Image: Frank and pancakes (1953).
Dearest Gentle Reader, this week we marked a milestone and posted about one of our splurge worthy restaurants. There were many interesting things in the news, most prominently the influencer debate broke open. The economy sends mixed signals, and we have yet to resolve how we treat labor. All that and Churchill’s prescription for booze. So shall we proceed? Let’s…
Updates to the D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
Gravitas – The tasting menu spot in the post-industrial setting still shines. We went back for the first time since shutdown.
D.C. Dining News
A Point of Personal Privilege: We crossed over the 1000 followers on Twitter this past week. Thank you to all who follow now! Getting followers was a grind, but this past year we had big jumps (on our scale) when those with bigger followings gave us shoutouts or likes or retweets. So thank you to them (and also thanks to those – especially chefs and restaurants – who always like on IG! even though we are not big time like the ones in the story below). Despite the pitfalls of social media, some kindness and support goes a long way, and we will try to do better to pay it forward. And if you are going to stop following now that you’ve actually seen the stuff we do, please don’t do it all at once so we don’t have to face triple digits again!
The bad news is Jessica Sidman says we are doing it all wrong. Her big piece on dining influencers dropped this week. “These days, you don’t have to be skilled with a camera. You don’t need to know anything about food. Crank out enough content, throw in some algorithm magic, add a dash of shamelessness. Suddenly, you too can have a nice little side hustle—or at least some freebie tater tots.” Though we do lack camera skills. There is this burn, “The accounts even have confusingly similar names: DCFoodsters, DC_Foodies, DCFoodGod, DMVFoodGod, DMVFoodieCrew, DMVFooodie—yes, with three o’s; that one has more than 86,000 TikTok followers. It’s like shopping for wall paint and discovering there are 100 shades of white.” Despite these quotes focused on the less professional, most of the piece is about those doing it full time and putting a ton of effort into it.
There are many issues raised in the piece, like influencers doing PR for restaurants without acknowledging the conflict of interest. There were many reactions, including from trailblazer Anela Malik who noted that do the job well requires a lot of work and skill. She has also been one of the more scrupulous about disclosing when a post is sponsored or otherwise compensated.
There were a few things not discussed or outside the scope of the piece. One thing to note is that there was only a passing reference to Elite Yelpers, a phenomenon from a few years back that that had many similar problematic issues, but now has faded. Many commenters to Sidman’s post took swipes at the problems with mainstream journalism, some fair, some not. Whatever the impact of influencers, they still do not have the impact of making the Washingtonian Top 100 or getting a favorable review in the Post (see below). We would also note that influencers still remain on the margins of restaurant PR machinery. What Little Chicken was able to get from a post cannot come close to what a Ramsay or Taffer can generate with a high-paid rollout. (As a sidenote on the ability of a publicist to get something placed see this odd story in the Times, and for similar susceptibility to this by the Times and others see the Carbone coverage). Something Anela Malik also touches on when she notes that there are other questions to ask like, “who gets paid, who gets to be an expert, how bias and privilege play into that, on what kind of hours and work it takes to make it in a field that’s new and still doesn’t have many rules, on how influencers decide what NOT to cover. Also, what happens if when the inherent evil of TikTok brings about its collapse after everyone migrated there.
To us, it is a reminder that voices that are independent are important, albeit with the caveats Malik notes (a weakness that jumps out in the linked 2019 post). Some may be professional, some not. The voices that we’ve noticed recently are in both camps. Crystal Fernanders, who jumped to paid journalism, and her colleague Nevin Martell at WCP. Big Schlim, who may have the most engaging content on social media. And Tim Ebner, who appears to be putting a little oomph back into Thrillist after we thought it was dead to D.C.
Speaking of the Post, what happens when Tim Carman blows up a place with a good review? Dan Kois in Slate looks at Charga in Arlington who went from trying to keep the lights on to trying to keep their heads above water. “During the evening I spent at the restaurant, I saw both sides of the remarkable power of a great review. He’s making money. He’s positioning himself for his next big move. But before the night was out, Asad would confide, ‘I feel like I’m having a mental breakdown sometimes.’”
When we said the Post Food section should do stories that aren’t getting covered, not sure this (which is actually in the Travel section) is what we had in mind. Or this – congratulations, you survived a month eating ketchup while lost at sea, Heinz wants to talk to you about a life time supply. Actually, they want to buy him a new boat.
On the other hand, the Food section excerpts Mary Beth Albright’s book on the value of communal eating, and it nourishes. “The mood elevation we get from eating with people is ancient, based in our primal human nature to sit around a fire pit, share food, and tell stories to make sense of our lives.”
Finally, in the D.C. media world, Patrick Fort of WAMU announced that he is moving on. He and Ruth Tam are the team behind the great Dish City podcast. It sounds like he has something in mind for his future, we wish him well.
Broken Glass: The DCist team looks at crime and Adams Morgan, with several shops having smashed glass doors in the neighborhood. The gap appears to be between the statistics that are not that bad, and the gut feeling that it is getting worse. There are some interesting tidbits. “Prior to the pandemic, Adams Morgan had a significant police presence. The police service area saw a 40% reduction of police officers, from 25 to 15, according to Council Chairman Mendelson. Ward 1 Councilmember Nadeau says the Third District, as well as the First District, which includes downtown and the waterfront, have the highest number of officer vacancies.”
D.C. Odds and Ends:
José Andrés went to Turkiye and Ukraine and still was able to get in a tongue-in-cheek (?) spat with a former employee over Soledad O’Brien’s Tortilla Española.
Tom’s chat was pretty tame this week, but Tom manged to stir the pot himself.
Who will explain this to the next generation?
It’s for a Good Cause: A few years back a small company in Tennessee got a little buzz with a big Times piece when they launched a line to honor the Black distiller who taught young Jack Daniel. Then in 2021, Fawn Weaver, the woman who founded the Uncle Nearest line, “announced the creation of a $50 million investment fund aimed at helping minority-owned spirits businesses grow.” The company is now sponsoring a fundraising effort for historically Black colleges and universities. Many local spots are participating, including whiskey mecca Jack Rose.
The Emerging Economy:
Inflation remains stubborn. Krugman takes note and ponders it. “If you ask me, our big prediction problems now don’t involve aggregate supply — what we’re seeing is more or less consistent with a nonlinear Phillips curve — but aggregate demand. Why is spending so resilient?” Furman, the inflation hawk, does not freak out, but urges vigilance. He flags spending from savings. Combined with increase in credit card debt, it appears that people are spending in anticipation (or hope) things will get better by using short term cash supplies instead of changing habits for the long term. A real test will be when the oil companies jack prices in May. Will inflation have worked itself out of the system enough to absorb another shock.
The Emerging Food Economy:
What if the way to keep staff is to treat them well? What if the staff organize so they are treated well and then stay despite an employers best efforts? Union organizing comes to high-end dining. “A lot of workers have expressed that they would have left the job if it weren’t for the union effort,” said Diego, an organizer on the Lodi campaign. He does not work at the restaurant and asked to be identified by first name only to avoid retaliation via his own employer. “If people have an opportunity to fight for their own interests, they will stay.”
Related to this, Robyn Tse writes in the Times that, “Restaurant workers deserve a restaurant certification program that evaluates the quality of the workplace as critically as the quality of the ingredients — a more vigorous version of the restaurant sanitation letter grades established in many states. There should be a symbol for restaurants to display on their windows as proudly as they display their stars and reviews, a symbol that says: We care about our people, too.” Laura Hayes, who pushed to have better accessibility and information about accessibility for restaurants, proposes that treatment of workers be incorporated into reviews.
At the front end of the supply chain, the Times looks as the exploitation of immigrant children in dangerous industries – food production being one of them. “About every 10 seconds, she stuffed a sealed plastic bag of cereal into a passing yellow carton. It could be dangerous work, with fast-moving pulleys and gears that had torn off fingers and ripped open a woman’s scalp. The factory was full of underage workers like Carolina, who had crossed the southern border by themselves and were now spending late hours bent over hazardous machinery, in violation of child labor laws. At nearby plants, other children were tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and packing bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos — all of them working for the processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions, which would ship these products around the country.”
In a bookend to exploitation on the front end of the cycle, there is a story of a woman who started a volunteer program in Salt Lake City to make expired bread available on her front porch, with the working poor being a primary consumer of her efforts.
As for the one percent, Nicholas Gill argues that the rich will always be among us, but we don’t have to cave into their pathologies when it comes to fine dining. He makes some predictions, including that it will get more expensive: “For staff and producers to get paid fairly for their work, this is the only realistic way for that to happen. I predict some fine dining restaurants in Europe and the U.S. to start charging more than $1,000 before tax, tip and pairing anytime now.” Many of his predictions revolve around staffing, but he also thinks, “small and intimate restaurants will become just as experiential as high-profile ones,” and, “more restaurants to think as themselves as a business where hospitality is just one aspect of the their overarching model.” By which means product sales.
One of the things Gill notes must change is the treatment of stagiaires. This piece is a somewhat fond remembrance by Recovering Line Cook of his time chopping cabbage.
Expedite does an interview with restaurant investor Johann Moonesinghe, who now lives in Austin (but, yes, was in this piece about D.C. and had a role in this debacle). His idea is investment through meal plans, “by purchasing food and beverage credit from partner restaurants. But unlike most traditional investments, these cash infusions don’t require owners to give up a percentage stake in the business. Instead, InKind sells the credit to guests, with added bonuses. (Think: “Spend $300, get $350.”) Guests use the InKind app to pay their checks and redeem balances, and plenty of big-name restaurants are using it, from a number of chef Michael Mina’s restaurants in San Francisco to Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern.” It sounds like building out a model of what a lot of us did by buying gift cards during the early days of the pandemic.
Food and Culture:
Deb Freeman delves into the rich history of vegetarian cooking in Black America. “When I think about my grandparents, and the type of urban farm that they had in the backyard—fruit, raising chickens, dark leafy greens. Black elders have been doing this—sautéed sugar snap peas, collards that didn’t cook for hours. Is that not Black food? That’s just as Black as ribs or mac and cheese.”
Vittles (“a food and culture newsletter based in the UK and India”) is doing a series on food and the arts. This post, a film plus transcript, examines Wong Kar-wai’s (known for In the Mood for Love) 1996 Buenos Aires based film Happy Together. On the sandwich eaten in one scene: “This is not a meal of sustenance, of pleasure; it’s a meal to fill the void.”
Ukraine Must Win: One year later, a Ukrainian chef living in London describes the trauma of the last year.
Ukraine Will Win: McDonald’s in Kyiv has Camembert Cheese Bites. As a reminder, Russia no longer has McDonald’s. Perhaps this is a corollary to the Friedman rule. Also, check out the impact of World Central Kitchen to get a sense of the destruction and WCK’s response.
Thiebaud or Not Thiebaud: A couple weeks back we flagged a local story out of New Hampshire where a bakery owner had a mural of baked goods painted on his store. The local board said it was a sign and therefore prohibited. Now the Post has seen the same story and done a follow-up. “With the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, Young filed a legal challenge. A judge this month ordered the town not to enforce the ordinance until further notice.” A solution may be in the offing: “A proposed ordinance scheduled for a vote in April would define a graphic as a sign only if its main purpose is to advertise. Young and the town agree that if the rule takes effect, the students’ painting probably would no longer be considered a sign.”
Odds & Ends:
Winston Churchill got a doctor’s prescription to drink alcohol when visiting the United States during prohibition. His treatments were especially needed at meal time.
That is it for the week. Be sure to tune in again next week to the same Bat-time and the same Bat-channel. And if you are in or around D.C., our site has 300+ recommended restaurants in our dining guide for the District. You can sort by cuisine or neighborhood in either LIST or MAP format.
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