To judge by the conversations Saturday night, the closing of Palena was harder on the patrons than it was on the person who founded the Cleveland Park restaurant and cafe. Customers and industry colleagues were almost gnashing their teeth over the shuttering, while chef Frank Ruta remained calm and poised, as always.
A number of diners, chefs and Cleveland Park neighbors shared their thoughts about Palena and the former White House chef behind it, whether in person during the restaurant's final hours or via the phone (or even Facebook). Below is a sampling of their thoughts.
"Total class act. He spent a good 30 minutes talking to me. I spent another 30 talking to old regulars. Great but bittersweet. I was telling Frank how much I thought he influenced DC's culinary scene with all the chefs in place. He said, 'Maybe they picked up a thing or two from me, but I picked up as much from them.' Jesus, what an answer." — Jeff Faile, former Palena bartender and now beverage director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
“They cook it for like 40 minutes, and it’s the juiciest thing you’ve ever eaten.” — Ian Moss, Cleveland Park resident, on Palena's roast chicken.
“We've been to Chez Panisse, and [Alice Waters] had this fantastic chicken. . .[Ruta's] chicken is better than what we had at Chez Panisse. Just to let you know.” —Harry Mazur, a longtime diner at Palena.
“I literally called Phyllis Richman, and she said, ‘Hang up the phone,’ and the next call back in was Frank’s voice. I felt like there was a fairy godmother somewhere. To go from Carole Greenwood to Frank Ruta, it doesn’t get better than that.” — Eleanor Dunn, who helped launch the short-lived Greenwood restaurant in the space that Palena would take over.
"I always thought he was one of the most underrated chefs on the entire East Coast. I always thought he was a very big talent. . .I think he speaks through his dishes. I can’t wait for him to come back and open somewhere else.” — José Andrés, chef and restaurateur behind Jaleo, Oyamel and many others.
"He was one of the classic guys who was disciplined, only going to do things a certain way and that’s it. . .I've always admired his classic approach to everything and his meals were always fantastic." — Jeffrey Buben, chef and owner behind Vidalia, Bistro Bis and Woodward Table.
"I love the food. I didn’t even realize they were close to going [down]. I couldn’t believe that they would really close today when I read it yesterday." —Marleen Welsh, Cleveland Park resident.
"This is heartbreaking, and this is a lesson. This place is a lesson because [Ruta] had the complete respect of his peers. He had the love of his clients. He was always busy. The place was full. Everybody loved, admired and respected him. And yet. So what’s the lesson? At the end of the day, everything’s a business.” —Pierre-Antoine Rovani, French winemaker and a longtime patron of Palena.