The Top 10 Dining-World Dramas of 2011

Closures, crimes, fires, and faux pas: Here are the stories that rocked the culinary world this year.

By: Anna Spiegel

The dining room at the erstwhile Galileo III. Photograph by Chris Leaman

10) Industry insiders speak out, recant, repaint

Chefs say the darndest things. Spike Mendelsohn caught heat for calling DC “a second-tier city,” and referring to himself as “a big fish in a small pond.” The fallout: Insiders on Don Rockwell’s Web site went nuts; Spike offered free hugs.

Fellow Top Chef alum Mike Isabella leaked news of his new restaurant project to Giada De Laurentiis, of all people, and then denied the project to Endless Simmer, only to re-leak it to Tom Sietsema.

Bo Blair called Truckeroo-goers “assholes.” The City Paper’s Chris Shott outed Mark Bucher as a silent partner behind Meatballs, and then Tom Sietsema compared the food there to that of airline catering. Michael Landrum basically called the Post writers sad. Oh, and then the restaurant Sax debuted with racy murals, one involving Clarence Thomas’s “manhood” on a balance scale. These were quickly painted over.

9) Michael Landrum opens, closes, makes signs

Two un-grand ways to open a restaurant: Keep saying you’ll debut, then don’t (thank you, Memphis) or keep saying you won’t open, and then do (thank you, Stephen Starr).

Michael Landrum avoided both scenarios this year by adopting a third method: Don’t say much at all, and make signs instead! Sure, he gave Todd Kliman a few hours’ notice before opening Ray’s to the Third. But the Hell-Burger Too transformation to Steak and Cheese, closure, and return was mostly accomplished through paper signs. (Of course, this tight-lipped strategy can backfire.)

8) Food truck explosion!

No, not literally (contrary to certain reports). But compared with our reactions to mobile food in 2010 (there are these trucks! That dispense food! And tweet!), Washingtonians are now connoisseurs of mobile dining. Not to say that everything is delicious Korean tacos and foods on sticks from here on out, especially for DC trucks; from surprise shutdowns to spats with the Park Police to a host of pending issues, the future remains uncertain.

7) Rogue 24’s “presup” contract

Let’s face it: Pre-commitment contracts don’t bring out the best in folks. A prenup proved traumatic for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, and RJ Cooper’s dining contract at Rogue 24 became this year’s most innovative way to piss off customers. Like Kim, RJ softened his approach. But he ain’t no punk, and still wants a contract. Yeeaah.

6) Fires! Crimes!

Restaurants aren’t immune to forces of nature (it would be weird if they were), and fires claimed sister spots Hook and Tackle Box (the former will reopen as Bandolero, Giada informs us, while the latter just filled a six-month-old order).

The Tune Inn also suffered an inferno, but has also since returned to us.

As for man-made misfortunes, local eateries were no strangers to criminal activity. There was the armed robbery at Ray’s Hell-Burger, the deadly assault at Heritage India, and the cocaine smuggling at Uniontown Bar and Grill.

5) Chef Shuffles

This year saw a good number of high-profile chef shuffles, related—but not limited—to: dramatic disagreements (Carol Greenwood); potentially dramatic but silenced disagreements (Edan MacQuaid); “cordial” disagreements (Robert Gadsby, Adam Stein); personal projects (Barry Koslow, Rob Weland); call of the wild (Travis Olson, Dan Giusti,); bad reviews (Chris Kenworthy); change of scene (Ron Tanaka, Brian McBride); “close-minded” customers (Dino Santonicola); and whatever crack Michael Mina is selling (Nick Sharpe, David Varley, Chris Ford, Douglas Hernandez).

4) Gillian Clark, plagued by jerks

When General Store chef-owner Gillian Clark kicked off 2011 with a victorious turn on Throwdown With Bobby Flay, it seemed it would be a happy year. But then a YouTube video, in which Clark and partner Robyn Smith mock jerky customers, made the rounds. There were no more jerks to mock when a dispute with the landlord forced the restaurant to shutter. After a NOMA comeback project fell through, Clark turned to driving a limo. As last reported, she’s shuttling “an asshole” part-time, and cooking food for unhappy steakhouse people the other part of the time.

3) Shutters

There were a number of sad farewells in the restaurant landscape in 2011. We said goodbye to stalwarts like TenPenh, Jean-Michel, 1409 Playbill Cafe, Furin’s, Garret’s, and Hawk ’n’ Dove (as we know it). A few new faces left too soon, including Ba Bay, Mid-City Caffe, and Blue Ridge.

2) Shaw’s Tavern-gate

For a vegan-leaning eatery that never achieved full-service status, Shaw’s Tavern is a hot, juicy mess. How not to open a restaurant: serve liquor without a license; alter documents to receive said liquor; fire the manager who supposedly forged said documents, but keep the manager around; close the place down just before service; ask the chef to fire the staff; have the Alcoholic Beverage Board declare you “unfit for licensure”; and leave a beautifully restored $1 million project for someone else’s benefit.

1) Galileo III: Revenge of the myth

Roberto Donna is legendary for a) introducing Washingtonians to Italian fine-dining, and b) Jersey Shore–esque drama (evasion! Embezzlement! Lawsuits!). The famed Italian toque aimed for a fresh start with Galileo III in 2010, which only made for a blockbuster fallout and end in 2011. Still, we’d shell out for a prequel to this trilogy: the Galileo Grill.