When the news arrived on Aug. 10th that Bon Appétit magazine had named Washington, D.C. as America’s best restaurant city for 2016, the reaction was a mixture of surprise, gratification and awe. How did a city that is typically derided for having an antiquated steakhouse culture get the nod? The answer, in two words: Thanks, Obama.
Of course, the President doesn’t really bear responsibility for D.C.’s restaurant boom, but Bon Appétit’s announcement did highlight the First Couple’s penchant for date nights at restaurants across the city, including Rasika, Chez Billy Sud and Mintwood Place. It’s an important point, because the White House famously influences our local food scene, whether for better or for worse: in the modern era, Jackie Kennedy’s love of all things French brought a wave of Gallic food to the nation’s capital, while those storied steakhouses populated the K Street corridor when Reagan came riding into town, and McDonald’s saw a surge of popularity during the pre-vegan Bill Clinton era.
Legendary D.C. restaurateur Gus DiMillo, who arrived in the city in the 1970s, saw firsthand the impact of chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s award-winning eponymous restaurant that opened in 1979 at the Watergate: “We were a backwater until then,” DiMillo said in a 2015 interview in the Washington Blade, “but having a chef of the caliber of Jean-Louis here began to open up the possibilities.”
Native Washingtonian Ellen Kassoff, co-owner of Equinox with her husband, chef Todd Gray, who trained in Palladin’s kitchen, recounts that the restaurant that once stood on the same spot where Equinox is today, a block from the White House, was serving farm-to-table cuisine as early as the 1950s. Chef François Haeringer grew his own food for L’Auberge Chez François before moving the restaurant out to northern Virginia in the 1970s, which accommodated more space for growing.
“When his chefs came into work, they had to come find him in the garden and shake his hand,” Kassoff says. “His hands would be covered in soil and it reminded those young chefs where their food came from.”
Indeed, our mid-Atlantic region has been cranking out local crab cakes, oysters, collard greens and hush puppies for generations, with a slew of immigrants contributing regional flavors from across the globe, including Ethiopia, Vietnam and El Salvador, resulting in a true melting pot cuisine. In a city that already had more community gardens per capita than anywhere else in the country, Michelle Obama’s establishment of the White House kitchen garden kept the focus on eating good, local food. D.C. chefs Carla Hall, Mike Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio, propelled to national fame by “Top Chef,” showed the nation that we had something to offer besides steak and potatoes, drawing more culinary talent to the area.
While some might see D.C. as being in the midst of a restaurant revolution, locals know that it’s more accurately described as an evolution. Chef Nora Pouillon championed chemical-free cuisine long before it was fashionable at Restaurant Nora, the nation’s first certified organic restaurant, while Michel Richard, who died last weekend at age 68, offered playful French twists on such American classics as KFC-style fried chicken that could be purchased in a to-go bucket (a TripAdvisor review once stated that the dish was so life-changing that it “must have been made from the sweat of nuns and the tears of small babies”). The inimitable José Andrés can certainly be credited for single-handedly establishing D.C. as a small plates destination while consistently crafting vegetarian-friendly menus.
Building on an established foundation, restaurants like Rose’s Luxury, Bad Saint, the Dabney, Tail Up Goat, Espita Mezcaleria and Little Serow are playing with ingredients and flavors with bold style and attention to detail. The sheer numbers of restaurants opening across the city and the larger region, along with breweries, wineries, distilleries and a wide array of food entrepreneurs, is staggering, and all that remains to be seen is if we have enough of a dining population to support the surge.
When the Obamas came to town — from Chicago, a city rife with seriously good restaurants — the message was clear: feed us your best, and we’ll let everybody know about it. For some of us, Bon Appétit’s accolades are no surprise, and a long time coming. Eat out. Eat up. No matter who ends up winning the White House in November, D.C.’s got the goods.
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer; follow her kitchen adventures on Twitter, @kristenhartke.