You are here

Power to the plate in D.C.

April 22, 2007
By Gabriella Boston
Published April 22, 2007

Washington has always been a top destination for museums and monuments, but a culinary destination? Not so much. For years it was considered "lacking" and "conservative." Some even went so far as to call it a "wasteland." Fortunately, a few good -- culinarily skilled -- men and women are changing that. "I think it's one of the most interesting restaurant towns in the country," says Colman Andrews, a contributing editor for Gourmet magazine. "I would rate it in the top five," says Mr. Andrews, who is based in Riverside, Conn. "It's really become a food destination." Zagat -- the popular consumer-comment-based national restaurant guide -- apparently agrees that Washington's restaurant star is rising.

"Eight years ago, we had 10 Zagat-rated restaurant destinations in the city," says Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, a trade association for restaurants in the District and Northern Virginia. "Now it's around 80." It's become a place of celebrity chefs -- for example, Michel Richard of Citronelle and Central and Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's and soon Brasserie Beck -- and fancy, but casual dining -- for example Rasika, the trendy, modern Indian restaurant in Penn Quarter with an open kitchen and no table linens. It also has become a place of neighborhood eateries where people don't have to travel to get a good bite to eat.

"People are moving back into the city, and that has made a huge difference," says Gus DiMillo, co-owner of Acadiana, Ceiba, DC Coast and TenPenh, which are all downtown within a few blocks of 14th and K streets Northwest. "Look at all the condos going up around us," Mr. DiMillo says. "A lot of young people are moving in. It keeps the city vibrant and exciting." It wasn't always that way. Washington used to be known primarily for its steakhouses (which some would claim are still a mainstay) and French fine dining, which usually could be had only in hotel restaurants and prepared by European-trained chefs, says Heather Freeman, a publicist who has worked with local restaurateurs since the early 1980s. "It's a completely different scene now," Ms. Freeman says. "There's more variety, and the quality is higher.

In terms of neighborhoods, Georgetown used to be it." Now, Georgetown pales in comparison to Penn Quarter, she says. Penn Quarter? Well, if you haven't been there in 10 years or more, you might have the shock of your life. The Northwest area bordered by Third and 15th streets and Pennsylvania and Massachusetts avenues is one of the most happening restaurant quarters in the city, according to many food writers and restaurant owners. Local celebrity chef Jose Andres recalls the shock people expressed in the early 1990s when he first identified this downtown spot for his Spanish small-plates restaurant Jaleo. "People thought I was crazy," Mr. Andres has offered. "They thought I was out of my mind." Mr. Andres, who recently won a food-preparation showdown against fellow celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network's "Iron Chef America," is now the co-owner of seven restaurants -- most of them within walking distance of Jaleo, which is at Seventh and D streets Northwest.

Ashok Bajaj, owner of such acclaimed restaurants as the Bombay Club, Rasika and Ardeo Restaurant & Bar, says he got the same response when he opened 701 Restaurant at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW more than 16 years ago. "People were very skeptical. They didn't think it was going to work. But I said, 'I'm going to make it,' " Mr. Bajaj says. And he did. In fact, he says, the demand for good lunch dining was so great in those early years that guests often had to wait 40 minutes or more to be seated. That's no longer the case. "Now, Penn Quarter is saturated with restaurants. If anything, there's a little too much happening. ... We're all going for the same lunch dollar," he says. Ms. Breaux says the explosion of good restaurants in Penn Quarter and other areas is related to the city's overall health. More restaurateurs are interested in establishing eateries if they believe the city's finances are strong, she says. "It's synergy -- a lot of things came together at the same time -- the [Verizon Center] and the city's financial health and improved image around the country, just to mention a few," Ms. Breaux says. In a city with about 2,000 restaurants, however, Penn Quarter is not the only place bursting with new and improved culinary offerings.

Cleveland Park, Chevy Chase and the 14th Street and U Street corridors are some of Washington's hot spots, Ms. Freeman says. "Since 9/11, people want neighborhood gathering places," Ms. Freeman says. "Restaurants fill that need. They have become places where people not only go to eat, but also to entertain and socialize. "It used to be that 90 percent of the entertaining done in Washington was done in people's homes. That's no longer the case. Now, no one cooks anymore," she says. "We're like New York was 20 years ago." Many people devote time to seeking out information about the latest and greatest on the restaurant scene, she says. "Just look at all the blogs in Washington devoted just to food," she says. "There are dozens. There's Don Rockwell, Dave McIntyre, Metrocurian. ... The American public is obsessed with food." This obsession involves all that is associated with the food, including those behind the culinary creations -- the chefs. One of Washington's first celebrity chefs was Jean-Louis Palladin, who, according to food writers such as Corinna Lothar of The Washington Times, immeasurably helped the Washington dining scene. "He was very important to this city. He brought in a handful of French chefs, and his own arrival really marked a rise in quality," Ms. Lothar says. Mr. Palladin came to Washington in the late 1970s and headed up the restaurant at the Watergate Hotel for 17 years. His presence meant outstanding French food always could be had, even when offerings from other culinary traditions were lacking, Ms. Lothar says.

The man to take over at the Watergate after Mr. Palladin -- Robert Wiedmaier -- has become a celebrity chef in his own right. "It's funny. It didn't used to be a big deal to be a cook," says Mr. Wiedmaier, who owns and runs the top-rated French Belgian restaurant Marcel's and soon will open his second restaurant, Brasserie Beck, which he promises will be a high-quality but less fancy alternative to Marcel's, where wines can run in the thousands of dollars. "Growing up in Belgium, my cousins laughed at me for wanting to become a cook," he says. "Now everybody and their grandma want to be a cook." While French cooking still is popular, it no longer reigns supreme. "When I'm in Washington now, it's hard to pick a place to eat," says Mr. Andrews, who writes about casual dining in Napa Valley in the current issue of Gourmet. "There is so much going on, so many unique, interesting places." His top pick though? Still French. "I would have to say Citronelle. Michel Richard is probably the best French chef in the country," Mr. Andrews says. Speaking of celebrity chefs, Washington has more than ever, and younger than ever. "I think that's what makes Washington so unique. All the young, homegrown talent that we have," says Victoria Isley, spokeswoman for DC Convention & Tourism Corp. "It's very exciting." Johnny Monis, 27, epitomizes this category of chefs. His Komi -- a high-end, ambitious Greek restaurant in Dupont Circle where dining includes many courses and takes up to three hours -- is so popular it can take a month to get a reservation. "It's been amazing," Mr. Monis says of this past year, when he has won awards and accolades for his restaurant, named after a beach on his grandparents' native Chios, a Greek island. Most recently, Mr. Monis was named one of Food and Wine magazine's 2007 Best New Chefs. Just nine others nationwide received the same recognition. He recently renovated the restaurant, cutting the noise level and the number of seats from 64 to 38. "I wanted to make a more intimate space and allow us to pay closer attention to each dish," Mr. Monis says. He changes the menu often, but currently considers spit-roasted baby goat one of the highlights. "It's a lot of fun because it's not that available to people," he says. Mr. Monis also represents another trend in the Washington dining scene: Chef-owned restaurants, such as Jamie Leeds' Hank's Oyster Bar, Mr. Andres' Jaleo et al., and Mr. Wiedmaier's Marcel's to name a few. "It's really hard -- and expensive -- to do it on your own," Ms. Freeman says. Mr. Wiedmaier, for example, says he spends around $45,000 just on linen each year, which is why a lot of places are moving away from tablecloths. "A lot of young people want casual but elegant dining," says Brian McBride, chef at Blue Duck Tavern on 24th and M streets Northwest. "They want user-friendly," says Mr. McBride, whose dining room and open kitchen are dominated by solid oak and walnut, Indiana marble and a fancy Molteni range. "You come in here and you get quality, but we keep it simple," he says of both food and dinnerware. He, for example, uses only one type of wineglass, independent of whether a guest orders white or red wine. "And you know what? Since we started that, no one has said anything," he says.

As for the food, Mr. McBride says he's committed to finding the best local ingredients possible for his new American cuisine. "I think that people care and will continue to care about sustainable agriculture," says Mr. McBride, who lists each local farm on his menu. "Quality always counts." The one thing people don't want to know is the fat and sugar content of what they eat. "We've found that including calorie counts on menus is not popular," Ms. Freeman says. While restaurant trends locally and nationally are going toward the less pretentious and less dressy -- but still elegant -- the popularity of wine is at an all-time high. Ms. Lothar says Washingtonians used to -- 40 years ago -- drink either water or liquor with their food, which meant restaurants seldom had a sommelier on staff. Now it's commonplace. "[Restaurants often] make more money on wine than food," Ms. Freeman says. With all these positive changes on the Washington restaurant scene, has anything been lost? "What Washington has lost is its provincialism," offers Phyllis Richman, The Washington Post's restaurant critic for more than two decades. She retired in 2000. "Good Southern restaurants are hard to find." Ms. Lothar says she misses the unique, downtown lunch cafeterias and Jewish restaurants. How about the future? " I think Washington will develop into defined quarters like New York, and these quarters -- like Cleveland Park -- will continue to grow," says Mr. Bajaj, the restaurant visionary who believed in Penn Quarter when little else was there. "I also think we'll start seeing more in the suburbs."