116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — On last Thursday night, dirty rice and prime rib weren’t the only things on the prix fixe menu.
At Rodina, drag queens served up looks, moves and flirtatious numbers June 2 during the first Cedar Rapids drag dinner in recent memory.
In a rare occasion, attendees saw drag queens perform not after dark at a gay bar or at a drag brunch that has become cliche in many cafes, but in the early evening hours at their dinner tables. There, an intimate space was made even cozier by big wigs and close interaction.
After doing two drag brunches, executive chef Samuel Charles, owner of Rodina in Czech Village, wanted to try something different.
“We love drag brunches — super fun — but there’s so much more possibility out there,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have heard of a drag dinner.”
Nobody — queens included — was quite sure why drag shows over dinner haven’t caught on as quickly as drag brunches. Of the three queens, only one of them had done a dinner before.
But as a “woo girl at heart,” Charles was determined to make it happen as not just a novelty, but a chance to build bridges between a multigenerational audience and the tight-knit community of local queens through the traditional “dinner and a show.” For some, it was an early sign shortly before Cedar Rapids’ first Pride parade that the City of Five Seasons is growing in acceptance.
“It’s just really lighthearted,” Charles said. “Sometimes, restaurants of this caliber can get pigeonholed into having to take themselves too seriously.”
No future drag dinners have been scheduled yet, but you can catch these drag brunches this summer:
Where: Rodina, 1507 C St. SW, Cedar Rapids; 11 a.m. Saturday, June 11; $35 covers admission and food; drinks extra; details and tickets: facebook.com/rodinaiowa/events/
Where: Chophouse Downtown, 411 First St. SE, Cedar Rapids; 11 a.m. July 10 in conjunction with Cedar Rapids Pride Fest; $25; details and tickets: chophousedowntown.com.
As the thin curtain creating a temporary dressing room for the queens was lifted, wigs larger than the surface area of most tables commanded the attention of the room. After the queens mixed and mingled with patrons during hors d'oeuvres — an unusual level of intimacy for a drag show — the well-appointed meal was no longer the star of the show.
With a crowd of a few dozen that was demographically the opposite of a late night show in Basix, I was expecting less of a “woo” factor. Often, crowds new to drag don’t know to have dollar bills ready to tip performers.
But as the small crowd customarily volunteered their dollar bills to briefly lock eyes with each queen, one thing was apparent: There’s a hunger for drag on many age levels in Cedar Rapids.
And as Hollywood Hope threw her tips in to the air — one of the oldest tricks in the book — the crowd from baby boomers to Millennials roared as loudly as any LGBTQ audience in Basix. Later on, she persuaded an unlikely contestant to dance to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
“People come to drag brunches to get as wasted as possible,” she told The Gazette. “Drag dinners are more exclusive, reserved. But people are looking for something flirtatious — so why not give them a little ‘boy in high drag?’ ”
Queens like Hope and co-performers Lexi Belle and Adrina Cass are part of a tight knit community by necessity. They make performing over dinner look easy, but they rely on each other’s support outside of the shows.
“It’s hard to be confident when society tells you what you do is wrong,” Hope said.
But at this Cedar Rapids drag dinner, magic happened with multiple generations in the room for a drag show. As the Whitney Houston song’s chorus ended on “with somebody who loves me,” the shame that eluded capture by generations of queer people was collectively recognized and dismantled by the power of laughter and joy.
Rodina’s specialty — beauty in simplicity — was proved once again at the drag dinner, in an ironic contrast to the complexity it takes many drag performers to transform into the aura for which they’re known.
For $65, diners were not disappointed.
Starting with Guanciale, a type of pork that comes from the jowls, you get a refreshing bite that looks like the picture of health. The bits of crispy meat atop creme fraiche and cucumber provided a fatty, rich flavor that reminded me of crispy gyro meat.
This was served alongside mushroom bruschetta topped with oysters and Swiss cheese. I’m at times apprehensive of mushrooms, but the preparation of this tasted like a good meat — you couldn’t tell where the oyster ended and the mushroom began under the blanket of cheese.
At the main course, mashed potatoes were fluffy, not heavy. They had just enough butter and milk to reach their peak. A salad of carrots and lettuce complemented their light nature.
The prime rib was a surprising explosion of flavor, particularly around the seasoned edges. I let the fat melt in my mouth as long as possible.
The dirty rice was just the right side for that. An earthy, herb-filled flavor brings the beauty of dirty rice to the forefront of a visually pleasing and uncommon side dish around here.
For dessert, a strawberry rhubarb crisp was as bright as the rhinestones on the queens’ bodysuits. Atop soft oats complementing the warmth of the show was some fresh cream — the sensible parent in the bowl telling her rhubarb children to settle down this close to bed time.
It was a finish that made me close my eyes. Once again, in my experience, Rodina excels at dessert in the most understated ways.
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