As the nation’s seat of power and a place with no shortage of soulless suits, D.C. frequently invites a brand of scrutiny from out-of-town media outlets that raises righteous anger from some of the regular people who actually live here. It’s practically a pastime in the District to call BS on whatever pandering, parachuting estimation of dining or sports fandom or other cultural mores from writers in New York or Boston.
So it’s come as a pleasant surprise, albeit one without the furious rush of hackle raising, to see both the New York Times and Esquire roll into town recently with overwhelmingly nice things to say about D.C.’s restaurants.
This week, Esquire Food & Drinks editor Jeff Gordinier released a list of 22 Best New Restaurants in America that included three D.C. venues and named a D.C. star, Kwame Onwuachi, as the magazine’s Chef of the Year.
Gordinier gave artsy, modern Latin American hit Seven Reasons the No. 1 spot, celebrating the 14th Street newcomer for its black rice topped with prawns and pork cheeks and its “more-is-more extravagance.” He ranked Onwuachi’s Kith/Kin at No. 9, giving the 2-year-old Afro-Caribbean spot “new” status because of how the chef has confidently hit his stride with “audacity” and “originality.” The editor also included Green Almond Pantry, the Mediterranean daytime cafe and market in Shaw, at No. 21, writing that proprietress Cagla Onal-Urel “seems to treat each salad and dip and Mediterranean sandwich and roasted vegetable with the sort of loving care you’d expect from l’Arpège in Paris.”
All that affection came on the heels of an ink-stained hug from an outlet that loves to look down on D.C. At the end of October, Brett Anderson wrote a story for the Times titled, “10 Reasons Why Washington D.C. Is a Great Restaurant City.”
The food writer identifies the D.C. stereotype — that “the strivers coursing through the capital’s halls of power represent the entire population; luxury, status and predictability rule in the kitchen, and the best meal to be had is a dry-aged steak.” — before disarming it with a high-brow listicle identifying a key factor in Washington restaurants right now:
“The most powerful force driving the critical reassessments are restaurants from immigrant and first-generation American chefs and restaurateurs, many of whom cut their teeth in the surrounding suburbs.”
In addition to Limardo and Onwuachi, he showcases the diversity of the D.C. scene with vignettes on chefs with Hong Kong heritage (Yuan Tang of Rooster and Owl, Henji Cheung of Queen’s English); a Cuban-Peruvian restaurateur cooking modern Mexican (Victor Albisu of Poca Madre); and established favorites for Lao (Seng Luangrath at Thip Khao), Filipino (Tom Cunanan at Bad Saint); and Taiwanese/Cambodian (Erik Bruner-Yang at Maketto). There’s even some love for Western immigrants, including the Greek influences at work Komi (Johnny Monis) and the Italian-Spanish marriage occurring at Del Mar (Fabio Trabocchi and Maria Font Trabocchi).
Is D.C. officially cool? Esquire and the Times say yes. Depending on readers’ age and income bracket, that may be evidence for or against the argument.