DC’s Independent Food Scene: A Work in Progress

Freshly baked artisan bread Mark Furstenberg caused quite a stir this week in his Washington Post article “What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot.” He writes: “I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.” He paints DC as a hapless wannabe nipping at the heels of established foodie meccas like New Orleans and San Francisco. The results of an “unscientific survey of Washington Post readers” (whatever that means) support his assertion, with 64% saying that “no,” DC is not a great food city.

I agree with Furstenberg that we never really developed a food identity. We don’t have the vibrant food traditions of Chicago’s Greektown or LA’s Koreatown, nor do we have the long-standing local food movement of San Francisco, the BBQ of Kansas City, or the crab cakes of Baltimore.

But the problem with the piece is that it’s all about what we don’t have, rather than what we do. It’s a glass half empty critique of a city that is still finding its food identity. I’ve also been here many years–and I’m excited about where we are going.

Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a good slice of pizza in this town except maybe from Vace. Now there’s Pete’s Apizza, Two Amy’s, District of Pi and countless others.

Great bread? In the past, I’d have said forget about it. Now we have Leonora Bakery and Lyon Bakery.  Beer?  Three independent breweries have recently opened in DC alone, as has Port City in Alexandria.  Every day, I learn about another local food venture that is making the culinary landscape here more interesting. From Union Market to smaller restaurants like the Green Pig and the Red Hen, the movement here is taking shape.

Yes, the ubiquity of chains like Au Bon Pain and Chipotle is depressing, though hardly unique to D.C.  We need to do more as a city to support small markets and independent cafes and restaurants. But the way to do this isn’t by bashing DC, as so many have done in the past. We may never be able to compare to New York, LA, Chicago or San Francisco. We are a fraction of their size and will first and foremost be a government town.

But we can grow into a place with a proud local food community—one that supports independent purveyors like Smucker FarmsGordy’s Pickle Jar, MOM’s Organic Market, and Souper Girl. I do believe we have the elements of a wonderful food culture; we certainly have the appetite. Just take a stroll around Logan Circle, Clarendon, Del Ray, Columbia Heights or Silver Spring. The only question now is whether developers, landlords, and investors are willing to work together with independent businesses to make it flourish.

Editor’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, we came across an article by City Paper’s Jessica Sidman, which is a terrific read in support of DC’s food scene

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