The New York Times may be a little slow to take note, but the D.C. dining scene is finally getting some national recognition that doesn’t involve places catering to lobbyists with expense accounts. Local hotspot Rose’s Luxury was named best new restaurant in America by Bon Appetit. And the celebrity-chef invasion is in full swing, with the arrival of Rural Society from Jose Garces, Tico from Michael Schlow, and DBGB Kitchen + Bar from Daniel Boulud. (David Chang’s Momofuku and Mario Batali–backed Eataly are also on the way.)
On the flip side, these big names don’t always live up to expectations, and D.C. could use another steakhouse like it could use another faux-speakeasy. Fortunately, the food and drink scene is growing in all sorts of other ways. Sophisticated neighborhood haunts like the Partisan, Crane & Turtle, and Ocopa opened this year, along with unfussy places like Meats & Foods and District Fishwife. (Not to mention the city’s first Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao.) The availability of local beer and food products is growing, along with incubators that support them. Pop-ups and collaborations are giving a stage to new talent and lots of wonderfully weird mash-ups. And drinking shots from an ice cream sandwich is now a thing, thanks to Pop’s SeaBar. To reflect back on the memorable moments and missteps, here are The Hungries: the best, worst, and weirdest of 2014.
Most Underhyped Restaurant: Bar Pilar
With 20-odd restaurants opening on 14th Street NW over the past two years, many older spots have unfortunately faded to the background. Bar Pilar still packs a crowd of loyal regulars, but it doesn’t get as much attention as its shinier, buzzier neighbors. That’s a shame, because the food may just be the best it’s ever been. The banh mi with coconut milk pork shoulder and pho dip is, surprisingly, one of the most satisfying sandwiches of its kind in the city. The lamb belly bolognese gnocchi and Spanish white anchovies on grilled bread are other favorites. Meanwhile, the cocktail and beer selection remain solid and affordable. In fact, happy hour is a steal compared to other restaurants along the corridor. If you haven’t been in a while, it’s worth returning.
Most Overhyped Restaurant: DBGB Kitchen & Bar
When Daniel Boulud descended upon D.C. to open DBGB Kitchen + Bar, starry-eyed chefs and diners swooned. The New York–based celebrity chef debuted his CityCenterDC restaurant with an over-the-top opening party complete with red carpet, live band, room full of VIPs, Washington Monument ice sculpture, decadent charcuterie and raw bar, and a six-foot baked Alaska lit afire with a blowtorch. The French-American brasserie fare is good, but so far, it doesn’t live up to the fanfare that preceded it—or the steep prices. (The Frenchie burger with confit pork belly will set you back $19.) For all the anticipation, media frenzy, and reverence for the man behind the place, DBGB is ultimately not one of the most memorable restaurant openings of 2014.
Hardest Reservation to Score: Rose’s Luxury’s Roof Garden
Komi, Minibar—sorry. Your tables are no longer the hardest to get in town. That distinction goes to Rose’s Luxury’s roof garden. The herb- and flower-filled balcony, which debuted this summer, is the only place where you can get an actual reservation at the restaurant. (Unless you threw down $1,000 for one of the seats auctioned for charity last month.) Reservations for parties of eight to 10 people were released on the restaurant’s website at 11 a.m. every Monday, three weeks in advance. Every seating typically booked up in seconds. Right now, the table is literally impossible to reserve; it’s closed this winter as the restaurant works to enclose it for year-round use. But when it reopens, expect more fierce competition. For $125, guests can keep ordering food—some of the best in the city—until they can’t eat any more.
Best Story That Never Got Published: Le Diplomate Sex Tape
There’s a new contender for “best restaurant to bang in the bathroom:” uber-trendy Le Diplomate. An anonymous tipster emailed Y&H two videos in October of a couple doing it in the restaurant’s women’s restroom. Y&H has decided not to publish the videos, but one shows the couple’s feet inside a stall. In the other, they’re against a wall in plain view—right next to the baby changing table. The tipster claims (although Y&H can not independently verify) to have taken the video on a Friday around midnight, and the couple, apparently, were “in the zone and didn’t see.” It seems the vintage photos of topless women aren’t the raciest thing in Le Diplomate’s restrooms after all.
Worst Trend: Steakhouses
When will people stop opening steakhouses already? It’s hard enough shaking the reputation of a boring, expense account-fueled town all about red meat, but new places like Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, STK, Rural Society, and Toro Toro keep coming. And it’s not letting up: Mastro’s Steakhouse, Claudia’s Steakhouse, and Texas de Brazil are also on the way. While some steakhouses are fantastic, there’s really no need for yet another place serving ribeyes and mashed potatoes. When will out-of-town restaurant groups and celebrity chefs get the hint?
Best Collaboration: Anju
Chefs have teamed up with each other, local brewers, and craft producers on all kinds of pop-ups, dishes, drinks, and even restaurants. But one of the best culinary collisions to happen this year was Mandu’s guest chef series called Anju, which takes place at 10 p.m. on the first Friday of every month. Daikaya’s Katsuya Fukushima, Birch & Barley’s Kyle Bailey, Del Campo’s Victor Albisu, and many others have joined host chefs Danny Lee (owner of Mandu) and Jonah Kim (soon to open Yona in Ballston) to create their crazy twists on Korean cuisine. Mac and kimcheese, ramen quesadillas, bulgogi cavatelli, and mapo tofu frito pie are just some of the drunk foods to come out of these collaborations.
Best Secret Document: The D.C. Food Writers Dossier
Finally, the reviewed becomes the reviewer. A restaurant vet, who wished to remain anonymous, revealed a “handbook” earlier this year with photos of and details about D.C.’s food critics and writers. The document was used to better equip managers, maitre d’s, servers, and hosts to recognize people in the local food media and to understand their writing styles and preferences. It detailed likes and dislikes, what kind of server should wait on who, and even rated people, including Y&H, on food knowledge and writing skills. I still get teased for my “intermediate” food and beverage knowledge.
Worst Restroom Idea: Toro Toro
There aren’t enough fetishists to justify the restroom arrangement Toro Toro had when it opened in March. The men’s room and the women’s room shared a large basin sink with a mirror separating the two. The problem? A huge gap gave ladies a clear view of guys at the urinals. (Women had more privacy, with cowskin-covered doors on the stalls.) The place just seemed to be begging for flashers. Fortunately, the restaurant has avoided any potential indecent exposure charges and since closed the gap between the restrooms, so no more peeking.
Most Bizarre Idea That’s Still Pretty Good: Pop’s SeaBar’s Ice Cream Sandwich Luge
Bartenders have concocted all sorts of weird ways to imbibe alcohol—from cocktails paired with homemade flavored lip balms at Trummer’s On Main to dumpling shooters (like oyster shooters) at Chaplin’s Restaurant & Bar. Gimmicky doesn’t usually mean good, but I’ll make an exception for the ice cream sandwich luge at Pop’s SeaBar. Basically, you get a mint chocolate chip ice cream sandwich with a channel carved along the side. Then you take a shot of amaro and pour it from one end of the sandwich into your mouth. The creation comes from bartender Eddie Kim, who used to prepare the luge as an off-menu late-night special at Room 11. It was inspired by the bone marrow luge—a fad among bartenders several years ago, where a shot of amaro or sherry was poured down half a bone after the marrow was cleaned out. The ice cream sandwich luge can be messy and awkward. But you still wind up with a shot and an ice cream sandwich, which is not a bad combo.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year
Banh mi with coconut milk pork shoulder and pho dip at Bar Pilar; fish and chips at District Fishwife; “Southern caviar” (spicy smoked pimento cheese) tigelle at Red Apron Butcher; red wine-poached duck egg with roasted garlic toast and chanterelles at Chez Billy Sud; sungold tomato pasta at Rose’s Luxury; eel rice bowl at Donburi; vegetarian tacos from Chaia; peas with bacon and poached egg at Tico; cold ramen at Daikaya; cherry gazpacho with clam at Crane & Turtle; cauliflower with pine nuts and saffron at Etto; clasico ceviche at Ocopa; pici carrettiera at Ghibellina; sausages at Meats & Foods; charcuterie assortment at the Partisan; Shaanxi-style homemade noodles at Panda Gourmet; Grand Chesapeake Boil for two at Eat the Rich.
Worst Dish I Ate This Year
The cold spicy ramen noodle salad on the opening menu of Chaplin’s Restaurant & Bar was neither cold nor spicy. The supposedly chilled noodles were lukewarm, and the heat was as muted as the restaurant’s namesake, Charlie Chaplin. But it was the flavor of salty playdough that I couldn’t get past after a couple bites. A few pieces of pink pickled ginger and a sprinkling of scallions couldn’t mask the off taste and texture. The only vaguely redeeming ingredients were the bits of candied cashews, but even they were haphazardly thrown on the plate. The opening chef has since left the restaurant, and this dish fortunately went with him.