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Gastronomic destination: D.C.

March 8, 2007
Alexandra Greeley, The Examiner
Read more by Alexandra Greeley
Mar 7, 2007 3:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Washington has certainly become a restaurant destination, says Dusty Lockhart, communications manager at The Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. To underscore her observation, Lockhart points to a December article in USA Today extolling the culinary glories Washington presents. The article lists several outstanding dining spots, including CityZen, Maestro and Citronelle.

For a city once considered a culinary backwater; a place where folks cared more about politics than food, finding such high-profile restaurants is stunning. It’s also about time.

What’s sparked D.C.’s coming-of-age? Many factors have played into the city’s gastronomic rise, but according to Michael Birchenall, editor of D.C.’s Foodservice Monthly, chef extraordinaire and kitchen genius Jean-Louis Palladin may well have been the flashpoint.

“He was the first world-class chef we could claim who made his name here,” says Birchenall, adding that Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington and then Michel Richard also built their names in Washington — inspiring young chefs to stay on.

“The key is a core of chefs who have stayed and are producing excellent products,” he says. “The numbers are not equal yet to San Francisco and New York, but in all food articles, you must now talk about D.C. José Andrés, Fabio [Trabocchi], Robert [Weidmaier], Michel [Richard] … you can talk about them in any conversation about great American chefs without apologizing.”

But more than showcasing great chefs and individual restaurants, D.C. and the metro area also have attracted a slew of upscale and midrange restaurant groups — BLT Steak, Il Mulino New York, Charlie Palmer Steak, Bobby Van’s Steakhouse, The Oceanaire Seafood Room and McCormick & Schmick’s, to name a few. A booming local economy and the city’s fiscal stability, says Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, plus D.C.’s beauty and walkability have helped make the city a gastronomic destination.

And the future looks bright. “I see continued growth, and the market can sustain more growth. The competition is very friendly between restaurants,” she says, adding that Alexandria and Arlington both are coming on strong.

After all, says Juliette Rossant, editor of Super Chef, the online magazine, it makes sense for restaurant groups to continue their move to D.C. “The groups have better buying power for insurance and can negotiate better real estate deals,” she says. “And they are aligning themselves with top-name chefs. That trend will continue in D.C.”

The effect is that we will eat better, she says, because restaurants have to compete with a celebrity draw.