Young and Hungry

Roast of the Town: Why Are We So Touchy About D.C. Becoming a Great Food City?

It’s no secret that everyone loves to hate Washington. We’re used to insults:  “a city running on exploitation,” “District of Crapola,” a place akin to the Capitol in The Hunger Games.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.

To really get under Washingtonians’ skin, you have to talk smack about our food. You think our pizza is subpar? Screw you! No restaurant diversity? Let me lay out a multiparagraph argument to prove you wrong.

Some cities are smug in their culinary achievements: New York needs no validation for its bagels, nor does Los Angeles need confirmation of its delicious range of Korean or Mexican food. But Washingtonians are filled with either self-loathing or angst when it comes to our restaurants and foodstuffs. It’s not enough for D.C. to simply be a great food city; it needs to be recognized as one.

All this became painfully evident last week when the opening lines of a New York Times review of This Town, Mark Leibovich’s takedown of Beltway insiders, casually attacked the “utter inability of a metropolitan area of 6.9 million people to produce a single decent slice of pizza or a passable submarine sandwich with oil and not mayonnaise.” Outrage ensued: The Washington Post published a list of D.C.’s top pizzerias, while DCist outlined where to get a great sub. Twitter freaked.

A few days later, veteran local baker Mark Furstenberg (formerly of Marvelous Market and Breadline) twisted the knife a little deeper with a Post Magazine piece titled “What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot.” “I am not nearly as encouraged as others,” he wrote. “I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.” The blowback was some of the fiercest I’ve seen on my beat as a food reporter. Even I couldn’t resist writing a rebuttal.

But really, these are just the two latest examples of the ongoing criticisms of D.C.’s food scene and our subsequent touchiness on the subject. Conversely, when D.C.’s restaurants receive praise, we lap it up like a thirsty puppy—whether it’s Mintwood Place being named one of the world’s best new restaurants by Condé Nast Traveler, Little Serow ranking No. 7 on Bon Appetit’s list of America’s Best New Restaurants, or the Times declaring D.C. one of the world's top 46 destinations to visit in 2013 because of its "vibrant" food scene.

Forget how many charcuterie shops, locally owned markets, or James Beard Award-winning chefs reside here. The way we react to opinions, pro or con, is evidence of how far D.C.’s food scene has evolved and strives to evolve further. Talking about the particulars of the District’s food scene is, after all, one sign that food has become a mainstream part of the city’s culture. And as restaurants and bars become a point of civic pride, Washingtonians have a heightened awareness of the city’s status in the food world. But that status is still new enough to feel a little shaky; not that long ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to most foodies to even ask the question of whether D.C.’s food scene was great.

That’s because unlike New Orleans or San Francisco, which have always had rich food heritages, D.C.’s got a bad reputation to contend with. For years, the District was better known as a culinary backwater, a sleepy town filled with expense-account steakhouses and stuffy French restaurants. Ben’s Chili Bowl was the closest thing we had to an eating institution, and its charm isn’t even really about the food, delicious though a half-smoke at 2 a.m. may be. The perception that you need a corporate credit card to eat well in D.C. and that there are no risk-takers, culture, or culinary diversity here persists, however misguidedly, today. That lack of culinary heritage haunts D.C. and often overshadows the recent progress made toward forging a true food identity.

For those skeptical about whether D.C. is a “Great Food City,” there are generally two schools of thought: 1) D.C. isn’t there yet, but it has potential; and 2) there’s something intrinsic about the city and its culture, with its high rents and lack of strong food heritage, that prohibits it from ever becoming one. I don’t buy the latter. Washington is still in the early stages of the quest to culinary greatness. San Francisco? Chicago? They arrived long ago. That underdog status is a source of sensitivity, but also motivation for proving the city’s culinary chops to the outside world.

And things are changing quickly, giving us all the more reason to get defensive at the slightest snub. After all, not a week goes by that isn’t packed with restaurant openings. “Just look at 14th Street NW!” we proclaim, with its dozen new eating and drinking establishments since the beginning of the year and a dozen more still to come. You could look at this explosion and the way people hoard Friday-night dinner reservations like precious gold and see a trend-obsessed Boomtown. But that outlook overshadows the quality destinations, the way the city is making restaurants, food, and booze a higher priority, and residents who are passionate about what they consume.

Even among a burgeoning population of foodies, many people who live and work in D.C. often don’t realize what’s here because so much of it is so new. I don’t blame them; full-time food writers can barely keep up with all the city’s additions. I’m amazed how often I meet people who’ve never been to—or never heard of—Union Market. Even fewer have heard of Union Kitchen, a food incubator and professional kitchen space that is helping entrepreneurs—from charcuterie makers to food truck operators to bakers—get their start. It’s one of the most significant, yet under-the-radar new resources for bringing artisans (in the true sense of the word, before McDonald’s co-opted it) and diverse foods to D.C.

That food diversity—high-end to low-budget and a variety of cuisines—is one of the great hallmarks of iconic food cities. But the way the suburbs are so often amputated from the city in discussing our local dining options might keep the area from getting the credit it deserves. The region has an impressive selection of Korean restaurants in Annandale, Vietnamese in Falls Church, Chinese in Rockville, and Peruvian and Salvadoran throughout Montgomery County within relatively short driving distance of downtown D.C. (not to mention, of course, some of the country’s best Ethiopian food within city limits). The suburbs, though, often aren’t included in considerations of the food scene, but rather seen as outside it. If you’re comparing cities, though, the District is at a disadvantage in its geographical size, population volume, and density. The entire Washington metropolitan area—’burbs included—is the size of some other cities, which require just as much driving to get to ethnic food hotspots.

Of course, you could argue that comparing D.C. to cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York makes no sense anyway; each is so different. But no matter how you rate the local food scene, everyone is hell-bent on making the comparisons anyway. In these days of celebrity chefs, food blogs, and reality cooking shows, a city’s restaurants and chefs are akin to its football team. Sizing up the competition and smack talk are unavoidable, and the New York Times isn’t likely to let up on its lazy insults or associations between Washington politics and restaurants just yet.

D.C. is not yet at the point where people stop fixating on the old and easy stereotypes, quit dismissing the new as trendy, embrace the ’burbs, or laugh at the barbs. But these days, the District is one of the fastest-growing food towns in the country; it’s only a matter of time before we’re smug enough to simply roll our eyes and dust off our shoulders.

In the meantime, D.C.’s food scene still needs defending. I look forward to the day—sometime in the near future—when it doesn’t.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to

Photo of Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market by Jessica Sidman

  • Dno

    I've been in NY all week. When I ask friends where to eat something good and new, they point me to doughnut shops. There are some very good restaurants in the West Village and elsewhere but Midtown is a vast culinary wasteland and Uptown is meh. Trust me, we need to get over the inferiority complex.

  • CookInDineOut

    Thank you for another thoughtful take on this ongoing discussion. I agree with you that food diversity is one of D.C.'s key strengths in defending its reputation as a great food city--one I thought Furstenberg didn't adequately acknowledge. I also agree with Dno. There is a lot of amazing food in New York, but the city on a whole can get overrated easily. Midtown is a wasteland unless you can afford to eat in places like Per Se or Le Bernardin (places I've never been but are famously good). Except for a few exceptions, all my recent memorable New York meals have been eaten below 34th Street. On my last trip there, my three dinners were a a lot of fun, very interesting, and quite disappointing, respectively (and my very disappointing one was eaten in, no surprise, midtown). A mix of experiences no different from what I often see here at home in D.C.

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  • Ben

    Well stated, and I largely agree. As i stated in a comment last week, DC has much more going for it than many within it or outside of it care to give it credit for. Also, I'll echo Dno's comment: yes, some of the best restaurants in the country are in NY, and yes they have a tremendously diverse food scene. But there is also a significant amount of mediocrity and over-hyped establishments. If Furstenburg finds downtown DC depressing, I can only imagine what he thinks of Midtown.

    One minor counterpoint to what you wrote above (since this is the Internet, after all): you note correctly that DC is at a disadvantage to places like LA, Chicago and New York in terms of being considered a great food city, which there is some truth to. Places that are within the city limits of Chicago might be in the DC-area equivalent of Gaithersburg. Places like Annadale, Rockville and Wheaton would fall within the city limits of a Chicago or Los Angeles. But the same isn't true for cities like San Francisco and New Orleans (or Boston, for that matter). Those are all relatively small cities that, yes, do have more established food cultures. It is what it is.

    I do wish critics would stop thinking of Rockville or Wheaton as the equivalent of Siberia and something you'd need to pack water for your journey to. It's a 25 minute subway ride from downtown DC to either destination. Sure, it's a different municipality and it's got a very different feel than central DC's density, but it's not Fairbanks, AK. The next time you're staring down a 2 hour wait at Toki Underground, hop on the Red Line and head to Wheaton and grab a table at Ren's Ramen. Cheaper, non-pretentious and no wait!

  • JT

    art of the issue is there are competing ideas as to what makes a city a great food city. For some, it's a city that has a long, culinary heritage that is reflected in it's local cuisine, institutions and food markets. For others, it's a city where there is a great quantity of restaurants, even if there is a sacrifice of quality. Others will have a personal definition that may combine these two or

    I think the DC scene has potential. But it's anything but great in its current state. However, I can understand why some Washington residents may feel offended. I grew up in DC. I was here long before it was cool to hang out on 14th. I've noticed that the ever increasing population of young adults don't just see DC as a layover to a future destination. They want to settle down and create roots here. For them, DC is as much home as where they came from. During their time here, they have taken a certain amount of pride in the city and it's institutions, including the culinary. They find it hard to believe how anyone can take what they see as a dynamic food scene for granted for granted. Many of them have moved here from smaller cities that, compared to DC, are culinary wastelands.

    Case in point: I had dinner recently at Le Diplomate with a Meetup group. I can't say that I was deeply impressed. The food wasn't terrible. It just wasn't all that memorable. One of the members moved here from a small town in the Midwest. Another had only recently taken an interest in trying new foods. This was her first time eating at a restaurant like Le Diplomate. On the other hand, I travel to NYC frequently to dine out. On many occasions I dine at restaurants that hold Michelin stars. I could understand why my dining companions may have been more impressed than I was.

    In one of his recent chats, Todd Kliman responded to a reader who wondered if 14th St. could become the home of an upscale restaurant that offered a transcendental dining experience. In his response, Kliman mentioned that the average DC resident may demand good food and service, but they're not THAT demanding. I think Kliman is right. Whenever I walk 14th St, I notice that it's populated with a lot of young adults who are just looking for a good time. They're content as long as the food is good (not crappy) and they have a good time with their friends. It's more about the social aspect of dining, and not the dining experience itself.

    Diners in DC seems to be content with "good". They can tell you where to get a "good" slice of pizza or what restaurant has "good" sushi. Chefs like Paul Leibrandt, Grant Achatz, and Daniel Humm are not just content with good. They want to give their diners a uncommon experience, to offer them a new way to approach food. Chefs who create these kinds of establishments are not in high demand in DC.

    DC is a different city than NYC, Chicago, or San Francisco. DC is usually a trend follower, not a trendsetter. It's a city of politicians and lawyers where tradition and formality often trump creativity. As Kliman pointed out in his most recent chat, DC has a long history of leaning toward moderation in many areas, including its theater scene and sports icons. I think this same moderation is integreated into . I do not think it's impossible for DC to go from being a "good" food city to a "great" one. But, given in it's current climate, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

  • Dave

    "It's a city of politicians and lawyers where tradition and formality often trump creativity."

    There's no doubt that the federal government and corresponding regulatory regime are the main drivers of the city's economy, but the DC region is home to over 6.5 million people. There are a lot of non-politicians and non-lawyers here, and a slew of creative people. Do we have an arts and entertainment industry the way New York does? Of course not, but I think it's selling DC way short to just cast off one of teh nation's largest metropolitan areas as little more than a bunch of stuffy bureaucrats and pencil-pushing lawyers.

    Honestly, it's that mentality, rather than this ongoing debate over whether or not DC is a "food city," that irks me. It's like distilling NY down to nothing but Wall Street-types, or generalizing all Chicagoans as a bunch of hog and grain traders.

  • JT

    Thanks, Dave, for your criticism. While I'm not completely ready to change my mind, you certainly have given me reason to reconsider my argument.

  • PRP

    "DC is a different city than NYC, Chicago, or San Francisco. DC is usually a trend follower, not a trendsetter. It's a city of politicians and lawyers where tradition and formality often trump creativity" This probably the biggest problem with the DC food scene and why it does not get credit. There are too many sub par foodies and chainy restaurants that may start out good, but do not hold court long enough. Plus people in DC are cheap and there is not a balance between high, middle and low end that are really good choices for all income brackets.

  • Joe

    Why do you give a rat's what the NYTimes thinks about our food? No one I know that lives here has a complex about this the way media folks seem to, probably because it's way more interesting to actually go out and enjoy all the good food in DC than to sit at home getting my shorts in a knot about how someone who doesn't live here and knows nothing about the city doesn't think it's a cool place.

  • JT

    PRP: You make an excellent point. NYC has Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. Chicago has Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy. SoCal has Thomas Keller and Christopher Kostow. What does DC have? Well, if we're lucky we get a franchise restaurant with their name on it. I don't want to be misunderstood. I'm sure the food at Boulud's upcoming DBGB outlet at CityCenter will be good. But I'm not expecting it to be of the calibre that I would find at his flagship restaurant in NYC. I'm just disappointed that DC diners seem to be satisfied with "good" when we could be demanding something great.

  • A Nonie Muss

    "They find it hard to believe how anyone can take what they see as a dynamic food scene for granted for granted. Many of them have moved here from smaller cities that, compared to DC, are culinary wastelands."

    JT nailed it. This is a city of bar food and happy hours.

  • Dave

    "NYC has Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. Chicago has Grant Achatz and Curtis Duffy. SoCal has Thomas Keller and Christopher Kostow. What does DC have?"

    Well, DC has Michel Richard, Johnny Monis, Jose Andres, RJ Cooper, Frederick De Pue, Fabio Trabocchi...

    This is my point. If Johnny Monis were turning out his dishes at Komi in New York, people would be raving. Instead, he and other top-tier chefs' work gets discredited because they're cooking in a city that some think of as doing nothing but churning out bar food.

    And while he's not in DC proper, I challenge anyone to find a chef that has done more to maintain as superbly high standard of quality for as long a period of time as Patrick O'Connell has done at The Inn.

    Again: is DC's food scene operating at the level of a NY or Chicago? No, not yet. But stating that the city is nothing but "bar food and happy hours" is an absurdly hyperbolic statement.

  • T

    Answer: because DC is touchy about EVERYTHING -- least laid-back city in the U.S.

  • tomaj

    I grow a bit tired of this debate when it's so limited to the DC defenders saying "We're a great food city because of this certain place, and this place, and just look at this bakery, and this cheese shop, and this restaurant". The good point Furstenberg made in his article is that DC has money and that's why people like Wolfgang Puck and Todd English and the various food groups come to town. DC now is somewhat comparable to Las Vegas, also a place with some great restaurants, but because they're after the money, not for the local food culture.

    Also, every comparison has been to other U.S. cities. The idea of DC having a food culture is laughable once you step outside the U.S. Every time someone visits places like Italy, Spain, France, Taiwan, Thailand, et al, the difference between them, a real food culture, and us is so obvious. A food culture (and a great food city) is not about following Top Chef stars; it's whether an average neighborhood has really good stuff, not as a special occasion, not something that you always have to go completely outside your ethnic group to experience, but as a norm, something people take for granted. A few token bakeries, when 99% of the people buy their bread at Giant and such, is not a food city.

    Another sign we're not a great food city is that we take those humble, wonderful things like ramen and banh mi and we try to make then trendy fusion fare that doubles the price and changes the formula. Our food trucks, which should be cheap, cost more than restaurants and the food is a mess. Our solution to cheap Asian food is Chipotle-style "fast-casual" assembly lines. We fixate on the cocktails at a new place way too much, instead of the food. We'll happily pay $14 for a small plate of trendy food we don't really understand, when we should be demanding a $4 small plate of good food, they way they were supposed to be, and should be thinking of it as our right.

  • name

    Good mid entry restaurants that develop into great restaurants own their own properties. There's an egregious amount of rent seeking squatters in DC happy to let potential buildings sit derelict to maintain prices or drive out good restaurants for the latest bar.

    "Bars" don't pay their full taxes and drive up the commercial real estate prices. We had amazing food diversity in Adam's Morgan in the 90's and all the restaurants got eaten up by bar owners slinging bud light.

    The same reason we have such poor street level retail is the same reason we have poor selection of good rising restaurants.

    It's the economics stupid.

  • name2

    If by 'great food city' we mean the best that money can buy, DC isn't far off. If we mean a good place for normal people to interact with a unique culinary identity, then DC is not even close.

  • iamDC-theward8great!

    It's Touchy because No one I Mean No One Claims DC. Of all the Top Toques in the city who's Claiming DC??? Jose? He's been here for a long time but he's not from here, Richard?? Started in LA came to DC, Cooper?the mid west a Chicago guy,Fabio please he jumped ship as soon as he got his JB,until I open my Spot in 2015 there I'm from DC born and Raised in DC saw the transformation of DC into a Food Destination it's why choose to build my Culinary Career Here. The general DC residents That are going out to eat aren't from DC if the Chef can't identify with the culture neither can the guest

  • The Java Master

    The whole debate is complete bullshit. Fact is, most of these new restaurants do not appeal to me, they are expensive, the food sucks, period. Food diversity? Ego-stuffed chefs? Food critics? Who gives a shit. Most of us do not.

  • Rich

    The article sounds so small town defesive. Yes, DC and the DC area has more variety and better options than say 20 years ago, but it's also a place where people anxiously awaited a branch of Atlanta's least objectionable pizza chain. The deli scene is amenic and it's difficult to find a good old school bakery. DC has a way to go and reminding readers how whiney DCers can be doesn't help.