D.C. as seen on TV: Meeting the city through the lens of food and travel shows

November 27, 2013

Blame it on the cupcakes.

When two sisters who opened a little cupcake shop in Georgetown made it bigTLC big — people lined up all the way down 33rd Street, even in 90-degree heat. Fans planned their vacations around eating the treats they had seen on television.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time a Washington institution had been featured on reality or documentary programming for the food-, cooking- and travel-themed networks filling countless Americans’ DVRs, sucking you in with their marathons until — whoops, there goes the afternoon. But after the premiere of “DC Cupcakes,” that was probably when some of your out-of-town friends and family decided there was food worth lining up for — after all, they’d seen it on TV.

You might be baffled as to why your cousins are more interested in heading to a greasy suburban diner than, say, Le Diplomate, but there’s a simple explanation: The French bistro may have gotten a dazzling review from critics, but Guy Fieri wouldn’t be caught dead in it.

More than 50 area restaurants have been catalogued on TVfoodmaps.com, a fan resource for tracking down the dishes their favorite food TV stars have highlighted. The shows range from the big names — Anthony Bourdain, Rachael Ray, Fieri and “Man vs. Food” binge eater Adam Richman — to the obscure shows relegated to strange time slots. But no matter how comparatively small their audiences may be, the programs still have influence.

And TV crews are eager to check out the District’s newer restaurants. Earlier this month, a Cooking Channel crew for “Unique Sweets” was filming at GBD, the Dupont Circle fried chicken and doughnuts joint. An airdate for the episode has not been determined.

It’s not just visitors who can discover something about Washington through TV. Sometimes the shows will highlight an under-the-radar dish that even the locals might have missed. But, more than just telling guests and residents alike what to eat, food TV tells us how others view the city: as a place for junk food, for secret lobbying over whiskey in wood-paneled rooms, for leg of lamb. And perhaps most of all, for cupcakes.

From the "Bill Clinton" drink to "the best sandwich in America" only available to W Hotel guests, food shows have had quite a tall order covering the District. The Washington Post’s Maura Judkis shares some of D.C.'s best known culinary treats that you may have seen on TV. (Casey Capachi/Casey Capachi/Casey.Capachi@washpost.com)

 

Christina Martinez Byvik for the Washington Post
Christina Martinez Byvik for the Washington Post

1. Oohs & Aahhs

1005 U St. NW. 202-667-7142.

The first thing Oohs & Aahhs chef Oji Abbott added to his shrimp and grits for his appearance on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” was a little bit of cream. “I like your definition of ‘a little bit,’ ” Fieri said, as Abbott dumped a generous amount into the pot.

Three years after the U Street restaurant’s appearance on the show, the grits are still sweet and creamy and it’s one of the restaurant’s best sellers.

“We still get a lot of out-of-towners that have seen the show . . . and they put it on their list of things to do while they’re here,” Abbott says. “As soon as the show airs in a rerun, it will be instantaneous. You’ll get 20 to 30 calls during that whole weekend.”

Thanks to the publicity it has received from the Food Network, Oohs and Aahhs is expanding. Its forthcoming second restaurant, at 5929 Georgia Ave. NW, next to the soon-to-open Wal-Mart, will offer much more space than the narrow U Street kitchen, especially for locals who don’t want to elbow the food tourists for more room. The new place will lose the authentic ambiance of the original restaurant, which capitalizes on its fame by selling “Guy Ate Here” T-shirts for $25. The shrimp and grits, meanwhile, are $17.95 and made with the same recipe that Fieri enjoyed.

“You get the heat and the spiciness and the savory coming from the shrimp,” Fieri said during his visit. “And the creamy, salty texture of the grits. Y’all do it the right way.”

— Maura Judkis

2. The W Hotel

515 15th St. NW. 202-661-2400.

It was once declared one of the best sandwiches in America, but the District’s contribution to Adam Richman’s show of the same name has been sampled almost exclusively by out-of-towners. And three years after its appearance on the Travel Channel, the W has no plans to make its towering, room-service-only club sandwich available to anyone other than guests of the hotel. So unless you’re planning a staycation at the W, you’re out of luck.

It’s “kind of protected,” says Olivier Servat, the hotel’s general manager, who says it is important for the hotel to keep its restaurant, bar and room service menus distinct, in order to give guests different experiences throughout the hotel. “If you do snacks in a hotel like ours, they have to be very good.”

And it is, as far as club sandwiches go — though fans of the city’s reigning favorite sandwich joints, Fast Gourmet and Sundevich, might be confused at those restaurants’ exclusion at the sandwich’s expense. Richman discovered the $20 room service club sandwich when he stayed at the W. Here’s his rave, from the episode of “Best Sandwich in America”: “The bread is golden brown, still kind of pliable, really moist and delicious. It’s not just sliced chicken breast, it’s chicken breast that is rich, lush and full of levels of flavor. Most club sandwiches don’t have an egg or they don’t have an avocado, so the taste is completely unique.”

The club was a popular item on the room service menu even before the episode aired, says Servat, who notes that guests will mention it specifically in their online reviews of the hotel. Even though locals are missing out, they’ll soon get the next-best thing: The hotel’s POV lounge has plans to add a salmon club sandwich early next year.

— M.J.

 

3. Founding Farmers

1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-822-8783.

“The buzz has never completely gone away,” says Mary Carter, managing partner and general manager of Founding Farmers. That’s apparent even on a Monday night, when a guest without a reservation might expect to wait two hours for a table in the homey Foggy Bottom restaurant. Founding Farmers got a significant shout-out on the Food Network show “Best Thing I Ever Ate” in 2011 for its Devil-ish Eggs, a quartet of eggs that includes crab, salmon and lobster. “My favorite thing about this dish is everything,” said British chef Robert Irvine on the episode. “Eggs have never been so good.”

“We get a lot of guests because of that, and the sales of that item will increase,” Carter says. “That period usually lasts for about three months, and it does trickle down towards the end.”

The restaurant was also featured on the Food Network show “Meat & Potatoes” in 2011 for a dish that epitomizes both of those ingredients: the Yankee pot roast, served with gravy and vegetables over a bed of mashed potatoes.

Both dishes are so popular that their recipes are included in “The Founding Farmers Cookbook.”

Although Founding Farmers has become big with the tourist crowd, Carter says the restaurant isn’t catering specifically to them. “It’s still nice to have the tourist population,” Carter says, “but our locals are everything.”

— M.J.

4. Round Robin BaR AT THE WILLARD

1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-9100.

Bartender Jim Hewes can’t keep track of how many times he’s been on television. In his nearly 30 years at the historic Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel — the spot where the term “lobbyist” was coined — he’s been on network and cable, from the Tom Snyder show two decades ago to the inauguration coverage earlier this year. One outlier, though, was his bar’s 2011 appearance on “Drinking Made Easy” a show on AXS TV, hosted by comedian Zane Lamprey. In the show, Lamprey and his sidekick, Steve McKenna, accompanied by their stuffed monkey mascot, play drinking games and chug cocktails.

“I almost canceled that interview, because . . . I didn’t think it was right for our bar,” Hewes says. “We’re not that kind of place.”

But he upheld his commitment, and he’s glad he did. Although the “Drinking Made Easy” crew comes across as immature college bros, Hewes says that his experience on that show was better than with bigger networks, which occasionally treat him “like a piece of furniture . . . a set piece. I must have talked for 45 minutes, and everybody started clapping. [Lamprey] just stood back. . . . It’s their show, but they let you do their thing.”

Hewes demonstrated how to make a Mint Julep, the drink that the bar is famous for, having been introduced to it by the Great Compromiser, Sen. Henry Clay, in the 1800s. “It’s one of the most social and elegant of cocktails,” Hewes told Lamprey on the show, almost as a warning.

Still, for as many times as Hewes and the Round Robin have appeared in the media, the bar doesn’t have much buzz — and that’s intentional.

“We’re not out for notoriety and publicity,” Hewes says. “That Page 2 Style section thing — that’s not who we are.”

— M.J.

 

5. Metro 29 Diner

4711 Lee Hwy, Arlington. 703-528-2464.

Deanna Swayne knows that the out-of-towners who come into the Metro 29 Diner are there for a taste of what Guy Fieri ate in 2010 — after all, there aren’t any other real attractions in the neighborhood.

“We’re off the beaten path, we’re on Lee Highway,” says Swayne, a manager. “This is not a tourist area, but tourists will come here just because they’ve seen that show.”

Thanks to Fieri, locals and visitors alike learned about the restaurant’s homemade challah French toast, $8, which is served all day. Swayne says that on an average weekend, the diner will serve about 130 orders of the breakfast Fieri described as “dense, it’s got a little bit of sweet, great texture, creamy. . . . You gotta try it.” He even pretended to do bicep curls with the restaurant’s heavy loaves of bread.

You won’t find Fieri’s other favorite — roast leg of lamb — on the daily menu. It’s a special, and it used to be offered only one day a week. But because of the popularity of the show, it’s now available on Saturday and Sunday. Fieri, talking with his mouth full, praised the dish’s “big flavor.”

Swayne says visitors often take photos with their autographed Guy Fieri poster, but “it’s nothing to us except good business. . . . In this economy, in the last 10 years, people need boosters” like a TV appearance.

— M.J.

Guy Fieri Visits Metro 29 from ACS Creative Inc on Vimeo.

6. La Caraquena

300 W. Broad St., Falls Church.
703-533-0076

This cozy Venezuelan eatery has an extensive menu, ranging from Pabellon Criollo, a traditional entree of rice, beans and beef, to Lomo a la Plancha (a fancy name for steak, mashed potatoes and broccoli, and reserved largely for the picky eater).

When “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” came here three years ago for its “Gone Global” episode, according to chef and owner Raul Claros, the production team had him whip up about a dozen different dishes for the cameras. The edited show, however, focused largely on the Arepa Sifrina: an overstuffed Venezuelan sandwich featuring creamy avocado-and-chicken salad with kicky but not killer green salsa on the side. Business spiked about 30 percent after the episode aired, Claros says, but the place was already popular with those in the know.

The arepa — a sweet, cornmeal bun — can be ordered grilled or fried, and each style has it fierce partisans. The restaurant offers T-shirts advertising each preference, but Claros, who’s from Caracas, says the only proper way to eat an arepa, at least in his home town, is grilled.

Go ahead and order it fried, if you insist. But do not use a knife and fork, as some misguided souls have attempted. “Use your hands,” Claros says. “Ask for extra napkins.”

— Michael O’Sullivan

7. Tune Inn

331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-543-2725.

Though the Tune Inn has been featured on both “Drinking Made Easy” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” you don’t go there for the food. Or at least not only for the food. Owner Lisa Nardelli, whose late grandfather Joe opened the Capitol Hill watering hole in 1947, says the real appeal of the place is its lack of pretension. “It’s as comfortable as your living room,” she says. (This is true, if your living room is decorated with mounted deer heads, and your stereo is stuck on classic country.)

When “Triple D” host Guy Fieri visited in 2010, he ribbed longtime cook and ex-Marine Mike Tate about his stoic demeanor while preparing the Inn’s signature roast beef sandwich, one of several no-frills items originally created by the elder Nardelli to “sop up the liquor,” as his granddaughter put it. Since then, Tate has become something of a minor celebrity, according to Nardelli, with a few visitors actually requesting the chef’s autograph.

Nardelli says it’s hard to know whether more folks request that item or the “Bill Clinton,” a Tune Inn novelty cocktail featured on “Drinking Made Easy.” Combining cream and blue curacao, the drink derives its name from a provenance that can’t easily be discussed in a family newspaper. But, as Nardelli puts it, “we’re more of a beer-and-a-shot kind of place.”

— M.O.

8. Peking Gourmet Inn

6029 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church.
703-671-8088.

Food Network personality and celebrity baker Duff Goldman of Baltimore’s Charm City Cakes grew up, in part, in Northern Virginia. It’s there that he discovered Peking duck from the Peking Gourmet Inn, whose praises Goldman sang in a 2009 episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” an episode that gets replayed every year around the holidays.

Like many Jewish families, Goldman’s family made a tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas. Those meals always included Peking duck, carved tableside and served with homemade hoisin sauce, locally grown spring onions and hand-rolled pancakes.

Lily Tsui, who with her brother George owns the restaurant that father Eddie opened in 1978, says that she never knew Goldman but that he’s certainly not the only VIP customer. Located in a Falls Church strip mall, the old-school restaurant — where waiters still wear formal red jackets — is filled with photos of notables who have eaten there, including both Bush presidents; the Korean pop star Psy; and an anonymous regular who just celebrated his 106th birthday.

Tsui stopped short of attributing the man’s longevity to her restaurant’s signature dish, but says she has no plans to mess with a recipe — involving hours of honey-basting, drying, smoking and then quick deep frying — that has remained unchanged since “Day One.”

The dish lends a festive touch to otherwise traditional Chinese fare. It isn’t cheap at $42 per whole duck. But Tsui shares a secret that isn’t advertised anywhere on the menu. If you’re on a diet — or a budget — you can order half a bird.

— M.O.

9. Horace and Dickie’s

809 12th St. NE. 202-397-6040.

Located just off bustling H Street NE, this venerable fried-fish carryout, which has been featured on several TV food and travel shows, has made only one concession to fame. According to owner Simone Shannon, the daughter of founder and namesake Richard “Dickie” Shannon, staff manning the frenzied fryers at the hole-in-the-wall eatery have had to add new lingo to the shouted verbal shorthand that includes “two-and-two” (meaning two fish sandwiches and two sides, such as collard greens, to go).

They now talk about something called “the Adam,” a reference to “Man vs. Food” host Adam Richman’s creation, for the cameras, of a cantaloupe-size fish sandwich featuring six pieces of cornmeal-crusted whiting topped with hot sauce, tartar sauce and coleslaw. “People will come in and say, ‘Give me the sandwich the guy had on TV,’ ” Shannon says.

Known for its generous portions, Horace and Dickie’s opened a second, sit-down branch in Takoma last year. Including business at the original carryout, which is so tiny that there’s a line out the door at peak times, the restaurants go through what the elder Shannon will only characterize as “tons” of fish every month. Simone Shannon is equally coy about expansion plans, but says that a third location somewhere “outside the city” is a distinct possibility.

— M.O.

10. DC-3

423 Eighth St. SE. 202-546-1935.

When DC-3 was visited by “Heat Seekers” last year, producers asked the Barracks Row specialty half-smoke emporium to come up with something hotter than its bulgogi and kimchi dog — the restaurant’s third-most-popular dish, after the top- selling Cincinnati Coney, a tame variant of a chili dog. That challenge resulted in the Three-Alarm Cruncher, a weiner topped with jalapeno-flavored potato chips and seasoned with at least seven varieties of chili pepper.

Promoted as a special for a while after the show’s airing, that frankenfurter is not currently offered. This may say as much about the TV-viewing public’s short-term memory as it does about the inedibility of the super-hot hot dog. “I mean, I love spicy food, but this was rough,” says Ashlie Levy, a representative of the Matchbox Food Group, which owns DC-3 along with Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin.

Levy says that there was a bump in business after the show aired in February but that DC-3 gets more buzz from social media and reviews sites like Yelp, which have helped to spread fame of the bulgogi-and-kimchi dog, along with the legend of the Cruncher — which, yes, might just return as a special at some point.

— M.O.

11. Piratz Tavern

8402 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
301-588-9001.

The area’s best-known pirate-themed bar — okay, the area’s only pirate-themed bar — was put on the map last year by “Bar Rescue,” a makeover show on Spike TV that commandeered the foundering vessel, one that owner Tracy Rebelo admits had an identity crisis. “Were we fine dining?” she asks. “A kid’s restaurant? A pirate bar?” Host Jon Taffer blustered his way through those philosophical questions, Rebelo says, strong-arming her into radically re-branding her business under the flag of the Corporate Bar and Grill.

Re-branding? Rebelo says a better word is “destroying.” After one week, Piratz gave the heave-ho to all of Taffer’s “improvements.”

A visit to Piratz today finds what Rebelo calls a more grown-up version of the place, which resembles a subdued version of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride crossed with the tastefully rustic decor of La Madeleine. Gone are not just all traces of anything corporate, but also the tavern’s pre-“Bar Rescue” kids lounge (though Tebelo is quick to note that “we’re still kid-friendly”).

Some things haven’t changed. Rebelo says the kitchen is once again “in transition.” Nevertheless, a recent visit discovered homemade pumpkin pie — baked with real, not canned pumpkins, by waitress Kassy “Poppet” Freely — that was criminally good.

— M.O.

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Alex Baldinger · November 27, 2013