On the DC restaurant scene, 2015 was the Year of Hype. Celebrity chefs! Crowdfunding! Glamorous dining rooms! In some cases, the hype was undercut with food poisoning. In others, the wild excess of expectations made perfectly good restaurants seem like let-downs. Only a few weathered the storms of confetti and hysteria to emerge with their dignity entirely intact.
When the confetti cleared, the biggest trend of the year wasn’t even edible – it was crowdfunding. Whether to launch a concept or bolster a rapidly shrinking construction budget, restauranteurs turned en masse to small investors to get the show on the road.
In fact, none of the most interesting restaurant trends in 2015 is about food. Everyone knows veg are trendy. Everyone knows kimchi is hot. But what about the remarkably transformative effects of a good restaurant? Whether it was Nido putting still-underserved Woodbridge on the map, or Earls Kitchen + Bar redefining our expectations about chains, restaurants transcended their fork-to-mouth influence and solidified their status as economic engines, aesthetic tastemakers, and culture shifters.
And finally, 2015 was a year of angles – everyone had their take on a niche detail. Whether it was making vermouth in-house, or identifying a menu of regionally-sourced recipes, DC’s restaurateurs took their creativity down into the details.
Of course ultimately, the question this column wants to answer is this: If you strip away the hype, the crowdfunding excitement, the economic potential, the funny homemade liquor on tap – would you still eat at a white-hot restaurant? If no one had ever tweeted about it, if no one ever instagrammed it, and you didn’t know the mixologist’s name – would you still drink at a trendy bar?
Stripping out those tantalizing nothings, this is my very subjective list – in alphabetical order – of DC’s best openings of 2105.
See all these lines in DC? Blame Georgetown Cupcake for starting the trend. Now, no restaurant is truly hype-worthy without one. But what’s even more important than a line? A Kickstarter campaign: the intimate, drool-worthy Filipino restaurant got to opening day with the help of 280 backers. Bad Saint survived intense hype and anticipation (ameliorated, perhaps, by the owners’ multiple attempts to lower expectations), and now we’re eagerly learning to pronounce a new menu of amazing foods we barely knew existed before. Bad Saint: 3226 11th St. NW, DC;www.badsaintdc.com
The Woodley Park Metro station hosts one of DC’s few neighborhoods not yet on the foodie scene, so I was pleasantly surprised when I got a lovely table on the terrace and was brought a lovely cocktail. My companion that afternoon, an unpleasant ex, momentarily became a better person under the bar’s spell. Here’s hoping Bar Civita represents transformative times ahead for the entire neighborhood. Bar Civita: 2609 24th St. NW, DC; 202-588-1211; www.barcivita.com
Jose Andres revealed why he is paid the big bucks when he showed that he can still get out in front of the trends and make them tasty. veg-centric, fast, and casual alluring enough to tempt carnivores? You would have been laughed out of DC a decade ago for suggesting it. Beefsteak : 22nd and I St. NW, DC; 202-296-1421; www.beefsteakveggies.com
For some understated, salmonella-free glamor, I slip into Centrolina via the market door, peruse pricey shelves, and sometimes actually buy something (a can of San Marzano tomatoes was surprisingly priced on my last visit). Then I settle into a seat at the sleek marble bar for an early happy hour and some antipasti, before the crowds show up, and quietly thank the Qataris for transforming a former DC-NYC bus staging zone into the Beverly Hills of DC. Centrolina : 974 Palmer Alley, DC; 202-898-2426; www.centrolinadc.com
Here’s the latest in restaurant business plans: get into a food incubator (in this case, Union Kitchen’s first class), develop a farmer’s market following that is impossible to satisfy, and when the lines get too ridiculous, commit to a bricks-and-mortar location. Done. Chaia got in the habit of serving over 200 vegetarian tacos an hour at the White House and Dupont farmers markets, and then rode the shoulders of popular opinion (and a few angel funders) to a Georgetown storefront. The hype is real. Chaia: 3207 Grace St. NW, DC; 202-333-5222; www.chaiadc.com
Earls Kitchen + Bar
Yes, a chain. But this is what successful chains are increasingly going to look like: local control, carefully curated lists of local drinkables, local artists on the walls, nods to local cuisine and demographics (DC’s demographic apparently equals an old fashioned bar), and a core corporate menu, all united under an iron fist of quality control and large portions. Earls Kitchen + Bar: 7902 Tysons One Pl., Tysons, VA; 703-847-1870;www.earls.ca
You might remember that nice herb garden at Poste Moderne. Chef Rob Weland planted it, but he has finally opened a place of his own: the veg-loving Garrison. The new herb garden in front is much smaller (and, for now, mostly decorative), but it’s a signature touch that stakes Garrison out as Weland’s own, and says so much about how conscious he is of being part of the entire food cycle. Garrison: 524 Eighth St. SE, DC; 202-506-2445; www.garrisondc.com
The mixed-use concept that is Maketto is one of the few to completely avoid the devastating after-effects of a much-hyped, over-anticipated opening. A local crowdfunding platform allowed investors in DC and Virginia to become Maketto’s mini-landlords and help pay construction costs, and the bakery (Frenchies) got on its feet with a Kickstarter (200 backers!) Once Maketto opened, the haters were primed to spring, but in the end couldn’t resist the Taiwanese fried chicken, flakey Frenchies croissants, charming courtyard, and sleek aesthetic. The nearly 200 landlord investors rejoiced. The retail sections are absurdly priced – but they’re so absurdly priced that I think most visitors regard them as pop-up art exhibits and laugh indulgently while sipping their delicious cappuccinos. Maketto: 1351 H St. NE, DC; 202-838-9972; www.maketto1351.com
When I inconveniently want to visit home in California, I instead visit Masseria. While it’s officially inspired by southern Italy, the relaxed vibe, expansive terrace (which has its own cigar menu), and the raw materials construction have transformed this still-gritty corner of DC into an escapist dream world straight from a Mediterranean climate. Chef Nick Stefanelli shops for his daily menu at next-door Union Market. If you’re not in the mood for prix fixe, the bar menu will ensure you get your Mediterranean fix. Masseria: 1340 4th St. NE, DC; 202-608-1330; www.masseria-dc.com
You might not know it yet, but snuggled in the shadow of Brookland is Woodbridge, the next hot neighborhood. This is where you will find Chef Aaron Wright (Tabard Inn) dishing up “eclectic Mediterranean” food in a neighborhood joint defined by white brick, natural light, and vermouth. Nido: 2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE, DC; 202-627-2815; www.nido-dc.com
Mike Isabella expanded his empire in 2015, and seemed bent on taking over Ballston. With Pepita, he stakes his claim via a stunning cocktail menu featuring 50+ beverages (including some excellent non-alcoholic options). Drink here before eating next door at his Kapnos Taverna. Pepita: 4000 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; 703-312-0200; www.pepitabymic.com
Prequel rewrote the DC government’s investment rules, took over the old Living Social space (complete with reinforced flooring for sumo wrestling) on F Street and established a foodie crowd funding institution. Now Washingtonians are treated to a carousel of pop-ups, residencies, and concept tests. The only sad bit is when tenants sprout wings and move on (we still miss Bluebird Bakery, which successfully crowdfunded the next step to its own storefront). But we’re comforted that the upstairs wine bar is a permanent fixture. Prequel: 918 F St. NW, DC; 202-510-9917; www.prequelrestaurant.com
Provision no. 14
This is a beautiful space, with carefully thought-out details to delight the visually oriented. This has long been one of my snotty grudges against restaurants: the dining room phalanx of boring tables and chairs is straight-up depressing. But 2015 saw a transformative blossoming of interior design eye candy across DC’s restaurant scene Provision 14 gets top spot because the food is also creative, the cocktails (while pricey) are both adorable and delicious, and you won’t get salmonella. Provision No. 14:2100 14th St. NW, DC; 202-827-4530; www.provisiondc.com
The path to opening SER was anything but “Simple, Easy, Real,” the restaurant’s acronym. After winning Ballston BID’s strangely run Restaurant Challenge – which came with free rent in a difficult-to-fill location and a quarter-million-dollar, interest-free loan – owners Javier and Christiana Candon still found themselves over budget…and turned to Kickstarter. Queue happy endings all around. SER now introduces diners to the wealth of delicious Spanish cuisine beyond tapas and sangria. And that difficult-to-fill, slightly out-of-the-way location? Crowdfunding all but ensures a base cliental of their 76 Kickstarter supporters. SER: 1110 N. Glebe Rd. Arlington, VA; 703-746-9822; www.ser-restaurant.com
Stanton & Greene
Stanton & Greene was a stark transformation from its predecessor, Pour House. And as that dimly-lit, Steelers-centric, beer-pong’ing watering hole once symbolized everything about the neighborhood (and our tastes, a decade ago), so does Stanton & Greene now. The new owners restored as much of the building as possible, including the original patterned tin ceiling (I could stare for hours), stripped black paint off the windows, and brought in Erik Holzherr (Wisdom) to create a solid list of signature cocktails. Stanton & Greene : 319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; 202-555-1212;www.stantonandgreene.com
Virginia boy Jeremiah Langhorne made his name in Charleston at the acclaimed McCrady’s, but now he’s come home to open his own restaurant. The Dabney doesn’t just do local sourcing – they do local ingredients. What this means in practice is sunchoke soup, sweet potato rolls stuffed with crispy pork belly, and celery ice cream on peanut butter cake. Langhorne has done his research to find true “mid-Atlantic cuisine.” The Dabney : 122 Blagden Alley NW, DC; 202-450-1015; www.thedabney.com
Boston super-chef Michael Schlow (Tico) opened his second DC restaurant, where he whimsically invokes old Hollywood. The restaurant’s “Cocktail Party” happy hour features a “Nick and Nora Martini” and deviled eggs, while Restaurant Week will feature a “Three-Martini Lunch” where each course has a martini as an option. These are the kinds of details we love. The Riggsby (in the Carlyle Hotel): 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; 202-234-3200; www.theriggsby.com
Paul Carlson (Vinoteca) opened his Colombian-inflected project with little fanfare, but it has quickly become an industry favorite. What first caught my attention was the homemade vermouth on tap. If you’ve only ever had rail vermouth, then your life is incomplete. Then I noticed more details: pews from a North Carolina church, an antique fire extinguisher converted to a cocktail tap, the vintage sign that gives the joint its name. Oh, and the hours – The Royal is open 7-1a.m. daily and 2a.m. Friday and Saturday. The Royal: 501 Florida Ave. NW, DC; 202-332-7777; www.theroyaldc.com
Villain & Saint
Hype is part of the business model at Villain & Saint, since it also doubles as a 150-person music venue. Robert Wiedmaier (Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck) branched out to blend his talent for food with his passion for music. Villain & Saint features a psychedelic rock and roll vibe, complete with lava lamps and band paraphernalia. Wiedmaier helps vet acts, and the kitchen reflects the high standards he’s known for, resulting in a rare venue that multitasks well. Villain & Saint: 7141 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda, MD; 240-800-4700; www.villainandsaint.com
Mike Isabella’s other new Ballston restaurant opened in 2015 was Yona, a place from which partner and chef Jonah Kim (PABU Baltimore) could enter the local Raman wars. But where Yona really shines is with the Korean-inflected small plates menu. Isabella has now brought Ballston three very different restaurants, and has almost single-handedly shifted the neighborhood’s culinary balance away from burgers and slices – does this make him mayor yet? Yona: 4000 Wilson Blvd Suite C, Arlington, VA (entrance on N. Quincy Street); 202-234-5000; www.yonava.com
Photo: Masseria Linguine by Scott-Suchman