Nearly six years ago, when the editors and I launched this experiment in budget dining, I came up with a shortlist of potential column names. They were all centered on the concept of cheap eating. Back then, I didn’t fully appreciate what kind of prison I was creating for myself and, more important, for the restaurants and chefs in my same orbit.
Which is why, as of today, this column will no longer be known as the $20 Diner. Let me attempt to explain the reasons.
To my mind, focusing on a low price point perpetuates some problems. Among them:
It creates artificial limits. Over the past 12 months, I have written about restaurants that specialize in Egyptian, Nepalese, Yemeni, Ethiopian, Indian, Thai, Jamaican, Korean, Persian, Philippine, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, Cuban, Italian, Japanese and American cuisines. Notice anything conspicuously missing from that list?
I did not devote a single column last year to a French restaurant.
Why? Is it because French restaurants, even their informal bistro cousins, tend to have a higher price point than the $20 ceiling that I placed on entrees? Or is it because I, as a writer and critic, do not view French cuisine as affordable, no matter how casual the establishment? Whatever the reason, French cooking has cachet in the public imagination, and that translates into how much folks are willing to pay for it, which is, I suspect, more than many are willing to shell out for Mexican or Chinese food.
By writing about immigrant cuisines under a cheap-eats rubric, I have perpetuated the narrative that they should always be thought of as budget-priced. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with David Chang when he was preparing to open Momofuku CCDC in 2015. Chang was firing on all cylinders that day: He was unspooling long, profanity-laced sentences about diners who won’t pay $17 or $18 for a bowl of ramen, no matter how costly the ingredients he used for his noodle soup.
“It is not cheap at all” to prepare the ramen, he told me. “Here’s one thing: If we opened an Italian restaurant, and I said that it’s something in brodo with brisket, I could charge you [expletive] $27 and no one would ever [expletive] blink. That pisses me off, that I’m stuck by some type of ethnic price ceiling.”
It helps confirm deep-seated biases. Krishnendu Ray, a New York University associate professor of food studies, has written a lot about our perceptions of a cuisine based on the immigrant group’s place in American society. The lower the immigrants are on the social ladder, Ray argues, the less we value their cooking. This explains the roller-coaster ride that Italian food has endured in America, Ray writes in “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” noting that the perceived value of the country’s cooking took a nose-dive in the late 1800s when poor immigrants from southern Italy flocked to the United States.
But, Ray adds, this also explains “the difficulty of Chinese, Mexican and soul food to break away, in dominant American eyes, from the contamination effect of low-class association. Poor, mobile people are rarely accorded the cultural capital.”
Given this theory, I’ve had to ask myself uncomfortable questions, such as: Isn’t lumping certain cuisines under a cheap-eats banner only contributing to their low-class status? Am I not kneecapping, say, Central American cooks who toil in almost every kitchen in the District? Am I not telling these cooks that we, as Washingtonians, will never pay the same price for a Salvadoran, Guatemalan or Puerto Rican meal as we do for that plate of charred brassicas with mint chimichurri at the fancy New American restaurant where these immigrants are currently employed?
It implies some restaurants are not destinations or otherwise special. I still vividly remember reading “Garlic and Sapphires,” Ruth Reichl’s entertaining, if journalistically compromised, memoir that covered her tenure as restaurant critic for the New York Times. What struck me was Reichl’s struggle to review nontraditional restaurants in the Gray Lady’s hidebound food section, which still embraced a Francophile worldview in the 1990s.
“Are you mad?” a friend allegedly complained to Reichl after the critic’s review of Honmura An, a Japanese soba house. “People are scandalized that you have given that little noodle joint three stars. Three stars! They are saying that you will never last.”
Standards have changed considerably among the country’s top critics, who will happily slurp noodles for their readers in the 21st century. But will they devote a full review to, say, a pupuseria? A suburban strip-center spot that specializes in Senegalese cooking? A small storefront dedicated mostly to hummus? No, I’d say these places are, for the most part, still relegated to the margins of restaurant coverage, to columns like the $20 Diner, where they are treated, consciously or not, like second-class citizens.
By stripping this column of its previous name, I hope to remove at least one possible stigma about the restaurants that I decide to cover: that they are somehow “lesser” than the ones that might charge higher prices, have table service, offer a full bar or whatever confers prestige among diners. They are simply different in their approach. Many take just as much pride in their food as the chefs at the white-tablecloth restaurants do. I want to contribute to a society where it’s possible to esteem the high and low equally, each worthy of respect for what it does well.
Officially, this column will no longer have a name. You’ll just find it under my byline. My approach, however, will remain the same: I’ll continue to search for the finest restaurants in the region — the ones that you may have overlooked or avoided, because, well, dining biases are deeply ingrained.