Some spouses know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences. To them, we’d say stop that. If they think they’re so compatible, they should try running a restaurant together. According to U.S. census data from 2003 to 2010, an average of 50,000 restaurants close annually. Add to that the fact that an estimated 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce, and the odds seem stacked against married couples who own a food venture. Yet the following restaurateurs who are sweet on each other are thriving at it. As you make your Valentine’s Day plans, consider eating at one of these restaurants and spreading the love. XOXO. Photos by Kate Warren (For Express)
“After having a child and opening a restaurant, I think we worked out most of the issues.”
Radius Pizzeria in Mount Pleasant has changed ownership three times in the past seven years, though it seems to have found a forever home in the hands of Lenka and Matt Culbertson. And that’s not just because the couple, who married nine years ago, live in the same building as the neighborhood haunt. “Whenever our chef roasts garlic, I can smell it upstairs,” says Lenka, who hails from the Czech Republic and previously worked in accounting.
She and Matt (a self-taught chef and the former owner of Cowboy Cafe in Arlington) were longtime fans of Radius before they took ownership in August 2012. Rather than changing the concept, they increased portion sizes, trimmed prices and added doughnuts made from pizza dough. “We tried to take the best of the previous version and make it friendly for young professionals,” Lenka says.
Even still, Matt and Lenka’s most frequent customer is their 6-year-old daughter Sofia, whose artwork peppers the walls and who, on any given night, can be found playing with customers’ iPhones or chatting with them about cats. “After having a child and opening a restaurant, I think we worked out most of the issues,” Lenka says. Except maybe for one. “There’s a drink I made Matt put on our drink list. It’s called Czechmate, and people in Czech drink it like Coke,” Lenka says of the blend of red wine and soda. (Radius’ version is made from cherry wine, Coke and bourbon.) “Every time we go through a menu change he wants to take it off, and I’m like nope, you can’t do it.”
“Like marriage, running a restaurant is a constant effort and rewarding at the same time.”
Luckily for Kabir Amir, his wife of six years, Swati Bose, believes in second chances. “The first time I met Kabir, I didn’t like him very much,” Bose says with a laugh of the time he crashed her Fourth of July party in D.C. 12 years ago. The next night, the two found themselves at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and Bose learned what a stand-up guy Amir is. The two began a long-distance relationship while pursuing graduate degrees (he in business at Yale, she in law at Brooklyn Law School) before they got married and wistfully dreamed about one day opening a wine bar together.
Then life happened. “I got a little sick and realized I couldn’t work for a corporate law firm,” Bose says. “So we thought, let’s just do it now. Life is short.” Enter Flight Wine Bar, the 60-seat restaurant they opened in January with dishes from Graffiato alum Bradley Curtis and more than 70 selections of boutique wines.
With equal amounts passion and ambition, the two are navigating yet another chapter together. “Like marriage, running a restaurant is a constant effort and rewarding at the same time,” Bose says. “There are constant compromises, but at the end of every night it’s very rewarding.”
Both Amir and Bose admit they couldn’t have opened Flight without the other, especially because his business know-how perfectly complements her culinary knowledge. (Did we mention Bose also has a degree in hotel management from the French Culinary Institute?) Despite their accomplishments, they’re hesitant to call themselves a power couple. “We’re just common people trying to get along,” Amir says.
“At the end of the day, we are in love with each other, and that’s reflected in here and in our children.”
It’s hard to imagine, but when Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts opened Cork Wine Bar on 14th Street in 2008, the block was pretty sleepy. “Dogs by Day was next door, the pawn shop was here and the flower shop was here,” Pitts says. “There was not much else.” Taking a leap of faith, Gross left her career in policy (Pitts pulls double duty with a day job at the Service Employees International Union) to open the type of gathering place where they could see themselves meeting up with friends. Now, not a night goes by that the two don’t greet at least one of their regulars with a huge hug.
That’s not to say running the restaurant is like having pals over for a casual dinner party every night. “It’s a lot of work as a couple to run a business, let alone a restaurant,” Gross says. “But,” Pitts says, “at the end of the day, we are in love with each other, and that’s reflected in here and in our children. Our son’s middle name is Luca, which is the town in Tuscany where I told her I loved her for the first time.”
Pitts is full of bold moves: After spotting Gross at The Big Hunt in 1997 (the two met briefly through a mutual friend three years earlier), Pitts approached her and told her he’d like to kiss her, and that if she’d like to kiss him, he’d be “standing over there.” Again, the risk paid off: The two started dating and got married 10 years later. “Then we opened the restaurant in ’08,” Pitts says. “We opened [the market across the street] in ’09; we had a son in ’10; we bought a house in ’11; we gutted the house and rebuilt it in ’12; and we had another baby in ’13.” Here’s to a fruitful 2014.
“That was when I first thought this could be something for the long haul.”
It’s fitting that Che Ruddell-Tabisola, below left, and his husband of five years, Tadd, below right, started a food truck together, considering their initial meeting involved a car. “I was at a house party and before running out to make a beer run I asked if anyone wanted anything,” Che says. “A guy in a leather jacket said he needed a pack of smokes so he’d come with. He drove a Mustang so he offered to drive. He thought he was so cool.”
To his credit, Tadd did have some smooth moves. It was on their second date, when he shared a shoebox of family photographs with Che, that he really sealed the deal. “I was touched that I’d just met him and he was showing me pictures of his mom and dad and grandma,” Che says. “That was when I first thought this could be something for the long haul.” After a brief stint in Brussels (where Che earned a degree in international conflict analysis) and a six-month respite in Tampa, Fla., with Tadd’s grandfather (a restaurateur who taught him how to make a mean chicken pot pie), the two landed in D.C., where Che worked at the Human Rights Campaign and Tadd went to culinary school.
It’s been a wild ride since the two launched the BBQ Bus over 2½ years ago, but it’s the small victories that propel them forward: The duo just took home three blue ribbons during this year’s Meat Week, and they look back fondly at their first Yelp review from April 2011. “We’d probably slept six hours the entire weekend,” Che says. “We got our first Yelp review, and it was good. We sat on the curb crying because we’d worked so hard and somebody liked what we did,” Che says.