We the Hungry: The Meaning of Eating in the Capital



"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.

Although you can eat better now, some things are lost. The signal that you were a person of good taste was once a simple matter. The grand French restaurant was the hallmark of high-culture D.C., a capital that shared the Bouvier fetish for all things Parisian. It's pretty much gone. Maison Blanche was a lovely retreat, but by the early '90s you never had to call for a table. Maison Blanche, with its leather banquettes and tournedos of veal, was too old school, too James Baker for the Clintonites. They preferred Red Sage, an outpost of a Santa Fe establishment with faux adobe art. It failed, too. Today, what's cool is a more complicated question without an easy answer like l'escargot.

Taste has grown more complex, and money matters more in Washington than it used to. Washington was never a classless city, but back in the days when a civil-service salary could buy a nice house in Northwest Washington, and the suburbs were more rural and less McMansion dominated, class-mixing restaurants such as the late Scholl's Cafeteria were everywhere. Like the carry-your-own-tray restaurants that are still popular in the South, Scholl's served sweet tea and a mixed clientele in terms of race and income. If the dishes were old-fashioned, heavy on Jell-O molds and carrot-and-raisin salads, so was the sentiment: the idea that you could have a restaurant without artifice and with simple food.

Reeve's Bakery, an African-American staple with a specialty in pies, was one of those places, too, but it died when real estate prices soared downtown. 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, when U Street was rich in Duke Ellington instead of ironic hipsters.

It's revealing that the hot culinary trend of the moment is food trucks. Yes, this comes years after they were a staple of L.A. life, but we're a bit slow here. They're ethnic, they're young, they're entrepreneurial, which seems apropos for the age of Obama. But like a Shepard Fairey poster from 2008, they have a bit of doomed hope about them. Brick-and-mortar restaurants are already ganging up on the mobile insurgents, trying to smother their lobster rolls and Banh mi sandwiches with City Council regulations—a Washington moment if ever there was one as policy and power crush the palate. In the meantime, we savor the spring they've brought to the dining scene. I've already treated one Obaman to a truck-served bowl of chicken tikka masala. On this beat, in this city, we eat.