What's missing from DC's food scene? This outsider may have some ideas.
Two months ago I left my post as Marketing Director for the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses in San Francisco and embarked on a journey back to the East Coast, settling not in my hometown near New York City but in our nation's capital. I was hungry to step out of my San Francisco food bubble.
I've since chipped away at the google doc I crammed with the names of restaurants, retailers and food makers to try. To get a sense of how the District's food scene measures up against my San Francisco and New York City templates, I've drilled new friends who work in the DC food business about how they engage the community and where they like to eat.
Mark Furstenberg's critique of the DC food-scape in the Washington Post last week invited me to pause and think about what I've digested here. At this point I'm still an outsider getting my bearings, but now that I'm working with retailers and food makers to strengthen the community around their brands, I want the best for everyone involved in getting good food into Washingtonians' mouths. Having worked for four years telling the story for Bi-Rite, the first business Furstenberg lists as setting a standard, I have some good reference points.
Here's what I think DC's got going on, where props are due:
- Un-jadedness. By this I mean that Washingtonians don't need the prospect of eating sea urchin gonads to get them excited--a great foie gras will do just fine. They line up to taste Number 1 Sons' pickles, still appreciating the novelty of kimchi which for New Yorkers or San Franciscans can feel so last year.
- Technologically enhanced systems for handling the dining experience. Somehow San Francisco, a city of web coders, Googlers and Apple staffers, hasn't connected the dots that a restaurant can manage its wait by leveraging the power of the cell phone. When my boyfriend and I put our name on the list at Little Serow we were met with a daunting three hour wait (well worth it!), but the hostess managed us beautifully by sending us texts with updates until we were happily seated. Hostesses successfully use texting to manage the wait at Le Diplomate too, so we could enjoy our campari and soda at the bar knowing where we stood.
- Eagerness. Speaking of Le Diplomate, Furstenberg bashes it as "a Disney World caricature", but after two weeks in France last month I can say there's a lot of authenticity here, and they've hired a staff who will stop short of nothing to endear themselves to the diner. Our server went out of his way to volunteer favorite rock albums that he didn't want us to miss. And whoever Sam Groh has volunteering to peddle his Grohnola at Columbia Heights and other farmers markets knows how to get me excited about the only granola made in DC. (Worth mentioning that Grohnola wasn't even on the list of DC artisan food makers that Sam Hiersteiner compiled in rebuttal to Furstenberg's critique, which leads me to believe many others were probably missed).
- Ethiopian food. Can we give a holler for eating with our hands?? Things just taste better without a metal spike delivering them to the mouth. And fingers are so good at sopping the right amount of sauce into the crannies of the injera. Plus, when my meal comes with a pulsing dance and singing performance as it does at Dukem, we're really celebrating. There's a quote I love from an Ethiopian text that says "those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other." It's a blessing that the friendship and loyalty inherent in this style of eating graces our capital, where connection and understanding is so important. Next on my Ethiopian bucket list is Sidamo, where I'll see how this ethos translates to coffee culture.
- Beauty that comes from smaller scale. Give me the stripes of summer squash lined up in little baskets, mushrooms that look like seashells, and hydroponically grown lettuces so beautiful they could double as a centerpiece at the Dupont Circle farmer's market...I'll take these over the throngs that line up at San Francisco's Ferry Building market any day and jaded sales people who don't have time to engage.
- Patbingsu. Pat is the Korean shave ice dessert that I fell in love with last summer in Seoul and have hunted down across LA, San Francisco, New York and now the broader DC area. The best version I've found state-side is at Shilla Bakery in Annandale, a haven for everything sweet. This was a perfect interlude between the Korean BBQ at Honeypig and kimchi ingredient shopping at H Mart.
- Roof decks! Screw any contest between bartenders, mixologists or whatever we want to call people who make our cocktails--I'll take any cocktail they give me up in the open air on a DC summer eve over one I have to drink inside a San Francisco bar, cozied up from the windy, grey winter in July.
So what are the next steps? How can the food scene get even better here?
- We need to do a better job telling the story behind the great food that is available. I'm getting the sense, for example, that people here don't realize how big of a deal it is that Glen's Garden Market in Dupont sells, aside from a handful of staples, exclusively foods grown or created by farmers and artisans in DC, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. So I'm working with them to spread the word. It takes a LOT more time and energy to buy food directly from the people who produce it than through distributors, so retailers who are going to the trouble to offer such special products need to make sure customers know it.
- Make a bigger deal of natural, healthy, organic foods, wherever available, than is being made. There's a full on smoothie and juice bar in the Chinatown Walgreen's and no one's talking about it! That's a BIG deal, a nod to health I haven't seen in Duane Reade, CVS, or any other national pharmacy chain--DC media needs to celebrate it. Similarly, I'd heard that Gary Cha's Yes! Organic Market was pioneering a healthier assortment of fresh foods in DC neighborhoods that didn't have access, but after visiting a couple locations I left disappointed that the produce was limited, prepared foods were nil and no cues were given to customers about what to get excited about. A better story needs to be told on the store floor if Yes! is truly selling "all these cereals and breads that you don’t see in Giant", because I didn't notice them. If Cha's product is tastier than what we find at the grocery chain, healthier for the environment, or more unique, he needs to invest in signage that tells that story and a staff who understands how what they sell is special and is enthusiastic about communicating it.
- Large chains need to keep their DC locations up to speed with the globalized character of their audiences. Just like Furstenberg on his own Persian ingredient hunt, I went to Whole Foods, Yes!, and Giant in search of Sumac and left empty-handed. We live in an utter melting pot so stores should help us cook like it.
- Be a leader in combatting food waste. Did you know that about 3.25 billion pounds of food waste from supermarkets was sent to the landfill in 2008, and that's only climbing? It's our responsibility as the nation's capital to push retailers in our city to lead the charge on ground-breaking ways to minimize what they throw out. Retailers should create seamless programs whereby they either use bruised fruit and vegetables, meat nearing expiration, day old bread, and other unsellable but perfectly good food in their kitchens for prepared foods (like the folks at Bi-Rite), or partner seamlessly with local organizations to get it into the mouths of hungry residents.
OK now I'm going to get all yogic on ya. Ever wonder what our favorite Top Chef hostess's last name means? Lakshmi is the goddess of abundance in the Hindu tradition, reminding us of the "enoughness" in both our life and within ourselves. In this spirit, let's keep our attention on the places where the District is innovating and leading the way. There's more international flair in the sandwiches and love in the service at Sundevich, just a pop around the corner from where I live, than in any deli I've walked into in San Francisco. Way to go, all you businessmen in your slacks and collared shirts, sprawling out right on the Farragut Square grass to enjoy your food truck lunch--would not see that in Bryant park, NYC! And the vegan cafe Everlasting Life serves healthy dishes in the African American tradition like I've never tasted before; never before had tahini, blackstrap molasses, spirulina or brewer’s yeast made it into my smoothie, and I was blown away.
My point here is that just as in New York, San Francisco or any other city where one goes in search of the food they consider "good", there are discoveries and appreciation to be had. I look forward to working with retailers and food makers in the District to make sure what they're putting out for us is picked up by (judging from rebuttals to Furstenberg's article like this in City Paper and this in Huff Po), a vast hungry audience.