Chef Frank Ruta and pastry chef Ann Amernick took a risk when they opened Palena in 2000. Would a Modern American restaurant find success next door to an Exxon station in a Cleveland Park neighborhood seldom associated with first-rate restaurants? Would customers embrace a formal restaurant where slab bacon was a house specialty and desserts include salted caramels?
In the early years Ruta and Amernick did much to take the starch out of fine dining. Then, in 2003, they took the unusual step of converting Palena's front room into a no-reservations cafe, widening the audience for some of the area's most precise, most personal cooking. You could drop in for fried lemons and a house-made hot dog at the bar, order a dish or two from Ruta's pricier menu, or go all out in the more formal dining room. You didn't have to get dressed up; you didn't need to bring a pile of cash.
Ruta hasn't stopped taking risks. Lately he's been experimenting with Middle Eastern accents and wooing gastronomes to his cafe on slow Monday nights with luscious, affordably priced plates of veal tongue and testa. Since the cafe opened, many local restaurants--from old-guard bastions like Galileo to upstarts like Restaurant Eve--have found new customers and bigger success with Palena's high-brow-meets-low-key formula.
But give credit to Frank Ruta and Ann Amernick--they did it first. And they still do it best.