Other Cities

Is D.C. the Next Big Food City?

Photo: Courtesy of Top Chef

Sure, it’s the setting of this season’s Top Chef, but D.C. has never really been a food city à la New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Boston. But is that starting to change? Serendipity 3 will open its fourth outpost there this summer, and just today, Carmine’s opened a location in the Penn Quarter District, at 425 7th Street NW. Plus, the Red Hook Lobster Pound tells us it’ll roll out its first food truck there next Friday (it’ll be downtown during the day and will roam around from evenings till midnight — follow the truck’s Twitter for further details).

It’s far from the only truck to hit the streets lately: A couple of months ago, Zagat noted a handful of new mobile eateries, including a Latin-themed truck serving a BBQ meatloaf bánh mì. And just yesterday, DCist announced a Korean taco truck and yet another cupcake truck: “The number of food trucks roaming the District of Columbia is growing at a ridiculous rate.”

Red Hook Lobster Pound’s owner Susan Povich, who grew up in D.C. and is teaming with her cousin to open the truck, tells us that D.C.’s ethnic-food scene has always boasted a “much better diversity of food than in New York in a lot of ways” (think Ethiopian, Salvadorian, Thai, and Vietnamese), but as far as anything else, “When I was growing up the food was just terrible there.” Still, she says, “It’s definitely picking up. With the younger, Democratic administration and younger people in Congress the whole town is coming out. It’s not like the old-school ‘we’re just going to eat at the Palm in our shirts and tie’ sort of thing.” She says, “The food is coming out of the restaurants and onto the street a little more.”

And food trucks aren’t the only trend popping up in D.C. Last month, the Washington Post observed that the city that has for some time been synonymous with Five Guys has become a full-fledged “burger mecca,” replete with “higher-grade beef, fresher or more creative toppings, and better buns.” And cupcake-mania is certainly alive and well — the Post reported today that TLC’s D.C. Cupcakes, about the sisters behind Georgetown Cupcake, has been picked up for a second season.

Of course, it takes more than cupcakes, burgers, and food trucks. As D.C. bread man Mark Furstenberg recently pointed out, great chefs are in part what make a city “a true culinary destination.” On the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Furstenberg and former Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman recently debated when, exactly, D.C. went from being a “culinary backwater” and decided it happened either when Cantina di Italia brought on an influx of Italian restaurants in 1968 or when Jean-Louis at the Watergate spurred French restaurants in 1979.

Richman and Furstenberg have long debated whether D.C. is “at the top of the second tier” of restaurant cities (his opinion) or the third best restaurant city in the country (hers); sadly, they didn’t have much to say about the contemporary dining scene, but last week former Times critic Marian Burros penned a Politico post titled “The New Art of Dining in DC,” in which she observed that “some really interesting places have opened since the first family came to town, most of them very casual and many of them using the newest buzzwords: local and sustainable.” She cited Sei (White House sushi favorite), Japanese gastropub Kushi, and “Turkish delight” Ezme, among others.

The praise means something coming from Burros. Last year, around the same time that another Times writer, Kim Severson, pointed to a restaurant revival in some of D.C.’s historically “dicier” neighborhoods, Washington City Paper’s Young & Hungry blog pointed to Burros’s roundup of the city’s best restaurants and called it a “velvet-wrapped hatchet job,” since Burros preceded her recommendations with this caveat:

One thing, though, has not changed. Having lived in both New York and Washington for the past 27 years, I find it is still true that only a handful of restaurants here — Restaurant Eve and The Inn at Little Washington (tied for best), CityZen and Citronelle, when Michel Richard is in residence — can compete with New York’s finest.

There are others that are generally very good, and many of those have good to great wine lists, but finding the area’s 10 best restaurants took some digging. And when faced with having to rate them, the top 10 list shrank to eight… Note to the Obamas: There are no Italian or Mexican restaurants on the list. None rise to the level of Chicago’s Spiaggia or Topolobampo.

At that time, Capital Spice blogger Mike Bober pointed to an “inability to set aside her Big Apple bias,” but to this day, even locals have doubts about D.C. as a foodie destination. When the Zagat guide to D.C. came out late last month, Mickey Lee of Culture Mob quoted Nina Zagat as saying that the D.C. area “continues to become an important food destination.” Lee pointed out that “for the first time in the history of the DC Zagat survey, three restaurants — Marcel’s, The Inn at Little Washington, Komi — earned 29/30 food rating.”

However, more recently on Culture Mob, Jacob Patterson-Stein noted that D.C. diners eat out fewer times per week than the national average, and complained about a lack of good bread and a “somewhat fragmented restaurant scene” created by “the sprawl of DC’s suburbs and general nature of the District as a political city with a large transient population has created a somewhat fragmented restaurant scene.” Still, Patterson-Stein ends on a hopeful note:

We may never have a proper bagel shop or a café culture, but that doesn’t mean the city can’t become a place people recognize as much for its food as for monuments or where people rally around a signature dish. As more people embrace the local food scene, from farmers’ markets to affordable sit-downs, a cultural shift could occur and DC might truly become a “food city.” This might sound lofty, but it’s not. We’ve made it this far.
Is D.C. the Next Big Food City?