We the Hungry: The Meaning of Eating in the Capital

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"On this beat, we eat," my colleague said.

It was 1993, and I had just returned to Washington, at 30, to become a White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Although I knew that the expense-account lunch was an essential tool of West Wing reporting, I didn't know the dedication with which I would deploy it. U.S. News can no longer afford a print edition, but money was plentiful then. And so there was the quattro formaggio penne at I Matti with Rahm Emanuel (although the former ballet dancer had a simple linguine aglio e olio); the linguine all'astice at Galileo's with John Podesta; the Dover sole with Mack McLarty at the appropriately named Maison Blanche.

Thankfully, vestiges of the old, African-American Washington still abide, most notably Ben's Chili Bowl and the Florida Avenue Grill, each founded after World War II during the black migration north.

Always horizontally challenged, I grew wider as my sourcing got better. None of those once-hot restaurants, though, is around anymore. In its first incarnation on P Street, Galileo was a favorite of Nancy Reagan's and George Will's, the creation of Roberto Donna, a chef-owner who would dominate the city in the '90s with restaurants catering to various expense accounts. It's a capital tale: His restaurants are gone now, and Donna is in court with tax problems.

Anthropologists say that you can understand a culture through its dining—its "food pathways," to use their term of art—just as you would its religion or art. That's no less true of Washington, where the city's restaurants are a subtext into its psyche.

As with most other American cities, dining here is incomparably better now than it was 25 years ago. When I graduated from Columbia College in the mid-1980s, New York City's Chinese restaurants, for instance, were blisteringly alive with piquant Szechuan and Hunan in every neighborhood, while Washington, where I moved, clung to bland Cantonese. For a brief time, a Szechuan outpost, financed by the People's Republic itself, operated under the old New Republic offices on 19th Street. Tellingly, it couldn't find an audience and quickly folded, replaced by a fondue joint that continues to this day. An establishment specializing in melted cheese always seemed an odd choice in a city known for its humid, swamplike mien. A goopy mess, this city was.

Now there's more and better of everything, especially in the suburbs. There, ethnic communities—such as the Vietnamese, with their immigration spurred by wars involving the U.S.—settled, creating a constellation of strip-mall gems, small restaurants nestled between tanning salons and real estate offices. John Kennedy famously dismissed Washington as a city of "Northern charm and Southern efficiency," but the restaurants mark a capital that's more international, more London than Richmond.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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