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.