With three victories, including one for its owner, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group was the big winner at the 2014 Rammy Awards, which this year moved to the cavernous Walter E. Washington Convention Center for a quick, lively ceremony and a long after-party.
Launched in 1997 with the Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group has grown to more than 15 different properties, including places known for their extensive craft beer lists such as ChurchKey, Birch & Barley and Rustico. As an acknowledgement of beer's elevated status in restaurants, especially in Washington, the Rammys launched a new award this year for beer program of the year, which was given to NRG's dual-concept Birch & Barley/ChurchKey on 14th Street.
In accepting the award, NRG beer director Greg Engert urged his colleagues to keep pushing, to raise the bar even higher for craft beer in the District. "It's not enough to have craft beer on tap," Engert said.
NRG also copped another award launched just this year: regional food and beverage producer of the year, which went to Red Apron Butcher, chef Nathan Anda's small, craft-conscious chain of meat and sandwich shops. Anda himself was present to accept the award; it was a rare chance to see him not wearing flannel or a stained apron.
The final award for NRG went to owner Michael Babin, who took home the trophy for restaurateur of the year. The reason for his success, Babin said after the ceremony, is that he has hired good people, whether Engert and Anda, and given them a lot of autonomy. He doesn't micromanage them or review every new menu or beer list before it becomes public, a philosophy that varies from many restaurant groups, he said.
"Most restaurant groups tend to minimize the risk and all the variables," he said, the trophy still in hand.
Red Hen in Bloomingdale and Ripple in Cleveland Park walked away with two Rammys each. Ripple won for wine program of the year and upscale casual restaurant of the year; Red Hen took home trophies for rising culinary star (chef Michael Friedman) and for new restaurant of the year.
In accepting the award for new restaurant, co-owner and wine director Sebastian Zutant thanked one of his competitors, Aaron Silverman, chef and owner of Capitol Hill's much-lauded Rose's Luxury. Zutant thanked Silverman for not being a member of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, which made him and Rose's Luxury ineligible for a Rammy Award.
Rose's probably would have won, Zutant suggested.
Zutant's confessional acceptance speech underscored a fact that still irritates some local restaurant watchers: You have to be a member of the association to be nominated and win a Rammy. One attendee of the ceremony told me Sunday that it feels as if the Rammys don't capture the spirit of the city's current dining scene, because the awards don't include places like Rose's Luxury.
Silverman seemed to be tickled by the Rammy drama from afar. He tweeted late Sunday that he was "enjoying my dinner at red hen tonight immensely!!!"
Fiola, chef Fabio Trabocchi's Italian restaurant in Penn Quarter, won formal fine dining restaurant of the year, while Haidar Karoum, the man who oversees Proof, Estadio and Doi Moi, took home the prize for chef of the year. Karoum was solemn in accepting to trophy. He praised his boss and owner, Mark Kuller, the man called "grande" among his friends and colleagues.
Kuller is "grande in every sense of the word," Karoum said. "His belief in me is the only reason I'm standing here."
The 2014 Rammy winners:
Formal Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year: Fiola
Upscale Casual Restaurant of the Year: Ripple
Everyday Casual Restaurant of the Year: Toki Underground
New Restaurant of the Year: The Red Hen
Chef of the Year: Haidar Karoum, Doi Moi, Estadio, Proof
Rising Culinary Star of the Year: Michael Friedman, The Red Hen
Pastry Chef of the Year: Caitlin Dysart, 2941 Restaurant
Wine Program of the Year: Ripple
Cocktail Program of the Year***: Jack Rose Dining Saloon
Beer Program of the Year***: Birch and Barley / ChurchKey
Service Program of the Year***: Blue Duck Tavern
Restaurateur of the Year: Michael Babin, Neighborhood Restaurant Group
Regional Food and Beverage Producer of the Year***: Red Apron Butcher
Favorite Gathering Place of the Year: Hank's Oyster Bar – Dupont Circle
Upscale Casual Brunch***: Mintwood Place
Everyday Casual Brunch***: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace
Favorite Fast Bites***: Amsterdam Falafelshop
Joan Hisaoka Allied Member of the Year: ProFish, Ltd.
Employee of the Year: Stelios Alexandris, 1789 Restaurant
Manager of the Year: Boo Young Kim, District Commons
***Denotes a new award in 2014