At the end of their meal, the two old ladies sitting next to us at Rose’s Luxury on Barracks Row lean over their empty dishes to swap notes. They rave about the crispy octopus with burnt lemon and the caramelized cauliflower with Greek yogurt. I tell them next time they should try the pickle juice-brined fried chicken.

But the biggest raves from our neighboring diners are for something less obvious: the bread. Beautiful, warm, pillowy bread. Served on flowery antique china, the potato loaf comes hot from the oven with a side of “potato skin” butter—a whipped quenelle with buttermilk tang, topped with fried potato skin crumbles and chives.

“That could be their downfall,” one of the women says. “You eat all this bread, and you want to eat more bread.”

Chef/owner Aaron Silverman says guests just don’t expect bread anymore. “At least I don’t,” he says. “If I get it, I’m shocked. If it’s good, I’m even more blown away.”

That attitude is so 2011. Two years ago, the Washington Post bemoaned the “disappearing bread basket” as restaurants looked for ways to cut costs. But with a new influx of dining competition, financial prudence is rivaled by another force: the need for something special, something unquestionably crowd-pleasing to give restaurants an edge and provide the buzzword of the moment—value. At a slew of new eateries, the bread basket is back, with more generous offerings and gourmet accoutrements than ever. From Del Campo’s cast-iron bread with whipped smoked lardo to Teddy & The Bully Bar’s truffle duck fat biscuits, restaurants aren’t just offering lowly carbs to pass time before a meal. Many are putting as much thought into baked goods as they would a pork chop. And they’re doing it for free.

Some dining establishments are even making a point of showing off their baking front and center: At Teddy & The Bully Bar, there’s an oven and bread station parked in the front of the dining room so guests don’t just see the baked dough, but smell it. Le Diplomate’s bread-carving station, piled high with baguettes and boules in front of the bar, is one of the first things diners behold as they walk into the Parisian-style brasserie.

“One of the things D.C. suffered from in the past was a lack of attention to detail, and I think that has really changed,” says Le Diplomate general manager William Washington, who’s also worked at Blue Duck Tavern and Inn at Little Washington. In order to separate themselves from the slew of shiny new eateries, Washington says, restaurants have been forced to go back to the details. “And bread programs are a huge part of that, especially for the European-based restaurants,” he says.

Le Diplomate is all about the details, from the purposely squeaky wood floors to the rack of French newspapers. Bread is no exception. Each table gets a basket—stuffed with hefty slices of a cranberry walnut boule, a rustic rye wheat boule, and a sourdough baguette—that could easily be a meal in itself. The restaurant knows the bread is the first thing people will eat, so it has the power to set the tone for the rest of the meal. “You put an order in, the next thing that hits that table is that bread basket, and it should just take you there,” Washington says. “And that is, for us, priceless.”

Birch & Barley pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac says the fact that more restaurants have started designated pastry program in recent years has helped improve bread offerings. “Bread is one of those things that often people feel an obligation to put it on the table. It’s a really hard thing to coordinate to make it great,” she says. “But I think more and more people are just committing to it.”

From a purely economic standpoint, however, a bread basket, especially an elaborate one, doesn’t make much sense. Not only are restaurants giving away free food, they’re filling people up on it, making them less likely to order more dishes.

At Birch & Barley, each meal begins with a wooden board displaying beer pretzels, pumpernickel or olive rolls, and either cornbread or biscuits with homemade mustard and butter. The free offering is a loss leader; MacIsaac estimates that it costs the restaurant more than $100 a day to produce. She says that two people spend at least three hours a day on the bread, and some of the ingredients—two and a half gallons of beer a day for the pretzel rolls, kalamata olives, butter, and eggs—aren’t cheap.

“It is a huge expense when it’s that much bread per person, but I think it’s definitely worth it,” MacIsaac says. “Every night, at least five or six tables will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t order that’…It’s so much more than they would expect that they think it’s something they’re going to get charged for.”

MacIsaac says the bread board started out as a sort of distraction for diners while the kitchen worked out timing when it first opened. But people loved it so much that cutting it would now mean major blowback. She says they’ve never considered charging for it.

At the forthcoming brewery and restaurant Bluejacket, which is owned by Birch & Barley operator Neighborhood Restaurant Group, MacIsaac wants to keep bread a highlight. Every table will receive dinner rolls made with sesame, honey, and spent grain left over from beer production. MacIsaac is also playing around with reducing the wort (the liquid from the mashing process) to create a syrup for a take on honey butter.

“It’s hard to really understand what having a great bread program does for your restaurant until over time people continuously write about it, talk about it,” MacIsaac says. “It becomes a feature of the restaurant.”

Le Diplomate goes through 200 to 500 baguettes and 100 to 300 of each of the boules a day. This summer, only a few months after its opening, the restaurant relocated its bakery from the back of the kitchen to a separate facility at an undisclosed address off U Street NW to have more space and better humidity control. Three to five bakers work all day, every day, making bread under the guidance of head baker Larry Kilbourne.

Washington, his assistant, and one of the chefs personally drive the bread to the restaurant two to four times a day in a highly orchestrated routine: The bakers all line up and run the bread to a car, which must have its windows closed. Then when the car is a block away from the restaurant, Washington calls to have the staff line up again to quickly transport everything inside to the drying racks. “We’re a little fanatical about it,” he says.

But the whole ballet, the staff, and the time are worth it, Washington says, because it’s intrinsic to the overall experience. “Bread doesn’t generate revenue. Revenue is generated because of bread,” Washington says. “To us, it’s almost like electricity…It is as essential as having hot water. We look at it as an operating expense, and we treat it just like that.”

Not to mention that bread is one thing diners just expect to be free, no matter how gourmet it is or how much work goes into it.

Teddy & The Bully Bar initially tried to charge for its bread basket ($2 for one type of bread or $6 for the full selection), but diners complained. Chef Demitrio Zavala says they didn’t want to give people an excuse to say anything negative about the restaurant, so after a few weeks, the bread became complimentary. The basket remains just as generous as it was at the beginning, with a seasonally changing selection that on a recent evening included brioche, chocolate brioche, bacon cornbread, a sugar-dusted biscuit, and a flax seed cracker with a hint of cayenne. All that was accompanied by butter, blackberry sage jam, and a spread made with Swiss chard, pine nuts, and bacon.

At Rose’s Luxury, Silverman says he plans to also rotate the bread selection, like his seasonally changing menu, to possibly include brioche with bone marrow butter, cornbread, olive oil crackers, and more.

He knows he could charge for bread and make an extra $200 or so a month. But ultimately, that wouldn’t do much for him.

“We’re not just trying to make a nickel off everybody,” Silverman says. “We’re trying to make people happy.”

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Photo by Jessica Sidman