Unable to reach a deal with his landlord over back rent, James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Ruta announced Friday that he expects to close Palena, his venerable Cleveland Park restaurant and cafe, following service on Saturday night.
"It's all sad, embarrassing, and somewhat painful, as you can imagine," Ruta said in a Friday e-mail to Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan.
The announcement comes after several days of wild speculation and a short item from Washington City Paper's Jessica Sidman, who reported that Palena owed its landlord, Federal Realty Investment Trust, $125,779 in back rent as of Jan. 31. According to D.C. Superior Court records, Palena also owed Coastal Sunbelt Produce an unknown amount of money; the produce company had filed for collection.
"Federal and Palena were both working toward resolving the issues and, from my perspective, both sides truly wanted to get the deal done," Ruta's e-mail said. "In fact, up until the end of last week, we were still expecting that a deal was going to be made. Unfortunately, that just wasn't the case."
After serving as a White House chef for more than a decade, Ruta opened Palena in 2000 in the same space that once housed Greenwood, chef Carole Greenwood's eccentric restaurant at 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW. Ruta decided on the name Palena as an homage to grandparents' home town in Italy's Apennine Mountains. Expectations for Palena were high from the start.
"Palena should be required eating for anyone who aspires to cook in this city; already, veteran chefs are streaming in to weigh their work against Ruta's," Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote in his initial assessment on Dec. 31, 2000. "I bet they leave excited about their craft, or at least inspired to try something new back at their own stoves."
But no matter how many compliments or awards he received — culminating in 2007 when he shared the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic with R.J. Cooper, then at Vidalia — Ruta always remained the same. He preferred to keep a low profile, working long hours in the kitchen rather than hitting the celebrity chef circuit or even visiting guests in his own dining room. His shyness earned him a public scolding from Michel Richard, one of Washington most famous chefs, who apparently told Ruta, "You have to see people" in your restaurant.
If Ruta wasn't great at glad-handing, he was great in the kitchen at Palena. He produced a number of iconic D.C. dishes, including his truffled cheeseburger (which beat the competition in the Food section's cheap eats challenge between Washington and New York) and his roast chicken, a dish that was worth every second of its 40-minute preparation time.
“You know, we don’t need to have the good guys close, that’s for sure,” said Bob Kinkead, the veteran Washington restaurateur and James Beard Award winner. “It’s sad. It was an institution.”
It's not exactly clear what caused Palena's seemingly quick collapse, but when Ruta spoke to me last year, the chef indicated the restaurant's 2010 expansion from 60 to 200 seats "was a leap" that proved difficult to manage. He also indicated that his move to office, rather than kitchen, management had been a mistake, one that he had rectified. But it obviously wasn't enough to save the operation.
"While we are proud of the high degree of critical success Palena has achieved over the years, we take even greater joy in your patronage and that we have been able to share life’s special moments with you," Ruta wrote in a note for his customers to read. "Cooking is what I love, and hopefully I will find a way to serve you at another venue in the future."
According to Palena's statement, Ruta doesn't "rule out a return to the neighborhood."
The full text of the Palena announcement:
Palena to close its doors Saturday
Washington, DC (April 25, 2014) – After a very long and notable run in the Cleveland Park, the venerable Palena Restaurant anticipates this Saturday evening will be its last service. James Beard award winning Chef Frank Ruta opened Palena in 2000 to much fanfare and critical acclaim. The restaurant expanded and created a market concept for the vacated Magruder’s grocery next door in 2011, at which time it also relocated its more casual café. This year it added a coffee shop featuring its pastries. Not able to fully utilize and attain the benefits of the expansion space as intended, Palena and its Landlord, Federal Realty Trust, endeavored to reach an accord but were unable to come to terms, contributing to the decision to close.
The tight knit group of talented chefs, managers and servers that surround Ruta at Palena, and the many disciples of Chef Ruta cooking in kitchens throughout the region, celebrate their success, appreciate the devotion of their patrons and welcome the future. A note from Ruta to customers reads:
Palena will be closing its doors this weekend after 13 years. We have had a great run serving the Cleveland Park neighborhood and the Washington, DC area and are sincerely grateful to the many that have supported us.
While we are proud of the high degree of critical success Palena has achieved over the years, we take even greater joy in your patronage and that we have been able to share life’s special moments with you. Cooking is what I love, and hopefully I will find a way to serve you at another venue in the future.
I want to especially thank my remarkable and loyal staff who has given Palena its special ambiance, and my equally loyal pool of investors who have been steadfast through thick and thin. Without either, Palena could not have been possible.
And finally, a heartfelt “thank you” to all who have dined with us over the years.
Working with Federal Realty to facilitate a smooth transition, Chef Ruta doesn’t rule out a return to the neighborhood. Speaking from his kitchen in Cleveland Park, Ruta says, “I’m going to miss this place.”