Image: Jean Harlow and Cary Grant in Suzy (1936)
There is no way to sugarcoat the dining news this week. So many restaurants held on through the last two years that we were surprised. Now a combination of factors (Omicron, inflation, supply chain, and more) are hitting. That does not mean there are not good things to report, nor are all the interesting things bad. But brace yourself, this week has a few bitter pills to swallow. First, we start with a new addition to our D.C. dining guide. Vax up and read on!
Updates to D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
Michele’s – For the second time the Eaton Hotel has turned to a local established chef to take over its restaurant, and just like Tim Ma with American Son, Matt Baker of Gravitas is hitting it out of the park with French drawing on American influences.
Thamee – If there was a competition for places that deserved to survive, Thamee would have been a strong contender. It was also really good food.
D.C. Dining News
Impact of Omicron: The biggest news of the week was supposed to be the indirect impact of the new vax rules. Instead it was the direct hit restaurants are taking. In addition to Thamee and Sabydee, the longtime spot Cafe Mozart announced they were closing. This uptick in notable closings seems related to a national trend. An Independent Restaurant Coalition survey found that 58% of businesses experienced a sales decrease by more than half in December 2021. That same Forbes article notes the division in the restaurant industry. To put it mildly, the bigs and the smalls are not in it together. For the bigs, it is a time of record earnings and easy access to capital (something we flagged in last’s week round-up as overlooked in a recent interview with the CEO of Chipotle). For the small, independent operators, it is bleak. Forbes quotes Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, “The Omicron surge has pushed many restaurants to the brink, especially those still waiting for Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants. These businesses are filing for bankruptcy and receiving eviction notices after crying out for help for nearly two years.” It is something the excellent Laura Hayes picked up on when talking to locals in the industry, this time seems more precarious.
The next biggest news for D.C. dining is implementation of the city’s requirement of proof of vaccination to patronize many businesses, including restaurants and bars. Make copies, take a photo for the phone, and be polite about the whole thing. As a whole, this city has responded very well to the crisis. Let’s keep that up.
These big stories are of course made up of thousands of individual stories. One of those stories this week was the passing of Scott Bennett, the founder and owner of Amsterdam Falafel. Bennett was an active man of 70 who was fully-vaccinated and boosted. He and his wife both came down with Covid in December. She recovered and he didn’t. It is a reminder to all who fail to realize that this is a national public health emergency that is on its way to killing one million Americans.
Compensation: Pizzeria Paradiso was a leader in raising expectations in D.C. for what pizza could be, and, in fact, just celebrated 30 years. Now they are taking the lead on eliminating tipping and moving to service charges to be shared across the whole staff. As Barred in D.C. noted, Owner Ruth Gesser also answered the common question of why not just raise prices. For her, she wants to be be clear: I think it’s necessary to explain when you’re going to change the system. … To increase our prices isn’t an accurate reflection of what’s going on.” Also, fellow restaurateurs take note: Gesser opposed Initiative 77, but is not getting in front of the issue. Seems like a wise move.
As much as we tease the Post Food section, we should point out that it was a strong voice in drawing attention to Thamee. In fact, Tom did two reviews – when it opened and when it switched to fast-casual – and put it in his dining guide. Along those lines (of drawing attention – hopefully without the same outcome), this week he goes back to Convivial. Chef Maupillier has shifted his menu from cutting edge to more classic French over time, but Tom picks up Chef’s recent moves to be more creative by going deeper into the French tradition.
Optimism! Piccolina is taking over more space. According Chef/Owner Amy Brandwein, Eater reports “[it] allows Piccolina to carve out room for a dedicated grab-and-go counter and introduce more salads and grains at lunch, appetizers, and rotating specials like osteria-style mains built with local meats and fresh fish…New wood-fired capabilities above the broiler will let Brandwein debut skewered selections and add more wood-roasted vegetables into the mix.” Considering the cost of rent, we take this as a good sign.
Property Development: The Wharf continues its down-market slide with the announcement of the new food options in the next phase of development. The headliner is an outpost of the moderately-famous, celebrity-frequented NYC Chinese restaurant Philippe Chow (2 NYC locations). Chow’s spots in Los Angeles and Miami did not make it and were marked by litigation, which should fit in nicely at the Wharf. As we often point out, out-of-towners who think of the D.C. market as a place to just put your name on a sign and rake in money from less sophisticated diners often end up chastened. Chow aside the thing that jumped out about the list is that it is mostly fast casual: Lucky Buns, Bartaco, Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls. Whatever inducements it took to give The Wharf a patina of posh when it opened appear to be fading in effect.
In case you didn’t know it instinctively, DC’s Chinatown is officially referred to as a “dead Chinatown.” Kristin Hartke, a freelancer writing in the Post Food Section(!) looks at the fading of traditional Chinatowns, with a focus on NYC and the work of Grace Young.
Suburbs: Maydan, a quintessentially cool urban spot will make a move to the suburbs. This comes only a week after the team from neighbor Rooster & Owl announced they were opening a spot in Virginia. Maydan and partners will open up a Tawle in the Mosaic District. A sibling Tawle is already planned for the food hall opening at International Square. In recent years we saw strong spots from the suburbs try to move into the city, often with good results. Now we will find out if the cool spots can thrive in the ‘burbs.
Around the Internets: Lori of Been There Eaten That makes a trip to Crane’s.
Kriston Capps on Twitter asked what five places closing hit hardest. It opened a tidal wave of nostalgia. For our part, we have a crazy Word doc that we’ve used for the last eight years to track our work. It is broken up into places we still need to try (currently about 90), places that made our recommended list (which you can see is over 300), places that didn’t make the list (that we don’t share) and places that closed, either on the recommended list or on the “To Try” list but closed before we could get there. That is list is currently about 140. Looking it over, it is a reminder of how many excellent places we lost. Many responded to Capps citing bars. As much time as was spent in the Big Hunt, its closing was not traumatic, more like reading an obit of someone who lived a full-life and died at 90. It had its run. It was a good run. Its memory is well-preserved in gallons of ammonia poured over the place. But looking over our list of closures there were places that still sting seeing them on the list, especially knowing the gap they left was really never filled. Like Palena, Ripple, Room 11, Honeysuckle, Proof, Table, Seasonal Pantry, Thally, Poca Madre, Mirabelle, Kyirisan, Dino’s (though it had a good run!), Himitsu (though we do have the salve of Moon Rabbit and the hope of Magpie and the Tiger), Dio Wine Bar, Coppi’s, Kith/Kin, Pesce, Montmartre. And more places that closed just before we started keeping track, like PS7. Or places that we just got a hint of what they could be like Spoken English or Emilie’s before they vanished. And these are just the (mostly) fine dining spots. We still have not processed that Twins Jazz and Bohemian Caverns are both gone. So we can’t be limited to five. We can barely be limited to five different kinds of lists. Which brings us back to one of our mantras for last two years: Support what you want to see open when this is over.
Speaking of closed places, we have been big fans of Barry Koslow nearly every place he went. Pinea, in the Hotel Washington, was an underrated gem. When it rolled over to Cherry with an absurd re-design, it didn’t quite work despite the talent in the kitchen. Cherry is closed. And we missed that Koslow is now at the Watergate. If things get back to some sense of normality, we hope his new employer lets him stretch his wings and make the Watergate a destination again.
Robert Wiedmaier and his wife own a B&B in Maryland? File that away for future reference.
Jane Jane might have to paint its humor directly on the wall.
M. Carrie Allen, in the Post Food section, profiles D.C.’s Derek Brown, whose recent book makes the case for more mindful living and doing so without alcohol as a central element, all while still being a sophisticated drinker. Allen quotes from his book: “I want to normalize drinking sophisticated adult drinks without alcohol and that means avoiding ridiculous or confusing names. So, to me, they’re cocktails.” Few are better positioned to make that case.
A wine writer/blogger in NYC spots the rising potential of wines from Virginia. If you are looking to see how far they have come, Neal Wavra at Field & Main is one of the biggest advocates for the region. Primrose’s Sebastian Zutant has been making his own label (with others) that he sells locally and at the restaurant. Antoinette Landragin, CEO of Cork & Fork on 14th also is a fan and stocks a range of bottles.
Laura Reiley writing in the Post Business section explains the current empty shelves in grocery stores. Systemic supply chain problems plus one-off events (I-95 freeze), labor shortages plus Covid surge, overseas slowdown plus uptick in demand by those cooking at home, combine to create a big and then bigger problem.
Shantal Riley, writing in the Washington Post Magazine, looks at the impact of “forever chemicals” on indigenous populations that rely on the Great Lakes for fishing: “Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake on Earth by surface area, spanning a vast 31,700 square miles. Surrounded by dense forests and relatively sparse populations, more than 80 species of fish live in its cold, remote waters. While the fish are abundant, they’re rife with contaminants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, the pesticide toxaphene — all linked to cancer — and mercury, left behind as a legacy of mining in a rugged region known as Copper Country. There are enough pollutants now circulating in the great lake that Michigan lists more than a dozen consumption advisories for its fish, and the pollution runs headlong into areas where tribes practice subsistence fishing.”
A federal judge (or state judge? People’s Court judge? Doesn’t matter, they are all judges) in Virginia has ruled that cheese can label itself gruyère, even if it is not from the Gruyères region of Switzerland. Judge T.S. Ellis III wrote, “Although the term gruyère may once have been understood to indicate an area of cheese production, the factual record makes it abundantly clear that the term gruyère has now, over time, become generic to cheese purchasers in the United States.” As the NY Times story explains, if something is consider generic, then it can’t be considered special. First, this opinion is clearly wrong, despite what a professor from the prestigious Emory University School of Law says. No name that requires a French accent mark can be generic, because it can’t be replicated on U.S. keyboards. Second, this doesn’t seem possible without the Whole Foods cheese section popularizing fancy names over the last couple decades. Third, whatever Champagne is paying its lawyers it is not enough. Perhaps from now on, we will call our hot takes, “Judge Ellis Opinions” and see how long it takes for them to have the force of law.
For example, here is this week’s Judge Ellis Opinion: For all their sophistication, it is important to remember that the man credited with the phrase, “there is a sucker born every minute” made his fortune in New York City.
That is a wrap for this week. Probably best to stay buckled in for the next week or two. It looks like a bumpy ride. But it is also a good time to patronize your favorite restaurants. If you are in D.C., we can help remind you of some of those places! Our dining guide has 300 recommended restaurants that you can sort by cuisine, neighborhood, and current operating status (dine-in and/or take-out, etc. – though things are in flux currently so check before you go!) in either LIST or MAP format.
Be safe. Tip big. Bring proof. Be patient.