That Was Steak. This Is Now.

After two decades as food critic, Tom Sietsema tracks the revolution in D.C. dining

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Two things haven’t changed in the 20 years I’ve been reviewing restaurants for The Washington Post: Patrick O’Connell and the caricature that has accompanied my byline online.

O’Connell, of course, is defying gravity at the Inn at Little Washington, the Virginia dining destination that has entertained several generations of merrymakers over four decades and last year garnered the ultimate three stars from France’s Michelin Guide.

My black-and-white sketch endures, too, never updated to mark the passage of time. More than 9,000 restaurant meals on the job can take their toll on a critic. A current (and honest) rendering would reveal an extra chin and a fuller suit.

Not that I’m complaining. Everyone should be so lucky to be paid to pursue their passion. My great fortune over two decades has been to document the Washington dining scene for a discerning audience — to chew and tell, so to speak.

Besides, time flies when you’re having pho … and lamb vindaloo, baby goat, steamed mussels, Peking duck, doro wat, chicken peri-peri, a daiquiri animated with Pop Rocks, pasta tinted with squid ink, “breakfast for dinner,” vegetable charcuterie, 100-day-old kimchi and more dishes of whole fish and grilled meat than I can count.

Speaking of steak, my debut review put me at the Prime Rib on K Street. The restaurant was far from new even then, but it occupied a place along a power corridor and served something I figured a lot of readers could relate to, in a dining room so formal it kept a closet of coats and ties for gentlemen who didn’t know better. Back then, patrons sought out steakhouses, or looked to French or Italian restaurants, to mark special occasions.

Now, I’d no more launch a column with one of those flavors than wear skinny jeans. As a world capital, Washington has always offered dozens of cuisines, but only recently have the non-European examples risen to broad prominence. A younger me would have raised an eyebrow at the idea that people would stand in line, sometimes for hours, for northern Thai food in a basement (Little Serow, introduced in 2011) or even an American restaurant where the signature is a bowl of pork, litchis and chiles (Rose’s Luxury, opened in 2013).

But a younger me also worked in a different Washington. Dupont Circle, Georgetown and later Penn Quarter hosted many of the best tables. The idea of “downtown” dining pretty much stopped with the seafood-themed DC Coast at 14th and K streets. (There were exceptions, including Rupperts, a trendy taste of Berkeley on Seventh Street NW.) Toward the end of 2000, the game changed markedly with the arrival of a sprawling Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods Market) in Logan Circle. Once known for bulletproof windows and greasy carryouts, the neighborhood gained instant cachet. “With the cars double-parked outside,” wrote Anne Hull in The Washington Post a year later, “it became apparent there was a new drug on P Street. It was called food.”

The Brooklyn cake from Brothers and Sisters (Laura Chase de Formigny; food styling and production by Jennifer Beeson Gregory).

Back then, the leaders of the chef pack were mostly white men with some age on them: O’Connell in the hinterland and Jeff Buben (Vidalia), Roberto Donna (Galileo), Bob Kinkead (Kinkead’s) and Michel Richard (Citronelle) in the District. “If one wanted to become a chef,” says Amy Brandwein, a protege of Donna’s who went on to open the beloved Centrolina in 2015, “those were the restaurants you went to work for. Nowhere else.”

The headliners these days are apt to be younger people of color and women: Kwame Onwuachi, Erik Bruner-Yang and Marjorie Meek-Bradley, among others. Motivated at least for a time by agreeable rents and a desire to cook where customers actually live, a new generation of chefs and restaurants has turned Shaw and H Street NE into dining meccas. More recently, the Navy Yard and the Wharf have added to the area’s embarrassment of restaurant riches — and rooms with views.

Dining out is a bigger sport than ever. Last year, consumers spent an estimated $4.4 billion in the District alone, according to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. That’s almost double the amount from 2006, the last time I referenced local food and drink sales.

The sport has gotten more expensive, but affluent and well-educated Washington diners are willing to pay the price. “Is okra the new truffle?” Eric Ziebold wondered in a recent email to me. The chef at Kinship and Métier had just seen the vegetable selling for almost $7 a pound at a farmers market. The gist: Diners are willing to pay for their choices. “They do want better products, they do want to eat more responsibly, and they do have the means to pay for it,” he wrote.

D.C.’s Iron Gate reopened in 2014 with, from left, pastry cook Whitney Schwanda, sous-chef Jim Diecchio, executive chef Tony Chittum and sous-chef Seth Wells. (Scott Suchman)

Since my maiden dining guide, in which I told readers where I spent my own money (and got lambasted by some for the $19,000 I dropped that year), we’ve come a long way, baby. Flipping through fall roundups past felt like perusing a memory book. Here I am in 2004, talking about chef-to-watch José Andrés, improved bread baskets and neighborhood spots offering amuse-bouches — a fine-dining accent — but also complaining about the plight of vegetarians. Three years later saw me describing spinoffs from prominent chefs, street corners peddling more than hot dogs, and Logan Circle and the Atlas District as dining destinations. On my 10th anniversary as food critic, the news included an uptick in female sommeliers, farmers being hailed as heroes, destination suburban restaurants and celebrity chefs lured to open outposts in Washington.

Veteran tastemakers point to a couple of pivotal factors in the past 20 years. One was the 2008 recession, which hit fine-dining establishments especially hard. Seemingly overnight, linens and flowers got 86’d. We’ve been eating differently ever since. Take lunch. When’s the last time you actually reserved an afternoon table anywhere? A fleet of food trucks and a small army of homegrown, fast-casual operators, among them Cava and Sweetgreen, diverted our attention and budgets away from seated, multicourse lunches.

Equally profound was the widespread reliance on the Internet, followed by social media, which changed the game for diners, chefs and critics alike.

The paying public could get a taste of a place before it stepped inside. All they had to do was click on a restaurant’s website or scroll through a Yelp review. Ziebold recalls returning to Washington from California in 2004 and hearing good things about Ethiopian food. He enlisted staff from that part of the world to serve as guides. That’s how it worked then. Fast forward: “I just did a Google search of Ethiopian cuisine, which turned up 23,900,900 results in .98 seconds,” he emailed.

Armed with more knowledge, today’s diners are primed to document their every bite, behavior that has changed what happens in the kitchen and elsewhere. One reason hot food might be cold by the time you get it is because young chefs in particular know you might be photographing it and they want it to look its best. Minibar by José Andrés this year replaced its high-sheen oak counter in the open kitchen with a cherry wood surface — the better backdrop for Instagrammers, of course.

Spike Gjerde in 2013; the Line hotel, which opened in 2017, is home to his restaurant A Rake’s Progress. (Sarah L. Voisin)
Chef Ris Lacoste in 2012; her West End restaurant, Ris, opened in 2010. (Rebecca D’Angelo)
Chef Johnny Monis at his no-reservations Little Serow. (Scott Suchman)
From left: Spike Gjerde in 2013; the Line hotel, which opened in 2017, is home to his restaurant A Rake’s Progress (Sarah L. Voisin). Chef Ris Lacoste in 2012; her West End restaurant, Ris, opened in 2010 (Rebecca D’Angelo). Chef Johnny Monis at his no-reservations Little Serow (Scott Suchman).

As for my profession, the saying is true, notably in the years after Yelp made its debut in 2004: Everybody is a critic. Not only are amateur reviewers sharing with the world their thoughts about their dining experiences, they’re commenting on professional critics. Frankly, I’m fine with any competition. The more people talking about food, the merrier. Plus, competition tends to keep people on their toes.

At the dawn of my tenure, I got dozens of calls a day and baskets of letters a month. Now, readers are comfortable instant messaging me at all hours of the day on social media — alas. (I heart you, gang, but I host a weekly online chat to address any burning restaurant questions.)

Thirteen years ago, I declared Washington a top-tier restaurant city, evinced in part by my travels around the country: “The more I sample the handiwork of chefs outside the region, the more I admire what’s on the menu right here at home.” It wasn’t until 2016, however, that national media seconded my vote of confidence. That’s the year Bon Appétit anointed Washington the restaurant city of the year and the Michelin Guide began evaluating our dining establishments (not well or widely, perhaps, but the District lapped up the attention).

“Born here, I’d always considered D.C. a one-horse town,” recalls veteran restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, a champion of underdog neighborhoods. Three years ago, she visited a bunch of new spots in Los Angeles and says she couldn’t wait to come home. “I couldn’t figure out why for a bit, then I realized it was because D.C. was just as cool as L.A., if not cooler, and lacked the pretense.”

She has a point. Just look at all the good things in small packages, and all over the city. As far as fine dining is concerned, no market in the country does it better than Washington, which has replaced the form’s traditional stuffiness with whimsy while remaining delicious. The Inn at Little Washington got the ball rolling here, with word plays on its menu and a cheese cart that moos, but successive high-end players keep the bar high. Witness the tiny (and oft-stolen) hammers used to shatter toffee at Kinship, the cocktails whipped up tableside at Pineapple and Pearls, the everything at Minibar.

The more I think about it, O’Connell and my illustrated mug aren’t the only constants on the Washington food scene. Look up from your bowls of ramen, your plates of pizza and your pavlova — this year’s “it” dessert — and you’ll see plentiful examples of that old standby, steak.

For years, some of us have tried to erase this city’s out-of-date reputation as a meat market. We are more than steakhouses! But here we are in 2019, with plenty of new brands to try, and I’m not going to dwell on it, because the grill-forward arrivals are outflanked by dozens of more compelling styles of cooking. In my mash note to Washington four years ago, Andrés summed up the landscape when he said, “We are not one thing, but so many things at once.” The sentiment is truer than ever today. Eat on.

2000

Where I spend my own money

In the news: Phyllis C. Richman retires in May after nearly 24 years of reviewing restaurants. Her replacement introduces himself via a review of a classic, the Prime Rib. Former White House associates Frank Ruta and Ann Amernick open Palena in Cleveland Park.

2001

Where to find the best (fill-in-the-blank)

In the news: Maestro sets sail in the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. Chef Jean-Louis Palladin, the visionary behind Jean-Louis at the Watergate, dies at 55. Two Amys opens, raising the bar for local pizza purveyors.

2002

My little black book/Restaurant secrets revealed

In the news: Wazuri opens in Dupont Circle, adding a sophisticated African accent to the scene. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff launches Signatures, where he mixes business with (ahem) monkey business. Jonathan Krinn, his bread-baking father and a dazzling dining room entice food lovers to Falls Church and 2941 restaurant.

2003

An introduction to star ratings

In the news: José Andrés surprises patrons with Altoids on fish and syringes as utensils at the novel Minibar in Cafe Atlantico in Penn Quarter. Nectar opens to great applause near the Kennedy Center. A 24-year-old unknown, Johnny Monis, opens the Greek-themed Komi in Dupont Circle.

2004

A restaurant for every week of the year

In the news: Restaurant Eve, two dining rooms under one roof, debuts in Old Town Alexandria. Eric Ziebold leaves Napa Valley and the French Laundry for Southwest Washington and CityZen. The movie “Sideways” sends sales of pinot noir skyrocketing.

2005

In the mood (romance, tradition, bargains, etc.)

In the news: Rock Creek tries to get diners to eat healthfully with “conscious cuisine” in Bethesda. Modern Indian makes its way to Washington with Rasika in Penn Quarter. The website Eater launches nationwide.

2006

State of the plate/Washington emerges as a top-tier food town

In the news: Todd Thrasher, one of the country’s foremost bar chefs, starts shaking and stirring at PX, a speakeasy in Old Town. Johnny’s Half Shell leaves Dupont Circle for Capitol Hill and much larger digs. In Georgetown, Birreria Paradiso gives beer the status of wine.

2007

Monumental tastes/50 compelling restaurants

In the news: Michel Richard opens a bistro, Central Michel Richard. Robert Wiedmaier opens a brasserie, the Belgian-themed Beck. Previously restaurant-poor, the Atlas District, Columbia Heights and Logan Circle become neighborhoods to watch for food.

2008

Where to eat now/Sure bets in tough times

In the news: Ray’s Hell-Burger lights up its grill in Arlington. Superstar chef Alain Ducasse opens Adour in the St. Regis. Sound ratings are added to reviews in the Magazine.

2009

Tom’s 10th anniversary issue

In the news: Sushi Taro removes seats, hikes prices and starts serving the best Japanese food in town. Sign of the times: The pricey Le Paradou closes. Roberto Donna announces plans to open Galileo III downtown.

2010

Insider tips

In the news: Former 1789 chef Ris Lacoste introduces Ris in the West End. Birch & Barley adds a 500-plus beer list to Logan Circle. Underserved Ward 7 welcomes Ray’s the Steaks at East River.

2011

Where I’d like to be a regular

In the news: Ramen purveyor Toki Underground opens in the Atlas District. Medium Rare plants a stake in Cleveland Park. Maryland chef Jeff Black rolls out Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle.

2012

40 favorites

In the news: Bryan Voltaggio’s ambitious, 300-seat, 30-cook Range opens in Friendship Heights. Former Vidalia chef R.J. Cooper pushes envelopes with his avant-garde dinner theater at Rogue 24 in Blagden Alley. Lines form outside the fledgling 28-seat, no-reservations Little Serow in Dupont Circle: Thai cooking from Johnny Monis.

2013

40 favorites

In the news: The game-changing Rose’s Luxury opens on Capitol Hill. Pork and litchis are on every chowhound’s lips. Empire-builder Stephen Starr extends his brand to D.C. with Le Diplomate. DGS Delicatessen aspires to bring an echt deli to D.C., bar included.

2014

Top 10 favorites are introduced, along with Tom’s fantasy menu

In the news: The seafood-themed Fiola Mare glides into Georgetown. Partisan fuels the rage for housemade charcuterie. The historic Iron Gate reopens in Dupont Circle.

2015

37 favorites

In the news: Oval Room chef Tony Conte says goodbye to fine dining and hello to stellar pizza at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana. Bad Saint has everyone craving Filipino food, and standing in line to try it. San Francisco icon Tadich Grill comes to D.C.

2016

Biggest-ever issue features 72 restaurants and bars

In the news: Michelin Guide begins rating Washington restaurants. Bon Appétit anoints Washington the Restaurant City of the Year. Michel Richard, whose fanciful French-American food made him a national tastemaker, dies at 68.

2017

53 favorites

In the news: The Wharf, with 20 or so restaurants, opens in Southwest D.C. The Line hotel, featuring restaurants by Erik Bruner-Yang and Spike Gjerde, debuts in Adams Morgan. Restaurant Nora, the nearly-40-year-old shrine to organic cooking, closes.

2018

48 reasons to love the food scene, featuring a brand-new Hall of Fame

In the news: Mike Isabella’s dining empire collapses in the wake of sedinixual harassment allegations. Fancy Radish, from the owners of Philadelphia’s Vedge, raises the bar for plant-based dining. Travel documentarian and author Anthony Bourdain dies by suicide in France.

Credits: Story by Tom Sietsema. Designed by Michael Johnson. Photo Editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory.