Insult our politicians or our lack of fashion. But whatever you do, don’t talk shit about D.C.’s food scene. Washingtonians got up in arms when a New York Times book review of Mark Leibovich’s This Town earlier this year (by a guy from Pittsburgh) claimed the District didn’t have a decent slice of pizza or passable sub sandwich. But it was a Washington Post Magazine essay titled “What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot,” by longtime local baker Mark Furstenberg that really struck a collective nerve. “I am not nearly as encouraged as others,” Furstenberg wrote in July. “I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.”
While New Yorkers or San Francisco smugly just know their food’s the best, Washingtonians are especially touchy about the subject. Any jab seems to bring out self-loathing or angst, while praise or mention on a national “best of” list sends locals into a tizzy. Unlike other cities that have long been known as food capitals, the actual capital is still fighting its longtime bad reputation. For decades, the District was considered a culinary backwater with nothing but expense-account steakhouses and stuffy French restaurants. Even the city’s most famous culinary institution—Ben’s Chili Bowl—is iconic more for its history than its food.
The perception that you need a corporate credit card to dine well in D.C. or that there are no culinary risk takers here continues to overshadow the food scene’s evolution. The District is now dotted with new neighborhood joints, small markets, pop-ups, coffee shops, food trucks, breweries, distilleries, and more. New restaurants open at least twice a week.
That we obsess about the District’s food scene is proof of how far it’s come. Restaurants and bars are a source of local pride, and Washingtonians are keenly aware of the city’s place in the food world, even if its newness makes it feel shaky at times. In the not-so-distant past, most Washingtonians wouldn’t have even thought to ask whether D.C.’s food scene was great: They’d have known the answer was “no” already. Now, at least there’s debate.