You may not know her by her last name, but Annie Kaylor is the famous “Annie” from Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse near Dupont Circle in DC. Annie started to work for her brother George there in the early 50’s. She became the figurehead and later the namesake for the gay friendly/everyone friendly restaurant, which itself became an iconic gay “mecca” known all over the United States. The hey-days were the 70’s and 80”s, when I went there in my 20’s, and it was known for being a safe place, wonderful food and lots of character and fun led by Annie. Annie’s was opened in 1948 by her brother, George Katinas in a location just a few doors south on 17th Street.
Annie was a very special person to so many people, like me, who were young and were in un-charted waters. She was like a mom to some, and at least an aunt to others. Famous for her Manhattan cocktail mix (Still the best I’ve ever had), the place was filled with her bigger than life, and loving personality. Hospitable beyond words, tough in a way, and a warmth that was immediately noticeable.
She formed an environment that allowed everyone, gay or straight, to be just who they were. The flamboyance and fun of those decades crystallized the unique nature of this place. It’s not just a restaurant, but it’s a place, indeed a mecca for a lot of the gay community. I wonder how many young gay people know of the early years beyond Stonewall, but for places like Annie’s and how transformative they became.
“No one is treated better than anyone else. We are all accepted. It’s a fun environment. To say the least, the food is great and basic. It’s a fun experience in that there are no strangers where you go to Annie’s.”, Annie said in a 2006 interview. “Our customers know we care about them. This means the world to us. The love is there. The love comes from the man who built this restaurant, by the name of George Katinas.” she said.
A famous image of Annie, is in the early to mid-1950’s where she is sitting up on the back of a convertible entering Dupont Circle. It is classic 1950’s cheesecake, and she is beautiful in the image. In the following years, she always rode in a carriage in the annual DC Gay Pride parade and everyone knew her, everyone cheered. There were decades and decades of her presence at Annie’s; with the community, the Gay causes of the times, the HIV crisis, the Gay Men’s Chorus, a reading room for all the local newspapers and newsletters, and certainly a place to see and be seen.
I had the honour to be asked to re-design the now landmark Annie’s restaurant in 2008/2009 with the current ownership – still the Katinas family. It had become a little tired, and the family wanted to give something really important back to their customers, their friends. While still young in my interior design career, I felt so privileged to be part of bringing Annie’s forward for a new generation of customers that now includes everyone from the neighborhood. My Client guided me and opened my eyes to so many things. There was no censorship of my design work, the materials we were allowed to use were beautiful, the lighting, fabrics and everything were just what we felt should be at Annie’s. This Client remains to this day one of the toughest and one of the best Clients I have ever had. In the beginning, Annie looked on until it was all finished, but I think she sized me up early on. It was so important to me to keep the character of Annie’s while making some pretty big upgrades to the exterior, and interior spaces. The uniqueness of Annie’s probably could not have been dimmed, but I sure didn’t want to be any part of a change of the feeling at Annie’s. Now, I am especially proud to have received Annie’s approval on the restaurant, it’s design, menus, uniforms and other ways I was involved with the new design - it’s move forward. For me, this life experience will always be a message of what can “come around” again in our lives. As a thank you, we enlarged the cheesecake photo of her and had it beautifully framed for the rear dining room. She was quite moved by it.
So many people, including myself, have a strong vested interest in Annie’s. We care deeply about all the little things there, the novelty, the tried and true, the friendships and indeed the family we all have there. At the end of the day, it’s a family. The 1960s family is the same as the 1974 family is the same as the 1981 family as is today’s family. If the coleslaw changes, you will sure hear about it. When we go to Annie’s after a long evening out dancing, the breakfasts and final hour drinks are so welcome, and when we bring our co-worker for lunch we want to be sure to impress them. It’s our home away from home in a very real way. It always has been, and to the point; people in Texas, San Francisco and beyond will all say; “I know Annie’s’ too!! I’ve been there many times, we always go there!!”.
The wait staff has always been known for a very friendly, and in an important way, an overly-friendly and cheeky attitude that helps very much when you are lonely, and confused and looking for your way in life. When you are 22 and gay, it can have a big effect of self-acceptance. Their authority, wit and knowledge carry the day when it’s raining outside. Have a Manhattan, talk with Mano (hired in 1974), Al, James, or even the busboys, and you are in a better mood within minutes. The mood becomes ever more buoyant once the crowd starts to pile in. Having been a waiter, this is not an easy thing to do – run a busy station, handle all the issues, and to create a personality bigger than all of it takes a special person.
Thankfully, the food remains pretty much the same, with some upgrades lately, and some changes here and there. Good crabcakes are good crabcakes, great salads are great salads no matter the plate or packaging, and the Prime Rib is still among the best in town, it’s certainly the best value in town. The infamous “Bull in the pan” was taken off the menu once, and was put right back on again because of customer’s the family’s outcry. That it is run today by George’s sons, their wives, and their children too,, speaks volumes about a true business, the family business.
We must all not forget those who paved the way for where we are today – the ability to be “out”, our domestic partnership rights, the right to marry, the overall acceptance – indeed the integration into most of America. There is further to go, but please remember for now; there were the days when it was really hard, really scary and really dangerous to be who we were. Yet, since 1948, there was a corner near Dupont Circle that was safe. Annie made it OK for a while when you came to Annie’s.
I am partial. I have been part of this 60 year old institution in many ways since I was 22. This place helped form who I am. I knew Annie. She helped me when I was young, and did it again when I was older. I remain in her debt for so many things.
Annie’s Paramount Steak House
1609 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009