from the regular menu or a five-course tasting menu ($250 for two), which includes passion fruit caviar martinis.

Sababa Cleveland Park will serve a four-course, prix-fixe menu for two on Feb. 14. The menu ($120 for two) includes beet hummus, heart of palm salad, and a date tahini tart (and lots of romance-themed puns).

Cafe Riggs, in the Riggs Hotel, is serving not just a dessert special, but also a hotel package. Hotel guests can enjoy a Valentine’s Brunch in Bed enhancement with the option to a build-your-own mimosa flight or coffee while enjoying a Petit Déjeuner (French continental breakfast) in your room. Reservations are available through OpenTable

Lyle’s, in the Lyle Hotel, will offer a prix-fixe dinner menu at $85 per person that will be available the weekend before and after Valentine’s Day as well as on the holiday. Reservations are available through OpenTable.

Ellington Park Bistro, in the St. Gregory Hotel, is offering a Valentine’s Day menu as well as the regular a la carte menu. The menu will highlight sweet flavors, and includes dishes such as Butternut Squash Soup, Sweet Shrimp Wontons, and Raspberry and White Chocolate. Reservations available through OpenTable.

The Fairmont Georgetown is offering a decadent Valentine’s Afternoon Tea on Feb. 11, 12, and 14 inside overlooking the courtyard, with petit fours, scones, and savory sandwiches like an oak-smoked cheddar and spiced pear chutney. Tea is served from 1-4 p.m. ($75 per person), with the option to add a glass of G.H. Mumm Champagne.

Nicoletta Italian Kitchen will host a Valentine’s Day Pizza Class on Feb. 11, teaching everyone to make their own heart-shaped pie, while enjoying arancini and wine. And for those looking for something a little less hands-on, Nicoletta will offer a special Valentine’s Day menu on Feb. 14, complete with heart-shaped pizzas (made by the chef this time), as well as three special dishes – a clam appetizer, calzone, and lobster raviolo.

Waldorf Astoria Washington DC in the storied and renamed Old Post Office has an old-school option to “pen letters of love over dinner to share with a special someone.” Valentine’s Day guests will all receive a custom piece of stationary at their time of seating in addition to a menu of inventive dishes with a selection of elevated ingredients. Reservations can be made on SevenRooms.

Immigrant Food+ is serving a three-course menu for two, with options for vegetarian and pescatarian guests. There’s also a featured wine list from all female growers/winemakers including a special Galentine’s Day Flight of a Brut, white, and red.

Non-Couple Options

Brookland’s Finest Bar & Kitchen will offer a special “Salty & Bitter” bar menu over Valentine’s Day weekend, complete with salty snacks and bitter beverages. Snacks include chicken fingers and pretzel bites with truffle oil; drinks include espresso martinis and black Manhattans.

El Techo is throwing a Broken Hearts Club this Valentine’s Day (2/14). The tropical oasis rooftop is “helping single guests nurse their wounds” with a free shot of tequila for everyone who goes by on Feb. 14. It’s also offering a Taco Tuesday deal, which features three tacos and choice of a margarita or beer for $22.

Washingtonians that find themselves ready to mingle this year can head to Fight Club’s Anti-Commitment Ball on Saturday, Feb. 11. The party, from 8 p.m.-1 a.m., will feature DJ Daniel Biltmore spinning live tunes, food/drink specials, and Jell-O shots. Tickets not required. Food and drink items available a la carte.

The National Union Building at 918 F St. is bringing out its “certified fun sommelier” for a wine tasting event. Two sessions (Feb. 12 and Feb 13, both 6:30 p.m.) offer six wines, from fizzy to deep, dark red. Bottles will be available for purchase to take home. Tickets are $35-$45 through Eventbrite.

NoMa’s WunderGarten is hosting a “Nice Try Cupid Anti-Valentine’s Day Single AF Mixer” on Feb. 14, 7-11 p.m. Tickets are free but reservations recommended via Eventbrite.

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Dining

Meet the non-binary star of Dan Levy’s ‘The Big Brunch’

Catie Randazzo inspiring others to speak out, be themselves

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Catie Randazzo starred in ‘The Big Brunch’ and now works in LA. (Photo by Elise_Freimuth)

Just as a meal is more than a sum of its ingredients, restaurants are more than just furniture, fire, and food.

For Catie Randazzo, working in restaurants was “the first place that I felt I could be my true authentic queer self. Randazzo, who uses they/them pronouns, went from staffing the local Dairy Queen in Columbus, Ohio at 16 to starring in HBO’s recent “The Big Brunch,” hosted by Dan Levy (it aired in November). Randazzo, who now calls Los Angeles home, has taken the spotlight in stride: a chef, leader, and role model in equal parts.

Randazzo, who began in the service industry in several chain restaurants, says that “growing up in a Pentecostal household, it’s where I finally felt free. The chains provided consistency, efficiency, and the meaning of a restaurant family.” After graduating from culinary school, they worked in Portland and New York City before returning home to Columbus to open their own food truck.

“I moved home in 2013 to open my first solo venture, a food truck called Challah! that did riffs on classic Jewish street food. I fell in love with Jewish food and culture while living in New York,” they say. “I wanted to celebrate it. It is still an influence in my cooking today, and it always will be. It’s kind of funny though, former Pentecostal, a queer kid, does Jewish food, but it works.”

Randazzo then opened and gained acclaim for their first brick and mortar restaurant, Ambrose and Eve, a modern American restaurant. It closed in 2020 due to complications from the pandemic. Yet it was there at Ambrose and Eve that Randazzo earned the titles Best Chef 2019 and 2020 from The Columbus Underground, Best New Restaurant 2019 from Columbus Monthly, and recognition from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Randazzo was being seen for cooking prowess, and leadership outside the kitchen.

“Ambrose was magical. I was able to create a safe space for my staff, where they could be themselves, and insert their ideas to grow as bartenders, cooks, and servers,” Randazzo notes.

As the pandemic shuttered restaurants everywhere in 2020, Catie became a trusted fixture in Columbus, lending support to local nonprofits including Star House, a drop-in center for displaced youth; and helped establish Service!, alongside other local chefs focused on feeding and supporting service industry staff. Randazzo also volunteered mentoring queer children who wanted to become chefs, and at youth drop-in shelters. 

When a friend sent Randazzo a note about applying for “The Big Brunch,” “I was still mentally recovering from the loss of my restaurant. But the more I read about the premise of the show, the more I thought I should apply. I also had only been out as non-binary for a few months and was nervous to put myself out there like that. Also, it’s Dan Fucking Levy. Like, come on.”

On “The Big Brunch,” 10 chefs from diverse backgrounds fought to win $300,000 from the judges: Levy, chef Sohla El-Waylly and restaurateur Will Guidara. Through the show, Randazzo dug deep, and made major life changes – moving to Los Angeles and taking up the mantle as executive chef of Huckleberry Bakery & Café in Santa Monica.

“That show, my castmates, the whole experience changed my life. I feel confident again. I got sober. I found a new version of myself that I am in love with. I met a girl. I moved to LA. I got a fucking kick-ass job doing what I love. I had been lost for so long, and it feels like I am home. I hope that through the show, people can hear my story, and it may help and guide them to stand up, speak out, and be themselves.”

Today in LA, diners at Huckleberry can get a taste of how Randazzo sparkled in The Big Brunch – their signature approach to unique, seasonally inspired food, and their penchant for telling stories through nostalgia. A couple dish highlights: a veggie quiche from the farmer’s market, and cereal milk pancakes inspired by weekend breakfasts made by their father. 

Randazzo promises to continue their trajectory. “I think my work supports the need for queer safe spaces just by being visible. Sometimes, just having someone see you can make all the difference.”

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Dining

5 of the biggest stories in the 2022 D.C. food and drink scene

Liquor license drama, Ukrainian fundraisers, and more

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Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel of As You Are.

Has dining in D.C. returned? The city has seen a wildly dynamic year, punctured by several high-profile restaurant closings, but buoyed by exciting new openings. In no particular order of importance, and in a highly subjective list, these are five of the biggest stories in the DC food and drink scene for the Blade community.

The As You Are Bar Saga

The opening of As You Are Bar was a long time coming. Started virtually in 2019, AYA (as it’s informally known) finally opened its doors to the public in early 2022. Owners Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike, a duo with more than two decades of combined service in the industry, were highly intentional in building a space that serves D.C.’s LGBTQ community – and every part of that community. As You Are exists to hold and cultivate a safe and celebratory space for the LGBTQ community, they say. Café by day, bar and dance lounge by night, As You Are welcomes everyone. Its food offerings mirror that mantra too: It has plenty of vegan and vegetarian options at lunch and dinner, and lots of non-alcoholic drinks at the bar.

But opening was not easy. AYA, which initially applied for its liquor license in November 2021, couldn’t open for several months, facing both construction delays and fierce resistance from some neighbors and the local ANC, concerned about noise and trash. Undeterred, the two mounted a support campaign with friends and other neighbors, and today has become a mainstay in its neighborhood that once held several LGBTQ bars. Today, AYA is the only one. It counts Pete and Chasten Buttigieg as customers (they also live nearby). Last month, the Human Rights Campaign awarded As You Are a $10,000 grant from its “Queer to Stay” small business campaign. AYA’s impact as a bar with a mission is here to stay.

Peruvian in Blagden Alley

Blagden Alley has been a hotbed of innovative cuisine, and the new Causa is no exception. Chef, co-owner, and Peruvian native opened his two-part, bi-level restaurant in Blagden as an ode to his home country. Service Bar’s Glendon Hartley and Chad Spangler are also co-owners. Upstairs, dubbed Amazonia, is a casual, a la carte restaurant lush with greenery and calming, loungey atmosphere that opened in April. Downstairs is an airy, minimalist, set-menu space that opened in September. It has received local and national accolades: The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema placed Causa on his seven favorite restaurants list for November 2022, and Eater national named it as one of the country’s best new restaurants in 2022.

In just over 20 seats and across six courses, Causa plates a wide swath of the country, from the Pacific coast to the Andean highlands. The namesake dish (causa) features prominently, made from potatoes (native to the Andean region). In contrast to the formal, seafood-forward dinner downstairs, upstairs is a riot of color and sound, serving shareables and street food like friend plantains with hunks of pork. The massive pisco list is impressive, and the Pisco sours, among the many cocktails Hartley pours, are a frothy delight.

Enrique Limardo’s Growing Empire

Limardo has been bringing decadence to D.C.’s dining scene for years – and with the opening of Joy, his successes continue. Joy, in Chevy Chase, opened in October.  Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Chef Enrique Limardo came to D.C. after cooking in Baltimore to open Seven Reasons on 14th Street, which was named  #1 Best New Restaurant in America in Esquire’s November 2019 restaurant issue, and Washington D.C.’s #1 restaurant by Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema. He also runs the new Imperfecto, a Mediterranean-Latin blend, is the culinary director at Chick + Whiskey, and runs Immigrant Food, a fast-casual restaurant with a cause, dedicated to immigrants who have made and remade America and its food. Joy is a relaxed version of the upscale Seven Reasons, offering diners a more affordable taste of Limardo’s Latin creations. Limardo isn’t done: his restaurant group has other planned openings in 2023 and beyond.

Move Over Vodka Soda: Here’s the Espresso Martini

Beyond the supreme meme-ification of the infamous “Negroni sbagliato with Champagne in it,” the espresso martini has truly dominated the cocktail chatter. CNN named 2022 the Year of the Espresso Martini, and the drink has found its way into the top 10 most-ordered drinks list. It almost seems like a no-brainer: coffee plus liquor plus nostalgia, results in the most zeitgeisty of cocktails. A mix of vodka, coffee liqueur, and espresso (or some variation thereof), the espresso martini most commonly arrives in a martini glass, topped with a bit of froth and an espresso bean or two floating on top. Espresso martinis can now be found in can form, on brunch tables, ordered at last call, and with intriguing substitutions like whiskey or tequila for the vodka. Seven Reasons, mentioned above, even has its own riff with crème de cacao.

Dining for Ukraine

In a city as politically oriented as this, it is no surprise that its restaurant industry sprang into action to support Ukrainian causes after the Russian unprovoked invasion earlier this year. One of the biggest organizations was World Central Kitchen, from D.C.’s own Jose Andres. WCK started prepping meals for refugees in Poland within days, and still has an enormous operation inside and outside of Ukraine. D.C.-based Paola Velez set up the Bake for Ukraine campaign (she had also started Bakers Against Racism) to support WCK and other nonprofits. On Ukrainian Independence Day in August, restaurants and bars again showed up with classes and fundraisers. Dacha, a German beer garden run by Russian-Americans, held a huge fundraiser in April. Ted’s Bulletin crafted a pop-tart, bakeries made Ukrainian-flag cookies, cocktails got names like the Spicy Zelensky (at Tabla), and many more operations announced fundraisers and donations to benefit various Ukrainian causes. D Light Bakery, a Ukrainian café in Adams Morgan, received an outpouring of support. As the invasion creeps toward nearly a year, D.C. showed how it can stand in solidarity.

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