8 Ways Washington’s Food Scene Changed in 2021

Restaurateurs rocked the suburbs—and retro nicknames—this year.

Jane Jane co-owner JP Sabatier. Photograph by Jennifer Chase.

In-store shopping got less face-to-face.

Amazon brought two Amazon Fresh grocery stores to the area, in Franconia and Logan Circle, and several more are on the way. The biggest attention-getting offering: technology that lets customers scan a QR code on entering, then leave without checking out. (They’re charged for anything they take off the shelf and refunded for anything they put back.) Meanwhile, the new Shirlington location of the pizza shop Stellina features a vending machine stocked with bags of housemade pasta and jarred sauces. The trend extended to some food halls and restaurants—Lulu’s Wine­garden in Shaw, the Roost on Capitol Hill—that minimized server contact by letting customers order and pay online, also using QR codes.

Get your pasta from a vending machine at Stellina. Photograph by Rey Lopez.

Restaurants embraced retro nicknames.

Martha Dear, Jane Jane, Disco Mary, and Crazy Aunt Helen, all in one city? Mercy Me! I’ll be over at Ruthie’s All Day.

Crabcakes disappeared.

Crab prices have always fluctuated—that’s not new. But this year, the price for both whole crabs and picked meat straight-up skyrocketed. (Think $50-plus for a pound of lump.) Blame a paltrier crabbing season from the Chesapeake Bay, a shortage of crabs imported from places like the Gulf of Mexico, and a dearth of seasonal migrant workers willing to pick the crustaceans. The result: The area’s quintessential regional dish is becoming a rarity. Restaurants such as Bethesda’s Woodmont Grill and the local Clyde’s chain have yanked the popular entrée from their menus.

So did weekday lunch.

Many restaurants have been forced to shave their hours, even as Covid restrictions lifted, because of the massive, industry-wide staffing shortage. And a lack of in-office workers means that in locations like downtown DC, a sit-down, full-service lunch can be as hard to come by as, well, a jumbo-lump crabcake.

A presidential taco run. Photograph of Biden by Leah Judson/Destination Unknown Restaurants.

Presidential restaurant sightings returned.

The dining-out habits of Presidents fall predictably along party lines. Republican ones tend to go to restaurants way less than Democrats—hardly a surprise in long-blue DC. Donald Trump visited just one during his term: the steakhouse in his own hotel. This year though, you could have encountered Joe Biden’s motorcade on a bagel run to Call Your Mother in Georgetown. Or spotted the man himself during a lunchtime taco stop at Las Gemelas near Union Market or date night at Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront. Politico favorite Le Diplomate landed this year’s grand prize: a double lunch date among the Bidens, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. The Harris-Emhoffs are prolific diners, too, celebrating a birthday at the Dabney in Shaw and grabbing Italian takeout from Floriana in Dupont.

DC restaurateurs flocked to the suburbs.

It’s not difficult to understand why restaurateurs are banking on sure things right now—focusing on, say, comfort fare over tweezer food. And what’s more reliable than a wealthy suburb filled with remote workers?

Let’s take Bethesda. Its less-than-exciting dining scene is suddenly booming. In the next year, the Maryland burb will get off­shoots of several DC restaurants: succulent-filled hummus shop Little Sesame, vegetarian taco cafe Chaia (already open), vegan fast-casual Shouk, New England seafood house the Salt Line, and top-notch pizza place All-Purpose. Ballston just got a Salt Line, too, and there’s a new Chiko in nearby Shirlington. Alexandria boasts a spinoff of the Columbia Heights taqueria Mezcalero, and Reston now has its own version of the kid-friendly bistro Little Beast. Most are replicas of successful formulas, but these days, restaurateurs are placing a premium on stability—and you can’t blame them.

Vaccine mandates became a thing.

As the Covid vaccine—and the Delta variant of the virus—rolled out, many restaurants instituted vax mandates, requiring guests to show vaccination cards or a negative test result before dining indoors. Local chain Silver Diner went a step further: It set up mobile vaccination clinics in its parking lots and hired someone to help its employees get their own appointments. But the establishments that instituted mandates—more nationally than locally—also faced blowback on Yelp, where negative reviews (temporarily) ratcheted down their star ratings.

Instagram became a restaurant-crime log.

Broken doors and busted windows sadly became part of our everyday Insta scrolling. Places like Donut Run in Takoma DC, Thip Khao and Bad Saint in Columbia Heights, Menomale in Brookland, and Urban Hot Pot in Columbia all posted about break-ins and thefts.

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A hemp-oil-and-coconut drink at Disco Mary. Photograph of cocktail courtesy of Disco Mary.

Maria Trabocchi, who once ran the luxe DC spots Fiola and Fiola Mare, is now opening cafeteria-style restaurants in Somalia.

DC’s top cocktail destination, Columbia Room, is looking beyond alcohol. Pop-up Disco Mary, which takes over part of the space, will focus on feel-good drinks that deliver their kicks from medicinal herbs and adaptogens, not booze. (There’s still the option to spike them.)

Sweetgreen, the salad company that has prided itself on supporting local farmers, has acquired Spyce, a startup that manufactures robots capable of working in kitchens (and potentially making salads).

Espresso martinis became cool again.

2 Amys, the DC pizzeria that’s often mobbed with toddlers, briefly banned children from its dining room when it instituted a vaccine mandate for all indoor diners, not just those over 12. (It now has a separate room for those with unvaccinated kids.)

This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

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.