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D.C.: A Great Food City or Not?

A recent article by Mark H. Furstenberg in the Washington Post Magazine has set the D.C. food community into a frenzy. Mr. Furstenberg is a baker and an author who previously owned  Marvelous Market (a homespun deli and bakery) and Breadline (a downtown bakery and restaurant). He has resided in the DC area for 52 years and, arguably, knows a bit about the food scene in our nation’s capital.

Mr. Furstenberg asserts, “Great food cities are ones with a discernible tradition, ones that have good grocery stores and markets; many small stores run by people with single-minded devotion to food craft — to charcuterie, coffee, bread, cheese and ice cream — and relatively easy access to really good produce and other ingredients. Great food cities have restaurants offering varied cuisines at varied price levels, neighborhood restaurants and special-occasion restaurants. They have chefs committed to their cities and focused on their restaurants, and — most important — a sophisticated and demanding clientele intolerant of bad service and bad food.”

He asserts D.C. is far from a great food city because of its lack of good, small grocery stores and diversity of cuisine, culture and price. I don’t disagree with this definition of a great food city. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx comes specifically to mind in addition to the various markets and shops noted by Mr. Furstenberg.

That said, D.C. sure has come a long way from the days when going out meant a special occasion dinner at Trader Vic’s at the then Statler Hilton Hotel at 16th and K Streets, N.W.

Trader Vics
The now defunct Trader Vic’s

Back then, there was no artisanal chocolate — think Robert Kingsbury’s amazing selection of decadent chocolate bars. There were no cheese shops — think Cheesetique and Cowgirl Creamery. And, if you wanted fresh produce, you either grew it yourself or you went to the farm stands along Route 50 on your way home from a weekend at Ocean City, Maryland. Now, we have a bounty of producer-only farmer’s markets in FRESHFARM Markets.

Yes, D.C. has made progress, but I agree that the city still has a long way to go. Not only the city, but the suburbs as well. Diverse, local and fresh cuisine would particularly be welcome along the Route 1 corridor from Alexandria to Lorton. Now, the hungry traveler with a foodie palate can only find less than appetizing chain restaurants who mass produce overly-salty, often fried food. What I wouldn’t give for a little café that serves appetizing sandwiches and salads made with local ingredients! What I wouldn’t give for a good butcher shop in Mount Vernon! Or a fish monger! Or a bakery! I still curse the day that my beloved Brenner’s Bakery went out of business.

Raised with a European sensibility of food uniqueness in relation to place, I agree with Mr. Furstenberg that D.C. needs to continue to attract and support food entrepreneurs. This means access to affordable financing and community support so that dynamic locally-owned and sourced shops and restaurants can thrive.

Thanks Mr. Furstenberg for opening up this dialogue. Yes, there is work to be done. And luckily, we now have a great foundation on which to build. Through efforts like Eat Local First D.C., we can raise awareness and appreciation of the elements of a great food city. And, with our wallets and palates, we can support entrepreneurs who, bit by bit, are transforming D.C. into a great food city.

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