Seven nights a week, and four years after opening, lines still form down the block at Bad Saint in Washington, D.C. Regulars, gastro-tourists, Filipino families, and Hill staffers all vie for one of the restaurant’s 24 seats and a chance to eat chef Tom Cunanan’s soulful Filipino cooking.
With so little space, every square inch of Bad Saint is maximized for storage, prep work and diners, just as every bite of Cunanan’s dishes deliver a flavor punch from ingredients like crab fat, calamansi, fermented black beans and bitter melon.
Cunanan won a 2019 James Beard Award for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic,” and before Bad Saint, he worked in notable D.C. restaurants, including Vidalia, Bibiana and Ardeo + Bardeo. It was Cunanan’s mom who encouraged him to pursue Filipino cooking. “At the beginning, [our menu] was based on my mom’s home cooking, and it started to evolve with confidence and become more original as I learned more about indigenous foods,” he says.
A meal at Bad Saint is suffused with his mom’s influence. But with all the work he does to transfer those ideas, emotions, and memories to diners, Cunanan doesn’t have the energy to cook at home. Instead, he enjoys his peers’ cooking in D.C.’s burgeoning dining scene. “Ninety percent of my friends are in the industry. If it’s my night off, I eat out,” he says. Just in case you can’t get into Bad Saint, we talked to Cunanan about where he likes to dine out in the District.