Angry Rant From a New Yorker: Why D.C. Lacks Character

By Ben Adler

Kriston raises an important issue underlying all of D.C.’s culinary shortcomings: the lack of local character. I see several reasons for that.

The first is that D.C. was never a major industrial city. In this nation of immigrants much of what we think of as local character, from cuisines to accents, is derived from a mother country. So, for instance, New York, Philadelphia, even Providence and New Haven, have their delicious variations on Italian dishes due to the big Italian immigrant communities. Ditto for Greek food, Eastern European food, and its Jewish subset, in New York, and for Greek, Polish and German food in Chicago. These immigrants from Europe came during America’s industrial heyday, when manufacturing and shipping jobs were plentiful. But D.C. was never a primarily industrial city and it did not experience the same direct immigration boom. Most D.C. residents of European descent came after spending at least a generation elsewhere in America. This explains not only the dearth of good white ethnic cuisine in D.C., but also of other traditional immigrant-based businesses, such as good Irish dive bars.

A secondary cause is probably the massive white flight D.C. suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. All the aforementioned cities also suffered white flight, but some ethnic enclaves remained. D.C. suffered from extraordinary crime rates and unusually decrepit public schools, so most of the few gems, like the Vace Italian market in Cleveland Park, did not last.

Another possible culprit is the height restriction. Since buildings cannot be built very tall in D.C., real estate is excessively expensive, particularly downtown. Consider, for instance, the fact that D.C. has a large Ethiopian community and some solid Ethiopian eateries. But there are none downtown, presumably because the rent would be too high. So downtown is dominated by chains with no character. The high cost of living, and the legacy of high crime, has also meant that more recent immigrant groups, such as Koreans and Vietnamese, have generally settled in the suburbs. They have authentic restaurants out there, but not much in D.C. proper. (There are a few decent Vietnamese places.)

Finally, I would point to the utter lack of character in D.C.’s larger region. Kriston should correct me if I’m wrong, but it looked to me like the place in Austin he shows is essentially an embodiment of Texas, cowboyish (or bluegrass) culture, rather than Austin per se. But Austin is part of that. What is D.C. part of? The Mid-Atlantic region. That’s not a cultural region, its a way of identifying a handful of states between the Northeast and the South. Other than crabs from the Bay, what are the hallmarks of Mid-Atlantic cuisine and culture? There’s no Mid-Atlantic accent. Many cities, such as Memphis and Nashville, have establishments that embody elements of larger regional culture, such as Blues and Country music, respectively. Cuisines, such as barbecue, go with that. D.C. has the misfortune to be in one of the country’s less interesting regions.

14 responses to “Angry Rant From a New Yorker: Why D.C. Lacks Character

  1. I do get the basic blog-world concept that if I don’t like the blog I should go read a different one. And maybe that’s all I should do. But I think the “angry new york guy who doesn’t like DC food offerings” thing gets mighty old. There are more great, and more good, places to eat here than in all but a handful of cities in the country. It’s not New York, I got that. But anybody who misses the food of his hometown can go visit there from time to time.

  2. I have to agree with Sam here. I like this blog for it’s general food discussion, and as a DC transplant myself, I too like to moan about it’s shortcomings. But come on folks, there’s been a lot of complaining lately – bagels (and you are hardly the first people to write on this topic – see Heartburn by Nora Ephron), restaurants, character, pizza. Give it a rest, how about a recipe or something, I don’t know, actually good about DC.

    PS Yglesias is totally right about cold brewing.

  3. The post is premised on vaguenesses like “character” and “interesting” that are eye-of-the-beholder , plus qualifiers like “d.c. proper” that make the whole thing meaningless.

    You want regional food dating some time back, there’s plenty of good African-Am cuisine, which the post weirdly avoids — what’s up with the limitation to white food? Plenty of Salvadoran and Ethiopian food, with long-standing communities.

  4. pomme de terre

    The whole “DC has no character” diatribe is tiresome because it’s a city that was built explicitly for people from the rest of the country. The founding fathers picked a capitol city at the midpoint of the 13 original colonies, and ever since there has been a contingent of people who a) call someone else “home” and b) come and go as politics dictate. There’s an element of transience to the DC population that manifests itself in many ways, including in food.

    That reality lends the city an element of what some deem artificiality or soullessness, but that’s a glass-half-empty approach. When I lived in DC and NoVa, I liked the influx of different people from around the country and what traditions (food and otherwise) they brought to the table. I liked the international feel of the city, highlighted by the embassies (which often have food and wine tastings and such). I’ve had some great meals in DC, both at restaurants and at private homes.

    The angry New Yorker thing is tiresome. It reminds me of the parents at youth sports games who love to tear into the ref and talk shit about how he knows nothing about the game, but would never, ever in a million years take the time to umpire a game themselves.

    If you truly think there’s a dearth of a certain kind of restaurant in DC, try to start a place to meet that demand. It’s good business sense and good karma. But bellyaching is unhelpful and doesn’t make for good reading.

  5. The NE and the mid-Atlantic regions both have traditional cuisine. Two of ’em in fact… a coastal cuisine built around the local seafood, and a farm based one.

    Part of the problem is that NYC is naturally part of the NE’s coastal food culture. It’s a port and fishing city, and the traditional foods of New York reflect that. Head north along the coast, and someone from the City will find lots of familiar food. And the newer foods will make sense as the native fishes change. Head south along the coast, and (judging from the reactions) things get weird fast.

    The *rest* of New York has a lot more in common with Pennsylvania, inland Maryland and inland New Jersey. Orchard crops are a big deal. Grains are kind of a problem. Garden truck is easy. Pastured cows and chickens are easy. A lot of the foods I think of as Pennsylvania Dutch are familiar to a NY farm family too. Someone will be giving away truckloads of apple butter in the fall. Cobblers and crisps are household staples. Chicken pot pie is made dumplings… which anywhere else in the US would be noodles. Potato salad is sweet. Dunno if upstate NY goes for pickled eggs in beet juice, but it wouldn’t shock me.

    I’m not as familiar with the Mid-Atlantic coastal stuff, but that will be a big influence on DC’s “native” cuisine. For farm derived stuff, Virginian and Marylander black cuisine will be a bigger influence than the Mid-Atlantic traditions.

    None of it will stick out to an American really, particularly an East Coast native. It’s just food, and it’s hard to see the stuff of your childhood as anything special. We don’t really notice the familiar stuff unless it’s really good. A lot of farm cooking is also very calorie dense… not really fashionable these days.

  6. Ben, this is ludicrous. First, I’ve seen you make the DC is no New York complaint many times. We get it! The District’s food offerings are better than all but a handful of cities in this country. Appreciate it for what it is.

    And I feel sorry for you that you don’t get the cultural richness of the mid-Atlantic region. Just because you aren’t familiar with it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I’m a native North Carolinian with family in Virginia and Maryland. Ask me sometime about the local fare in these places. It’s ridiculously good and surprisingly regionally coherent.

  7. I’m going to New York in a couple weeks and I can’t be more excited about it. New York has everything for everyone and DC isn’t New York, but DC does have a lot to offer culinarily. The access to great cuisine may not be as easy as in New York, but it still exists.

    You’re right, mid-atlantic cuisine doesn’t really have much culinary tradition, but DC is pretty much in the south. Though not in the deep south it is below the mason dixon line bordering VA, which held the capital of the confederacy. The ingredients grown in this area lend themselves well to rustic, southern cooking.

    Instead of complaining we should create our own food culture for whatever we feel is lacking in DC. Go to the Dupont farmers market on a Sunday morning and you’ll find fresh local seafood: oysters, clams, softshell crabs, rockfish, and croacker. You’ll also find great meats from lamb, goat, pig, cow, chicken, bison, and soon duck(from Smith Meadows), along with the amazing seasonal vegetables, dried beans(sometimes), and gelato made mostly from local ingredients.

    These are the ingredients of the DC area. This is your base. The possibilities are endless. Add your own character.

    The Dupont farmers market can certainly go head-to-head with the Union Square greenmarket, though the times aren’t as convenient. Make some oysters and grits or grilled asparagus with morel mushrooms from fresh, local ingredients, and appreciate all the great food that we do have in our area!

  8. Opie Curious

    I agree with some of what the complainers are saying. But I think there’s more to this phenomenon than just food complaints. For instance, Colin’s complaint about Ethiopian food being excluded is misguided. Ben specifically mentions it; he also mentions that it’s stuck in some enclaves rather than downtown because it’d be too expensive to own a place downtown. This is probably true! We should be upset about that fact. The African American food complaint is well taken, but the same problem applies. In other cities, yes like New York, you can get a lot of this stuff outside its specific neighborhood. Not so here.

    And as to pomme de terre’s complaint that of course DC has no local culture because it was built for people from elsewhere, well, that’s still problematic. One, we need to examine the reasons they haven’t done more to bring their food to the city. You say they have, but not in any way that’s easy for most of us to find. If that sounds like a lazy complaint, fine, but the success & commercial viability of any restaurant is partly reliant on the ease with which people can locate/access it. Outside of the AfAm, Ethiopian, and Salvadoran areas of town, it’s hard to find interesting cultural food of any kind. Most cities have ethnic concentrations like that, but most places also have at least a few of those ethnic restaurants in other parts of town.

    Two, we need to recognize that this same thing may be part of the reason for many of DC’s non-food ills. It’s part of the reason its schools are so horrible, for one thing; the wealthy here almost universally a) send their kids to private school or b) are here temporarily from elsewhere, so the primary taxbase for the schools doesn’t actually care much about their quality. Whether it’s food or education or anything else, if they’re content to live this way, why do we expect anything to change? Until we start treating public policy in DC as if it’s for DC, it’s going to continue to be bad, and no amount of saying “Lay off our food!” is going to change that.

    If this is what it takes to get the temporary out-of-towners to care about local public policy generally, then I’m all for more bitching about it. If I can help instill in people the idea that DC’s food is inadequate and will remain that way until something is done about broader public policy issues, then I’m happy to play that part. Call it food snobbery for the public good.

    So: DC’s food sucks, and the reason is because the city’s building codes make it that way. We need to allow more commercial density!

  9. As a local, it gets so tiresome to hear transient, white folks diss D.C. (That’s why there was no mention of anything black except for Ethiopian, which doesn’t count, of course.) Nowhere is NYC. How much larger is NYC than DC? So, how much more variety is there? Give me a break. Next, we’ll hear the tired white folks’ complaint about poor customer service. Then the tired white folks’ complaint about how much the Orange line sucks. I actually am a white guy and I don’t find the customer service here that bad. I actually like food and look for good food, and I think there are excellent restaurants and options all over town. African, South American, European, Nouvelle cuisine, Asian. The thing I do find missing is really good BBQ, but since you have to go to Memphis or other specific places to get it, that means lots of other places don’t have it, either. This all harkens back, for me, to the complaint about no good sandwich place, when what he meant was no good sandwich place in downtown or upper NW.

  10. Pingback: Why I don’t Appreciate D.C. Food « The Internet Food Association

  11. I googled New Yorker in DC and this came up. Its funny how I have ALL the same issues with DC as the poster. I will be moving to DC for employment reasons, as its been tough in NY, especially in finance. I fear I will miss the culture of a city with character. To me DC and its surrounding areas are like generic chains and suburbs that look like they were built 10 years ago. I will miss the Joe’s Pizzas, Frank’s Delis, and Paul’s Barber. Instead I will be stuck with Papa John’s, Subway, and the Hair Cuttery. Thanks economy.

  12. John A. Miller

    Being from New York and now living in the DC area I also have to agree. My wife is from Sao Paulo Brazil which has a very large Italian, Portuguese and German population and has great food and she says the food here in DC is horrible. It lacks charecter or any kind of style it seems. I went to get a Pastraimi sandwhich at a Jewish deli and I did not see anyone who looke dJewish or looked like they knew or cared how to make the food good.

  13. John A. Miller

    Furthermore you had hispanics and Asinas making pizza and you would just not see that in New York. And the prices are about the same as New York for smaller portions and food that taste like crap. I had a sandwhich from an Irish restaurant that says it’s real Irish with the stalest bread I have ever tasted. They don’t care about the food they make which makes them soulless and that to me is why the food here sucks.

  14. Pingback: Why I don’t Appreciate D.C. Food | kashwaynepromotion.com

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