Another Cupcake? Food Trends We Loved and Loathed in 2008

Our rundown of the best and worst in Washington-area food and dining in 2008.

Augh! No more!

Best reason to indulge before the New Year’s resolution sets in: The $6.95 ten-ounce patty at Ray’s Hell-Burger. It might break the bun, but it won’t break the bank.

Biggest change of concept: Frozen yogurt As soon as the temperature dropped, both Mr. Yogato and Tangysweet started touting their decadent hot chocolate instead of their signature item, tangy fro-yo.

Biggest indication that Washington has arrived on the national dining radar: The influx of celebrity chefs, including Alain Ducasse, who has more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world.

Second sign that Washington’s dining scene is on the national radar: The TV crews arrived. Granville Moore’s Teddy Folkman made us proud when his bleu-cheese mussels bested Bobby Flay’s Southwestern variety in a Food Network Throwdown. Wiry, chain-smoking Anthony Bourdain toured DC for an episode of No Reservations, walking viewers through the Penn Quarter farmers market and paying a visit to the U Street landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl. Emeril Lagasse chose a Washington Whole Foods as the setting for his new Discovery Channel show, Planet Green, about ecofriendly eating and cooking. And Top Chef’s current season includes two Mid-Atlantic contestants: Carla Hall, who owns a DC-based catering company, and Jill Snyder, executive chef at Baltimore’s Red Maple.

Biggest indication that Washington still has a ways to go: Those same celebrity chefs keep opening bistros and steakhouses.

Biggest news: On June 25, The Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman reported that Barton Seaver, then executive chef at Hook, would leave the Georgetown hot spot (and take his designer jeans with him).

Sign that perhaps Washington isn’t recession proof: The closing of restaurants such as Butterfield 9, Colorado Kitchen, Viridian, Restaurant K, Gerard Pangaud Bistro, and Montsouris.

Best reason to believe white-tablecloth-dining is on its way out
: The wine-bar craze. They came in every size and shape, but one thing ties them all together: crowds. Diners instantly took to wine dispensed from machines, cheese and charcuterie plates, and upscale neighborhood watering holes.

Latest European cuisine to take hold: Belgian. Brasserie Beck set the pace with its long bar and extensive beer selection. Then Granville Moore’s and Et Voila! started steaming mussels and serving them with French fries.

Newest restaurant-industry celebrities: Mixologists, bartenders—call them what you will, but smooth-shaking cocktail enthusiasts with their brûléed egg whites, infused whiskeys, and freshly squeezed juices gave “bar menu” a whole new meaning.

Shortest shelf life: Hummingbird to Mars—the hush-hush bar set up on the second floor of Adams Morgan’s Bourbon—flitted away almost as soon as it arrived. The brainchild of three hotshot bartenders (Derek Brown of the Gibson, Justin Guthrie of Central Michel Richard, and Owen Thomson of Bourbon), Hummingbird wowed with delicious cocktails that often took upward of ten minutes to make. Metrocurean first reported on the place on August 27; it shuttered October 13, soon after the Washington Post ran an article on it.

Most welcome trend: High-end butcher shops. Restaurant Eve’s Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong are planning a butcher shop in Alexandria’s Del Ray, Hook and Tackle Box owner Jonathan Umbel has staked out a space on Georgetown’s M Street, and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group has a meat market in the works.

Trend we’d like to replace: Cupcakes, cupcakes, cupcakes. Just when we think the obsession has cute-overloaded, another cupcakery (just typing that word makes us itch) opens its doors. We say: Enough! What the area truly needs? A couple of really good bread bakeries.

Smartest ecofriendly innovation: Restaurant-filtered water. Poste, Equinox, Cork, and Restaurant Eve are giving the recycling bin a break by banishing Pellegrino and Voss and bottling sparkling and still waters in-house.

Lunch spots to look forward to: We’ve already got outposts of Nando’s Peri-Peri from South Africa and Piola from Italy, and soon to liven up downtown are two UK exports—sandwich place Pret a Manger (at 18th and I sts., NW) and noodle shop Wagamama (on Seventh St. in Penn Quarter).

Lamest PR stunts: It’s not like we didn’t expect every restaurant and hotel PR outfit to milk the election for all it was worth, but still, it was hard to stomach the Palin Pitbull cocktails and McHitos (that’d be a McCain-inspired mojito) at the Ritz, not to mention the hot-dog-topped Obama burgers at Bethesda’s Burger Joint.

Most ambitious (and fun to read) local blogger: Last year, we eagerly watched and read as Takoma Park’s Carol Blymire cooked, blogged, and photographed her way through The French Laundry Cookbook. We saw her shave a pig’s head with a lady’s razor, name the lobsters she was about to butter-poach (she called them all Celine—they were from Canada), screw up a pot-au-feu, and pull off the restaurant’s famous Oysters and Pearls. Now she’s plowing through another toughie, Grant Achatz’s molecular-gastronomy tome Alinea. She’s only a few recipes in, but so far the new blog is just as sharp and laugh-out-loud funny as her last one.

Neighborhood with the most turnover: Glover Park. Former Smith Point chef David Scribner is putting out killer tacos at Surfside, prepsters are playing Wii at seven-month-old BreadSoda, and there’s a new branch of Ceviche, the slick Silver Spring seafood restaurant. But the most jarring change of all? Seminal dive the Grog & Tankard is now a low-lit lounge called Gin & Tonic.

Cause for sweet-tooths to celebrate: The dessert-centric-restaurant concept migrated from Las Vegas to New York to Washington. With the opening of Locolat, ACKC, and Co Co. Sala, there’s now chocolate in every part of the meal, from cocktails through, well, dessert.

Evidence that there’s hope for eating out after 10 PM in Washington: Both Proof and Cashion’s Eat Place rolled out late-night menus for those of us who wanted something other than a Big Mac or wings after a couple of beers.

What will you remember about Washington food and dining from 2008? Let us know in the comments—and have a very happy New Year! 

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.