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Washington just can’t seem to escape its reputation as a steak-and-potatoes town.
For decades, the stereotypes of lobbyists with expense accounts cavorting over charred chunks of meat have overshadowed the city’s culinary cred. Only in recent years has the District started to erase memories of ribeyes and dudes in suits with its explosion of neighborhood joints, markets, food trucks, pop-ups, breweries, and other artisan ventures.
But the steakhouse won’t go away. Out-of-town celebrity chefs and national restaurant groups are helping to keep Washington’s outdated image alive by continuing to open steakhouse after steakhouse. In the coming year, the proliferation of grilled meat isn’t slowing down one bit. The same restaurant group behind Del Frisco’s Grille will bring Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House to CityCenter, and Chicago-based Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab is coming to 15th and H streets NW, just a block from the White House. STK, the “modern steakhouse geared toward females,” is on its way to Dupont. And then there are a couple South American twists on the steakhouse from some big names: Philadelphia-based celebrity chef Jose Garces is working on a yet-unnamed Argentinian steakhouse at the Loews Madison Hotel in Thomas Circle, and restaurateur Richard Sandoval (of El Centro D.F. and Masa 14) has a Latin steakhouse called Toro Toro in the works around Franklin Square.
Steakhouses aren’t necessarily bad. I’ve had stellar meals at several. But does D.C. really need another onslaught of them? Why aren’t these restaurateurs bringing more innovative or unique concepts here?
In a recent interview with Eater, Sandoval was asked why he thought Toro Toro, which also has locations in Dubai and Miami, would work in Washington. “In D.C., people love steakhouses,” he said. “You think expense accounts, you think lobbyists. It’s something that’s familiar to everyone.” (Sandoval was not available for an interview for this story.)
But expense accounts aren’t what they used to be, and Washingtonians aren’t demanding steak. There’s no void to be filled here. Rather, it’s restaurateurs pushing the trend. Big out-of-town operators come to D.C. because they see a lot of people with a lot of money fueling a booming restaurant scene, and they know a steakhouse is a relatively low-risk venture.
“These are all proven concepts. It’s the chefs and the people financing the chefs saying, ‘we need more of these,’” says Mark Bucher, who owns Cleveland Park steak frites joint Medium Rare. It’s not that there are typically high profit margins on steak; Bucher says steakhouses tend to make their money from wine and martinis. Bucher calls the steakhouse a “safe bet” for restaurateurs. “Everyone loves steak. It’s the old American standby,” he says. “And no matter what you say, D.C.’s dining has been built on steak and potatoes.”
Restaurant real estate broker Tom Papadopoulos, who worked with Toro Toro and is helping bring another yet-undisclosed steakhouse that’s “not on the East Coast” to D.C., echoes that idea: “Steakhouses are easy because when you go to a steakhouse, you know that they’re going to have fish, they’re going to have stuff on their menu that pleases everybody,” he says. “It’s a noncontroversial place. It’s not like saying to a group of six people, ‘Let’s go to an Indian restaurant or an ethnic restaurant’ where some people may or may not like it.”
Noncontroversial, perhaps, but frequently boring. It says something that you won’t find traditional steakhouses in the city’s most exciting and fastest-growing dining destinations like 14th Street NW and H Street NE. Most of Washington’s steakhouses are downtown, where they primarily cater to tourists and the business and political crowds.
When Garces announced plans to open a restaurant in D.C., the local reaction was split: excited to see the arrival of another well-respected chef and restaurateur, not so into what he was bringing. Garces doesn’t operate any other steakhouses. His 15-restaurant business is better known for Spanish tapas, Peruvian-Cantonese fusion, and Mexican small plates—all of which sound more in line with foodie tastes in D.C. at the moment.
Washingtonian critic Todd Kliman (a former Washington City Paper staffer) summed up the collective disappointment over Garces’ steakhouse best in his online chat: “Out-of-town restaurateurs look at DC these days the way free agents not so long ago looked at Dan Snyder’s [Pigskins]. As a cash machine. A place to make easy money. They’re not, in the main, coming here to do their really interesting work.”
Garces says via email that he’d been wanting to delve into Argentinian cuisine for a while, and he felt a steakhouse would be a great addition to D.C.’s culinary landscape because it was “bringing something both familiar, like great steak, but also new.” He adds that he tries to take into consideration the tastes and history of the dining scene in a city before opening there. “Steakhouses in Washington not only have great food, but many have become an intrinsic part of the community, great watering holes where people come and stay,” Garces says. “Being a true part of the community is our goal, on top of offering fantastic steaks.”
Again, another restaurateur who thinks Washingtonians just can’t get enough steak. The majority of steakhouses in D.C.—Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, Bobby Van’s, The Palm, McCormick & Schmick’s, Smith & Wollensky—are chains. They’re intrinsic in the community in the same way as McDonald’s: There’s a lot of ‘em. And they’ve been here a while. But with a couple exceptions, they lack a community feel and sentimental value.
At least the new steak joints have ditched some of the cliches of the last generation. No longer stuffy old boys’ clubs with dark-paneled walls, the latest arrivals are trendy eateries with menus that span far beyond creamed spinach and New York strip. D.C. may have long been a steak and potato town, but only recently, says Medium Rare’s Bucher, has it started to become “steak chic.” In some cases this may not be something to celebrate: I think we could all do without the sexist undertones of STK’s “female-friendly” small plates and flirty decor. But more steakhouses are expanding their nonred-meat offerings and putting creative twists on traditional fare in hipper, more approachable settings.
“I’ve been in this town for a long time, and people have been saying, ‘Oh no, not another steakhouse’ for decades,” says Del Campo chef/owner Victor Albisu, who was previously chef at BLT Steak. At Del Campo, he’s managed to create a steakhouse that doesn’t really feel like a steakhouse; the South American grill has a vegetarian tasting menu that rivals the meat-heavy one. Albisu says the reason steakhouses persist in D.C. is because people like them. But now, expectations for these establishments have changed. “Diners want really good and interesting experiences,” he says. “And now more than ever, they want authentic experiences. Everybody’s so much more into food and knowledgeable about food.”
Some of the most successful and critically acclaimed steakhouses in Washington are hardly steakhouses at all. The term almost seems like a misnomer for Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. Yes, the restaurant serves filet mignon, ribeye, and New York strip, but lobster pot pie, duck fat fries, and killer cocktails seem to get far more recognition. “I think I’ve been there 20 times,” Albisu says of Bourbon Steak, “and I’ve eaten meat once.” If Bourbon Steak changed its name to Bourbon Restaurant, I often wonder if people would still identify it as a steakhouse.
Still, D.C. may not be able to rid its dreary meat and potatoes image anytime soon. If there’s easy money to be made, restaurants will add “steakhouse” to their names, no matter what else they offer. But maybe one day, out-of-town restaurateurs will get the hint and realize Washingtonians want much more than that.
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Photo of Bourbon Steak by Darrow Montgomery