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Eli Lehrer

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D.C. Is No Foodie Mecca

Posted: 09/22/11 04:26 PM ET

Washington, D.C. certainly has a better and more varied restaurant scene than most other cities of about the same size. In a few areas -- Ethiopian food, arguably southern-influenced New American cooking -- the District offers the best anywhere in the country.

But I'm not sure if D.C. can fulfill Nick Wiseman's hopes of becoming a true "culinary capital" anytime soon. I see three problems that seem likely to present the city from ever breaking out as a true foodie mecca:

  • Lack of significant immigrant neighborhoods in the city proper: The most commercially and artistically vibrant ethnic communities in the metropolitan area aren't in the District at all. This is a major problem: despite the recent media attention given to the trendy "molecular gastronomy" movement that emphasizes using laser and liquid nitrogen over creating tasty meals, real improvements in cooking and eating styles come from the mixing and hybridizing of varying food cultures. You can get a good bahn mi (a Vietnamese sandwich) a dozen places near Eden Center in Fairfax County but, near my office on Du Pont Circle, the closest and best bahn mi comes from Chipotle's newly opened Asian spinoff Shophouse. D.C. can't be a culturally relevant city until it attracts larger groups of immigrants who bring interesting food traditions of their own. To date, however, only one sizeable group of chefs -- Ethiopians -- have managed this in D.C. proper. Talented Vietnamese, Peruvian, and other chefs have all set up shop in the suburbs instead.
  • High incomes: Yes, this is a disadvantage. A lot of the best and most innovative food traditions come from people with limited budgets: if you can afford the best (most expensive) ingredients, it's not hard to make an edible meal. Creating something tasty with humble foods is a lot harder. D.C. as, the wealthiest city in the country by some measures, is a place where Jose Andres' mini-empire of small plates places -- which I like -- passes as "cheap" even though my last simple dinner for two at one of them (without alcohol) came in at over $100. Andres is a great talent but, in a less well-off town, food like his might actually be more widespread.
  • Lack of strong local food traditions: Wiseman mentions, somewhat dismissively, "Half Smokes" and "Old Bay" (the later is more a Baltimore thing). They shouldn't be dismissed. In fact, a strong local cuisine that draws people into restaurants is vital to building a world-class food culture: New Orleans residents' own love of beignets, Chicagoans' own affection for 15-ingredient Vienna Beef "salad dogs," and New Yorkers' love of street-corner floppy-slice pizza helped provide the capital and culture that supported much more ambitious restaurant scenes. D.C. has nothing like this.


D.C. isn't a bad food town. It probably never will be. But it faces real obstacles in becoming a culinary capital.