The first Young & Hungry column I wrote, almost five years ago, was a review of Miss Saigon in Georgetown. I was auditioning for the job of food columnist for Washington City Paper, and these were my marching orders in December 2005: critique a Vietnamese restaurant that no one cared about. I was puzzled, but I dutifully turned in a 975-word review.
The editors promptly tore it apart, word by word. I’m not sure how many editors had a say on my first draft, but it felt like management was treating my Y&H debut as the journalistic equivalent of a tackling dummy. I figured it was a test of my mettle, particularly when an editor told me I wasn’t brilliant enough to use metaphors. I couldn’t tell if he was bullshitting, but I knew for certain that if I were to survive as the City Paper food columnist, I was going to need to develop thicker skin. This was no place for wallflowers who want to craft their prose in monk-like solitude, guided only by their “muse” and some arch, overly precious sense of the food world. The editors stood steadfastly against preciousness on all fronts.
Half a decade later, I look back on the edit of that first column (sample comments: “Fuck this; I hate this equivocation. Forget what I said up top about you keeping a strong POV throughout this piece” and “I don’t give a flying fuck what your entrée was!”) with a mix of nostalgia and bile-churning, spit-hurling anger, which was probably the whole point. Editors had time back then to find your pressure points and see if, by pressing them, they could make you a better writer and reporter.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to turn my farewell column into some sentimental, revisionist claptrap about how journalism needs more editors who treat their reporters like Bo Pelini treats his star quarterback. No, I’m just reflecting back on how much things have changed in five years, starting with the very job I’m leaving. Back in February 2006, when I officially became the paper’s next Young & Hungry, I wrote exactly one column a week. I went through at least three drafts on each column. I answered further questions from the copy desk. I didn’t blog at all. We didn’t even have a blog at City Paper. And today? Well, let’s just say I miss the old work load.
The food and dining scene has experienced its own growing pains. Consider that in late 2005:
• Washingtonians had a president who never visited restaurants. George W. Bush was content to sit in the White House, choking down pretzels while watching football. By contrast, Washington now has a president who has stopped at some of the area’s most recognizable restaurants, both high and low end, from Komi to Five Guys Burgers & Fries. In one instance, the president’s visit propelled a popular eatery, Ray’s Hell Burger, into the stratosphere. Owner Michael Landrum was forced to put his planned seafood restaurant on hold and expand the Hell Burger empire. That’s a good problem for a local restaurateur to have.
• The District boasted restaurants by Todd English and Charlie Palmer, but our biggest celebrity chef was a Frenchman, Michel Richard, who dared to base his operations in D.C. In the intervening years, chefs of varying celeb status have decided to throw up a restaurant and drill down into our wallets. On one end you have a TV-generated, semi-celebrity like Spike Mendelsohn who has also made D.C. his home, while on the other, you have a Michelin-star hoarder like Alain Ducasse who thought he’d send some emissaries down to D.C. and start cashing in on his considerable reputation. There are benefits on both sides of this star spectrum, but there are also sinkholes. Some of these culinary carpetbaggers take dining dollars (and sometimes kitchen talent) away from the home team.
• Roberto Donna still had his Galileo empire. He not only had the flagship restaurant, but also the Osteria and the Laboratorio. He was also hawking grilled sandwiches on the sidewalk outside of Galileo. Five years and one failed restaurant later, the chef returned to D.C. with a storm cloud over his head. He owes taxes to Arlington County, owes money to former employees, and owes the people a better accounting of his abuse of public money.
• H Street NE was a great spot for fried whiting and a tall boy. No strip has changed as much as this patch of Northeast. The Ohio Restaurant was one of the early pioneers on H Street, hawking chef-driven soul food from a ragged outpost at H and 14th streets. But other dining destinations soon popped up. Granville Moore’s, Taylor Gourmet, Sticky Rice, Liberty Tree, Biergarten Haus, H Street Country Club, The Atlas Room. These (and others yet to come) are turning the street into a dining destination. Imagine what the area will be like once the city completes that goddamn streetcar project.
• Unless you count those motorized hot dog wagons down by the National Mall, the District didn’t have a single food truck. D.C.’s streets have made a remarkable turnaround in the past two years, breaking the death grip of the depot owners who have controlled the city’s curbside eats for decades. If and when the D.C. Council ever passes new vendor regulations, you can expect to see even more variety on our streets. I know for certain that Kushi, my current favorite for Japanese cooking, plans to launch a yakitori truck in D.C. But what the District really needs, as a colleague recently pointed out, is a gourmet coffee truck. Nick Cho, are you listening? Have you paid off your tax bill yet?
• The craft beer craze was just in its embryonic phase in the District. We had brewpubs, of course, but if you wanted to sample the best of the world’s craft beer, you pretty much had to give your money to Dave and Diane Alexander, whether at the Brickskeller in Dupont or Regional Food and Drink in Chinatown. These days? You can’t wander the streets without running face-first into a Dogfish Head tap. Craft beers are everywhere. Rustico (two locations now, with perhaps more to come), CommonWealth Gastropub, Pizzeria Paradiso (three locations), Meridian Pint, Brasserie Beck, Granville Moore’s, Black Squirrel, Restaurant 3, and the mother of all beer emporiums, ChurchKey, have transformed D.C. into suds city.
• Peter Chang and Fabio Trabocchi were still cooking in area kitchens. At the time, Chang was mesmerizing diners at TemptAsian Cafe in Alexandria, while Trabocchi was blowing away patrons with his gourmet takes on Italian cooking at Maestro in Tysons Corner. Within two years, both Chang and Trabocchi were gone. But after a rollercoaster ride in New York City, Trabocchi is returning next year to open Fiola in the former Le Paradou space in Penn Quarter. And Chang? Well, after forcing his fans to follow him around the country like jilted lovers, the chef has apparently settled down in Charlottesville, where he’s scheduled to open Peter Chang China Grill in January. Has anyone started a pool yet to see how long it lasts?
• The Washington area had only three four-star restaurants, according to Tom Sietsema’s 2005 Dining Guide. They were Maestro, Citronelle, and the Inn at Little Washington. Sietsema’s latest Dining Guide listed five four-star performers. Citronelle and the Inn made repeat appearances on the list, joined by Komi, Rasika, and Restaurant Eve. A previous four-star restaurant, CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental, was nowhere to be found on Sietsema’s 2010 survey. No one can accuse the critic of ratings creep at the top end.
• The boutique pizza market had two main players: Pizzeria Paradiso and 2Amys (OK, and maybe Ella’s). The pie options today are stupefying, a reminder that the recession continues to force many restaurateurs into safe, cheap, and consumer-friendly choices. The new pizzerias are too numerous to mention, but here’s one indication of how ridiculous our pie market is today: Not one but two Frenchmen have opened pizza joints (Pizze in Woodley Park, and Seventh Hill in Capitol Hill), no doubt generating a small forest of raised eyebrows among the Gallic community, which tends to view Italian cuisine as something to feed the family pet.
• There was no Urban Daddy, no Thrillist, no Tasting Table, no TBD, no NBC Feast, and damn few bloggers ambitious enough to fight for every scoop that used to land like a butterfly onto the lap of print journalists. The competition for information today is fiercer than ever.
With this week’s column, I’m ending a City Paper tenure that has had its own mood swings. My beat and responsibilities have had to evolve and expand to reflect a changing media environment as well as a changing culinary one. This is the truth of modern journalism. We must find new ways to look at old subjects. We must venture beyond our usual circles to find the next person who wants to revolutionize what we eat. Anyone in my line of work knows that food can never, ever be treated like something too precious to withstand tough scrutiny. But my time at the paper, from that brutal first edit back in the one-column-a-week days to the radical shifts in job responsibilities that accompanied the old news media’s discovery of the Internet proves that we dead-tree types are more adaptable than you think.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery