Young and Hungry

Are Rich People Stifling D.C.’s Dining Scene?

When Travel + Leisure ranked America's best cities for foodies, the District didn't crack the Top 10—heck, it barely made the Top 20. One thing holding D.C. back in terms of culinary achievement, according to the Huffington Post: High incomes. So argues Eli Lehrer:

Yes, this is a disadvantage. A lot of the best and most innovative food traditions come from people with limited budgets: if you can afford the best (most expensive) ingredients, it's not hard to make an edible meal. Creating something tasty with humble foods is a lot harder. D.C. as, the wealthiest city in the country by some measures, is a place where Jose Andres' mini-empire of small plates places — which I like — passes as "cheap" even though my last simple dinner for two at one of them (without alcohol) came in at over $100. Andres is a great talent but, in a less well-off town, food like his might actually be more widespread.

Do you agree? Are deep-pocketed Washingtonians stifling the city's gustatory development?

Photo by Tamorlan/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

  • Eric

    I've been to all these cities, and I would have to disagree. Portland is neat and all, and there are "some" cool places, but there is not enough choice and diversity in towns like Portland, savannah, etc, its simply not large enough. The only ones better than DC IMHO are NY, LA, SF and Chicago. The diversity and choices simply outmatch any other places.

  • the other JQC

    There seems to be a dearth of yummy, accessible, uncompromised food/dining options in DC proper. I think it's a consequence of the lack of a true working class consciousness here that leads to hyper-bourgitized interpretations that are overpriced and often underwhelming.

  • daniel

    There is PLENTY of good "poor people" food in the DC region. There is Salvadorean food, Ethiopian food, Authentic Mexican, Authentic Vietnamese, Peruvian, Bolivian, etc.

    DC Proper has very little of this kind of good affordable ethnic food, that is true. You have to go into Northern VA or Montgomery and Prince George's County in MD

  • JustMe

    I mostly agree with daniel's assessment: this is a combination of the fact that much of the good ethnic food is in the suburbs, as well as the fact that DC, structurally and legally, does not allow for many restaurants outside of a few high-priced commercial areas. There are plenty of people with low incomes in DC, but wasn't it recently reported that the Anacostia neighborhood only NOW got its first sit-down restaurant?

  • the other JQC

    ..."DC, structurally and legally, does not allow for many restaurants outside of a few high-priced commercial areas".

    JustMe, is that true? What are the legal and structural barriers that leads to the lack of "poor people" food in DC?

    I also find it interesting how when discussing "poor people" food it automatically means "ethnic" cuisine in this area. Even the burgers are bourgie here.

  • monkeyrotica

    Suprise! You get rid of the bluecollar neighborhoods, all the bluecollar food disappears. You want cheap ethnic, you go to the suburbs because that's where that ethnicity lives. Maybe next time you'll think about that before you drive all the Irish out of Swampoodle!

  • monkeyrotica

    Also, you're not going to get cheap food without cheap rents. How many $2 tacos do you have to sell to afford a tacqueria downtown? Why do you think halfsmokes at Bens are $8, and THEY got a tax break.

  • Ant

    monkeyrotica - Ben's owns that building and has for years

  • LongRantButReallyWondering

    I definitely have been coming to this conclusion lately. We live around the convention center and there are not a whole lot of options (yes there are a select few) where you can have a dinner for two (without drinks) under $30. Many of the places where I can pull this off are no table service (e.g. Merzi, C or during happy hour for limited items (e.g. Ellas pizza).

    I had been noticing this issue recently after a blog post on The Triangle blog mentioned it and then it hit home last night when we went to try out Pi during a non-happy hour time. I thought was somewhat outrageously priced for a pizza place (The only pinot noir was priced at $13 a glass, SMALL pizza at $17, order of wings $10). For these prices, I expected out of this world and didn't really feel like the place was at that level.

    Don't get me wrong-- I have no problem with dropping a $100 or more on a nice meal maybe once a week; however, if I am going to be paying for entrees that are $20 (like many of the places opening in DC), I would rather go to somewhere like Central.

    Furthermore, I think there are many people that (including myself) that cannot afford to pay for $20 entrees 3-4 times per week, like we would like to go out for.

    Where are the little small businesses where you can pop in and get great fresh simple food for around $10? Have I lost my mind or is the price or real estate so high in DC that that's not an option?

    Here comes the dreaded NY comparison: When I was recently up there (have visited many times over the years) some of my friends that live there were warning me about how outrageous prices were for cocktails for the dinner we were meeting them for at a very nice place in the city. Upon arrival I was surprised because I generally felt they were actually less expensive (around $10) than many of the places in DC. There are a also a million (exaggerating here) diners in NYC where you can grab pretty much whatever you want for under $10.

    I have lived here for about 8 years so I am used to the pricing, but, I can't help and wonder about why there are so little options for inexpensive sit down food. We just came back from Europe and every 3rd door has a tasty small local hole in the wall. I think I must just be oblivious about the expenses required for maintaining a restaurant but why can't there be more places where you can grab a glass of wine, some pasta or chicken or a nice salad or (name your entree here) for $15... Same thing for diner options... Where are all the places that I can walk in and get a coffee, 2 eggs and toast for $8?

    I am not saying they don't exist (thinking of examples like Bistro Italiano 320 D St. or El Rinconcito Cafe on 1129 11th Street or for breakfast the now Lincoln's Waffle Shop at 504 10th St.). I am just legitimately wondering why there are not more of them... Is it just not a profitable business model or can businesses charge more and want to do more upscale food? Can everyone in DC afford these prices on a regular basis (I would think not)? Or, do people only want to drop money to eat out when they are expected fairly high quality food? Or, are the prices because of tourists and visitors on business?

  • LongRantButReallyWondering

    Okay-- During the time it took for me to type my rant, maybe the questions were already answered... but still curious...

  • Ant

    Many of these new venues that have opened up in recent years have investors and banks to pay back thus the higher prices of food and drink. The thing I find annoying is that they charge these inflated price for mediocre and uninspiring food

  • anon

    I blame it more on herd mentality and the pop culture cult worship of chefs and culinary culture. It's not so hard to prepare your own damn food. Really -- a little practice and you can make good food at a small fraction of the price. Maybe not transcendent, but maybe so. And how often do you genuinely get a transcendent meal out? You can splurge on high quality ingredients. Choose healthier options, especially consuming in more moderation. Buy good wine that fits your budget without an obscene (albeit somewhat necessary) markup. The cost margins for restaurants are tight.

    People are just too into the 'food scene'. It's so old.It's not about money -- it's about social currency, which sees inflation here much like incomes.a

  • RT

    That list is absurd. I'm surprised you're giving one of these ridiculous "lists" any credence.

    And to answer the your question: no, quite the opposite. It's why we are able to have new restaurants literally opening every day. The city is light-years ahead of when it was mostly a slum when I was growing up.

  • Citizen Sane

    I really don't see this as a viable excuse. This was obviously an overlook if not a deliberate snub. Every other list I've looked at before had DC squarely in the top 10. I, personally, would place it in the top 5. Whoever put together this list is obviously a pedantic rube

  • tina

    What DC does Mr. Lehrer live in?? It's offensively ignorant to call DC a wealthy people city. Get out of NW and look around?! Money alone can't be the explanation. I agree with those who note that some fantastic food is in the surrounding suburbs.

  • Alex

    A place like Ted's Bulliten tells you all you need to know about how stifled the DC dining scene really is. I was excited when they announced a diner style restaraunt coming to Barricks Row. Finally, I thought, there are choices on Capitol Hill beyond standard bar food dogs and popeyes fried chicken. Finally, a place where the rest of us can pop in and be able to afford a dinner when we don't feel like cooking.

    Then they opened and the dinner menu had them charging $16 for mediocre meatloaf and dried out chicken. I have not been back since.

  • GoonieGooGoo

    disagree completely....and the fact that DC has been left off the list is idiotic at best.

    Cheap food does not equal food revolutions....lets be honest....Good Food = Good Food anywhere.

  • Chris

    The main problem is that DC is such a 9-5 commuter town. We have a massive downtown office district that rivals Chicago and yet a relatively small residential population. As a result, the food is aimed at the business lunch/destination dinner crowd. DC has some nice residential restaurant rows , but they're far less numerous than in larger cities like NYC, Chi, or even SF. Plus, DC lacks the immigrant neighborhoods that you find in those cities.

    Immagine if you took Chicago's Loop or the financial district of Manhattan and placed it in Baltimore. That's basically the DC conundrum.