Like French wine from the cellar at Marcel’s or the 100-day kimchi at Anju, Tom Sietsema’s fall dining guides get better with age. The 20th edition contains reviews of 77 restaurants — the largest number ever. In addition to numerous shake-ups in the annual list of his Top 10 personal favorites, Sietsema has added another restaurant to his Hall of Fame, created a new category called “Classics” to honor restaurants that have stood the test of time, and bestowed a coveted three-and-a-half-star review on a restaurant that has never before appeared in the fall dining guide.
The previous five fall dining guides have contained between 37 and 53 reviews of area restaurants. (The 2016 edition had 52 Sietsema reviews, plus 10 cheap eats recommendations by Tim Carman and a list of D.C.'s top 10 bars chosen by yours truly.) Sietsema chose to visit more restaurants this time because “20 years is a milestone of sorts,” he explains. “The guide merited being bigger, because I had more I wanted to say in my introduction and more people and events I wanted to flag” in smaller sections looking back at his tenure. “This anniversary issue gave me a chance to look back and salute all the good work that had been done on my watch and look ahead at the same time.”
Enrique Limardo’s Seven Reasons went straight to No. 1 in the Latin American restaurant’s first dining guide appearance. That’s just one of the prominent changes to this year’s Top 10. (“I like to mix things up,” Sietsema says.) Only two restaurants from last fall’s Top 10 remain among Sietsema’s admittedly personal favorites: the four-star Pineapple and Pearls and the lauded Three Blacksmiths. Three others, including last year’s top pick Del Mar, are still in the guide. Momofuku, Spoken English and Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly have been dropped altogether, while Himitsu and Little Havana have closed.
It’s a similar story when comparing Sietsema’s picks from the 2019 spring dining guide, which focused on newer restaurants. Mama Chang and Rooster & Owl are both survivors in the Top 10, while three of Sietsema’s spring favorites are nowhere to be found in the fall guide: the Michelin-starred Gravitas, Estuary and, again, Little Havana. Of note: Rooster & Owl, which was Sietsema’s No. 3 in the spring and No. 2 in the new guide, is the only restaurant to move up the Top 10 list.
Of the 48 restaurants included in the 2018 fall dining guide, one-third did not return in 2019. This includes the two closed restaurants mentioned above, but also Little Pearl and Momofuku, both of which received three stars last year. The others that didn’t make the cut: Bresca, Joselito Casa de Comidas, Kaliwa, Nasime, Q by Peter Chang, Rasa, Spoken English (all two-and-a-half stars), America Eats Tavern, Elephant Jumps, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly, Tortino and Zenebech (two stars each).
In contrast to the trendsetters in the Hall of Fame, Sietsema says, the new “Classics” section is a nod to restaurants that “play a special role in the city, not just because they’ve endured for a long time in a fickle market, but because they’re at least ‘good’ and add something important to the scene.” Some have been reviewed in the magazine before, such as Filomena and Bombay Club, but none featured in last year’s guide. Be warned: This is a section that might not stick around next year.
Surprise: Rasika West End joins its sister restaurant in Sietsema’s list of “restaurants that do what they do better than their peers.” None of the restaurants in this category had ratings change, including the three-and-a-half-star Rasika West End. The Hall of Fame is home to seven of the guide’s eight four-star restaurants. The other one is Métier, which placed fourth in Sietsema’s Top 10. Eric Ziebold’s dining room earned four stars in 2017, was docked half a star in 2018, but is now back to a “superlative” rating.
Little Pearl and Gravitas both celebrated receiving their first Michelin stars this year, but neither is featured in Sietsema’s new guide. Little Pearl had earned three stars in 2018, and Gravitas earned a No. 10 ranking in Sietsema’s spring Top 10, but that wasn’t enough. “One could argue that I liked two of Aaron Silverman’s restaurants [Pineapple and Pearls and Rose’s Luxury] better than Little Pearl this year,” Sietsema says, “or I thought Rooster & Owl was a more original, and less expensive, tasting menu experience overall than Gravitas. As I said in my introduction [to the Dining Guide], I also had to stop somewhere.” Bresca, Fiola, Masseria and Plume are other Washington restaurants that earned Michelin stars but have not been featured in Sietsema’s recent guides. Kinship, which has one Michelin star, returned to the dining guide after missing out in 2018.
Chef Tarver King’s Lovettsville escape made its fall dining guide debut with a three-and-a-half-star rating and the No. 5 spot in Sietsema’s Top 10. Pretty impressive for a farm restaurant that first earned a mention in 2017′s spring dining guide, and “almost made it” into the fall guide that year. King is “living the dream,” Sietsema says, “getting most of his ingredients from his backyard and really putting ingredients on a pedestal, while also explaining their connection to the tasting menu. I tasted joy in his dishes.”
This was a banner year for restaurants outside Washington’s borders. Eighteen of them — a dozen in Virginia, six in Maryland — earned a spot in the dining guide, after eight suburban restaurants were included in 2018, and nine in 2019. It’s worth noting that Jaleo has locations in Bethesda and Crystal City, but only the downtown location is included in the dining guide. Similarly, Buena Vida’s Clarendon location made the guide, not its Silver Spring outpost.
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Virginia: Artie’s, Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Buena Vida, Clarity, Inn at Little Washington, Makeda, Mama Chang, Nostos, the Restaurant at Potowmack Farm, Thai Square, Thompson Italian, Three Blacksmiths.
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