DC Dining Scene 2016 top spots

The DC Dining Scene: 2016’s Top Spots with Staying Power

2016 was another dizzying year for DC’s restaurant scene – summer alone saw 85 new openings and Bon Appétit named Washington its “Restaurant City of the Year.” Burgeoning food trends solidified their hold: ethnic eats (Filipino, Basque and more) continued blossoming into mainstream American dining habits, while hotel bars sustained their transformation from drab transit stations to glam destinations. The District upped its quotient of establishments anchored by alcohol, and local talent built on past successes to grow empires and open new concepts.

Very few “bad” restaurants opened in or around DC – a random stroll now through any given neighborhood will probably yield a delicious meal. The more interesting quandary is: how many of these new restaurants will survive? After all, the media is predicting that the restaurant industry is in a “Bubble About to Burst” (Thrillist) and “About to Implode” (GQ).

These headlines might be overly grim, but the realities of rising labor costs, intensified competition and highly price-sensitive diners mean that survivors will need more going for them than a great meal. There’s a reason why soulless corporate chains survive: economies of scale and the ability to carry a location through a lull in business can anchor the business’s long-term viability.

Local restaurants that survive and thrive will have to have their own anchors. In DC, I boldly predict four broad categories of survivors: concepts centered on craft alcohol (DC is a hard-drinking town!), those based in hotels or other larger businesses (such as MGM at National Harbor), those established as part of existing local restaurant groups or by industry vets with strong business acumen, or by local talent snagging major awards (who then go on to grow their own empires).

So in alphabetical order, here’s our list of the best new restaurants of last year that you’ll probably still be eating at next year – and maybe even the year after. Bon appétit.

All-Purpose Pizzeria
Anchored by:
Local talent
All-Purpose brings together a powerhouse team drawn from Red Hen and Boundary Stone, and features desserts from Buttercream Bakeshop (which saves manpower in the kitchen from being spent on the low-margin dessert course). The modernized Italian-American was named as critic Tom Sietsema’s favorite new restaurant. All-Purpose: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.allpurposedc.com

ANXO Cidery & Pintxos Bar
Anchored by: Hard cider
This is DC’s first licensed winery since Prohibition, though ANXO actually focuses on hard ciders (the process is similar enough that DC licensed it as a winery). Business models anchored in alcohol production have slightly stronger margins (once they get past exorbitant equipment prices and costly regulations, that is), particularly if they can add wholesale to their business plan. Opened by industry vets from a handful of DC establishments (including Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel), ANXO also provides a tour of Basque country culinary riches. ANXO: 300 Florida Ave. NW, DC; www.anxodc.com

Bad Saint
Anchored by: Awards and local talent
Ownership by the talent behind Room 11 means this is a well-grounded business; a Bib Gourmand shout-out and the #2 placement on Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant list means the lines will not get any shorter. It also means they will be able to stay in business for the foreseeable future, which is great news both for creativity in cooking and for a cuisine that rarely gets attention in the U.S. Bad Saint: 3226 11th St. NW, DC; www.badsaintdc.com

Anchored by: Empire
Bindaas, the latest project from the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group (Rasika, Oval Room), features Indian street food, which means no curry (making it very different from Rasika). It replaced the Bardeo half of Ardeo+Bardeo, the group’s modern American restaurant that has long been a Cleveland Park classic. The larger business provides a cushion (however thin) to repurpose one venue without freezing all revenue across the business. Bindaas: 3309 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.bindaasdc.com

Anchored by: Industry veteran
The second restaurant from Chef Cedric Maupillier is rightfully gaining the same rapturous attention Mintwood Place got when he opened it in 2013. When Convivial got shade from a local foodie, DC rallied to Maupillier’s side – Convivial’s reputation is immune from one cranky diner on an off night, which bodes well for its long-term survival. Convivial: 801 O St. NW, DC; www.convivialdc.com

Cotton & Reed
Anchored by: Booze
DC’s first rum distillery rode a wave of crowdfunding to build out the distillery and its glorious tasting room/bar. With an exceptional range of rums, Cotton & Reed will have no problem getting shelf space in liquor stores. Visit the tasting room/bar to learn what to do with it – I really liked the Redbeard (rum, Campari, lemon and a spicy house-made ginger soda). Full disclosure: yes, I participated in the crowd-funding campaign. Totally worth it. Cotton & Reed: 1330 5th St NE, DC; www.cottonandreed.com

District Distilling
Anchored by: Booze
Thanks to a new distillery pub law, this is DC’s first combination distillery, bar, retailer and restaurant. I will admit I was initially a little skeptical – kitchen sink concepts are difficult to pull off. But the venue is attractive, the cocktail menu is thoughtful, the food is good – and the cachet of “District-made” is hard to resist. District Distilling Co.: 1414 U St. NW, DC; www.district-distilling.com

Duck Duck Goose
Anchored by: Industry veteran
Bethesda has long labored under a reign of chain restaurants and staid locals, so the arrival of DDG was a flash of culinary lightening. Owner-chef Ashish Alfred’s first venture was the nearby 4935 Kitchen and Bar, where he learned what it takes to keep a restaurant alive. He took that knowledge, and opened his dream: a bright, adorable brasserie serving contemporary French food. Duck Duck Goose: 7929 Norfolk Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.ddgbethesda.com

Duke’s Counter
Anchored by: Local talent
Everyone knows (and loves) Daniel Kramer from his days running booze walks in Dupont Circle. When he and his partners opened Duke’s Grocery, he continued to be an easy cause to support – the London-inspired menu was outstanding from day one. Now, a new iteration on the Duke’s theme – this one with an even bigger bar – livens up the strip across from the Zoo. Here’s hoping the empire continues to grow. Duke’s Counter: 3000 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.dukescounter.com

Espita Mezcaleria
Anchored by: Booze
No, Espita does not produce mezcal, but they are the go-to and final word on the spirit in DC – the bar has almost 100 different bottles selected by a certified master mezcalier. While the menu is not cheap to produce (Oaxacan heirloom corn is flown in from Mexico to make tortillas – yes, I initially rolled my eyes too), the food is delectable. Espita Mezcaleria: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.espitadc.com

Farmers & Distillers
Anchored by: The farmers of North Dakota
Founding Farmers is a Washington institution. Owned by a cooperative of North Dakota farmers, its family of restaurants are all beautifully built and feature large and lavish menus. The newest member of the family, in Chinatown, opened on an even grander scale. There are more than 300 seats, around 150 dishes for lunch and dinner, and 40 cocktails on the drinks menu. The “Founding Spirits” of rye, gin, amaro and vodka are used at the bar, and bottle sales will follow shortly. Can this behemoth dominate the neighborhood? Farmers & Distillers: 600 Massachusetts Ave. NW, DC; www.farmersanddistillers.com

Ivy Room
Anchored by: Booze
Part of the woman-owned Republic Restoratives Distillery, the beautiful Ivy Room is an industrial-style space with lots of windows and plants. Cocktails feature the Distillery’s Civic Vodka; while the concept might evolve as the distillery adds new products, the bar itself will be here for a long time. Ivy Room: 1369 New York Ave. NE, DC; www.republicrestoratives.com

Anchored by: Empire
Tim Ma made his name with award-winning restaurants in Virginia, and promptly snagged a Bib Gourmand shout-out for his DC debut. I still remember swooning over the ice cream and scallops (served over risotto) at Maple Ave, so I was excited to see it make an appearance here. When Ma was able to salvage his first restaurant and make it profitable, he set the groundwork for his growing culinary empire today. Kyirisan: 1924 8th St. NW, DC; www.kyirisandc.com

La Jambe
Anchored by: French wine
Fresh flowers and graffiti, French wine and happy hour specials – this is our favorite wine bar in DC. Opened by a French expat and a former political fundraiser, La Jambe proves that not every noteworthy new bar is cocktail-centric (though La Jambe has some good ones). Though margins on wine have shrunk, a good wine bar still attracts R&R-focused consumers, rather than just budget-conscious booze hounds. La Jambe: 1550 7th St. NW, DC; www.lajambedc.com

Little Coco’s
Anchored by: Empire
The legendary Jackie Greenbaum (El Chucho, Bar Charley) tends to fly under the radar in DC’s personality-obsessed food scene, but her restaurants make up for it with outsized pizzazz. Her hallmarks: quirky venues, strong drinks and food that is trendy without trying. Little Coco’s comes through with a menu ranging from fried pizza to smoked rabbit pasta, and a stellar cocktail list that includes the mesmerizing Quack-quack-erac (bourbon, rye, rum, duck fat, St. Germain, bitters). Little Coco’s: 3907 14th St. NW, DC; www.littlecocos.com

Anchored by: Kimpton Hotel
Just off the bustle of 14th Street, Radiator feels like an oasis of cool. Inside, the bar is sleek and sophisticated; outside, the patio has soft lights and shuffleboard. Wherever you sit, the cocktails are charming – bartender Sarah Rosner (Copycat Co.) crafted the opening menu. Hotel bars used to be dismal affairs; now, they are opportunities for hotels to show some flare – and anchor some creativity in a more secure business foothold. Radiator: 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW, DC; www.radiatordc.com

Anchored by: Empire
This is the fourth culinary adventure for power couple Fabio and Maria Trabocchi (Fiola, Fiola Mare, Casa Luca), this one focusing on handmade pasta and a more casual vibe. We’ll definitely be back for the ligurian corzetti with white pork ragu and foraged mushrooms. The couple is known for combining lush aesthetics with a shrewd business sense, so we see a long life in the cards for this pasta joint. Sfoglina: 4445 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.sfoglinadc.com

Anchored by: Empire
Sovereign focuses exclusively on Belgian beers in a sprawling venue with an extremely sophisticated, multi-floor tap system. And as part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (Bluejacket, Birch & Barley and many more), Sovereign draws from deep business experience in creating unique neighborhood-oriented venues, as well as the support of an economic powerhouse. If anyone can stay in business long enough to get Americans to move beyond IPAs, it will be Sovereign. Sovereign: 1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; www.thesovereigndc.com

Tail Up Goat
Anchored by: A Michelin star and local talent
More than almost any other award, a Michelin star guarantees the avalanche of customers that allows small restaurants like this Mediterranean superstar to survive and continue to be creative. And being opened by local talent (veterans from Komi, Little Serow) makes that star all the more fabulous. It might be harder to snag a reservation to get our fix of goat lasagna and cashew cardamom sorbet, but it’s worth it to keep them in business. Tail Up Goat: 1827 Adams Mill Rd. NW, DC; www.tailupgoat.com

Union Drinkery
Anchored by: Empire
As the latest from Ali Bagheri (A&D, Sundevich), Union Drinkery knew how to connect with its neighborhood from day one: friendly local bartenders serving top-notch cocktails at good prices in a building that retains its bones. I liked the Gray Hat (vodka, maraschino, crème de violet, lemon), but the bartenders are happy to quiz you on your taste and come up with something special. No corporate drones here – but Bagheri’s business experience means that Union Drinkery will know how to keep the doors open for a long time. Union Drinkery: 3216 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.uniondrinkery.com