If you subscribe to the idea that restaurant critics should look like the communities they cover, the D.C. region has a discrepancy. Only 41 percent of the District’s population is white, according to 2019 data, yet there isn’t a single dedicated critic of color at a major outlet.
Both of the critics at the Post are white, and so is the recently hired reporter who fills in for them; the critic at Washingtonian, plus the two food editors who evaluate restaurants for the magazine’s annual “100 Very Best Restaurants” and “Cheap Eats” issues are white; the critic who splits his time between Bethesda Magazine and Arlington Magazine is white; so was the last critic at Northern Virginia Magazine. Her job is currently open.
While I don’t write restaurant reviews, I’m the only full-time food writer at City Paper. The daily decisions of who and what to cover, and how, fall squarely on my white shoulders. The other staff food writers and food editors at local media outlets are also largely white. Local black media, such as the Washington Informer, Washington Afro American, and DC Black publish food stories, but don’t have full-time food critics on staff.
The District is not an anomaly. Restaurant critics of color are scarce across the country. When newspapers and magazines extend a job offer to a food critic, they anoint them with an unofficial title—arbiter of taste. They’re endorsing a person’s ability to dictate what’s valuable and what’s acceptable, and today’s critics are being asked to review far more than what’s on the plate. No longer can they tip-toe around vital historical context or a chef’s character flaws.
“Restaurant criticism is fundamentally cultural criticism and just as our society isn’t a monoculture, our restaurant critics shouldn’t reflect one,” Korsha Wilson wrote in a February think piece for Eater that addresses the potential blindspots of white critics.
Wilson is one of several writers, including Nikita Richardson, Ernest Owens, and Stephen Satterfield, who have deftly covered the subject. After studying their work, I set out to report with curiosity rather than authority about what D.C. would stand to gain from having critics of color at the table: Greater empathy, more even exposure, and further context.
In “A Critic For All Seasons,” Wilson mulls over what restaurant criticism would look like if it represented diners like her, noting that as far as she can tell there’s only been one black food critic at a major publication—Jessica Harris, who penned reviews for the Village Voice from 1998 to 2002.
Wilson sets the scene by visiting THE GRILL in New York. The restaurant serving caviar vichyssoise soup evokes a mid-century America bedazzled in bronzed opulence. White critics called it everything from spellbinding to smashing. Meanwhile Wilson wonders if she would have even been able to eat there in the ’50s since the Civil Rights Act wasn’t signed until 1964.
“As many black diners know, being in a dining space can often mean choosing between being ignored, interrogated, or assaulted,” Wilson writes. “I suspect that the critics who loved THE GRILL have never had to negotiate these same realities.”
When a region only has white critics, reviews don’t always capture the experiences of diners who don’t look like them. “I realize that some people don’t dig food writing, food criticism, and food journalism,” says Michael Twitty. “It forces them to think about place, race, time, gender, orientation, ability. But all of those things impact your eating experience.”
Twitty won two James Beard Awards in 2018 for his book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. He grew up in D.C. and self-identifies as a food writer, independent scholar, and culinary historian, not to mention black, Jewish, and gay. He’s emerging as one of this generation’s foremost voices on inclusion.
“Imagine you’re a black food critic and you get typical black seating by the kitchen or the bathroom,” Twitty begins. “If I’m writing about a restaurant and they don’t know me from Adam or Eve, they assume I need to be with the rest of the black people. But if you’re not black and you reflect an upper middle class background or beyond, your ass gets put in the window. I’ve been tons of places where I don’t get treated well until I pull out my book. I don’t want to be special. I just want to be equal.”
Some have tried.
Washingtonian published a story in 2018 about an incident where a manager at Kaliwa called the police on a pair of diners of color after a series of disagreements. The diners, who were escorted from the restaurant, say it was a racial issue. The owners denied any bias.
In August, City Paper contributor Sidney Thomas caught Alero Restaurant selectively enforcing a policy that required patrons to hand over identification until they had paid their bills. The Mexican restaurant is on U Street NW—an artery of black culture in the District.
Most recently, local outlets covered how CopyCat Co. fired a black bartender for calling a patron a “black bitch” after a person of color witnessed the incident and wrote a piece for Medium about colorism.
These major incidents went viral, but what about the microaggressions diners of color confront every day?
“People know who you all are,” Johnson says, referring to food critics and reiterating her point. “Your pictures are hanging up. None of those faces are black. None of them know what it’s like to walk into a restaurant and be black.”
Post critic Tom Sietsema talks about the strategy he’s developed throughout his 20-year tenure to put himself in others’ shoes. “I make an effort to eat with people who ‘aren’t me,’ and by that, I mean: women, senior citizens, 20- and 30-somethings, children on occasion, wheelchair users, non-white companions, etc.,” he tells me via email.
He says he hears feedback from readers who feel their “age, sex, color” keep them from getting better service. “I hate to give away trade secrets, but on occasion, I’ll send guests ahead of me and show up after them to see how they were welcomed and where they land in the dining room.”
Our local critics try to write with cultural sensitivity and herald eateries from non-white owners, but the inherent problem with having a homogenous group of food critics and editors, according to local sources in the restaurant industry, is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”Eater recently published a Takoma Park dining guide and included almost every business that sells food, save for one of the best West African restaurants in the region, Mansa Kunda.
Would a diverse critic corps be more inclined to spill ink about underrated restaurants located outside of trendy neighborhoods that are absent from press releases and tasting fêtes?
“If you have more people reaching out to people of color and advocating for people of color going to these places, then everybody wins,” Johnson says. “People of color now get to experience a different dining experience and people who are catering to everyone can gain more money.”
Even when publications put out guides of affordable options, sometimes billed as “cheap eats” lists, Johnson observes that most restaurants sharing the limelight are still sit-down restaurants with full bars. “Be OK with being served out of a plastic cup,” Johnson urges.
The only restaurants Washingtonian labeled as carryouts in its 2019 list of restaurants where you can pay $25 or less per person were Fish in the Neighborhood, Green Almond Pantry, and the U Street NW location of Oohh’s and Aahh’s. Ravi Kabob House I is the closest thing to a carryout on Post critic Tim Carman’s June compilation of “The 25 best casual restaurants in the D.C. area.”
“I will walk into *any* establishment to find something good to eat, including carry outs,” Carman counters via email. He says without going deep into his memory bank, he’s highlighted Peter’s Carryout, Just Jerk, Capitol Hill Crab Cakes (now closed), Callejero’s Tacos, KoChix, Mister Rotisserie, and Meats and Foods.
“I’ve even devoted columns to food trucks and gas station food,” Carman continues. “I just recently sampled the meats at Backyard Smokestop for this year’s barbecue guide. Have I reviewed Yum’s? No. But I’m not sure many people need a professional critic to tell them what they’ll get at Yum’s and the quality of it.”
Johnson created DMV Black Restaurant Week to plug holes in coverage and point Washingtonians toward establishments where everyone’s welcome. The week-long event celebrates black-owned businesses and strives to create pathways to ownership for people of color. From Nov. 3 to 11, black-owned establishments from carry outs and caterers to sit-down restaurants will offer deals. Programming throughout the week includes a conference and cocktail competition.
The exposure is working.
Nadine Brown, the Jamaican-born former wine director for Charlie Palmer Steak and previous Society Fair co-owner, says, “For the most part, the D.C. group does a pretty good job at being inclusive in terms of the places they write about. However, I just looked at the list of participating DMV Black Restaurant Week restaurants and I have not seen any print on many of them and did not know many of them existed.”
Chatting with Brown about the local critic landscape, the first thing she does is send me a picture. It’s of a dinner held earlier this month honoring two of D.C.’s late culinary greats—Michel Richard and Jean-Louis Palladin. Almost all of the smiling chefs who participated in paying tribute to the two pioneers were white men.
“If you took a similar picture of contemporary chefs, it would be very different,” Brown says. D.C.’s current list of culinary stars include Yuan Tang, Kwame Onwuachi, Eric Adjepong, Paolo Dungca, Jorge Hernandez, Daniela Moreira, Faiz Ally, Angel Barreto, Marcelle Afram, Erik Bruner-Yang, Peter Prime, Katsuya Fukushima, and Kevin Tien.
“It’s important to have a more diverse group of people writing to correlate with the change in the restaurant scene,” Brown urges. The “why” is harder to articulate. “Sometimes it’s intangible. Kind of like why you need more women in politics.”
“Both of them are being featured in the best ways,” she says. Each chef has West African roots, starred on Top Chef, and specializes in fine dining. “No one is picking one. There’s room for more than one.”
For decades, the restaurants that garnered the most critical attention were those steeped in French culinary traditions and led mostly by white, culinary school-trained chefs. Critics like the New York Times’ Ruth Reichl and the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Gold had to battle to bring arguably more interesting restaurants into the fold.
Eventually restaurants that didn’t fit the European mold got some attention, but newspapers and magazines only saved a few slots for them per year or per issue, or grouped them together on “cheap eats” lists. Such compilations have the potential to devalue restaurants from owners who are non-white. Restaurateur Diep Tran wrote about the subject for NPR in a 2017 article.
“This view of people of color as sources of ‘cheap’ labor bleeds into our restaurant culture: Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap,” she writes. “Pulling together a ‘cheap eats’ list rather than, say, an ‘affordable eats’ list both invokes that history and reinforces it by prioritizing price at the expense of labor.”
Carman retired the name of his budget-focused review column—“The $20 Diner”—at the beginning of the year and told readers why. “By stripping this column of its previous name, I hope to remove at least one possible stigma about the restaurants that I decide to cover: that they are somehow ‘lesser’ than the ones that might charge higher prices, have table service, offer a full bar or whatever confers prestige among diners,” he writes.
While Carman feels that the notion of slots has been put to bed, he thinks bias toward more refined restaurants remains: “You know, elegant dining rooms. Full service. Wine lists. Craft cocktails. High check averages. These are the places that still get the starred reviews. It’s still rare, I think, to see a fast casual or a taqueria get the star treatment.”
And even when there are white tablecloths and wine lists, some cuisines seem to come with an asterisk. It shocked many when Onwuachi’s Afro Caribbean restaurant at The Wharf didn’t earn a Michelin star this year. “When critics go to these restaurants by non-POCs, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is so refined for this,’” says Onwuachi, a James Beard Award winner.
A critic’s job is more straightforward when they’re weighing one classic French dish against another compared to when they must pass judgement on food they’re trying for the first time.
Onwuachi says a critic’s meal should be about cultural understanding, not cultural exploration. “If you’re figuring this out for the first time at this one restaurant, or maybe you had it one time, how are you the person who is writing and giving a professional opinion?” he asks. If there were more critics of color, Onwuachi contends, they might have different reference points to inform their reviews.
“We have zero representation within food writing at a high level like editorial staff,” Onwuachi says. He’s written about it for Food & Wine. He ponders what white editors crave. “Caribbean or African places? Probably not because it’s not on their minds. They don’t spend their vacations there. People spend their vacation in Florence and when they come back, they want to try that food again.”
While there’s potential to learn more from varied perspectives, there are no absolutes. A white critic is capable of writing a thoughtful, precise review of a Japanese or Peruvian eatery, for example, if they’ve had life experiences that tether them to those cuisines. And just because a critic is black, doesn’t necessarily make them a foremost expert on Cantonese cuisine or even soul food if they haven’t spent time eating it.
Once a white reporter wrote a story about Onwuachi that demonstrated prior knowledge of Trinidadian food. The island nation is one of the places that inspires Onwuachi’s cooking because that’s where his grandfather is from. “He understood it. He had been there. He had eaten it. He seeks it out. You have to have some sort of knowledge on the cuisine if you’re going to give your opinion on it.”
“I only know what I can bring,” explains outgoing Northern Virginia Magazine critic Stefanie Gans. “I’m a girl from Jersey who grew up in a semi-kosher house. I can talk about bagels, whitefish salad, and Italian American Jersey staples with confidence. I’ve been eating professionally for eight years. Do I know when something tastes good? Yes. I’m confident in that. But am I always able to bring a more nuanced approach? No.”
One of Gans’ chief strategies for publishing culturally sensitive and culinarily accurate reviews is to lean on quotes. “I rely on the people cooking the food,” she explains. “If I don’t understand the cuisine, I think of it as a reported piece. I give a lot of quotes from chefs to make sure their voice is heard and I let them fill in the blanks.”
After eight years, Gans left her post at the end of October. “Now that I’m leaving my job, I’m thinking about who would be a good person to come in and fill this roll,” Gans says. “I hope that someone of color is in the position next because I think Virginia deserves someone who looks like who lives here.”
The Virginia suburbs are a bonanza of dining opportunities thanks to the area’s Korean, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, and Ethiopian immigrants. Gans says someone with ties to other parts of the world would add texture to the magazine’s coverage of these cuisines.
She looks to critics like Soleil Ho as a sign of what’s to come. In December 2018, the San Francisco Chroniclenamed the young, female, queer, Vietnamese American its new critic. “She’s going to dismantle the way people are writing restaurant criticism,” Gans says. “She’s out to understand what we’ve been letting slide.”
Ho started out in the restaurant industry, working in the kitchen, where she quickly realized magazine spreads were populated with chefs who didn’t look like her. After making a name for herself as a visionary on the Racist Sandwich podcast and writing for GQ and The New Yorker, Ho took a leap when a critic position opened up. She saw the job’s potential for impact. “That I’m being given the credibility to determine what is tasteful and good is a demonstration that there are other people that have valid things to say about culture,” she says.
But Ho reckons readers were surprised. “People were anticipating a young Michael Bauer,” Ho says. Bauer, who is white, helped define Bay Area food culture but his reign was not without controversy. “The Chronicle had Michael for 32 years. Obviously they were happy with his performance and what he stood for. I represent a pretty stark difference; a swerve away from that method.”
What Ho’s excelled at so far is adding context to her reviews. They resonate more like reported journalism than assessments of food and service. She’s made a crash bang by scratching far below the surface. Her thorough dissection of Le Colonial in September advanced the genre of food criticism.
The decades-old restaurant has a French Vietnamese colonialism theme, which Ho picks apart with help from a historian and a scholar. “I don’t want to go back to that time and place, to presume that I would be the person served and not the one doing the serving,” Ho writes, arguing the restaurant prompts diners to take on the position of the colonizer. And later, “Le Colonial’s theme is covered with the sticky film of racism—but compounding this insult is the fact that the food isn’t well-executed or particularly exciting.”
She tells me, “What I want to leave people with is the ability to see past what is supposed to give them pleasure. I’m dismantling objectivity. Objectivity is a privileged white male old money perspective. I’m none of those things.”
“I know people want a vacation with some food writing,” Twitty says. “We don’t always need to go deep into the stuff, right? When Soleil did that whole write-up of Le Colonial, she was fully within her total realm as a creative thought leader to be like, ‘Since you went there, I gotta go there.’”
Cultural appropriation or insensitivity isn’t always so obvious. It can rear its head in everything from art hanging on the walls, to a restaurant’s soundtrack, to the words chosen for a press release.
Aaron Ross Coleman, a black writer who covers race and economics, wrote about how homegrown salad chain sweetgreen leaned on hip-hop culture “to turn lettuce into gold,” even though 95 percent of its shops are in majority white neighborhoods. The article published in The Nation in April asks where one draws the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Naming a salad after Kendrick Lamar lyrics—“Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe”—was just the start of the fast-casual giant’s rap infatuation.
D.C. chef Rock Harper picked apart Roy Boy’s decision to decorate its walls with art depicting rappers as chickens on his podcast. One mimicked the “Live From Death Row,” VIBE cover from 1996 with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight, and Tupac Shakur.
“These four black men in a fried chicken restaurant have been animalized,” he says, as a part of a larger conversation about what happens when people “grab at” black culture. “They’ve been made to look like the animal that is being slaughtered and deep fried.”Local and national outlets covered the backlash. The owners removed the art.
Oduro believes the amplification food criticism provides plays a key role in the restaurant industry, but what frustrates her is critics’ thirst for discovery. “A lot of things get reported as new when they’re not,” she explains. “Until a food critic, who perhaps has not been immersed in a particular culture like black, African, or Latin, discovers and writes about it, it’s presented as new.”
This is particularly true for “black food,” Oduro says, and urges media to have representation in the room where stories get pitched—“someone rooted in the culture who participates consistently and can weave the narrative together of black food and its connection to other foods.”
While not tied to a cuisine, I made a false discovery error when breaking news about Johnson’s inaugural DMV Black Restaurant Week. My headline called it the first-ever. Then my inbox chirped with objections from readers. I failed to give credit to local Black Restaurant Weeks that came before, including one from ABlackLife LLC.
“One does not have to search far or wide to find its impact and to see that you were able to write this piece without acknowledging the organization is hurtful and offensive, yet another mark of Black erasure in D.C.,” one reader wrote.
Words are powerful enough to erase what came before. Many of the press releases that reach journalists’ desks try to gussy up food one might find at a carry out or more casual eatery. They all use the same word, “elevate,” which suggests the restaurant is improving upon something.
In my inbox, I found 60 emails from 2019 that use the word, and I delete most of the thousands of press releases I receive each year. The ones that snuck through promised to “elevate” everything from crab shack snacks and street food to cookout-style fare and comfort food.
An elevator takes us from one place to another, but in the context of food writing, words like “elevate” hold us in a steady state where white-washing is celebrated, or at least tolerated. Elevating people of color into critic jobs might instead lead us to food that’s already great.
Oduro calls the lack of food writers and critics of color a microcosm for larger representation and inclusion issues in the District. “There are only a few slots for these positions,” she says. “There isn’t a way to get rotating representation. Openings don’t come up very much. Looking at the history of critics in D.C., people have held their jobs forever.”
Sietsema has been at the Post for two decades and Carman is coming up on his 10-year anniversary. Ann Limpert has been writing reviews at Washingtonian for 12 years and stepped into the head critic role in 2016, replacing Todd Kliman, who is also white. Limpert’s colleague, Anna Spiegel, started at Washingtonian in 2010.
“Diversity comes with great planning,” Oduro says. “It doesn’t happen because we sit back and wish and hope.”
This responsibility belongs to editors and publishers with hiring power, and the owners and boards who oversee them. If they don’t courageously shake up the status quo—like the Chronicle did with Ho or the New York Times did by hiring Tejal Rao—perhaps there’s a way to make food criticism less precious.
Mainstream media call upon freelance writers with specific expertise to contribute to myriad other beats, but rarely does someone tag-in for a food critic because the position is so closely tied to a publication’s brand. Critics have chats and guides and press releases that go out when they pen zero-star reviews. A newspaper or magazine could occasionally tap outside talent with fresh perspectives and different expertise when it would best serve readers.
Where will these writers come from?
The District has reporters of color who contribute to food beats at local outlets, and social media and blogs help other voices break through. Jessica van Dop DeJesus, a former U.S. Marine who founded the blog The Dining Traveler back in 2014, says these platforms democratize food criticism. “Other voices have been able to come forward and say, ‘This is good,’ or ‘I like that,’ which I think has been revolutionary,” van Dop DeJesus explains.
Twitty sees untapped potential on social media and hopes he and others can be mentors. “Folks like me need to encourage folks of color and others to really stop complaining on the internet and start writing professionally,” he says. “Develop your opinions into coherent thoughts that can be in a format that’s more than 140 characters. Put all those words into something that can help change the scene.”
But there are barriers to entry to food writing and food criticism that go beyond slim pickings on job boards. As with all jobs, connections count, but cost is a limiting factor.
“You have a lot of people who write about food who have the ability to pay for the $100 or $200 meal,” van Dop DeJesus says. “Others don’t and then media will shit on influencers for getting a free meal. Should only rich people have access to eat and write about the food?”
A freelance food writer or blogger typically doesn’t receive a stipend from their employer to spend on meals to shape their coverage. And foodie events, which are great for networking, are costly too. These budding writers either have to pay out of pocket or accept freebies in order to explore new eateries and still make a living despite the conflict of interest accepting free meals can create.
Restaurants frequently host media dinners where the chef will taste writers and influencers through the menu free of charge. At these meals, van Dop DeJesus says she’s often one of two people of color. “We’re talking about a city like D.C. that’s mostly brown,” she says.
“Historically the career aspect of becoming a food critic or food writer wasn’t at the forefront for many African American students, especially in the college realm,” says Dr. Erinn D. Tucker, the faculty director of Georgetown University’s Global Hospitality Leadership master’s program. She also co-founded DMV Black Restaurant Week.
“The publishing world is very small—that’s across the board with books, magazines, or newspapers,” she says. Food writing circles are even smaller, more insular, and exclusive. “I think that there is just this huge catching up the industry has to do,” Tucker continues.
She wants a future where major publications are more conscious about expanding their writing teams to be more inclusive and argues they’ll be better off for it, especially because food writing now encompasses labor, immigration, race, the environment, and so much more.
“You can get more readers and subscriptions if your content is more inclusive of the authenticness of the area that we’re in,” she says. “If we can take those steps it would be great for business, great for the city, and great for underrepresented writers who are in this space.”
Soleil Ho, for one, is looking forward to having more colleagues of color. “Homogeneity is inherently not interesting,” she says. “Although my role and presence in the industry is significant, there are so many deficits. There are very few black food editors and critics. Their perspectives are sorely needed. People with power need to be able to give up that power and feed it to people who have been kept out.”
These are some of the localwriters of color who contribute to food beats at local media outlets. Follow their work. Lenore T. Adkins, Stephanie Williams, Christina Sturdivant Sani, Lani Furbank, Sam P.K. Collins, Sidney Thomas, Stacy M. Brown, Aparna Krishnamoorthy, Priya Konings, James Wright, Julekha Dash, Jai Williams, Natalie Delgadillo, Sabrina Medora, Marcus K. Dowling, and Kari Sonde.
Bloggers and podcasters of color in D.C. include Johnna French of Johnna Knows Good Food, Jessica van Dop of The Dining Traveler, Kimberly Kong of Nomtastic Foods, Mary Kong-DeVito of Girl Meets Food, Maame Boakye, Nina Oduro, and Nana Ama Afari-Dwamena from Dine Diaspora, Lydia X. Z.Brown of For The Love of Injera, Lanna Nguyen of Eat Drink DC, Ruth Tam of Dish City, Micky from What Micky Eats, Rock Harper of the Chef Rock Xperiment, Aiyi’nah Ford of #FemmeFoodCritic, and Eddie Kim of Shift Drink.
Send suggestions for additions to this list to Lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.
Christina Sturdivant Sani contributed editing to this article.