Why Breakfast Sucks in Washington, D.C.
We're the happy hour capital, but we just can't get it together in the a.m.
People have been in a bit of a twitter this month since Bon Appetit named our nation’s capital "Restaurant City of the Year." Yes it’s true, we’ve got some gobsmacking Thai, a rock-and-roll twist on Filipino food, elegant seafood and finally, pizza that can give our East coast rivals a bit of pause. A city that was for years deservedly derided for its overpriced and underwhelming eateries as smaller cities boomed in innovation has finally stepped up to the bread plate. Thanks Obama! (Not really. An influx of young folks, a booming local economy, and the accompanying access to capital have combined to make it so. But we do all appreciate the difficulty of winding our way through downtown Washington when Michelle Obama gets the steak bug and decamps to BLT Steak, as has been her wont for several years.)
But it must be said: a weakness remains during the first meal of the day.
We generally lack the power breakfasts of New York and Los Angeles, with the exception of the Greenhouse at the Jefferson Hotel (which somehow feels much more pleasant at lunch, especially when one is brought a purse stool) and the Hay Adams, where an administration official always seems to be on hand. Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill is a hotel breakfast of another sort, but all are unremarkable throwbacks with menus aimed at the expense account crowd.
At the lower end we have Pete’s Diner on the Hill, made famous by former Speaker John A. Boehner, who admitted that he could not stand the bacon. There is another hangover place, Steak & Egg in Tenleytown, which is a depressing, not entirely tidy affair with a cash-only policy announced by punitive signage.
Where are the mid-priced restaurants offering up toast soldiers dipped in eggs? Not here, baby. The destination family spot where mom can enjoy some sort of exotic hash while junior tucks into a short stack? I haven’t seen it.
Indeed, there are almost no signature breakfast dishes that draw us all in. Where is our version of green shakshuka with challah from Jack's Wife Freda, or the buttermilk biscuits of Bubby’s in Manhattan? Who speaks of Washington D.C.’s equivalent of the Green Eggs and Ham from Huckleberry Cafe in Los Angeles? Chicago is a veritable buffet of signature breakfast dishes, from the scones at Little Goat to the chilaquiles at Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club to the French toast flight at Batter and Berries.
The blueberry buckwheat pancakes at that ancient little place at Eastern Market does cram in the tourists. And yes, people rave about the fancy fake Pop-Tarts at Ted’s Bulletin near the Hill. We like them. But they are really more an affectation.
Everyone is always asking to meet at one of our now-ubiquitous Pain Quotidiens, which is fine for what it is but also a defeat of sorts. My heart sinks when I see the suggestion in a text, as I prepare for the Ann Taylor of croissants.
Part of this is our business culture. Washington D.C. is, in every way, a cocktail-hour town. That's when most business is done. Professionals here are not up and ready before opening bell, or talking to the other coast. Congress often doesn’t get going until the first Monday votes at 6:30. Few people really wants to be up and going for breakfast meetings, unless it is a fundraising breakfast in a private space, which sadly often involves small containers of yogurt.
Indeed, the entire city's restaurant business was seeded around the political-fundraising orbit, which skews toward evening meetups, small plates, and drinks. Our pancake situation is sad, but it is factual that no city beats our happy hours. Often, they come with oysters. I will tell you about that more another time.
Soon after Donald J. Trump first began insulting immigrants, José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian pulled out of plans to open restaurants in his forthcoming Trump International Hotel. BLT will take Mr. Andres’ spot, and the Zakarian restaurant space will be converted into a very large conference room. So yeah, Mr. Trump is decidedly not making bacon great again here.
One Republican advisor I spoke with finds this all very disturbing, because as he pointed out, “An increasing number of folks I talk to see an 8:30 breakfast as the new lunch, the theory being you spend the first part of the morning working out and getting caught up on work online, and then going to a later breakfast meeting. Options are limited though.”
A few years ago, Jeremiah Cohen, the former general manager of the Tabard Inn (once another nice spot for the first meal of the day, before a family feud unraveled it all), started tossing out delicious bagels and later breakfast sandwiches on trendy H Street at his Bullfrog Bagels. This was a good thing.
“D.C. is such a diverse place with such diverse people operating in many different orbits,” Cohen said, noting that most places, including his, tend to cater to neighbors more than a cross section of the city.
The people of D.C. have been lining up for those Montreal-style bagels as of late. Please expand, Jeremiah. And bring those secret scrambled eggs with you.
Jennifer Steinhauer is a writer of newspaper articles, cookbooks, and the occasional failed novel.