The Hungries: The Best and Worst of D.C. Restaurants in 2013
During the second week of May, four new restaurants opened up on 14th Street NW—the same number that debuted in the same corridor all of last year. Which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about 2013: It seemed hardly a day went by that D.C. didn’t see another new bar, restaurant, market, or brewery. (More than 20 eating and drinking establishments opened on 14th Street alone, while at least 10 appeared in Shaw.) How close is the food scene now to self-parody? After this year, we have both bicycles and motorcycles that sell gourmet ice cream sandwiches.
With all those new eateries came a lot of hype (ahem, Le Diplomate), some unexpected dishes (mmm, Rock Creek Park deer ragu), and more annoying industry jargon (hand-crafted, sustainable share plates made in-house, anyone?). To commemorate all the happenings and mishaps, here are the Hungries: Young & Hungry’s awards for the best, worst, and weirdest in D.C. food this year.
Most Abused Restaurant Term: Share plates
As restaurants wise up to the vitriol toward “small plates,” a new term has come into vogue: “share plates.” Don’t be fooled—they’re basically the same thing. But the rebranding brings more ambiguity to portion size. At The Heights, for example, “share plates” are basically appetizers, whereas at Doi Moi, the “share” category on the menu refers to the larger “family-style” dishes that would be called “entrées” in a less-trendy restaurant. At other restaurants, sharing means no more than a bite or two per person. The other problem with share plates is that, well, they imply sharing. But many of these dishes are not actually conducive to sharing. Like soup. Who wants to share a soup?
Most Overhyped Restaurant: Le Diplomate
Don’t get me wrong, I really do like Le Diplomate. And I would be perfectly happy to enjoy some foie gras parfait and a glass of bubbly in the faux-Parisian dining room—if I didn’t have to wait two hours on a Tuesday night. Some people call the French brasserie a Disneyfied version of Paris, but I’ve waited in shorter lines for Space Mountain than I have for a mountain of seafood. The opening frenzy established hopelessly high expectations for the place, and it’s gotten disproportionately more hype than far better, or just as worthy, new restaurants (like, say, Etto across the street). Le Diplomate is great, but not that great. There, somebody said it.
Most Underhyped Restaurants: Duke's Grocery and Donburi
In the age of the $16 cocktail and $30 entrée, it’s easy to feel gouged. But Dupont’s Duke’s Grocery and Adams Morgan's Donburi are two small operations giving diners a bang (and bangers and mash) for their buck. Duke’s, an East London-inspired cafe and market, turns out some of the best—and biggest—sandwiches in the city (try the Brick Lane salt beef) plus a proper English breakfast that will easily feed two (or one really hungover person). Chef Alex McCoy makes nearly everything from scratch, including the regularly rotating curries and charcuterie.
Meanwhile, Donburi, a relatively newer addition to the food scene, opened with a whisper, not a loudspeaker. The 14 counter seats face an open kitchen where chef and owner James Jang slices sashimi and fries panko-crusted pork and shrimp for a very limited—and affordable—menu of Japanese rice bowls. Low-key. No frills. Just delicious.
Raciest Restroom: 2 Birds 1 Stone
A lot of new contenders competed for restroom arousal this year. Le Diplomate plastered vintage French porn (read: boobs everywhere) in bathrooms for both genders. B Too suggestively outlined the shapes of different sausages from vienna to kielbasa, along with a ruler, in the men’s, while the women’s room displayed a series of udders labeled “very tight” to “very loose.” At Teddy & The Bully Bar, the outhouse-themed men’s room includes a woodsy landscape with some scantily clad ladies partaking in scandalous behavior, and the women’s room features images of more sexy ladies printed on lingerie and lace.
But the restrooms most likely to make you blush? 2 Birds 1 Stone, the basement sister bar to Doi Moi. In the men’s room, you’ll find vintage photos of naked women sprawled out on beds, reaching for books, or bent over for a full rear view. The ladies room looks classier at first glance, with Renaissance-esque nymphs frolicking amid flowers. But a deeper look more closely resembles the kama sutra with figures straddling each other (or giving handjobs) in all sorts of positions. For all the boobs in D.C. restrooms, 2 Birds 1 Stones is the only one (I know of) ballsy enough to display penises.
Greatest D.C. Drunk Food: U Street Taco
It’s 3 a.m. and you’re drunk. How can you satisfy your impending hangover and your civic pride? By combining two of D.C.’s iconic late-night staples into one super food: The U Street Taco. Inspired by the Philly Taco—a Jim’s cheesesteak wrapped in a giant Lorenzo’s Pizza slice—the U Street instead incorporates a half-smoke. The steps are simple: 1) Obtain a chili half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl. 2) Get a jumbo slice from the jumbo slice institution of your choice. 3) Wrap said half-smoke inside said jumbo slice like a taco. 4) Devour with reckless abandon, preferably while listening to go-go music. OK, sure, Washington City Paper invented it. But we’re hell-bent on making it a thing.
Best Use of Ultra-Local Ingredients: DC Central Kitchen's Rock Creek Park deer ragu
Earlier this year, the National Park Service went deer hunting in Rock Creek Park in an attempt to to control the Bambi boom. The recipient of 600 pounds of venison? D.C.’s homeless. But first, it was tested for disease and ground up by a USDA-approved processor. Then DC Central Kitchen prepared it into a ground venison ragu atop whole wheat rotini baked with mozzarella cheese that fed about 2,500 people. Not even D.C.’s most locavore-approved restaurants serve meat quite that local.
Better than the Cronut Award: Doughnut ice cream sandwiches
Dessert hybrids showed up everywhere this year, competing to replicate New York’s cronut mania. Ted’s Bulletin offered an off-the-menu pop-tart ice cream sandwich. Shake Shake combined doughnuts with its ice cream concretes. But the greatest Franken-dessert? The doughnut ice cream sandwich, offered by Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken, Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats food truck, and Daikaya (on the izakaya late-night menu). Goodies made its signature version with vanilla custard stuffed within a red velvet doughnut, while Daikaya used ginger gelato and red bean to hold together a grilled glazed doughnut. Astro really takes the cake for using its crème brûlée doughnuts (one of City Paper’s top 50 must-try dishes) to sandwich the ice cream.
Bad Measure Award: DCRA, for enforcing imaginary laws about minimum alcohol pours
In February, inspectors from the D.C. Office of Weights and Measures visited about 10 bars and restaurants on H Street NE with beakers in hand to measure the volume of beer, wine, and liquor pours. The inspectors told perplexed bartenders and owners that they were legally required to serve shots containing at least one and a half ounces of liquor, glasses of wine with five ounces, and beer with 12 ounces. They even handed out pamphlets reading “The District of Columbia has zero tolerance for incorrect pours” and threatened $2,000 fines for underpouring.
All of it was bunk. No such minimum pour law exists. Instead the Department of Consumer of Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the Office of Weights and Measures, wasted everyone’s time (and $300 of taxpayer money to pay for the booze measured) to spread false information and ultimately pour alcohol down the drain. “The pamphlet was not fully vetted to make sure it was completely accurate and completely clear,” then-DCRA spokesman Helder Gil offered as explanation at the time. The office never even bothered to follow up with the establishments inspectors visited to correct the record. The only thing that didn’t measure up here? DCRA.
Best Dishes I Ate This Year
Rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu at The Red Hen. Foieffle at Barmini. Fried chicken and the pork lychee dish at Rose’s Luxury. Mix bowl at Donburi. Crispy rice salad at Bangkok Golden. Chris’ infamous wings at Hogo. Celery and walnut salad at Etto. Lambwich at Woodward Takeout Food. Okonomiyaki-style pork and Brussels sprouts skewers at Daikaya. Mung bean noodles at Mala Tang. Crème brûlée doughnut at Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken. Stuffed squid with red peppers and prosciutto at Table. Lambs and clams at Rappahannock Oyster Bar. Braised lamb bowl at Cava Mezze Grill. Roasted cauliflower sandwich at G.
Worst Dish I Ate This Year
Steamed unseasoned baby carrots and broccoli have no business as a garnish at a Mexican restaurant (or arguably, any restaurant). But that was perhaps the least offensive part of the chicken and shrimp dish I ordered on my first visit to Diego: The guacamole was a sickly off-green color that reminded me of the premade tubs you see at Safeway.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who thought the menu needed an overhaul. So did the owner, who shut the restaurant down only two weeks after its opening. Diego reopened in mid-October under the guidance of chef Billy McCormick, with a much-improved menu and guacamole made fresh in front of diners and served in a molcajete. But just a month later, McCormick split. I haven’t been back since.