We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
City Paper staffers have never been high-class gourmands. We appreciate a nice meal as much as the next person, but as most people who’ve passed through its offices will tell you, the most anticipated meal of the week was often the snacks and beers shared after an issue closed on Wednesday night. As broke alt-weekly writers and editors, we subsisted for periods on a diet of liquidy, semi-suspect Mexican layered dip from the Adams Morgan Safeway, stale office coffee, and whatever offerings PR companies or restaurants sent over. Some new brand of instant ramen? Sure. A plastic bag of sausages and sauce from a crawfish place? We’ll try anything once. To thrive, you had to be omnivorous, both in your interests and your appetite.
Those omnivorous tendencies helped Brett Anderson land a gig as City Paper’s first Young & Hungry columnist in January 1996. Known as “someone who would steal your lunch off your desk” at the office of the Twin Cities Reader, he followed former Reader editor David Carr to D.C. to write about food. As a 25-year-old “very raw” writer with a burgeoning interest in food writing, Anderson says he never expected to make a career of it, but nevertheless, he has. After leaving City Paper in 2000, he spent nearly 20 years as a restaurant critic and writer at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans before joining the New York Times in 2019.
Eating experiences in greater D.C., especially sampling the region’s diverse global cuisines in Annandale and Rockville and its early forays into modern Southern cuisine at restaurants like Cashion’s Eat Place, prepared him for those endeavors. “As a young person who ended up kind of accidentally becoming a food writer, it was an incredibly great place to become introduced to a great variety of cuisines and restaurant styles,” he says.
For Laura Hayes, who wrote Young & Hungry from July of 2016 until earlier this year, the challenge was balancing restaurant coverage and careful reporting on the District’s booming hospitality industry. “The food beat is the best because of the people you meet and the unlimited storytelling potential. Food coverage can touch on labor, politics, race, immigration, history, culture, and the environment,” she wrote in her final column.
The Young & Hungry columnists grew up with the District’s food scene. They watched it evolve from a steakhouse town to the place Bon Appétit labeled “Best Restaurant City of the Year” in 2016. Below, three other writers who helmed the food section share their favorite moments on the beat. —Caroline Jones
Before I was hired as the Young & Hungry columnist in January 2006, I had to try out for the gig. I still have the edit of my first dress-rehearsal column. It was a review of Miss Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant in Georgetown that had seen better days. I had no idea why Erik Wemple, then the editor of the paper, wanted me to review it, but if it was a test to see if I’d lobby for a place more relevant to readers, I flunked it. I didn’t register a single protest, dutifully reviewing a restaurant that I deemed, right or wrong, a tourist trap.
You have to understand that when I started at Washington City Paper, I was not a novice. I had more than a decade of journalism experience. I had been a full-time music critic at a daily. I was part of a team that launched some of the first city guides on the web, courtesy of Bill Gates and Microsoft. I even was the managing editor at an alt-weekly in Houston for a couple of tumultuous years. But when I got that edit from Wemple, I felt as if I were a second-year journalism student fumbling through his first sorry attempt at a review.
Wemple buttered me up with a little praise at the top, saying that I had a “point of view that remains strong from start to finish.” (Incidentally, Wemple recently told me that he learned his velvet hammer approach from Carr, the editor who left a permanent mark on City Paper.) But two paragraphs later, as I dithered over whether to dismiss Miss Saigon or not, Wemple lost his patience and retracted the compliment. “Fuck this; I hate this equivocation,” he wrote. “Forget what I said up top about you keeping a strong POV throughout this piece.”
The style of editing and management that Carr/Wemple developed during their time at City Paper was critical, sometimes confrontational, and always uncompromising. (Wemple told me repeatedly that only “brilliant” metaphors and analogies get published in his paper, implying that mine were a long way from making the cut.) But there was a method to this madness, and it was to produce a paper that you couldn’t wait to pull from the box each week, one that was deeply reported and more than a little edgy. (Wemple wanted me to tell you that he hired me, no matter how harsh his first edit.)
To say that I was uncomfortable with conflict at the time of my hire would be an understatement. I grew up in a family that never argued, not once that I can remember, as if an argument were a sign of fatal flaws in the relationship. So, it took me longer than others, I’d say, to see the merit of Wemple’s management. I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point in my five-year run, I understood that there was a difference between conflict and actual offense. I came to see that there was often affection behind the bluster.
What Wemple understood, certainly better than I did at the time, is that argumentation is a form of intimacy. When you can argue with a colleague—speak your mind, fight for your point of view, and be open to the other person’s criticism in return—you develop the kind of trust and working relationship that produces really fine journalism.
I’ve regurgitated this brief history to make a point: Yes, the culture that Carr and Wemple created may feel as dead as print newspapers. New forms of management have emerged, just as surely as smartphones, tablets, and computers have made newsprint obsolete. Argumentation and debate can assume softer tones than the ones both editors adopted. But they were right about one thing: The best journalism is the product of a good fight/argument between reporter and editor, between reporter and source, or even between reporter and reporter as one confronts your creativity on deadline.
I became a better journalist under Wemple’s leadership. His lessons still ring in my ear more than 15 years later. I trust City Paper will carry on the good fight, even without a printing press. —Tim Carman
Of my many lives at Washington City Paper over the years, Young & Hungry was the pinnacle.
When I started as an editorial intern, the paper was hefty, about 100 or so pages thick. Even so, print space was precious. Story meetings were competitive and sometimes brutal. You had to make a very compelling case for your ideas to make it. I remember being laughed out of the room for pitching a news item about beer. A senior writer told me bluntly, “This is not Frat Boy Weekly!”
By the time I began writing Y&H, so much had changed. The physical paper was thinner, but the digital real estate was endless and insatiable. It also included a whole recurring section about beer. Refreshing!
The sensibility remained the same. We were the arbiters of cool, the chroniclers of dysfunction, the final word on all the city had to offer. And I was the lucky SOB tasked with carrying forward one of the paper’s most vaunted franchises.
My predecessors, Todd Kliman and Tim Carman, were both friends of mine and former colleagues, not to mention award-winning writers. They were big supporters, even before I got the gig. I’ll never forget accompanying Carman to a series of Indian restaurants that oddly served beef (Hinduism’s sacred animal) and ordering nothing else despite all the hostile looks. That’s how you do it, I thought.
In that spirit, I set out to be a tough critic and angered more than a few big-name restaurateurs along the way. Perhaps none more so than James Beard Award-winning modernist chef R.J. Cooper. His response to my critique is probably the most unforgettable moment of my tenure.
In a column decrying the year’s most annoying food trends, I challenged Cooper to cut it out with all the “foams, gels, and anything else that sounds like a hair product” and “just make me a sandwich.”
I was pretty proud of that line, but I didn’t expect him to take me up on it!
Soon enough, I was summoned to his restaurant during a crowded event, where the chef painstakingly assembled a monstrous sandwich of corned beef, pork belly, sauerkraut, and Gruyère, all in mock tribute to yours truly. He called it “Shott in the Heart,” also a nod to his own looming open-heart surgery.
While I am hopeful the chef ultimately recovered from his condition, I’m not sure my arteries ever will. —Chris Shott
City Paper didn’t really have an owner when I was hired as food editor in 2012. The former Creative Loafing overlords had filed for bankruptcy and the paper was being run by a New York hedge fund that was trying to offload it. We weren’t even certain the publication would survive. But City Paper was known as a place with sharp editors where so many journalistic greats kick-started their careers. Of course I was in—even if it meant going down with the ship. What alt-weekly writers of recent decades haven’t encountered the brink of demise?
My tenure happened to coincide with a real renaissance in D.C.’s food and drink scene. The city got its first legal distillery since pre-Prohibition. The first food truck regulations were just being written. There were these new things called “pop-ups.” And $14 cocktails were such a high-end novelty that I started an Instagram account to document them. Still, the hot debate was whether D.C. was a “third-tier” food city, and nothing got us more riled up than a New York Times dis about our sandwiches.
The great thing about City Paper was you could get away with weird shit that you just couldn’t at other publications. Like the time my colleague Jon Fischer and I created the U Street Taco (a Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke wrapped in a jumbo slice) inspired by Philadelphia’s South Street Taco (a cheesesteak wrapped in a jumbo slice). Probably my all-time favorite story, though, was an investigation into restaurant restroom sex (classic WCP pun headline: “Stall Tactics”). After publication, an anonymous tipster by the name of “Benjamin Dover” (get it?) actually sent me a sex tape from the restroom of Le Diplomate. For what it’s worth, all you could see were feet.
The food scene has come a long way over the past decade, along with those cocktail prices. Unfortunately, another group of City Paper writers is facing the brink with the death of print and recent layoffs. This local institution has a way of surviving though, and I’m counting on future generations of up-and-coming talent to continue writing weird shit. I’ve eaten a lot of gnarly stuff on behalf of City Paper (again, see U Street Taco), but on that last point, I hope I won’t eat my words. —Jessica Sidman