In 2011, Good Stuff Eatery’s Spike Mendelsohn, fresh off an appearance on Top Chef: All Stars, stirred up controversy by calling DC a “second-tier city where you can be a big fish in a small pond.” Mendelsohn wasn’t altogether wrong at that moment in time, even if he could have phrased the sentiment a little more delicately. But the response was massive: Local blogs and social media responded with name-calling and rants, while the Washington Post published a defense of Mendelsohn. The frenzy was intense enough that the chef released a statement walking back his remark. At the time, this is what constituted a DC food scandal.
I rehash this old saga only to say it was a very sensitive moment for DC’s reputation as a dining destination. For years, the city had been comparing its restaurant bona fides to New York in a one-sided rivalry that literally no one in New York ever cared about. Washington was trying so hard—and making big strides with a new generation of hometown talent and interesting new concepts—but still very much wrapped up in its inferiority complex.
Something changed this year. The restaurant scene is the most dynamic it’s ever been, and outsiders have already taken notice. But the biggest change of all? Washingtonians have finally become a whole lot less defensive about their food and drink cred.
In the decade that I’ve been following and covering DC-area dining, I’ve seen a certain pattern repeat itself on a constant loop. Somebody (usually the New York Times, but often one of our own) would make a clichéd quip about steaks and lobbyists or a condescending putdown about the pizza, and locals reflexively spit back, “Nuh uh!” In true DC fashion, there’d be a flurry of very earnest rebuttals. (Trust me, I’ve written my fair share of them.) It was a hamster wheel of takes and takedowns. Meanwhile, any ounce of praise was trumpeted like the Second Coming.
A lot has changed in ten years: Hundreds of new restaurants and bars have opened. Entire neighborhoods, like the Wharf or 14th Street, have developed around eating destinations. The city’s first modern-day distilleries, breweries, cideries, and wineries debuted. Food trucks have risen, peaked, and plateaued. Homegrown chains have become $1 billion brands. Food halls have exploded. Empires have imploded. Bon Appetit named DC “Restaurant City of the Year.” The Michelin guide came here. You can even get a decent bagel now. Washington is the insecure teenager who finally got laid—then suddenly realized it’s kind of a catch.
Washington has also become the center of the country’s fascination on a larger scaler through media, movies, and politics. Suddenly, the city is used to being the center of attention, and that’s affected the way we see every aspect of This Town.
That’s not to say Washingtonians can totally resist a good clap back. Last year, locals gave the owner of New York transplant Sushi Nakazawa a piece of their minds after he told New York magazine: “With D.C., I had reached a point where I saw so much bad that I was actually looking for the good. I couldn’t find it.” (He also walked back his comments.) But I’d like think we’re all a little bit more assured in our punches now, and that we pick our fights.
These days, I really don’t hear friends (and entire comment sections) complaining about how much the eating options in DC suck. I rarely even hear whining comparisons to Chicago or LA or New York. It’s like there’s been this noise humming in the background so long I forgot it was there—until suddenly, it stopped.
But perhaps the best indication that something has changed? The New York Times wrote yet another DC travel dispatch this year, and the restaurant recommendations weren’t half bad. For the first time in a while, it wasn’t a scandal.