IT'S BEEN a good year for diners. As last year opened we were just getting reacquainted with the old downtown, through the Willard Room and the Occidental. A little later on we were given a chance to graze at the City Cafe, Samplings and Flutes. Adams Morgan was reaching gridlock as the bar-restaurant-disco extravaganzas invaded, first Dakota and then Cities. By midyear it was clear that the excitement was in red-white-and-blue cooking rather than foreign cuisines; the city's restaurants were Americanizing.
As the year progressed, Bethesda burgeoned, first with Joe & Mo's and Joe's Fresh Seafood Grill, then with new branches of Georgetown's Geppetto, downtown's Bacchus, Tiberio (called Tragara in Bethesda) and Alexandria's East Wind (Windows of the East). Bethesda's action was more international than American.
Alexandria concentrated on American restaurants with Union Street Public House and Copeland's, and in Shirlington the Carlyle Grand Cafe was also reinventing American cooking. Later in the year the River Club introduced the American cooking of the '80s to the old Charlie Byrd supper club and kept the supper-club theme. Tony & Joe's brought to the waterfront the kind of seafood restaurant we always hoped Washington would have. And in the meantime, Italian cooking was re-invading the city full force. First Primi Piatti, then Paolo's and finally Obelisk brought casual Italian restaurants to new levels of quality.
What's next? Well, we have three Moroccan restaurants now, which may signal a North African trend; and two Japanese-French restaurants may be the tip of a hyphenated-cuisine trend. The Carnegie may start deli wars that could blanket the metropolitan area with real house-made pastrami.
Or restaurants could notice that it has been officially the Year of the Waiter, and look to their service. I still have in my files countless complaints about waiters who answered patrons' objections by suggesting they leave and never return to the restaurant, or told customers that the restaurant didn't need diners like them. I have complaints about restaurants that don't take reservations but nonetheless show blatant favoritism -- giving tables to friends while other patrons continue to wait.
Brunch buffets have come under fire from customers who haven't been able to get coffee refills or even silverware. And diners with children have voiced their outrage over waiters who keep asking the children if they want refills of their soft drinks, then sock the parents with big bills when they had assumed refills were free. Finally, there are the restaurateurs who meet complaints on busy weekend nights by suggesting that diners come on weekdays next time. Don't they realize that eventually nobody will come weekends or weekdays if the customer is blamed for the restaurant's success rather than valued for it?
My favorite letter of complaint of the year was about a Sunday brunch. The litany went on through a long wait for a table, no silverware, minuscule muffins, belated coffee and even later food. Finally somebody complained to the waiter that the restaurant had advertised but not really delivered a prix-fixe menu of $4.95. "Pre-fixe? Oh, no," replied the waiter, "All our food is prepared fresh."