Why Did a Ridiculously Expensive Tasting Menu Fail? It Wasn’t Just the Price

The drama behind the Shaw Bijou

Photo by Hayley Garrison Phillips.

The Shaw Bijou announced yesterday that it’s slashing the price of its much-scrutinized tasting menu in half. Instead of 13 courses for $185 (before tax, tip, and alcohol), the nearly two-month-old restaurant will offer seven courses and a cocktail for $95 beginning Jan. 3.

“Humility creeps up on you when least expected, and the opening of this restaurant has taught us just that,” chef Kwame Onwuachi wrote in an email statement.

For those of us who’ve been following the fine dining restaurant since its announcement a year-and-a-half ago, the switch-up isn’t exactly unexpected. Over recent months, I’ve even heard other restaurant folks and food devotees taking bets on when—not if—the place would change course and opt for a more approachable format. Even before yesterday’s announcement, the Shaw Bijou had relented on plans for a members-only club and started welcoming walk-ins at its upstairs bar.

What went wrong? The short answer seems to be that the price was too high for a young chef who hasn’t yet proven himself. While Onwuachi gained fame on Top Chef and even has a book deal in the works, this is the 27-year-old’s very first executive chef gig. And according to Washingtonian critic Corby Kummer, who gave the Shaw Bijou two stars, too many dishes are “tepid” and their accompanying stories about Onwuachi’s life “don’t add up to narrative flow through the meal.”

But the real dagger here was the backlash, which was often unnecessarily vitriolic and occasionally unfair. (Among the social media insults: “arrogant idiot” and “can’t wait to see it close!”) In some ways, the restaurant never had a real shot to succeed at such a high price. Most people had made up their minds about the place before it even opened, and the restaurant team was on the defensive from the getgo.

Even the chef community—known for being a close-knit crew that rallies around each other in the face of snarky journalists and cruel online chatter—didn’t seem to have the Shaw Bijou’s back. It’s rare for local chefs to publicly bad-mouth one another, but several openly expressed disdain or at least bafflement over the Shaw Bijou’s ambitions. Perhaps it didn’t help that Onwuachi, born and raised in the Bronx, is a newcomer to DC.

Among those who slighted the Shaw Bijou was chef Michael Ellish, who initially signed on to be executive sous chef under Onwuachi. When Ellish quit before the opening to take a job at Barrel on Capitol Hill, he told City Paper, “Anything you’ll get at Shaw Bijou you can get [at Barrel] for a third of the price.”

And in response to a story about the Shaw Bijou having a panel that would choose members for its club based on character and career, chef José Andrés chimed in on Twitter: “mmmmmmm profiling? ….Trump should be member number 1!”

When Post critic Tom Sietsema published a lackluster “first look” review (which concluded with him craving a pizza) just four days after the opening, it only reenforced what had already become an established narrative.

Don’t, however, mistake the changes at the Shaw Bijou as a rebuke of pricey tasting menus overall. Minibar, Métier, and Pineapple and Pearls, which also charge hundreds of dollars per person, continue to earn praise and fill seats. Even before they opened, though, they didn’t get the same kind of backlash—in large part because their chefs are known entities with proven reputations.

If there’s any meaning to extract here, it’s that the fierce competition and proliferation of restaurants has made it harder than ever to succeed. Cocktails with artisanal ice and prettified tasting menus with custom dish-ware aren’t novel anymore. It’s not enough to be just “good,” especially in the upper echelons of dining, when there are only so many diners to go around.

Plus, no one is going to wait till dinner to get their knives out.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.