House of carbs: Washington has food fit for a president
Food City, Part 2: For a long time the capital lagged behind other large US cities in terms of the range and quality of food available, but recent demographic changes have seen a culinary culture emerge
Barack Obama holds up a hoagie sandwich at Taylor Gourmet after a discussion with small business owners at the restaurant in Washington DC in 2012. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician in the Netflix drama House of Cards, demolishing a breakfast rack of ribs at Freddy’s BBQ Joint
Think of food and Washington DC, and it conjures the image of Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician in the Netflix drama House of Cards, demolishing a breakfast rack of ribs at Freddy’s BBQ Joint before devouring a political rival. Power certainly builds an appetite, and food is a vital constituent in a city nourished on argument and deal-making, although lately there has been far more of former than the latter.
Strangely for a city where bountiful expense accounts fund big-wallah schmoozing by lobbyists and wheeler-dealers, Washington has lagged behind other large US cities in the range and quality of food on offer. For decades it was a sleepy political city where, by day, world-shaping decisions were made and, by night, important records were stored as the movers and shakers left the large federal buildings for the wealthy suburbs. The 1968 race riots further emptied the city.
The District of Columbia has always had its steakhouses and high-end hotel restaurants for the political classes, but there was a big gap between those and the other end of the spectrum, food counters and ethnic restaurants, most of which were located out in the suburbs. (The DC commuter belt in Virginia and Maryland is home to some of the largest Ethiopian, Bolivian and Salvadoran communities in the US.)
Washington DC had no specific industry to speak of, except the business of government, which, by its cyclical nature, created a transient population. That traditionally made it hard for restaurants – beyond the famous Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria and popular political haunt Sans Souci near the White House (both now closed) – to build a loyal clientele. Another disadvantage was that, unlike other larger cities, DC didn’t have downtown pockets of immigrants to set up ethnic restaurants.
“Immigrants to DC were Americans,” says Dublin-born chef Cathal Armstrong, who owns the acclaimed fine-dining Restaurant Eve outside DC in Alexandria. “They were satisfied with what they got at home and that is the first place ethnic groups go to: what they get at home.”
It would be crude to pigeonhole Republicans as steak-and-veg lovers and Democrats as more adventurous eaters, but staff working for the Bushes (George HW and George W) tended to mirror the eating habits of their bosses, says Armstrong; they didn’t eat out much.
The culinary multilateralists, in the liberal Kennedy and Clinton administrations, left behind a strong culture of going out. The Obamas are even bigger foodies. The president and the first lady have regular “date nights” in restaurants around the DC area. The web page Barackobama eatingthings.tumblr.com – a curious use of someone’s energy – will give you a flavour of how much the 44th American president likes to escape the White House to eat.
With the city’s recent gentrification, Washington can no longer be called “Chocolate City,” as it was affectionately known to many black Americans because of its once majority African-American population. It’s “Chocolate and Vanilla Town” now after the influx of twenty- and thirtysomethings, who have fallen out of love with the suburbs.
Some restaurants reflect the city’s African-American foundations, such as the Florida Avenue Grill on 11th Street, which opened in 1944 and describes itself as “the oldest soul food restaurant in the world”. Here they serve smothered fried pork chops, chitterlings (pig intestines) and other southern classics.
Census statistics show that between 2000 and 2010 the high-consuming 20-34-year-old population rose by 35,000. This demographic now accounts for 31 per cent of the city’s population. To meet the new hunger, a wave of American and ethnic restaurants along with farmers’ markets have opened. Restaurants are opening at a rate of about one a week.
“Compared with other metropolitan areas, DC’s food is not as diverse as New York or Chicago but compared with its past, it’s catching up,” says Joel Denker, food writer and author of The World on a Plate: A Tour through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine.
Spanish-born José Andrés, the first celebrity chef of DC’s recent food renaissance, runs some of the best casual-dining restaurants in the city, and his apprentices have broken out on their own. The 8th Street strip on Capitol Hill, my neighbourhood, has a growing number of decent new restaurants as well as established ones.
Trendy 14th Street is hopping with popular eateries such as Le Diplomate, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Barcelona. “The city has become a living city again in the last 10 years, and in the last five years it has exploded, with people moving back in,” says Greg Algie, owner of The Fainting Goat, a part Irish-owned restaurant and bar on the heaving U Street Corridor.
Supply is struggling to keep up with demand: at some restaurants it’s not unusual for a three-hour wait for a table.
As the conniving, carnivorous Frank Underwood memorably put it while ordering his second helping of ribs: “I’m feeling hungry today.”
CAPITAL GAIN 5 UNMISSABLE WASHINGTON FOOD EXPERIENCES
- Rose’s Luxury You might well have wait for hours for a table outside Rose’s Luxury on Capitol Hill, but it’s worth the wait to watch the busy line of chefs preparing scrumptious food at the chef’s kitchen counter. The pork sausage, habanero and lychee salad is a winner. The restaurant was opened by chef Aaron Silverman, a local Hill resident, in September 2013, and was recently named the US’s best new restaurant by food magazine Bon Appétit. That explains the queues.
- Just out of town Across the Potomac River from DC in Alexandria, Virginia, Restaurant Eve is a place where you’d imagine at a quiet corner table one top politician trying to convince another to be a running mate. Even if they say no, after the scrumptious seven-course tasting menu they’ll at least vote to return to this fabulous restaurant.
- Grasshopper taco, anyone? It’s hard to choose between José Andrés’s Zaytinya and Oyamel Cocina Mexicana restaurants. Zaytinya serves Turkish, Lebanese and Greek cuisine, and every tapas-style plate brings a burst of delicious, fresh flavours. Oyamel’s adventurous food – the grasshopper taco being one example – is matched by its “salt-air” margaritas.
- Happy hipsters Union Market in northeast DC is a favourite of hipsters and worth a visit for the Rappahannock Oyster Bar and the Red Apron Butchery meat counter.
- Dine like a president Fast-food heaven can be found in Capitol Hill’s Good Stuff Eatery. Try the Prez Obama Burger. Elsewhere, Ben’s Chili Bowl is famous for its Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-Smoke hotdog.
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections. We will also have reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com
Next week: a taste of London