The 2019 America's Classics winner is a fixture of the Washington, D.C. LGBTQ community.
Although we often think of James Beard's elegant hors d'oeuvre, or his instrumental role in creating fine dining paragon the Four Seasons, our namesake was actually just as happy to eat a hamburger as he was blini with caviar. "I believe we have a rich and fascinating food heritage," he wrote, and it's with that reverence for the wide diversity of cuisines and influences that make up our country's culinary culture that the James Beard Foundation extends its annual America's Classics Awards. Each year since 1998 the James Beard Foundation Awards Committee has recognized our nation’s beloved regional restaurants. Distinguished by their timeless appeal, they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities. This year, a selection of our committee members are sharing the some of the personal, historical, and cultural touchstones that characterize this community gems. Below, David Hagedorn introduces Annie's Paramount Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., and explores how this family-run business has come to be an essential party of the city it calls home.
In a time where queer spaces are disappearing from American cities and the political climate is once again hostile to LBGTQ people, it is imperative that we recognize, support, and celebrate community anchors like Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse in Washington, D.C., which celebrated its 70th anniversary last year.
A friend of mine told me about Annie’s when I was attending Georgetown University in the late seventies. He said it was a gay restaurant on 17th Street in Dupont Circle, and as a naïve freshman, that part of town, only a mile away, might just as well have been another country.
One evening, we made the trek to Annie’s. It was a long, narrow space with low lighting. Most of the clientele were men, laughing, drinking, flirting; all of the staff were women. I felt like I had arrived in a place that was all mine, where the air was fresh and clear, even through a cumulus of cigarette smoke. It was freedom, the same feeling I would later experience when I stepped off the plane in Provincetown or the ferry in Fire Island for the first time. More than freedom, it was community.
George Katinas, a first-generation Greek American and U.S. Army veteran who fought in World War II, opened Paramount Steakhouse in 1948. It was a neighborhood joint and a family-oriented one: George’s sisters Annie and Sue worked behind the bar, and George cooked. (George’s son Paul is the current owner.)
Soon after Paramount opened, it gained a reputation as a safe place for gay men, many of whom worked for the government and risked losing their jobs and going to jail if their sexuality were discovered. In an oft-recounted story from the restaurant’s early days, Annie went up to two men holding hands under the table and told them they were welcome to hold hands above it.
In the early sixties, Annie’s name was added to Paramount and she became the face of the steakhouse. After the riots in 1968, when many businesses around 17th Street were destroyed, the gay community essentially rose from the ashes, claiming Dupont Circle as its neighborhood. In 1985, Annie’s moved up the street a block to its current location and Annie held court there until her death in 2013.
The clientele at Annie’s has long reflected the wide spectrum of diversity the LGBTQ community represents. People go to Annie’s to celebrate special occasions, hang out for brunch, and chow down at 4 A.M. after a night of partying. Annie’s is a mainstay of the annual Pride parade and a longtime supporter of the Gay Men’s Chorus. The restaurant underwent a renovation in 2008 to its current steakhouse look—lantern chandeliers, black banquettes, and a front room full of windows made for people watching on bustling 17th Street. The steaks are good, the burgers fat and juicy, and the clam strips are ever at-the-ready to act as conveyances for tartar and cocktail sauces. A standard cocktail at Annie’s is triple-size. In the day, they went through so many martinis and Manhattans that they batched them in recycled Sysco mayonnaise jugs.
More important than the fare at Annie’s is its significance to Washington’s gay history and its community. It is that feeling of community that earns Annie’s a spot among the America’s Classics and a permanent place in my heart.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine and Arlington Magazine, a Washington Post contributor and a cookbook writer for notable chefs.
Source, David Hagedorn for jamesbeard.org.