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I first put pen to paper as a City Paper staff member in July 2016, one month before Bon Appétit named D.C. the “Restaurant City of the Year.” Opening announcements flowed like Basque cider from a porrón. Tail Up Goat, Timber Pizza Co., Shouk, Espita, and HalfSmoke are just a few of the establishments that made their debut around that time and are still open today. Michelin released its first D.C. guide the same year. Washingtonians were high on small plates, craft cocktails, open kitchens, and live-fire cooking.
In that first year, I brought you a story about restaurants behaving badly on social media, enlisted a Chinese-speaking friend to translate restaurant signs in Chinatown, paid a small fee to dubiously certify my corgi as an emotional support animal in order to demonstrate how easy it is to dog the system, and questioned if bars have an intellectual property problem.
But beneath the surface of these seemingly trivial dramas, there was real trouble. Finding staff to support the District’s ballooning restaurant scene was daunting because D.C. is an expensive place to live and isn’t very dense. Stressed-out workers struggled to care for their physical and mental health. And, if you glance back at the sampling of restaurants that opened in 2016, only HalfSmoke is Black-owned. The restaurant boom wasn’t equitable, particularly in communities east of the river.
Fast-forward through the headline-makers over the next few years—the premiere of The Wharf, the swift collapse of Mike Isabella’s empire following sexual assault allegations, and the emotional, well-funded fight over eliminating the tipped minimum wage—and we arrive at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
In my final two years at City Paper, I pivoted from pontificating about what’s on the plate to covering restaurant owners fighting to save their businesses and the plight of the hospitality workers they kept on payroll, as well as the ones they laid off. The industry grappled with dramatic sales drops, unruly customers, sick employees, ruthless landlords, and disrupted supply chains. The city tasked servers, hosts, and managers with enforcing yo-yoing restrictions that changed with little notice.
Despite these challenges, restaurants proved their resilience by stifling their anxiety and dread long enough to reinvent their business models, serve neighbors in need, fight to hold on to jobs for employees who wouldn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, and devise ways to box up hospitality to go.
For many, it feels like the pandemic has released its clutches on D.C. As of this month, there are no longer indoor mask or vaccine mandates and social-distancing rules disappeared before the delta and omicron variants started spreading. If you stroll down nightlife corridors such as 14th Street NW or H Street NE on a Saturday night, you’ll see full establishments.
But talk to restaurateurs and they’ll tell you they’re not doing three turns on Tuesdays; they’re limiting their hours because they can’t find sous-chefs and shortening their menus because they have no idea if the monkfish they ordered will arrive. The omicron wave was financially devastating as diners rightfully stayed home. Beloved Burmese restaurant Thamee closed for good in January, saying the sales just weren’t there. Businesses that didn’t get a Restaurant Revitalization Fund grant are finding the road to recovery even more daunting.
I leave my post grateful to my colleagues, readers, and all those who trusted me to tell their stories. I’m hopeful that the region will eventually have a thriving dining scene that’s a better place to work for everyone, no matter their job or identity. Below are some thoughts on how we might get there if we work together.
Mayor Muriel Bowser wants a pulsing nightlife economy so badly that she allocated money to establish an Office of Nightlife and Culture in 2018. But how can the District compete with a city that never sleeps, like New York, if much of our public transportation system goes to bed earlier than a teen with a curfew?
Operating hours were a pain point when Bowser allowed hospitality businesses to fully reopen before Metro extended its operating hours in the spring of 2021. At the time, trains stopped running at 11 p.m. and hired-vehicle pricing was so high that Ubers home wiped out tips from a hard day’s work. Restaurant owners rarely foot the bill for reliable parking, and walking, biking, and taking the bus aren’t always options because some workers live far outside D.C. While Bowser has made some progress on her affordable housing goals, the rent is still too damn high in the neighborhoods where popular restaurants cluster.
City agencies also need to step up in case there are more crises. The Department of Employment Services consistently failed those who experienced pandemic-related layoffs, many of them bar and restaurant workers. System updates, technology glitches, multistate wage claims, a malfunctioning website, and misinformation from call-takers delayed benefits for weeks or months.
Other agencies, such as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and DC Health, can be so slow to complete licensing, permitting, and inspection requests that they doom small business owners who are already paying rent on restaurants that haven’t gotten the green light to open. The same goes for the alcohol licensing process that involves advisory neighborhood commissions.
The D.C. Council can lend support by continuing to regulate predatory third-party delivery apps as the public health emergency expires. It capped commission fees during the pandemic, but these fees are too aggressive even during good times. The Council could also consider legislating better protections for delivery drivers.
Landlords and Developers
If the people in control of leasing spaces in D.C. continue to put profit over the big picture, the District’s dining scene will no longer be distinct. People come to D.C. to taste the world at restaurants such as Bad Saint, Anju, Zenebech, Cane, Izakaya Seki, Jaleo, Thip Khao, and Lapis.
An onslaught of imports have set up shop in D.C., which often isn’t bad on an individual restaurant basis. Philadelphia’s Stephen Starr gave us Le Diplomate for prime people watching. But taken as a whole, it’s troubling that outsiders can more easily afford to rent or own commercial property in the District.
Hell’s Kitchen from Gordon Ramsay and Taffer’s Tavern from Jon Taffer are on their way. At a time when there’s an outcry for better working conditions, developers at The Wharf and in Penn Quarter inked deals with TV celebrities who normalized screaming in kitchens and bars. Taffer even complained about restaurant workers receiving unemployment benefits on Fox News in August 2021, arguing they should be starved into obedience like dogs. (He later apologized.)
Meanwhile, talented local chefs such as Paolo Dungca are eager to open their first restaurants but can’t afford spaces. Instead, Dungca’s trying to make magic in the mezzanine of a food hall. “For chefs like me—immigrants and people of color—it’s so hard to find opportunities to open a fine dining restaurant of this magnitude,” Dungca said in February. “You need to know enough investors and people with capital that can fund millions of dollars.”
There’s more to worry about than would-be restaurateurs. Recognizing that longtime businesses might not be able to afford their leases when they come up for renewal, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced three pieces of legislation in 2019 that would help legacy businesses stay put and stave off further gentrification threats. None of the initial bills made it to a full Council vote, but McDuffie reintroduced the Protecting Local Area Commercial Enterprises Amendment Act in 2021. The next step is a public hearing. Here’s hoping all three bills get fresh life.
America is addicted to affordable food and no wants one of life’s greatest pleasures to feel out of reach. That said, diners need to pay more for nights out or the middle could drop out of the hospitality industry. The dichotomy of fast casual and fine dining leaves out the kinds of restaurants that currently cost a table of two $100 to $150 to eat and drink well. These places, like The Red Hen, Estadio, Nina May, Stable, and Chloe, toil over how to stay in business while making diners feel like they’re getting a decent value. The average restaurant profit margin usually falls between 3 and 5 percent.
When you dine, you’re not just paying for someone to turn proteins, vegetables, and starches into composed plates. You’re paying for the space you’re sitting in; the ambience created by art, decor, and plateware; the wages and salaries of the people cooking, serving, and cleaning; upkeep and maintenance; the technology platforms that transmit orders; and, as of late, personal protective equipment. The pandemic didn’t make anything cheaper or easier to find.
Keeping meal prices artificially low to keep customers coming back also harms the workers in the satellite economies that support the restaurant industry—like the farmers and fishers who grow, raise, and catch our food; the truckers and distributors who ferry it around; and the trash haulers and linen cleaners who work while the city rests. Cheap food begets cheap labor.
It’s up to restaurants to make more expensive experiences feel worth it, but diners will need to tolerate moderate price bumps, even at a time when service might fall short of flawless. The workers who stayed in the industry are burned out and stretched thin and newer employees are still learning. Long training periods for fresh hires aren’t always possible if a slew of people call out with COVID-19.
Most diners did whatever they could to support their favorite restaurants and watering holes during the pandemic—they ordered extra takeout, bought gift cards and apparel, and tipped with abandon. Even though pandemic fatigue is forgivable, it’s not yet time to let the empathy well run dry.
Increasing pay, fortifying benefits, and improving work culture will continue to be critical tools to attract and retain staff. I liken the current moment to the beginning of the farm-to-table movement, when diners wanted to learn more about local sourcing and appreciated transparency on the topic. Now diners are curious if the line cooks who worked life-threatening jobs during the pandemic have health insurance, if their favorite bartender can take paid sick leave, and if Black and Brown employees feel supported. They might notice when they don’t see the same faces when they visit.
New restaurants continue to open, which means more competition for customers too. If restaurants want to reliably fill their dining rooms, they could take steps to attract groups who have felt alienated in the past—solo diners, senior diners, and diners with disabilities. As I reported in 2019, accessibility means more than merely measuring if a wheelchair can wedge through a door. It’s about attitude.
I learned from voraciously reading writers I admire and through my own reporting that the most interesting stories don’t always come from the head chefs and restaurateurs whose names and faces have dominated coverage for decades. Readers latched on to articles that shared the perspectives of crab sellers at Jessie Taylor Seafood, bouncers who aren’t big men, local rice farmers who only wear purple, and hosts tired of wearing high heels.
And the most impactful coverage doesn’t always come from the keyboards of people who look like me. A city’s food scene can always use more narrators who tell hard stories and find hidden gems that exist outside the PR vortex. That’s one reason we hired a freelance carryout food critic, Crystal Fernanders, in 2021. It doesn’t help that we lost big local voices this year when Anela Malik, Sabrina Medora, and Jessica van Dop DeJesus moved away.
The lack of diversity in food media exists for systemic reasons like hirers favoring unpaid internships over varied lived experiences, but also because breaking into the field can be expensive if you buy the meals that inform your coverage. Freelance rates and salaries don’t always hold up to high costs of living but should.
Still, the food beat is the best because of the people you meet and the unlimited storytelling potential. Food coverage can touch on labor, politics, race, immigration, history, culture, and the environment. If you need proof, consider my favorite City Paper story. After submitting negative TB tests, staff photographer Darrow Montgomery and I crawled into the lemur cage at the National Zoo to learn how keepers and commissary staff feed 350 species of animals.