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International Flavors Help Redefine D.C. Food

Much about the Washington power lunch has remained unchanged over the past few decades. The suits, the small talk, the hefty tab whisked away and filed on an expense form of today could just as easily be vintage 1994 — with a few changes to the cut of the suits, the football scores or the number of zeros on the bill. Today’s deals, though, might just as often be brokered over sushi as steak. And chances are, you know which tiny farm in Pennsylvania your cheese came from, and you’re as likely to be hailing a cab afterward on Seventh Street as you are K Street.

Washington has been steadily shedding its reputation as a provincial Southern town of dark-leather steakhouses and fussy French dining. In some ways, those fixtures of Washington’s modern dining scene are the same as they were in 1994. But the steakhouses of today are brighter and the French food is more casual and modern — and they’re hardly the only options.

Many of the staples of today’s restaurant offerings are the result of seeds sown in 1994. Tapas, for example, was a relatively new concept in the nation’s capital then. Gabriel, the now-closed Spanish tapas joint in Dupont Circle, opened that year and Jaleo in the then-fringy Penn Quarter the year before, when diners still needed the concept explained to them and the word “tapas” frequently was confused with “topless.”

Now, the small Spanish dishes are a common feature on D.C. menus. Tapas, too, spawned the ubiquitous “small plate” trend evident seemingly everywhere, with menus often divided into a labyrinthine array of portion sizes and prices.

Ask around, and you’ll hear plenty of reasons for the changes: the city’s increased fiscal stability, the real estate boom, more sophisticated palettes and the emergence of food as the preoccupation of the nation’s affluent.

Global Flavors

When restaurateur Ashok Bajaj came to Washington as a brash 20-something in 1988, he had a vision that others just couldn’t see. Bajaj wanted to open an upscale Indian restaurant downtown, a concept that stumped would-be landlords and lenders. “There was no interest in giving someone space to do upscale ethnic food,” he says. “I told them, ‘I’m going to open a first-class Indian restaurant,’ but they couldn’t picture that. It was hard educating people at first.” Bajaj ended up flying a potential landlord to London, where he could scope out one of Bajaj’s previous eateries, to get the idea that not all non-French or Italian restaurants had to be holes in the wall. Eventually, the tutorial worked and Bajaj scored a space near the White House for the Bombay Club, which was followed by Bajaj’s other places, 701, the Oval Room and Ardeo/ Bardeo.

“I’d say one of the biggest trends since 1994 has been in ethnic foods,” says Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “People learned that they didn’t have to go to Chinatown to eat ethnic food, that it could be elegant.” Cafe Atlantico, featuring the cuisines of Central and Latin America, Mid-Eastern inflected Zaytinya, and the fusion-happy CityZen are more evidence of Washington’s appetite for upscale exotic fare.

And Bajaj’s confidence that Washingtonians wanted ethnic food not out of takeout cartons but on fine china was bolstered further in 2006, when he opened Rasika, his glam Indian eatery in Penn Quarter. “I’m not saying that there won’t always be a market for modern American food, but Washington is an international city, and it should have international food,” Bajaj says.

Changing Geography

D.C.’s most vibrant dining oasis was built in the urban equivalent of the desert. Back in 1994, the term “Penn Quarter” hadn’t yet been coined, and the neighborhood — encompassing about a dozen blocks on the east side of downtown north of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest — was a wasteland of drab offices and sidewalks that emptied out after work hours.

In 1994, crack and the crime it brought to the city was on the wane, and the now-defunct Red Sage was a three-year-old restaurant on an office-heavy stretch of 14th Street Northwest. Dan Mesches, president and CEO of Star Restaurant Group, which owned Red Sage, along with newer additions including Zola in the International Spy Museum, said the location wasn’t ideal, although now the area is dotted with retail shops and eateries. “I like to think we were a catalyst for a lot of the growth,” Mesches said. When the restaurant’s lease came up for renewal last year, the rent prices had more than doubled. Realizing they couldn’t afford to renew, the restaurant folded. “In some ways, we were a victim of our own success,” he says. “We priced ourselves out of that neighborhood.”

In 1998, Jeff Tunks opened DC Coast in what he describes as the “prostitutes’ McDonald’s” on the 1400 block of K Street Northwest. Although the lobbyist-lined street already was a dining destination, diners seeking food more elegant than Big Macs rarely ventured that far east. Now, he says, it’s the westernmost outpost in the Passion Food Hospitality group’s roster.

Restaurateurs and other observers of the food scene attribute the growth in downtown largely to the development of the MCI Center, now called the Verizon Center. When the sports and entertainment venue opened in 1997 on Seventh Street Northwest, Mesches said that even seven blocks away, Red Sage saw a serious uptick in business. The crowds it drew for Bullets (now Wizards) and Capitals games flooded the streets. Condos, retail stores, hotels and tourist attractions soon followed.

Even some parts of storied Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest were a no-man’s land in the mid-1990s. Bajaj said people were skeptical that a restaurant could succeed when he opened 701 at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. “Everyone was saying ‘You’re on the fringe,’ and now look at it,” he says.

Today, the boulevard is packed with upscale destinations, from Michel Richard’s highly acclaimed Central to the Capital Grille to TenPenh.

Enter the Star Chefs

The Food Network debuted in late 1993, when the concept of the celebu-chef was a limited one. There was Julia Child, of course, and James Beard, two icons of American cookery made famous by their cookbooks and television appearances. Inside the Beltway, the roster of first-name-only chefs was tiny, too: Michel (as in Michel Richard of Citronelle), Roberto (that would be Roberto Donna of Galileo), Bob (Kinkead of Kinkead’s) and Jean-Louis (Palladin of Jean-Louis).

A small vanguard of up-and-comers from that era are now joined by a host of new faces. Tunks, who was counted among the top tier of chefs even then, says chefs now have to do more than just crank great food out of the kitchen. Writing cookbooks and logging TV appearances — on the Food Network and elsewhere — are now part of the job. “That’s the road you have to take to compete with the visibility of other chefs,” Tunks says.

Jose Andres, the chef who opened Jaleo and Cafe Atlantico in Penn Quarter and built a dynasty of other high-profile eateries, including Zaytinya, has a cookbook, as does Donna, Richard, Kinkead and Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro. Pastry chef Warren Brown of Cakelove, a bakery on U Street Northwest, has his own show on the Food Network, and other local chefs are regulars on the TV circuit.

Still, that kind of multi-tasking can lead to criticism. “There’s a Catch-22, and I’ve faced that — people wonder, ‘If he’s doing all that, who’s monitoring the quality of the cuisine?’” he says.

Many chefs now have personal assistants, says Linda Roth, a longtime restaurant PR specialist. And Tunks says his solution for managing the tug of war between his food and his profile is to hire good staffers who can execute his vision while he’s out of the kitchen — and to do a lot of running in between.

Eating the Web

Any snapshot of change between now and the mid-1990s wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the Internet. Like so many other arenas, from news to entertainment, the Washington dining community has been changed by the Web. Don Rockwell, who owns and operates popular food-chat site, says the food cognoscenti follows restaurant openings, chef hirings and firings, and new menus the way Redskins fans follow every trade and stat. Web sites such as Chowhound, eGullet and Rockwell’s own site have created a small but influential sounding board for chefs, restaurateurs and the town’s influential mainstream food writers.

Rockwell says that the frank — and sometimes brutal — comments made by online posters can prod restaurants to improve service or fix problems, and create buzz for new openings. Undiscovered gems don’t stay undiscovered for long, and venerable restaurants whose service or food quality have slipped can’t get away with it for long, he says, now that everyone with a mouse is a critic.

“Restaurant owners read them everyday; they’re constantly monitoring them for feedback,” Rockwell says. “And it’s having a big impact on restaurant critics, who are coming out earlier and earlier with their reviews earlier and earlier to be relevant.”

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