The largest cheer on Sunday night at the 2014 Rammy Awards came when a presenter announced that the U.S. soccer team had taken the lead against Portugal in its World Cup match. The moment underscored the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington's eternal struggle: While it can draw more than 1,500 people to its annual awards gala, the Rammys still can't compete with an event of real stature.
RAMW made a number of changes to this year's Rammys to improve its standing — many of them smart, although none that addresses its most obvious shortcoming.
First among the revisions was a change of venue to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where the event was divided into a cocktail reception, an awards ceremony and an after-party in an upstairs ballroom where corporate logos were beamed on the walls. RAMW also revamped the categories this year, dropping the most embarrassing awards ("hottest bar scene," "power spot") and adding legitimate ones like beer program, cocktail program and "favorite fast bites" (the latter to include food trucks, although none were nominated this year). The association even retooled its judging process to help build legitimacy (although some categories are still voted on by the public).
But the one thing RAMW didn't change was its requirement that all nominees and winners be members of the association. The rule led to one or two glaring omissions in this year's Rammys: No Rose's Luxury among new restaurants of the year and no Johnny Monis (Komi and Little Serow) among chef of the year nominees. I should mention here that Monis has already won a James Beard Award.
As 2 Amys and Etto chef/owner Peter Pastan, a multiple Beard Award nominee, told me earlier this year, he has his reasons for not joining RAMW: He doesn't always agree with the politics of a trade association. "They tend to not like things, like employee-mandated health care and raising the minimum wage, and I think those things are important," Pastan said. "I guess I’d rather go home and have dinner with my family."
(Incidentally, last year, RAMW lobbied against increasing the $2.77 hourly wage paid to tipped employees, but told a reporter that the association would support raising the combination of hourly wage and tips to a "reasonable" minimum rate.)
But because Pastan, and presumably others, have a different philosophy to business than RAMW's, such chefs and restaurateurs will never be considered for a Rammy, despite their influence on the local dining scene. I mean, how much more influence could a new restaurant and a young chef have than Rose's Luxury and Aaron Silverman? Rose's has attracted attention far beyond its rustic-chic home on Capitol Hill.
Even Red Hen, a Bloomingdale stop that feels as comfortable and nourishing as a fine Italian trattoria, seemed to concede its victory to Rose's. When Sebastian Zutant, co-owner and wine director for Red Hen, accepted the award for new restaurant, he practically apologized for Silverman's absence. Zutant thanked Rose's Luxury for not being a member of RAMW, suggesting the Capitol Hill restaurant would have won if so. A Rammy winner should never have to seek a public pardon for its victory.
The Washington Post's food critic Tom Sietsema had similar feelings when I asked for his thoughts about this year's Rammys.
"I'm happy for the deserving winners, foremost Michael Babin [owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group], and cheered to see the organization take note of the area's terrific drinks scene with two new awards. But the Rammy Awards can't be taken too seriously until nominations are opened up to non-members. Even the winner of new restaurant of the year knows Rose's Luxury is the rightful recipient of the honor."
And here's the thing about opening the awards up to all restaurants, all chefs, all managers, all sommeliers: RAMW would start to build credibility among everyone in the local hospitality industry. As of now, the Rammys give off a strong whiff of pay-for-play. After all, neither the James Beard Awards nor the Academy Awards require winners to be members of their organizations.
Other Rammy observations from Post staffers:
Weekend reporter Maura Judkis: "In the same vein as the Red Hen/Rose's Luxury fracas, I'm sure Amsterdam Falafelshop is really glad that Mike Isabella's G sandwich was removed from the list of nominees in the "fast bites" category. Back in March, The Post caught a discrepancy in the eligibility requirements that had apparently gone unnoticed by any of the judges or RAMW team, just hours before the nominations were to be announced. Because it hadn't been open long enough, G was replaced with Amsterdam Falafelshop, which was not even on the original list of nominees, but went on to win in the publicly voted category. G should be eligible next year, and will be a top contender for the prize."
Weekend reporter Lavanya Ramanathan: "The nod for Mikey Friedman at Red Hen was a nice choice for rising star; I think he doesn't get a lot of attention in the media, though the restaurant does. But he's a really thoughtful, smart guy (I made a mental note that I'd love to interview him again soon). He had a big hand in making that menu simple but full of surprises for those of us who ate a lot of Italian in the past year. (There's no pizza on the menu!)"
Bars and clubs reporter Fritz Hahn: For the beer program category, Hahn writes, "I'm not surprised ChurchKey won. The place is basically a tourist attraction at this point, and it remains high-quality despite all the competition in the area these days. (Honestly, several of Neighborhood Restaurant Group's other operations could have also been nominated in this category.) I was shocked, though, that Pizzeria Paradiso wasn't nominated while Brasserie Beck was. Paradiso's beer program is a completely different level than Beck's these days. Usual caveat: A number of great beer bars, such as Meridian Pint, weren't eligible because they're not members of RAMW. Also, Mad Fox Brewing Co. jumped out at me as the only brewpub included: A place with a dozen of its own beers versus bars with three times that many from around the globe doesn't seem like a fair fight. Maybe those guys will get their own category some day."
On the cocktail program category, Hahn notes: "I think it's interesting that Jack Rose won, given its focus on straight whiskey, but the bartenders there are doing some very interesting things. (Case in point: Dram & Grain.) This category is full of deserving nominees, though I was surprised that neither PX or Bar TNT were included. As always, Derek Brown's refusal to join RAMW means that the Columbia Room isn't included."