“Welcome to another meeting of Gluttons Anonymous. I really hope no one has eaten for a week,” jokes Anthony Pitch at the start of last weekend’s Adams Morgan restaurant tour for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program.
Over the course of just a few hours, guided walking tours such as Pitch’s make a number of stops at restaurants for what amounts to seven- or eight-course meals, along with visits to historic or culturally significant landmarks. Groups (which, thankfully, aren’t led by anybody holding an umbrella or walking backward) are often filled with curious locals who love to eat.
Even people who’ve lived in the area for decades might find that they can learn or taste something new. Here are a few of the companies that are in the business of expanding not only your knowledge of Washington but also your waistline.
(Skip ahead to read about some additional food tours we couldn’t fit into the paper.)
DC Metro Food Tours; 800-979-3370
DC Metro Food Tours might as well have been named “DC Neighborhood Eating Fests.” The company offers gourmand-geared visits to six districts, plus Old Town Alexandria and Baltimore. On a recent tour of Dupont Circle, the portions of food at each of the four stops were generous; at the halfway point, more than a few diners remarked that they felt nearly full already. Between restaurants, guide Adam Renz shared 5- to 10-minute chunks of history and trivia about nearby sites.
“Although the tour touches on history, it’s not at a level where it would appeal only to aficionados,” says founder Jeff Swedarsky. “It’s put together for people who want to see the finer things in life.”
Guides do all the legwork in advance so that the restaurants will have a table set and waiting when the group arrives to spend about 30 to 45 minutes dining. Participants get to know each other quickly; at the second stop on the Dupont Circle tour, the 10 diners bonded over the pain of splitting a check among a large group (which, incidentally, doesn’t happen on food tours, since it’s all paid for in advance).
Tours: Capitol Hill, Georgetown, U Street, Dupont Circle, Little Ethiopia, Eastern Market
Size: Up to 12 people
Length: 3½ hours
When: Weekends, year-round
DC Metro Chocolate Tours; 617-600-4460
Though its tours are organized by neighborhood, DC Metro Chocolate Tours uses those areas just as the parameters within which to explore its primary focus: the great cacao bean. Guides zero in on the millennia-long history of cacao, from its origins as a humble bean harvested by Olmec Indians in 1500 B.C. to its modern-day incarnation as an indulgent ingredient in candy, desserts and drinks. Georgetown and U Street tour guide Shani Alcorn delves into the process of making chocolate in solid, candy form, using visual aids such as maps and photos.
The tours assume a fairly broad definition of chocolate, and it’s not always edible — the Georgetown tour, for instance, stops at cosmetics shop Lush for a brief demo about the store’s products that contain chocolate. But that type of unexpected destination is what makes the tours so unique, says Alcorn. “These are places that I think a lot of people wouldn’t normally go to,” she says.
Chocoholics should still get their fix, though, since all of the neighborhood excursions include sweets shops where they can taste and/or buy the goods.
Tours: Dupont Delights, Sweets of Georgetown, U-Street Chocolate Lovers
Size: Up to 14 people
Length: 2½ hours
When: Saturdays and Sundays, year-round
Dishcrawl DC; 408-506-9660
Led by young, community-conscious professionals, Dishcrawl’s tours are for those who are up on the dining scene (or want to be). The tours are also intended to be a way to meet new people, says Dishcrawl’s D.C. organizer, JoAnn Pham. “It’s an organized social event for people who love food,” she says.
The company, which began about a year and a half ago in West Coast cities, held its first event here, in Penn Quarter, in November. It featured two of the area’s newest restaurants: Luke’s Lobster and Meatballs. The nearly three-hour tour, which also included stops at Teaism and Red Velvet Cupcakery, was a model for future get-togethers, Pham says. At each restaurant, the owners or chefs spoke with the group and served small portions of their signature items. “It helps the [restaurants] build this personal relationship with customers,” Pham says.
There’s a benefit for diners, too: “You can sit down and try four restaurants in one night — and not have to invest a lot of time and money into one place,” Pham says. ”You might come away saying, ‘I really liked the ambiance at that one place, and I want to go back.’”
Tours: A different neighborhood each month
Size: 30 or more people
Length: 2½-3 hours
When: Once per month
Cost: $29 for the Dishcrawl of Dupont Circle on Jan. 31
Smithsonian Resident Associates; 202-633-3030
Anthony Pitch’s tours of Adams Morgan are something of an institution, a granddaddy to today’s newer tours. Pitch, a historian and author, has led groups along and around the 18th Street-Columbia Street NW corridor for 18 years. The tour, which stops at four eateries each week, regularly sells out in advance, and Pitch says he often sees the same faces from year to year.
Christine Ochoa is one of them. “I always come away learning something different,” says Ochoa, 58, who has been to nearly all of Pitch’s tours for the past decade. “The restaurants may stay the same, but the dishes change, and you always pick up on something new — something [Pitch] says or something new you learn about the food.”
The focus on these tours is equally split between the neighborhood’s history and its diverse array of ethnic eateries. At each stop, restaurant owners, managers or chefs give short presentations on their cuisine. The types of food discussed (and sampled) include Nepali, Mediterranean and Cajun. “A lot of the restaurants are small, sort of hole-in-the-wall places,” Pitch says. “It’s a microcosm of what the neighborhood is all about. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.”
Extra Bites: More Food Tours in the District and Beyond
Ready to Nosh Food Tours (877-538-5416), a national company with tours in various U.S. cities, offers neighborhood visits in Georgetown and U Street, as well as a food truck tour. Though the D.C. excursions attracted poor reviews online last year (apparently the company stood up customers who paid in advance), chief operating officer JJ Diaz says the company has redoubled its efforts to communicate with patrons. “As with any business, we’re living and learning,” Diaz says.
Charm City Chews (443-509-5193) aims to highlight the distinctive culinary styles that flourish in Baltimore. Owner Sharon Reuter leads groups of six to 12 to Italian eateries for the “A Little Italy, a Little Not” tour, Korean restaurants in the Station North neighborhood for the “North Meets South” tour, and a variety of ethnic cuisines in the “Once Upon a Chinatown” tour. Sometimes, the chefs welcome visitors into their kitchen, where they learn how the food is made.
For the Love of Food (443-865-0630) offers half-day “edible excursions” throughout the region between the spring and fall each year. One of its most popular tours, the Annapolis Culinaria tour, brings visitors to a number of historic restaurants and homes, including a saloon that still displays its 18th-century silverware. “It just knocks your socks off when you see how well preserved it is,” says owner Diane Bukatman. And yes, there’s plenty to eat, too.