Big-name chef Patrick O'Connell made some news this week with a passive-aggressive swipe at Washingtonian magazine, D.C.'s foremost upper-crust see-and-be-seen monthly chronicle of How The Wealthy Live In Our Nation's Capitol. O'Connell is a blustery fart-bag, and his restaurant is a far-flung capital-D Destination for Washington's wealthiest foodies, but the fact that he's commented at all about Washingtonian's Top 100 list illuminates the undue significance granted the bullshit trendsetting endeavors of local society magazines.
One reason why this particular list is bullshit is that it's just wrong, and wrong in the way in which it is usually wrong, but, you know, more so. They made bad choices! The people they sent out to eat at and rank these places are pretentious nitwits with malfunctioning tongues, and so you wind up with some genuinely puzzling choices.
Case in point: Vidalia is a good restaurant. It's got a sort of New American take on detectably-Southern comfort food – their version of chicken and waffles is a downright obscene helping of fried sweetbreads atop and around savory waffles that will, frankly, give you a boner – their prix fixe menu is navigable and relatively reasonably priced (within the context of expensive fine dining), and the service is reliably excellent. It's been around for a while, its setting and decor could have used an update a decade ago, and it's certainly no longer a "cool" destination. But! Great food. No one will tell you their food is something less than great.
Now, on the other hand, you've got a restaurant called (helpfully) The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm. The setting is spectacular, atop a hill near the northernmost part of Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River as it flows beneath the Point of Rocks Bridge. The restaurant itself has the vibe of a repurposed greenhouse, all white beams and clear panels, and while the service is always committed and professional, the food is nearly always not good. In fact, two of the most horrible things I've ever eaten in my life were served at Patowmack Farm: a first course called "icicle radishes" consisting of raw radishes in a clear narrow glass with "sourdough soup" and "cocoa dirt," an abomination of a dish done up in a reckless and wildly unappetizing attempt at el bulli-style molecular gastronomy; and an apple soufflé drowned in frozen bright green sorrel granita that was so awful to eat that I was actually nauseated by its continued presence on the table. Here is what I wrote in the Notes app on my phone that night, of the dessert:
Apple soufflé. This was an absolute horror. One of the five worst dishes I've ever eaten in a restaurant. This could not have been worse without baby snakes spilling out of it.
Which, OK, maybe it was an off night, right? Perhaps. I've eaten there three times – it's the closest thing to fine dining within 25 miles of my home – and never had a meal that rose above adorably sincere but in all other ways forgettable.
Washingtonian's review of Patowmack Farm made note of its "avant-garde techniques," "local and seasonal bounties," and "artistic, modern plates" and granted it inclusion on the list. This will represent quite a schlep for D.C.'s committed foodies, but they will come. Vidalia, meanwhile, long a staple of this and any other list of great D.C. restaurants, fell off the Top 100 altogether. Last year it was a three-and-a-half star restaurant, this year it is nowhere to be seen.
Because enjoying food is at least somewhat subjective, it's possible to understand this as just a difference in taste, which, fine. Go drop a few hundred bucks at Patowmack Farm sometime and tell me if you believe there aren't at least 200 better restaurants in and around D.C. Or, instead, see if you can detect a pattern in Washingtonian's restaurant rankings. Here, I'll give another example:
Rogue 24 is a hip restaurant located in an historic alleyway near Mt. Vernon square, and is owned and operated by R.J. Cooper, an award-winning chef who once appeared on Iron Chef America. Chef Cooper is all about challenging the culinary status quo, man, and so you wind up being served dishes that are interesting to look at, texturally unexpected, and otherwise incomprehensible as food offerings. I had the chance to eat at Rogue 24 at its opening, and while it was fascinating as an anthropological study, watching D.C.'s wealthy foodies have their sense of taste overwhelmed by a series of aesthetic maneuvers designed to affirm their coolness, the food was beneath horrible. If what makes food good, beyond its capacity as vital nourishment and fuel, is its deliciousness, the food at Rogue 24 is barely food at all. That food be enjoyable is not a culinary status quo worth challenging.
And, of course, Rogue 24 made the list. Washingtonian's writers, perhaps feeling some small amount of guilt at directing their readers to a place that will charge them outrageously for the privilege of forcing down twee bite-sized servings of recontextualized kitchen scraps, made mention, in their review, that one does not eat at Rogue 24 for the food, but rather for the theater. Which, are you fucking kidding me.
This gets to the heart of why Washingtonian's Top 100 list is, year after year, a bunch of horseshit. The list hasn't made it its business to direct hungry people towards good food – good food being, after all, most if not all of what makes for a good restaurant – but rather to make trends, affirm a coolness that D.C.'s self-conscious inferiority-complex-laden transient wealthy class desperately seeks, and most of all reward chefs and enterprises that, by making extravagant motions towards aesthetic coolness that happen to align with Washingtonian's current whims, enable the society mag to act as the trend-setting broker of local prominence, a position that is enormously important to Washingtonian and other local society mags. Hence, you know, all their goddamn list-making.
Chef O'Connell's critique was defensive and self-serving and snotty, but at its core there's the recognition that Washingtonian's Top 100 list isn't adhering to an above-board set of criteria in doling out positions on its list. Instead of this place has wonderful food and you will love it, they're going for this place is super hip and makes us feel cool and you will enjoy yourself if you prioritize coolness over good food and spend your entire meal staring at the open kitchen.
None of this should matter all that much, of course, except that it does. Washingtonian's Top 100 issue is a big fucking deal around D.C., and they go so far as to list not just their favored restaurants (and even take up space shaming those restaurants who were dropped from the list) but also what trends are "in" and what trends are "out" in dining out. While they've positioned themselves as a source for information on which restaurants around the area are surpassing the basic goals of food service, they're overtly exposing a shifting set of criteria designed, more than anything, to undergird D.C.'s burgeoning reputation as a hip, trendy destination. And that role, as the arbiter of what is good among local businesses, is hugely influential.
Restaurants, you see, are, by and large, small businesses, and small businesses live and die by the exact kind of exposure given in these kinds of annual rankings. As a small business owner in Northern Virginia, I find the role websites like Yelp and publications like Washingtonian magazine and Northern Virginia magazine play in making the reputations, and thereby securing or ruining the profitability, of small businesses to be terrifying. Win the award, make the list, and there will be not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of patrons making the trip to your location for the first time. Making the list makes you a destination, and that kind of prestige has enormous value. As the society magazine gains prominence as List-Maker of Choice, a business's presence on one of its lists carries an increasingly valuable imprimatur, and one that is accepted on faith alone by legions of consumers. That this endorsement can be doled out for shifting, untraceable reasons by publications with their own private agendas is, well, it's a problem. It removes the agency of the business operators to address their own success.
Vidalia's mandate for years and years was to serve great food in an upscale setting, and for years and years they made any credible list of great D.C. restaurants. But once great food receded as a criteria for inclusion in the area's most prominent list, Vidalia can't do anything but cast about for signs of Washingtonian's aesthetic preferences, granting Washingtonian's editorial staff direct and outrageous control over the operation of local restaurants. That's screwy!
And here's where it's at its screwiest: while this is happening, while Washingtonian and other local society magazines are gathering cachet as cultural trendsetters, their advertising departments are cold-calling those same businesses to solicit their involvement in Groupon-esque deal programs (as Northern Virginia magazine has done for years with their Specialicious program) or to sell straight-up advertising space. If this isn't explicitly transactional, it can certainly feel that way: Yelp, as an example of a business that both sells advertising and exerts enormous control over the popular perception of local businesses, has been involved in countless controversies involving protecting advertising partners from negative reviews while punishing non-partners. There is a disturbing trend of businesses declining to advertise with Yelp and subsequently watching their negative reviews gain all-new prominence in Yelp's calculations.
Because society magazines are most useful as business directories, there's already an uncomfortable overlap between the paid advertising taking up half the magazine and the enthusiastic matchmaking taking place in these Best Of lists – the space around and between the reviews is crushed with restaurant advertisements, many from the same restaurants featured on the list. This is the utility of society magazines, after all: to point consumers to local businesses. And so there are two ways to gain visibility within the society magazine: by buying advertising from their ad department; and by "earning" recognition on a Best Of list. And while the small business is hoping to meet whatever agile, unknowable criteria land businesses of their type on the appropriate list, they're being solicited by that same magazine for ad revenue.
Maybe the choice is between paying through the nose for a 2-inch ad amid a field of similar ads versus hoping to gain the endorsement of your area's premier arbiter of What's Hot, but, at any rate, Washingtonian's list actually isn't about granting prominence to any business other than their own, and so the choices made are, of course, in service of that aim. While this may not matter a lick to consumers, it's potentially devastating to the businesses themselves.
This is the climate in which Washingtonian grants prestige – year-long prestige – to restaurants with its annual Top 100 Very Best Restaurants list: one in which small businesses are made or destroyed by reviewers with personal, subjective criteria publishing their reviews through websites and magazines with complete control over the use of those reviews, while those same magazines and websites come calling for ad revenue from those same small businesses. The relationship is unclean. Local business review services are doling out life or death for small businesses.
So, when Chef O'Connell, who's been at this for some time, talks about ethics in restaurant journalism, he hasn't missed his mark by much. Washingtonian magazine probably isn't especially interested in stirring up controversy, and they don't need to. They're in the business of king-making, and it's a profitable gig, in more ways than one. And, besides, if there's a person on earth who thinks eating at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is more enjoyable than eating at The Inn at Little Washington, that person's palate is irretrievably busted.