Meet the Jewish restaurateur behind DC’s East London-style eateries
Daniel Kramer says his love for food came from celebrating Jewish holidays as a kid in L.A.
Before he opened the Dupont Circle restaurant that would create what has consistently been named the best burger in the nation’s capital, Daniel Kramer was trying — and failing — to make it in politics.
The Los Angeles native came to Washington in 2008, eager to get a toehold in the Democratic political world. Already several years out of college, the Tufts University alum called it quits after gigs as an intern and low-paid legislative fellow. For reasons that are still not totally clear, even to Kramer himself, he decided to open a restaurant instead.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Kramer told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. Whatever he did ended up working: Last month, he opened his sixth full-service restaurant in Washington, a Navy Yard location of his popular Duke’s Grocery gastropub.
The new restaurant, located a block away from Nationals Park, is “serving all your Duke’s classics,” Kramer said, just with more beers on tap and lots of TVs to show sports games. (Duke’s also has locations in Foggy Bottom and Woodley Park, along with a small outpost in the British embassy). Duke’s Proper Burger (two beef patties with gouda, house-made pickles, charred red onion, sweet chili sauce and aioli on a brioche bun) carries a registered trademark, and the East London-inspired restaurant’s mac and cheese has a cult following.
Kramer is not a chef, and he did not anticipate a career in hospitality, previous stints as a pizza delivery driver and bartender notwithstanding.
“In terms of having it be a career, that was not something I contemplated as a child, and was not something I contemplated when I moved to Washington,” he explained. Instead, Kramer points to Jewish holidays and family meals as the basis for his love of food and all things culinary.
“Like many Jews, and really people of all faiths, there are certain meals or dishes that remind you of your family, of your heritage, or your religion. And I could list off a dozen dishes that made me think of my parents and my grandparents,” he said. “Like many Jewish families, my family definitely has the best latke recipe ever, anywhere. The way that we do our brisket, roast chicken, all these things. Our matzah brei is better than anybody else’s matzah brei.” (“To be clear,” Kramer added, “I am saying these things facetiously.”)
There’s nothing Jewish on the Duke’s menu, with the possible exception of shakshuka, a North African dish that is now a staple in Israel. And one of Kramer’s other restaurants is a seasonal crab shack that will soon reopen for the spring and summer. But he thinks there’s something Jewish about the way he operates his restaurants and the atmosphere he tries to create.
“It’s a way to stay connected to Judaism, in the sense of welcoming the stranger and treating people the way that you want to be treated,” Kramer said.
Kramer hosts the second Passover Seder every year — “there’s a lot of paprika,” he said, as an homage to his Hungarian roots — and during the pandemic, Duke’s offered takeout for the Seders, as well as for Easter and for iftar dinners during Ramadan.
“It’s less about reaching across the aisle,” Kramer said, noting that his restaurant doesn’t get involved in Washington’s political scene. “I’m more about reaching across faith, and having food as the conduit of bringing people together.”
In 2019, Kramer opened Gogi Yogi, Washington’s first tabletop Korean barbecue spot, in the Shaw neighborhood. He was tired of driving out to the Virginia suburbs, where there’s a large Korean community, for a cuisine he grew up eating in L.A.
“One of the great things about the food scene in Washington is that you’re not limited to only certain people being able to cook certain foods or have certain restaurants,” said Kramer. “I’m not British,” he added, but Duke’s takes inspiration from the culinary melting pot of East London, where, Kramer said, “you have a curry shop next to a British pub next to, like, a blue-collar club next to an Eastern European bagel shop.”
Duke’s original location, on a busy section of 17th Street near Dupont Circle, opened in 2013, when Washington was in the midst of a culinary renaissance. (The 17th Street location, which is now closed for renovations, will reopen later this year for the restaurant’s 10th anniversary.) Like the East London hodgepodge of restaurants from around the world that inspired Kramer, Washington offers something similar: a deeply diverse population and a culturally curious community.
“There’s always been a lot of different cultures and ethnicities present here expressing their cultures through food,” he said. “There are so many talented, interesting, curious people from around the world that are either in D.C. permanently or for a weekend or some time in between.”
London doesn’t only offer culinary inspiration to Kramer. The city has also nurtured his love of soccer. Kramer recently became an investor in Hapoel Tel Aviv, and he plans to travel to Tel Aviv this summer for the football club’s 100th anniversary.
“I’m looking forward to, whether it’s through food or through sport or through Israel Bonds, which I’ve been involved in, to stay connected with the State of Israel,” said Kramer.
So is an Israeli restaurant in the works for the Washington restaurateur?
“I’m not going to say no to any opportunity up front,” Kramer said, “but we’ve got our hands full in a good way with the current operations.”