Mashama Bailey at The Grey
Photograph: Chia Chong

Destination-worthy restaurants where women run the show

Celebrate the women who own and operate these top-rated restaurants across the U.S.

Written by Maggie Hennessey in association with Venmo

Initially, I called on the women behind these seven extraordinary restaurants a little sheepishly. Do we really need one more tokenizing roundup of “badass” female restaurant owners and chefs, when many elbowed their way to the table with the sole aim of being judged on their abilities, without asterisks or qualifiers?

But as the conversations unfolded, I forgot about that and instead basked in the weight of their achievements—sometimes because or in spite of their gender, though just as often not. I saw the intentional and unforeseen ways being women—and mothers—informs running a business and impacts workplace culture. I absorbed the parallel journeys of Chicanas like Dominica Rice-Cisneros and Black women like Mashama Bailey to internalize the significance of their culinary heritages in an industry that long prized Eurocentric haute cuisine.

As Monteverde executive chef-owner Sarah Grueneberg mused: “For so long, [co-owner] Meg [Sahs] and I weren’t really shouting about being a women-run restaurant—we were fighting that ‘cute’ stigma and wanted to just be considered real business leaders and restaurateurs. But I’m so proud. I wouldn't be the same chef if I was male—how I cook and how I think about the history and heart of a dish.”

Many of these women arrived on the shoulders of women mentors before them, be they Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters or Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of London’s legendary River Cafe or the matriarchs of their home kitchens. Seeing someone like them calling the shots mattered as much then as now. Since a deadly pandemic laid bare the systemic cruelty of an industry that too often puts profits before people, it’s essential to champion those doing it the right way. So let’s celebrate these chefs, small business owners, mentors, activists and educators, who might not be so if they weren’t women, too.

Just don’t expect to see the word “badass” again.

Restaurants where women run the show

Name to know: Dominica Rice-Cisneros (chef-owner)

When Chez Panisse vet and Los Angeles native Dominica Rice-Cisneros first moved to San Francisco in 1993, she relished that women chef-owners—of seminal spots like Nancy Oakes’s Boulevard and the late Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Cafe—ruled the dining scene. After stints at Daniel in New York City and working for chef Antonio Rivera in Mexico City, this second-generation Mexican American returned to take up that baton in 2008, debuting Cosecha (meaning “harvest”) in the century-old Swan’s Market. Her mission? To reconnect Oakland to the Mexican and Indigenous cooking influences that form its bedrock, paying homage to the historically women-run mercados all over Mexico that hearken to her family origins in Chihuahua, Mexico. “I always knew I wanted to create a new dialogue for Mexican cooking,” Rice-Cisneros says. “California cooking and California cuisine is Mexican and Chicano culture.”

She prioritized hiring women from underserved neighborhoods, bringing younger generations together with older often mothers and grandmothers wielding decades of expertise cooking for large families. “In the Mexican-American community, we have women who are not classically trained chefs, but they work their whole lives inside and outside the home.” She designed the restaurant to showcase the tortilla-making station and fought doggedly to change their designation to the now-standard Tortilla Masters. In 2019, she was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef West.

Cosecha remains open for carryout but will close this spring as Rice-Cisneros readies her finer-dining sophomore restaurant, Bombera Bar & Grill for the end of April. Mentorship and tradition will factor heavily here, too, as the Tortilla Masters continue to pass on their expertise, while the front of house allows the next generation of Chicano maitre’ds and sommeliers to shine. “How many voices do we have that are Chicano somms, for example?” Rice-Cisneros says. “I want people to know their names.”

Name to know: Nina Compton (chef-owner)

St. Lucia-born Nina Compton’s childhood taste memories come alive with the Caribbean flavors she cooked with her grandmother, but her professional training—alongside Daniel Boulud (Daniel), Norman Van Aken (Norman’s) and Scott Conant (Scarpetta)—tastes of Italy and France. While competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef New Orleans,” she fell in love with the Crescent City and moved there to open award-winning Compère Lapin, where she weaves together her Caribbean roots with Creole cuisine and the Western European influences of her fine-dining pedigree. In 2018—the same year she won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South—Compton opened casual neighborhood counterpart Bywater American Bistro.

It didn’t dawn on her right away that at one point her entire team was made up of just women. “One day we had pre-shift and I looked around and it was all women,” she recalls. “It was a very proud moment that happened naturally and not forcing to make it happen.”

When COVID-19 struck, she embraced creativity, dreaming up unique ways to stay in business, from private dinners and pop-ups to guest chefs and “yes, even yurts,” she says. “It’s been a long game, mentally and emotionally tiring. But not giving up has kept me going, because I know on the other side of this, our industry will thrive and we can be prouder and stronger for persevering through all of this and preserving our businesses.”

Name to know: Danielle Leoni (executive chef-co-owner)

Danielle Leoni was a restaurant industry outsider when she and husband/rum savant Dwayne Allen opened the Breadfruit & Rum Bar, a modern Jamaican restaurant with a deep rum selection on a quiet street in downtown Phoenix, in 2008. A self-taught chef and former yoga instructor, Leoni worked every station until the Breadfruit became popular enough to add staff. Her own experience begot a culture of “nonjudgement, acceptance and respect,” and she built a menu championing sustainable, organically grown ingredients and zero-waste practices. When the pair temporarily closed due to COVID-19 and contemplated the restaurant’s survival, the reopening equation never added up.

“At the end of it, it didn’t matter how many new business plans we crafted,” says Leoni, a 2020 James Beard Award semi-finalist. “There was always one glaring variable in that equation, which is my staff’s health and wellbeing.”

That didn’t stop farmers from needing to move product, so Leoni started hosting pop-ups and special events, like partnering with Urban Farming Education and World Central Kitchen to feed families in need and people lining up at the polls. The Breadfruit will stay dark until the end of summer. Meanwhile, Leoni joined some 300 fellow Independent Restaurant Coalition advisors on a call with the Biden administration just before the House passed the $25 Billion Restaurant and Bar Grant Program.

“We still have a long way to go,” she says, “but the Biden Administration acknowledging the merit of our need by meeting with the IRC to discuss the principles of the Restaurants Act included in the American Rescue Plan makes me finally feel like this seemingly endless effort is making a difference.”

Names to know: Sarah Grueneberg (executive chef-owner), Meg Sahs (owner) and Bailey Sullivan (chef di cucina)

Pre-pandemic, this soulful pasta restaurant overflowed nightly with diners—a humming ecosystem around a centralized pastificio where chefs shape pastas by hand. Part of what drew James Beard Award-winning chef Sarah Grueneberg—whose illustrious resume includes climbing the ranks to Spiaggia executive chef and a stint on Bravo’s “Top Chef”—to Italian cooking was the matriarchal nature of home kitchens.

“Food and the family dining experience in Italy is still super strong,” she says. “We tried to cook in a way that makes people feel cared for, like you can forget everything going on outside.”

Since the pandemic halted plans for a second restaurant, the team leaned into take-and-bake pasta kits and hawking fresh pasta and curated sundries, finding success in suburban deliveries through DwellSocial. It’s also looking inward, to staff development.

“It’s hard getting crushed during service when the dining room is silent,” says chef di cucina Bailey Sullivan, who came for a paid stage in 2016 (like all employees get) and never left; mid-pandemic, Grueneberg promoted her from executive sous chef to CDC. “How do we keep the team inspired and give people that opportunity where they still feel like they’re growing?”

They empowered staff to take more responsibility and exercise creative agency over to-go menus as they look toward reopening. “Being a place people love working makes sure we have a strong core before we start approaching that next step again,” Sullivan says.

Name to know: Mashama Bailey (executive chef-partner)

As a child, Mashama Bailey moved between New York City and Georgia. The future James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast attended ICE and cooked all over New York City, including at Prune under mentor Gabrielle Hamilton, where she honed her technique. But her cooking identity and instincts were shaped in her home kitchen by her grandmothers, aunts and mom. In 2014 she and John O. Morisano opened The Grey—fittingly in an old, formerly segregated Greyhound bus depot—in Savannah, where she could celebrate the African-rooted Southern cooking that was historically minimized.

Bailey and Morisano hire women and people of color intentionally: “Having diversity in the space fully represents us both,” Bailey says. “The work environment we strive for is a communal one. We respect our team and work to keep lines of communication open for things like health and wellness.”

In 2018, the duo followed with the Grey Market—part bodega, part Southern lunch counter—a venture that proved prescient two years later when the pandemic shuttered dining rooms. While the restaurant was closed, they created weekly farm bags for their fellow Savannah hospitality colleagues. As they navigated outdoor and to-go before inching back into indoor dining early this year, Bailey and and Morisano co-wrote and published a memoir—Black, White, and the Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant—chronicling their upbringings and how they came to open the restaurant. This summer, they’ll head west, debuting the Diner Bar and The Grey Market in downtown Austin’s forthcoming Thompson Hotel.

Names to know: Holly Smith (executive chef-owner) and Lauren Thompson (chef de cuisine)

Holly Smith didn’t really notice that Cafe Juanita’s entire line comprised women cooks until diners started commenting a few years ago. “I hadn’t even thought about it; I was just so happy with this group of people,” laughs the 2020 James Beard Award semi-finalist. “But it’s good. You can only become what you see.”

Smith opened her modern fine-dining Northern Italian restaurant in 2000, working mostly with what the bountiful Pacific-Northwest provides, via hand-cut pappardelle with pastured Oregon lamb sugo and Alaskan king crab with green apple sorbetto and crab butter powder. Adamant about maintaining sole ownership, she bootstrapped and spent the early days cooking on the line with her son in a backpack.

Navigating two decades of ups and downs, and buying her building in 2014, helped her prepare financially and emotionally for COVID-19. The restaurant quickly pivoted to selling packaged sorbetto and frozen ravioli, fresh pastas and curated retail items—and has found surprising success with takeout. Smith, who stands firm on keeping indoor dining closed until her staff are vaccinated, estimates they’ll reopen in midsummer as a dine-in/carryout hybrid, in part—she quips—because she isn’t sure diners will easily give up their takeout doppio ravioli.

“We have a rapport and reputation with our guests of being very mindful of both our staff and our guests,” she says. “And because we were especially careful during the pandemic, there’s a good chance they’ll be quicker to come back because they trust us.”

Names to know: Clare de Boer (chef-owner), Jess Shadbolt (chef-owner), Annie Shi (owner-front of house manager) and Sade Zimmerman-Feeley (partner-chef de cuisine)

This SoHo restaurant catapulted to darling status soon after opening in 2016, thanks to its seductively simple, meticulous cooking that channels the European countryside. It’s fitting that chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer met at the River Cafe in London, founded by a pair of powerhouse women in Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray. Their first line cook hire, Sade Zimmerman-Feeley, was a college friend with no professional kitchen experience, whom they recently promoted to a partner and chef de cuisine. Building a strong team allowed the small restaurant to embrace flexibility and encourage multiple employees to take parental leave over the past five years.

“We always viewed [having a family] as a natural part of ownership,” says co-owner Annie Shi. “If you’re managing staff well, hopefully there are always people rising to the challenge, wanting to take more responsibility.”

Since COVID-19, the restaurant found multiple avenues for staying afloat, from slinging its famous panisse out of a walk-up window to establishing a monthly wine club and partnering with wineries on limited-run products. When New York City hastily reinstated new outdoor dining rules in June, de Boer was on maternity leave and Shadbolt was stuck in the UK, so Shi drew outdoor-dining schematics on the back of a cardboard box and ran around the neighborhood seeking a contractor. “Outdoor dining was our savior in the end,” she says, adding that it will remain a fixture. “It’s amazing; it’s altered the landscape of New York City dining.”

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