By Linah Colgrove, Foodable Contributor
Washington, D.C.’s food scene has seen steady growth over the last few years, but the needle went off the charts in 2013. More than 50 restaurants opened their doors in just a three month period last spring, and between the still-growing list of new restaurants and the constant buzz, the D.C. metro area has good reason to celebrate.
A few years ago, D.C. didn’t seem to be in the running for “best new food scene.” Sure, it’s been home to several powerhouse chefs and a handful of highly regarded restaurants (several located in D.C.’s surrounding suburbs, by the way), but D.C. always seemed to be at least a step behind other cities in the food culture department. Farm-to-table dining concepts? Everyone’s done (and is still doing) it. Gourmet food trucks? They just seemed to have hit their peak popularity in D.C. in the last year or two, while they’ve been a hit in cities like L.A., New York, and Austin for years. Self-serve frozen yogurt? By the time a Pinkberry finally opened in D.C., other cities were already onto the next big thing (read: cronuts).
Something for every palate – and GPS
Despite D.C. being a bit behind the trend at times, it certainly seems to be making up for it now. The new crop of restaurants alone boasts an incredibly diverse selection of dining options – from dumpling houses to fried chicken joints; affordable Italian to chic French bistros and Japanese Ramen shops; and everything in between. Aside from the diversity in cuisine, we’re also seeing restaurants attract diners to new neighborhoods and locations. Take The Red Hen, for example – Washingtonian Magazine’s recent vote for best new restaurant of the year. It’s located in Bloomingdale, a neighborhood in the heart of the city, but not a place where hot new restaurants typically pop up. Shaw, another neighborhood that’s at the tip of the very happening U St. Corridor, has seen several restaurant openings and pop-ups, most recently with Baby Wale, an eclectic and highly anticipated restaurant offering duck confit pupusas and New Jersey hot dogs.
It seems there’s a new restaurant to try in every part of the District and the surrounding suburbs. With all the choices, it can be tough to keep up with what you can find where, but there are certainly some trends worth noting.
Regardless of how one might feel about celebrity chefs, several of them have made a positive impact on the D.C. dining scene. It’s hard to mention celeb chefs from D.C. without immediately thinking of Chef Mike Isabella, the memorable tatted up Italian guy from Jersey who came in as his season’s Top Chef runner-up, and then went on to open three restaurants in a sixteen month time span. Isabella opened casual Italian Graffiato in the shadow of D.C.’s Verizon Center, and then went on to open Georgetown’s Mexican tapas restaurant, Bandolero, less than a year later. In the last few months, as part of D.C.’s restaurant explosion, Isabella opened both the Greek restaurant Kapnos and “G,” a casual sandwich shop side-by-side on 14th street.
Another celebrity of Top Chef fame, Bryan Voltaggio, opened the sprawling, modern restaurant Range just inside the D.C. city limits at the tail end of last year. And this summer, Voltaggio added a room to age meat – on display to diners – to give a glimpse of the before and after of the charcuterie board.
Other popular chefs, like Spike Mendelsohn, Richard Sandoval, Fabio Trabocchi, and Victor Albisu have also contributed to the city’s restaurant revolution by opening new restaurants in 2013.
From the Greek Kapnos to a number of new Italian eateries, European restaurants are cropping up all over the area. French restaurants especially – known to be a bit pricier and sometimes painfully hip – are all the rage. Ask anyone about Le Diplomate and they’ll either tell you how much they’re dying to go, how with pure luck they managed to get in at brunch without a wait, or just how tres magnifique the pommes frites, trout almondine, and milk chocolate pot de crème all are. Malmaison and Bearnaise are two additional spots sure to bring out the Francophile in you.
Etto, the new Logan Circle restaurant opened by D.C.’s infamous 2 Amy’s pizza owners, was recently hailed by hard-to-please Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema as a place where all the food impresses, and the pizza toppings – including cauliflower, pine nuts, and garlicky bread crumbs –spice up any pie. Ghibellina is also getting much acclaim for its cut-your-own, wood stove-baked pizzas. No matter how you slice it, pizza is in D.C. to stay.
Keep On Keepin’ On
As we transition to fall and the foliage in the District starts to change, so too will the tide shift from one foodie trend or hot new restaurant to the next. But this recent explosion in the food scene shows us one very sure thing about D.C.: when it comes to a vibrant new food scene with plenty for everyone, D.C. is a force to be reckoned with.