Culinary Capital, Washington DC

by Our Editors

One conversation in Washington, D.C. that all political parties can agree on is that the nation’s capital is a gourmand's paradise.

by Jeff Heilman

Creative invention defines the Duplex Diner, a gay institution at the edge of Adams Morgan since 1998. Among the lures at this inviting “Cheers for Queers”: diverse clientele, including some truly road-tested loyalists; hearty brunch and dinner fare; Madonna- and diva-themed bathrooms; and in a martini shaker behind the bar, some ashes of late LGBT and AIDS activist, Clinton administration official and Duplex regular Bob Hattoy. Plus, cocktails named by the winners of the annual Miss Adams Morgan Pageant drag extravaganza, themed events, and long-running Thursday night party.

“We are going to boil the frog slowly,” jokes new co-owner Mark Hunker (with business partner Jeff McCracken) about changing the Duplex formula. “Actually, we are just looking at expanding the wine list, and enhancing service in the dining room,” says Hunker, a former Clinton administration insider who also owns the popular Eden and Jam Bistro restaurants at gay-friendly Rehobeth Beach, Del. with McCracken.

The diner is sandwiched between two other gay-owned businesses, The Cake Room and L’Enfant Café and Bar. The latter is another major party headquarters, hosting an annual Bastille Day block party, “La Boum” burlesque brunches on Saturdays, the Saturday night party La Boum Boum Room, and residencies for luminaries including Joey Arias and Lady Bunny. In Adams Morgan proper, Mintwood Place is rave-reviewed for its innovative bistro fare.

Of course, life is not as merry for all Washingtonians, with many trapped in poverty, homelessness, addiction, physical abuse, and other ills. Founded in 1989 by Robert Egger, DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) has provided a lifeline for more than 1,200 area men and women previously at rock-bottom through its nationally acclaimed culinary job training program, which has averaged a 90 percent job placement rate since 2008.

“We are based on social enterprise,” says Mike Curtin, who succeeded Egger, now on the West Coast developing L.A. Kitchen, as President and CEO in 2012. “With a portfolio that includes combating hunger by transforming leftover food into healthy meals, and our national Campus Kitchens initiative, we create positive change through empowerment, not charity. As Robert always said, it’s good business.”

As DCCK embraces D.C.’s less fortunate, the city’s culinary community embraces DCCK. The organization takes center stage at annual events including Sips and Suppers (from José Andrés and Alice Waters) in January, and each summer, Sound Bites, DCCK’s outdoor food and music festival that includes the wildly popular Mixology Madness competition.

Capital Food Fight, staged each November, is DCCK’s signature fund-raising event. Hosted last year by Anthony Bourdain and Carla Hall, chef, author and co-host of ABC’s The Chew, the public event’s 11th edition featured stations from some 75 area restaurants, the “High Stakes Cakes” competition and the centerpiece Iron Chef-style “food fight,” judged by Daniel Boulud and other celebrity toques.

While in D.C. for this story, I visited DCCK, housed in the basement of the Federal City Shelter, to join in a brunch celebrating the 17 men and women of the training program’s 98th graduating class. There, and at the ceremony that afternoon, I was uplifted to tears by their stories of turnaround and transformation.

Longtime DCCK supporter José Andrés was at the ceremony, where Kathleen Wellington, Marriott International’s director of culinary sustainability, encouraged the graduates to stay the course. Marriott, which originated in D.C. in 1927 via the cafeteria-style Hot Shoppes, is a major backer of DCCK and was instrumental in getting legislation passed to overcome early roadblocks facing the then fledgling organization (Anthem at the new Washington Marriott Marquis pays homage to Hot Shoppes with an update of the original “Mighty Mo” cheeseburger).

Carla Hall

Carla Hall

Hall delivered the keynote, encouraging the graduates to “always look for the upside of feeling down and out.” The Nashville native, who started out as an accountant before switching to modeling, came to D.C. in 1991, where she shifted gears again by starting her own catering business. Then came culinary school and chefdom, which set her on a path to national prominence first on Top Chef and now as co-host alongside Mario Batali and other personalities on The Chew. Also a leading supporter of DCCK, Carla, whose cookbook Cooking with Love: Comfort Food that Hugs You describes her well, shared one especially resonant personal experience with the graduates. “They don’t remember the failed dish,” she said. “What they remember is the love.”

In a city with an insatiable hunger for power, that’s the ingredient that truly satisfies.

WASHINGTON D.C. RESOURCES

EAT + DREAM

The Grill Room and Rye Bar at Capella Washington, D.C. Tel: 202-617-2400.

Opened in early 2013, the Capella is your Georgetown oasis for five-star luxury, right on the C&O Canal. After soaking in your Victoria & Albert bathtub (or the giant circular black marble tubs in the two Presidential Suites), head to the Grill Room for rye whiskey cured smoked salmon, tableside tartare and other gentleman’s comforts from D.C.’s popular Frank Ruta. Then, repair to the Rye Bar for a Manhattan, or schedule a session in the Living Room with Washington’s favorite mixologist, Angel Cervantes. His “Imperfect Martini,” “Moral Hazard” and other artisan cocktails are devilishly good. www.capellahotels.com/washingtondc/georgetown/

Zentan at Donovan, Tel: 202-379-4366 (restaurant).

At this Kimpton boutique, named after OSS (later CIA) founder “Wild” Bill Donovan, Zentan is Mandarin for “spy.” No sleuthing required here though: Chef Yo Matsuzaki had me saying domo arigato for his robata-grilled skewers of chicken thigh, duck breast and hangar steak, plus 007-themed maki rolls and other Japanese small plates. The Donovan’s DNV (Damn Nice View) Rooftop pool bar is great fun, too. www.zentanrestaurant.com; www.donovanhoteldc.com

Poste Modern Brasserie at Hotel Monaco, Tel.: 202-783-6060 (restaurant).

Set in Kimpton’s artful recreation of the 1841 General Post Office in the Penn Quarter, this is where Daniel Boulud veteran Kyoo Eom gets sublime with dishes such as foie gras on toasted brioche with hazelnut and rose apple gelee, and pork chop with cauliflower puree and smoked mushroom. Chef Kyoo harvests herbs from the outdoor courtyard, also the stage for mixers and events. www.postebrasserie.com; www.monaco-dc.com

Hotel Tabard Inn, Tel: 202-785-1277.

One of D.C.’s oldest hotels, this 40-room treasure from 1922 serves seasonal cuisine and great cocktails in a warren of inviting spaces including a fireside cocktail lounge and private dining room. tabardinn.com

EAT + DRINK

Hank’s Oyster Bar, Tel: 202-462-4265.

Chef Jamie Leeds’ homage to sustainable seafood is Leeds-certified delicious, from the ice bar to the lobster rolls and other coastal fare. With three area locations, including her Q Street flagship in Dupont Circle, she also gets cheeky with the cocktails. My “Drunk Waitress Tried To Wear A Cheeseburger As A Sandal After Getting Caught Having Sex Outside Waffle House” (bacon-washed rye whiskey, maple syrup, lemon and bacon) was a blast. hanksoysterbar.com

Sushi Taro, Tel.: 202-462-8999.

Part of a mini-restaurant row on 17th Street that includes the sensational Komi (komirestaurant.com) and its no-res sibling Little Serow (littleserow.com), this sanctuary features the freshest sushi I have tasted anywhere, much of it overnighted from Japan, plus artful three-compartment bento boxes of sashimi and other temptations. sushitaro.com

minibar by José Andrés, Tel. 202-393-0812.

The ultimate in avant-garde dining, with beyond-the-envelope experiences including the 25-course tasting menu and private “José’s Table” for six. Reservations are accepted seasonally in three-month windows, each opening one month in advance. For a spontaneous experience (reservations encouraged, but not required), try the adjoining barmini for visionary cocktails. minibarbyjoseandres.com

Union Market, Tel.: 301-652-7400.

Drive, or take the Metro or bus, for a diverse artisanal feast at this historic revival in northeast D.C. Among some 40 vendors, lures include Peregrine Espresso, Rappahannock Oyster Co., Red Apron Butchery, and New York soda fountain-style Buffalo & Bergen. With Dolcezza Gelato and Angelika Pop Up cinema (the permanent Angelika Film Center is slated for late 2015) right behind, the emporium anchors a broad neighborhood revitalization plan. unionmarketdc.com

Bluejacket Brewery, Tel.: 202-524-4862.

Adaptive re-use of former industrial spaces is rare in D.C., which makes this conversion of the Navy’s huge old boiler shop into an operating brewhouse, brewpub and Arsenal restaurant a special treat. Sample the craft beer, warm and flavorsome straight from the cask, and delve into hearty brunch, lunch and dinner fare, including hot and cold charcuterie plates, house-pickled vegetables, and satisfying burgers and chops. www.bluejacketdc.com

Iron Gate, Tel.: 202-524-5202.

Candles light your way as you step back in time at this romantic charmer, D.C.’s longest continuously running restaurant until closing in 2010. Relaunched in 2013, this original conversion of townhouse stables from 1923 opens with a carriageway bar serving artisanal cocktails such as the habanero-spiced “Smoke Gets In Your Rye.” The back courtyard, entwined with wisteria, is a magic spot for more socializing, while the tavern-style restaurant warms like a hearth. irongaterestaurantdc.com

Fiola Mare, Tel.: 202-628-0065.

Coastal Italian dining comes to the Georgetown waterfront at this nautically themed celeb-magnet (Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, designer Carolina Herrara, others) from Italian maestro Fabio Trabocchi and wife Maria. After warming up with D.C.’s best pastry and bread basket, I set sail on a three-hour brunch that included an all-world ice bar tier featuring Nigerian prawns, Catalina Island sea urchins and Japanese jellyfish. Then, off to Italy for burrata of buffalo mozzarella, ricotta cavatelli and gnocchi alla romana. In a word, meraviglioso—dreamy. fiolamaredc.com

Duplex Diner, Tel.: 202-265-7828.

Share war stories and make new friends at this adored gay institution straddling Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, where every hour is a happy one for themed parties, dinner, weekend brunch, and flavorsome cocktails including the Mr. Mango and Shugah Squeeze. www.duplexdiner.com

Rose’s Luxury, Tel.: 202-580-8889.

Expertly rendered Southern comfort food with global tweaks plus chef-owner Aaron Silverman’s “anything goes” philosophy have made this no-reservation Barracks Row phenom a national siren call—if you can get in. Website-only reservations are available for the private rooftop garden, though—three weeks in advance every Monday morning. rosesluxury.com

Mintwood Place, Tel.: 202-234-6732.

Make a beeline for the escargot-studded hush puppies, steak tartare with tiny potatoes, chopped chicken-liver tartine and other treats at this exceptional Franco-American neighborhood bistro in Adams Morgan. mintwoodplace.com

Fiola Mare Restaurant

Fiola Mare Restaurant

ORGANIZATIONS + EVENTS

Chefs For Equality

The fourth edition of this all-star event supporting D.C.-based LGBT advocacy leader Human Rights Campaign will be held October 20, 2015 at the Ritz-Carlton in D.C.s trendy West End neighborhood. Which pairs of superstar chefs will cook for the nine 8-guest tables, and which five will helm the 16-top main table? Check the website frequently for booking information: David Hagedorn’s “fête” accompli is the hottest ticket in town. chefsforequality.org

DC Central Kitchen, Tel.: 202-234-0707.

In 1989, then nightclub owner Robert Egger envisioned a plan for turning food wasted by D.C.’s restaurants and hotels into social good. Now in its 26th year, this celebrated non-profit continues to feed people and save lives every day through programs including food recycling and its nationally acclaimed culinary job training school. www.dccentralkitchen.org

Capital Food Fight

Held each November at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, this annual benefit for DC Central Kitchen is described by founder José Andrés as “the greatest melting pot restaurant in the history of mankind.” Admission to the public event, celebrating its 12th edition in 2015, gets you unlimited tastes from some 75 area restaurants, plus the high-energy cook-off among four local chefs, and cake decorating battle among four local pastry chefs. capitalfoodfight.org

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