By Philip Runco. Photos by Clarissa Villondo.
Drew McCormick has a question for her boss, the woman she calls Mama Ruth but the rest of us know as Ruth Gresser: “Do you want to talk about the roosters?”
Gresser, founder and owner of the venerable Pizzeria Paradiso restaurants, isn’t so sure.
“Do I want to talk about the roosters?” she volleys back playfully.
We need to talk about the roosters.
Fifteen years ago – or maybe it was closer to twenty, these things are hard to remember – someone at a Christmas party gave Gresser a ceramic jar featuring a rooster.
“I thought I was starting a cookie jar collection, but everyone else saw it as collecting roosters,” Gresser recalls, “so I now I collect roosters.”
If you’ve visited one of Pizzeria Paradiso’s four locations over the last decade, you’ve dined in the company of roosters. They sit on the ledge over the front door in Georgetown. They’re showcased in the paintings hanging around the Old Town spot. That original cookie jar greets you in Dupont, stuffed with candy.
And now there are an additional two – possibly four – painted on a wall in the basement of the M Street location, where McCormick and Gresser and I happen to be standing at the moment.
Since 2006, this subterranean space has been known as Birreria Paradiso. On Friday, after a month of reimagination and renovation, it will reopen as something new: Paradiso Game Room.
A week out, there are a few last-minute details to attend to – three additional arcade games are in transit, some familiar pizza art is waiting to be hung – but the transformation is essentially complete. Gone are the wooden benches that filled the room. Its dusty, old tap handles for Pliny the Elder, St. Bernardus, and the rest of the sacred cows have been unbolted from the ceiling beams and dispensed amongst staff. Some walls have been repainted vibrant chunks of burnt red and blue; another has been knocked down to make way for Skee-Ball tables – one of many games now occupying the room.
Oh, are there games. Shuffleboard. Big Buck Hunter. Darts. Golden Tee Golf. Classic arcade games. Fighting arcade games. A “Pirates of the Caribbean”-themed pinball machine.
The space maintains the warm, comfy feel that defines a Pizzeria Paradiso location, but it feels like a new bar. It’s being treated like one, too. There’s a separate entrance in the back. The hours of operation will stretch to 1:00 in the morning. The beer offerings have been streamlined to eight draft lines and a prominently displayed fridge filled with nearly 60 different canned options.
One beer that McCormick is especially excited to be carrying is Tipopils, Birrificio Italiano’s classic flagship and something that hasn’t been easy to find stateside for the past 22 years.
“It’s Tipopils,” the executive beer director says, setting one on the bar for me to ogle, “in a can.”
Like an elegant Italian pilsner in an aluminum receptacle, the fresh and the familiar of craft beer rub against each other within this 75-person-capacity space. After all, it’s a new bar with a somewhat retro concept.
And it’s housed within a local craft beer landmark.
For local beer drinkers of a certain age, Birreria Paradiso is discussed with reverence.
Opened in 2006, the space had been the vision of Thor Cheston, Pizzeria Paradiso’s first beer director. Craft beer was already a component of Pizzeria Paradiso’s identity when Cheston started working at the Georgetown location a few years earlier – it was Gresser’s decision to carry Chimay that first attracted him to the restaurant – but the Birreria would mark a significant escalation of that association.
Its creation is partly attributable to happenstance: Gresser simply didn’t know what to do with the basement dining room left behind by the building’s previous tenants.
“I said, ‘Well, if it was up to me, I would turn it into a beer bar,’” Cheston told me in 2016. “I had to convince Ruth, though. She was like, ‘Why are people going to spend more money for a wider variety of craft beer?’ My analogy was Bell & Evans Chicken: If people were going to pay more for organic chicken at Whole Foods, they’ll pay for a higher quality beer.”
Inspired by the intimate beer bars of Belgium, Birreria Paradiso was conceived as an approachable and friendly watering hole for craft beer drinkers old and new alike. It would handle and present its product with the utmost care, but it would do so without arrogance.
“I wanted to create my little version of Monk’s Café: just a wonderful, albeit small, temple to craft beer; something that celebrates its culture and creativity in a much more informative and careful way than others had done before,” says Cheston. “Georgetown can be a very difficult neighborhood to get in and out of, so it was a little bit of a destination within the city, but I think it had the appeal as a destination spot because it was, for a brief period, a pretty unique experience.”
Birreria Paradiso exposed countless patrons to the wonders of previously unattainable domestic and European craft beers. It inspired other restaurants to invest in their beer programs. In the case of Right Proper head brewer Nathan Zeender, it even set him on the road to brewing. It’s importance can not be overstated.
But what Cheston didn’t know was that his oasis was part of a much larger movement – one that would eclipse the importance of any one space.
“Rustico opened in Alexandria very soon after we did, and Meridian Pint wasn’t that far away, and before you knew it you had places like ChurchKey, and the Birreria lost its cache pretty quickly, which is to be expected, I guess,” he shares. “There was just so much growth that needed to happen in this city, and there was so much empty space and so much potential back in 2006. I would have been kidding myself to think that we would have been alone in the marketplace for very long.”
“This used to be the beer bar,” says McCormick. “People remember it in its heyday, but in the past few years it’s really just been overflow from the restaurant upstairs. We have regulars who have been coming here for ten years who didn’t even know this basement area existed.”
In other words, after almost a dozen years, the Birreria Paradiso was ripe for a makeover.
It’s a decision that sits bittersweetly with Cheston, but one that he understands.
“To be honest, I was hoping that it would be timeless,” he tells me. “I was hoping it would be like Toronado or Spuyten Duyvil – storied beer bars that were small and forever part of the bedrock of their home cities. Of course, the reality is that the team over there had a space that was underperforming, and they had to figure out how to turn it around. I’m not surprised that they came up with a fun and creative idea.”
In a sense, though, the Birreria lives on as an idea – one that couldn’t be contained to a basement. From Greg Jasgur to Josh Fernands to McCormick, Cheston’s successors have incorporated craft beer deeper and deeper into the ethos of the restaurant group, and in doing so, they made the physical space of the Birreria irrelevant.
“I’ve always thought of Paradiso as an integrated beer program,” McCormick notes. “I don’t have quite the same attachment to this place as a beer bar, other than the fact that I don’t want to lose what we’ve done and what we’ve built here.”
In the time since leaving Pizzeria Paradiso, Cheston went from buying beer to making beer as the co-founder of Right Proper. When the Paradiso Game Room opens on Friday, there will be a little of him there in the form of Raised by Wolves cans currently stocking the fridge.
“We worked hard to get those cans out there, so it’s really nice that they ended up there,” Cheston says of the recently packaged pale ale. “If I want them to be sold anywhere, it’s there. It holds a very special place in my heart.”
Ruth Gresser has never opened a bar, but she has the pedigree: Her grandfather used own a joint in Baltimore called the Zanzibar. Now, approaching Pizzeria Paradiso’s 27th anniversary, she’ll have the closest thing to one of her own.
“I think the biggest thing was envisioning this space, because it’s really very different than it was,” says Gresser, sitting at a high table with a thick scarf swirled high around her neck.
The concept for a game room initially came from Michael Solsberry, Pizzeria Paradiso’s director of human resources and finance, during a brainstorming session for how to reimagine the old Birreria.
“He was like, ‘I just like to play games. I like to go out and drink and play games, and there’s nothing like that around here,” the owner remembers. “There were a lot of people who were like, ‘That sounds like a great fit for the space. How do we make it happen? And what are the different elements that would make it a little more special? And how do we make it ours?'”
In addition to the livelier decor and a canny beer focus, one of the answers to those questions was making Paradiso Game Room an independent space with later hours and a separate entrance – previously used only by staff – that opens towards the parking lot behind the building. The plan will be to lure passers-by with sandwich board signs out front and to mitigate the current speakeasy vibe with a flag and some railing in the back.
The Paradiso Game Room will open in a different Georgetown landscape than the restaurant did 15 years ago. Back then, the neighborhood was in the midst of what would be a nearly 30-year moratorium on liquor licenses. Although repealed in 2016, that effort to curb the spread of bars and restaurants was arguably too successful: Essentially locked out the Georgetown, the city’s culinary and craft beer revolutions occurred elsewhere, zapping the neighborhood’s evening appeal with it.
“Georgetown has definitely changed in the direction of retail,” Gresser says. “There’s much more daytime and weekend stuff, and much less late-night options. There aren’t as many restaurant and bars as there used to be. That’s one of the reason we’re doing this. We were like, ‘The Rhino closed across the street. There’s no bar on this block.’ We’re hoping that this space will attract some folks later in the evening.”
McCormick says the frequency with which she’s seen staff playing video games during their breaks offers some early encouragement for the concept’s viability. Just don’t expect to find Gresser doling out flying dragon kicks on the Mortal Kombat console anytime soon.
“Video games don’t interest me at all, but the shuffle board, pinball, and Skee-Ball? That interests me,” the owner admits. “We have a variety that hopefully appeals to a lot of different people, some of whom might not go to video game banks. And we’ve got Drew’s beers, you know?”
McCormick describes Paradiso Game Room’s beer options as “pared down,” but emphasizes that doesn’t mean they’ll be dumbed down.
“The intention is not to just put eight pilsners on draft down here,” the beer director says. “We don’t want to sacrifice any styles just for the sake of putting things in cans. There’s nothing down here that I wouldn’t put on our other menus.”
The selections in the fridge bear this out: In addition to a hearty selection of light-bodied lagers and hop-forward ales – the crushers, if you will – there are a few tripels, a few hefeweizens, stouts and porters, Hopfenstark’s Station 55 saison, even a bock from La Trappe. And if someone wants to bring a beer from upstairs to the game room, that’s copacetic. (The flight of stairs between the two floors will still be open to patrons.)
Speaking of the upper level, lost amongst the hubbub of the Paradiso’s Game Room’s opening are renovations to the restaurant’s draft offerings, which recently expanded from four lines to a cool dozen. This is also where beer nerds will have full access to Pizzeria Paradiso’s tome of a bottle list.
“If you want to experience the full Paradiso beer program, it’s right upstairs,” McCormick says. “If you want to play games and crush some delicious canned beers, come down here.”
The decision to focus solely on cans pairs with the youthful aesthetic of the space. Dropped aluminum is also far less hazardous than dropped glass. And according to McCormick, cans intangibly feel right in this setting.
“If I’m standing there, playing a game of Skee-Ball,” the beer directors says, “I really just want to be holding a can of beer.”
When the Birreria Paradiso opened in 2006, the idea of cans-only menu would have been anathema. It’s a fitting reflection of how dramatically industry and consumer preferences have shifted since then that McCormick’s decision doesn’t even register on the outrage scale now. In fact, it’s a shrewd business move: The brightly lit fridge glows brightly behind the bar, beckoning patrons’ focus like a bug zapper, its plethora of vividly colored cans on full display.
“Some I picked just because I liked the cans – I mean, the beer is good, too,” McCormick says. “The Stillwater stuff is really pretty. And I wanted to have a few of their things to compliment the mural across the room, too.”
As a general rule, Mike Van Hall doesn’t do murals.
“I’m not a skilled painter,” the Alexandria resident tells me. “I’m a self-taught artist, and murals are not something I’m practiced in. And when it’s a big, prominent thing and people are so close to it, all the flaws can be seen. But I also think that I have no fear of trying something crazy and new – that’s how I push myself with anything.”
For the past few years, Van Hall’s canvas for crazy and new things has been primarily beer cans and bottles. The former attorney is the de facto creative director for internationally distributed gypsy brewery Stillwater Artisanal, in addition to the exclusive in-house label artist for Virginia buzz magnet Aslin Beer Company.
Still, when Pizzeria Paradiso reached out to him about possibly creating a mural for a bare wall in its new game room, Van Hall couldn’t turn the opportunity down. His vault is filled with fond memories from the restaurants: the first time he met Stillwater founder Brian Strumke during a Craft Brewers Conference event, that time some kind soul recreated three of his labels on a Paradiso chalkboard, numerous nerd-outs with Greg Jasgur, untold drop-ins at the Dupont location.
“I was like, ‘This is a place that I love and frequent, and that changes my consideration of the kind work I’ll do,’” the artist says. “I certainly trust Ruth. She knows what she’s doing. She’s going to create a really cool space, and I thought it would be worthwhile to be a part of that.”
Late last year, McCormick had been in discussions with Van Hall about a potential exhibition of his work at the restaurant group’s Hyattsville location – a sequel of sorts to its show for Caleb Luke Lin and his Graft Cider labels. Separately, she had also been thinking about an art installation for the wall in the back left corner of the room. It was during a conversation with Matt McQuilkin, Pizzeria Paradiso’s director of operations, that the dots would be connected.
“I was showing Matt all of the stuff that Mike does – not just the beer labels, but other projects – and he was like, ‘Why don’t you ask this guy? This guy is great,’” McCormick recalls. “And I was like, ‘Huh. Yeah. That does make a lot of sense.’”
Once he accepted the challenge, Van Hall paid a visit to Georgetown, hoping get a feel for the new space in its early stages of construction.
“My question was whether I should play up Pizzeria Paradiso or I should emphasize the game room idea,” he explains. “I have to consider what the duties of the mural would be in the space for serving the customers.”
The two settled on something more representative of the former, which begat the question: What reflects the personality of the D.C.-area institution? Pizza or beer would be a little on the nose. Van Hall asked if Gresser had any nicknames, but she wasn’t keen to see the image of Mama Ruth in a rocker. (“Not right for a bar,” she quips.)
Walking around upstairs, McCormick pointed out the avian décor that runs through the restaurants – something that’s bit of an in-joke for employees.
“I was looking for the language of people that work there, and when the roosters popped up, I was like, ‘Ah, yes, obviously,’” he shares. “The rooster is a prominent theme upstairs, and if I can work an animal into my art, I love doing that, especially if I can make it abstract enough that when you have to look at it, maybe you don’t recognize it.”
In Van Hall’s mural, two modernist roosters talk to each other. Tails shoot up from behind each, though from the opposite direction than you’d expect. Whether those tails belong to chatty rooters or another two is open to interpretation, as much of Van Hall’s art tends to be.
“It reminds me of ‘80s comic books – like, ‘Pow!’” McCormick says of the serrated shapes and bright colors. “The thing that’s great about Mike is that he wanted to give us an image that would be an identifier for the space – not just a pretty mural.”
“I like that if you don’t recognize them as roosters, they’re kind of explosions and targets,” adds Gresser, “which fits the game concept.”
The four circular targets joining the roosters represent Pizzeria Paradiso’s four locations. Each is composed of three different colored circles – a nod to its three home states (or something like it): Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. (Yes, there’s room for more targets should Gresser’s empire continue to grow.)
“You can come in here and not know any of that and just think it’s a cool mural,” McCormick observes. “But that added association makes the staff feel like they have a little piece in it.”
There’s also the added hip quotient. It’s cool to tell someone drinking a can of Micro or Stateside Saison or Extra Dry that the person who designed its label also did the painting on the other side of room, right?
“Oh yeah,” McCormick says. “I like that side of it.”
As for Van Hall, he’s happy he pushed himself outside his comfort zone.
“It was a daunting endeavor to think about, considering I had never done it before,” the artist shares. “And there are people in town who do amazing murals, so did I want to put something up and have it potentially suck? But I’m super happy with how this turned out. It was a risk on their part to let me do this, but it turned out way better than I could have hoped for. I hope that some of my can designs end up being worthy of being in such a craft beer landmark, too.”
The opening of Paradiso Game Room caps a whirlwind year for McCormick.
Last February, after working her way up from server to assistant beverage director, the then-26 year old took the reins of Pizzeria Paradiso’s vaunted beer program.
“In the beginning, I was drinking through a fire hose, for sure,” the Maine native shares. “I enjoy that, though. Throw me in the deep end and I’ll figure it out.”
It’s hard to imagine tossing McCormick into a deeper body of water. Within two months of starting, her locations were flooded with the industry’s best and thirstiest for the Craft Brewers Conference.
“It was the best introduction to so many people in the beer world,” she recalls. “Some of them I knew already, but it was like, ‘Everyone in the city right now is here to drink insane beer.’”
CBC was followed by SAVOR and DC Beer Week, and somewhere along the way, she helped open Pizzeria Paradiso’s Hyattsville location. It was her first chance to build a beer program from the ground up – a mighty but rewarding endeavor.
“I love the beer programs and the menus and the locations that I inherited, but, I mean, the shelves were empty in Hyattsville,” she says. “It was like, ‘I’ll take one case of that, and one of this, and one of that.’ It was complete cherry picking, which is fun.”
“It feels a lot like the original location on P Street because it’s a relatively small space that is very, very warm,” Gresser says of her newest location. “They love their beer in Hyattsville, so we’re perfect for them, and they’re perfect for us.”
On similar note, the owner is quite pleased with the fit of her latest beer director – the first female to hold the position in the company’s history.
“It’s been a joy,” Gresser says. “Drew brings a particular vitality to the beer program. She makes working here fun, and I’m sure that comes across to all of our customers. She loves beer, and she loves sharing it, and she loves knowing what you like and making you happy by bringing you that.”
(For the record, Gresser is a fan of sour ales and Belgian beers, with traditional English styles placing third. “Super funky, super dry,” McCormick says of her boss’s preferences.)
“The one thing that I keep saying – and the thing that our staff is maybe sick of hearing – is that we’re here to meet people where they are and provide them with a beer that they’ll enjoy no matter what,” the beer director says of her approach. “It should be fun. If enjoyment for you means sitting down and talking about different hops or nerding out about Brettanomyces, then that’s what you should do. But if you want to play a game of Skee-Ball and drink a can of Stillwater, that’s cool, too.”
With the last major project of her first year nearing completion, McCormick has probably earned the crack of celebratory can herself.
“I think now we can just focus on bringing in new beers,” she says.
Birreria Paradiso is dead.
Long live Paradiso Game Room.