In a city where the power lunch long dominated, where suit-clad individuals traditionally brokered important decisions at the local steakhouse, food often took a back seat to politics and power. D.C. prides itself on being a center of power and influence, but for decades it lacked culinary power to match its political clout.
In recent years, Washington has seen a remarkable awakening in its culinary scene.
With the 2008 presidential election, not only did D.C. welcome a new wave of politicians, but it also saw the arrival of a number of internationally- renowned chefs. Culinary stars such as Wolfgang Puck, Art Smith and Michael Smith have redefined the power lunch concept with more eclectic, creative visions.
“Precisely this political game of people coming in and out, bodies changing hands, government changing hands, allows a sectionalized market of people coming in, coming out,” chef José Andréssays.
Andrés first came to Washington 19 years ago to establish his first restaurant, Jaleo. Since then, he has successfully made his mark throughout the city and developed a culinary empire, Think Food Group, which owns D.C. restaurants like Minibar by José Andrés, Oyamel, Zaytinya and his most recent venture, America Eats, a pop-up concept restaurant that explored the origins of iconic American cuisine.
In his nearly 20 years in Washington, Andrés has seen tremendous growth in the District’s culinary landscape.
“When I arrived in the city, everyone always said [it] was very conservative, and to a degree it was. It was almost a too-tired city,” Andrés explains. “Everyone used to say that Washington was a steak kind of town because people wanted simple so they could concentrate. This somehow defined Washington a lot.”
D.C. has never really owned a signature dish. While the half-smoke, a chili-covered sausage made famous by U Street’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, is a local favorite, it is not tied to D.C. in the national conscience like Philadelphia is to its cheese steak, Chicago to its deep-dish pizza or New York to its bagels.
In the District, culinary creativity was chronically stifled.
“People were so afraid [of getting into] trouble, or [doing] something wrong and [stepping] on the wrong feet,” Jenna Golden, one of three local writers for the D.C. food blog “EatMore DrinkMore,” says.
But over time, the city’s food culture slowly began to push the envelope.
Celebrity chef Mike Isabella attributes his arrival in Washington five years ago to his search for something different and exciting.
“I wanted to be part of a major city,” Isabella says. “I saw a lot of growth in [D.C.].”
Isabella, a New Jersey native, worked in both New York and Philadelphia before he began his time in Washington as the executive chef at Andrés’ restaurant Zaytinya. There, he garnered national attention for his unique take on Mediterranean cuisine.
Earlier this year, after two seasons on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” including a second-place finish on “Top Chef All Stars,” Isabella opened his first restaurant — a casual Italian eatery called Graffiato — in D.C.
Even taking the mild pushback from some diners into account, Isabella noticed a general willingness among locals and tourists to experiment with new offerings on District menus.
“People are coming in and trying things in the hopes of finding something special. I think there are definitely more people willing to experience it,” he says.
Golden also believes that Washingtonians are opening up to a broader range of culinary options.
“Something is coming more middle-of-the-road so that everybody can try the best things that are out there,” she says.
This newfound appreciation for out-of-the-box dining has sparked a revival across the city’s different neighborhoods. In Cleveland Park, for example, there is a strong emphasis on family dining. In Adams Morgan, funky coffee shops and dive bars attract young diners. And while Georgetown has often been considered more of an upscale dining destination, the emergence of more casual, affordable restaurants have altered its reputation — a plus for students looking for cheap eats.
Looking to build on Graffiato’s success, Isabella recently announced his plans to open a new restaurant in Georgetown in the space formerly occupied by Hook, which suffered major fire damage earlier this year. Bandolero, like Graffiato, will specialize in fusion small-plate offerings that play off classic Mexican dishes and include some of Isabella’s unique flair.
“My vision for Bandolero is a high-energy, high-volume restaurant to match the bustling vibe of the Georgetown neighborhood and feed the late-night appetite of its college students,” Isabella says. “The menu will change frequently with my twist on classic Mexican dishes and a large cocktailmenu.”
Isabella isn’t the only “Top Chef” alum with an active local presence. Spike Mendelsohn of Capitol Hill’s Good Stuff Eatery, Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in nearby Frederick, Md., and Carla Hall, one of the vibrant personalities of ABC’s new daytime talk show, “The Chew,” and owner of D.C. metro area catering service Alchemy, have all garnered attention for their accessible and creative food.
While many chefs have introduced unique and even international perspectives, the rich culture and history of the city still influences its foodie landscape, according to Andrés.
“My years in the heart of Washington have been very close to everything that created America,” he says. “Next to the Archives, being close to Harper’s Ferry, being not too far away from Georgetown, all the history that goes around Washington. This is what motivated me.”
“The location definitely dictates the type of cuisine that you are going to do. … [D.C. is a] fun city to be a part of,” he says. “It is something new and exciting, [and] it is really growing quickly.”
Andrés views D.C.’s atmosphere as distinct from more established dining destinations.
“It is this mix of being in a big city with high buildings, high rises, but still that small-town kind of feel,” he says.
According to Golden, President Obama has also played a role in reinvigorating the D.C. dining scene. From his regular date nights with the first lady to his penchant for local burger joints, Obama’s eating habits have gradually brought Washington into the national culinary limelight.
“The Obamas have made D.C. hipper and cooler,” says Golden. “It might just be that it’s the first time in a long time that we have had people in the White House who seemed excited about the culinary options in the city.”
Since President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, he and his wife have gradually dined their way across Washington. From Todd Gray’s more upscale Equinox to the more casual Ray’s Hell Burger and Good Stuff Eatery, the president has not only promoted local businesses but has helped boost the national recognition of these establishments.
The Obamas have also become strong advocates for food policy, especially on the local level. Perhaps even more so than her husband, first lady Michelle Obama has promoted the importance of nutrition and affordable, accessible healthy food. Her “Let’s Move” campaign and the development of the White House garden and farmer’s market have generated dialogue about America’s need to make responsible food choices, reflecting the transformation of D.C.’s dining scene.
“We used to be known as a city that was sort of stodgy, filled with old steakhouses, not a lot of character,” Golden says.
The meat-and-potatoes stereotype and repetitive menus once did little to entice food-minded visitors. But now, powered by a growing collection of acclaimed chefs and with the support of the president, Washington’s culinary revival has D.C. gastronomes and tourists alike flocking to local restaurants. While the power lunch may never die, the new items on power brokers’ plates represent a culinary coming-of-age that has pushed the District beyond the cliched steak-and-brandy meal.
“I think [D.C.] is an exciting place to be, and it does feel like it was left out for so many years,” Golden explains. “It is, after all, the capital. So why not be here?”