They arrived whenever they could on Saturday. Many had no reservations; they just wanted one last taste of roast chicken or the chance to say thank you. Some had no plans to stop at the Cleveland Park establishment until they heard the news: After the evening’s service, chef Frank Ruta was going to close down Palena, his much-lauded restaurant and cafe, because of mounting debts.
The announcement served as a beacon for Palena regulars, former employees, Cleveland Park neighbors, industry peers, hangers-on and just about anyone who felt some connection to the restaurant that held down a corner location in the neighborhood for 13 years. By 6:30 p.m., the bar at Palena Cafe was three deep; among the well-wishers was celebrity chef José Andrés, who had just arrived in Washington that morning from Los Angeles.
Andrés’s appearance enticed Ruta out of the kitchen, a pair of James Beard Award winners exchanging hugs over the premature death of one of the District’s most respected restaurants. Andrés had made a quick reservation when he learned the news, but once he arrived, he allowed other waiting diners to take over his four-top.
The Spanish chef said Palena had long been a favorite of his two oldest daughters when his family lived in the Chevy Chase neighborhood. “I don’t know if it was Carlota or Inés who’d say, ‘Daddy, can we go to Palena instead of your restaurant?’ ” Andrés said.
He was one of many chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and others who came to pay their respects. Mark Furstenberg (founder of Marvelous Market, Breadline and the upcoming Bread Furst), Ashok Bajaj (restaurateur behind Rasika, the Oval Room and many others) and Saied Azali (owner of Perry’s and Mintwood Place) all stopped by on Saturday, Ruta said. Ripple and Roofers Union owner Roger Marmet arrived early the same evening with a bottle of champagne for Ruta.
“I hope you celebrate all the good,” Marmet told his Cleveland Park peer.
Ruta was gracious to his supporters but was characteristically uncomfortable at being the center of attention. Then again, for Ruta, the reality of the closure hadn’t fully sunk in. The chef spent much of last week doing what he always does — running a restaurant — even though he’d learned on April 21 that he and his landlord, Federal Realty Investment Trust, could not broker a new deal to save Palena, which reportedly owed more than $125,000 in back rent. Ruta said he was open to any number of options, including downsizing to one side of the building.
“It just got to the point where whatever number they needed and whatever we felt we needed just couldn’t get together,” Ruta said. Federal Realty could not be reached for comment.
Palena’s financial woes are almost too complicated to unravel, Ruta said. The cafe portion of the business expanded into a former Magruder’s space in late 2010, but that was not by itself the root of the problem; Ruta said the expanded cafe performed well for a full year. But revenues declined in late 2012 and early 2013 before picking up again in the middle of last year. Among the factors: a lack of foot traffic in Cleveland Park (which caused the early death of Ruta’s lunch service), a lack of marketing and a lack of interest in fine dining in the neighborhood.
Palena is the fourth restaurant in Cleveland Park to call it quits, following Lavandou, Dino and Pulpo. “If you read the Cleveland Park listserv, people are in an all-out panic that Cleveland Park is dying,” said Marleen Welsh, a neighborhood resident who was waiting for a seat at the bar Saturday with her husband, Brant Shalikashvili.
Former Palena employees didn’t wait until the last hour to toast their old boss. Despite Ruta’s attempts to keep the closing under wraps until Friday, when he released an announcement, Palena alumni and other insiders surprised the chef by filling his restaurant on Thursday night. The returning staff included chefs, bartenders and others who have become fixtures on the D.C. hospitality scene, including Derek Brown (owner of Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich and Southern Efficiency in Shaw), Julien Shapiro (chef at Brown’s restaurants) and Jonathan Copeland (chef at Ghibellina on 14th Street NW).
There were no big speeches, said Brown. It was just a chance to be “closer to Frank” before the crowds descended over the final weekend. “We’re the children that Frank spawned. We all learned from him,” Brown said. “He wasn’t easy on us all the time, but he was a great teacher and inspiration.”
Ruta’s cellphone and e-mail inbox were buzzing all weekend, he said, including a message or two from the White House, where he worked for more than a decade. Ruta hadn’t returned many messages yet. There would be time for that as he wrapped up operations and started to debate his own future. (He doesn’t have a clue yet but plans to remain in Washington.) There was one tribute, however, that he couldn’t ignore: As the final minutes passed, he walked into the bar area, where friends and regulars remained. He received a standing ovation.
“It was kind of nice, mostly embarrassing,” he said.