Mediterranean Grows in the D.C. Area

By Rick Zambrano, Foodable Industry Expert

Cava Grill rice bowl with chicken, cucumber, cabbage slaw & feta

Cava Grill rice bowl with chicken, cucumber, cabbage slaw & feta

Mediterranean cuisine has continued to grow in popularity around the country, and in the Washington, D.C. area, there are many Mediterranean restaurant choices for diners. 

Home-grown Cava Mezze and its fast-casual sister Cava Grill have received a lot of attention as of late on top of $16M in investment to expand to the west coast. The Greek-centric Cava Grill chain, with $30M in annual revenues, has competition in Roti, a Mediterranean fast-casual chain with 11 restaurants in D.C. Roti is now a regular part of the fast-casual dining scene in the D.C. area, although it’s imported from Chicago. Kapnos by celebrity chef Mike Isabella has been a mainstay in the 14th Street corridor of D.C. since 2013, and has remained popular due to tasty adoptions of regional Greek influences in its cuisine.

Arlingtonians across the Potomac River from D.C. were glad to see the arrival of Kapnos Taverna. If anyone could easily challenge the fast-casual empire of Cava, it would be Chef Isabella and Taverna Executive Chef and Partner George Pagonis. Kapnos Taverna received good reviews from critic Tom Sietsema, who enjoy a wide variety of dishes there. Some of his favorites were the Seafood Tower, a plate of crustacean delights that will run about $125, the 3-pound whole lamb shoulder ($75), and whole branzino (European seabass, $20) infused with dill butter. Dinner at Kapnos Taverna will leave a good dent in your wallet, but appears to be well worth it.

Benefits of a Mediterranean-Style Diet

Restaurants and cuisines are adopting influences from Mediterranean Rim countries, including Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Algeria, Malta and Italy. The Mediterranean diet received a big boost this year from a study that found those who followed the diet experienced less cognitive decline as they aged, Forbes reported. It’s definitely powerful — this correlation of brain power and a Mediterranean-style diet, which relies less on starch and meat, and more on plant-based foods, like vegetables, legumes and nuts, in addition to fish and poultry. A Mediterranean-style diet is becoming more aligned with healthy eating, and this is appealing to those in and outside the D.C. market. The use of mild spices, fresh vegetables, legumes, honey, and a wide variety of comfort-food-type ingredients, including specialty cheese, spinach, dill and chickpeas, have also given Mediterranean dishes a certain “relaxed” appeal.

From Fast-Casual to Fine Dining

Zaytinya, Komi, Nostos, Cava Mezze (Rockville, MD), and Plaka Grill are all Zagat-worthy.

Unwrapped house-baked pita from Roti

Unwrapped house-baked pita from Roti

Zaytinya on 9th Street in northwest D.C. is an exploration in Mediterranean fare by celebrity chef Jose Andres. The restaurant’s cuisine blends influences from Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. Diners have their pick of small dishes (or mezze)  to select from and share, including Bantijan Bil Laban, crispy eggplant with garlic-yogurt sauce, Octopus Santorini, grilled Mediterranean octopus with yellow split-pea puree plated with marinated onions and capers, and Shish Taouk, a grilled chicken skewer with onions, sumac spice, garlic toum and grilled tomatoes. 

Further southwest in Falls Church, VA, off Gallows Road, Raouche Cafe has been serving up Lebanese favorites consistently for many years. Many of its dishes are traditional favorites like Lamb Kabob, Beef Shawarma and Tabouleh, but they’re served with a homestyle feel and with consistency. An article about Mediterranean-style cuisine around the D.C. market would be incomplete without mentioning Lebanese Taverna, a chain of 10 casual namesake restaurants and one market-type store in the area. Fans have been following the growth of the chain for years and Yelp reviewers sing the praises of the Shawarma, lamb and the Kibbeh-style dishes. 

3 Takeaways From the Rise of Mediterranean

For restaurateurs, lessons to be drawn from the concepts mentioned in this article are at least three-fold:

  1. Foods that reflect Mediterranean-style preparation have a lot of opportunity for growth
  2. The comfort of flavors from Mediterranean cuisine and the diet’s health “halo” related to long-term adoption (potentially having real potential health benefits) generate real traction for Mediterranean concepts in urban enclaves like Washington, D.C.
  3. The D.C. market is home to the idea that modern interpretations of Mediterranean cuisine, as seen in Roti, Kapnos and Cava Grill form a strong foundation for multi-unit growth concepts of the future

While diners are enjoying dishes influenced by the culinary creativity and the delicious simplicity of the Mediterranean Rim region, restaurateurs can be drawing inspiration from the success of Mediterranean concepts that are growing in D.C. by adopting flavor profiles, on-trend preparations and even entrepreneurialism. Will it inspire a new, rising chef or restaurateur to write up plans for the next Mediterranean concept with national growth potential?