Roast of the Town: Why Are We So Touchy About D.C. Becoming a Great Food City?
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.
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Photo of Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market by Jessica Sidman