Will Out-Of-Town Concepts Squash DC’s Local Restaurant Scene?

by Rebecca Cooper

Carmine’s in Penn Quarter

It’s been hard to go a month recently without news breaking of an out-of-town restaurateur or food concept announcing that DC will be the lucky recipient of its latest location. Eataly. Bobby’s Burger Palace. Stephen Starr. Pinkberry. Shake Shack. Lime Fresh. The list goes on.

In a city still wrestling with what exactly its “food scene” is or will be, the ingress of transplants begs the question: Will DC’s dining identity be able to come into its own with so many carbon copies from elsewhere?

Local chefs don’t seem to be sweating the outside influence on the city’s dining identity. Mark Kuller, owner of Proof and Estadio, sees the District’s dining scene already speeding fast in the opposite direction of its previous reputation as a steakhouse city.

“It’s changing in a positive way, and perhaps some of it is generated by the out-of-towners coming in,” he tells UrbanTurf, noting that a number of his competitors – Jose Andres, Michel Richard, Jeff Black, Robert Wiedermayer, Cathal Armstrong — have been doing new and interesting things of late.

The line outside the DC Shake Shack the day it opened.

Kuller does believe that the city restaurant scene is beginning to develop into a great international food center, and that transplants such as Wolfgang Puck and his restaurant The Source, the trendy Asian fusion restaurant adjacent to the Newseum, are contributing to that reputation.

“Wolfgang Puck could have opened Puck here,” he points out, referring to the noted chef’s steakhouse concept. “But he opened up an Asian restaurant, and it worked out great, because the city wanted something exciting like that.” Kuller believes that the influx of competitive new concepts hasn’t stifled DC chefs’ creativity, but rather enhanced it. “Anything that challenges restaurants to do better is a good thing for the DC dining community.”

The family-style Italian restaurant Carmine’s is one of several New York City-based establishments that made DC its newest home over the last year, opening in Penn Quarter last August. But CEO Jeff Banks says that they consider themselves a part of the local restaurant landscape as much as anyone now. He points to the two public-voted RAMMY awards the restaurant received for 2010, as well as the two-star review from Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema.

“We really immersed ourselves, and spent time trying to be a neighborhood-based restaurant,” Banks explains. “DC seems to be very happy with us.” He remarked that Carmine’s decision to branch out into DC last summer was largely based on the economy. The region was doing relatively well in a time when the rest of the country was feeling a recession. As for the others, he wonders whether there is a bandwagon mentality.

“You start to see kind of like, for lack of a better word, a herd mentality,” he says. “With restaurants saying, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s going there, well I should be going there too.’”

The future location of Stephen Starr’s DC restaurant.

Justin Stegall, a Northern Virginia native who opened Bake Shop in Clarendon about a year before New York cupcake giant Crumbs set up shop around the corner, has been witness to the herd, but doesn’t necessarily think the new businesses are having a dramatic impact on the market.

“My concept has always been a traditional bake shop,” Stegall says. “We’re kind of a destination; our customers wouldn’t stop coming to us to go to a bigger name on the main drag.”

He has noted the rapid influx of out-of-town concepts, though, especially in casual retail ventures like his.

“It’s like all these places just wake up and realize that ‘Oh, I want to be there,’” he says. “And then it’s kind of following the New York style of having a Pinkberry across from a Red Mango across from another yogurt place.” (Incidentally, a Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop is also about to open down the block from Bake Shop in Clarendon, just down the way from a Red Mango frozen yogurt outpost, and practically adjacent to a Red Velvet cupcake shop.)

Then again, Stegall points to new local concepts opening all the time. Being a ramen-phile, he highlights Toki Underground on H Street NE as a mark of DC’s diversifying scene. “There’s definitely really good food here,” he tells UrbanTurf. “You’ve just got to look for it.”

Kuller looks at who’s coming to town — most recently, Philadelphia’s Stephen Starr announced he would open up a Parc-like French bistro on 14th Street — and thinks it’s all good.

“We have some great restaurants here, but even as someone that lives in DC, I’d say we’re not in the top 3 [restaurant cities] in the country,” he says. “So for us to continue to improve is a really good thing, and maybe all the new places coming in will inspire that.”

See other articles related to: restaurant news, neighborhood eats

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/will_out-of-town_concepts_squash_dcs_local_restaurant_scene/3921


  1. SRT said at 2:41 pm on Thursday August 4, 2011:

    I love all the out-of-town places that have come in, but i think the city has produced some very good local options in the last year…estadio being at the top of the list.

  1. jag said at 4:30 pm on Thursday August 4, 2011:

    The food scene is a million times better than even 10 years ago, so I honestly could care less as long as that trend continues.

  1. Chris said at 8:42 am on Friday August 5, 2011:

    The food scene is DC is one of the worst of the major cities in this country. I’ve lived here for 5 years now and there has been a tiny bit of improvement but I fully welcome concepts of other cities; challenge the DC restaurants to step up their game!

  1. CCCREWMOM said at 12:20 am on Tuesday August 9, 2011:

    Coming from Houston to DC about 16 years ago I noted the lack of late night options (lobby lunch crowd) and the lack of consistently good reasonably priced restaurants which Houston and New York City have in abundance.  DC seems to specialize in restaurants producing overpriced and inconsistent food. I have yet to find a restaurant where every course is fantastic and the bill is reasonable.  But I do like the recent trend of more Belgian style eateries:)

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