WASHINGTON — When Bon Appétit named D.C. 2016’s best restaurant city of the year, no one was more surprised than the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Adam Rapoport.
That’s not to say he thought the town’s chefs and eateries didn’t deserve the designation. Rather, he was shocked by how much the city’s culinary landscape had changed.
“When I grew up in D.C. in the ’70s and ’80s, there were not a lot of promising options in the restaurant-scape,” said Rapoport, a D.C. native and graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School.
His most memorable dining experiences were going to Yenching Palace in Cleveland Park for Chinese food or venturing downtown to Duke Zeibert’s for steak and potatoes.
“But yeah, there weren’t a lot of interesting restaurants happening at the time and it’s come just a tremendous way since then.”
In the past several years, chefs, innovators and those in the culinary industry have been eagerly peeling away the “steakhouse” label that long defined D.C. dining. Warehouse pop-ups replaced stuffy dining rooms, ramen overtook rib eyes — and others took notice.
In response to the city’s uptick in neighborhood eateries, The New York Times wrote in 2014, “the future of dining in Washington, D.C., has arrived.” Later that year, Bon Appétit named Rose’s Luxury the best new restaurant in the country.
This year, Columbia Heights’ Filipino restaurant Bad Saint landed at No. 2.
“It’s been a cumulative effect,” Rapoport said about the city’s shift into the culinary spotlight.
“You have these sort of small, independently owned and run restaurants doing really creative food with a very sort of welcoming environment — unpretentious, but yet a high level of cooking that people are willing to line up for. … It used to be that ambitious food was limited to white tablecloths and having to reserve a month ahead of time and that’s no longer the case, and that’s a really refreshing point we’re at in our food world right now.”
D.C.’s new dining identity has a lot to do with millennials. Rapoport says younger diners are more adventurous eaters and research shows they spend more money dining out than other generations.
“Like I said, when I was growing up, I think D.C. probably was a more conservative town in that regard,” he said.
While the District may be leading the charge, it isn’t the only place where food is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Rapoport took the helm at Bon Appétit six years ago, and in that time has seen the industry go from trivial to trendy.
“You look at chefs now and they’ve got their skinny black jeans and tattoos,” Rapoport said.
“Food has become cool. People have always loved food, obviously, but it never had that cool factor until recently.”
Listen to the full interview with Adam Rapoport here: