One of the saddest restaurant closings in recent years took place over the weekend, with the shuttering of Palena Restaurant in Cleveland Park.
Palena had been decorated chef Frank Ruta's home base since 2000. Just as beloved was the restaurant's cafe, which put out more casual fare such as roast chicken and arguably the city's most praised burger. In 2010, the restaurant expanded into a neighboring retail space, where the former Magruder's grocery store used to be. In 2011, a larger version of the restaurant's cafe opened within the space. Last year, Palena added a coffee shop with pastries. Despite the growth, the restaurant was unable to keep up with its rent, and after owing more than $100,000, could not come to an agreement with landlord Federal Realty to avoid a closure. Several of the city's now-prominent chefs and sommeliers spent time working under Ruta.
For the last night of service, fans of the restaurant, Cleveland Park neighbors, chefs (including José Andrés) and media all gathered to try to get a last taste of Bouillabaisse or consomme. The restaurant passed out champagne and kept cooking as the evening went on.
Eater reached out to several of the city's industry workers and asked them to share their memories of the restaurant, and what it meant to them. Here's what they said (Eater will continue to update the post as we receive additional responses):
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"You know how sometimes you wonder if chefs and sommeliers really have a better palate than you? That somehow, despite the fact that they drink the same Barolo as you, supposedly redolent of the same red fruits and violets you'll taste, you're missing those deeper tones of freshly-picked spring violets with a slight hint of moss and sweet jasmine? Well, when it comes to Frank Ruta, he does have a better palate than you. He does taste those things.
Frank is not only an incredible chef but a whiz-taster whom I've never seen miss a blind-call on Italian wine (his specialty). So, when I worked at Palena as a bartender over a decade ago, and Frank gave me feedback on one of my drinks, I listened. Not just because he was my boss but because he was practically a super hero to me.
I remember the night when I made my first Sazerac. I had only heard of but never made this oddly-named New Orleans specialty. I couldn't even find Peychaud's Bitters in town. But I found a way and made it. Then I brought it to Frank. He noted how layered the drink was and said that it was something he could sip all night. I'll never forget that, because there were other voices telling me the drinks were too strong or people don't like whiskey (and, sadly, it was true then). But I trusted Frank. I trusted his palate. So, I never turned back." — cocktail expert Derek Brown, a Palena veteran
"Where to even begin about Palena? It was my first real venture into restaurants. I remember thinking, "I better start making solid drinks fast or people will really notice how bad they are next to this food!" One of the hardest decisions I ever made was leaving my job there and moving on. When I left, I told Frank there was a reason I'd look across the bar and see chef after chef after chef, they all wanted to see his food. They wanted to learn from it. How could you not want to? The man made burgers and chicken the things of legend! Once you moved past all that, you could see some of the best dishes in the city. His gnocchi and consomme were always my favorites. I guess all that aside, the real testimony to Frank and Palena was simply how it brought a community together. I knew I would see the same people there 3 or 4 times a week. Strangers would sit next to each other at the bar, and by the end of their meal would talk as if they had known each other for years. It usually started with a simple smile or laugh after their fist bite. That was the connection...the food. It was all it took. I could go on and on about Palena. DC is a lesser place for not having it any longer. The real solace is knowing whatever Frank decides to do next will be better than ever, and I'll do my best to be first in line. — Jeff Faile, Neighborhood Restaurant Group beverage director and Palena veteran
"For me, Palena was my favorite restaurant. A chef like Frank Ruta is a chef can let you feel the best of the product he uses. When I used to eat at Palena [I could] feel in the plate the respect and the knowledge of the product. In my memories, i have enjoyed many dishes from his fine dining to the cafe. My last meal there was recently in the dining room; the menu was just fantastic. For me, Frank Ruta is our future Paul Bocuse in the U.S.A." — Chef Claudio Pirollo, Et Voila!
"This was one of my 'go to' places after a long day at my own restaurant. I'd go for the martinis and stay for the conversation at the bar and to eat whatever looked great that day on the menu. The only place I ever ordered chicken in all of Washington DC was at Palena." — Zena Polin, The Daily Dish Restaurant & Catering Company
"Palena in Cleveland Park has been one of my long-standing favorites. Frank Ruta is a truly accomplished chef — formerly cooked in the White House during the Reagan-Bush years and winner of the 2007 Mid-Atlantic James Beard award. My wife and I have great memories of dining at Palena for important celebrations over the years, whether in the formal dining room or in the more casual Palena Cafe with our two sons." - David Guas, chef-owner, Bayou Bakery
"I have dined only once at Palena and thoroughly enjoyed an exceptional meal. Skills and restraint are the marks of a great chef. Palena was run by a great chef and leader." — Chef Christophe Poteaux at Bastille
"Palena has been one of my favorite restaurants in DC. I dont know Chef Ruta personally and I don't have any specific memories or stories to share, [but] personally, I love Palena because Frank is a chef's chef. He can take a very classic dish and approach it with honesty and then tweak it just enough to make it fresh and new and enlightening — nothing trendy and hackneyed. Every dish had integrity and was never overworked. He would stop at just the right place. It was often a tiny detailed addition or change, even a garnish, that would always surprise and delight me. After I'd go around and try all the hot spots in town, at the end of the day, I'd usually wish I had just gone to Palena instead. It's the first place I would take any guest and it was also one of the only restaurants in DC I used as a role model for Izakaya Seki. I am deeply mourning the loss of an institution but am hopeful that Chefs Ruta and Chin will be back in another incarnation." — Cizuka Seki, Izakaya Seki
"The closing of Palena is a great loss for the Cleveland Park neighborhood. I consider Frank Ruta to be a friend, and I wish him all the best with his next endeavor." - Ashok Bajaj, restaurateur
"Palena was in my regular rotation, and I will miss it for many reasons. There were so many favorites, if I had only known I would have been there in the end. Goodbye to the best roasted chicken I have ever had. Goodbye to the truffle burger, and fry plate. Palena is where my daughter would meet me to tell me all her news. If it was hard news she would order me a sidecar; if it was good news the cherry pie… If my prayers are answered, Ruta reopens something small, the way Palena was in the beginning when you could taste his genius in every bite. It was our special occasion restaurant for good news and bad, it is where my daughter and I gossiped and shared and ate together, many memories, her engagement, her wedding, pregnancy, that's all." — Lyn Heister, Sales and Local Marketing Manager for Cuba Libre
"Having been part of the neighborhood as a member of the team at Ripple, I was privileged to get to know the staff of Palena over the years. They were always a joy to have around and some of the best people we could have at the bar. When we would go over to see them, they greeted us with grace and some of the most welcoming service you could ask for. It is where I first met some people who I consider great friends in the industry. As for the food, it was always top notch and you could never go wrong, even if it was just for a quick burger at the bar. I will miss Palena and look forward to seeing the staff and Frank again soon in their next endeavors in the city." — Theo Rutherford, Whiskey Specialist for Jim Beam
"I have so many cherished memories from my time at Palena, but what sticks out in my mind right now is from before I even started working here. It was a Saturday afternoon that I came in for a second interview with Frank. I walked in, and no one was upstairs in the Cafe, so I went down to the kitchen. When I turned the corner, I saw Frank pulling a large pate en croute from the oven. It was absolutely gorgeous — the pastry was golden brown and shiny, with beautiful decorative leaves, swirls, and other details. I knew then that I wanted to work under Frank. Any chef who has such attention to detail, especially with something guests or many others would never see, has to be special. Frank calls it antiquated cookery, but in a world of immersion circulators and cvaps, I call it real cookery." — Aggie Chin, Palena pastry chef
"As a cook at Palena for six years over two different stints Frank has been a mentor, a friend and a hero of mine. The first six months of working at Palena the man taught me to cook by literally working alongside him every day. He cooked fish, I cooked meat. I stood like him. I held my spoon like him. I basted like him. If he said he was going to the window in two minutes with a plate, I better be there in two minutes. His fish couldn't sit...and therefore I learned to cook with speed and precision. I learned to communicate and I learned how to act like a professional.
And after a long day of service (mind you he was there much much earlier than me prepping and butchering), he would get his soapy water bucket and sponge and clean his station with that same precision and intensity. No short cuts. Me and the other line cooks would offer to clean his station and he would simply say, 'No thanks.'
This is how I learned. Not by him standing over me, but through osmosis. And for this I am eternally grateful.
On the other hand, his incredibly thoughtful, nuanced cuisine has ruined my ability to enjoy any other chestnut soup on the planet...or oxtail vaccinara, or consomme or spinach soup or rabbit pizzaiolo. So for that, I say thanks a lot, Frank." — Jonathan Copeland, executive chef at Ghibellina and former Palena cook
"Going to Palena with the winemaker of Ridge and turning him on to Dal Forno Romano Amarone. Drinking it with course after course of game and meats, all perfectly prepared. Anywhere else it would be a special night. At Palena, it was typical. I will miss in more ways than one… stopping off for a frittata at the coffee shop on my way into the restaurant." — Dean Gold, owner, Dino's Grotto and Palena's now-shuttered neighbor, Dino
"I remember hearing about Palena from my fellow line cooks when I was 18 and when I told them I'd never heard of the place, they were shocked! I felt embarrassed but eventually I made my way in to check it out. The first thing I tried was a bite of his chicken liver parfait. Perfect texture, not grey and ugly, smooth, rich, complex. Some of our servers used to call the stuff crack on bread it was so good. Of course the rest of the meal was just as excellent but it was that first bite that convinced me I had to get a job at Palena immediately.
Since working under Frank for the past three years, I can say I have been totally and completely spoiled. I got to eat and cook some of the most delicious things I will ever eat there. Perfectly braised meats, simple yet complex sauces, expertly crafted pastas, the best pizza in town; you name it we had it and it was always delicious.
The way Frank meticulously crafted his recipes was something admirable. I remember when he started talking about making bagels. He spent forever trying recipe after recipe, tweaking cook time, ratios, temperature, every possible variable until he was sure it was exactly what he wanted.
That is the Chef I will remember and miss very very much. He was in many ways a father figure to me and I'm sure many other cooks over the years. Regardless of what brought about Palena's closure, I will always be proud to say I worked for one of the nations best chefs and I'm confident that the light will shine again on Chef Ruta very soon." — Jon Pham, Palena sous chef until closing
Palena [Photo: Facebook]