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Traditional foodie wisdom tells us the best tacos must surely come from the Mexican immigrant with the roadside stand and the best gnocchi is hand-made by an Italian nonna off some cobblestone alley in Sicily. Authenticity is something of a Holy Grail in the food world: highly prized and highly elusive. But lately, ethnic cuisines that were once the domain of immigrant populations in the suburbs have been adopted and reinterpreted in the District’s trendiest restaurants. And the chefs cooking the food didn’t necessarily grow up in those cultures. Instead, many rely on cookbooks or crash-course travels. The result may be a dilution of what “authentic” means—but for diners, it also means new forms of “inspired by” cuisine.
A lack of experience with a cuisine doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to good food. Little Serow, inspired by Komi chef Johnny Monis’ travels to northern Thailand, earned a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant in America this year. Chef Scott Drewno, who grew up in upstate New York without ever being exposed to ginger and lemongrass, now cooks some of the best Chinese food in D.C. at The Source. And the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington named Estadio best new restaurant last year, even though chef Haidar Karoum had never visited Spain until preparing for the restaurant’s opening. None of those spots make any pretense of traditional “authenticity.” It turns out that if it tastes good, D.C. diners will embrace creative license—as long as restaurants don’t pretend to be something they’re not.