Mark Furstenberg on DC's food scene
Yesterday's Washington Post Magazine focused on "food," with three articles, one on DC's craft brewing scene, a feature on dinner parties, written by the paper's food critic, and the major piece by Mark Furstenberg ("What's missing from D.C.'s food scene? A lot"), former proprietor of Mavelous Market (a local bread and food store with multiple outlets) and Breadline, a sandwich shop near the White. Furstenberg is known for re-introducing artisan bread into the city.
The craft beer story by Fritz Hahn was very good as well ("Brewed awakening: D.C.'s beer scene is close to great").
It was a baby step forward for the paper to have a locally-focused theme for the Magazine, which like the Style and other feature sections of the paper, seems to have lost its way and increasingly features uninteresting and less relevant stories, even if I still read many of them. (For example, the main story in last week's Magazine was on Ted Nugent and his pro-gun, conservative movement--I read because I am still fond of his music, at least Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, since we both hail from the Detroit area--but the article wasn't all that interesting.)
But the package could have been a lot better. I would have had at least three more stories--what is the regional agriculture movement and developments within it (such as in Virginia, with food hubs, etc.) and is the development of the locavore movement shaping this system; on the state of the suburban food and restaurant; a story on public markets, private markets, and farmers markets; plus a bunch of sidebars on people and issues.
Furstenberg seems to really understand how small business works, in large part because he ran small businesses (his sister was also one of the founders of the Politics & Prose bookstore), and so he understands that high rents make it hard for independents to succeed.
He says Washington has a difficult time developing a food culture because it has an "essentially suburban character," and people mostly go to big mostly uninnovative supermarkets to shop, that there are few artisan and specialty options.
He is attuned to the fact that buildings owned by national and international actors rent to chains rather than independents, and how local restauranteurs and the national restauranteurs that are following them into the market (like Stephen Starr from Philadelphia/New York, Danny Meyer, etc.) are mostly focused on business and replicating concepts, rather than putting out unique and memorable meals.
And how food trucks seem to be adding diversity to cuisine, but they aren't for "sitting down" making it hard to enjoy eating from a food truck (or at least they appeal to a certain segment of the market), and he is unsure of their staying power.
(I think that food trucks are here to say because of comparably lower barriers to entry and the cost of having a bricks and mortar restaurant. What we haven't seen of as much in this market is food trucks generating sitdown restaurants, and restauranteurs just thinking about food trucks as one more revenue stream.)
He is also clued into the fact unlike regionally strong supermarket chains elsewhere in the country, Giant isn't innovative and hasn't figured out they could create an upscale division. He mentions HEB's Central Market--Giant-Eagle's Market District is another example. (I've written about that issue here, "Urban retail #4: how to prevent the coming failure of the DC region's Giant Supermarket chain.")
He missed a couple points I think.
1. He discusses the popularity with chains. This results from a couple things about familiarity. People visiting the city have been shaped by the restaurant and food culture that is offered to them where they live, that's mostly chain restaurants, and they seek familiar places to eat when they travel elsewhere. (The "foodie" culture and the cultural tourism segment of the tourist market are still small segments of the consumer market.)
2. He does discuss a bit that DC was never an industrial city and so it never attracted the massive groups of immigrants that settled down in particular neighborhoods for generations ("Chinatown," "Little Italy" etc.) anchoring immigrant cuisines and food culture. DC did have immigrant neighborhoods, but the pull of suburbia was so strong, especially with the introduction of school integration and then the impact of the riots, that these neighborhoods changed very rapidly, and loss their ethnicity.
3. He attributes Baltimore's seafood cuisine heritage from the Chesapeake but doesn't really recognize that the old working class DC had a similar heritage, with seafood and oyster houses throughout the city. The seafood restaurants on Maine Avenue SW were a big tourist draw.
4. The restaurants appealing to "Washington as a Federal City," from Duke Zieberts to Harvey's how their cuisines were ordinary, and didn't last, but didn't foster creativity while they were at their peak.
5. He mentions neighborhoods like Bloomingdale and Petworth developing new and interesting food options.
But I think this is happening because the neighborhoods are experiencing not just resident turnover--part of the static nature of the food and restaurant culture in the city comes from population stability and decline not providing enough customer support to open and maintain restaurants--but also adding new and younger residents because of the addition of multiunit housing in commercial corridors such as at the Petworth Metro on Georgia Avenue, in Greater Capitol Hill such as on the Riverfront, on H Street NE, on U and 14th Streets in Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights, etc.
As more neighborhoods achieve a critical mass of new residents and residents eating out but also cooking at home (this is still a wild card), it becomes easier to support specialty restaurants at the neighborhood level--Domku in Petworth is still one of the most "original" restaurants in the city at this juncture--and maybe even markets, although markets are more likely to be successfully offered as an element of a restaurant.
6. Mumbo sauce notwithstanding ("Mumbo sauce: The flavor of Washington 'that isn't'" from 2011 and "Mumbo sauce gets gentrified" from 2013 in the Post), another indicator of the previously static population dynamics and the lower incomes of residents was the strong presence of carryouts throughout the city. This is also an indicator perhaps of an inability or unwillingness to cook. If you can't cook, you're not going to be patronizing specialty markets and butchers.
The carryout genre could have been another story in a food issue package as well.
Streets of Washington writer John De Ferrari is writing a book on Washington's restaurants and UMBC cultural studies professor and Takoma Park resident Warren Belasco aims to write a book on Washington's food culture also. He's already written two books on foodways, culture, and change, Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry and Food: The Key Concepts.
It will be interesting to see what they contribute to our understanding of these issues.