The restaurant business isn’t a cakewalk. It takes fortitude, courage, determination and a willingness to explore new territories if you want to succeed.
Ari Gejdenson, founder and president of Mindful Restaurant Group, is among DC’s most successful restaurateurs. His establishments include Acqua al 2, Ghibellina, Sotto, Denson Liquor Bar, Harold Black and Ivy City’s new trio: Ari’s Diner, La Puerta Verde and Dock FC. Ari’s pioneering spirit is a trait he inherited from his Jewish ancestors. His journey, and theirs, has not always been a straightforward path.
Ari’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors and his father, Sam Gejdenson, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany. They journeyed to the United States via a loan program financed by German-Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, who resettled Jewish immigrants in Connecticut farming communities. The family settled in Bozrah, Connecticut, where they established a thriving dairy farm. Their neighbors warmly welcomed the new arrivals, and Ari says their kindness resulted in his family, in turn, becoming active contributors to their eastern Connecticut community.
From Farm to Congress
Ari’s father, Sam, was raised on his parents’ farm and became active in local politics, a career that was initially spurred by a desire to advocate on behalf of farmers. Ultimately Sam was elected to serve in the US House of Representatives as Congressman for the 2nd District of Connecticut. During his 20-year tenure (1981-2001), Congressman Gejdenson was an outspoken advocate for human rights.
In the 2016 documentary Harvesting Stones: The Jewish Farmers of Eastern Connecticut, the former US congressman says of his upbringing: “Everybody I knew was a Jewish farmer!”
Ari’s journey to becoming a restaurateur began at an early age. Unlike his father’s rural childhood, Ari grew up in Northeast Washington, DC, not far from the US Capitol where his father worked. A talented soccer player, at age 16, Ari moved to Bolivia to play professional soccer. He then relocated to Chile and eventually to Florence, Italy. He missed American food and late-night dining, and as a 22-year-old soccer player and budding entrepreneur, he opened Ari’s Diner in Florence to fill the void.
Ari continued to forge new paths when he returned to DC at the age of 26. Acqua al 2 was a restaurant he enjoyed in Florence, and where he learned to cook under the tutelage of the restaurant’s owner. Ari purchased a fire-damaged building on 7th Street NE near Eastern Market. The market’s South Hall had also been devastated by fire, and at the time there weren’t many restaurants in that area. Ari renovated the building and opened an outpost of Acqua al 2 in 2010. The new restaurant helped to rebuild a sense of community on the block, which he describes as “a beautiful thing.”
He expanded his reach with the opening of Ghibellina on 14th Street in May 2013, just as that area was transforming into a popular restaurant destination. Ari continues to perpetuate his family’s pioneering tradition in one of his boldest moves yet. In late 2016, he opened the first of his three restaurants in Ivy City, once again steering his energy into an area just beginning to experience revitalization.
Mindful Restaurant Group’s restaurants are primarily Italian, with La Puerte Verde representing the first foray into Mexican cuisine. There are currently no Jewish influences on any of the menus. Ari says that matzah ball soup and latkes are possibilities for Ari’s Diner in the future. He acknowledges the importance of Jewish values in how he operates as a restaurateur. “Putting care into everything you do, and doing it with love, is definitely something that’s been passed down from my family,” says Ari. “We are a family of explorers, who understand the importance of helping take care of neighbors and having neighbors take care of you.”
With his forebears’ experiences guiding him, Ari Gejdenson has played a role in rejuvenating various communities in DC when they needed it most, laying the groundwork for future generations.