DC’s Fine Fast Casual Scene
October 4, 2019 @ 12:00am
Fast-casual food is hot and shows no signs of slowing down. Since the explosion of the fast-casual segment, DC diners have started expecting even more from these quick options – and restaurants have delivered. They are incorporating creative bites, hanging menus, well-plated dishes, interesting décor and extensive beverage services into the casual dining experience. This new niche, referred to as elevated fast casual or fine fast casual, combines the familiar elements of fast casual with aspects of fine dining. In DC, we have plenty of choices when it comes to fine fast casual, with diverse cuisines at modest price points. Here’s what seven local spots, each truly highlighting the best in the fine fast casual space, have to say about the trend.
This Indian restaurant has cemented its spot in DC’s fine fast-casual market with its innovative and accessible flavors. It continues to make waves in the space with upcoming new locations and celebrity endorsements.
According to Sahil Rahman, co-owner of RASA, “Fine fast casuals are continuing to innovate and push the market forward. The big trends we are seeing today include the promotion of unique ingredients, elevated interior design and an increase in healthful offerings.”
All of these are at the forefront of RASA’s brand. Rahman believes this is the fastest-growing market segment because it solves multiple consumer needs at once.
“The brilliance of the model is that it maintains the quick service while also offering guests the opportunity to eat delicious and nutritious meals, all at an affordable price point.”
1247 First St. SE, DC; www.rasagrill.com
Co-owners Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon have been ahead of the curve not just on the fine fast casual trend, but also on the plant-forward movement. What started off as a market stand now has two storefront locations in DC featuring vegetarian tacos with local, seasonal vegetables served in homemade tortillas to diners.
“Fast casual is the perfect fit for serving best-quality, fresh, delicious, local, seasonal vegetables to everyone,” Stern says. “It is convenient, easy and affordable.”
Indeed, this is what makes them appealing to diners. Interest in the fine fast casual and quick-service side of the restaurant industry is only growing.
As Stern puts it: “It appears that deliciousness is at the intersection of health, sustainability, cultural discovery and business insight.”
3207 Grace St. and 615 I St. in NW, DC; www.chaiatacos.com
Plant-based options are one of the fastest-growing segments in the food industry, and the Israeli-focused Shouk caters to this with delicious hummus bowls, salads and sandwiches.
Ran Nussbacher and Dennis Friedman of Shouk say that, “In the past, when people wanted to grab a quick bite, the majority of their options were highly-processed, sugary foods with unknown ingredients.”
By offering highly craveable, nutritious options at modest prices, Shouk has truly managed to win locals’ stomachs – the eggplant burger is one of the best vegetarian sandwich options around.
655 K St. NW, DC and 395 Morse St. NE, DC; www.shouk.com
Big name chefs are keen to be part of the movement, too. José Andrés’ Beefsteak is a plant-based concept that has proven popular. Getting creative with using plant-based ingredients remains ever important to keep diners interested. Eric Martino, COO of ThinkFoodGroup, also sees another direction for some companies as ghost kitchens become more of a trend.
“As third-party deliveries continue to increase in metro markets, I could see multi-concept units doing delivery only out of kitchen-only spaces,” Martino says. “Engaging with guests digitally through apps and online strategies are no longer a “nice to have” but more of a necessity.
1528 Connecticut Ave. and on GWU’s campus at 800 22nd St. in NW, DC; www.beefsteakveggies.com
Antonio Matarazzo, co-owner of Stellina Pizzeria, agrees that “the growing interest in fast-casual dining has led to more well-known chefs opening concepts in this space and service style.”
“That translates into greater quality and care of the food served in fast-casual restaurants,” he says.
At Stellina, the counter service model has been received positively as diners become familiar with the idea that a space could be causal in terms of service but with a menu, quality and prices closer to traditional restaurants.
According to Matarazzo, “Cutting out some steps in the service allows us to deliver amazing dishes at great value.”
We agree – the food speaks for itself.
399 Morse St. NE, DC; www.stellinapizzeria.com
Aung Myint, owner of the Burmese salad shop, says that “guests are trying to get in and get out, and don’t have time to make myriad decisions.”
By having a selection of composed bowls with ingredients and flavors that work together, the guesswork is eliminated for the diner. This also leads to consistency – a big advantage.
“If you find something you love, you know what you’re going to get upon each visit,” Myint says.
And you will find something you love.
1069 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; www.bandoolabowl.com
At Poke Papa, value and convenience are the focus. When it comes to fresh raw fish, there is no compromise. Food is consistently prepared throughout the day so they can serve guests meals in relatively quick time frames while still maintaining a high quality.
From “the start of our ordering process to finishing payment, it’s right around two minutes on average,” owner Kerry Chao says.
Health-conscious diners are seeking fresh options that aren’t heavily processed, and that’s exactly what Poke Papa offers.
806 H St. NW, DC; www.pokepapa.com