Kevin Lee photographed by Todd Franson at the Duplex Diner on Friday, September 9
''I was always shying away from the word 'change,''' says Kevin Lee regarding his philosophy as the new owner of the 18th & U Duplex Diner.
A bartender and server at the venerable Adams Morgan institution for nine years, Lee probably couldn't have changed much if he had wanted to. In recent months, he relates, ''I'm not kidding when I tell you I received 100-plus emails, good and bad [from customers].''
Don't get rid of the meatloaf, the customers demanded. Or the burger. Or the broccolini salad. Do something about crowd flow. And for god's sake, ''Don't touch the Madonna bathroom! Don't do anything with it.''
Kevin Lee at Duplex Diner
Lee laughs about ''the holy shrine'' to the gay icon, and reassures that he only plans to make one change to it, a ''sort-of silly but really fun addition.'' It will be revealed this Saturday, Sept. 17, during the Duplex's Grand Opening Party, with DJ Shea Van Horn. The venue has been in a ''soft opening'' mode for the past month.
The Duplex Diner has been a fixture in D.C.'s gay nightlife for 13 years. Eric Hirshfield opened it in 1998 -- or a couple years after Lee, a Miami native, had moved to D.C. on the advice of his gay brother. A German Literature major at the University of Michigan, Lee ended up getting a Master's in international relations and economics from SAIS. But Lee started bartending part-time at Duplex, and then -- of all things -- he started landscaping after a couple diner regulars recruited him for work. To this day Lee still owns a landscaping company with his domestic partner, Holger -- and he has yet to work in the international realm. ''Life can lead you in funny directions,'' he marvels.
''Initially when I asked Eric [if he'd sell],'' says Lee, ''it was fantasy on my part and a little out of the blue for him.'' But Hirshfield, once a civil engineer, was ready. ''Eric has been incredibly helpful and supportive, one of our biggest cheerleaders through the process,'' says Lee. By ''our,'' Lee means he and Holger, who he says is more of a ''silent partner'' in the restaurant.
Lee notes that pretty much the whole staff has stayed on during the switch. And why not? He's worked with most employees for five-plus years. ''We're like a family,'' he says.
And the family that eats together... Lee has kept all of the popular items on the menu, and only added new options with a focus on ''fresh'' ingredients -- ''We have very few frozen products,'' he notes, other than the obvious Tater Tots and French fries. He also dropped the tuna and swordfish dishes in favor of more ''sustainable'' fish options, including trout and wild salmon. And he added a few Southern touches -- fried-green tomatoes, shrimp and grits -- in part a reflection of new chef Mark Mulvey, who previously worked in Charleston, S.C. The restaurant will also start serving Sunday brunch next month.
''People come here for comfort food and drinks,'' notes Lee. And that won't change. The bar now serves a whole host of ''squeezes,'' or vodka drinks with fresh citrus, from oranges to limes. ''The Lemon Squeeze has taken on a life of its own,'' Lee laughs, referring to the bar's longstanding popular drink.
''It's a really special environment here,'' he says. ''There were just a few things that needed to be addressed, to make the experience better.''
The Grand Opening Party with DJ Shea Van Horn is this Saturday, Sept. 17, starting at 9 p.m., at the 18th & U Duplex Diner, at 2004 18th St. NW . Call 202-265-9599 or visit duplexdiner.com.