The folks who run fine-dining restaurants swear to me that they’ve survived, or even thrived, in the recession. They insist that there’s still room for gastronomic temples and three-digit tasting menus. There’s just not as much room as before: The fine-dining segment has shrunk to perhaps 2 percent of the local market, down from nearly 10 percent during those bubble days.
This, no doubt, explains why some big names have recently given up on maitre d’s and white tablecloths. Consider: When Michel Richard finally announced that he was opening a restaurant in the former Maestro space in the Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton, D.C.’s haute cuisine poster boy said he wanted something more approachable than his Georgetown flagship, Citronelle. Consider further: The upscale Inox closed earlier this year, an apparent victim of the economy. And: Former Maestro chef Fabio Trabocchi says he’ll follow Richard’s less opulent approach for his own new D.C. restaurant. And: Teatro Goldoni fired respected chef Enzo Fargione, apparently because he was “just too expensive.”
Add the anecdotes up, and you have clear signs that D.C. is in a post-fine-dining period. This year’s Young & Hungry guide reflects this downward mobility: Only 10 restaurants listed here are what I’d consider fine-dining. Granted, I’ve purposely excluded a number of the area’s best restaurants—Central, Citronelle, CityZen, Komi, minibar, Ray’s Hell Burgers, Restaurant Eve, and 2Amys—just because I believe readers don’t need another reminder to visit them. (Consider them all honorary members of the list.)
Perhaps you think 20 percent is a significant portion of my guide. I would tend to agree—to a point. By the very nature of these kind of lists, you’d expect it to be loaded with the restaurants that pamper you on all levels. But a solid 40 spots are occupied by restaurants that, although not always cheap, don’t require you to take out a small loan before ordering.
So what kind of places are on the list? Italian restaurants. Lots of Italian restaurants, which are popping up like cremini mushrooms, from Seventh Hill pizzeria on Capitol Hill to the more refined Siroc on McPherson Square. In fact, three list-worthy pizza parlors—Pacci’s in Silver Spring, Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church, and Pupatella in Arlington—all opened weeks or days before this list went to press, making them essentially ineligible for consideration. I suspect next year’s list will be stuffed with pies.
One legendary restaurant, however, was disqualified not by financial trends or a well-established reputation. Rather, it was an amuse-bouche that did in the Inn at Little Washington. When we visited, someone thought it appropriate to send out a melon ball wrapped in prosciutto. In December. A fine-dining restaurant with such a disregard for the seasons doesn’t deserve a place among these 50 destinations. —Tim Carman