Last yeat the news was Chinese, as the kitchens of Sichuan province became recruiting centers for Washington restaurants. But the Spring was relatively uneventful. The flurry of new sushi bars settled down to quietly steady growth. Beyond the comings and goings of Salvadoran restaurants, no new cuisines have hit town in response to international crises like those that have taught Washington about Afghan, Persian and Ethiopian cooking. Well, California's goat cheese and sun-dried tomato pizzas have been sighted here and there, but are hardly to be considered a trend of consequence.
No, it is the born-again restaurants that are now capturing the hearts and credit cards of hungry Washington, The sleeping beauty of the French modernists, Le Pavillon, has moved a few blocks over and up two floors, becoming neighbors with Duke Zeibert, who moved just down the block and into position for a challenge to Mel Krupin: matzo balls at fifty paces. And for those restaurants that hung on during some of the leanest restaurant- business years in memory, it is a time of expansion: Tiberio to Alexandria with Terrazza (which underprices and outshines its parent), downtown's House of Hunan to Rockville, Vie de France to subway- stop caf,es and the American Caf,e to a nearly-finished Fair Oaks suburban experiment.
Those restaurants that are not expanding seem at least to be relaxing--not their standards, just their attitudes. You don't want a whole fixed-price meal? 2091/2 and Mrs. Simpson's will no longer require it. You don't want to eat your fixed-price meal before 7 p.m.? Several early-bird specials have become all-evening specials. Want to make a meal of several appetizers, or dine lightly or have your fish without the sauce? It is easier these days. When Vincenzo's voluntarily serves butter rather than insisting on Italian tradition, you know that the era of restaurants dictating what the diner ought to eat is vanishing like the canned vegetable.
Diners, too, are relaxing. They are willing to try anything and, it sometimes seems, to pay anything (at least once). More knowledgeable themselves about cooking and wines, they appreciate knowledgeable service. They are getting used to menus being fresh, seasonal, changing. And in increasing numbers they seem to be moving out of their home dining rooms back into the area's restaurants.