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If 2016 was the year of dramatic ascension for the D.C. dining community in the eyes of the nation, 2017 brought us back to earth. Industry insiders and diners took turns weighing in on the exact moment the D.C. restaurant industry started to split at the seams.
Growing pains showed themselves in myriad ways. Frequent complaints about the quality of service suggests hospitality has taken a hit. The pipeline providing quality servers, cooks, and managers was sucked dry with the opening of mega dining developments like The Wharf. That will only continue with the ascension of food halls like Isabella Eatery at Tysons Galleria and Quarter Market food hall in Ballston.
Other critics raised their pitchforks over perceived price-gouging. Mirabelle’s $26 ham and butter sandwich launched a special type of ire, and fresh calls about the bubble bursting. Unconventional Diner, which opened this month, won’t even post its prices online. (Spoiler alert: the chicken noodle soup costs $15.)
But if you’re looking for someone to blame for the lion’s share of price hikes, it’s landlords.
When a restaurant is paying more than $100 per square foot, restaurateurs have little choice but to charge more than $20 for a burger if they want to pay the staff and the purveyors who deliver the grass-fed beef diners have come to expect.
We may not have reached the point of reckoning, but it’s coming at the behest of landlords who dramatically raise rents when tenants’ five-year and ten-year leases expire. They know they can get more than asking price, just not from the independent local operators that make D.C. one of the most exciting places to dine in the nation. Chains like Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams from Ohio and JINYA Ramen from California have already come to 14th Street NW.
The stakes have always been high in the restaurant industry but that’s been compounded by our thrust into the national spotlight thanks to accolades from Bon Appetit and the presence of the Michelin guide. Critics review restaurants after one or two nights. Every diner with an iPhone can write a mid-meal Yelp review. Staff members are being poached. Pennies are being pinched.
In this atmosphere, it should come as little surprise that addiction continues to disproportionately affect restaurant and bar professionals while the opioid crisis continues in America. More than ever, specific resources are required for this group and right now there simply aren’t enough.
At the same time, increased competition can also bring welcome change. One of the best trends to emerge in the current market is the rise of fast-casual or fine-casual restaurants that serve fresh, flavorful food for busy Washingtonians at surprisingly low price points. Places like ChiKo on Barracks Row, Little Sesame in Dupont Circle, and RASA in Navy Yard capitalized on the fact that the average D.C. diner wants not only a good value but a flavorful, fast meal that’s more adventurous than Chipotle.
D.C. also saw a meteoric rise in pop-ups. Maybe you’re sick of reading about them. Maybe I’m sick of writing about them. But they’re a good thing for the city. In the long run, aspiring chefs who take feedback from pop-up attendees in earnest are better prepared to succeed in a breakneck industry when they open a brick and mortar restaurant.
This year, D.C.’s already broad array of cuisines got even more robust. We now have Uyghur food in Cleveland Park (Dolan Uyghur), a Burmese bodega inside Union Market (from Toli Moli), a full-scale Georgian restaurant (Supra), and Tibetan nomad cuisine (Dorjee Momo), to name just a few forays. These restaurants that draw from a chef or owner’s personal history or culture have blossomed.
And finally, in the face of heightened competition and pressure, the District’s hospitality industry retained its collaborative, kick-ass spirit. Restaurants and bars hosted many fundraisers in the wakes of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. None of the regions impacted are within driving distance of the District, but the people of D.C. nevertheless banded together.
Local hero José Andrés was the epitome of this movement—he almost single-handedly fed the people of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria with the help of his organization World Central Kitchen. His efforts will inspire how disaster relief is handled well into the future.
To recap things further, Young & Hungry presents its annual year-end shout outs.
Cuisine That Had The Biggest Year: Japanese
Many new Japanese restaurants opened in 2017 including Sushi Gakyu, Sushi Hachi, Hando-Medo, JINYA Ramen, Nobu, and Mirai. Sushi Taro maintained its Michelin star and across the river, Northern Virginia magazine named a Japanese restaurant, Nasime, its number one restaurant of 2017. Still missing? A proper udon shop.
Most Troubling Food Trend: Cashless Restaurants
Homegrown fast-casual restaurant Sweetgreen set things in motion by announcing late in 2016 that all its restaurants would go cashless this year. Others followed suit including Jetties and Surfside, citing similar reasons of staff safety, quicker lines, and the fact that cashless restaurants don’t have to have a manager on duty at closing time to count bills. But the decision to go cashless should be implemented on a city by city basis and in D.C., the practice is particularly exclusionary. Close to 12 percent of households here are unbanked and another 24.8 percent are underbanked, so more than a third of all D.C. households might have trouble swiping a card at a register.
Best Food Trend: Wine Bars
It was a banner year for wine bars as D.C.’s young, creative sommeliers branched out on their own. Brent Kroll’s Maxwell lets patrons draw on the bar with chalk while they learn about less familiar wines in a judgement-free environment. Stacey Khoury-Diaz showcases natural wines at Dio, her cubbyhole of a wine bar on H Street NE. La Jambe is an easy place to have a conversation over French wine. Primrose captures the feel of Paris with funky wines to boot, including one produced by co-owner Sebastian Zutant. And The Dabney Cellar brings the feel of Charleston to D.C. with its raw bar and ham spread that’s a perfect match with Alex Zink’s intriguing collection of wines.
Best Mishap: Succotash’s Not So Covert Operative
At my first meal at Succotash, the hostess accidentally left a slip of paper face down on top of my stack of menus. I flipped it over thinking it was a list of specials for the evening when really it was a note giving staff a heads up that I was a “possible food writer for Washington City Paper.”
Restaurant That Deserved More Hype: Stable
Swiss food isn’t the sexiest of cuisines—you’re likely to leave a meal with strings of of stinky cheese on your chin—but it’s oh-so-satisfying this time of year. Stable brings something special to H Street NE and its back room in particular feels like dining in a fancy barn. Fondue and raclette don’t dominate the menu, though they’re available for groups. Don’t skip the schnapps menu or cheese spätzli.
Most Overhyped Restaurant: Mirabelle
They had a dream team in pastry Chef Aggie Chin and Chef Frank Ruta, a prime location, and a clear concept. So when meals at Mirabelle wound up being less than impressive, the city collectively made a shrug emoji.
Biggest D.C. Food Milestone: The Wharf
This landmark development has changed dining in D.C. Only a handful of the restaurants are open this late in 2017 including Requin, Kith & Kin, and Del Mar, so it’s up to the next wave of eateries to make the area feel like a more complete neighborhood. It remains to be seen whether these restaurants will be able to fill hundreds of seats when it’s sleeting in February and the Foo Fighters aren’t playing at The Anthem.
The Social Media Platform That’s Trying to Destroy Dining: Instagram
Some chefs and bartenders are building dishes and drinks that focus more on how they look on Instagram as opposed to how they taste. Some cocktail vessels have gotten outlandish: I’ve sipped out of bumble bees, juice boxes, tin cans, honeydew melons, and gnomes. Restaurants must believe these posts bring in customers because they’re offering rewards in exchange for your ’grams.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year:
Buckwheat pancakes with parsley root ice cream, and trout roe at Bresca; uni on buttered brioche at Himitsu; croqueta preparada sandwich with ham and Swiss cheese at Colada Shop; fried chicken wing tacos at Espita; peanut butter stew at Sumah’s; aged-duck bomba rice at Arroz; “Chinatown” chirashi at Del Campo; coddies at The Salt Line; spaghetti nero with raw tuna cubes at Centrolina; rib eye and rice cakes at ChiKo; Paris gnocchi in mushroom consommé at Requin; the bara chirashi at Sushi Taro; the spice bag at Lucky Buns; and the condiments at Maydan.
Worst Dishes I Ate This Year:
Every component of dinner at Medieval Times; dry pulled pork and flat beer at DCity Smokehouse; the saddest, tiniest, avocado toast at Ladurée in Georgetown; khinkali dumplings at Supra; a soggy cheesesteak from Taylor Gourmet; an aggressively salty mushroom kathi roll at Bindaas; and a $19, two-bite dish at District Winery consisting of pig shoulder confit the size of a credit card, a single pickled shrimp, and a teaspoon of rice grits.