Dear New York Times: We get it. Your restaurants are better than ours.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 11:13 AM
The New York Times has a colorful history of treating Washington's restaurant scene as both curio and target range, an exotic animal worthy of examination until the time comes that it must be shot in the head. Consider this short, highly selective retrospective of Times commentary on the District's dining community:
- From November 1981: "Restaurant fever seems to have hit the nation's capital in epidemic proportions. A relative gastronomic backwater only 10 years ago, Washington now boasts dozens of creditable and fashionable French, Asian, and North Italian dining places." (Translation: It's now safe to spend the weekend in the District.)
- From January 1990: "For years, well-traveled food mavens from New York and other gastronomic centers considered Washington about as provocative as a tax audit. With a few notable exceptions, steakhouses, old-world Italian places, and minor-league French restaurants were the bill of fare." (Translation: Those fashionable French places from nine years ago have been demoted to the minors.)
- From March 2003: "Though Washington's best restaurant is still Citronelle, across town in Georgetown, the good news is there are choices [in Penn Quarter] for the most elegant dinner and the simplest of snacks. . . . The less than good news is that as in the rest of Washington, the number of mediocre restaurants remains high and the number of steakhouses - four, and not one worth visiting - seems astronomical." (Translation: District denizens are just beginning to evolve beyond their lizard-brain lust for red meat.)
The Times' most recent analysis came last week from Jennifer Steinhauer, a reporter who took time away from her congressional beat to declare that Capitol Hill is awash in junk food. "A major contributor to the spread of Everyman Eating is the steady rise of Capitol Hill as a residential neighborhood, with several chefs moving into the area," Steinhauer wrote. "When they open restaurants, what they want, it seems, is not a crack at a Michelin star, but rather midlevel places where they could get food from their childhood, and attract residents who craved the same."
Allow me to apply some ointment to our many probe marks and ask a small favor from the Gray Lady's staff: Could you please stop rubbing our noses in our inferiority? We understand by now. You're better than we are. Your fashion is better than ours, your art is better and, of course, your restaurants are better. Washingtonians will forever cower in the long shadow cast by Gotham, nervously picking our nails and hoping you will like us one day. I mean, really like us - and not just like us so that you can tear us to shreds another day.
Now, I realize no one likes to hear opinions from their inferiors, but if you can slow your breathing for a minute, I'd like to speak freely. If you don't mind, that is. God knows I don't want to subject the District's long-suffering governmental drones, who just want to talk politics and war over plates of red meat, to yet another Times tongue-lashing. I'm not sure our clogged arteries could take it.
But if I may be so bold, dear Times: Do you get tired of being right all the time? Yes, yes, it's pitiful. Capitol Hill and environs are drowning in junk food: pizza, burgers and, most unforgiving of all, hot dogs, those nasty emulsified links of unknown origin, which incidentally are a signature snack of Chicago, one of the great culinary cities on Earth. (The Times approved in November 2009: "one of the planet's most dynamic restaurant cities.") I know it doesn't make any difference that the economy is rough and most restaurateurs don't have millions, or even access to it, to sink into a fine-dining operation that might or might not appease some rumpled, solitary, overworked Michelin inspector who, far as I know, doesn't even wander into the Washington metro area. Restaurateurs should prepare for the day that Michelin decides to release a guide in D.C.!
I also think it's brilliant how you carefully weeded through the Hill's many restaurants to put us in our place. After all, no one wants to hear how a husband and wife are dragging Ethiopian cuisine (disgusting finger food!) into the arena of modern American dining. (Tom Sietsema: "If you think all Ethiopian restaurants are cut from the same cloth, you have yet to visit Ethiopic" in the Atlas District.) No one needs to know that Ba Bay on Pennsylvania Avenue SE has hired a fine-dining chef to put a modern twist on Vietnamese cooking, complete with themed craft cocktails. And no one can stand another word about that Florentine import, Acqua al 2, let alone another sentence about those two accomplished toques who just launched the daringly original Atlas Room on H Street NE where the chefs have cast aside the concept of a standard appetizer-entree menu.
No, it's only appropriate that you, New York Times, point out the latest hypocrisy emanating from Capitol Hill, where our politicians continue to scold us for our bloated bellies and manipulate budgets with the hope that our children can wean themselves from Coke's aluminum teat. You were right to note that, in moments of dark vulnerability, these men and women of power retreat to the comfort of junk food, filling up on empty calories to match their empty rhetoric. Maybe you can do us another favor? Can you sit them down and set them straight? Maybe over a slice of New York-style pizza, a salty street-vendor pretzel and a Nathan's Famous?