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When it comes to D.C. dining, 2016 was a year of chest-bump-worthy ascension and validation. The District’s first-ever Michelin Guide dropped in October, making D.C. only the fourth U.S. city with Michelin-starred restaurants—joining Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Bon Appétit magazine named D.C. its restaurant city of the year, and Zagat followed suit, calling the District the “hottest food city” of 2016.
There’s more. The James Beard Foundation named Chef Aaron Silverman best chef Mid-Atlantic; three District chefs appeared on Top Chef; 24-seat Filipino restaurant Bad Saint landed a glowing review from The New York Times; and homegrown chains like Cava Grill, &pizza, and Sweetgreen introduced themselves to other cities.
This newfound attention brought change. Several high-end, tasting-menu restaurants opened, slapping the paddles on fine dining to bring it back to life. Chef Eric Ziebold debuted Métier ($200, including gratuity), Silverman gave Rose’s Luxury a sibling with Pineapple & Pearls ($250, all inclusive), and Chef Kwame Onwuachi launched his first restaurant, The Shaw Bijou ($481, all inclusive).
More so than other major election years, politics crept into restaurants. Chef José Andrés became embroiled in a lawsuit with President-elect Donald Trump after pulling out of a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. Chef Geoffrey Zakarian also reneged for political reasons, telling the Village Voice, “My buddy Donald, he fucked up.”
Neighborhood pizza shop Comet Ping Pong became the target of a pervasive conspiracy theory that sought to link Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta to a contrived underground sex dungeon where pedophiles gather and engage in spirit cooking. The D.C. community then rallied in great numbers behind the eatery after a gunman came to “investigate” what dark circles of the internet dubbed #pizzagate.
Then there’s disgraced Neo-Nazi reality TV star Tila Tequila, who gave the Heil Hitler salute at a local Maggiano’s Little Italy. The restaurant says it accidentally played host to a National Policy Institute banquet and offered an apology in the form of a $10,000 donation to the D.C. office of the Anti-Defamation League.
Finally, 2016 was another blockbuster year for restaurant openings. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington confirms 500 restaurants have opened over the past two years. Shaw ballooned the most with new options like Kyirisan, Hazel, Haikan, La Jambe, Chao Ku, All Purpose, Espita, Smoked & Stacked, and Buttercream Bakeshop. But Petworth, Navy Yard, and downtown saw marked growth too.
To recap it all, Young & Hungry presents its annual year-end awards, The Hungries.
Restaurant That Deserved More Hype: Chao Ku
The District has some powerhouse Asian restaurants: Bad Saint, Maketto, Sushi Taro, Izakaya Seki, Baan Thai, Little Serow, and the trio of ramen restaurants helmed by Chef Katsuya Fukushima. But leave some room for Chao Ku! The Chinese-inspired restaurant housed in a Shaw rowhouse serves creative dishes on the cheap like green curry ramen, lamb and Brussels sprouts wontons, and the best deal of all: the $15 “Tower of Power” that comes with enough spare ribs, beef brisket, and pork belly to replenish four Soul Cyclers. The atmosphere is laid back, the beer is cheap, and the check will make you do a double take.
Most Overhyped Restaurant: The Shaw Bijou
Thanks to Chef Kwame Onwuachi’s appearance on Top Chef and articles in the Post and other publications plugging him, Washingtonians eagerly awaited the arrival of the 27-year-old chef’s first restaurant. In March, Tim Carman even penned a story with the headline, “Chef Kwame’s ready to show D.C. a fine-dining experience unlike any other.”
But in August, when Onwuachi announced the restaurant’s pricing structure, the tide turned. At $962 per couple with wine pairings, the restaurant set itself up for maximum scrutiny. The tepid response from critics and diners alike demonstrated that D.C. can be pushed—but not that far.
Now, six weeks after opening, the owners are making some changes, such as punting on the plan to reserve part of their upstairs space for a members-only club. Perhaps a city that can be divisive on some fronts prefers its nightlife to be more egalitarian.
Best Food Delivery App: UberEats
Uber has its issues—surge pricing, cars with six competing air fresheners, and questionable navigation—but somehow it wins the delivery food game with offshoot UberEats. In addition to being consistent, quick, and reasonably priced, the app only includes restaurants that have opted in—unlike Postmates, which haphazardly slaps up menus without clearing them with restaurant owners.
Worst Publicist Stunt: Steak-umm’s Plea for a Retraction
After Y&H published a seemingly harmless roundup of factoids about Steak-umm on the occasion of the sandwich steak company’s food truck coming to town, a publicist offered money in exchange for retracting the story.
Pop-Up of the Year: Supper at Bub’s
Sandwich slinger Jonathan Taub of Bub & Pop’s decided to flex his fine-dining muscles again with the launch of Supper at Bub’s, which transforms the deli he owns with his mom into an intimate, tasting-menu restaurant. Menus have included king crab with aloe vera, avocado, and finger lime; duck with orange, chocolate, and hazelnut; and a riff on a Philly cheesesteak.
Worst Gimmick: Cuba Libre
The downtown Cuban restaurant served free rum and coke cocktails to commemorate Fidel Castro’s death.
Best Gimmick: Barrel
The Capitol Hill bar turned its downstairs Elixir Bar into a pop-up Trump bar with oversized menus that made patrons’ hands look tiny. Cocktails were named after Trump’s most offensive utterances, forcing awkward moments.
Most Important Revival: Columbia Room
Columbia Room is back and three times bigger with various ways to experience the bar’s cerebral cocktails and rare spirits. Its lead bartender J.P. Fetherston was named Food & Wine magazine’s 2016 best new mixologist for a reason, and they scored former minibar chef Johnny Spero to craft bites that pair with the bar’s cocktail tasting menus. There’s currently a cocktail on the menu that features old books as an ingredient. Enough said.
Biggest Disaster: Dirty Habit
Presumably a group of Kimpton higher-ups sat around a table and decided to kill off Poste, a beloved D.C. hang, only to replace it with an insane-asylum-themed restaurant called Dirty Habit. There’s even a private dining cubby that’s a play on a padded room. Bad call, given that one in five Americans suffers from mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
Biggest D.C. Food Milestone: ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar
ANXO checked a couple of cool boxes when it opened in Truxton Circle as the city’s first bar dedicated to cider. For starters, more people can now pronounce pintxos, the small (often skewered) bar bites that are practically a way of life in Spain’s Basque country. But more importantly, ANXO became the District’s first licensed winery because the team produces cider on site.
Worst Behaving Restaurant Patrons (tie)
Trend that Won’t Die but Should: Never-Ending Menu Spiels
Smartphones are great because they come with stopwatch functionality that enables diners to covertly time servers’ never-ending menu spiels. The lengthiest one clocked this year was three minutes and 38 seconds at Whaley’s. That’s exactly how long it took to read every word on the menu. Usually these speeches start with, “Let me tell you about our concept.”
Trend Worth Celebrating: Bartenders Getting Their Due
Top regional bartenders like Trevor Frye are graduating to become bar operators, signifying now more than ever that the bar industry is a career with a ladder worth climbing. These pros seek out continuing education, restructure business plans to give bartenders a better shake when it comes to salary, and bring hospitality back to tending bar.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year
The steak tartare with tater tots at Hazel; smokehouse fish board at Ivy City Smokehouse; scallops with coconut risotto and basil ice cream at Kyirisan; kulfi over sweetened vermicelli noodles at Bindaas; fried chicken at Sweet Home Café; seafood tower at Whaley’s; lamb ribs at Tail Up Goat; persimmon with smoked oysters at Sushi Taro’s omakase counter; turnip cakes with XO crumble at Maketto; fried mozzarella with black truffles and fennel honey at All Purpose; chicken-fried morels at Kinship; and the “Rocky Balboa” at Daikaya with an onsen egg, sea urchin, and salmon roe.
Worst Dishes I Ate This Year
An arctic char starter at Convivial that was among several duds; listless and less-than-fresh fried oyster tacos at Espita; a plate of greying steak tartare hidden under a thick disk of frigid, veiny foie gras at BLT Prime; and a murky, over-salted seafood vadouvan at Blue Duck Tavern with empty clam shells and overcooked shrimp.
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