Carlie Steiner will not reopen her cheerful Petworth restaurant, Pom Pom. It debuted in September after a flash overhaul from its former identity as Himitsu, which Steiner co-owned with Chef Kevin Tien. When Tien left to open Emilie’s on Capitol Hill, Steiner stayed on and made the restaurant her own. Her first move was hiring Chef Amanda Moll. Together they opened a restaurant that felt like a festive dinner party.
“The answer isn’t just COVID-19,” Steiner says. “It closed because restaurants don’t have a great chance of surviving anyway, so when you throw something like COVID-19 on top of a small-margin-based business, we’re not going to see a lot of people reopen.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser closed restaurants and bars down to on-premise dining on March 16. Almost three months later, food service establishments are creeping back into business during phase one of reopening, which allows for outdoor dining. In the interim, restaurants were forced to rely on take-out and delivery for revenue. Steiner elected not to do take-out. The Pom Pom kitchen is 500 square feet, and it would be impossible to have a team of cooks working while simultaneously practicing social distancing.
Steiner isn’t taking the closure personally. “I don’t feel extra sad it’s happening to me,” she says. “This is going to happen to a lot of people in a lot of restaurants. You’re going to see it from the fanciest restaurants and you’re going to see it at the mom-and-pop shops and the institutional restaurants.” Sushi Taro, for example, was among the first to announce it would not reopen as a dine-in restaurant. It’s been around for 34 years. Other closures include The Source, Montmartre,and Momofuku CCDC.
“You have to decide, what are you fighting for?” Steiner continues. “You have to consider how long can we survive without income?’ When you put those two things together, it was already going to be hard. The biggest reason we’re closing is the future. Even after reopening phases, there are still going to be so many people rightfully afraid to go out.”
What pains Steiner is losing the opportunity to hire and empower women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. It was part of her mission from the beginning. “To have a very badass female chef who happens to be a lesbian is cool for the LGBTQ community,” Steiner told City Paper last August. “We have this conversation of visibility. This allows young, queer folks to look up and see themselves in this position, and I think that’s huge.”
Moll and Steiner, who is also part of the LGBTQ community, collaborated on the food menu. Before Steiner focused on cocktails and wine, she went to culinary school. They rolled out playful dishes that drew influence from cuisines across the world. The raw hamachi with zhug (a verdant Yemeni hot sauce), pomegranate, preserved lemon, lebna, and za’atar was popular. So was the “Steak + Kisses” with raw wagyu beef, beet chimichurri, rose petals, and hazelnuts.
The restaurant got mixed reviews from Post critic Tom Sietsema. At first he penned praise: “Pom Pom is not Himitsu. It’s different, delicious—definitely marching to its own drummer.” But when it came time for a full review, Sietsema only left the newcomer two stars. “A handful of good dishes served by pleasant personalities might be sufficient lure for some customers. I’m hungry for more than that. Pom Pom, make me stop missing Himitsu.”
“I think that review was fair,” Steiner says. “I disagreed with a couple of facts. We weren’t ready. We were doing the best we could given the abrupt change. We had a lot of newness.”
While Pom Pom didn’t pivot to take-out, they did launch a wine pick-up and delivery service called Seco. Customers can select custom or curated collections of wine that suits their tastes. That service will live on. “I’m going to put some of my energy in to Seco and the rest of my energy into a healing stage,” Steiner says. Seco will be closed on Saturday so that the staff members running the Seco operation can attend the No Justice, No Peace march. Seco is donating to Color of Change throughout June.
Steiner isn’t looking to dive back into a new hospitality industry venture right away. She’s no longer involved with Dos Mamis across the street. She does have a couple asks for others in ownership positions in restaurants. “Employers need to put their employees before their customers. It’s always been my philosophy,” she says. “And hire more people of color.”