Image: Tony Vaccaro, Horse eating hay, ruins of Cassino, Italy (1946)
There was little activity on our site this week, but lots of interesting dining news to flag both locally and around the world. So please read on for all the goodies.
Updates to D.C. Recommended Restaurant List
No additions or revisits posted this week.
We would like to flag this GoFundMe effort on behalf of the owner of Sharbat Bakery. They have nearly reached their initial goal. So help push them over the top and maybe add a little cushion.
D.C. Dining News
The Emerging Economy: Jessica Sidman goes to Twitter to ask for sources on a story about people eating out less. DC Food Pundit provides some macro data that shows it may be about factors larger than the higher prices of a dish or added fees, and also D.C. restaurants may be faring better than most.
This story in DCist about the pivot back by Penn Social from sports bar to coffeehouse/music space and back to sports bar has several insightful nuggets. Here is a long quote with some emphasis added:
“The daytime café and nighttime concert venue and private events space the owners launched a year ago was not profitable with such little foot traffic downtown due to the prevalence of pandemic-era remote work and a struggling business district, says owner Geoff Dawson, co-founder of Tin Shop, the company behind a number of area bars and restaurants. ‘We’re like a cat with nine lives,’ Dawson says. ‘And hopefully, we’re not on the ninth.’
“Penn Social closed in the fall of 2020 before announcing its return last May, thanks to a $2.8 million federal grant that allowed the owners to purchase heavy-duty audio equipment to create a subterranean live music venue and event space in the former sports bar, and to reinvent the ground level as Little Penn — a coffeehouse and work space with outdoor seating. The grant mostly helped Dawson keep the Tin Shop team employed, he says. They’d hoped to create a sustainable business model through happy hours for local businesses and regular music performances.
“’The hole in that plan is that nobody came back to work,’ Dawson says, adding anecdotally that Wednesdays are the new Fridays, when he sees the most action downtown. The same shift in business has taken place at Tin Shop’s Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken and Astro Beer Hall — just a 10-minute walk from Penn Social — which has also been struggling, he says. (Meanwhile, Astro’s new location in Arlington, which will include both a beer hall and the doughnut and fried chicken joint, is on track to open by the end of June, Dawson says.)”
Against that backdrop there is a contrast between the state of the industry and the desire to move on. Julie Verratti, of Denizens Brewing Company who did a stint at the Small Business Administration, is quoted in the beer business story cited below, “People survived. Nobody thrived… I do think it’s important that folks are still out there supporting local, supporting their businesses, making the choice everyday to maybe be a little inconvenienced.”
Watching the Detectives: To this discussion, comes Tom Sietsema with his Spring Dining Guide. He highlights that many of the places are in the suburbs, but doesn’t quite draw the line that downtown dining is struggling. Rather, he cites an Axios piece about Americans spending more on dining out than dining in. Contrary to Verratti’s willingness to be a “little inconvenienced” Tom does an accompanying piece that puts it back on restaurants to be more convenient. Among his suggestions to create the “perfect restaurant” are set aside times for quiet dining, set aside times for families (presumably not the same time), offer less meat options and smaller portion options, make it easier to split plates, answer the phone more, making tipping transparent, and do a better job on pacing. Nearly all of these would impose additional costs, or are a reflection of current problems (like fees and the quality staff required to pace well). Maybe instituting some of them would increase revenue. From our perspective the perfect restaurant is the one that can stay open, treat its staff well and put out a good product. Anything above that is, as they say, gravy.
Our baseless assumption is that Tom will use one of the two dining guide releases to announce that he is stepping aside soon.* It didn’t happen with the spring guide, maybe the fall one. He did drop his guard a little this week. Twenty years was one obvious milestone to step down, but he didn’t. This year he matches Phyllis Richman’s run of twenty-three years. Perhaps he is looking to tie or pass that record. In any case, it will eventually happen. It does raise a question of who will replace him. Maybe it is time for a rotating team instead of one person? Maybe a different approach that tells a restaurant’s story instead of an arms-length review? Just spit-balling here.
Comings & Goings:
Chef Kwame Onwuachi closed up Kith/Kin, moved back to New York and hit it big. Now he will do a spot at the Wharf again.
Meli, the restaurant with an annual membership fee opens up in Adams Morgan. It is from The Duck & The Peach team and does Greek meze. The degree to which a successful businesswoman like Hollis Silverman is going in a direction in synch with or contrary to some of Tom’s suggestions is interesting. The annual fee of $25 goes to a non-profit and gives access to a “virtual retail market and subscriptions for wine, CSA, grill boxes,” and more. Operating with reduced staff, it is small plates and drinks. No pacing here. It does include a kid-friendly option, consistent with its goal of integrating into the neighborhood. As with Silverman’s other places, a 22% service fee is automatic for dine-in orders. Tierney Plumb’s write-up also notes, “Like Duck & the Peach, where Meli’s general manger and wine director Danya Degen worked, the wine program will spotlight lots of female and small producers.” This context might be helpful.
Food Sources: “Manna Food Center, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization in Montgomery County, has for years received donated food from local farms. But during the pandemic, when an avalanche of federal funding became available for anti-hunger ideas, Manna partnered with the Montgomery County Food Council and the county’s Office of Agriculture to expand Manna’s Farm to Food Bank program. Now in its third year, the initiative has greatly increased the supply lines connecting locally farmed food to needy families. The program offers farmers not only competitive pricing, but also financial grants for new crops and equipment.”
The Guardian does a follow-up on a daring robbery of expensive wine from a restaurant cellar in Spain. The thieves were caught, but not their buyer.
Asimov does the hard research for a story about wine mixed with weed. It appears that the legalization of marijuana in California has made it less sought after than decades previous. “Now you can walk out the door to a store with 65 strains, edibles that make you want to hike, or laugh, or go to bed. People seem to prefer gummies or chocolates.”
Spotted Laternflies are a looming threat to local wine and other agricultural crops. “We’re not entirely sure what the spotted lantern fly is going to do. We know what they can do. We’re all just kind of sitting around like, well, what is actually going to happen?”
DC Beer looks at the divergent sales trends for beer. “The opening of Devils Backbone brewpub in Charlottesville, and a similar model for Guinness’ forthcoming Chicago pub, may demonstrate the shift from a distribution or off-premise model to an on-premise model. To simplify a headline: Big Brewery Opens Tiny Brewery.”
The Times does its “service charge” story with the subtitle: “These added-on fees confuse diners and even employees, but more owners are relying on them to help make a tough business work.” It is clear we are going through a time of rapid change on this front, but it appears we are heading toward a basic service fee in lieu of tip. What happens from there? Studies show people will pick a lower sticker price with added fees when shopping on the front end. When they get added they grow frustrated. Airlines get away with the bait-and-switch because they don’t care about customers distinct from their role as consumers and they all have agreed to to use the practice. But restaurants are more personal and the interactions are more immediate.
Or to respond to this poster in Tom’s weekly chat who wrote: “Its long past time to try the $45 chicken. I think – we all think – we all literally keep saying we think – that paying $45 up-front for chicken is preferable to paying $45 for a chicken AND feeling like a chump. Diners know how to do math.” The simple fact is diners do not understand how they actually respond to the math. A menu listing $45 chickens will get complaints about high prices and be avoided, so it is better to do $35 chickens and tack on a fee and suffer the complaint.
Pépin: Kat Kinsman profiles the legend in Food & Wine. “It’s not a hollow nostalgia or wistfulness for the way things were, but rather a preternatural sense of what is worth taking along with us and handing down. This is the teacher in him.”
Food & Culture:
In the S.F. Chronicle, HIlary Fung and Gabe Hongsdusit dig into Teochew cuisine (Paywall), a specific type of regional Chinese cuisine found in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area. The cuisine appears to be the result of Chinese migrant workers bringing their cuisine with them as they worked in Southeast Asia, and then bringing the elements of Thai, Indonesian, and other regional cuisines back with them. Further evidence, as our special correspondent likes to note, of Chinese food’s powerful pull and influence around the world.
Related, Anna Sulan Masing, writes for the BBC about the social media dust-up over the differences between British and American versions of Chinese take-out. “What seems to be missing from the social media conversations is the people behind the food. All these dishes that are clearly loved by many are, and always have been, created by people – and are most often about family.” She does a pretty deep dive on that topic.
Clarissa Wei in Eater writes about the Bawan or Crystal Meatball in Taiwan. After a flood struck Changhua, Taiwan in 1898, “temple scribe Fan Wan-Chu became possessed by a deity, which inspired him to create a dish that could feed locals in need. The result was a steamed dumpling, wrapped with readily available sweet potato starch, stuffed with equally available chunks of bamboo shoots.” Wei describes is as, “a miraculous hybrid, existing in a delicious gray zone between meatball, dumpling, and boba.”
Suzanne Nuyen, who works at NPR in D.C., created a food website. Initially, it was to “write down every piece of advice I was given [from her parents] in detail, to make sure people could keep creating these dishes as authentically as possible.” Her relationship with food and the blog evolved. “My blog has given me a space to write about what I love on days when the news feels too depressing. It’s connected me to countless new internet friends. Most importantly, writing for Bun Bo Bae has taught me that celebrating my Vietnamese American culture doesn’t have to be about perfectly re-creating my parents’ traditions. It’s about mixing what I’ve been taught with my own experiences, and cooking up something entirely new.”
Priya Krishna does a video profile of Celestino García. “I spent a day with Mr. García as he went from shop to shop, casually rolling thousands of bagels at a time. And I learned how he became one of the most sought-after people in the New York City bagel business.”
The last couple years saw the rise of the IG-driven decor. From time-to-time, dishes appeared to be plated to get likes. But what if the menu was created from its inception to feed social media? From Grub Street: “Thirty years ago, it was about the content” of a dish or an idea, says Shani, who runs 40 restaurants around the world and has seen trends ebb and flow over the decades. “People tried to understand the structure of your creation.” Today, it’s much more visual: “It’s very flat — it’s not about going into depth.”
The story about a buzzy L.A. restaurant, two chefs that are married, and what the breakup brought out. Not for the queasy.
Who owns Taco Tuesday? Taco Bell takes action.
Social Media: This is a niche flag, but Twitter shut down the method to post directly from WordPress that we use. After IG killed still photo posts for all intents and purposes (with a huge impact on food IG), Twitter is slowing falling apart. Those of us that rely/relied on social media to push our content and refuse to do video/TikTok are increasingly getting shut out.
Odds & Ends:
The failure to launch a successful alternative to Heinz ketchup. “After selling this product for five years, and especially in the climate we’re in, it’s clear that ketchup is still seen as a value category that we can’t really compete in,”
Food’s role in Succession: “He will allow the election results to be nudged and massaged, the newsroom to be compromised and swayed. He will allow the world to burn, but look, he is above the sushi. He will not touch the sushi.”
Panda Express is sponsoring a fellowship at Penn in Asian American Studies. For reference, Jon Bonné flags the history of innovation and entrepreneurship of the family-owned business.
The little-known risk of fava beans. “The ancient Romans considered fava beans so connected to death and decay that some priests could not touch them, and they were a mainstay on funerary feast menus.” Puts the whole served with Chianti scene is a new light.
*Edited to make clear we have no inside scoop on this.
That is it for the week. As always, thanks for reading.