Image: Jacques-Henri Lartigue
This week a local celebrity chef gets some national publicity, we added a spot to our D.C. dining guide, and there were more signs of dining finding its footing. Plus lots of interesting stories about the wine world, the emerging economy, and the not-so-creative destruction in the media world. If it is still too cold to venture outside, then pull up the blanket and settle in by reading on!
Updates to D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
Taco City – The very good taco spot that started on Barracks Row now has three locations.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar – We added an info page for the local chain of casual seafood spots.
D.C. Dining News
Chef Seng Shoutout: The New York Times’ West Coast Food Correspondent Tejal Rao looked at the rising prominence of Lao restaurants and cuisine in the United States. The story is reported out of Los Angeles, but a local force in the D.C. region had to be included. Chef Seng Luangrath put Lao food on the map for D.C. with Padaek, which started as a Thai restaurant with a secret Lao menu before rolling over to be Lao-focused. Then she opened Thip Khao and the recently re-opened Hanumanh. Rao points out that Luangrath was bold even in the restaurant name. Padaek is a “chunky” fish sauce that was considered too “gross” to share outside the community. One chef said, “his parents shared sticky rice with his friends, but never padaek.” That message was internalized. So other Lao chefs took notice when Luangrath didn’t run from it. “That Ms. Luangrath named her restaurant after the ingredient — pushing it into the foreground, celebrating the real beauty and power of its glorious stink — wasn’t lost on Lao cooks who had hidden their padaek away, whether literally or figuratively.” We are lucky to have her in D.C.
Watching the Detectives: The Washingtonian’s annual food issue is now online. They chose to hold off on the Top 100 ranking again this year, and instead focus on 100 Reasons to Love Our Fierce Food Scene. We applaud the move and found the content to be more insightful, heartwarming, and engaging than any Top 100 list edition. We say this against interest, because we used the annual rankings as a hook to get attention by doing an analysis of them. Frankly, we also are in no hurry to see rankings or stars come back.
Speaking of which, Tom implicitly seeks to correct his last rating of 2 Amys with his take this week. “Quality and consistency go hand-in-hand here, year after year, particularly where the “little things” are concerned.”
Compensation: Washington City Paper reported that there is a whiff of an opposition forming to Initiative 82, led by a bartender that also opposed the precursor Initiative 77 to get rid of tipped salaries. We again note the strange silence of anyone seeking to find a compromise solution.
Eat Well, Do Good: There are several efforts in the D.C. dining world to help those affected by the Russian war against Ukraine.
Women in Wine: Jillian Dara, writing in Forbes, looks at six women leaders in the wine world. The degree to which perceptions still seem more than a generation out of date is startling. Zidanelia Arcidiacono, an Argentinian winemaker now at Sonoma-Cutrer winery said, “I find it very funny and I enjoy seeing the different reactions when I am introduced as the winemaker; most of the time I have faced that reaction of shock and have been told that they can’t believe I am the winemaker. I guess I don’t fit the stereotype? Other times I have received a lot of praise and words of encouragement, and it feels great.”
That retrograde thinking is still prevalent among the taste-makers in the wine community, which led to its own set of problems. Dave McIntyre writing in the Post looks at the efforts of the newly named leadership of the American Court of Master Sommeliers to rebuild the institution after the prior crew were ousted following a cheating scandal, deep diversity problems, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal – though misconduct is too gentle of a word. We wish Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald and Board of Directors Chair Emily Wines (no, seriously, that is her name) well, but there is a case to be made that the institution does not deserve to be saved.
Finding Joy: Many years ago there were these things called wine bloggers. We even considered starting one, which is partly how we got the name 17° Cork by Northwest. One of the coolest wine bloggers was an Italian scholar/musician named Jeremy Parzen. He moved full-time into the wine trade and still posts at his site. Recently he posted about getting a friend to appreciate the value of spending a few more dollars on a good bottle of wine. It seems like a companion to the fine food dining experience piece from the U.K. last week.
Singing over the Wine-Dark Sea: Decanter has a story about the interaction between wine and music. One aspect is somewhat obvious. Listening to enjoyable music (selections vary) will give the impression that what you are drinking is better. This matches what some may consider a shallow aspect of fine dining, that the entire experience – room, service, lighting, music, your dining companion – can affect the perception of the food. But it goes further, with some wineries actually piping music in to the barrel rooms to stimulate vibrations while the wines age.
End of an Era: Chowhound is shutting its trap. We are sure this has a meaning for the food world, but we are not sure what it is. We were never much for Chowhound, but when we started diving into the D.C. food world in earnest more than a decade ago it was a eGullet spinoff, DonRockwell.com, that was the best source of information (and often still is). Before social media took off, especially video-based social media, the prevalent non-traditional media was words from people who cared, exchanging ideas on simple message boards. We lost something when we started moving away from those platforms, and the new ones have not adequately replaced it.
Not in the Food Section: Laura Reiley has a piece on ending federal nutritional assistance programs. It is about the intersection of food, policy, and politics, so, of course, it is in the Post Business Section. The Times has a piece about an F.B.I. investigation into fraud in some aid programs.
In the Food Section: Though this story about the world of food being impacted by global politics is in the Food Section. As is this great Tim Carman piece about the history of McDonald’s in Russia and the consequences of its decision to suspend doing business there. “The company, careful to maintain the relationships it has developed, made a point to say it will continue to pay its Russian employees through this period.”
The Emerging Economy: The labor supply side of the equation continues to be a powerful factor in the economy. Workers are having a say and it might lead to treating them better – at least in the hospitality sector. There was an interesting exchange on Twitter, wherein a veteran notes a recent article about a past employer having trouble filling job vacancies, but he says the employer can’t keep employees because it is a bad place to work. Another poster chimes in to say, “You might imagine folks have asked me over the past couple years when I’m ‘coming back’; maybe you’re one of them — it’s cool, I don’t mind. But I’ve dodged nearly every one, b/c I don’t know if I want to.” The new job market is not just openings graphed against job seekers, it is job seekers choosing certain factors over others. It is often said that homo economicus is too rational to capture human decision-making that goes against self-interest, but it is also too simple to explain rational decision-making because economists are not measuring the full spectrum of what is considered self-interest.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was not renewed as part of the omnibus appropriations package this week. The Eater story cites CNN reporting that it was because Republicans objected, but then strangely reads as if it is actually the Biden administration that is not supportive. There are probably various ways to explain it, but it is a good guess that at its base the reality is the bigs are doing well, so do not feel the need to go to bat for additional aid, and the independents don’t have the leverage to get what they need. Indeed, Eater does not even reference the National Restaurant Association. In February, the NRA released its annual State of the Restaurant Industry report with this top-line assessment: “The restaurant and foodservice industry has adapted and is carrying on with absolute resilience, so we’re optimistic about the path toward recovery in the coming year,” said Marvin Irby, Interim President & CEO of the National Restaurant Association. Irby followed that overall positive statement by throwing independents a bone: “We still have work to do to ensure that those operators struggling the most can survive. The Association will continue to champion the necessary government support needed at the federal and local levels to help keep these businesses — cornerstones of our communities — on a path to better days.” Not exactly a clarion call for assistance.
Meanwhile, The Counter raises a question that has been asked for about a decade: how many restaurants is too many. It argues that we’ve reached a saturation point. Writer Karen Stabiner points to data from 5 metro areas (D.C. not included) that the ratio of population to restaurants has fallen from from about 600 to 400 people per restaurant in NYC in the last 20 years. New Orleans has 342. “Restaurant growth has outpaced the population for 20 years. And those numbers don’t even include the food trucks, corner carts, and pop-ups that can dilute a restaurant’s customer base even further.” The article includes a lot of common themes, but arguably did not dig deep enough into the numbers. For example, if people are twice as likely to eat out now than they were 20 years ago, then the ratio doesn’t matter as much. And further digging would ask about the specific dining habits of those who tend to eat out. Then again, if we were good at math or economics, we’d be at a hedge fund and able to afford a much snazzier site.
Inflation did not abate. This might be part of the explanation for Masa in NYC to raise the base price of its tasting menu at the bar to $950 per person. Apparently someone is paying to eat out. Note also that Masa received $5 million in RRF support.
Food Media: José R. Ralat, the Taco Editor for Texas Monthly, is interviewed about his job, and tacos: “Well, there are two ways to define a taco. One is physical, and one is abstract. Physically, a taco is a tortilla, filling, and salsa…. But on the abstract, a taco represents its time and place. It is dependent on the market, population changes, what’s available, and what people want.”
Whetstone stays sharp. We’ve sampled the new podcasts from Whetstone media’s emerging collection of voices, and particularly liked Climate Cuisine. As the first round of releases wrap up their season, a new one begins: Setting The Table, focusing on Southern and African-American cooking is from Virginia-based writer Debra Freeman.
Two CNN series that we are excited about have been delayed. Nomad with Carlton McCoy (who grew up in D.C.) and Season 2 of Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy were due to air around this time, but the war in Ukraine pushed back the premieres. Which is a surreal sentence to write.
Restaurant Stories: Not every place has a great story, but when they do it makes you want to check them out. Even if they are in Alaska.
That’s it for this week. Please keep in mind the primary purpose of this website is to be a dining guide for Washington, D.C. We have 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.
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Be safe, be kind, be patient.