There was salmon and champagne, and blackberry pie with fresh peach ice cream. Chefs and owners of area restaurants sipped, smiled and told stories. The reason for the good food and good moods at the lunch at Georgetown's 1789 Restaurant was that the diners were celebrating the fact that their establishments had been selected to be among the Distinguished Restaurants of North America.
This was the first year for the award, made by the DiRona group, a non-profit organization designed to raise restaurant industry standards. The awards are sponsored by American Express Travel Related Services and Hiram Walker and Sons.
Five Baltimore area restaurants, the Prime Rib, Hampton's at Harbor Court Hotel, the Conservatory at Peabody Court Hotel, Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg, and Northwoods in Annapolis. won DiRona awards but did not send representatives to the lunch.
I drove over to the Georgetown lunch to enjoy the food and to find out what separated the fine from the not-so-fine dining establishments.
Before I ate, I went to a press conference in the restaurant where the ingredients of fine-dining were enumerated.
I learned that to earn a DiRona award, a restaurant had to pass muster. Anonymous inspectors dined at a restaurant and rated everything from the condition of the furniture to the temperature of the food. The ratings were then forwarded to Thomas J. Kelly of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, who supervised the compilation of the list of winning restaurants.
DTC Of the 856 restaurants in the United States and Canada visited by a team of 18 inspectors, over 60 percent of the restaurants failed to measure up, Kelly said at the press conference. In Maryland 70 percent of the 18 restaurants visited, did not meet DiRona standards, he said.
Without naming restaurants, Kelly talked in generalities, about what separated the finishers from the also-rans.
Three-quarters of the restaurants that failed didn't offer proper service, he said. The inspectors rated not only the work of the waiter, but also the work of the maitre d', the person who answered the phone and the one who parked cars.
"Inattentiveness and rudeness," were the two main service-related failings, he said.
A common failing among waiters and waitresses, Kelly said, is "forgetting the guests after the entree arrives."
Less-than-acceptable food was a problem for 65 percent of the failed restaurants, he said. Often a restaurant failed because its food was either bland or because the dish was using poor-quality ingredients. Serving a piece of fish that had "gone off" -- smelling of ammonia -- was, he said, an example of using bad ingredients.
Some 53 percent of the restaurants had shabby furnishings, he said, offering the example of one restaurant that held pieces of carpet together with gray duct tape. Gray duct tape is not part of the fine dining experience, he said.
Finally, beverage service was a problem for restaurants 21 percent of the time. Kelly said his inspectors noted the quality of the ice cubes used in drinks -- no dirty cubes please. They also checked to see whether or not the wine on the wine list is actually in the wine cellar.
Restaurants, Kelly said, are better off rewriting a wine list than using an old one and constantly apologizing to customers for not having a listed wine.
To be considered for the survey, a restaurant had to have been in business at least three years.
Kelly said the group plans to regularly revise its annual listings.
And, he said, when an award-winning restaurant changes chefs, as has happened at Baltimore's Conservatory, "we will be back there very quickly."
The Washington-winning restaurants were 1789, 21 Federal, Aux Beaux Champs, the Colonnade, Galileo, I Ricchi, Jean-Louis at Watergate, Le Lion d'Or, Melrose, the Prime Rib, the River Club, the Willard Room.
The list of the winning restaurants, published as a directory, is being sold at the DiRona office in Chicago ($11.95. Distinguished Restaurants of North America, 250 S. Wacker Drive, Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60606).