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The highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. is in Washington, D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, be honest. If you think Washington, D.C., of course you think the White House, Congress, museums, politics and, sure, politics. But did you know, it also has a thriving food scene, gaining recognition from the Michelin Guide time and again. And the guide has added five more local restaurants to its list of recommendations. One recent report even went so far as to find that D.C. has the highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in the country.

The Washington Post's longtime food critic Tom Sietsema is with us now to talk about how Washington, D.C., became such a great place to eat. Good morning, Tom.

TOM SIETSEMA: Hey, good morning. So pleased to be here.

MARTIN: So - and thanks for getting up early 'cause I know you stay out late...

SIETSEMA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Eating lot of food. Are you surprised by this?

SIETSEMA: I am not. You know, I've been covering the scene since 2000, right? My very first review as food critic was of a tenured steakhouse because I wanted to do something celebratory. At the time, steakhouses were where you went for special occasions.

Now, if I was starting off now, I'd go to one of D.C.'s great mom-and-pops, something Filipino, Mexican or something plant-based. We've been a good food city for a very long time, and I think the rest of the country is finally catching up. I'm very proud of the recognition that we've received.

MARTIN: How did that happen? - because I have to be honest, I remember that steak was it here, steak and French food.

SIETSEMA: Steak was it for a long time.

MARTIN: Of course, the Kennedys - you know, when the Kennedys came in, you know, French food became the thing. Steak was it. So how did it happen that D.C. became a place where you could have so many different types of cuisine as well as really great food?

SIETSEMA: Well, it certainly helps that we have - we're a world capital here - hill - a world capital. We've got 200 embassies or so. This is a market with a lot of high, two-income households. We've got people who are well traveled, educated and also adventurous, and that's so important, I think.

And, you know, we've got some of the wealthiest counties in the country nearby in Virginia and Maryland. And, you know, for better or for worse, D.C.'s food scene has also benefited from conflict around the world. We saw great Vietnamese restaurants in the '70s and Salvadoran and Ethiopian and Afghan since.

MARTIN: And also I think - you were telling us, and I know you've written about this. The fact that there are kind of a lot of - there's an entrepreneurial spirit that has kind of led to some things that people don't necessarily think of as fine dining but that people enjoy. I'm thinking of, like, Sweetgreen, CAVA, things like that.

SIETSEMA: Yeah, I mean, what I think is so exciting is that we are - you know, we have food on all spectrums. It used to be that we could always find cheap food here. We could also always find, you know, expense account dining.

But what's happened in the last two decades or so is that we have all these new neighborhoods right now. We've got, you know, Shaw, NoMa, The Wharf, Navy Yard. All of those are relatively new neighborhoods and food destinations since I started in 2000. And you have this great neighborhood collection of places, you know, places that you would go once or twice a week because they're good and they're midpriced.

MARTIN: A little surprising though that Washington has so much of - so much good food at so many different price points because this is an expensive place to live. And I'm just wondering if, because of that, the diversity of food options we have here - is that sustainable?

SIETSEMA: I think it is. You know, don't forget, this is the birthplace of fast casual leaders, including Sweetgreen, Five Guys, Cava Mezze. The founder of Chipotle, Steve Ellis, is from D.C. So I think we've got it on both ends.

I do think, though, you know, that D.C. has some of the best fine dining in the country. It's better and more varied than even New York or San Francisco. We've got places like Jont, Pineapple & Pearls, Minibar, Fiola. And we've got terrific Japanese tasting menus at - all over the city, too.

MARTIN: And you can't forget Jose Andres. He is local to the area...

SIETSEMA: No.

MARTIN: ...Obviously from Spain, local to the area. We'd be remiss if we did not mention him. What role has he played in raising the city's profile?

SIETSEMA: You know, it doesn't hurt to have probably the world's most famous chef, Jose Andres, as one of our biggest cheerleaders. He has said, we are not one thing in D.C., but many things, and that is so true.

MARTIN: His philanthropy work, of course, cannot be ignored. I mean, serving people in conflict situations all over the world - so gosh, amazing. So take that, haters. Am I right? Take that, haters.

SIETSEMA: Absolutely. This is one of the best food cities in the country.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. Deal with it. Sorry. Tom Sietsema is food critic for the Washington Post. Tom, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "PARALLEL 6") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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