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Get Over Yourself, Mr. Mendelsohn
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Get Over Yourself, Mr. Mendelsohn

May 11th, 2011 by Nichole Remmert · 53 Comments · Capitol Hill

Originally Uploaded to flickr by TreyDanger

“It is nice to be in a second-tier city where you can be a big fish in a small pond.” –Spike Mendelsohn

Capitol Hill’s own Spike Mendelsohn is the subject of today’s People’s District. Incidentally, if you’re not reading Danny Harris’s amazing blog, you should. In the interview, Spike talks about how he ended up in DC and how he sees his place here.  As the quote above illustrates, he apparently thinks he’s a big fish here, in our little second-tier city.

Look, Spike: your burgers aren’t that good and your fries are but nubbins. They’re fine, but Michael Landrum’s Hellburger blows your “Good” stuff out of the water. The same goes for Frank Ruta’s burger at Palena. Ditto, BGR and even Five Guys and they’re (gasp!) CHAINS! The biggest issue I have with Good Stuff burgers is that they’re not cooked to order. I don’t enjoy well-done or even medium burgers, and if you’re going to consider yourself a big fish – more on that in a moment – you should be cooking your burgers to order like the actual big (burger) fish in town.

Now onto that “Big Fish” nonsense: I’m sorry, but you, sir, are not a Big Fish in the DC culinary scene. That would elevate you to the status of Jose Andrés, Johnny Monis, Cathal Armstrong, Nicholas Stefanelli or Vikram Sunderam, among many others.  Plastering pictures of yourself all over your restaurants and appearing on reality shows may make you a big personality, but that’s about it.  Frankly, I’ve never eaten at We, the Pizza for many, many reasons, not the least of which is the astoundingly egotistical décor. (Also, “we-izings’? Seriously? Give me a break.)  Maybe if you didn’t spout off things like, “When I used to visit my sister here, there was such a huge food void in this city. I remember coming to visit her and seeing that the food culture was so bad here, especially on this block where Good Stuff and We, The Pizza are now.  Everyone was concentrating on politics and it seemed like food was not that important,” which demonstrates your ignorance of the neighborhood around you (even back then) and instead quietly concentrated on making good food, you’d stand a better chance of elevating your stature in the DC culinary world.

Don’t get me wrong – there were certainly no culinary masterpieces happening on that block before Spike’s time (although, Roberto Donna’s Barolo, on the next block was wonderful), but I can’t say that his opening shop has changed that, and proclaiming himself as the Taste Savior of the 300 Block of Pennsylvania SE, is as laughable as the trite names of the sodas at We, the Pizza. I’m always grateful to have more choices in the neighborhood, but I’m equally as happy to pass up Mr. Mendelsohn’s offerings in favor of better food with less “personality.”

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  • TheDash

    You nailed it. Thank you for this.

    Spike is an above average marketer and an average cook. Quite frankly, he doesn’t even have the best burgers on his block (Cheers, Tune Inn).

  • RH

    burn… as much as everyone loves to hate on spike (everything in his restaurants is so overpriced!!), his milkshakes are the best on the hill – sorry Ted.

  • http://tigerflight.etsy.com beth b.

    I don’t care for their burgers- my heart will always belong to the Tune or Mr. Henry’s….but my biggest problem is the effing music. It’s so loud, it takes me all but yelling three times to get my order across (granted, I’ve only been maybe 3 times). Plus, it’s sh*tty classic rock. If i needed to be assaulted by Bad Company, I’d turn on my radio….to any station….because radio in this area….Oy.

  • Phil

    Preach, Nichole! What kind of serious burger joint or chef insists on serving pressed patties that are overcooked?

    Spike’s burgers aren’t to 5 in town and they probably aren’t even top 5 on the Hill. I’d rather have a burger from Smith Commons, Matchbox, Queen Vic, Mr. Henry’s, the Argonaut, Hawk n Dove and probably a couple other spots than a overcooked puck from Good Stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    Any news on when Spike is opening his memento mori themed eatery, “Et in Arcadia Egomaniac?”

  • jb

    his burgers are pretty good, but not better than 5 Guys and you don’t have to wait half an hour at 5 Guys. I think his pizza is garbage. The milkshakes are great though.

  • Jeremy

    I prefer Five Guys and Mr. Henry’s over Good Stuff anyday.

    We The Pizza has a cute name. Eh.

  • http://twitter.com/monkeyrotica monkeyrotica

    Now I want a Tune Inn burger, dammit.

  • CapHillSophia

    I do prefer Spike’s burgers over our other local mediocre options at Eastern Market & on Penn , and I’m happy to have another decent pizza option on the Hill, too (though I do love me some Five Guys as well). Perhaps he’s egotistical, I don’t know him. But I have lived on the Hill for 19 years and we have been lacking decent restaurants here for years and years and years. That has only been changing in the past 5-7 years, imho (though I certainly do NOT credit the Obamas for that improvement).

    Also, we have become a top tier restaurant city over the past decade, but a) it wasn’t always like that and b) we are still known more for our politics than our food (though Jose winning the James Beard award will help change our image!). I don’t think his comments are outlandish. There are still a few food establishments on the Hill that continue to baffle me as to how they have stayed open…I can only assume that it’s because we’ve had no other choices in the past.

    -A Hill resident who is grateful for all the new restaurant life on H Street & Eastern Market/Barracks Row

  • Jason

    Get over yourself Frisky Franny.

  • http://na MJ

    I agree that Good Stuff and WTP are WAY overrated (and loud), but… my goodness!! What is up with people totally bitching out on this blog the last couple of days?!?!

    Believe me, I’m being extremely careful not to call DC “second-tier” or H Street “ghetto” lest I be chastized by bloggers.

  • http://Www.Twitter.com/nicholeaileen Nichole

    Sorry Jason, I’m not Frisky Franny.

  • TheDash

    I think the point is that DC is more important to Spike than Spike is to DC. I’m not sure you’d say the same thing about the real “big fish” like Andres, Richard, Kinkade, Armstrong, etc.

  • JKG

    AWESOME….

  • Emilie

    This blog post strikes me as a lot more negative than any of Spike’s comments. He’s providing counter service pizza and cheeseburgers; it doesn’t have to be haute cuisine.

  • Maria Helena Carey

    @Emilie– I’m sure that if I were to refer to your comment as “second-tier,” you would think I was being very rude to you.

  • Foodie

    Wow… from a culinary standpoint, DC is a second-tier town whether we like it or not. It’s getting much, much better than it has been in the past which is great.

    Hill eateries are still largely second tier to downtown, with the obvious exceptions of Montmarte, Belga, Acquo.

    Good stuff is OK, but I prefer 5 guys based upon taste/value combination.

    WTP, is overpriced, though the mushroom pizza is excellent. The Buffalo was so disappointing. I can take some dough and cut up a single chicken strip at home.

  • Jake

    I just read this quote in context, and it doesn’t seem nearly as offensive as you portray it to be.

    Also, isn’t Spike right about a lot even where is tone is off? DC is smaller than NYC. You may resent him for getting on TV a lot, but there’s no doubt it was an easier track for him to do so here than in NYC (or Chicago, or SF, or LA). And while perhaps “quality” wise he isn’t up there with our star chefs, for better or for worse, he’s a noticeable restauranteur here–a “big” fish in a much smaller pond than cities with larger restaurant scenes with bigger barriers to entry.

    Being categorized as “second-tier” rankles, but we are (proudly, I hope) not NYC or LA or Chicago. It is easier to get noticed in the food scene here.

    And finally, the insults as to his food. It’s fast food pizza and burgers, and whether you like it or not, he certainly has tried to make it more interesting than a lot of pre-2008 fast food options in this city did. And I mean that, even if he NOW has about the 3rd best burger on the Hill (I’d rate Smith Commons ahead for sure, and probably the Tune, but I think the atmosphere might be influencing my tastebuds) and 3rd best Pizza (I’d say behind 7th Hill and Matchbox).

    And further on the “food void.” Assuming he was visiting his sister, and his sister was on the hill pre-say 2007 or 2006, um, there was something of a void. We didn’t have Matchbox, Cava, Ted’s, Acqa Al 2, Ba Bay, Smith Common, Granville Moore’s, the Atlas Room, or the Chesapeake Room. We had some fine restaurants-Momartre, Sonoma and Belga come to mind, but the majority were places where the food was an afterthought or not that great (you can even see it in the improvement of some restaurants since then–I’m looking at you Starfish). And don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of those bars that pre-date the new Hill, Tune Inn (come see me almost every Sunday morning), Cap Lounge, Tunni’s)–more than Spike, but they serve tasty staples–and aren’t trying to be innovative in service or flavor. I still love them for that, but it doesn’t mean Spike is wrong about there being the sort of food void he’s talking about. (Let’s also remember that Landrum opened HellBurger around the same time as GS, BGR didn’t open in Dupont until 2009, Palena seems like it has been around longer, but I don’t know how long it has been known for Burgers). Five Guys predates it–but have you been lately? I’m not sure the quality at a number of the locations even holds up anymore. (A grave disappointment for this fan).

  • http://www.twitter.com/capitolization Tim

    Well put, Nichole. I enjoy me a Spike Burger every 6 weeks or so. And I enjoy the heck out of it. And I dig the fries he’s slinging.

    But, Spike, what are you thinking? DC welcomed you with open arms, and you punched us in the chest.

    And, if you were here before 2008, you’d know that we weren’t all suffering from malnutrition before you graced us with your presence.

    I’ll be thinking extra hard before stepping thru your doors next time. Probably will head for a food truck instead. And I hope that really annoys you.

  • DBuck

    Oh for the days of 209 1/2, a cozy slip of a bistro at 209 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.

    That would have been, I forget, the early 1980s maybe. 209 1/2 was here and gone in a couple years, but delicious while it lasted.

    Dan

  • Food Truck Fan

    Tim, he’s actually opening a food truck. Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

    The food truck community welcomes his addition.

  • http://na MJ

    And let’s be clear: he said “second-tier”, not “second-rate” or “second-class.” Must we look for offense in everything? He’s a total oddball and I don’t like his food, but let’s not try to paint him as some raging DC-basher. Besides, there’s plenty of raging going on at THIH these days. Are people really so insecure about our neighborhood that they have to launch a full-frontal attack on anyone who even slightly insults it?

  • anti-hater

    I think the hating on Spike is a little over-the-top here. His restaurants are good spots and let’s be honest, that section of Penn was really pretty devoid of tasty non-bar food before Sonoma and then Spike’s places. I think that he did a good thing, and despite his ego (he’s young as hell), we should be supporting someone so dedicated to our neighborhood. I think the hating is honestly pretty out of line.

  • anti-hater

    to add on a little, this is the blog where you do “monday morning circle” which is the most self-satisfied load of navel-gazing i regularly see.

    i think a little hypocritical to do that exercise every week than to say that you opened two successful businesses and are proud of it.

    oops i ruined my nom-de-plume by doing some hating.

  • Caroline

    I’m not insulted by the second tier remark– DC (and especially the Hill) has always felt more like a small town than a city to me, and I consider that a good thing. What rubs me the wrong way is Spike’s comment about good food coming to the city because of the Obamas. He really hasn’t spent much time in DC, outside of his restaurants, if he honestly thinks that the current Presidential family has any influence on DC’s culture (foodwise or otherwise). That’s the kind of nonsense the oblivious folks at the New York Times are always writing about.

    Then again, who am I to critcize someone for living under a rock– I’ve never set foot in Mr. Mendelsohn’s restaurants (they seem to be intended more for tourists anyway) and didn’t even know what he looked like until I saw Danny Harris’s interview.

  • LP

    Sorry, moving here from Brownstone Brooklyn–DC is a second-tier town (in terms of food). I have had some good meals but no where near the quality and quantity of NYC or SF, LA . . .

  • http://twitter.com/nicholeaileen Nichole Remmert

    Just to be clear – while I don’t agree w/Mr. Mendelsohn that DC is a 2nd tier town (and yes, obviously we’re not NY, SF or Chicago… ) it’s the idea that in the in the post, he seems to be painting himself as a part of the renaissance of great food AND that he came here only b/c of our 2nd tier status and is only now liking the city more b/c it’s becoming more like NY (in his eyes).

    Also, yes – the milkshakes ARE good.

  • ET

    DC was and still is a second tier food town. That doesn’t’ mean second rate.

    For decades many people seem to consider food something they stuffed in their mouth while talking politics. To be a top tier you actually have to care about what you eat, and frankly I still see a lot of people more interested in whatever the hot food du jour is or the atmosphere, than what the quality of what are actually serving. Then there is the fact that some restaurants lingered long after they should have closed just because they had outdoor seating (DC-ites love to sit outside even if while they are eating they get to watch the dogs for the afternoon walks, ignore the occasional beggar, plug their ears for the sirens, and hold their nose because of the belching buses).

    Things are much much better but there is still this sense of trying to catch up to NY which is silly. NYC is a food town. New Orleans is a food town. DC is not a food town but it is getting better.

    (for me though, despite the numbers of restaurants there still isn’t one I love enough to bother with on a regular basis and I still somethings think that despite the improvement in numbers and quality, there is still no restaurant I particularly want to eat at or that even really intrigues me)

  • TJ

    Spike really shouldn’t be talking about a second-tier town when he’s serving third-tier food.

  • Mike

    I think it should be titled “Get over yourself Nichole and The Hill is Home” I mean seriously, quit being so damn sensitive. He is speaking the truth. DC is a second tier city compared to all the other east coast cities. It’s the 24th largest city in the US when speaking in terms of city population, not the entire metro area. That is paultry. And up until a few years ago, DC had no food culture. The food sucked in DC. He might not be a big fish but this is certainly a small pond when compared to every other city in the NE.

    Your comments are way more offensive than his and much more personal.

  • Mmmmm

    Wow, who knew this blog has such thin skin. Spike, regardless of your opinion, has made DC a better place. He has added two very successful restaurants-and a food truck coming. His comments while probably not smart, are nothing but the truth. DC is smaller than NYC, easier to make a mark. DC is not as good as NYC when it comes to food. Obama did have an affect on the youth population. Do you see NYC getting mad because his comment about NYC going through fads every two weeks? no, because it really isn’t an insult. it is what it is. Your ruffled feathers are absurd. Get over yourselfs. If you don’t like his burgers don’t go. If you don’t like his pizza don’t go..but to get upset for him saying dc is a second tier city when it comes to food is laughable.

  • hill gentrifier

    @Mike – AMEN!!! Nichole has been a bad writer with a bad attitude for too long. Can that awful author! This is NOT journalism – just useless negative personal opinion that pisses off the subject of the piece (and a lot of readers). THIH deserves better than Nichole….. Hahaha, well, we all deserve better than her! Get over YOURSELF, miss Remmert!

  • Pete

    I live in DC and I love it here; I haven’t been to Mendelsohn’s restaurant so I can’t comment on the food, but I can comment on his words. The fact of the matter is that DC is NOT a big city, especially when compared with a city like New York. Ignoring the greater metro areas and just looking at the cities, New York has over 13 times the population of DC (almost 8.2 million as compared to just over 600,000 according to the 2010 census) and land-wise covers an area nearly 7 times larger (about 470 square miles compared to about 68). The fact is that compared to New York, we ARE 2nd tier. Don’t get me wrong, I love the restaurants and the night life in DC, but there are just SO MANY more options in New York simply due to the staggering disparity in size. The point is, while Mendelsohn’s word choice may have been poor, he was not intending to disparage DC so much as comment on the fact that it’s easier to stand out in a market the size of DC as opposed to one the size of NYC. If you don’t like his food, that’s fine don’t eat there, but don’t twist his words into something that they’re not just because you don’t like him – that’s called being a douchebag.

  • sa

    The outraged clucking on this and other local websites whenever there is a comparison of DC (as a city to live in) with NYC or even a slightly unfavorable mention in the New York Times is predictable and revealing. Reminds me of what students at “2nd tier” ivy league colleges say about Harvard. DC is great, but NY is greater! Get over it.

  • http://na MJ

    @sa–careful, or else you’ll earn the ire of all the Brown and Cornell grads! But a very excellent comparison. Honestly, it’s just the DC inferiority complex coming out. People seem to have completely erased from memory what the food scene around here was like as little as three years ago.

    @hill gentrifier–You’re right, this is not journalism; it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a neighborhood blog. Let’s not single out one writer, but I agree with your premise that angry diatribe doesn’t do anyone much good.

    To my friends at THIH–I generally like this blog, otherwise I wouldn’t read it. BUT lately there really has been a lot of ranting and raving. Is this blog becoming a personal soapbox for a handful of writers? You’re losing the touch you once had for highlighting real issues that affect life on Capitol Hill. And, more importantly, you’re no longer sparking engaging conversations about the issues du jour. (Don’t mistake a bunch of comments as “engaging conversation” either; these are just reactions to incendiary–and meaningless–posts.)

    I think I might go to good stuff for lunch today.

  • Mmmmm

    I would like to add that the fact that this has blown up speaks to the fact that he is “a big fish in a small pond”.

    You can hate the prom king, but he still makes out with the prom queen under the bleacher. And you hate him for it…she has a nice small and a medium sized rack.

  • Mmmmm

    should read “nice smile” not “nice small”

  • BKDC

    LP–
    I moved here from Carroll Gardens. DC is a “second tier” city through and through. Give me Smith Street over H and U streets any day.

  • MyBurger’sWell-done

    I love burgers. I eat them a lot, and I go to places all over the city to get them. I was ecstatic when Good Stuff opened because I was thrilled to have a “gourmet” burger option. I have now been there a handful of times, and even as a lover of well-done burgers, I have been disappointed each and every time. The burgers have been greasy and clearly not made fresh, the fries have been limp and also greasy (although, to be fair, also quite good if fresh), and the milkshakes were fine, if overpriced. But, I understand his pricing — he’s capitalizing on his name, and I’m cool with that. The food, though, was just okay and less good than the others mentioned, especially Five Guys (which has 2 Hill-adjacent locations). We, The Pizza is just Sbarro with more toppings, longer lines, and the same overall quality. It’s… fine.

    Normally, I just ignore Spike’s occasional commentary, but I think that I’m with Nichole here. It’s okay to call DC a second-tier food city (it is; there’s no arguing that — it’s in there with Atlanta, maybe just behind a Dallas or Miami), but he’s awful high-falutin’ for a chef who is, at best, the 3rd biggest name also-ran from Top Chef just in the metroplex. Not being an avid Top Chef-watcher, for a long time, I just knew him as “the one with the hat.”

    His food is adequate, but not special. And, while he’s undoubtedly lent some of his celebrity to the DC food scene, he also has supplemented the actual food with only greasy, stale burgers and pizza that’s… fine. Hardly the stuff of a celebrity chef.

    But, it is what it is. I’ll now go back to ignoring him and shaking my head at the lines as I drive past on my way to Five Guys when I’m in the mood for a tasty burger.

  • EP Sato

    Woah! Let’s be real: The food sucked on the 300 Block of Penn Ave SE before. Tune inn and hawk and dove are dumps!

    Let’s not forget the thai/greek garbage spot that We the Pizza replaced, or the barely passes health inspection El Salvadorian restaurant accross the street that hails itself as Mexican food.

    Good Stuff Eatery’s burgers have gotten national press and attention. and in 2000, DC WAS not a foodie town. Jose Andres and Michel Richard were pretty much it in a town full of chains and mediocre steak houses. My guess is that the author was likely living in NOVA back then.

  • b

    Is it me, or does anyone else get a YUM vibe like “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” when at GS/WTP? Less food than conceptually.

    I’m at the Pizza Hut, I’m at the Taco Bell, I’m at the Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell

  • http://Www.Twitter.com/nicholeaileen Nichole

    EPSato – you can say a lot of things about me, but I have never, ever lived in NoVa. I’ve been on the Hill since 2001, and in DC and/or various parts of MD since ’92. (started working on the Hill in ’94)

  • hater

    My thoughts:

    — I do think DC’s food culture has been historically weak and still has a ways to go. You can say that about practically any small city in the US.
    — Neither of Spike’s establishments contribute much to the food scene on the Hill.
    — However, they do bring in a lot of tourist dollars, so they’re good for the city.

  • CapHillSophia

    I suggest that some on this blog head in to Good Stuff for a first-tier hug:

    http://dc.eater.com/archives/2011/05/11/spike-mendelsohn-there-is-nothing-secondary-about-dc.php

  • TK

    THANK YOU!

    I’ve lived in DC for over 25 years. I went to Good Stuff Eatery for the first time recently and the first thing that grabbed my attention was the fact that the chef had a MASSIVE BLOWN-UP PHOTO OF HIMSELF on the wall when you walk-in, with an expression saying “I’m a prick”. The burgers were satisfactory – nothing special – and the fries were some kind of practical joke. Does everyone get the bottom of the barrel? Who gets the fries that *don’t* fall the bottom? Maybe those are reserved for Mr. Big Fish exclusively?

  • Scott C.

    This is what I do not understand about DCites. You guys are perfectly okay with the fixed building height, resulting in a significantly small city. Yet, you then become upset at someone pointing out the consequences of this.

    The city is lined with old government buildings and quite frankly has a boring atmosphere. The waterfronts are completely underutilized and the city as a whole has little to do. Spare me with the select pockets of things to do. Take London, Rome, Paris etc, in comparison, DC is dead boring.

  • MyBurger’sWell-done

    @Scott C. – You’re right. There are hardly any cultural events or places to visit with America’s great collections of various things anywhere in the city. Let alone any restaurants or bars or parks or sports venues or … well, you get the drift.

    And, while DC proper is relatively small for a major US city (~600k, which is the 24th largest), the metro area is not (~5.58M, 7th largest), the size of the buildings downtown aside.

    I don’t think that anyone, at this point, is arguing that DC is up there with NY/LA/Chicago for its restaurant scene, but there are certainly a few things to do around town. I have no idea what use it is to compare it to Paris, Rome, and London, when it’s statistically more comparable to Strasborg, Florence, and Liverpool. Or Hamburg, if you want to compare the US to the EU instead.

    But, whatever floats your boat.

  • Ascot Manscarf

    Spike = Douche Canoe

  • Ascot Manscarf

    Scott C. = Douche Canoe

  • H Street Landlord

    Well said My-Burger’s-Well-Done. Especially about the 7th largest metro area.

    Also, lots of people in this thread talking smack about DC in this thread. Yet, you are living here, as well as reading and commenting on a local blog. That really doesn’t compute to me. Grow up.

  • http://www.thehillishome.com Jon

    Finally reading this post and all the comments after being out of town for a few days. I’ve lived in DC and MD since 1995 and in DC consistently since 2004 and can state definitively the food scene has gotten much better. We may not be a foodie destination, but we’re a destination with some amazing eats. Second tier? Second class? Second rate? Whatever. People still come to visit and spend their money, and we all still live here. And I like it.

    As for Spike and his complex on Pennsylvania Avenue, I think he gets by on his “big fish” rep and not the quality of his food. The shakes are good, the burgers are not, and the fries are a joke. Better food (and service) can be had at Smith Commons, 5 Guys, and Matchbox. I admit to not trying his pizza, mostly because I have no interest in waiting in line for half an hour for a slice when I know I can get decent pizza elsewhere. No comparison to NYC here by this ex-New Yorker; I’m just saying my time is line is worth more to me than the hype of a jumbo slice.

    And as for the comments about the tone of this blog, note few of us writers are journalists by trade and we write about the things we are interested in around the neighborhood. If you don’t like the tone of a post, don’t read the rest of it. Remember, it’s a blog not a newspaper.

  • Tk

    Scott C. says:
    “Take London, Rome, Paris etc, in comparison, DC is dead boring.”

    London, Rome, Paris – three cities that are over 2000 years old. Washington is 200 years old. We’re working on “de-under-utilizing” those waterfronts, man. Just give us a little time. In the meantime, however, why don’t you do us a favor and get the f**k out of our city.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4F3GTHVLLCMTNUZ6XPOZDINBWM JB N

    He is such a douchebag. Being on a reality show doesn’t make him a real chef, much less a “big fish”. He has a couple of fast food places, that’s it. And with that he thinks he’s a big shot? What a cretin.