Loosen Your Beltway: A Journey Through Food-Focused Destinations

Philadelphia's Reading Terminal
Philadelphia’s most-visited landmark isn’t the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall or the Museum of Art. It’s a food market.

More specifically, it’s Reading Terminal Market, a 119-year-old structure housing more than 80 grocers, restaurants and shops. A testament to the city’s appetite for both the gourmet and the workaday, the epicurean bazaar tallied 6.2 million visitors in 2010, according to Marketing and Event Manager Sarah Levitsky.

The concept of culinary getaways — vacations planned around restaurant reservations, cooking classes and market visits — may be as old as leisure time itself, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s suddenly growing in popularity.

Tommy Nicolosi, the owner of DiNic’s restaurant in the market, says he’s noticed a spike in out-of-town customers. “All of a sudden, aside from my regulars, I started getting people coming here as a destination,” says Nicolosi, who has served his famous roast pork sandwiches in the market for 31 years. “It’s, like, ‘Oh, we’re in from New Mexico,’ or, ‘We’re at the convention center and we had to come across the street to see you.’ That’s a fairly new phenomenon.”

David Loy, the president and CEO of Epitourean LLC, which sells food-centric travel packages through Epitourean.com and Cookingvacations.com, says he’s also observed booming interest in this type of tourism. In 2010, Epitourean’s sales increased by more than 300 percent compared to 2009, Loy says.

“Obviously, people dine when they travel, but what we have seen is a significant growth in the number of people wanting to learn a little bit more while they’re on vacation,” he says. “People get exposed to the local culture by learning about the cuisine.”

Our hyper-awareness about what we eat, how we eat it and where it comes from — as well as some chefs’ media exposure — makes it easier than ever to arrange a jaunt entirely around legendary dishes or landmarks. That makes it practically inexcusable not to, says Jeff Swedarsky, the founder of DC Metro Food Tours, which offers eatery crawls around Washington.

If you’re not experiencing a city through your stomach, Swedarsky says, “you’re missing out on a whole lot.”

Whether you’re a beachgoer, a market scourer or a TV devotee, there’s a mappable, moveable feast for you. We’ve assembled itineraries for six beyond-the-Beltway destinations, each with recommendations for drool-worthy dishes. Think of these trips as time off from your skinny jeans.

1) Philadelphia

Drive time: 2 hours, 50 minutes from downtown D.C.

Whether or not you’ve been there before, Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market has something that’s familiar, a food from your childhood or a hard-to-find specialty you love. “It makes people feel comfortable,” says Tommy Nicolosi, the owner of DiNic’s restaurant (215-923-6175) in the market. “It’s down-to-earth. It doesn’t feel like a chair you can’t sit in ’cause it’s too fancy.”

DiNic’s roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe is the eatery’s star. Nicolosi says its success lies in its simple preparation: “We brown our meat, we caramelize our onions, we put a little wine in at the right time. It’s all in proper technique; there are no tricks, no secrets.”

One secret that’s useful to know, however, is how to order a cheesesteak.

Philadelphians believe that Cheez Whiz is a necessity. “Ask for ‘Whiz wit,’ which means Cheez Wiz with onion,” says Joe Garrity, the manager of specialty foods shop Spice Terminal (215-592-8555). Vendors who sell the storied beef sandwiches include Carmen’s Famous Hoagies & Cheesesteaks (215-592-7799) and Spataro’s Cheesesteaks (215-925-6833).

The Fair Food Farmstand (215-386-5211 ext. 120) caters to health-minded eaters, with dairy and produce from sustainable farms located within a 140-mile radius. Items such as multicolored, heirloom eggs and raw cow cheese are labeled with information about their origins.

Try This: Sugar-dusted cannoli, filled on the spot at Termini Brothers Bakery (212-629-1790).

Lancaster Pennsylvania2) Lancaster, Pa.

Drive time: 2 hours, 30 minutes from downtown D.C.

Dating back to 1730, Lancaster’s Central Market is the oldest continually operating public marketplace in the United States. Today, it resides in a striking 1889 Romanesque Revival building. Market manager Michael Ervin estimates that 90 to 95 percent of shoppers who frequent the 57 farm stands, food shops and trinket vendors are residents. “It’s the essence of Lancaster County: Local people growing fresh, local foods and selling to people that they’ve known for years,” Ervin says. “We’re not just a market; we’re a community.”

Some stands have been around for generations. Stoner’s Homegrown Vegetables (717-392-8930) has been a fixture for more than a century. Thomas Produce (717-626-5813) boasts an eight-decade-long history.

A number of Amish and Mennonite vendors sell pretzels, chicken corn noodle soup and other traditional foods. Regional specialties abound: This is the place to buy molasses-flavored shoo-fly pie, whoopie pies and Moravian sugar cakes (Christmastime desserts topped with butter, cinnamon and sugar), Ervin says. Find locally made preserves such as chow chow (pickled vegetable relish) at Stoltzfus Homestyle Bakery (717-339-9370).

Try This: The sweet apple cider at Kauffman’s Fruit Farm & Market (717-768-3643), whose larger market in Bird-in-Hand, Pa. (3097 Old Philadelphia Pike; 717-768-7112, Kauffmansfruitfarm.com), is also worth visiting for its affordable produce, bulk baking supplies, Amish cookbooks and doughtnuts.

3) Ocean City, Md.

Drive time: 2 hours, 55 minutes from downtown D.C.

Sandwiched between Ocean City’s T-shirt shops and family arcades are a legion of snack vendors with devoted followings.

Exhibit A: French fries from Thrasher’s (401 S. Boardwalk, 801 N. Boardwalk), a beachfront establishment since 1929. Fried in peanut oil, these taters are topped with salt and vinegar — no ketchup allowed.

Exhibit B: Another boardwalk institution, Dumser’s Dairyland restaurants (Beach-net.com/dumsers) and ice cream parlors dish out soft-serve cones, hard ice cream, sundaes, milk shakes and floats. One unforgettable flavor: Hawaiian delight (vanilla ice cream dotted with cherries, pineapple and bananas).

For an actual meal, steamed crabs straight from the Chesapeake are the can’t-miss specialty. Crab Alley (9703 Golf Course Road, West Ocean City, Md.; 410-213-7800) has deck dining with water views. Start with a bowl of Maryland vegetable crab soup or cream of crab soup, and save room (and energy) to deconstruct a heap of Old Bay-seasoned crabs. Call a few hours in advance to place an order; the crabs are sold by the dozen or half-dozen in six sizes.

Try This: Crab cakes at Phillips Crab House (2004 Philadelphia Ave.; 410-289-6821, Phillipsseafood.com), the original 1956 restaurant upon which the Phillips franchise was based.

4) Virginia Beach

Drive time: 3 hours, 50 minutes from downtown D.C.

Virginia Beach’s food scene “is all about being on the waterfront and having great seafood,” says Jeff Swedarsky of Coastal Food Tours (a branch of DC Metro Food Tours), which runs a Virginia Beach Boardwalk Food Tour ($59, Coastalfoodtours.com). One highlight: Waterman’s Surfside Grille (5th Street and Atlantic Avenue; 757-428-3644) showcases both fresh catches and oceanfront vistas. The she-crab soup and seafood platters are satisfying eats after a long day in sun or surf.

Just a block from the boardwalk, equally enticing entrees beckon — such as potato chip-encrusted mahi and scallops in a puff pastry “boat” — at TAutog’s (205 23rd St.; 757-422-0081). Tautog’s sister restaurant next door, Doc Taylor’s (207 23rd St.; 757-425-1960), specializes in all-day brunches. The $1.99 Old Bay-rimmed Bloody Marys and mimosas are beloved by vacationers and locals alike, says co-owner Bill Gambrell. “They’re intended for people to be able to have more than one” while waiting for a table and eating, Gambrell says, “because, unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — it’s busy sometimes.”

No summer at the shore would be complete without old-fashioned saltwater taffy and peanut brittle. Forbes Candies (Forbescandies.com; three locations) sells 20 flavors of taffy. The 81-year-old company takes particular pride in its new 28th Street and Atlantic Avenue location, where a circa-1931 machine churns out 1,800 pounds of taffy each week.

Try This: Forbes Candies’ chocolate peanut butter taffy, made with real peanut
butter and chocolate.

5) Frederick, Md.

Drive time: 1 hour, 5 minutes from downtown D.C.

When Frederick native Bryan Voltaggio competed against (and finished second to) his brother Michael on Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2009, many Washingtonians began paying attention to the siblings’ hometown. Namely, to Bryan Voltaggio’s high-end American eatery, Volt (228 N. Market St.; 301-696-8658) and its confounding dishes, like “vegetable ash”-flavored goat cheese ravioli and mahi-mahi served with “forbidden rice” and “soy air.”

“When I was growing up, I always felt that Frederick could become a destination dining spot because of its unique downtown, that Main Street feel of North Market Street, and the fact that we are very close to D.C. and Baltimore. It’s very accessible,” says Voltaggio, who in 2012 plans to open restaurant and retail shop North Market Kitchen at 315 N. Market Street, and to launch a third restaurant in D.C.’s Chevy Chase Pavilion.

Just a block from Volt, Lebherz Oil & Vinegar Emporium (214 N. Market St.; 301-228-3996) sells 50 blends of pour-your-own olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Owner Maggie Lebherz, a fifth-generation Frederick resident, believes her town’s charm lies in its Old World atmosphere. “It’s kind of European in a way,” she says. “I think that’s what people like about Frederick — you can come to these shops that have a few selections of things, but they’re really high-quality foods.”

Across the street, zoe’s chocolate co. (121A N. Market St.; 301-694-5882) sells artisanal chocolate in flavors such as apple pie and pear spice. A few blocks away, the stone hearth bakery (138 N. East St.; 301-662-2338) is revered for its pastries and baguettes.

Try This: Volt’s goat cheese cake served alongside spiced vanilla ice cream and tiny orbs of D’anjou pear as part of the three-course prix fixe lunch menu.

6) Richmond, Va.

Drive time: 2 hours from downtown D.C.

It seems like every other Washington restaurateur is a “Top Chef” alumnus. But television crews have been seduced by establishments beyond the Beltway, too.
The intensely spicy “stupid wings” at American pub and eatery Caliente (2922 Park Ave.; 804-340-2920) had a starring role in a 2010 episode of Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food.” Lured by the challenge of eating eight of the wings (for which intrepid diners must sign a release form), host Adam Richman came, tasted – and conquered. “But he wasn’t happy afterward,” says owner David Bender. Before the episode aired, one or two people ordered the wings per week. Now, Bender says, at least three people request them daily (though only about 15 percent of diners actually finish them).

For those uninterested in testing the limits of their taste buds, Buz & Ned’s Real Barbecue (1119 N. Boulevard; 804-355-6055) is a welcoming stop. Featured on both “Man v. Food” and the Food Network’s “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay,” the restaurant serves wood-smoked barbecue paired with sides such as macaroni and cheese, and collard greens. Owner Buz Grossberg doesn’t speak highly of his city’s food scene (“There’s not a great vibe like in other cities, when you go to parties and the first thing people start talking about is where they’ve eaten,” he says). But he appreciates that Richmond’s reputation now precedes it: When people visit from afar, “it never ceases to amaze me — but it doesn’t surprise me anymore.”

Try This: The more-than-2-foot-long USS Congress “battleship”
sub (chipotle-roasted pulled pork topped with peppers, grilled pineapple and pickled cabbage) at the Black Sheep (901 West Marshall St.; 804-648-1300), another eatery of “Man v. Food” fame.

Photos courtesy Lancaster Central Market and Darren Favello

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