Photo of Unconventional Diners chicken parm by Laura Hayess chicken parm by Laura Hayes
Photo of Unconventional Diners chicken parm by Laura Hayess chicken parm by Laura Hayes

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2018 was a year of growth and growing pains. Diners went to new destinations, including The Wharf and the Union Market District, and found more robust options in Navy Yard and on H Street NE. Less sophomoric nightlife neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, the 14th Street NW corridor, and Georgetown experienced significant change. 

Georgetown is on the path to becoming a thriving restaurant neighborhood once again thanks to the end of a 27-year liquor license moratorium, but Adams Morgan and 14th Street saw turnover as the clock ran out on five- and 10-year leases. The fourth quarter of 2018 in particular brought major closures including Taylor Gourmet, Acadiana, J. Paul’s, and CF Folks. Oh, and almost every Mike Isabella Concepts restaurant. 

D.C. is still largely an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dining options. From fine dining to fast casual, Washingtonians can try food from around the world without leaving the beltway. But growth has been uneven. 

East of the river in wards 7 and 8, there are less than 10 sit-down restaurants and just three full-service grocery stores. The D.C. Council advanced three pieces of legislation aimed at incentivizing food businesses to open in these underserved communities. 2019 will be about whether or not they work. 

Read on for more highlights and lowlights of 2018. 

Cuisine that had the biggest year: Indian

Indian food spiced things up in D.C. Newcomers that opened at the end of 2017 and throughout all of 2018 included Masala Story, Karma Modern Indian, RASA, Pappe, Bindaas’ Foggy Bottom location, Spice 6’s Chinatown location, and Bombay Street Food. Two more, Glassey and Punjab Grill, will open in the new year. 

Photo of Mike Isabella by Darrow Montgomery

Chef we loved to hate: Mike Isabella

After former Mike Isabella Concepts employee Chloe Caras accused him of “extraordinary” sexual harassment, one of D.C.’s best-known chefs took the low road and completely unraveled. Don’t forget the Instagram post that depicted a custom championship wrestling belt with the insignia of his restaurants on it that was accompanied by the hashtag #everybodyhatesme. 

What if he had instead settled quickly, publicly apologized, and vowed to invest serious resources into cleaning up his company’s work culture. Would he have had a chance to come back, even if he didn’t deserve one? Instead, diners departed and closures came swiftly, ultimately leading Mike Isabella Concepts to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in December. 

Best show of solidarity: Restaurants telling Nazis where to shove it 

When a small group of white supremacists came to the District for the “Unite the Right 2” rally that was over before it started, restaurants hung signs and sent tweets informing these out-of-towners that they weren’t welcome. They had the right to do so—restaurants are legally allowed to turn away white nationalists and other “fringe ideological groups.” The Passenger stole the show with a sign that said, “Is your mom proud of you today? Prolly not if you’re Nazi scum.” 

Sign that nuance and common sense are dead: The Red Hen mix-up

Bloomingdale’s charming rigatoni restaurant was dragged into a national scandal in June when a Lexington, Virginia, restaurant with a similar name didn’t let White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders finish her meal. (Disrupting the meals of Trump administration officials was a popular diversion in 2018.) “In terms of the truth decay, you have to remember that we didn’t do anything,” Chef Mike Friedman told City Paper after days and days of nasty calls, Yelp bombing, and even death threats. 

Biggest D.C. food milestone: DMV Black Restaurant Week

This fall three Washingtonians came together to put on DMV Black Restaurant Week to highlight black culinary and bar talent as well as black-owned restaurants in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. In addition to restaurants and bars offering deals, there was a conference and a bartender competition. One of the chief goals was to start building pipelines to black ownership. The founders, Andra “AJ” Johnson, Dr. Erinn Tucker, and Furard Tate, caught some flack for including a handful of what they called “allied restaurants” that weren’t black-owned but supported the mission of DMV Black Restaurant Week, and there a number of notable black-owned restaurants who did not participate. They hope to grow the event next year. 

Chicken skin dumpling photo by Laura Hayes

Best dishes I ate this year: Chicken and dumplings at The Dabney, squash blossom crab rangoons at Rose’s Luxury, salmon collar at St. Anselm, whole fried red snapper in brown stew at Kith/Kin, salmon en croute at Primrose, impossible potstickers at The Source, squid ink pasta with fresh tuna crudo at Centrolina, chicken parm florentine at Unconventional Diner, steak shawarma bowl at Charcoal Town, chicken skin dumpling at Spoken English, fried scallops at Stevensville Crab Shack, dal makhani at Pappe, fried shrimp donburi at The District Fishwife, and pozole at Ellē

Funnel cake photo by Laura Hayes

Worst dishes I ate this year: Funnel cake with candied jalapeños and sweet cream cheese at the Montgomery County Fair, tacos at Taqueria Local, blintzes at Russia House, pomegranate guacamole at Whole Foods, and the meatball pocket at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

Biggest food fight of the year: Initiative 77

The battle over the ballot measure that sought to eliminate the tipped minimum wage was the food story of 2018. Initiative 77 forced diners to think about the complex way restaurant workers are paid and issues they face, such as wage theft and sexual harassment. It also mobilized a segment of the D.C. population—servers and bartenders—that haven’t traditionally been involved in local politics.

Currently D.C. and 43 states use a tip credit system. In D.C., restaurant owners can pay tipped workers as little as $3.89 per hour so long as their tips carry them over the standard minimum wage ($13.25). If tips fail to carry a worker’s earnings over the standard minimum wage, the employer must cover the remainder.

Initiative 77, which was put on the ballot by New York-based labor group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), would have gradually increased the tipped minimum wage in eight increments until it equalled the standard minimum wage of $15 in 2025, thus eliminating the tip credit and two-tier wage system.

Proponents of 77 argued that if workers were to receive the full minimum wage directly from their employers, the measure would reduce wage theft and decrease sexual harassment and racial inequality in the workplace. Opponents believed that the measure’s increased labor costs would force some establishments to close or cut jobs and would ultimately reduce take-home pay for tipped workers. 

With the stakes being so high—hospitality is the second biggest industry in D.C.—this chess match drew hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations. The names of the campaigns on each side contributed to the confusion. 

“Save Our Tips,” largely backed by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the National Restaurant Association, was misleading because 77 doesn’t outlaw tipping. Its backers thought that if restaurants have to raise menu prices to absorb increased labor costs, diners may not dine out as often and may not tip as generously when they do. 

ROC’s “One Fair Wage” campaign was also a misnomer. All tipped workers are entitled by law to the same minimum wage. What changes is who pays the lion’s share of the money—the public, through gratuities, or the employer. Proponents of 77 argued that the tip credit system creates too many gray areas, making it more challenging to protect workers from wage theft. 

This spring, City Paper combed through federal complaints against District businesses that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act over the past two years. About 40 percent of the 97 complaints were from restaurant or bar employees and of those, almost all were from kitchen staffers who don’t typically share in gratuities. These dishwashers, prep cooks, and line cooks, who are predominantly minorities, would not have benefitted from 77.

José Andrés came out against the ballot measure in June for this reason, telling City Paper, “As it stands, the system is designed to allow servers to earn as much as 100% or more per hour than cooks. Increasing the tipped minimum wage will only make the current wage disparity more extreme and place downward pressure on small business margins.”

City Paper interviewed upward of 150 tipped workers who work at a variety of establishments while reporting on 77. Almost all expressed anger and dread at the thought of the implementation of 77.

Only a handful of tipped workers spoke out in favor of Initiative 77. But that doesn’t mean more supporters aren’t out there. Tipped workers who supported 77 were reluctant to come forward and disclose employment information, citing fears of retaliation from their employers or the opposition. They were up against tipped workers who had owners on their side, and the interplay between the two groups on the street and on social media was fierce. 

Voters passed the ballot measure 55 percent to 45 percent on June 19. About a month later, seven of 13 D.C. councilmembers introduced a bill to repeal 77 outright. They cited misleading language on the ballot and conversations with tipped workers. There were three provisions on the ballot. The first asked voters if they wanted to see D.C.’s minimum wage increase to $15/hour. That increase was already approved in 2016.

“Worker after worker is saying we don’t want this … There’s something out of whack here when what I’m hearing from non-workers who say this is good for workers while workers are lining up and saying no it’s not,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said at the hearing preceding the repeal vote. The 16-hour hearing on the repeal bill kicked off at 11 a.m. on Sept. 17 and lasted until 3 a.m. on Sept. 18. More than 250 people signed up to testify. 

On Oct. 2 the Council voted 8-5 to repeal 77, but only after Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced a compromise that would have kept Initiative 77 in place for non-restaurant tipped workers like valets and restaurant workers who are indirectly tipped like bussers. The amendment failed

A second vote two weeks later sealed the deal, drawing immediate backlash from voters and community activists such as Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler. The wards that voted most favorably for Initiative 77 were predominantly African-American, and Hagler looks at the issue through a national lens of voter suppression.

In response, Hagler teamed up with ROC leadership and cannabis activist Adam Eidinger to launch the Save Our Vote campaign with the goal of getting the repeal repealed through a future ballot referendum. Organizers collected more than the required 25,000 signatures in a matter of days, shelling out $200,000 to get the job done. 

But at the exact moment the signatures were being submitted to the DC Board of Elections, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that BOE failed to provide the public with proper notice about the referendum, effectively killing it. 

This conversation will bleed into 2019 and well into the future, as the head of D.C.’s ROC office vows to continue fighting for “One Fair Wage.” Stakeholders will have to keep asking if eliminating the tip credit is the perfect or near-perfect solution for addressing the local restaurant industry’s most pressing issues.

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