Young restaurateur navigates the new worlds of Washington

He is in charge of one of the hottest restaurants in one of the hippest parts of the city. Yet there he was, minutes before opening on this Tuesday afternoon, crouching under a porcelain sink and counting rolls of toilet paper.

“One. Two. Three. Okay,” Ralph Lee uttered to himself. He walked into the other unisex restroom and crouched down again. “One. Two. Three. Okay.”

Evenly distributed toilet paper matters at Ghibellina. Everything matters. The food scene is so new and so competitive along the 14th Street corridor ; who knew what could mean the difference between success and failure? What Lee did know, better than most people his age, was how unforgiving and forgetful this city can be.

“I want this place to still be here in 20 years,” Lee, 31, liked to say. Not like his father’s childhood home in Shaw, replaced by a parking lot. Not like his mother’s friends, who left the city when property taxes surged after the influx of affluent young adults.

Lee didn’t begrudge these newcomers. He couldn’t. They were the ones keeping him in business.

“You own this restaurant? You’re not even Italian,” diners sometimes ask him, staring at his dark brown skin and stocky frame. He responds with something arguably just as exotic.

“Nah, I’m from Southeast D.C.”

An actual young, native Washingtonian — in these parts. The increasing number of transplants, particularly along 14th Street NW, has made him a bit of rarity. Now, the latest census data show that more than two-thirds of city residents between 25 and 34 arrived here from somewhere else.

As a third-generation Washingtonian, Lee carries the history of a city that young newcomers don’t fully understand. But, as a co-owner of Ghibellina, Lee is a part of a food movement that couldn’t exist without them.


At Ghibellina, Ralph Lee checks on customers at the start of happy hour. Lee, 31, is co-owner of Acqua Al 2 on Capitol Hill and Ghibellina on 14th St. NW. (Andre Chung/The Washington Post)

He listens as earlier generations of Washingtonians — including his own parents — talk about losing a sense of ownership in “the Chocolate City.” It’s a different Washington now, a whiter and more transient one, and they worry that its rich history will not be preserved.

Lee is a man in the middle, with no choice but to reconcile the two Washingtons, old and new.

Old Washington couldn’t have supported a career path like his: After graduating from James Madison University, Lee left the city in 2005 to help his best friend manage an American-style diner in Italy. Ari Gejdenson was considering expanding his brand throughout Europe when his mother suggested that they take a different path. Something exciting was happening back home.

Still, no one could have predicted this. At least 25 restaurants along 14th Street have opened in the past year, adding to the palette of foodie options Lee passed on his 31 / 2 -block walk to work on a recent afternoon. At B Too, off 14th and N, workers had set out tables for sidewalk dining. Ristorante Posto, a block away, looked ready for business.

Lee wasn’t pleased when he got to his restaurant.

“Smudges on the front door,” he said, shaking his head as he walked inside. “And the front light isn’t turned on. Come on, it’s 4:30.”

In a quiet but firm voice, he chided one of his managers.

“If we want to stay, we have to be on point,” he said. “It matters.”

Industrial decor surrounded them. Exposed brick. High ceilings. Dim lighting. In the open kitchen, the chefs could be seen preparing wood-fired pizza. The waitstaff was polishing wine glasses. A cool breeze wafted in through the large windows in the front of the restaurant.

In the restaurant’s first half-hour, about a dozen young women had settled on stools and were sipping Prosecco. Through the windows, a crane could be seen swinging, carrying another slab of something to forge the city’s emerging identity.

* * * *

Lee grew up navigating another version of Washington, one bifurcated by race and a river.

Since the third grade, his mother would drive him past the bombed-out storefronts of all-black Southeast, then to the tony homes in mostly white Upper Northwest, where he attended Sidwell Friends School.

Jeanarta McEachron, now 60, was a single mother working for the government and was pleased when her Brandye and young Ralphie received generous aid to attend. Still, she worried how her son would fare interacting with all those rich children.

“Don’t get lost,” she recalled telling him. Remember your history.

* * * *

His great-great-great-grandfather was born a slave and later, as a freedman, built a church in West Point, Miss., that still stands. Bobbie Chandler, Lee’s grandfather, moved to the District and in 1955 started a printing business on Georgia Avenue with his twin brother.

Bobbie Chandler and his wife, Doris, were the second black family on the block in 1964 when they moved into a brick house on Highwood Drive in the Hillcrest neighborhood. By the time his mother had divorced Lee’s dad and moved a few blocks away, Hillcrest had become an enclave for the black middle class.


Ralph Lee pays one of his regular visits to his mother, who still lives in the home he grew up in. (Andre Chung/The Washington Post)

His father, Ralph Lee Sr., told tales of riding bikes near the city’s first black luxury hotel and stocking shelves at a grocery store, which is now a coffee shop. The neighborhood had a vibrant spirit of black entre­pre­neur­ship that has faded in the city’s rush toward the new.

“People would always say, ‘Southeast? It’s so dangerous!’ ” Lee said of his time at Sidwell. “And I remember being confused. I was thinking Southeast was great.”

At Sidwell, Lee was gregarious, a soccer player and immensely popular. In fifth grade, Chelsea Clinton wrote in his yearbook, “You’re a hunk!” He’d get invited to parties and would dream of what it would be like to live in a neighborhood like Spring Valley.

“We’d go and party there, and the cops would never come,” Lee said.

Through soccer, he maintained his relationship with his best friend, Gejdenson. The son of former representative Sam Gejdenson, a Democrat from Connecticut, Ari lived on Capitol Hill.

Lee was a year out of college and teaching at a local charter school when Gejdenson called from Florence to say he needed help. Lee seized the chance. Most of his good friends had left for law school, business school or to work in New York. Who spent their young adulthood in the District?

* * * *

And then, Lee and Gejdenson decided to come back.

The restaurant was going well in Europe, but the growing affluence of young people gave rise to new opportunities back home. The millennials needed to be entertained; their source of entertainment was food.

What was this new place? It was 2007. Fancy cars in front of rowhouses that used to be crack dens.

White families moving back into Hillcrest. Was that a Target in Columbia Heights?

Gejdenson signed a lease on a vacant building in Capitol Hill. In 2010, the friends converted it into the restaurant Acqua Al 2. Then, upstairs, they opened Harold Black, a speakeasy named after Gejdenson’s grandfather.

The pair opened Ghibellina in May, named after the street they lived on in Florence.

In the new Washington, Lee is stopped and hugged and accosted: “Ralph! I love the restaurant!” “Ralph, how’s it going!” “Ralph, we can never get a table!”

In the changing landscape, he still tries to heed his mom’s advice: “Don’t get lost.”

On Friday afternoon, he zig-zags across the city. First to Sidwell with his mother, who still volunteers at fundraisers. To Capitol Hill, where he still does his dry cleaning. To a struggling neighborhood in Southeast, where he’s used the same barber for 13 years.


Ralph Lee gets his regular haircut from his longtime barber, Ramel Sheppard, at Like That 2 barbershop on Stanton Road. (Andre Chung/The Washington Post)

Ramel Sheppard was cutting someone else’s hair when Lee arrived for his appointment, so Lee stepped outside and waited. Across the street, four police officers gathered and walked toward a building.

“An eviction,” Lee guessed.

Inside the barbershop, customers peeked through the shop’s barred windows, wondering what would happen next.

Then, it was back to the apartment in Logan Circle that Lee shares with his pregnant wife, Jamie.

Then to work.

The sun sets. The crowd at Ghibellina swells. The servers pace with pizzas. Lee brings out a cake for someone’s birthday. And at the front facade, dozens of women have gathered again, sipping Prosecco. Two of them are explaining the city to a visitor from Chicago.

“In D.C., you get to watch this transition and you feel a little guilty, because you know that a lot of people are being pushed out,’’ Aakruti Shah, a 32-year-old lawyer, explained. “But at the same time, it’s like a guilty pleasure, because you’re getting nicer places and you’re seeing all of these new restaurants and buildings.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like being from here.”

Truth be told, Lee couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be from somewhere else. In this atmosphere, he has gained a new appreciation for the stories his father told him about his old neighborhood. Everything happened within five blocks of his restaurant.

“D.C. right now, it’s all about the new. You can’t change it, but you can live with it, become a part of it and embrace it,’’ he said. “I don’t know what the city will look like in 10 years. All I know is I still want to be here.”

See more from this collection: The New Washington

Millennials leaving their mark

What matters to Millennials?

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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