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Why D.C. Doesn't Have Much Home Cooking

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If you want fancy or exotic food, the D.C. area has it. The city and its surrounding suburbs offer at least a half-dozen good choices for high-end Italian, several Michelin-starred French chefs, dozens of Southern-influenced New American joints, and (Sorry, R.J. Cooper, it is the best name for your cooking style) a number of places to indulge in molecular gastronomy.

Even more to the delight of foodies in the area, D.C., (well, mostly the 'burbs) also offers good-as-anywhere-else-in-America options for Ethiopian, Vietnamese, and Korean cooking. There's one major thing missing from the area's restaurant scene: a diverse set of culinary traditions I'd loosely group together as "home cooking." Building a restaurant environment welcoming to "home cooking," indeed, would do far more to make D.C. a world-class food city than, say, attracting Thomas Keller to open up a new restaurant here.

Let's start with "home cooking" itself. By "home cooking," I'm talking about cooking styles that use simple, even humble, ingredients, almost never pay attention to calorie counts, and, often involve long cooking times that often prove uneconomical in restaurant settings. Some simple, good, inexpensive foods -- say, Peruvian spit-roasted chicken -- don't qualify as "home cooking" because they require equipment that few have in their homes or techniques that take real practice.

On the other hand, the things that Americans immediately associate with the term -- turkey dinners, "meat and three," homemade bread, pies -- all fit into the category. So does red sauce southern Italian cooking, soul food, "real" non-tex-mex Mexican food, most Polish cooking, "peasant" oriented (think cabbage not caviar) Russian cooking, and a wide range of Nordic specialties.

And D.C. residents are willing to pay for this stuff. The only place serving many Nordic and Polish specialties in the area, W. Domku, has stayed in business for nearly a decade despite a marginal location, bad service, and so-so cooking.

While several good New American restaurants in the area have African-American chef/owners and/or offer high-end twists on "soul food" dishes, the Saint's Paradise Cafeteria has lines out the door largely because its one of the few places (and best) to get the "real" stuff. Famed-but-fallen Italian torque Roberto Donna, I thought, always did his best work on the line-out-the-door "grill" days when he made simple sandwiches, cannoli and meatballs at the old Galileo.

So why doesn't D.C. offer more and better home cooking and what can it do to do better in this category? I'd list three culprits for the lack of home cooking in D.C. -- expense accounts, work schedules, and zoning codes. And changing any of these things in ways that encourages more home cooking is going to be very difficult.

Expense accounts may be the most obvious culprit. Lobbyists, lawyers, and non-profit executives all do a lot of business courting donors and clients over food.

This isn't a time to be edgy with restaurant choices but often a time to roll out something that's at least a little bit impressive: I do a lot my own business entertaining at decent, but uncreative places like Morton's that I know won't offend anyone.

The ability to spend someone else's money, furthermore, means that the price considerations that make home cooking attractive just don't make sense. Casa Nonna, the best humble red sauce Italian place in the orbit of K Street, has check averages only a few dollars less than Morton's and, as a result, uses some ingredients you can't easily get for a home kitchen.

Work schedules also play a role. A huge portion of D.C.'s work force either bills hourly or works for the government. Hourly-billers don't make money (mostly) when they aren't in the office or conducting meetings. Government agencies, often lacking concrete ways to measure results, tend to do as much as possible to keep workers monitored and at their desks.

An economy more based on smaller enterprises, sales, or one with more entrepreneurs would also be one that gave more people more schedule flexibility -- just what's needed to have a sit down lunch or dinner that isn't either romantic in nature or intended to schmooze a client/donor.

Zoning codes haven't helped. The city's height limitation makes each square foot of street front space in already expensive areas even more valuable and costly -- not something that's good for the business model of a sit-down restaurant that might collect $10 per check. Rules that both make it difficult to run a restaurant kitchen anywhere other than the first floor or basement of a building and, simultaneously, give incentives and assess penalties in many parts of town for creating restaurant space, tend to create an economic bias towards higher cost restaurants.

And I've left out a number of other factors -- D.C.'s lack of large immigrant communities, a large transient population, and localized cultural factors beyond the workplace -- that are a lot harder to quantify or tie directly to the lack of home cooking restaurants.

At the margins, public policies that reconsidered the height limitation, made it easier to open restaurants in unconventional locations, and encouraged businesses other than those related to the government in the District would probably create the home cooking restaurants that D.C. lacks. But many of the factors are probably beyond anyone's ability to control. Overall D.C. just isn't the type of city where home cooking is ever going to really make it.

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