- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2011

Some of the country’s best and most famous chefs are eschewing New York and other big U.S. cities to open restaurants in Washington — the result of what some say is a near-perfect setting of a stable economy and deep-pocket patrons eager for first-rate food experiences.

“People don’t have to go to certain big cities to get good food, like New York or Chicago,” said Mike Isabella — a former contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef” who recently opened Graffiato in Chinatown. “I think that years ago it was a very simple city. It was steak-and-potato driven. Now there are so many great places to go. There’s all different levels of dining that weren’t there five years ago.”

Mr. Isabella, who won over fans with his creative dishes and his boisterous on-air persona, said the D.C. market is driven in large part by young professionals who “see what’s going on.”

“They have a lot of money,” he said. “They are the ones that want to experience good food.”

However, Daniel Bortnick, executive chef at the Dupont Circle restaurant Firefly, has cautious optimism about the District’s food future, considering the global economic uncertainty and increased competition, but he said the future still lies in neighborhood-style eateries.

“I think dining has almost come full circle, because it’s more about conversation and going out together and having a good time,” he said. “Maybe 10 years ago you could get by in opening a place that wouldn’t normally do well in the city. But the District has raised the level of competition, raised the quality of restaurants.”

On any given night, Washingtonians have a variety of high-quality, culinary choices, including sophisticated pub food at ChurchKey in Logan Circle, gourmet burgers and the tasting menu at Komi in Dupont Circle.

The city’s culinary scene has come a long way since a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl or a power lunch at Duke Zeibert’s steakhouse were considered among the best offerings.

Jeff Black, co-founder of the Black Restaurant Group and owner of BlackSalt fish market and restaurant in the Palisades in Northwest, likened the local restaurant scene to a country club when he arrived 16 years ago.

“It didn’t really have anything that was daring or challenging to the consumer,” he said. “D.C. has been kind of eager to shed the conservative label it’s had for so long.”

Among those most excited about the transition is Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington.

The organization sponsors the Washington D.C. Restaurant Week, which runs through Friday and allows diners to sample food from the District’s roughly 2,000 restaurants. It is an exciting time, she said, because of “all these different ethnicities, different economic levels, different price points and different trends.”

Though Washington, with an estimated 4,400 millionaires, always has had good restaurants, the local industry flourished during the city’s most recent period of economic prosperity, said Jeff Swedarsky of D.C. Metro Food Tours.

“One of the fantastic things that’s happened in the last five years is that most of the neighborhoods have been getting nicer and more people are moving back into them,” he said. “You also get celebrity chefs starting to open more places. They’ve stretched out a bit more and even new and up-and-coming chefs have the ability … to make their own niche. It’s just a much better food culture from top to bottom now.”

One example is the Italian-inspired Graffiato by Mr. Isabella, who has been cooking in the District for about five years. The pizza kitchen-restaurant — in a former print shop redone in sleek wood, brushed steel and exposed brick — has a casual atmosphere that is popular among the hip, downtown crowd and food well-received by critics.

On a recent night, Melissa Jordan and Kristina Myers sat at one of Graffiato’s tables. Ms. Jordan, who moved from New York in 2008, and Ms. Myers, a Northern Virginia native, agreed that the District’s restaurant scene has improved because chefs are staying local.

“Chefs are not leaving their restaurants to go to New York City; they’re leaving their restaurants to go down the street,” Ms. Jordan said.

Said Ms. Myers: “It’s really refreshing to see that people are viewing D.C. as a place to bring together restaurants and a place that would respect the quality of food.”

“Top Chef” alumni Spike Mendelsohn (Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza) and Carla Hall (Alchemy cookie company) have been in the area for years. Reality-cooking fans continue to keep their fingers crossed that “Top Chef All-Stars” winner Richard Blais will bring his burger joint to the city.

Food Network star and grilling king Bobby Flay opens Bobby’s Burger Palace this week on K Street Northwest, and Danny Meyer just opened a second Shake Shack, with lines that stretch down 18th Street Northwest.

In addition, chef Jose Andres, who spends much of his time traveling the world or appearing on radio and television shows, owns a half-dozen “It” restaurants downtown, including Jaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel. Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, The Source, shares an address with the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

“I think over the last couple of years, TV has been helping our industry,” Mr. Isabella said. “People are more aware of what’s going on.”

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