Photo courtesy of Petite Cerise

InterviewsWashington D.C.

What D.C. Chefs Loved and Learned About Dining This Year

By

Reserve a table

It was an impressive year for dining in Washington, D.C. Not just the latest accolades but ever more and different ways to dine out. And pizza. [Or (not) pizza, as it were!]

As we close out 2023, we asked some of our favorite chefs and restauteurs in the nation’s capitol to share their thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry right now, what they’re most excited about for next year, which ingredients have worn out their welcome … and most important: where to eat.

They were kind enough to share their thoughts.

What trends this year inspired you this year, and gave you hope about the industry?

Michael Rafidi, chef and owner of Albi and YELLOW (not) pizza: I’ve seen more and more restaurants implement a five-day work week, so that all team members can have 2 days off in a row. We do this at Albi – we’re closed on Sunday & Monday – and I’m happy that it’s becoming a more standard practice as the industry prioritizes the wellbeing of its workers.

Fabio Trabocchi, Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants (Fiola, Fiola Mare, and others): We are seeing a return of people to the hospitality industry after a few years of dealing with major staffing challenges.

Matt Conroy, chef at Lutèce: We’ve felt hopeful about the increase in clarity around access to benefits for hospitality workers like healthcare, transportation, retirement, and time off.

 

What trends do you hope fizzle out?

Rob Rubba, chef of Oyster Oyster: Food videos on social media platforms that are designed to be reactionary are wasteful and far from the progress we need in the food world.

Michael Rafidi: People on laptops in cafés. With the rise of remote work I understand that people are looking for places to work outside of their homes. But it’s disheartening to walk into a community space and see a sea of people on devices.

Fabio Trabocchi: We would like to see people in all industries start to come back to the office either full-time or in a hybrid setting. This is good not only for the hospitality industry, but for other industries as well. It brings people together and allows them to build the communities that we temporarily lost during the pandemic.

I hope that guests and restaurants alike will have a better understanding on tips, wages, and the cost of dining out in general. — Matt Conroy, chef at Lutèce

What was your favorite ingredient in 2023?

Isabel Coss, executive pastry chef, Lutèce: Jell-o had a big moment for me. Riesling wine was a favorite. Bang Island mussels from Maine were on my mind or our menu all year round in some way.

Rob Rubba: Virginia peanut miso. We had to start making it at the restaurant, and it was fantastic.

Michael Rafidi: I never get tired of toum. It’s a condiment we make at all our restaurants with labne, garlic, salt and lemon juice. So punchy and perfect with breads, roasted vegetables, and grilled meats.

Matt Conroy Grilled or charred cabbage. Definitely a favorite and hope to see more. It’s so under-appreciated.

What do you hope will change in the industry in 2024?

Matt Conroy: I hope that guests and restaurants alike will have a better understanding on tips, wages, and the cost of dining out in general. I feel there has been a lot of change and confusion happening with all of this especially as we come out of the pandemic.

Isabel Coss: I hope managing waste becomes a more open conversation. There’s so much we can do better in regard to recycling and compost. I hope this year we find better systems, and maybe even invent them! I also want to see more women and minorities receiving accolades and recognition at the top level of the restaurant industry.

Rob Rubba: I hope more chefs get sustainably minded. Mitigating plastics, composting, and lowering their footprint with the product are some steps to improve how they operate. Every act of change, be it large or small, makes a difference.

Michael Rafidi: I hope that we see more Palestinian chefs and food writers take center stage. Writers like Reem Kassis and chef activists like Reem Assil are celebrating their culinary heritage in a powerful way, and I hope they inspire other young voices to do the same.

 

What are you excited about for next year?

Michael Rafidi: In spring we’re opening La’ Shukran, a bistro-ish cocktail bar and restaurant in the Union Market neighborhood. It’s been in the works for a while, and I’m excited to see it finally come to life–we just started construction. Later in 2024 we are also going to be opening a third location of YELLOW, on the ground floor underneath La’ Shukran. Each YELLOW feels very much like a neighborhood.

Fabio Trabocchi: We are very excited about our recent opening of Fiolina Pasta House in Boca Raton. It is inspired by our Sfoglina Pasta House locations. Fiolina will have an additional location at the Dulles International Airport in Q1 of 2024. We have plans for continued growth during the entire new year and are very excited to welcome new talent to our team to run these new locations.

Isabel Coss: I’m very excited for our new restaurant with The Popal Group, Pascual, where I will be not only doing the dessert and bakery program, but also savory dishes of my native Mexican cuisine. As a Mexico City native, I love nothing more than eating and cooking Mexican food.

What trendy ingredient would you like to see go away?

Michael Rafidi: Pumpkin spice, specifically in coffee drinks. Every year our coffee director, Ayat Elhag, makes a whole slew of drinks for fall that I just think are more interesting. I’d love to see people get more creative.

Isabel Coss: Misuse of caviar. And I hate to say it, but it’s time to say goodbye to avocado toast!

Rob Rubba: Fake meat. Just cook vegetables well!

Fabio Trabocchi: I would never say goodbye to branzino, but am happy that we are able to serve other beautiful, sustainable, and delicious fish that customers are learning to request and enjoy. It took a long time for branzino to become as popular as it is, and I love witnessing other lesser-known fish grow in popularity.

The lobster at Bar Spero. “Chef Johnny’s approach to Spanish food, seafood and desserts is always outstanding.” Photo courtesy of Bar Spero
The lobster at Bar Spero. “Chef Johnny’s approach to Spanish food, seafood and desserts is always outstanding.” Photo courtesy of Bar Spero

What were you most proud of this year?

Matt Conroy: We also decided to open on Monday nights this year, a day when restaurants are usually closed in DC, and we’ve been proud that the restaurant gets full of guests and industry folks every Monday. It especially brings us a lot of joy to take care of fellow service industry workers.

Rob Rubba: Receiving the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef was incredible; it solidified the dedication and care that the whole team at Oyster Oyster brings day in and day out. The team really pushed our sustainability efforts this year. Whether it was turning our cooking oil into candle wax, or buying a bottle crusher and turning our spent wine bottles into plateware at the restaurant, the fact that we continue to push ourselves is something to be very proud of.

Fabio Trabocchi: I am always proud of Michelin recognition. It requires relentless dedication from our executive chef Antonio Mermolia, general manager Giuseppe Formica and the rest of the team to receive this kind of recognition. Service is something that we feel very strongly about, and it requires hours of weekly training for us to do it right.

Michael Rafidi: There were two moments at YELLOW this year that I’m particularly proud of. We launched (not) pizza at YELLOW Georgetown, and we reopened YELLOW Navy Yard. Both got an amazing response from the community, and I’m so proud of the way our team navigated each launch.

I would never say goodbye to branzino, but am happy that we are able to serve other beautiful, sustainable, and delicious fish that customers are learning to request and enjoy. — Fabio Trabocchi

Finally, where in town did you absolutely love to eat?

Michael Rafidi: Petite Cerise is doing great work. [They’re doing] something I don’t think you can find in the district with French cooking. Also, I think Daru is great!

Matt Conroy: Bar Spero. Chef Johnny’s approach to Spanish food, seafood and desserts is always outstanding. Plus, the place is stunning.

Isabel Coss: Izakaya Seki just released its new concept with a wine bar on Tuesday nights. In a short time it has become my favorite and happy place.

Fabio Trabocchi: My COO David Murphy and I recently went to Causa with our wives. We all had an amazing experience there tasting their culinary exploration of Peru’s coastline and Andes Mountains. It was a pleasure to see such a wonderful team of young chefs  and talented front-of-the-house employees in such a setting.