DC Food 2010: My Take

DC food is tricky. I find that the word-of-mouth for new restaurants tends to die out after only a couple weeks. this makes it hard to find what’s new and what’s good. So as a result, I don’t go out to eat in DC very often. When I do, it usually is because I happen to be in DC already and go eat after work. also, whenever restaurant week opens up, my eyes grow wide as my friends and I settle on a restaurant to try. So far, these are the restaurants that have stood out for me:

La Taberna del Alabardero
1789
Hook
Marrakesh
DC Coast

These are restaurants I’d be more than happy to go to again because they serve solidly good food. I don’t think DC lacks in good food at all, and thankfully it is being recognized. We have peruvian chicken featured on Anthony Bourdain’s no reservations, Chef Jose Andres has several landmark restaurants and a cable tv show , and DC favorite Georgetown Cupcake owners are getting their own reality tv show.

Obviously, we appreciate good food.

We also have some standout people that are doing incredible things, like the woman who cooked through every recipe in the french laundry cookbook who is now tackling the alinea cookbook. Alain Ducasse has chosen DC as the city to open his new restaurant Adour, located in the St. Regis Hotel. Some chefs are taking the lead on bringing food trends to DC, like Jose Andres with Mini Bar, Liberty Tavern restaurant group with their high end coffee and wine bar North Side Social, and Chef Yasu has brought some unbelievable Japanese sushi and cuisine to Vienna, VA at Sushi Yoshi.

So what do I have to complain about then? We have big names making great food. We have people willing to pay for that great food. What are we missing?

Guts. Courage. Ingenuity. Foresight.

What I think keeps us from being on the Eater.com list and keeps us as a minor food destination (as opposed to NYC, LA, Seattle, and Miami, which I consider the heavy hitters) is that we are not at the forefront of food trends. We don’t really have anything new, but rather, it’s following a trend established somewhere else. My only really solid examples are frozen yogurt, cupcakes, and real Japanese food:

Frozen Yogurt Trend

This is the trend related to the high-end, naturally tangy, frozen yogurt treat that is usually served with your choice of fruit toppings, cereal toppings, or candy toppings. when you think fro-yo, and the names Mr Yogato, TangySweet, Iceberry, Yogiberry, or Yogen Fruz come to mind – then you probably did not hear about this high-end fro-yo until it came to DC. If you thought of the name PinkBerry first, then you were ahead of the rest of DC. PinkBerry opened in 2005, concentrating most of its stores in southern california, followed by Red Mango in 2007. This is a hugely popular trend, especially with its advertised health benefits and fresh ingredients.

DC wouldn’t get this trend until 3 years after LA:
Mr. Yogato – 2008
TangySweet – 2008
Yogiberry – 2009
IceBerry – 2008
Yogen Fruz – 2008

Cupcakes

The high-end version of these hand-held treats are currently la mode for birthdays and for a quick pick-me-up. I think these cupcakes got very brief national attention with a quick shout-out to Magnolia Bakery in the Lazy Sunday video by Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg from SNL. It is very hard to trace when cupcakes really became a food trend, but the Lazy Sunday video is from 2005, so that’s a good starting point. When did DC start getting bakeries who specialized in cupcakes?

Georgetown Cupcake – 2008
Bake Shop – 2009
Red Velvet – 2009
Hello Cupcake – 2008
Baked and Wired – 2009
North Side Social – 2010

Estimating about 3-4 years difference between DC and NYC for the cupcake, trend, I think we have reached cupcake saturation. It may take another year to really permeate the suburbs, but as far as DC goes – I’m kind of over the cupcakery goodness.

To quote Jack Donaghy from a 2008 episode of 30 Rock.

Let’s see, we’re using credit cards in cabs now. All the galleries have moved to Chelsea, and we’re off cupcakes and back to doughnuts.


Real Japanese Food

Japanese food is not just sushi and miso soup. If you haven’t had a chirashi or katsu or high-end ramen, you should consider re-visiting Japanese food to get a more rounded experience. The high-end ramen I got to eat early 2009 when I was in NYC was at Ippudo, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and more recently Rai-Rai Ken. I also got to have some great Japanese dishes at Soba-ya and one of my favorites, Katsu-Hama. high-end Japanese food has broken out of its sushi-and-miso stereotype and has expanded to include some really delicious and complex high-end ramen, berkshire pork katsu (an interesting question is when DC will get berkshire pork), soba noodles, pork buns, mountain yams, and yakatori.

Although DC has been pretty good about serving non-sushi Japanese meals, we have not yet caught onto the high-end ramen trend that seems to be outrageously popular in NY. We have hope, though, as Ren’s Ramen opened late last year in Bethesda. I haven’t eaten there yet, but knowing the trend is here is a comfort – we are only about 2 years behind on this one (Ippudo opened in early 2008). Hopefully we will see this trend get popular because I love ramen! For now I will have to settle for Sushi Yoshi or Sushi Yama for my Japanese food cravings.

So why do I care about all this?

Really, this is more for me – on a more personal level, I care because I hate it when people tout “x” “y” or “z” as the latest food trend, when it has already been done years before. You know people like this, who have such a DC-centric view that they think we are the birthplace of innovation and trends. These are the same people who try to tell me peruvian chicken was originated in DC and the Metro (a really bad version of the NYC subway)  never gives them a problem (and therefore works fine). While I admittedly am not a big fan of DC as a city, I think I’ve got some ground when I defend my view of DC as not being on the cutting edge when it comes to food trends.

When I think about trends, I tend to go back to the diffusion of ideas curve (below):

For the example of frozen yogurt, if the inventors are the innovators, then I would say the southern California and NYC areas are the early adopters. Early adopters are described as:

These individuals have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the other adopter categories. Early adopters are typically younger in age, have a higher social status, have more financial lucidity, advanced education, and are more socially forward than late adopters

DC would fall into the early majority group, which I think is fittingly described as:

Individuals in this category adopt an innovation after a varying degree of time. This time of adoption is significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. Early Majority tend to be slower in the adoption process, have above average social status, contact with early adopters, and show some opinion leadership

Why should anyone care about all this?

I think we have a lot of people that crave good food in DC, but our demand vastly outnumbers the supply. We just don’t have the same potential for a chef as they would in NYC or LA or Seattle. NY offers the best of the best in the nation (and in the world), LA offers celebrity chef status akin to those of movie stars (think Wolfgang Puck), and Seattle offers quite possibly the freshest ingredients and the community to back an organic, free-range, pasture-roaming, hormone-free, macrobiotic menu. What does DC have to offer? politics? egos? I think I know what we offer that entices chefs and restaurant groups alike: Money. This leads to a few possibilities:

  1. Restaurants open with the ultimate interest in making money first, good food a distant second. Think about how many chains have opened up and squeezed out the great home-owned places – Chinatown is now so overrun with chain restaurants/businesses that the only way you know you’re in Chinatown is the arches they have kept up (until they figure out how to replace it with tvs). The spread of chain restaurants is rampant, making it harder and harder for independent restaurants to get a good foothold.
  2. The supply and demand works against us, the consumers. the good restaurants know they’re good. they try to be better all the time. they know that people will come to their restaurants and are willing to pay a little bit more than they would for a comparable meal at another place. So the restaurants can up-charge a little bit more than a similar restaurant in another city like NY. You can spend the same amount in DC as you can in NYC for a comparable steak dinner at a relatively nice place. Knowing that NYC real estate is more expensive than DC’s, it would be reasonable to say that DC is overcharging for the same meal — but you don’t really notice because everyone’s doing it. Similarly, there is little motivation to made giant strides in culinary exploration because there is no really competition from other restaurants as a motivator. People like Jose Andres and Barton Seaver (who really are brilliant people) look even more brilliant and amazing because they’re being compared to chefs not pursuing food advancement.

So what is the solution?

As a consumer, we are kind of screwed – for now. I would initially say, don’t eat at chains. But that’s not a really sustainable solution to constantly eat at independent restaurants (unless you have a ton of money). I would suggest that everyone be choosy and mindful of where they’re eating. Some places like restaurant eve offer the organic, free-range, grub-fed chickens you’re looking for, and for the same price as you’d pay for a chicken at another comparable place.

Encourage and support the restaurants (not chains) that you like, you are showing potential investors that DC can and will support independent restaurants and that we’re smarter than your average eater. We should look at new food trends in other cities and bring them back. Or if a food trend starts here, we should encourage it and give your opinions on Yelp or Twitter or Facebook. We will only become a culinary mecca if us critics (we’re all critics) start demanding more and giving our money (remember, its one of the big draws to DC?) to the places we feel deserve it. I’m not necessarily talking about just high-end places, I’m talking about any food you like and love.

  • by avoiding chains, you release their stranglehold.
  • by eating at the independents, you encourage more independents.
  • by cooking at home, you support local agriculture and your own culinary prowess.

I’d like to leave with an updated line from when harry met sally:

Food is to the new millennium what theater was to the 80’s

Afterthought:
I was thinking about this post, and a thought occurred to me. What if DC does not want to be in the fore-front of food trends or be a culinary destination akin to NY or LA? Maybe the city in general is not willing to take risks, only taking in the more established food trends. This wouldn’t surprise me as DC seems to be a more conservative city than NY, LA, Seattle, or Miami – we aren’t as quick to embrace the new and interesting and potentially groundbreaking – we’d rather wait and see if its a success in other cities and then jump on board. Maybe we’re more scared of failure than other cities? Maybe our egos are put in front of our passion for good food?

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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    You didn’t include any Belgian joints! Brasserie Beck is hands down my number 1. Great for either a nice sit down dinner or for hanging out at the bar and ordering some amazing Belgian beer and moules frites! Mmmmoules.

  2. Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I’m still not entirely sure of my opinion on this but I think of a couple things.

    1. This city has no soul. Meaning that it has no draw to the outside community. When you’re in NYC you want to go into the city. Hell, when you’re here you want to go to NYC. I hardly ever want to go into DC.

    2. It’s about marketing, when you think of Seattle, NYC, or LA you think hip, trendy, young people, exciting lifestyles, cutting edge industries. When you think DC you think Government Contractors, Monuments to the past, hick tourists, preppy kids in suits, and at it’s most exciting – Sex Scandals. Sometimes stereotypes reflect the truth.

    3. It just doesn’t seem like the majority of people in the DC metro area care about being trend setters. Besides you, I don’t see anyone upset about the lack of cutting edge food and art in this region, I think they all got fed up and moved to Seattle.

    That said. I REALLY want some of that Ramen today.

  3. Jessika
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Cakelove! 2002
    Tachibana = right on par with Sushi Yoshi if not better. the clientele is mostly Japanese and the sushi chefs are classically trained in Japan.

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