Young and Hungry

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

  • http://reticulum.us/ Jarett

    Amen. We're even finally developing a coffee culture here (slowly but surely). You can't have this many people in one place who love quality everything and not eventually end up with awesome.

  • BW

    Furstenberg is spot on in regards to DC largely lacking in locally owned, or non-mega chain grocers - the one point he made that I haven't seen anyone else bring up before.

    The places Jessica mentions in defense are very nice places but you'd be hard pressed to mistake any one of them for Draegers, Berkeley Bowl, or Caputos just to name a few. The couple places DC has are very boutiquey, and not serious about being actual grocers. For example, I once spoke with the owner of one of the markets you mention who admitted he carried produce largely for show.

    Glen's seems to be the closest to the grocer a great food city has, and even that place is lacking. The best comparison I can think of is Bi-Rite which does ten times more with a smaller space. But I guess it's a start.

  • BW

    Also, what seems to be getting lost, is his thesis, which I think is valid, was that DC is not a great food city. Sorry, it isn't.

    That's not to say there are no good restaurants, or producers of food products, or markets. There obviously are, and you named some great examples, JS. But that wasn't his argument.

  • Mario

    I would love to say our hometown brews are truly great but they're not; average at best. I'm not picking on them, they're relatively new and certainly have time for improvement. But compared to most craft brews out west, they're simply in a different league.
    I drove around southern San Diego county last winter and their beer is simply magical--multiple micro and even nano brewers making terrific stuff at cheap prices. Again, there's a heck of a lot more space down there than in our tiny city, but their product is unbelievable. Also, growlers are super cheap; something that will never happen here I suspect.

  • Andrew

    The link to the 50 must-try dishes doesn't work

    (Also I agree!)

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @Andrew Link fixed, thanks for catching!

  • Chris

    It struck me how recent most of he places Jessica are, and that they are only a handful that are few and far between (to add to the other handful that Furstenburg mentions). Not a very convincing rebuttal to me.

    I'm very happy that we are on our way to "great", but to say we are already there... (instead of just a "good" and getting better food city) I dunno. DC just cannot compare to a great food city like SF (I say this as a native of DC and it pains me to do so). Can anyone make that case? I don't think so.

    "Close to greatness" gets it right for both the food and the beer here, though I would qualify that as "sorta close". I love what DC Brau, 3 Stars, and Port City are doing, and we have some great beer bars like Churchkey and Meridian Pint, but as Mario mentions, have people been to San Diego (or even Asheville, Portland or Philadelphia)? Dear god... the good, fresh beer flows like water out there. I didn't want to leave the last time I was there. There's no comparison between a great beer city like that and us.

    Let's not rush the "great" talk with DC, but we are getting there and it's an exciting time.

  • courtney

    So DC is just as good as LA? That's what I get from this article. As a recent transplant from St. Louis, the DC food scene makes me ill with homesickness. I imagine it's hard for a city to overcome the challenges of high rents, a transient community, and fashion-over-form values. I haven't given up yet. I'm hopeful there are treasures to be discovered. But if you're just stacking yourself up to LA, you're looking in the wrong places. The local breweries, the creative & classic cocktails, artisan charcuteries, Asian groceries, ethnic restaurants, farmers markets, (free) food publications, these things need an educated, engaged, dedicated, and supportive community to survive. In St. Louis we have it all, and for a song. DC has a job scene, not a food scene. And I'm thankful for that, but it is a foil to a good food scene. Like so many others, I came here to work. I go home to eat & drink like royalty. And if you're looking for inspiration & a model, you'd be remiss to overlook the vibrant food scenes of my beloved Midwest.

  • Jacob

    Wow. That diversity paragraph was a huge missed opportunity. Can you guess what one word was glaringly absent from this whole article?

    ETHIOPIAN.

    How can you spend a whole article trying to talk about what's great and special about DC food and fail to mention an amazing cuisine and population that has made DC its home unlike any other American city? It'd be like trying to talk about how favorably Chicago compares with NYC or LA and leaving out the rich diversity of Polish places. (At least Salvadoran cuisine got a mention, but come on!)

  • Jacob

    I should add that when out-of-town friends come to visit DC, they don't want to go to Central Michel Richard or Indique or Jaleo. They want to hit up Meskerem or Shagga or Queen of Sheba. Why? Because you can get fancy French or Indian food or "small plates" in other cities, but Ethiopian is a unique and special thing that they associate with DC.

  • http://www.YFGF.us Thomas Cizauskas

    Come on, now. This is ridiculous. Not to make light of the three planned brewpubs, but, really, why no mention of brewpubs that are actually brewing RIGHT NOW like Gordon-Biersch with masterful brewers Scott Lassiter and Travis Tedrow, and District Chophouse with Barret Lauer? Shame on you.

  • viss1

    The main problem with comparing DC to NY or LA or Chicago is that DC is freaking tiny. Those larger cities have their share of mediocre restaurants and breweries. DC's overhyped eateries just stand out more because they make up a larger percentage.

    I'm not a DC apologist - the city definitely has its share of sucker-joints - but let's not pretend every "acclaimed" restaurant and bar in the trend-setting cities is awesome.

  • drez

    Furstenberg's piece is spot on regarding land use and small businesses.
    DC's food scene has come along nicely since I started eating here back in the '70s.
    But really the most praise it deserves is that it's come far enough that we can begin arguing about whether it's great.
    It could be much much better, and Furstenberg does a good job pointing the way.

    Rather than foodies arguing with foodies, why not bring in people like Richard Layman, Aaron Weiner, and others?

  • 202foodist

    DC is full of people just looking for that high paying powerful job on K street, capitol hill, etc.

    DC does not attract creative people.

    Creative people are the ones who make great food towns.

    DC will always be a city trying to be something that it's not and never will never be.

  • Alger

    DC is not a great food city, pure and simple. That is an assessment I can make having lived and eaten in many mid-size cities around the US, all of which had better and less pricey food.
    Even the venues serving regional cuisine are marked by poor service, uninteresting choices, cleanliness issues, high prices, and just poor tasting food.
    In part, I blame the take out culture of the majority of residents. When fast food is not available, the preferred alternate is bar food. It's like living in a dorm.

    What DC needs is a dedicated food district where the city gives breaks and incentives to local restauranteurs with a commitment to quality and diversity. Look to the successes of cities that have tried this in marginal neighborhoods and seen those locations become destinations (Minneapolis and Providence for example) If you build it, they will come.

  • BullsFan1996

    You get beyond Ethiopian and a few other (mostly suburban) spots and DC food is over-rated and expensive -- Furstenburg hit the mail on the head.

    A few points w/r/t/ this response:

    1) It does come down to the diners in this town, largely overpaid and under-cultured, who rush in the front door of X, Y and Z crap restaurant or "locally sourced" place on 14th or H NE. What happens when this happens? We end up with more of the same.

    And we're kidding ourselves if we accept this as culture. Le Diplomate probably doesn't turn into Balthazar until at least the 5th or 6th gin.

    I'd add to this: the number of tart yogurt, cupcake and doughnut places in this city. Pick a trend, any trend!

    2) Compare any US city to downtown LA and you'll come out ahead.

    3) The exception? Rasika. That place is world class. Way too expensive, but world class.

  • Nunya Bizness
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  • anon

    Good to see Mark Furstenberg as cranky as ever. I miss his pained scowl back when I used to frequent breadline . . . when it was worth frequenting.

    My takeway -- there's a difference between market food culture and restaurant food culture. They're not synonymous. I'd like to see a better food market culture in DC proper mostly for ethnic foods. Eating at restaurants is mostly for people who want food prepared by other peoples' hands (and often less healthfully).

  • incredulous

    Um. To hold size constant: Compare to Portland, OR, land of 750 registered food carts?

    But, PDX has almost no Old (European) World cuisine. And the good Asian restaurants are 4-8 miles outside of downtown, where land is cheap and housing scruffy (to the East) or where Asian-born or second generation engineers working for Intel live (Beaverton - Hillsboro).

    Then there's the creativity of making ersatz gluten-free raised baked goods......

  • Dave

    "DC does not attract creative people. "

    Speak for yourself.

  • Dave

    I'm sensing from a lot of people a hesitancy to give DC the props it deserves in the food realm. Are we a "great food city"? If by that question you mean to we compare with places like SF, NY and Chicago, then no.

    But, my goodness can you eat well here. You can eat very, very well. A commenter a few up from me called Rasika the "exception". I love Rasika, but to state that it's the only "exceptional" restaurant in the city is just patently absurd. I've spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time in cities like Ny, Chicago and SF, and I've had some spectacular meals, and I've had some very mediocre ones. I've also had meals in a number of restaurants in and around DC that compare every bit as favorably with ones I have had in those cities.

    Further, DC's suburbs are getting significantly shortchanged here. Let's not forget that Montgomery County is one of the most diverse places in the country; and Fairfax is up there too. How many of you claiming that there aren't good, cheap ethnic eats beyond Ethiopian have ever ventured to Rockville for dim sum? Or to Wheaton for ramen or Korean? How many have ventured into NoVa for Vietnamese? Who's been to Yekta for outstanding Persian food? And on and on.

    DC doesn't compete with the likes of a NY or SF--yet. But it's not an either/or proposition. Some of Fursternburg's points are spot-on, and others here have added good points of their own. But the food scene in DC is very, very good--perhaps not first-tier in the U.S., but settling in very nicely among a respectable group of second-tier food cities. And it absolutely deserves recognition for that. Must of Furstenburg's complaints simply sound like sour grapes.

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  • drez

    @ Dave From must comes grappa.
    Lets grapple with the things that keep DC from being as good as it could be.
    Rather than dismissing must as just sour grapes.

  • Bac

    "Trust me, if anyone is exhausted by cocktail gimmickry, it's me."

    BS.

    Google mixologist and Jessica Sidman.

    You PROMOTE this nonsense where bartenders are mixologists and restaurants are "eateries":

    Elisir Hires Former Shaw’s Tavern Mixologist

    W Hotel Mixologist Launches Artisan Ice Business

    Last Night’s Leftovers: Mixology Rap Edition

    We All Scream for Egg Creams
    Posted by Jessica Sidman on Jan. 10, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Old school egg creams are making a comeback. At least three new eateries, including DGS Delicatessen and Farmers Fishers Bakers, offer the New York soda shop classic. In particular, mixologist Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen in Union Market has gone to great lengths to perfect the drink, even bringing in a custom soda machine [...]

    Hank’s Dranks: An Annotated Menu
    Posted by Jessica Sidman on Aug. 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Mixologist Gina Chersevani uses some unusual techniques and ingredients on the cocktail menu at the new Hank's Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill. Here's a breakdown: Graphic by Brooke Hatfield

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @Bac Yeah, it's my job to write about mixology and booze trends as well as restaurants. So?

  • Bac

    "Rather than foodies arguing with foodies, why not bring in people like Richard Layman, Aaron Weiner, and others?"

    Because they don't have good taste.

  • Bac

    "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."

    Don't poo poo his central point! That is the starting point, the middle point and the end point - it is WHY we can't maintain good food here! And it seems you agree. Except, you don't. ?

    The problem with using terms or changing perfectly good terms like bartender to mixologist and restaurant to the gag-inducing eatery is that it over COMMODIFIES food, makes it more precious and drives the price up. Again, the central point is that it's all tied to the overvaluation of real estate, so a bar whose rent has gone up a lot somehow must now have mixologists instead of bartenders. You are just playing your part.

    Instead of a search for good cooks we have a search for trendy eateries. It's that simple.

    "It's true that D.C. doesn't have a food history the way New Orleans or San Francisco do"

    Maybe not. But we have had some good good places, that have become traditions, but they get PRICED OUT.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman
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  • Boozehound

    I don't exactly know what it means to be a "world-class" food city, but I can tell you this, compared a LOT of the country, we have incredible dining options. Speaking as someone who has NOT lived for considerable periods in NYC, Chicago, LA, San Fran, or Portland, but grew up moving to various small towns in NC, GA, and Fla., I can tell you that DC beats the pants off of what most folks in this country have in terms of restaurants, grocers, and local artisan foods. Seriously, you think DC is bad? Try living in Jacksonville, Fla., or New Bern, NC, or how about Statesville, Ga.? Try Greensboro, NC on for size, or perhaps Columbia, SC. The majority of folks in the majority of towns and cities in this country would be blown away by the food choices here. Hell, some of the places I've stayed at had one grocery store, one locally owned diner (which was bad) and a dozen chains....THAT was your food scene. Yeah, DC is over-priced, and often underwhelming given the cost (I'd actually include Rasika high on that list BTW) but do you people know how bad it is in most of the country? Rather than knit-pick about how we stand up to San Fran or NYC, think about how lucky you are to even have a food "scene" to grumble about. The notion that DC is filled with pretentious, spoiled 1% urbanites who have no clue what it's like for the "everyday" American outside the Beltway is certainly backed up by nearly every comment made in this oh-so-passionate debate about our place as a world-class food city.

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