NEW YORK -- In a too-hip-to-be-true loft in Soho last week, waiters wearing all black glided around the room, placing in front of two dozen food and travel journalists pristine plates of roasted loin and braised Elysian Fields Farm lamb shortribs with Belgian endive, dried anjou pear and sweet pepper.
The food was prepared by Eric Ziebold, chef at the widely praised new D.C. restaurant CityZen. The point was to convince New York journalists that Washington is a great restaurant town and that their readers need to taste the things D.C. chefs are dishing up.
Eric Ziebold of CityZen makes canapes at a New York event aimed to market Washington as a great restaurant town.
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
The event shows a big shift in how Washington sells itself to the outside world.
Just a few years ago, the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp. and travel-related businesses in town sought to attract standard-issue business travelers and families from middle America. The biggest attractions they promoted were the monuments and government buildings.
Now, local boosters are focusing on a different type of visitor and a different set of attractions. Tourism officials are aggressively chasing the urbane visitors, people who are inclined to catch a play at the Shakespeare Theatre, take in the latest art exhibit at the Phillips Collection and eat at a place like CityZen, where a five-course tasting menu goes for $90 before wine, tax, and tip. The city's food and artistic offerings have become an economic development tool.
This is the third year in a row that Washington tourism group has organized such a New York jaunt. This year, the group held two events over two days for travel and food writers: the first the Soho dinner prepared by D.C. chefs, the second a lunch to pitch Washington's cultural offerings at Per Se, an exclusive New York restaurant. The two events cost $40,000, paid by the tourism organization, 17 sponsors and a varied list of organizations, including several hotels.
At both stops, William A. Hanbury, chief executive of the tourism group, made the same pitch. "If you think Washington D.C. is all about politics, think again," he said. "Recently, D.C. has developed a personality beyond its federal core." Representatives of the 17 sponsors briefly pitched their organization to the assembled reporters.
"We're purposely working on changing our image as kind of a mundane, dry destination," Hanbury said. "The family from Wichita is probably going to come here whether we do anything or not. The well-traveled, urban sophisticate has a lot of choices in the marketplace, and those are the people we have to most influence to come here."
A recent study commissioned by the Washington tourism group found that visitors are already more affluent and better educated than the general traveler, a situation it seeks to advance. Visitors to Washington had a median household income of $88,200, compared with $69,500 nationally, and 35 percent have post-graduate education, compared with 20 percent nationally. Last week's trip was an effort to lure more of these kinds of visitors.
"It's a smart strategy," said Robert E. DeRocker, executive vice president of Development Counsellors International, which advises communities on tourism and economic development marketing. "People think of visiting Washington because it's a government town and all the historic things that have happened there. But if you can appeal to a higher-end traveler with cultural aspects of a city, they both spend more money and don't view it as a one-time visit. They'll come back for a second, third, or fourth-time visits."
"We rely in this economy on people coming here to spend money," said Barbara B. Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. But the city ought not forsake the less lucrative tourist trade, she said. "We want the high-end business, but we need the eighth-graders coming into town, too. They're not going to spend money today, but you want them to grow up and come back, and for that to happen, they need to have a positive experience now."
Some of the journalists who listened to the pitch last week -- and consumed $40,000 worth of food and wine while they were at it -- said the message had gotten through.
"The difference I've noticed in Washington in the last 10 years is that an exciting restaurant scene has really evolved there," said Mark Orwoll, senior consulting editor of Travel + Leisure magazine, who attended the lunch at Per Se.
"I was impressed there were these four chefs under 40 that were making the meal," said cookbook author Joan Nathan, who was at Soho event featuring Ziebold, Fabio Trabocchi of the restaurant Maestro, David Guas of DC Coast and Ceiba, and Signatures' Morou, who goes by one name. "I thought they did a great job, and each kept in their own tradition with the food. Food in Washington has just gotten so much better than it used to be."
But that doesn't mean Washington's marketers have erased the District's image as a government town, a place of mediocre food and bland cultural offerings. Two weeks ago, the New York Times' food section published an article about Washington restaurants. "This town will always be better known for its monuments and politics than its restaurants," wrote Marian Burros. "And what qualifies as star-attraction food here might go unnoticed in New York or San Francisco."