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On a blustery January Saturday afternoon, six gastronomes on an epicurean guided tour of D.C. file into what they’re supposed to believe is a quintessential Washingtonian destination: Dean & Deluca. After an afternoon of eating their way across Georgetown, the group is scheduled for wine and cheese at the M Street NW specialty grocer, plus some shopping.
Is this a case of some charlatan tour operator trying to pass off a New York-based chain, one with outposts in places like Kansas City and Charlotte, as an emblematic piece of Washingtoniana? Well, no. “The building has been used as a market since the late 1700s,” explains Jeff Swedarsky, owner of DC Metro Food Tours. “I personally don’t like Dean & Deluca, but I thought it was important for people to understand the history of the place.” (The building dates to 1865, but the site has been used as a market since the 18th century.)
All the same, the tension around what constitutes local authenticity is something of a constant among the burgeoning number of food-oriented local tours. It’s easy enough to understand why. In 2008, Destination DC, the District’s official tourism marketing organization, conducted a poll about perceptions of Washington. Although 58 percent of U.S. travelers either agreed or strongly agreed that D.C. was the kind of place where you could find elegant restaurants that were known for their top chefs (nearby Philadelphia scored 55 percent), only 28 percent of respondents thought D.C. was a destination with unique local foods (compared to Philly’s 47 percent).
This particular tour group, a mix of locals and out-of-towners, starts out the trek in search of the latter. The walkers include a pair of longtime female friends—one of them visiting from New Jersey—a couple in a long-distance Washington-Chicago relationship, and a mother spending a weekend with her D.C.-based daughter. The agenda: Five neighborhood eateries over the next three hours. “I hope we don’t go to Georgetown Cupcake,” says Rush Reid, the District half of the long-distance couple. “I have no interest in standing in that line.”
Our guide, a George Washington University student named Andrew Clark, won’t reveal where we’re headed. “I can tell you that there will be a wine-and-cheese tasting,” he says. “And we will finish the day with dessert.”
The first stop on the tour turns out to be Fino Ristorante Italiano a few blocks east on M Street. We’re served four oversized raviolis stuffed with pumpkin, portabella mushroom, or pesto. Since all of the diners in the group have been on food tours in other cities, everyone compares notes as they nosh. Apparently, the portion size is impressive. “Everything on our New York food tour was just a taste,” says Jen Marshall, of Chicago. “We did get a slice of pizza,” adds her boyfriend, Reid. “And maybe a hot dog.”
But just what does pumpkin-stuffed ravioli say about Washington’s local cuisine? “There are the restaurants that everyone’s heard of, but we try to avoid those places,” Swedarsky says later. “We want to show you the hidden gems that have a local feel. And we want to represent neighborhoods in the best possible light.” Swedarsky’s company offers tours of seven neighborhoods: Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Eastern Market, the U Street NW corridor, Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan, and Dupont Circle. This one—through Georgetown—is the most popular.
Swedarsky’s isn’t the only tour local food-tour operator. DC Metro Chocolate Tours opened shop in 2009. Its three options—Georgetown, Dupont Circle and “Uptown” (which includes Adams Morgan and U Street NW)—include cacao-specific destinations like ACKC, Biagio Chocolate, and Godiva, as well as pit stops at Farmers & Fishers, Hello Cupcake! and Firehook Bakery.
On the top end of the scale is Epitourean, whose customized D.C. gastro-tourist packages also date to 2009. Over the course of an Epitourean weekend, travelers might experience a six-course tasting menu from CityZen, a walking tour of Capitol Hill eateries and a cooking class with cheftestant Carla Hall at CulinAerie. For those willing to pay big bucks, Epitourean president David Loy says that the firm is willing to arrange anything. “It doesn’t always work out, because the prices are so over the top,” Loy says. “Just to have José Andrés show up costs $20,000.” Other offerings are less pricey. “We sell a lot of packages that are $395 per person,” he says.
No one on our jaunt has paid even close to the bottom of Epitourean’s scale. Tickets cost $62. Which is about right, since our next stop after Fino Italiano is Puro Café on Wisconsin Avenue. Here we’re given ginger-mint lemonade and an arugula and fig flatbread dressed up with “roses” of prosciutto. There’s not a lot of explication of the D.C.-ness of the dish. But everyone’s plates are clean by the time we head back out into the chilly afternoon.
Between destinations, our guide throws out factoids: Georgetown’s founding predated Washington’s by 150 years! The Old Stone House on M Street is oldest home in the District! An alleged former mistress of John F. Kennedy was murdered by the C&O Canal, possibly via a CIA hit! In other words, the things tourists learned about before the era when out-of-towners demanded to know about the capital’s dining scene. Epitourean’s Loy says that when his company started out, travel writers were skeptical. “One of the things we heard a lot from journalists was, ‘We don’t think of D.C. as a foodie town,’” he says.
In the intervening years, several factors have changed, according to Destination DC’s director of communication, Rebecca Pawlowski—most of them relating as much to the televisual as to the culinary. “Having Top Chef film a season here—as well as having contestants from the area on Top Chef and The Next Food Network Star—helps highlight the District as a culinary destination,” she says. She also points to the influx of celebrity chef–driven restaurants—such Wolfgang Puck’s The Source, Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak, and Alain Ducasse’s Adour—and the out-of-towners who earned their fame here, like José Andrés and Michel Richard.
Even the Obamas’ date nights are a factor, Pawlowski says: “They all help raise the city’s culinary profile and help give the dining scene credibility.” In all, 15 million visitors spend more than $5.2 billion in the District annually; food is the second-highest expenditure category, beaten out only by hotels.
Other new drivers of food-related tourism: Destination DC now runs promotions in glossies like Saveur, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. A Fancy Food Show will make its District debut this July and is expected to draw 30,000 epicures. And the National Archives will be opening a gastro-centric exhibition this summer, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam,” which looks at the role of government in food. (That last one, alas, is not likely to have a huge appeal to those who’d spend thousands for lessons from José Andrés).
Epitourean’s package sales to the area tripled between 2009 and 2010; it’s now their fifth-most popular destination, behind California’s Napa Valley, Santa Fe, N.M., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. Business also has gone up consistently each year for DC Metro Food Tours since it opened in 2008, though Swedarsky didn’t offer specific figures. During the company’s busiest times of year, they are running 20-25 tours a week.
After Dean & Deluca, our tour moves on to Sea Catch, by the canal, for a table full of clams casino, oysters Rockefeller and shrimp risotto balls with green goddess sauce. As we dine, we learned that the world’s first computer was developed by IBM in the building where we’re eating. As we head out into the cold for one last time to finish the trip, people are upbeat about the experience. “We’re foodies, so we love this stuff,” says Reid. “It’s fun to visit places you might not ever discover otherwise.”
The last stop of the day turns out to be at Baked & Wired on Thomas Jefferson Street NW. By now, dusk is upon us. Walking into the warmth and friendly noise of the coffee shop is a relief. “Thank God we didn’t end up at Georgetown Cupcake,” Reid mutters as we accept steaming cups of coffee and tea. We munch on slices of s’more-styled O.M.G. bars, which layers a graham cracker crust with gooey caramel, fluffy marshmallow, and bittersweet chocolate. It’s a nice treat, no matter where you are; several members of the group go over to the bakery counter to buy some goodies to take home. As everyone bundles back up to go outside, the conversation focuses on where they want to go to eat next.
DC Metro Chocolate Tours; 202-391-0686, DCMetroChocolateTours.com
DC Metro Food Tours; 202-683-8847, DCMetroFoodTours.com
Epitourean; 800-390-3292, Epitourean.com
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Photographs by Darrow Montgomery