Populations exploded and neighborhoods expanded
If there’s one thing Washingtonians can all agree on, it’s that the city has seen some drastic changes in the past few decades, including growth in the economy and the population. This led to the expansion of neighborhoods and a lifestyle shift for residents.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the District’s GDP grew an average of 2% each year between 1997 and 2015. Plus, the population increased by 11.7% between 2010 and 2015, according to the US Census Bureau.
Jeremiah Langhorne of The Dabney cites “an overall desire of Americans to move back into cities, which helped refill neighborhoods around DC. Pre-2000, not many people wanted to call DC home. It was just a place to go work for a few years before moving on somewhere else,” he says. “Now people love DC and want to build a life here.”
“When I came here there really weren’t many, if any, neighborhood restaurants. The neighborhoods hadn’t really formed yet 14 years ago,” says Jamie Leeds of the Hank’s empire. “In ’94, ’95, there was half a dozen restaurants and they were all Downtown. And so if you wanted to get a nice meal out, you had to go downtown for it,” adds Eric Ziebold of Kinship and Métier.
“So many people didn’t live in DC. They lived in the suburbs, they came in for work and then they’d go home,” says Michael Schlow of Tico, Alta Strada, Casolare, and more. “Now you see all these neighborhoods being populated, and they’re demanding good food.”
There was also a shift across generations toward a more centralized lifestyle. “I would say that actually started in the 2000s with Reston Town Center,” Ziebold says. “The idea of the Reston Town Center was to give people in that area options so you don’t have to make the commute all the way into DC,” he explains. The concept of having restaurants where residents lived and worked didn’t really exist a few decades earlier. “Fifteen years ago when I started cooking, most of the restaurants in DC were centralized in Downtown business areas,” adds Nick Stefanelli of Masseria.
Many of these new residents of a younger generation quite simply live and dine differently.
“They want multiple experiences in one night. They don’t want to just go to one restaurant, sit down, have an appetizer, an entrée, dessert, and coffee and then leave. They want to hit several places,” says Robert Wiedmaier of RW Restaurant Group.
Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington sees this shift as well: “People living in the center city without vehicles, for example, and walking in concentrated areas from one restaurant to another, making spur of the moment decisions instead of always long-range plans about where they wanted to eat.” This is a stark contrast to just a few decades ago. “It was an era where you found a restaurant you loved and became a repeat client, rather than you popped into the newest one all the time,” he says.
“They spend a lot more money eating out than maybe the older folks do, and they want fresh, fun food that’s not crazy expensive,” says Amy Brandwein of Centrolina.
As neighborhoods developed, the rent in unexplored areas was lower, making real estate more affordable for both residents and restaurateurs.
When Jamie Leeds decided she wanted to open her first restaurant in 2005, she settled on DC as the place to do it. “I found there was more real estate opportunity and that made it easier to open a smaller neighborhood restaurant,” she says. “The economy was in good shape and real estate rates were down and it kind of came together.”
“Downtown just got to be incredibly expensive and the only players that could be Downtown were major national companies,” says Jeffrey Buben, of Vidalia, Bistro Bis, and Woodward Table.
Ashok Bajaj of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group noticed the same phenomenon. “One of the reasons that drove growth outside of the Downtown DC is chefs wanted to open, or a restaurant wanted to open, where the rent was not too high,” he says.