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This is a surprisingly common complaint among newcomers—which doesn’t mean it’s untrue! Even the old-timers who have sniffed out the handful of above-average local loaves will admit that brilliant bakeries are not exactly thick on the ground here. What gives? Answers range from Washington’s weather (too humid!) to the region’s lingering southern identity (warm biscuits trump crusty baguettes). But the District’s problems are hardly unique. Mark Furstenberg, who often gets credit for having advanced local bread quality, notes that even well-regarded food cities like Chicago and New Orleans lack a rich bread culture.
Furstenberg speculates that Washington also suffers from its shape. As a spread-out, low-density burg, the District doesn’t offer neighborhood bakeries enough neighbors to thrive. “New York has wonderful bread because its sheer density makes possible success in practically any food business,” he says. D.C. remains a car city, a place where multiple stops to pick up the best bread at a boulangerie and the best cheese at a cheesemonger aren’t things you can do while walking home. “The kinds of consumers who would buy ‘artisan miches’ go to Whole Foods,” he says. “They look at the bread and many of them know it is mostly mediocre. But they say to themselves, ‘Do I really want to make another stop—even for a good loaf of bread?’ And they don’t.”