Although Washington, D.C., has long played host to the world, it's never been known as much of a food town—relegated to "big city" offerings such as let's-make-a-deal steak houses and some international dining. Today, however, a new generation of culturally conscious chefs and restaurateurs is determined to imprint the city with a different culinary identity: its own.
Diners now crave local authenticity, and chefs, taking note, have discovered that D.C. is, make no mistake, a Southern city. It's smack-dab in a widespread agricultural area and steeped in cast-iron cookery, and it enjoys the bounty of a long growing season through the homesteading arts of curing and preserving. Like its coastal counterparts New Orleans and Charleston, the D.C. area benefits from proximity to a plentiful estuary: the Chesapeake Bay, which produces about 500 million pounds of seafood per year.
Although you can track this community-minded chef movement in the White House Kitchen Garden program and the State Department's initiative to promote regional American food, it's more fun to experience D.C.'s sense-of-place cooking firsthand. Meet some of the forces behind Washington's evolving take on Southern fare.
Local Flavor Homegrown entrepreneurs setting the city's culinary pace.
Birch & Barley Among Michael Babin's 12 community-focused restaurants is this New American cooking lodge in Logan Circle where chef Kyle Bailey and his wife, pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, have perfected a fried chicken-and-doughnut dinner. Upstairs, the ChurchKey bar offers more than 550 beers, such as the Eight Point IPA from Virginia's Devils Backbone.
Range At this 300-seat American food town hall, Top Chef alum Bryan Voltaggio makes everything from salumi to wood-fired flatbread and gives diners open-kitchen views of what's coming their way. The Maryland native knows every nook and cranny of the region and sources local produce such as Border Springs Farm heritage breed lamb.
Black Jack Restaurateur Jeff Black converted the second floor of an old automotive store into this bar-centric crowd-pleaser with weekly Blue Plate specials. The weekly star: Sunday night fried chicken and tender bacon-braised greens.
Markets & Producers A bumper crop of gifted artisans.
Cowgirl Creamery The Penn Quarter branch of the famous Bay Area cheesemonger, Cowgirl Creamery is a polished, gourmet-style food shop with well-chosen D.C.-centric pantry products, sandwiches to go, and its trademark artisan cheese collection, plus local farmstead selections.
Union Market At this brand-new planned culinary community on the site of a historic wholesale market in northeast D.C., you'll find a metro-mix of artisan makers and food stalls, including Red Apron Butchery, Lyon Bakery, and Trickling Springs Creamery, an organic and all-natural dairy shop.
Penn Quarter Freshfarm Market This decade-old branch of the area's Freshfarm Markets (which operate 11 producer-only markets) is where you'll find neo-traditionalists such as Sarah Gordon and Sheila Fain of Gordy's Pickle Jar, who celebrate the rebirth of an old craft in their Sweet Pepper Relish and Hot Chili Spears.
Cork Market & Tasting Room An extension of the nearby Cork wine bar, this mashup of wine shop/takeout joint stocks everything to pack a picnic, from smoked ham sandwiches and garlic-herb fried chicken to salted caramel pecan bars.
Eastern Market Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, Eastern Market is the city's oldest continually operated (134 years!) fresh food public market. Join the extra-long line of weekend regulars at The Market Lunch for Blue Bucks—blueberry buckwheat pancakes.
Updated Classics Southern fare reimagined by chefs who mine the past and push the envelope.
Ted's Bulletin The wall-projected black-and-white movies and broadsheet menu featuring clever takes on diner fare give a taste of bygone America. But the biggest draw may be the cocktails masquerading as milk shakes, including the Dirty Girl Scout, a smooth "thin mint" made with peppermint schnapps.
Bourbon Steak At this swank spot in the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, chef Adam Sobel supplies the kitchen from its own 1,000-square-foot garden along the C&O Canal. There, he grows more than 40 different herbs as well as heirloom tomatoes and chiles. Try his chicken-fried veal, layered with pickled green tomatoes, sautéed okra, and tomato gravy studded with toasted sorghum seeds.
Founding Farmers The days of the stodgy power breakfasts are over. At least they are in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, where a democratic mix of locals and lobbyists fuel their day with chef Joe Goetz's fried-to-order beignets and the hybrid high point: griddled red velvet pancakes topped with dreamy whipped cream cheese butter.
Seasonal Pantry Daniel O'Brien works from his vintage Southern cookbook collection at his neighborhood market by day, supper club by night. He puts up green tomato jam and relish for the market and makes shrimp and crab with dirty rice for the supper club. But there's only one seating for a handful of guests, and tickets become available online no more than two weeks before the dinner. You've been warned.
Fresh Catch The order of the day: local, with the best the Bay offers.
Pearl Dive Oyster Place With its worn painted floor, scattershot weathered furnishings, and a 13- by 6-foot window that opens to the street, Pearl Dive has a lived-in feel. Don't miss the cornmeal-crusted Chesapeake oysters with andouille sausage and sweet potato hash.
Hank's Oyster Bar Chef Jamie Leeds' classic coastal style includes seasonal staples such as Chesapeake Bay rockfish, Maryland's official state fish. But the star is Jamie's signature oyster, the meaty and mild Hayden's Reef, developed in collaboration with Dragon Creek Aqua Farm. The don't-miss side: Old Bay fries, sprinkled with Maryland's distinctive seasoning.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market Run by the fourth generation of the Croxton family, this sleek seafood stall features farm-raised boutique oysters. You'll also find an assortment of chowders, D.C. brews, and understandably, more people than seats.
All photos by Scott Suchman