Daikon fritters at Queens Englishs English
Daikon fritters at Queens Englishs English Credit: Laura Hayes

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Good News

Odds are this is a year you tried something you’ve never tasted before. D.C. proper became an even more enthralling place to dine thanks to the addition of restaurants sharing cuisines enjoyed around the world. 

We gained two new Burmese restaurants, Thamee and Bandoola Bowl, and two new Laotian restaurants, Laos in Town and Hanumanh. Korean restaurant Mandu was reborn as Anju. We also saw the openings of Queen’s English specializing in Hong Kong fare; Thirsty Crow serving Malaysian; Persian restaurant Vintage78; and Anafre serving tacos guisados and Yucatan seafood. You can now try fine dining Venezuelan at Seven Reasons; Trinidadian tiffin boxes at Cane; a sports bar selling Filipino food—The Game DC; and off-menu Ghanian dishes at Open Crumb. And that’s a starter list.

This year also saw more people of color and women step into leadership positions and become culinary ambassadors of our city. Already-famous Kith/Kin Chef Kwame Onwuachi, for example, won a James Beard Award and published a must-read memoir. Chef Tom Cunanan’s Bad Saint was named by Food & Wine as one of the most important restaurants of the decade. Meanwhile, chefs like Kevin Tien, Yuan Tang, Peter Prime, and Henji Cheung opened their own restaurants. 

Women announced they were teaming up on exciting projects, including South American-ish Mercy Me from Johanna Hellrigl, Daniela Moreira, and their romantic partners. Chef Amanda Moll and Carlie Steiner transformed Himitsu into Pom Pom. Steiner also joined forces with Anna Bran-Leis on Dos Mamis. Restaurateur Rose Previte tapped Marcelle Afram to lead her accolade-rich restaurant, Maydan.

All of these steps toward greater diversity and representation made dining in the District much more textured and intriguing. 

Bad News

The restaurant industry is in a state of reckoning. Just as operators are questioning whether the current business model is broken, D.C. is undergoing rapid development that’s pricing out restaurants already fighting for every dollar. Culinary personality Andrew Zimmern (who was in very hot water this year) recently tweeted: “I think in 20 years restaurants will look very different than they do now and we will see this as the time that it all began to change.”

To fling the doors of a new restaurant open, operators must run through a gauntlet of clogged government agencies. It’s part of the reason why you see me print a projected opening of January and then find it doesn’t come to fruition until June. These operators may be on the hook for paying staff or rent or other expenses while they can’t serve customers. If they didn’t raise enough capital to weather lulls, lags, or snags, it could spell trouble from the start.

Meanwhile, everything costs more, from ingredients to rent to labor. Restaurants have to innovate to make up the difference given that diners balk at climbing menu prices. This is particularly noticeable with entree prices, which have been stagnant for decades. When it comes to main courses, you’re either a $30-and-over restaurant or $30-and-under restaurant. That’s still a barometer for how expensive an eatery is perceived to be. 

As a result, restaurants are tinkering with new models such as “fine-casual,” also called “fast fine.” Diners pay at the counter at Stellina Pizzeria and CHIKO, and then wait for someone to run food to their table. This typically allows restaurants to have less staff. Others are serving trimmer menus because they require fewer ingredients and a leaner kitchen team to execute. 

Restaurants also seek new revenue streams and ways to compete in what some restaurateurs call an oversaturated dining scene. That could mean winterizing outdoor spaces, remaining open on holidays for the first time, signing up for sports betting, or getting aggressive with loyalty programs to try and hook the elusive regular diner. Some have even closed down and reopened as something new or undergone a renovation to generate another round of buzz. 

Despite all this innovation and experimentation, we’re seeing restaurants with shorter lifespans. Four examples: Scott’s lasted less than eight months; Frenchy’s Naturel was open for six months; Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill made it just over a year; and The Outsider made it eight months. 

Some restaurants close when their five- and 10-year leases come up for renewal because landlords ask for double, triple, or quadruple what a tenant previously paid. This problem has become pervasive enough that Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced legislation this year to support “legacy” and small local businesses by providing financial assistance and incentivizing landlords to enter into or renew leases with longtime businesses.

Finally, restaurants are struggling to staff their restaurants. A new bar or restaurant opens seemingly every week, with The Wharf, Navy Yard, H Street NE, Shaw, and Adams Morgan seeing the most growth. Yet, there’s a finite pool from which to pull servers, bartenders, cooks, and managers. A perfect storm of factors comes together to create this staffing crisis. Most notably, housing in the city is often too expensive for restaurant industry workers and Metro doesn’t run late enough to bring people out to the more affordable suburbs after last call. 

Four Trends in 2019

1. A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words or $1,000

Remember that restaurant you like that’s dimly lit? Next time you dine, notice if they’ve turned up the lights. Food critics who pen lengthy reviews populated with two or three pictures now compete with Instagram. A doctored-up photo of a dish seems to be more gripping for diners than reading a few sentences describing the same plate. It’s a win for restaurants because customers’ Instagram stories become free advertising, unless of course the shutterbug has racked up enough followers to consider themselves an influencer. Then those snaps can really cost you

2. Tasting Menus for the Rest of Us 

Tasting menus with three-digit price tags per person got some lower-priced competition this year. More Washingtonians can now have the special-occasion experience of leaving a meal in the hands of the chef. Some even let you build-your-own tasting menu with several options per course for greater flexibility. Those spots include Rooster & Owl ($65), Nina May ($39), Hazel ($60), and Little Pearl ($49).

3. Bye Beef, Hello Beet Carpaccio 

Restaurants got Greta-fied and started caring more deeply for the planet in 2019. That meant taking measures to reduce food waste, complying with laws banning plastic straws, and sourcing local ingredients to reduce their carbon footprint. Most notably, however, restaurants added more plant-based dishes to menus. Even fine dining mainstay Komi opted to close down regular operations twice in 2019 to serve a plant-based tasting menu under the moniker Happy Gyro. Expect this trend to gain momentum in the next couple of years, starting with the opening of plant-based Oyster Oyster later this winter. 

4. Restaurants and Bars Continued to Professionalize

Historically, the hospitality industry was considered a safety net of sorts. It was thought of as a field that caught society’s misfits who needed to somehow make a living. While restaurants and bars are still a place for second chances (a very good thing!), the stereotype that life in the industry is some kind of sentence and not a thoughtful career choice is finally being sloughed away as society recognizes the skill, talent, deep knowledge, and creativity required for many positions. 

Washingtonians are leaving behind the desks where they worked as lawyers, politicos, or engineers to enter the hospitality industry because they find it rewarding and enjoy the flexible hours, among other reasons. And those who have been dedicated to the industry since they were as young as 16 aren’t necessarily looking for an escape hatch. They see their work as a long-term lifestyle with growth potential.

But restaurants and bars don’t offer the same benefits as other industries. Unless you work for a large restaurant group, it’s still very rare to have health insurance fully covered by an employer. As people stay in these jobs later in life, they’re going to need coverage. 

As 2019 unfolded, it was fascinating to watch restaurants grapple with how to add benefits and stay afloat given the industry’s razor-thin profit margins. Some restaurants, like Thamee, Emilie’s, and Pineapple and Pearls, added charges on customers’ bills that go toward health care coverage or employee wellness more broadly. This move garnered mixed reactions. Some diners question why a restaurant wouldn’t simply increase prices to cover the cost of employee benefits. Restaurateurs who have taken this step say they hope that describing the charge increases transparency and awareness. 

Other restaurants have gotten creative with staff benefits, which has been encouraging. Some offer their workers free or discounted language lessons, others purchase gym memberships for their staff members to use as a means to bolster physical and mental health

The Best Things I Ate in 2019

Carne deshilada at Comedor y Pupuseria San Alejo; peanut butter chu with jollof couscous at Mansa Kunda; affumicata and piccante pizzas at Stellina Pizzeria; agnolotti with mentaiko, tobiko, and chili at Reverie; chicken & white flower mushroom salad at Thamee; French onion soup at Primrose; fajita duo of steak and pork belly at Republic Cantina; gorro de bruja pasta at Tail Up Goat; the “Hot Mess” at Frankly … Pizza!; jeon pancake at Anju; barbacoa tacos at Espita; crispy lotus root sandwich at Mama Chang; fondue at Stable; uni on Carolina gold rice at The Imperial; shrimp donburi bowl at District Fishwife; and sukiyaki for two at Sushi Taro