Restaurants in DC are booming. Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery has seen the explosion first-hand. (Photos: Robin Bennefield)
When you step inside Bayou Bakery, instantly, you feel like you’ve been transported to New Orleans. There’s brass band piped through its speakers and piping hot beignets on order, along with Chef Davis Guas’ easygoing hospitality. But the fact is, you are steps from the U.S. Capitol in the nation’s capital and the New Orleans-born chef is no newcomer to the exploding D.C. food scene.
Guas was part of an early wave of chefs and restaurateurs pioneering their way into D.C. with new food concepts in the 90s, when eating out was more about deal-making and which politico you might see than the food. He helped open DC Coast as lead pastry chef in 1998, driving the rise of the former resto as a dining staple for nearly 20 years. Since then Guas has been apart of other buzz-worthy restaurant openings, including his own, and seen a steady march of new chefs and restaurants debut.
“It’s been a wonderful experience being part of the growth of the food scene in D.C. and the growing awareness of quality options and chef-driven food concepts,” says Guas, who’s been involved with developing best-list-topping restos like Acadiana.
Guas’ concept marries locally sourced ingredients and southern food ways with D.C. history. His grits are stone ground at the old gristmill at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate, while the bakery occupies a space that was a carriage house for medic horses at the Old Naval Hospital next door during the Civil War.
Guas seems to appreciate the history of the D.C. food landscape as much as the history of the nation’s capital, so when Marriott Traveler asked him to talk top eats in the city, he was more than game, even if he had a tough time picking his favorites.
Where are you eating right now?
I’m enjoying watching buddies of mine, chefs with talent, grow like Jose Andres protégé Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya Izakaya. Victor Albisu, who I worked with at Ceiba, has Del Campo and is doing amazing Cuban, Peruvian and Argentinian food focused on the grill. I have a hard time choosing where to go because of that. I love going to Mussel Bar (Arlington, Va.) to eat frites and mussels. I love going to Brasserie Beck on 11th and K, which has one of the largest Belgian beer lists in the city. It’s really up there with top 5 in the country with over 250 Belgian beers.
What D.C. restaurants have stood the test of time?
We have so much now, it’s a little overwhelming, but we’ve always been known for our ethnic food. That still remains as a strong presence in the city. With our embassies and influx of international visitors as the nation’s capital, we’ve always had Ethiopian and African foods, Lebanese, and true Japanese restaurants and Chinese. I love that about the city.
What new food trends stand out in D.C?
So many things are here like the burgers and the donuts that have popped up in other cities around the country. There’s District Donuts doing unique things. For burgers you got BGR and BTS (Burger Tap and Shake), grinding their own meats, making their own bread. That was unheard of for a burger place. What I like about BTS is that they grill on an open flame and then finish on the flat top. I don’t know of any other concept that does both. BGR just uses open grill and it’s good. I like it all, but it’s a unique way that BTS does it. Again, we’re just talking about a burger but how many bad burgers have you had? When people start thinking about those small things in the art form, we can make things so much better. You may care about where it came from, but in the end of the day you care most about flavor. Was it a good burger? Was it juicy? The science part is up to us.
Fine dining is still very much a thing in D.C. Who does it best?
For fine dining you’ve got people leading the pack since day one like Marcel’s. If, god forbid, any thing happened Marcel’s, I don’t know where we’d be as a city as a fine dining destination because they have held true from the second you pull up in the car. They’ve had the same valet service for years, so they know the guests. The valet company becomes an extension of the restaurant. The maître ds open the double doors at the same time. You feel kind of like a prince and that’s their goal.
Now, we’ve got Kinship by Eric Ziebold. You’ve got Masseria, where Nick Stefanelli is doing some amazing Italian fine dining in kind of a funky industrial, casual, maybe I’ll wear a tie and a vest way. It invites expression because of the food and the ambiance. Then there are people like Vidalia who are there and still doing their thing and doing a great job. That’s the foundation. You’ve got this foundation of chefs that have been there for 15, 20, 25 years to allow everyone else to do their new things. Without people like Jeff Buben, Jeff Tunks, Roberto Donna and Robert Wiedmaier, we don’t have this city. It’s kind of like looking back at musicians. Everything has been done before. We have to thank those people, and even those people have people to thank, but from a culinary standpoint those are the guys that need to be honored.
Outside of eating, what do you do like to in D.C.?
One of the biggest misconceptions about the city is that it’s just that – a concrete jungle, a downtown, and that’s it. Obviously, it’s so much more than that with all these unique neighborhoods – Capitol Hill being one, Shaw and Brookland. Cross a bridge, 5 or 7 miles from the city and in you’re in Great Falls in Maryland or Virginia, where you’re kayaking, rock climbing, rappelling or hiking. People forget that. Go a little further and you’ve got Front Royal, Va. Being a motorcyclist, I love the mountains and they are just 50 minutes west.
The National Mall is a must-see. What are your favorite sights?
When people come from out of town, I love to show them the monuments and I always do a drive-by at night. How unique is this city at night? With everything lit up, even with the scaffolding, it’s beautiful. The museum that I adore is the Native American Museum. The food court is really neat with foods representing different Nations, especially unique grains – these heirloom grains that were lost.
Let’s talk beignets. You make them here, but what are the best in New Orleans?
My kids are kind of snobs when it comes to certain foods, even their French fries and burgers. They are big fans of Morning Call that has been around almost as long as Café du Monde. The location in City Park is great because you’ve got these 100-year-old trees.
What city has most impressed you from a food perspective?
With my show, “American Grilled” on Travel Channel, I got to see some of what was going on across the country. I absolutely love everything about Seattle. We had those three days of sunshine that you don’t normally get, so I saw Settle in a different way than most who see it when its wet and rainy. It was pretty special. On the food scene, it was just clean, innovative and simple, and the seafood was outrageous. Asheville is doing amazing things from its charcuterie to its distilleries and breweries. It has an intimate feel where everyone knows everyone. If you feel that in a city after a day or two and you’re at dinner, ask a restaurant manager or server other places to see and pick their brains. Using where you are as a benchmark helps to guide you. That’s something that I do.
What’s next for you?
Cuba has been on my mind. My father is from Cuba. He was born in Havana, so we’ve got a lot of things brewing, including honey (a Guas passion). I’ve got plans to go back. I went three years ago and Food & Wine covered it. I went with my dad. It was his first trip back in 53 years….From a food standpoint, it was exactly what I wanted it to be. We went to a lot of dives and didn’t do state run restaurants, which have more Spanish influences from the Basque region like stuffed pequillo peppers with squid ink. We stayed to the backdoor paladars. We went to domino parks and listened to old timers talk baseball. We smoked seven or eight cigars a day. We woke up sipping rum and went to bed sipping rum. For me it was about getting in touch with that Cuban culture with my dad and it was pretty special.