Image: Alfred Hitchcock serving tea to MGM Mascot Leo the Lion (1957).
Little activity on our site this week, but some interesting news about how the dining industry may be the most vulnerable sector still in the overall economy – both nationally and in D.C. And of course, Noma closed. And maybe just as a big deal, but under the radar, Fat Tire beer is changing its style but keeping the name. One day perhaps, we will all be eating at one of the many Noma Cafes around the world drinking Fat Tire lagers. But that is idle speculation. For a recap of what really happened this week, please read on gentle reader.
Updates to D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
Opal – The Nina May team opens up a spot in a surprising location that also makes sense.
Comings and Goings:
DC Noodles – Last week we noted that the venerable spot on U is closing down, but there was news this week that pieces of it (staff and menu) will get rolled into Rice a few blocks down on 14th.
Blacksalt – The Palisades seafood spot got hit by a kitchen fire. They are still doing small bites. A good time to show them some love.
D.C. Dining News
Compensation: On Initiative 82, the D.C. Council may step in to clarify the implementation dates, which currently are floating.
The Emerging (Local) Economy: Hospitality employment is rising based on number of employees per establishment. It has risen to 20.8 from a pandemic low in the mid-teens, but still remains below the 2019 number of 25.8. Interestingly, the sector goes against the trend, increasing when others sectors are decreasing the number of employees per establishments. The hospitality sector lags in number of new establishments, rising only slightly from 2019, while the other sectors are rising from 9% (other services) to 49% (information). Start-ups appear to be driving the other sectors toward a greater number of establishments with smaller number of employees per establishment.
Flat Tire: New Belgium’s Fat Tire Amber Ale was an fixture of the craft beer boom, with its iconic branding tied to the owner’s personal story, then becoming ubiquitous as investment money propelled it nationally. Now they are ditching the branding, even ditching Amber Ale as the type of beer, somehow thinking the Fat Tire label can be transferred to another product. This will be a test case for do you forsake brand integrity to accommodate market shifts. Whatever the case, when a reporter reaches out to a company about a relaunch and gets this response it is not going smoothly: “New Belgium spokespeople declined three requests to provide details about the beer, its release, or new marketing plans for the brand.”
Note that Kirin bought New Belgium in 2019. Fritz Hahn of the Post responded to a question in light of the change: is there an OG craft beer that could not be messed with? Hahn’s answer was Allagash White, Bell’s Two-Hearted and Dogfish 90 IPA. We would flag that Kirin bought Bell’s in 2021.
The Lo/No phenomenon gains grounds. “After years as one of the nation’s great drinking cities — from dive bars to meticulous cocktails, a booming craft beer scene to Jeppson’s Malort — a nonalcoholic movement is taking root in Chicago. Though still small, it is no longer confined to sober people and belies a year-round momentum beyond Dry January.”
Noma, No Mas: Rene Redzepi announced that he is closing Noma, his acclaimed restaurant in Copenhagen. He says the model is no longer sustainable. That said, he will keep it open for two more years. So it’s kinda sustainable? Many could not help but note that he closed when he had to start paying his staff a decent wage.
Other takes included those who praised Redzepi as an innovator. Jeff Gordinier in Esquire focuses on what Redzepi accomplished, “Forgive me for saying something that is no longer fashionable to say, but I kept going back to Noma because Noma was extraordinary.” Pete Wells in the Times echoes his former colleague. Though maybe part of the hype of Noma was that critics gave it more credit than it deserved.
Jaya Saxena cannot mourn losing what we never were going to have. “Outside the cost and the schlep, Noma always seemed like it was built on the assumption of a diner’s reverence. I’m sure it was great, but so are lots of things. Also, whatever, they’re still doing pop-ups.”
Genevieve Yam, says she is relieved. “It’s been several years since I switched careers, and as I reflect on my time in the hospitality industry, I’m relieved to watch as the most exclusive, often most exploitative fine dining restaurants finally seem to be going out of fashion. It couldn’t come soon enough.”
Adam Reiner also finds a warning for fine dining writ large (not just super high-end), “When Redzepi, one of the most highly decorated chefs in the world, is telling you that restaurant economics are broken, they’re really fucking broken.” He goes on, “In some ways, we’re all responsible for the house of cards the restaurant industry has become. We shrug our shoulders when we walk by the shuttered store fronts of long-standing pillars of our community and get excited when they become Paneras and Chik-Fil-As. At the end of the day, the restaurants that surround us reflect our values and our communities. We’ve been selling our soul to the wrong kinds of restaurants for a long time, which makes life very difficult for the right ones.”
And the coinciding of the closure with the release of a movie lampooning high-end dining is not lost on anyone. Many jokes and jibes ensued.
Not Unrelated: Man eats at 18 Michelin-starred restaurants in a day. The record seems contrary to the purpose of dining, but maybe not the modern idea of the Michelin Guide or influencer culture.
The Emerging Economy: Inflation numbers came out this week. Overall, the story is good. Krugman, who has been an optimist but conceded something needed to be done last year, generally finds more reason to be optimistic. “Inflation rose further and faster than almost anyone expected, but now it’s coming down with similar speed. As I said, the inflation news is really, really good.” Jason Furman, his pessimistic counterpoint, takes some comfort in the new numbers, but remains cautious about declaring victory. Furman also continues to argue that it was not energy prices that drove inflation.
A National Restaurant Association survey shows that challenges remain, but there is a nugget of optimism in some of the grim numbers (mostly about inflation): Operators are actively looking to boost staffing levels, with 87% saying they will likely hire additional employees during the next 6-12 months if there are qualified applicants available. But 79% of operators say their restaurant currently has job openings they are having difficulty filling. Nonetheless, the sector still has a way to go to get to pre-pandemic employment levels, indicating that some of the expected hiring is merely to stay afloat.
Meanwhile, inflation seems to have leveled off for menu prices. But there is a big egg-ception, avian flu continues to limit supply for eggs. We must pause here to give a shout-out to the Post because even though this story was in the business section it cross-posted it to the Food section. We have picked on them for not putting food stories in the Food section, so we should acknowledge when they do.
Last year we flagged that the National Restaurant Association only belatedly put restaurant relief funding on its policy agenda for its annual public affairs week. The NRA has now announced its 2023 event will be in June. No news yet on what the week of lobbying by members will focus on. The NRA does list its overarching policy agenda that does not include direct relief, which has clearly faded as a possibility. But, they are all over the gas stove thing in the next cited story.
Not in the Food Section: Are gas stoves heading for extinction? Though the Food section did do a related story on how to compare various stove types for cooking.
From the Times: “Danone, the French dairy giant, is being taken to court by three environmental groups who say it has failed to reduce its plastic footprint sufficiently, in a lawsuit challenging corporate social responsibility in the face of the climate crisis.”
Subscribe to the Food Section: Hanna Raskin’s newsletter of that name had two recent posts flagging interesting topics. First, the move by universities to elevate food options (we hear there may be a bunch of 3-star trained chefs coming on the market). Second, Sheeka Sanahori does a guest column on how a small food shop catering to West African immigrants also ended up as a connection for Black Americans to the region and cuisine.
Food and Identity: A Hong Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian documentarian has written a book about the connection between Chinese culture and Chinese food, especially among those who do not live in China. Jenny G. Zhang, reviewing it in the Post, hits upon one of the larger issues in the discussion around food and identity: “Kwan’s interest in encapsulating the soul of his (and my) people at times comes across as reductive, rendering the Chinese as primarily a shared set of intrinsic, immutable traits.” Yet, she finds the stories he captures around the world of Chinese both preserving and developing the cuisine as the most captivating part of the book. “It is these stories, more than sweeping musings about authenticity or what it means to be Chinese, that bring “Have You Eaten Yet?” to life. However similar their circumstances may be, Chinese immigrants and restaurant workers are not a monolith, and their individual tales and hopes and pains are worth sharing.”
Local chef/restaurateur Danny Lee makes a similar point with an IG post. “I am growing very weary of being judged for how I look while also being criticized for not ‘being more’ of what I look like.” He suggests a New Year’s resolution that we would second, “Let’s try to be better with each other in 2023.”
Don’t Do Coke In The Bathroom: Now has a serious twist. The hospitality industry is often a barometer for other things.
Troubled Childhood Dining Memories on I-95: We must presume that some insecurity leads East Coast folks to constantly denigrate In-N-Out. Maybe deep in their hearts they know they thought Roy Roger’s and White Castle were actually good way too late into adulthood. Thank goodness for them In-N-Out fries remain a cudgel to hold those demons at bay. In any case, the chain announced plan to expand eastward.
Have a great week. Show a restaurant you love some love. If you are looking for ideas on where to go in the District, we have 300+ recommended restaurants in our dining guide. You can sort by cuisine or neighborhood in either LIST or MAP format.
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