There’s a lot to digest in Tom Sietsema’s new Fall Dining Guide, including a new entry to the pantheon of four-star restaurants and a new “D.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame” category. Some restaurants are back in the dining guide after missing out for a year or six, while 10 restaurants that received three-star ratings in last year’s guide have been left out altogether.
Sietsema picked the three-star Del Mar as his No. 1 restaurant, ahead of the four-star Pineapple and Pearls. In his weekly online chat he explained why: “The Top 10 list is highly personal, a collection of current favorites that have less to do with star ratings than with my gut reaction to them,” Sietsema wrote. “Pineapple and Pearls gets four stars for setting the bar for innovative fine dining, but I could see myself at (and send diners to) Del Mar more often for sublime service, Spanish food and ambiance.”
To make sense of the other changes, we chatted with The Post’s restaurant critic.
Fiola and Fiola Mare were two of the 10 — 10! — restaurants that earned three stars in the 2017 Fall Dining Guide but were left out of the 2018 guide. What happened there, and what does the number of previously “excellent” restaurants left out of the dining guide say about the city’s dining scene? Are restaurants getting lazy, is it a matter of increased competition, or something else?
“The crush of excellent new restaurants plays a role, sure. I’d still recommend Fiola and Fiola Mare to readers looking for a high-end Italian or seafood experience, but I had more fun at some of their less-formal competitors, foremost Centrolina. (You can argue with ‘best,’ but not with ‘favorite,’ which is something more personal.)”
This year saw the introduction of a “Hall of Fame” category. What does that mean? Will those 10 restaurants be left out of future dining guides now that they’ve earned legendary status?
“Hall of Famers are restaurants that have been around for a while, sometimes a decade or more, but are worthy of high praise because they set the gold standard for French, omakase, Spanish tapas or whatever. I can’t guarantee I’ll run another such list next fall guide, and if I do, the mix could change. For instance, 2 Amys was not on the list because a flood meant I couldn’t get there before it reopened.”
And lest these restaurants rest on their laurels, Sietsema adds, “I am always going back to popular restaurants to see if they're performing well."
Charleston, which made the Hall of Fame, is the only new four-star review. It last featured in your dining guide in 2010, though it was on the list of 10 restaurants that “almost made it” into the 2017 Fall Dining Guide. What attracted you to Cindy Wolf’s Baltimore restaurant again, and what gave it the nudge over the line to four stars?
“Charleston is consistently excellent, food- and comfort-wise. I’m rarely there that the chef isn’t in her kitchen, and that dedication shows on the plate. The one thing that has held the restaurant back before was probably a coolness in the service, a certain stiffness that didn’t signal ‘Baltimore charm.’ ”
Like Charleston, Marcel’s, and Sushi Taro leaped from 2017′s “almost inclusions” to Hall of Fame status this year. Are they doing better than they were last year, or were their Hall of Fame credentials more of a factor?
“Sushi Taro has always been great for omakase, but there were other Japanese restaurants I wanted to flag last year. As for Marcel’s, it’s been doing what it does so well, for so long, I felt I needed to create a special category to give the restaurant its due.”
One inclusion that caught my eye was Elephant Jumps. The Falls Church Thai restaurant is back in the Dining Guide for the first time since 2011 and 2012. What made you take notice of them again?
“I had been eating Thai food around Washington, wondering why so many restaurants had slipped, and remembered how much I enjoyed Elephant Jumps in its early days. I returned, twice, hoping for a trip down memory lane, and came back with an example of a solid Thai kitchen I could recommend with confidence.”
The Spring Dining Guide was focused on restaurants that had been open for a year or less. Three of the top 10 restaurants didn’t make it to the fall edition — A Rake’s Progress, the Tavern at Rare Steak and Old Maryland Grill. Was there something they were doing right five months ago that they’re not doing now?
“I’m still a big fan of the Tavern. It addresses so many diner wishes. But I figure it gets lots of love and attention on my chat, and as you point out, I sang its praises in the spring guide. Old Maryland Grill has been taken over by the hotel it’s in, in College Park, and has switched concepts. As for Rake’s Progress, as beautiful as the setting is, I’d rather eat at the Dabney in Blagden Alley for Mid-Atlantic fare.”
Other interesting facts from this year’s Dining Guide:
Five Michelin-starred restaurants didn’t make the guide: Blue Duck Tavern, Kinship, Masseria, Plume and Siren. (All have one Michelin star.)
Six of the seven restaurants to earn four stars in 2017 kept that rating; Métier slipped to 3.5.
Eight restaurants are located or have branches outside D.C.: Charleston, Elephant Jumps, Flamant, the Inn at Little Washington, Jaleo, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, Nasime, Q by Peter Chang and Three Blacksmiths. (There were five in the Spring Dining Guide and nine last fall.) Those looking for more suburban options should see Tim Carman’s list of the 10 best bargains outside D.C.
Nine of the 30 restaurants in the Spring Dining Guide also made it into fall’s: Seven of the top 10, including No. 1 Elle, plus Bresca and Kaliwa.
Forty-eight restaurants made this year’s guide. Last year’s, which included 53, was the largest guide ever.
Sixty was the lowest decibel reading in the new “Quiet” section of the guide, at Métier. (Elle and Le Diplomate tied for loudest at 84.)
$325 is the most expensive meal, for 12 courses with beverage pairings at Pineapple and Pearls. At the other end of the spectrum, the “excellent” vegetable lumpia at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly costs $4.49.