What’s So Great About D.C.’s Food Scene? A Lot.
For all its progress, D.C.'s food scene just can't get any respect.
The New York Times has made a hobby out of dissing our culinary culture (no decent pizza or sub sandwiches, eh?) and expressing shock at anything that doesn't require an expense account. I also don't think the Times is capable of writing a story about Washington restaurants that doesn't mention politics and lobbyists in the same breath.
Now one of our own is throwing some jabs. In case you haven't read it, longtime D.C. baker Mark Furstenberg (formerly of Marvelous Market and Breadline) published a lengthy piece in the Washington Post (it's online today, and will be in Sunday's Post Magazine) entitled "What's missing from D.C.'s food scene? A lot."
"I am not nearly as encouraged as others," he writes. "I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture."
I have a lot of respect for Furstenberg and his contributions to the food scene, but his piece does not give D.C. the credit it deserves. It repeats old tropes about how characterless and pricey Washington is, while dismissing or skimming over the many, many exceptions.
Yes, Furstenberg makes some well-observed points about how high rents prohibit small businesses from opening up shop in certain neighborhoods and how the District lacks a long foodie lineage. It's true that D.C. doesn't have a food history the way New Orleans or San Francisco do, but that doesn't mean Washington can't (or hasn't already started to) forge its own food identity. In fact, the artisans, small markets, and neighborhood eateries that are supposedly lacking are in fact growing in droves.
Want a great small locally owned food market? Try Glen's Garden Market, Seasonal Pantry, Smucker Farms, Cork Market, Hana Japanese Market, and Pleasant Pops Farmhouse Market & Cafe, not to mention the forthcoming Each Peach Market or even Little Red Fox (coincidentally where Furstenberg's Marvelous Market used to be). Butchers? How about Red Apron, which is opening multiple locations, and Three Little Pigs? Coffee roasters? Don't forget Qualia, M.E. Swing Coffee Roasters, and Vigilante.
I'm sure I'm forgetting others, and this is just the beginning. Also not to be ignored are the many small artisans and food entrepreneurs without storefronts—from DC Patisserie to Capital Kombucha to Cured DC—who are showing up in restaurants, farmers markets, and grocery store shelves. Food incubators like Union Kitchen, StartUp Kitchen, and forthcoming EatsPlace are nurturing dozens of these blossoming food businesses. Pop-ups, as annoying as the term may be, are also making it possible for would-be restaurateurs who can't afford those insane rents to get their starts. They're also making the dining scene far more diverse.
Speaking of which, if you think D.C. doesn't have a diverse restaurant culture, I suggest you take a look at Washington City Paper's recent Food Issue featuring 50 must-try dishes, which encompass a huge range of cultures—Japanese food, Thai, Laotian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Greek, Mexican, Italian, American, Belgian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Salvadoran, and French.
Furstenberg is right in that many of the best ethnic food joints are in the suburbs, but the entire Washington metropolitan area—including the 'burbs—is the size of other major cities. Los Angeles covers more than 500 square miles, whereas the District spans a little more than 68. Chances are if you're going to the suburbs to pick up your galangal and curry leaves at an Asian market, you'll be in traffic just as long as if you head to an Asian market in L.A.
And yes, we have chains and out-of-town restaurant groups infiltrating the District, but that's not always a bad thing. After all, Post critic Tom Sietsema did give Le Diplomate three stars. Many of these large restaurant groups with "absentee chefs" are also heading for supposedly superior food cities like San Francisco and Chicago. Sure, downtown Washington can seem depressing amid the Starbucks and Potbellys. But have you been to downtown Los Angeles? It's not much better. Downtown office areas rarely represent a city's culinary offerings.
I also have to take issue with the way Furstenberg dismisses Washington's booze scene. "My criteria for great food cities don't include bars presided over by 'mixologists,' a gussied-up term for bartender created to justify an $18 cocktail," he writes.
Trust me, if anyone is exhausted by cocktail gimmickry, it's me. I've written more stories than I can count about the absurd new levels of hand-carved ice "programs," drinks that cost more than entrees, and "speakeasies" that force you to text for a reservation. But great eating cities are also great drinking cities, and Washington bartenders, ahem, mixologists deserve some respect for pushing their craft the way chefs do. Yeah, Barmini has a $25 cocktail, but it also has a $10 cocktail—and the drinks are fucking great.
Plus, Furstenberg's piece also conveniently excludes any mention of Washington's burgeoning beer scene. We've got three new production breweries—DC Brau, Chocolate City Beer, 3 Stars Brewing Company—plus a couple more on the way. (Not to mention brewpubs like Bluejacket, Right Proper, and Bardo.) The Post itself just published an entire story on how D.C.'s beer scene is "close to greatness."
But perhaps Furstenberg's worst insult is left for you, the diners of D.C. "Most of all, however, Washington needs more discerning customers who care less about being first to go to each new restaurant than about the quality of the food they are served," he writes.
Heaven forbid people should get excited about new restaurants and want to check them out. But that doesn't mean they're not discerning. I'd argue that in an age where everyone's a foodie, every restaurant, new and old, is constantly being dissected and picked apart. Have you read Yelp?
Photo by Darrow Montgomery