A restaurant can be powerful because it draws raves, or draws developers, or just draws a line of TV-addled tourists. A list of D.C.’s 44 heaviest hitters.
“Food is the most powerful thing we have in our hands,” José Andrés said. “Not only chefs, but everyone in the food community. The right use of food can end hunger.”
Andrés made that speech last month at the 2011 James Beard Awards, after taking the restaurant industry’s top prize. Singled-out in a pack of gastronomic gurus from towns more frequently mentioned as culinary capitals, the proprietor of D.C.’s illustrious Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Café Atlántico, and Minibar had elevated Washington’s culinary cred yet again.
With his national reputation and love for the spotlight, Andrés often seizes the bully pulpit to champion the power of food and its ability to change lives. The guy is prone to voicing some pretty deep thoughts, even if he sometimes risks sounding a bit like Jack Handey. A crusader for mindful consumption, Andrés encourages people to talk to their tomatoes, among other things.
But the soaring riffs on the “food is power” theme ring especially true in the District these days. The city has always had its power haunts: As long as insiders have gathered over meals here in the capital to decide the fates of small countries, there have been power lunches. And yet, even as local restaurateurs try to go one step farther—this year saw the opening of a much-hyped “power breakfast” joint—the ways to measure culinary muscle are more varied than ever.
D.C. in the 21st century has seen restaurants that can revive a neighborhood. It has places that aim to alter perceptions about what constitutes a meal. Most jarringly, it has places that are famous by virtue of being chronicled in real-time on television, a form of dining power that scarcely existed a decade ago. Of course, the city also has places that manage to draw steady crowds despite middling kitchens or indifferent service. That’s power, too.
And while we may once have been able to forget the potency of a meal, we also now get constant reminders of it from the most powerful man on the planet. No, not Andrés. We’re talking about that arugula-chewing elitist in the White House, Barack Obama.
Perhaps no presidential administration since the era of bread lines has so clearly defined nourishment as a national priority, launching initiatives to combat childhood obesity, improve food-safety standards, and even reshaping the antiquated food pyramid into a more satisfying pie chart.
And, for a guy whom critics tend to portray as anti-business, Obama couldn’t do more to empower the local food sector. Whether chowing down with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at Ray’s Hell Burger, or escorting the first lady to an extravagant dinner at Komi, the commander-in-chief has out-promoted the most powerful restaurant publicists in town.
With the dietary dominance of the nation’s 44th president in mind, Washington City Paper has identified an equal number of D.C.-based centers of food power, places that flex their muscles in ways ranging from culinary influence to market supremacy to televisual ubiquity. Their combined efforts may not eradicate hunger. But why would they? It’s in their best interest to keep us salivating for more. —Chris Shott
44. PASTA MIA
1790 Columbia Rd. NW, (202) 328-9114
Powerful Because: It serves as an endless magnet for new arrivals to D.C.
Nearly nine years ago, City Paper dubbed the hordes that gather nightly outside this no-frills red-sauce joint in Adams Morgan the city’s “fakest in-crowd.” The joke is on us. Almost a decade and countless cooler hangout openings later, the attraction hasn’t worn off. The line still gathers like a moth to flambé—even though the food is nothing to flap your wings about. One recent Tuesday, I counted an even 30 line-standers waiting for the restaurant to open its doors at 6:30 p.m., but my ravioli dish a week later was swimming in a creamy soup almost deep enough to drown a Capitol Hill intern. Owner Roberto Broglia’s tortellini temple seems to draw its enduring power from the District’s ever-revolving door of fresh-faced young staffers, for whom the wait to enter has become a bizarre rite of passage. —CS
43. OPEN CITY
2331 Calvert St. NW, (202) 332-2331
Powerful Because: Who needs an olive branch when you have animal crackers?
Open City might not be your typical power spot, but it sits at an enviable confluence for any restaurateur: nestled between two gigantic convention hotels at a neighborhood crossroads with high foot traffic near Rock Creek Park and the National Zoo. Many restaurants and retailers have tried to harness that powerful convergence. Few have succeeded in such a demonstrative way. The place is often packed, service is generally quick (sometimes too quick), and the polished American diner/gastropub fare is accessible for almost anyone’s tastes. Finally, a place where neighbors, tourists, and conventioneers can peacefully coexist over coffee and animal crackers. —Michael Grass
42. Belga Cafe
514 8th St. SE, (202) 544-0100
Powerful Because: It moved Barracks Row beyond 7-Eleven.
Marines bunking at the barracks on 8th Street SE were never starving: Sandwiches from Capital City Sub could sustain them. And, in a pinch, there’s always 7-Eleven. But, until 2004, nobody considered that dumpy retail strip a particularly appetizing destination for a nice dinner. That’s when Bart Vandaele opened up his venerable moules frites and waffle shop. The tiny restaurant ushered in a new scene: Since Belga’s arrival, a slew of other places have moved in nearby: Matchbox, Ted’s Bulletin, Cava Mezze, and The Chesapeake Room, to name a few. The neighborhood now throws an annual block party called “Taste of 8th” to give people a chance to try them all. Vandaele helped pave the way. And his Belgian fare has not, um, waffled, even if the service can sometimes seem like the place has joined the European slow-food movement. —Stefanie Gans
41. POSTE MODERNE BRASSERIE
555 8th St. NW, (202) 683-6060
Powerful Because: The space alone is worth the trip—and the kitchen is fine, too.
Tucked inside the courtyard of the Hotel Monaco, Poste Moderne Brasserie inhabits space in one of three Robert Mills-designed 19th-century federal buildings downtown, the former home of the General Post Office and Tariff Commission across F Street NW from the National Portrait Gallery. How many meals do you eat inside buildings raved about by the American Institute of Architects’ guide to D.C. architecture, which calls Poste’s home “beautifully restrained?” Poste, which opens onto the Hotel Monaco’s courtyard and garden space, benefits from the grand architectural aesthetic—and a glass addition that illuminates the courtyard at night. And if you reserve the garden-side group table for a special “Poste Roast,” you may feel a bit of imperial grandeur, eating a whole roasted lamb, baby goat, pig, or some other delicious beast. After all, unlike the cuisine at a lot of other beautiful-looking restaurants, the food, overseen by executive chef Rob Weland, here is also worth the trip. —MG
40. JOHNNY’S HALF SHELL
400 North Capitol St. NW, (202) 737-0400
Powerful Because: It’s D.C.’s most convenient restaurant for TV talking heads!
In 2006, when chef Ann Cashion and her restaurant partner John Fulchino moved their popular and modestly sized Dupont Circle seafood restaurant to a valuable perch in the Hall of States building—home to news pundits broadcasting from Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN studios—it seemed like a power grab of sorts. But a smart one! The fusty old French restaurant La Colline occupied enviable real estate close to the Capitol, but had run its course. When the new and much larger Johnny’s Half Shell was ready for prime time on North Capitol Street, it was an instant success, bringing Cashion and Fulchino into a place where they could cater to those who seek power, as well as those who simply seek pan-roasted littleneck clams, fried oysters, or soft-shell crabs. —MG
39. RAY’S THE STEAKS AT EAST RIVER
3905 Dix St. NE, (202) 396-7297
Powerful Because: It shows that a nice sit-down restaurant might just survive in Ward 7.
Michael Landrum took a big gamble in opening this no-frills steakhouse east of the Anacostia River, a longtime dead zone for any restaurant concept beyond the traditional carry-outs and fast-food chains. But he tried to be smart about it, incorporating elements of soul food like collard greens instead of creamed spinach, and keeping prices somewhat reasonable. Recently passing the one-year mark, Landrum’s gambit hasn’t flopped yet. On a recent visit, the place seemed busy enough, catering to a handful of big families with multiple children and several couples at two tops. Not bad for a Tuesday night. The beer-battered fried shrimp and bone-in ribeye were perfectly satisfying. But looking around the room, I really envied everyone who ordered the ribs. —CS
38. LAURIOL PLAZA
1835 18th St. NW, (202) 387-0035
Powerful Because: It boasts a magical ability to draw massive crowds despite dull food.
Once the reputed weekly brunch spot of Mark Halperin’s illustrious “Gang of 500”—that is, the lobbyists, strategists, journalists, and politicos who purportedly made up official Washington’s conventional wisdom in the early to mid ’00s—the monstrous Tex-Mex stalwart with the expansive, voyeuristic sidewalk café carries considerable sway with the larger D.C. transplant community, as well. It is likely the first restaurant you ever went to upon moving to D.C. and the last place you ever want to go again before moving out. Its magnetism is indisputable. Fustercluck doesn’t begin to describe the crowds on weekends. Maybe somebody slipped something powerful into the strawberry margaritas, because you can get better tacos at Chipotle. We could find no reports of Obama having ever dropped by. But there’s a life-size cardboard likeness of him waiting to greet him at the counter whenever he arrives, just in case. —CS
821 Upshur St. NW, (202) 722-7475
Powerful Because: It’s good for the neighborhood—even when people gripe.
There used to be a steak place near my brother’s Manhattan apartment that The New York Times had reviewed somewhat condescendingly, calling it “good for the neighborhood.” The backhanded compliment moved my brother to love the restaurant even more than he would have just from eating there. Domku sometimes benefits from the same vibe among its Petworth neighbors. Yeah, we all know the service is often slow. But don’t gripe about it if you don’t live within walking distance, because then you’re asking for trouble. That loyalty, dating to when Domku opened in 2005 as one of the area’s only spots catering to arriviste yuppie types, is part of the place’s charm. Locals bring people in from all over the city, turning the restaurant into an informal ambassador to the rest of the District. (Tell someone in Dupont Circle you live in Petworth, and watch them bring up Domku.) Of course, from the house-cured gravlax to the kielbasa and sauerkraut stew, the food’s delicious—for any neighborhood. —Mike Madden
36. KRAMERBOOKS AND AFTERWORDS CAFÉ
1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 387-3825
Powerful Because: It figured out a way to keep bookstores in business: Serve dinner!
“Meet me at Kramer’s,” you’ll hear people say. While bookstores may be in trouble financially, Kramer’s has successfully pulled off the bookstore-restaurant combination in a sought-after area where people meet up: Dupont Circle. When a commercial establishment, like Kramerbooks, is commonly used as a geographic reference point, it asserts its power through its brand. And while it’s easy to waltz into the bookstore and browse, seats in its modest-sized café can, at times, be extremely difficult to snag. The glassed-in patio area is a perfect venue for people-watching. And in a city with far too few late-night options, the kitchen is open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays. That, in itself, is a powerful asset. —MG
35. GRANVILLE MOORE’S
1238 H St. NE, (202) 399-2546
Powerful Because: It conferred grown-up status on H Street.
Consider all the decent H Street dining options these days: Atlas Room, Smith Commons, Liberty Tree, and the long-awaited Toki Underground, where patrons are sometimes turned away because the kitchen runs out of food in the face of heavy demand. (It’s happened to me twice.) All of them owe a debt of gratitude to Teddy Folkman’s Belgian-themed gastropub, which finally elevated the neighborhood standard for good food and drink beyond, well, just the drinks. His signature moules frites, which bested celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s version in a televised showdown, have kept steady lines out the door, and Folkman isn’t content to stop there. In late 2010, he set out to conquer D.C.’s overflowing brunch scene with a sandwich called “The Good Doctor.” Even with so many other tantalizing options now available on H Street, it’s still hard to get an appointment. —Nick DeSantis
34. GEORGETOWN CUPCAKE
3301 M St. NW, (202) 333-8448
Powerful Because: Have you seen that line?
Leave it to idealist campus activists to point out the District’s real power dons: Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne. Consider the protest placards that Georgetown University students have routinely posted outside the sisters’ corner bakery at M and 33rd streets NW: “You look lost. The White House, Smithsonian Museum, National Archives, and literally dozens of the world’s best museums are not at the end of this line.” “There are a lot of really exciting things to do in our nation’s capital. Standing here in line is not one of them.” The sarcastic signage is directed at the lengthy queue of patrons, many of them tourists, who regularly assemble to sample what appears to be D.C.’s smallest cupcake. I counted a whopping 117 of them waiting patiently along the sidewalk one recent weeknight. Local foodies are quick to suggest a tastier confection awaits just a short walk away at Baked & Wired. But that place has nowhere near the star power of Kallinis and LaMontagne, whose TV show D.C. Cupcakes seems to cast a hypnotic effect over sweet-toothed lemmings across the country. —CS
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