A celebrated chef, self-taught and unrelentingly entrepreneurial, Jamie Leeds has been cooking, creating and honing her craft all over the world for 30 years. But in the end, after wandering the world like her ancestors, where does Leeds feel as happy as a clam? Right here in DC, where she’s made a name for herself as founder of the riotously popular restaurant, Hank’s Oyster Bar—and has more projects in the works.
Though Leeds now sees DC as her, ahem, culinary oyster, she almost fell into cooking. Living in New York with some time on her hands, she started working at a local restaurant for extra cash. With these new kitchen skills and a healthy dash of luck, she ended up as a line cook at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café. Seeing Leeds’ potential, Meyer spirited her off to France, where she gained the ultimate classic French cooking experience. While today, local and organic are almost de rigueur, it wasn’t quite en vogue in the early ‘90s. In rural France, however, the garden herbs and country deer harvested that morning made it on the plate that evening.
She returned to the States, making her way to Chicago, Seattle and other cities as executive chef and restaurant consultant. Leeds began working for a famous restauranteur who had plans to develop 15 Ria in downtown DC, and came to Washington to lead its opening. She never looked back, making the city her new home.
“I was attracted to DC because of its intense local and international flavor. It’s almost like a mini New York, but a better lifestyle. I love the ethnic restaurants, the international spirit, that nature is so close, the JCC around the corner and that everything is so accessible.” What was lacking, she says, were some neighborhood hangouts. So exactly a decade ago, Leeds shelled out everything for her beloved adopted city and favorite cuisine and founded a locals-focused spot: Hank’s. It’s now one of the most famous and celebrated destinations in the city.
But who is Hank, you ask? Hank was Leeds’ father, a huge influence in her life both Jewishly and culinarily. The two of them would cook together for hours (before Friday night dinners, for example), using local ingredients whenever possible to best connect to the environment. He’d take her out to eat at select restaurants, teaching her the importance of service, sourcing and the meaning of a true good dining experience. For all of that, Leeds named one of dishes for her father, calling it the Salty Wolfe (Wolfe being his middle name).
Hank’s certainly evidences these critical features of quality and thoughtfulness. The food is highly seasonal and locally driven—and Leeds also makes sure to include plenty of shellfish-free items for the JCC pre-theater crowd. She works directly with farmers and purchases veggies from area markets, and even gets her eggs from a nearby egg-only farm.
Can Leeds continue to make her DC pearls shine even brighter? It’s looking likely. After receiving intense and heartfelt support for Hank’s (and its two additional locations—Capitol Hill and Old Town Alexandria), next up is another neighborhood joint, to be called The Twisted Horn and located in Petworth. It’s slated to open up later this month, and while it’ll have large capacity (including a spacious outdoor patio to catch summer sun, when it shows up again), it’ll really be a warm, comfy, relaxed place. “I always want to go into a neighborhood that has character and soul, not like downtown—and I love Petworth’s vibe.”
The Twisted Horn will poach Hank’s beverage director, who will serve craft cocktails alongside seasonal foods, bar bites and unique “micro-local” items crafted right in the neighborhood. “I’m going to focus on how every ingredient makes sense with each other, whether for dishes or for cocktails,” Leeds says. “And make sure that everyone from the community is welcome.” Surely Hank himself would approve.
Hank’s Oyster Bar, Dupont Circle, 202-462-4265, 1624 Q Street NW, Washington, DC, Monday and Tuesday 11:30 am–1 am, Wednesday–Friday 11:30 am–2 am, Saturday 11 am–2am, Sunday 11am–1 am. Not kosher.
Hank’s Oyster Bar, Capitol Hill, 202-733-1971, 633 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, DC, Monday–Wednesday 11:30 am–11 pm, Tuesday–Friday 11:30 am–12 am, Saturday 11 am–12 am, Sunday 11 am–11 pm. Not kosher.
Hank’s Oyster Bar, Old Town Alexandria, 703-739-4265,1026 King Street, Alexandria, VA, Monday–Friday 11:30 am–12 am, Saturday and Sunday 11 am–12 am. Not kosher.
The Twisted Horn DC, 819 Upshur St NW, Washington, DC, opening in December 2015. Not kosher.
Top photo: Hank’s Oyster Bar Capitol Hill (Photo by Daniel Swartz)