Let’s start with the fried chicken.
Perhaps no other dish better exemplifies how dining in Washington has evolved. From its days as a big-box steakhouse town to a global dining destination worthy of Michelin stars, the city has never been more celebrated for its food scene. Now it seems like every cool, new spot is charging upward of $20 for an entree, especially in hot dining hubs like Petworth and Shaw.
Spending more than $100 at dinner once felt like an amount reserved for a special date-night or birthday. Today, a couple looking for a casual meal on a Tuesday night around 14th Street will rarely get away without paying a three-digit bill.
Of course, you can dine on great Vietnamese pho at the Eden Center or fantastic Ethiopian cooking in Silver Spring. It's just never been harder to find good, affordable eats in D.C. proper, and that gap has left many diners asking: How did a nice dinner for two in the city become a $100 affair?
“The prices of most restaurants is out of control,” says Ian Malcolm, 30, an information security engineer living in the District, who got a serious case of sticker shock after moving here from suburban Virginia. “I couldn't care less about how fresh or sourced the ingredients are or what farm they came from. Whatever makes the meal cheaper would be preferred.”
Young diners like him especially are experiencing check fatigue. Public-school teacher Abigail Holtz, 28, who lives in Silver Spring, saves city outings mostly for special meals, opting instead for suburban eateries in Rockville or Hyattsville, where a good dinner can cost $25 or less. “I kind of feel like D.C. doesn’t want me,” she says. “I resent that influx of expensive places.”
What suburban restaurants lack in decor or liquor licenses is made up for by what Holtz gets “in terms of flavor, authenticity and reasonable prices.” She cites pupusa and pollo a la brasa joints as some of the most reliable options. They may not be hip or new, but that’s just fine with her.
One of her pet peeves? Tapas, which every restaurant portions differently — and sometimes within a menu. Accidentally over-order, and suffer the price. “Those small plates can easily be $15, $16, $17 apiece,” says Ris Lacoste, chef-owner of Ris in the West End.
Take dinner at Zaytinya, where waiters usually recommend two to four dishes per person, which fall between $7 and $20. Throw in the District's 10 percent meals tax and a 20 percent tip onto plates like the $7 hummus and $12 salmon, and there’s your $100 check.
High prices have long been the norm in New York and San Francisco, which for years have been home to big-name chefs and revered food reputations. Only in the past decade have Washington’s restaurants caught up.
That’s not to say that it used to be a hotbed for cheap eats. In the ’80s and ’90s, the chef-driven scene centered largely on high-end restaurants downtown, in Dupont Circle and in Georgetown, where European or European-trained chefs were the marquee names. In 1989, at French chef Jean-Louis Palladin’s restaurant in the Watergate, you could feast on snails tossed with sweetbreads as part of a multicourse dinner for up to $90, about $180 today.
That three-figure price isn't unlike what's downtown now, or at such special-occasion spots as Minibar and Pineapple and Pearls. (The latter’s price tag: $280 per diner.) The difference is that, in the past, the most respected restaurants in Washington were almost all considered high-end.
“What was interesting about the city back then is that there were these sort of destination, expense-account restaurants, but there wasn’t much more than that,” says Adam Rapoport, a Washington-area native and the editor in chief at Bon Appétit magazine. “There were not great neighborhood restaurants.”
Now, “neighborhood restaurants” — such as Rose’s Luxury, Tail Up Goat and Maketto — which Rapoport describes as creative, small and independent restaurants with chefs who have forged their own approach, have disrupted the old model of dining.
They can cost more than $150 per couple.
Nowhere is this price range more prolific than 14th Street NW, which food writer and former Washingtonian critic Todd Kliman once said is packed with restaurants “in the middle.” These spots are in the same general price range as Rapoport’s “neighborhood restaurants”: Walk up and down the corridor, and you'll encounter everything from foie gras scrambled eggs with black-truffle butter ($14) at Estadio to confit pork shank ($28) at the Pig.
These trendy destinations — better than greasy spoons or giant chains but below the gastronomic level that earns multiple Michelin stars — have hopscotched their way across the city, emerging in gentrifying waves in Shaw and Petworth, where you can order clay pot rockfish ($28) at Hazel or carne asada ($26) at Ruta del Vino.
Restaurateurs and chefs will point to the rising costs of labor, rent and utilities as an explanation. Convivial chef-owner Cedric Maupillier said a dish with $5 worth of a protein could end up retailing for $21, a figure that might suggest the restaurant is making big money. But the profit margin at most places is typically in the single digits. “It’s hard to make the two ends meet,” Maupillier says.
The reality is that dish prices are not only a reflection of costs, but also of the dining scene as a whole. Restaurants have to build menus with the competition in mind, and now there are simply more places vying for the attention of diners. The number of restaurants in D.C. increased from 1,423 to 2,233 between 2001 and 2015, according to data collected by the National Restaurant Association.
The result: Chefs are constantly searching for ways to distinguish themselves. And at times, that quest for novelty is reflected in the price as a kind of boast, Kliman says. Instead of serving simple preparations, such as a pork chop with a side, chefs can get overly ambitious, particularly as they try to appeal to the city's large demographic of 20- to 39-year-olds.
Suddenly a regular hamburger isn't enough. It needs organic, local, grass-fed beef, a homemade brioche bun and house-cured lamb bacon. With all those bells and whistles, diners’ expectations go up — and so do prices, as restaurants feel they’re justified in charging more for a gussied-up dish.
Food-savvy diners — yes, even millennials — can see through the ploys. “Many places seem to add unnecessary garnishes or try to put some type of uninspired ‘spin’ on classic dishes,” says Josh Pullin, 26. So the Italian-Thai mash-up of butternut squash ravioli with a coconut curry sauce he recently had at Smith Commons for $17? No dice.
For diners, satisfaction ultimately comes down to value. If it costs a few bucks to make rigatoni with sausage at home, then customers expect to be wowed when paying $18 for the dish at a restaurant. “I know what it costs to cook a meal,” Holtz says. If she goes out, “I do want it to be something exceptional.”
Chefs argue that there’s more to dining than that. The entire restaurant experience — from the environment and decor to the hosts and servers welcoming you — is what makes the expense worth it. “This is what you pay for,” Maupillier says. “You’re paying for an experience.”
Diners are willing to pay up, even in pricier settings such as Pineapple and Pearls, Minibar or Kinship, if the quality is there. But when so many restaurants are in the $100-for-two price range, it isn’t unusual for diners to find themselves paying for an expensive “experience” that isn't quite up to snuff.
Malcolm, the former Virginia resident, recently recalled a meal at Ambar, a Balkan small-plates spot with locations in Clarendon and Capitol Hill. The premise seemed reasonable: unlimited small plates for $40, plus tax and tip. But the food didn't live up to his expectations. By his standards, it was simply “fine.”
“I didn’t see the value in paying $50 for this experience,” he says. “I just wasn't impressed for that price and regretted spending that.”
And that’s exactly the problem Washington’s newest restaurants must wrestle with — charging enough so that their businesses break even, while delivering enough value to keep diners happy, even after they ask for the check, please.