Minibar by José Andrés (Courtesy ThinkFoodGroup)
Stroll down 14th Street’s restaurant corridor and spot canoodling couples carrying pizza boxes with leftovers from Etto, coworkers slurping Virginia oysters on the patio of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Francophiles waiting in line for a coveted Le Diplomate table.
This energetic tableau indicates the local restaurant scene is pulsing and deserving of limelight. That scene includes neighborhoods that equal 14th Street’s snap, such as Shaw, Navy Yard and Barracks Row—hot spots in a city whose restaurants have earned accolades from James Beard nods to superlatives in national press, including Bon Appetit’s Restaurant City of the Year 2016.
Now, D.C. adds another star to its constellation of bona fides—Michelin (see list below).
“We are very confident that you [Michelin] will discover what we know, that Washington, D.C., is an elite culinary city full of food lovers and a foodie town,” Mayor Muriel Bowser remarked at the restaurant guide’s May 31, 2016, announcement.
But no matter how much hometown pride the city has for its mushrooming restaurant industry, Michelin is still a game changer. The guide, from the French tire producer, was first published in 1900. What started as a marketing project has evolved into a 116-year-old international gold standard that sent shock waves through the D.C. community—the District is only the fourth U.S. city to have a Michelin Guide, joining New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
“When I was a boy, I would walk in front of Michelin-star restaurants and peer in through the window,” said Chef José Andrés, the cofounder of ThinkFoodGroup, who catalyzed D.C.’s modern food movement with restaurants like his temple to tapas, Jaleo, and his molecular gastronomy masterpiece, Minibar. Now Andrés says he feels like that kid again.
“For many chefs, it’s a dream to be Michelin-rated, so it was incredibly exciting to hear the news that they are coming to my city.”
“We’re such a unique market in terms of how many innovative and creative independent operators, chefs and restaurateurs we have in such a small geographic area,” said Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “Chefs have really invested here. They stuck it out during some tough times and they’re seeing growth and boom like we haven’t seen anywhere else in the country.”
Indeed, in 2014 the Washington Post reported that diners ate out at 1,423 restaurants in 2001. By 2015, they were enjoying 2,233 eateries, according to the National Restaurant Association, with no slowdown in sight.
“Think about it from the standpoint of the four guides they’re launching this year: Seoul, Singapore, Shanghai and Washington, D.C. It’s amazing to be invited to the party,” Ziebold said. He’s worked at restaurants not unfamiliar to Michelin, including California’s The French Laundry and New York’s Per Se. “My immediate reaction was this is fantastic, [but] there have been a lot of misconceptions about what it means,” he continued. “At the end of the day, it’s a travel guide.”
Given the number of food lovers who seek out Michelin-starred restaurants, the guide is likely to boost D.C.’s already burgeoning tourism numbers. Bowser said the city has experienced its fifth record-setting tourism year in a row. But, the arrival of the guide will have a much greater impact than augmented wanderlust. It may attract new talent to the region, and the chefs who are already here will have a fresh reason to push themselves.
“This puts everyone on alert in a really positive way,” Hollinger said. She added that chefs will work to create well-rounded experiences appreciated by sophisticated palates.
“The long-term impact of it is that it raises the bar for chefs, and anytime you do that it’s a good thing,” Ziebold agreed. “It gives you something to aspire to. It makes you feel like you’re part of a bigger community, a bigger stage. That’s motivating for some people.”
However, both Ziebold and Andrés concur that for them it’ll be business as usual, because they already strive for perfection in satisfying guests.
Michael Edwards, the senior director of the National Education Association, has been dining in the District for 40 years and estimates that he eats out four nights a week. He uses Michelin in other cities and suggests the guide will shine a light on what’s tried and true, instead of what’s trendy.
“D.C. diners place more of a premium on newer, more dynamic restaurants—the ones that are innovative and take risks,” Edwards said. “Diners appreciate delicious food and wonderful service, no question about that. But, Michelin tends to reward well-established, consistently recognized restaurants with meaningful track records.”
“I’m not sure that diners are going to get much more information than they already have,” Edwards added. “It’s not going to tell them something [they] don’t already know.”
Indeed, D.C. appreciates the Michelin coverage, but the city doesn’t need the validation to know how far it’s come.
“Eyes have been on Washington for quite some time, and now with Michelin, we’ve all grown up,” Hollinger said. “The rest of the country and the rest of the world will take D.C. more seriously as a dining destination. It’s a true honor.”
Michelin Approved in D.C.