In mid-May, my Friday produce didn’t arrive from the Oasis co-op, a group of 30 small farms in Lancaster County, Pa. It was an Amish holiday and my delivery was postponed, so I went to a Whole Foods store.
When I reached the fruits and vegetables, I found: corn from Florida with wilted husks. “Heirloom” tomatoes from Canada — a summer fruit grown for Whole Foods during the Canadian winter — offered at $5 a pound. Three-dollar artichokes (each). Apples, last year’s crop from Washington state, at $2.50 a pound. Pears from Argentina hard as rocks. Mexican blackberries.
Is this the best we have in Washington?
I went two days later to the Dupont Circle farmers market. I want earnestly to support this, my neighborhood outdoor market. And I think farmers markets have made a big contribution here, increasing availability of good produce. But salad greens at $11 a pound? Rhubarb at $6 a pound? A small bunch of ramps for $6?
When I moved here in 1961, people said the best cooking in Washington was found in embassy residences and people’s homes. At that time we had a few specialty stores such as the French Market in Georgetown, no farmers markets, and 80 percent of the groceries sold here came from two behemoths, Safeway and Giant Food.
But ingredients in the Eastern Market and the then-existing Western Market were as good as those in any other city. Our restaurants weren’t so wonderful, but in 1961 that was true virtually everywhere else, too. A half a century later, much has changed. Or so we are told.
I read paeans to Washington’s food early this year in the national press as it turned its collective attention to the presidential inauguration. Food & Wine magazine wrote hyperbolically about “innovative restaurants that are keeping this early-to-bed town up way too late for a 6 a.m. power breakfast.”
A lot of sophisticated eaters say Washington is now a “world-class” food city, whatever that means. When they say that, they generally are talking about our restaurants; and we have many good restaurants. We even have a number of excellent ones. Central Michel Richard, CitiZen, Palena, Obelisk, Vidalia all come to mind.
But I have lived here for 52 years, and food has been my hobby all that time. In 1990 I turned that hobby into a career and opened Marvelous Market. In 1997 I started the Breadline, a downtown bakery and restaurant (I don’t own either of them now).
I am not nearly as encouraged as others. I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.
Great food cities are ones with a discernible tradition, ones that have good grocery stores and markets; many small stores run by people with single-minded devotion to food craft — to charcuterie, coffee, bread, cheese and ice cream — and relatively easy access to really good produce and other ingredients.
Great food cities have restaurants offering varied cuisines at varied price levels, neighborhood restaurants and special-occasion restaurants. They have chefs committed to their cities and focused on their restaurants, and — most important — a sophisticated and demanding clientele intolerant of bad service and bad food.
My criteria for great food cities don’t include bars presided over by “mixologists,” a gussied-up term for bartender created to justify an $18 cocktail ($22 at Rye Bar, $25 at Barmini). My criteria do not include “cutting edge” chefs who play with the molecules of food, or made-for-television celebrity chefs. Nor do they include “power restaurants,” important here but in few other cities and to few customers. Indeed, my criteria go well beyond restaurants.
My first criterion of a great food city is that it have a real tradition, a food culture, a food identity. New Orleans has a unique cuisine based on Creole, Cajun, African American and Southern foods. In San Francisco, says chef Joyce Goldstein, “Food is the business of our city; it’s our civic life.” San Franciscans order their bread in advance from Tartine Bakery.They line up at coffee shops that offer coffee custom-made from beans the customers select. It’s pretentious, but it’s also a measure of their obsession with food.
Los Angelenos boast about their diversity and how far they will drive to explore it, of markets in Koreatown, Tehrangeles and Little Saigon. Baltimore has crabs and oysters and an Italian American tradition and a Greek one, too. Seattle and Portland, Ore., are proud of the little chef-driven restaurants and their abundant markets. Kansas City has its barbecue. New York and Chicago think they have everything.
My first criterion of a great food city is that it have a real tradition, a food culture, a food identity. ... The city has a soft spot for Ben’s Chili Bowl, and I will stipulate that it is a nostalgic restaurant whose place is assured by its history. But Ben’s is Washington’s version of Pat’s and Geno’s, those Philadelphia monuments to cheesesteaks: iconic but not good.
What exactly do we have? It was touching a couple of years ago when The Washington Post asked readers to name the iconic food of our city. We don’t know what it is; we have to invent one.
But food cultures emerge from their cities’ geographies and histories. Our geography might have helped give us one. We are near the Chesapeake Bay, but the bay has affected the food culture of Baltimore far more than it has ours.
“One of the things that D.C. lacked,” says David S. Shields, professor of Southern letters at the University of South Carolina who grew up here, “was a robust market ... compared to other East Coast urban centers. Cuisines historically reflect a regional agriculture.”
Sidney W. Mintz, a Johns Hopkins University anthropologist who has written extensively about slavery and about food, says: “I guess every city is unique, but Washington is unique in unique ways. ... It was for so very long barely a city at all — more like a place to store paper after world-shaking decisions were made.”
But it was always Southern, he says, and the emphasis on manners and hierarchy “probably strengthened the idea that decent food could only be had at home.” Eating out “must have been something that foreigners and diplomats did — not to mention traveling salesmen and vaudevillians.”
Shields agrees. “The best chefs in the city,” he says, “worked for private citizens, clubs or embassies in the 19th century.”
Results from an unscientific survey of Washington Post readers
Washington never developed a food identity. When, early in the 20th century, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and many of the older cities were receiving from Europe a working class to populate their industries, Washington had no industry. People didn’t come in large numbers and open the little bakeries and food stores based on immigrant traditions.
We might have developed an African American cuisine, but food didn’t transfer readily from the underclass that followed slavery except in home kitchens of people who could afford to hire cooks.
Says Michael Johnson, a Johns Hopkins historian who specializes in the South: “Better-off whites often ate (and loved) food cooked by blacks, but when they dined out, they wanted to be considered cosmopolitan, not provincial, and preferred to eat some faux-French dish.”
I know we can point to institutions that have a history here. The city has a soft spot for Ben’s Chili Bowl, and I will stipulate that it is a nostalgic restaurant whose place is assured by its history. But Ben’s is Washington’s version of Pat’s and Geno’s, those Philadelphia monuments to cheesesteaks: iconic but not good. Sentiment is important, but good food is another matter.
Perhaps, however, a city doesn’t require a tradition to be a great food center. But certainly it does need a rich food community, an array of markets, small entrepreneurs making and selling foods, a diversity of restaurants, a local chef culture, and demanding customers.
I think we fall short.
Look at our food stores. In other cities — San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, San Antonio, for example — local grocery stores burst with formerly esoteric ingredients such as galangal, curry leaves, turmeric and taro root, five varieties of bananas and four kinds of mangos, breads from diverse local bakeries, and butter from practically every country where cows (or goats) live.
But we don’t have a Central Market, as Texas cities do, selling great vegetables and fruits. We don’t have a Draeger’s Market, as in the San Francisco Bay area. We don’t have a great cheese store like Murray’s in New York or a captivating specialty food store like Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass.
Where are our neighborhood grocery stores? San Francisco is dotted with them: Bi-Rite, Rainbow, Canyon Market and dozens of others. Philadelphia has Di Bruno Bros., not to mention the Italian Market, not to mention Metropolitan Bakery.
There are exceptions. Broad Branch Market in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood is a wonderful store valued by its customers. In the suburbs, there’s the Organic Butcher in McLean, Cheesetique in Alexandria and Arlington, and Praline Bakery & Bistro in Bethesda. There is the new and promising Union Market in Northeast Washington. But by and large, we have Safeway, Giant, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods.
The essentially suburban character of our city discourages real shopping for food.
Giant used to dominate the area. As customers became more sophisticated, Giant stores could have become so, too. Indeed, Texas’s Central Market was created by H-E-B, a supermarket chain that grasped the burgeoning interest in good food. But in 1998 just as Whole Foods began its invasion, Giant was acquired by a Dutch company that seems unable to grasp the opportunities of food in the new millennium.
So if I want Persian ingredients, I must drive from downtown, where I live, to Yekta on Rockville Pike or 17 miles to Assal Bakery and Supermarket in Vienna. If I want Chinese green beans and Thai mint, I must drive 20 miles to Super H Mart, the Asian superstore in Virginia.
And if markets are hard to find, so are butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers. So are chocolate-makers and coffee roasters and other entrepreneurs with a passion for making craft foods.
The essentially suburban character of our city discourages real shopping for food.
In Washington many people leave their downtown offices and drive to their suburban homes. They confront long drives, and many, if they shop at all on weekdays, want to make a single stop. They go to supermarkets.
We used to have small markets such as the French Market, Neam’s of Georgetown, and Larimer’s at Dupont Circle, Magruder’s and Clover Market. All are gone. But our urban population is growing at more than 1,000 people a month. We could use more small stores again.
One encouraging development is the sudden growth of chef-owned local restaurants. They are opening at the rate of nearly one each week, eight new restaurants this year on 14th Street NW alone, such as Ettoand B Too, plus, in other neighborhoods, Red Hen, Daikaya, Ethiopic, Del Campo, Toki Underground and Taco Bamba.
Although this is a wonderful development, something seems to happen here that isn’t so great: Chefs open restaurants, and instead of staying in them, devoting themselves to them, they rush to open more restaurants in rapid succession.
Geoffrey Tracy opened his first restaurant in 2000 and five more in 12 years. Passion Food Hospitality opened D.C. Coast in 1998. It’s now working on its eighth restaurant in an empire that includes Acadiana, Passionfish and District Commons.
The Black Restaurant Group, which includes Black’s Bar & Kitchen and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, is going to open its eighth, too, in the fall. Neighborhood Restaurant Group has 10, including Vermilion and Birch & Barley.
That appears to have become a Washington tradition, proliferation that happens not nearly so much in other cities. It happens here because money is available to restaurateurs who want to expand.
Chefs open restaurants, and instead of staying in them, devoting themselves to them, they rush to open more restaurants in rapid succession.
That’s why so many chefs-made-for-television come to Washington: for the money.
Indeed, perhaps the money in this city discourages a diverse restaurant culture. It is one of the reasons our restaurants are concentrated downtown. It is one reason the downtown restaurants are so expensive, charging about $20 for appetizers and $40 for main courses. It may be one reason that so many downtown restaurants produce such boring food.
Michael Johnson, the Hopkins historian, says, “Washington has always, it seems to me, been a risk-averse city in every way, including food.” He wonders if this risk aversion has grown worse with “the giant growth in privatization of government, which gives consultants, lobbyists, lawyers discretionary incomes usually not available to true government bureaucrats.”
Because of the money, we have become a playground irresistible to out-of-town restaurant groups. Our affluence and economic stability made us attractive to Paul and Le Pain Quotidien, to Hill Country, P.J. Clarke’s, Legal Sea Foods and Carmine’s.
Le Diplomate, a Disney World caricature of a French brasserie on 14th Street NW, is doing enormous business. Its Philadelphia parent company is going to open additional “concepts” here. They are going to be joined by Daniel Boulud and Michael White from New York; by the Tadich Grill of San Francisco; by a Connecticut restaurant group, Barcelona, poised to make a big push; a sandwich chain, Capriotti’s from Las Vegas; Del Frisco Grille from Dallas; and others, no doubt.
Restaurants with absentee chefs and owners are pros; they know how to do things. But fundamentally they are businessmen who bring to Washington far less diversity and originality than do local owners and chefs. And absentee owners don’t get steady feedback from their customers and change their menus readily. They buy ingredients from big national commodity suppliers that aren’t local and seasonal.
But they can afford our real estate.
In Washington the cost of downtown rentals is $100 a square foot. (Shake Shack paid $125 a square foot for the former Spy City Cafe in Penn Quarter.)
How can individual chef-owners afford the high rents and the high entry costs that have become a special problem for all small business in Washington? What small entrepreneur can afford to invest $6 million, as Stephen Starr did to build Le Diplomate?
The prosperity of Washington makes it possible for property owners to charge so much that small local entrepreneurs are crowded out. Local landlords want collateral far beyond the means of entrepreneurs from other cultures with limited economic capacity, those who might open food shops, bakeries and inexpensive restaurants of greater diversity.
Moreover, during the past decade national real estate companies have bought many of Washington’s downtown buildings. They need security and safety, high rents and collateral impossible for local risk-takers. That is why so much of Washington’s food real estate is now occupied by Chipotle, Devon & Blakely, Roti, Noodles & Company, and the like.
I find downtown Washington depressing. So many prime locations that could be independent shops are chain restaurants and banks instead. Buildings waste their ground floors on grand lobbies. Imagine what K Street would be like if some of those glass boxes filled their pretentious lobbies with shops and restaurants, and if the sidewalks had tables and chairs. We could have a real downtown streetscape.
This crowding out of local retail has been good in one respect: Neighborhoods such as Petworth, H Street NE, Bloomingdale, Shaw and Columbia Heights are blooming.
And food trucks are now bringing their cooking to downtown diners.
I confess I find mobile dining an uncomfortable way to eat, and I know it is a very hard way to make a living. We don’t know whether food trucks are going to be a fixture in this or any other city.
Nearly all Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern restaurants and food stores have been forced into the suburbs and are not readily accessible to a clientele wider than to those who live nearby. Although the diaspora of small-business food entrepreneurs to the suburbs may be good for Prince George’s County and Sterling, it is not good for the city.
We need in Washington less concentration of food retail in large supermarkets and many more small, independently operated food stores. What might make this possible is banks that, instead of opening ever more branches, do more lending supported by an aggressive Small Business Administration that guarantees some of the risk.
We need landlords who value local business and a D.C. government more vigorously supporting small-business development, especially business that acknowledges the diversity of the city.
I hope that the proliferation of small, inexpensive locally owned restaurants is a trend that will continue into new neighborhoods. I hope that food trucks can thrive and will become incubators, evolving into restaurants.
Most of all, however, Washington needs more discerning customers who care less about being the first to go to each new restaurant than about the quality of the food they are served. We need customers willing to make the effort to shop at little stores because they value food businesses in their neighborhoods.
Food is not going to replace government and politics as the business of the city, and we are always going to have expensive downtown restaurants providing local luxury for lobbyists. But our lives would be richer if in Glover Park and Bloomingdale, Adams Morgan and Shepherd Park, Hillcrest and Anacostia, people could go to little stores to buy good cheese and fresh local vegetables, and stop in at little restaurants for Filipino adobo, Jamaican jerk chicken or, indeed, fried chicken and grits.
Mark H. Furstenberg, a Washington baker and chef, is writing a book about food. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.