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D.C.’s Missing Kosher Food

Washington’s restaurant scene may be booming, but D.C. still isn’t a capital place to find good kosher eats

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Jack Lew, center, without kosher food. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Shutterstock)

For people who like food, there’s never been a better time to eat in downtown Washington, D.C. In the past few years, the city, long hostage to overpriced American-contemporary steakhouses and the gut-busting Ben’s Chili Bowl, has sprouted a network of small craft restaurants turning out ambitious food that even the New York Times thinks is hip. Within a few miles of the Capitol, there are underground regional Thai places competing with hipster ramen joints, a new Nordic-inflected locavore restaurant, and a gleaming artisan food market in a former industrial warehouse near Union Station.

And, yes, there are delis, too. As in New York, enterprising Washington chefs—both Jewish and not—are working to bring schmaltz into the new century. New York native Gina Chersevani is slinging egg creams, bagels, and knishes from her new soda fountain, Buffalo & Bergen, and a pair of cousins, Nick and David Wiseman, recently opened Dupont Circle’s DGS Delicatessen, which serves house-made pastrami, pickles, and whitefish with Montreal bagels in a neighborhood famously lacking a good schmear. “It’s not just kitsch,” Nick Wiseman, a native Washingtonian, told me. “It’s a big step for the city in terms of being a place where people live and not just a city based on four-year political cycles.”

The menu at DGS is authentically ethnic, although it is kosher-style rather than kosher—just as it is at Katz’s, Langer’s, and most of the other well-known Jewish delis across the country. Sometimes, it’s not even kosher-style: The restaurant’s chef, Barry Koslow, followed the pioneering Brooklyn nouveau deli Mile End and is serving poutine, the Quebecois cheese-and-fries dish, topped with smoked meat. “Kosher wasn’t part of our experience with food growing up,” Wiseman told me, by way of explanation. Meanwhile, at Buffalo & Bergen, there are doughy little salt bagels made with “New York water,” but the knish selection includes decidedly nontraditional stuffing options like bacon-cheddar, barbecue pork, and cheeseburger.

“When people think kosher, they don’t necessarily think hip,” said Spike Mendelsohn, the Top Chef veteran who runs Good Stuff, a flourishing burger chainlet and helped start a temporary kosher food truck with the Sixth & I Jewish event space in 2011. “But with places like DGS Delicatessen and Buffalo & Bergen, you’re seeing how the nostalgia of Jewish food is being adapted to fit the D.C. food scene.”

But one group of Washingtonians is definitely not benefiting from the city’s food renaissance: those who keep strictly kosher. That includes college students and junior Hill staff all the way up the power ladder to Jack Lew, until recently President Obama’s chief of staff and the presumptive next treasury secretary—who, according to the Times, makes do at lunch with cheese sandwiches brought from home. “Not much to write about kosher D.C., is there?” wrote William Daroff, head of the Jewish Federations of North America Washington office, who frequently reigns as the Foursquare “mayor” of the infamously mediocre deli Eli’s, one of only two kosher sit-down restaurants in downtown Washington.

D.C. veterans say the situation has improved slightly since the early 1990s, when the only kosher option downtown was the café at the George Washington University Hillel. These days, there’s Eli’s and Distrikt Bistro, a Mediterranean restaurant tucked into the lobby of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and it’s possible for kosher-observant eaters to order delivery online from both, or from places further afield, including Soupergirl, a shop in the city’s northwest suburbs that sells vegan, kosher soup. And last year, the cafeteria in one of the Senate office buildings began offering prepackaged kosher sandwiches and salads delivered from a catering company on a trial basis, after an observant intern went on a lobbying blitz to save himself and his colleagues from subsisting on vending-machine snacks. But the movement seems mostly to have stalled. “It’s a stable situation, but it’s plateaued,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

No one seems entirely sure why, especially at a time when there’s an enormous amount of capital, both literal and creative, pouring into the capital’s restaurant scene. “It’s a very transient city, historically,” said Beth Kanter, a Washington food writer. “But there are Jewish communities here that weren’t here 20 years ago.” She noted that people whose kosher observance is less than stringent now have more options for eating out, thanks to the increasing number of vegan options in Washington. “Someone needs to come out with a new vision of what kosher restaurants are, and not the old vision of what a kosher eatery is,” Kanter said. “That a place serves some kind of food that’s kosher isn’t enough.”

Yet people have tried that, and failed. The first attempt was L’Etoile, an upscale French bistro that opened in 1999 and then closed in 2002 after losing its lease. (Its owner, David Dahan, went on to start a catering company that for a time regularly serviced the White House for formal events requiring kosher food.) The lobbyist Jack Abramoff, himself an Orthodox Jew, opened a fancy place, Signatures, and a deli, Stacks, which were subsidized by his other businesses largely to cement his own power base; he told me a couple of years ago that they lost millions and did not survive Abramoff’s incarceration on bribery charges. An outpost of the vegetarian falafel chain Maoz closed last year. “There are always reasons,” said Tevi Troy, a former staffer in the George W. Bush Administration, who routinely subsisted on fruit salad and Ritz crackers from the White House mess when he worked in the West Wing a decade ago. “But people look at the flawed models and conclude it’s not possible to succeed here.”

Kosher establishments in Washington have to contend with the same extra costs that places in other cities do: an extra salary for the supervisor, or mashgiach; higher food costs; and, in many cases, closing down on Friday nights. (Some kosher supervisory authorities allow restaurants under non-Jewish ownership to open on Shabbat.) But Washington’s kosher supervisory authority, called the Vaad, is known for being particularly strict, a position that helps ensure visitors can eat in Washington’s kosher establishments without concern about the degree of kashrut being enforced. But Barry Freundel, the rabbi of Georgetown’s Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue and vice president of the Vaad, said his supervisors operate in line with accepted Orthodox Union standards. “I don’t think we’re stricter than anyone else,” Freundel told me. “We just don’t have people who want to open kosher restaurants. There are a number of people who explore it and decide not to.”

The result is a reinforcement of the status quo. “What happens is the local population suffers,” said Sara Polon, who started Soupergirl, the carryout kosher vegan soup shop, in 2008. Polon grew up Conservative and decided early on to operate under kosher supervision. “I keep kosher, and I couldn’t eat my own soup in my home,” she said of her early days, when she rented kitchen space from a Spanish restaurant. Her business is flourishing, she said, precisely because she has more than just a kosher customer base. “As long as you don’t rely only on kosher eaters,” she said, “these places can succeed.”

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So and So says:

Neither the “6th and Rye” food Truck nor “Soupergirl” meet the standards for what you call “strictly kosher” which I would just call “kosher.” (ie. the standards of the DC Vaad, or general Modern Orthodox practice.)

For those of us who keep what you call “strictly kosher” we’re limited to Elis and Distrikt Bistro.

It would be fairly easy for a place like “Soupergirl” to become kosher but they have as of yet not met the Vaad’s standards. Someone visiting DC should be careful not to rely on hecsherim unless they make sure they know exactly what they’re doing as we have had a litany of these faux kosher resteraunts. (Maoz, 6th and Rye, Crumbs, Soupergirl.) Sadly the proliferation of these places (and uncritical reporting such as this) would make it far too easy to eat food that one doesn’t consider kosher.

Jim Potter says:

I like foods of all kinds and cultures, my personal belief allows me to eat anything on this earth and I take advantage of that freedom. I like kosher just as much as sushi. I have sat down, and enjoyed, street side noodle stands (as long as the soup is boiling) as quickly as a raw lamb lunch. Washington D.C. however, is woefully lacking in restaurants serving real, nourishing, and tasty foods other than American dishes, kosher included. They do have plenty of American style of culture foods, but it is a disappointing plate if you have had the real taste.

morganfrost says:

The article is missing some important details. First, the Soupergirl restaurant is not under Va’ad supervision; consequently, much of the Orthodox community will not eat there. Likewise, Ma’oz was not under Va’ad supervision. The Va’ad folks like to claim that they’re not part of the problem with DC’s kosher restaurant scene, but I’m not sure, and the article leaves the reader hanging on this issue. One way or the other, however, I am sure that DC’s kosher restaurant scene is woefully inadequate.

Let’s try and not lump all the non-Vaad DC Kosher restaurants together, shall we? Maoz and Crumbs are very different than 6th and Rye and Soupergirl.

Specifically, Maoz (now closed) was not under readily accepted supervision and had a number of concerns. Crumbs, under a New York based supervision, is also not under readily accepted kashrut supervision.

6th and Rye and Soupergirl are in a totally different ballgame than the others. Specifically, 6th and Rye (Glatt Kosher) was under the supervision of Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss of Baltimore, a Black Hat and well-respected Rabbi. Soupergirl, under the supervision of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, is a vegan soup place that is closed on Shabbat and Chagim, and has periodic visits by mashgiachim. It is certainly under the highest standards of kashrut as well.

If the Vaad doesn’t wish to recommend these facilities as “strictly kosher”, that is their prerogative, but it is unfair to the kosher consumer. As for the regular kosher keeping population, people should know and understand what options are available to them, including those that are not “strictly kosher” (i.e. Maoz and Crumbs), and those that are “strictly kosher” but not under the DC Vaad (i.e. 6th and Rye and Soupergirl).

So and So says:

Your own description of the supervision at Soupergirl shows that it is not in fact “strictly kosher.” You are correct that Soupergirl does not have a full time maschiach, but your conclusion that this doesn’t matter does not follow. It is not merely the DC Vaad that doesn’t recognize this restaurant, it doesn’t live up to generally acceptable Orthodox standards.

I agree that Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld does certify the restaurant. I leave to people to draw their own inferences from that.

As far as 6th and Rye goes, this was a restaurant that only ever claimed to be kosher 1 day a week and refused to meet the minimum precautions to ensure kashrus in the face of possible cross contamination. The whole house of cards came crashing down when it was announced that they were going to be open for business on Shavuous serving dairy (as you noted it was a fleshig place) without telling the purported Mashgiach. The color of the Rabbis hat matters far less than the quality of his supervision.

The “Kosher consumer” (ie. religious jew) does best when he is properly informed.

I’d rather not get into a back-and-forth debate on here, but just realize that many “strictly kosher” non-meat restaurants do not have a full time mashgiach on-site at all times, and that is fine according to many certifying agencies. I’m sure you could find a number if you went digging, including at least one in the DC area. The vegan aspect of Soupergirl just makes things simpler.

Regarding 6th and Rye, the fact remains that the supervising Rabbi is in held in the highest regard by many.

My point remains that it is not fair to lump all 4 restaurants together, as they are in two different categories completely. Soupergirl is more widely accepted than you realize, and that is to the benefit of the kosher consumer.

For a restaurant to survive in Washington DC or its suburbs, it really has to make money at lunch, something that holds true for both Kosher and non-Kosher restaurants. Pomegranate Bistro (in Potomac, MD and in close proximity to a substantial Orthodox Jewish population) made terrific food, but no one was going to go up to suburban Maryland to eat there for lunch. Like wise, there is no concentration of Orthodox Jewish workers in Washington DC — that is to say, there is no place in the Washington area (i.e, the Penn Quarter, Adams-Morgan, Foggy Bottom, Roslyn, Crystal City, etc) with a large collection of Jewish workers that a venue like Buffalo and Bergen or DGS Delicatessen would find it financially advantageous to undertake Kosher supervision.

It’s not that DC is missing kosher food, it’s that DC is missing a MARKET for a large number of kosher restaurants.

[Caveat Emptor -- the proprietor of Distrikt Bistro is a friend of mine...]

Bethany Mandel says:

There are very good reasons why the 6th and Rye food truck isn’t Kosher. http://www.gatherthejews.com/2011/06/kosher-kontroversy-in-defense-of-the-vaad/

What part of his description makes Soupergirl not strictly kosher? For the record, the DC Vaad certifies restaurants that are open on shabbos (e.g. Dunkin Donuts) and does not require a mashgiach to be on site for non-meat restaurants.

Jesternator says:

I don’t have time to review this article in detail, but I think you are being somewhat misleading in implying that just because there aren’t kosher restaurants IN THE DISTRICT that there aren’t in the area. But downtown DC, namely along I (“Eye”) Street was once the heart of Jewish culture in DC (with synagogues at the intersections of 6th & I, 7th & I, and 8th & I), but Jews fled to the Maryland suburbs only a few miles away two generations ago; where most Orthodox live now. And that is where you’ll find most (if not all) the kosher (not kosher-style) establishments. You have to look at the demographics and geography of a place.

And while we’re on the subject, good, REAL Delis (like those that still existed in the 60′s and early 70′s) are lacking almost everywhere in the U.S. (and Canada) in cities that used to have them all over, even in New York. Look here: http://www.savethedeli.com/

teensmom99 says:

Just a minor point: Souper Girl is in Takoma Park (or possibly in Takoma DC–it’s at the border)–and that’s really a Northeast suburb –different from the Northwest suburbs like Rockville where there are more kosher food options.

I believe the Kosher Dunkin Donuts in the DC area didn’t “cook” (i.e. on a fire) anything. They bake and they microwave (Ala their eggs). that’s it. it’s a different halachick dynamic.

there are greater problems for Jews in DC than the lack of kosher restaurants.

bring a sandwich

Souper Girl is located in DC’s Takoma neighborhood. It is not located in a suburb.

As far as I know, the FAQ on soupergirl is incorrect. it states, “In accordance with the recommendation standards of the Orthodox Union
(O-U) for non-meat restaurants, a mashgiach temidi is not required”

While this is the generally accepted orthodox practice, it’s not the OU’s practice, and is why there are relatively few dairy restaurants under the OU (even in NY, where there are many meat places under the OU).

This lends to the feeling of being unreliable as it is saying “look, we are putting in the same policies as the OU” when a) that seems to be false and b) says nothing about your reliability about enforcing them, in fact it reads more about tryign to fly on the other’s coattails.

there is no respected rabbi or kosher organization that calls souper girl kosher. she’s self appointed herself as kosher and then went to the Internet to find a kosher supervision.

Harris Cohen is correct on the difference between the four restaurants.

With regard to Soupergirl, Rabbi Herzfeld’s hechsher is widely accepted. He has semicha from RIETS–any so and so can draw an important inference from that.

Some choose to follow the Vaad to the letter on kashrut. The body does not represent all Orthodox communities and rabbis in the DC area, nor even all their own congregants http://www.gatherthejews.com/2011/06/stephen-responds-to-rabbi-freundel-koshergate-part-iii/. In particular, the Vaad does not include the local Sephardic rabbi.

There are competing hechshers in many Jewish communities abroad. They seem to cope. Part of what it means to be an observant Jew is to study and think, to know the halakhah and the facts, and not to go running to the rabbinate for answers to every question.

Jesternator says:

I’m not going to go into a detailed analysis, but given the continued prevalence of single family, detached homes; the relatively low population density, and historic development and dormitory function of the neighborhood (commuters into the Central Business District): the Takoma neighborhood would still be considered a (historic) suburb. Their are suburbs in DC, suburbs are not just outside the Beltway. Yes, development and increased housing and commercial development around the Metro station and corridor may change Takoma’s status, but not currently.

Jesternator says:

Again, somewhat misleading and abbreviated story: for example, buy my rough measurement, the Parkway Deli is 900 feet outside the District boundary (and got no mention in your story).

And again, you have to look at the density and location of a given population and it’s ability to support a given enterprise. Despite Abe Pollin’s vision and dream, there still is not a significant (Kosher keeping) population of Jews within the district in significant numbers to support a Kosher Restaurant (that I know of… but I haven’t really crunched the numbers).

I know the DC Metro area and downtown badly need at least a decent Kosher-style restaurant (besides on the North side including the Maryland Burbs). I’ve never been to DGS (yet), I tried to stop by DGS the other morning for breakfast after an appointment and they were closed at 9:15AM (so much for their Montreal Bagels) and they had no “Hours” on their door, and their website is down. I fear that place is a modern foodies’ interpretation of a Jewish Deli instead of the real thing. So far, since moving to the DC area 10 years ago (and having grown up in a U.S. City that was 89% Jewish in my youth), I’ll take the deli counter at Snider’s Grocery as the most authentic thing in the area (Chutzpah’s has lost their quality).

Wait. bake and microwave are okay, but “cook” is different. That’s splitting a pretty thin hair.

BMG4ME says:

I guess the author doesn’t know about the prohibition of talking loshon hora. It’s not even true to say that Eli’s is mediocre. I’ve taken several colleagues from one of the world’s largest and most successful companies to eat there and all of them have loved it. I’ve taken business partners there too. It’s no wonder there are not that many decent restaurants in DC or the suburbs – most that open are victims of loshon hora and close not because they are bad but because people say they are.

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D.C.’s Missing Kosher Food

Washington’s restaurant scene may be booming, but D.C. still isn’t a capital place to find good kosher eats

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