The key is to understand the culinary problems, and then figure out how to work around them. Let’s focus on the workaday crowd’s options downtown, which I will define as most of Northwest but not the top parts of Wisconsin or Connecticut.
First, much of downtown has an underdeveloped public street life. Washington empties out by early evening. It is easy to live in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, which drains the city of potential energy, and this afflicts the daytime hours, too. Even U Street and Adams Morgan are lackluster by the standards of major global cities.
Second, a lot of Washington doesn’t have a very good public school system. Education-conscious Asian immigrants usually prefer the suburbs and that means D.C. proper doesn’t have a lot of first-rate Asian food.
Finally, the highest-status people in town — the politicians — usually have, or at least feel inclined to demonstrate, remarkably conservative taste in food (President Obama has been a welcome exception). Finance professionals in New York and entertainment moguls in L.A. set a flashier and more innovative tone for their favored dining-out places.
Washington does have its strengths. Namely, the city has a lot of high-income, highly educated transients. It attracts visitors, tourists, young interns and other workers who do a brief spell here but have no intention of staying. Because they come from all over, transients support food variety.
Yet transients also encourage restaurants that build up their reputations rapidly to appeal to a busy, underinformed and sometimes underseasoned audience. Those same restaurants also tend to fall in quality relatively rapidly; even when they don’t go outright bad, they usually descend into the realm of the ordinary.
Be the early bird
The key is to hit these restaurants in the “sweet spot” of their cycle of rise and fall. At any point in time Washington probably has five to 10 excellent restaurants; they just don’t last very long at their highest levels of quality.
Here’s how it works. A new chef opens a place or a well-known chef comes to town and starts up a branch. Good reviews are essential to get the place off the ground, and so they pull out all stops to make the opening three months, or six months, special. And it works. In today’s world of food blogs, Twitter and texting, the word gets out quickly.
Which restaurants have held this crown? A partial recent list would include The Source, Zengo, Sei, Palena, Oyamel, Hook, Equinox and Central Michel Richard, among many others. They all had their moments of glory.