12 Restaurants that Defined the Decade for D.C.

Image: The Decade’s Memorial?

Jeff Gordinier, the food and drinks writer at Esquire, did a twitter post of the twelve restaurants that he thought defined the decade for New York City.  Jessica Sidman, of the Washingtonian, did a response post with a D.C. list.

Social media has already moved on to the next outrage or artificial question to drive traffic.  The original question is an interesting one though.  Sidman seemed to point to places that defined the best or successes of the decade: Sweetgreen, Little Serow, Rose’s Luxury, Bad Saint, Fiola Mare, Fojol Brothers (RIP), Daikaya, Maketto, Toki Underground, Le Diplomate, ChurchKey, The Dabney.  Some of those who responded added a few more that are interesting:  Graffiato, Crane & Turtle, Thip Khao, minibar, Red Hen, 2 Amy’s.  The additions included places that define some of less appealing aspects of the last decade.

One advantage of having an old-school website is that we can move slower and post longer pieces.  After mulling it over, here is our list, in no particular order:

  1. Cork – Its story arc from being a first-wave hot spot (along with Cafe St. Ex) on 14th to a plucky mainstay after the lease ran out on their original digs, represents the transformation of that strip.  Cork paid for the sins of Le Diplomate.  Like the excellent Corduroy (disregard Tom’s sniping), Cork understood the only way to beat rising rents was to buy the building.  It also marks the rise of the wine bar, its displacement by the cocktail bar, and the return of the wine bar by decade’s end.
  2. Kith/Kin – When we look back, this may be the most important restaurant of the era.  The redemption story of Chef Kwame Onwuachi is important on its own that covers the boom in Shaw, the influence of investors, and the comeback at the Wharf.  Kith/Kin’s cuisine is important by interweaving the various traditions of African, Caribbean, and African-American cooking.  The restaurant will also be important for its business model.  It may be one of the few that is able to renew its lease at the Wharf when the time comes, because it is one of the few places in D.C. that appeals to, and caters to, diners from all four quadrants of D.C.  That business model is also an important statement about the future of the District.
  3. Pizzeria Paradiso – It was born twenty years ago, but it did two things that resonate into this past decade.  First, it showed that something like Neapolitan pizza could compete with NY or Chicago places.   That opened to door for places like 2 Amy’s, Etto, Timber, and Menomale.  Paradiso also figured out the beer thing was for real and led the charge to make D.C. a serious craft brew town.  Finally, it represents the old guard that survived like Marcel’s, La Chaumiere, Sushi Taro and Corduroy.  And a reminder of those that didn’t – Nora, RIP.
  4. minibar – Penn Quarter moved from being a developmental area around the Verizon Center and minibar went from being in the attic of Cafe Atlantico to a its own fancy space (along with barmini).  The prices went up, but it showed that kind of place could exist.  There are a handful of other high-end, personal spots that came after like Pineapple & Peals and Komi (and closed Rogue 24), but minibar was the proof of concept and a sign of the times in Penn Quarter.
  5. Bad Saint – It stands in for a lot.  First, it is representative of the phenomenons of the last decade that compelled many of us to stand in line to eat food that was exciting, unfamiliar and even challenging.  Little Serow, Himitsu, Tail Up Goat, Thip Khao, Rose’s Luxury, Maydan – these places brought the national critics to town, and by the end of the decade D.C. was recognized as a great dining city.  Second, like Maydan, Himitsu, and Centrolina, Bad Saint was also important for putting a woman, Genevieve Villamora, front and center as an owner.  Following in the steps of Ruth Gesser at Pizzeria Paradiso, Jamie Leeds of Hank’s, and Ris Lacoste,  another generation including Rose Previte (Maydan), Amy Brandwein (Centrolina), Carlie Steiner (Pom Pom) Seng Luangrath (Thip Khao) started to break through the male-dominated field.  That is a trend that defined the latter part of the decade and will likely continue into the next.  Third, Bad Saint’s Filipino menu represents the successful championing of cuisine once considered peripheral to the dining scene.  The opening of Lapis, the re-opening of Zenebech in Adams Morgan and the growing fans of El Rinconcito amount to a recent trend of food from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and El Salvador becoming staples for the broader population.
  6. Requin – It was the height of the celebrity chef hubris and sparkle right before the fall.  It was barely open before it closed and sits as a monument a year later.  The red flags were waving: the bad boy reputation, the parties, the over-extension, the staff turnover, riding on reputation, etc.  The buzz overwhelmed the warning signs, and investor money kept flowing.  Then in one fell swoop it ended.  The #MeToo movement and the problems it seeks to address certainly was a defining part of the decade.  The over-leveraged celebrity chef was also a part of the decade.  The ill-considered, shiny investment was another.  (Range?)
  7. Red Hen – If Cork showed how quickly gentrification can change, Red Hen showed how quickly it was moving.  It also highlighted the talent Proof was able to draw and nurture before it closed.  Proof’s story arc, like Cork’s, is part of the story of the decade, but Red Hen, Doi Moi, Estadio, Chloe, and spin-offs of those places will be the legacy.
  8. Toki Underground – Ramen, H Street, Bruner-Yang.  Three big themes the define the last decade without a doubt.  Red Hen and Toki also showed that something as remote as the far end of H Street or, say Union Market, could work as a nighttime dining spot.  It also showed that there could be serious consideration of small places serving cuisine that is overlooked or taken for granted.  There may not be a direct line, but there is a probably a connection to the under-the-radar, hole-in-the-wall spots like El Sol and Habanero.
  9. Chiko – It is not just fast casual.  It was fine-dining quality fast casual. It goes beyond Sweetgreen, Cava and Little Sesame (all of which could have been on this list to represent break-through fast casual spots).  It showed diners could be trusted to move beyond traditional comfort zones of food and setting.  It showed that DC had talent when Kim and Drewno combined forces.  It showed that all was not lost for Dupont when it put up a second location.   It also is tied to the end of of the “Cheap Eats” and “Ethnic” categories.
  10. The Dabney – Jeremiah Langhorne did not exactly sneak into town.  He came from the lauded McCrady’s in Charleston and was the subject of a multipart series in the Post that documented the creation of his restaurant and his search for hyper-local ingredients.  The wood-fired cooking, the mid-Atlantic cuisine, the local sourcing all became defining pieces of D.C. dining.  Along with A Rake’s Progress and the recent openings of Estuary, Nina May, Shilling Canning Company that style was the cuisine of 2019.  Langhorne also represents a positive trend: the anti-Isabella who does not expand beyond what he can vouch for.  They resist the lure of investors throwing money to expand, or if they do expand it is a thoughtful extension of their primary business.  Brandwein’s Piccolina, Monis’ Little Serow, Tom Power’s Baby Wale, Zeibold at Kinship/Metier and Tail Up Goat’s new place are examples of chefs who stay focused and don’t dilute their brand – to both their and our benefit.
  11. Founding Farmers – The power of Yelp, and the appeal of large portions of familiar mediocrity.
  12. La Tasca – The out-of-town chain that took advantage of the boom, but suffered when better options sprouted up.  It is a dining inverse Gresham’s law – the good drove out the bad.  It was not the first out-of-towner to close and will likely not be the last.  The way they treated their staff at the end is a reminder of that the issues raised in the Initiative 77 fight are not over – even if that proposal didn’t work.  Staff compensation in the industry is the great unresolved problem.  Every time a restaurant absorbs the cost of rent at The Wharf without figuring out a way to pay a wage commensurate with living in a prosperous city, they are adding fuel to that fire.  La Tasca showed the limits of mediocrity and the ongoing disrespect for those who work in the industry.  Compensation is probably the issue of the next decade.

Other Thoughts:

We probably crammed too much into a list of 12 restaurants.  But here are some other random thoughts that came to mind while writing:

  • Food trucks did not make the list because, although they are part of the scene, they did not manage to define the landscape like they did in places like Los Angeles.
  • When does the money dry up?  Does the gentrification backlash ever counter the expansion? Where does it go next?  Will investors ever realize there are potential customers in less-served areas?
  • Cuisine tied to distant conflicts that lead to an influx of refugees has been a constant of D.C. dining.  Mentioned above are cuisines that became staples after influxes of immigrants from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and El Salvador fled tragedies decades ago.   It also raises the question of what more recent immigrant cuisine from unstable parts of the world will break through. Yemeni? Venezuelan? Georgian?
  • In retrospect, will the rise and fall of the Fiola empire be the defining characteristic, but we can’t see it yet?