The interior of a new location of The Block in North Bethesda.

The interior of a new location of The Block in North Bethesda.

D.C.’s food scene is having a moment, at least according to the James Beard Foundation, Michelin Guides, Bon Appetit and more. Even The New York Times and Esquire have recently discovered that D.C. restaurants aren’t all steakhouses with no personality.

Most of the restaurants that are getting national attention are located in the District. But the food industry in the suburbs–led in large part by immigrant chefs and restaurateurs–is also thriving, from the proliferation of food halls to established D.C. restaurateurs setting their sights on new locations.

What are the highlights of the food scene outside of D.C., and how does it all relate to what’s going on downtown? We’ll discuss.

Produced by Margaret Barthel

Guests

  • Grace Abi-Najm Shea Owner & Executive Vice President, Lebanese Taverna Group; @lebanesetaverna
  • Arturo Mei CEO and Co-founder, The Block
  • Andrew Sample Creator and Moderator, Northern Virginia Foodies Facebook Group

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. We've all heard it. D.C.'s food scene is sizzling. Suddenly everyone is talking about what many people in this region already knew. D.C. cuisine is diverse, varied and far more inventive than the steakhouse stereotype, but while the accolades pour in for restaurants downtown there is more simmering in the suburbs. Up and coming often immigrant or first generation chefs and restaurant owners are serving up all kinds of exciting treats. The tables are closer to the farms that supply them, and the demand for hip new restaurants to help make office parks into walkable neighborhoods feels limitless.

  • 12:00:42

    KOJO NNAMDIToday we dish on the latest on food and food culture in the suburbs and how it relates to what's cooking downtown. Joining me in studio is Arturo Mei, CEO and Founder of The Block, an Asian food hall in Annandale, Virginia. He has plans to open other locations in Bethesda and in the District. Arturo, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:00

    ARTURO MEIHey, thank you for having us.

  • 12:01:01

    NNAMDIGrace Abi-Najm Shea is Executive Vice President and Owner of the Lebanese Taverna Group, which runs restaurants and fast casual spots across the D.C. region. Grace, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:11

    GRACE ABI-NAJM SHEAGood morning.

  • 12:01:13

    NNAMDIAnd Andrew Sample is the Founder of the Northern Virginia Foodies Facebook Group. He's also a food photographer. Andrew, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:20

    ANDREW SAMPLEThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:22

    NNAMDIArturo, you started The Block in Annandale back in 2016. What is The Block and why did you locate it in the Annandale neighborhood?

  • 12:01:30

    MEIWe started as a food truck in Annandale, The Snowcream Bus. It was extremely large so we didn't travel to D.C. much. So we sought out shopping centers in Annandale or Fairfax area where I grew up. So we ended in Annandale in a large Kmart parking plaza, which was kind of dying down. And then the landlord allowed us to park there. And one thing led to another. We got busy. He saw the lines and then he said, hey, I have a 5,000 square feet space. Come join me. So we went in there. We took a look at the space and it too much space for just a dessert bus. So we started brainstorming and we came up with this idea. Hey, let's do a food hall. Pull a lot of different vendor. Make it into like a platform for incubating a lot of different food in the area and bring in the vendors, and then that's where it started.

  • 12:02:26

    NNAMDIDid you get any pushback from people who were skeptical about your choice of location in the suburbs?

  • 12:02:31

    MEIYeah, a little bit. They're like, why Annandale? Why not in the city or anywhere? It just felt right, you know. Our Yelp page was the same address that was the empty shopping center and then we just wanted to grow from there.

  • 12:02:47

    NNAMDISo you thought you were starting a neighborhood spot, but now you've got people coming in from all over. What do you think is so appealing about your concept?

  • 12:02:55

    MEII think people just love traveling for food. People don't go and travel for sightseeing these days. They travel for food and eat. And that's what brings people together. And like, hey, where can we go hang out and have fun? And they just think of food.

  • 12:03:13

    NNAMDIAndrew, you were a Leesburg native. And in 2014 you started a Facebook group devoted to getting Northern Virginians in Loudoun County out to enjoy food together. What was your goal in starting this group and what kind of food was available for you to try?

  • 12:03:26

    SAMPLEI mean, growing up in Leesburg, Virginia we didn't have a lot. Like right now there's so many restaurants. But growing up in Leesburg in the 80s, you know, you had the local diner, you know, a local steak spot. That's pretty much about it. But, yeah, back in 2014 I started it out called Loudoun County Going out Group and just to get friends together and going out and enjoying a meal and enjoying a conversation around a table. And in a couple of years it blew up to just under 45,000 members and just organically. Just the word got around and my food photography started to get good business around restaurants in the area, and it just all -- that' all history.

  • 12:04:06

    NNAMDIAnd 45,000 now. Is part of all of this that you've just got really good timing that you creating the group right around when the food scene generally was taking off?

  • 12:04:16

    SAMPLEI mean, growing up most of my friends -- I mean, after going to Johnson & Wales in Providence and most of my roommates were culinary majors and then coming back moving back home and I sort of became friends with a lot of chefs. And I guess I just was in my bubble going up in Leesburg. We didn't have a lot going on. And just getting out there more often and just now say -- searching for the right food places, and now being able to experience that type of food.

  • 12:04:50

    NNAMDIGrace, speaking of change overtime in the suburban food scene, Lebanese Taverna is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Tell us what you remember of your parents founding this restaurant back in 1979.

  • 12:05:02

    SHEASure. I must look good for my age considering I've been in the restaurant business for 40 years. But I started when I was four years old. My parents started the restaurant so when I was four. And we really started off similar to Andrew as a neighborhood spot. We lived a few blocks away. My parents had just emigrated here from Lebanon. And it was my dad's way of bringing his home closer for us and for the people around us. And we started, it was a pizza and sub shop. And we operated -- they operated. I say we, but they operated.

  • 12:05:37

    NNAMDIWell, you were a four year old helper.

  • 12:05:37

    SHEAYes. I was passing out business cards in kindergarten as I'm told, but it was pizza and subs and we'd sit down as a family and we'd be having kabobs and hummus and eggplant. And the customers would come in. They're like, we don't want a steak and cheese. We want what you're eating. And so within a year and year and a half the menu was converted to a full Lebanese menu. And in 1979, there were, you know, there was no Lebanese restaurants in Arlington or --

  • 12:06:08

    NNAMDII was about to say, what do you remember about the Northern Virginia food scene in the early days of the Lebanese Taverna? What kinds of food was available and popular in that area?

  • 12:06:18

    SHEANot much. I mean, there might have been a couple of Chinese restaurants, Chinese take outs, not even Chinese sit down restaurants, maybe some Italian, definitely a lot of pizza. I mean, I think Arlington was more diverse than if you went out any further, McLean, Fairfax, because Arlington being so close to D.C. it did have a bit more diversity than the further suburbs. And I don't even think you can call Arlington the suburbs anymore. It's become, you know, such an integral part. You know, Reston used to be a destination place. And now Reston is close. You know, they keep -- it keeps going further and further. So the suburbs are growing. But when we first started there was really not much in terms of ethnic food around us especially in North Arlington.

  • 12:07:06

    NNAMDIManitia called to say, we live in the burbs and there's an Indian restaurant we love called Kadhai in Bethesda. It's Indian American. It's the absolute best Indian. Grace, you now oversee several full service Lebanese Taverna restaurants plus a number of more casual spots across the D.C. region mostly in the suburbs, though, you have a location in the District. What is it about your business or customer demand that has made your expansion possible?

  • 12:07:32

    SHEAWell, being around for 40 years, we have to adapt. We want to stay relevant. And, you know, we serve hummus. We haven't changed that. Our recipe is the same. And no one knew what hummus was 40 years ago. And to see how it's grown in popularity, I mean, is mind blowing for us. But we're still serving hummus. We haven't changed recipes. So we have to find new ways to present it to our customers and our guests that suit their lifestyle not just coming into our restaurants and eating it, taking it home, catering, cooking classes, coming in. You know, people are eating out more now than ever. And it just looks different. It might not be sitting down for a two hour meal. It might be running in to a store for a five or ten minute quick bite. And so we're just trying to accommodate all those needs and be able to be in front of different generations as well.

  • 12:08:30

    SHEAYou know, because we've been around 40 years our clientele in the restaurant is different. I think a lot of the people that come to us, their children grew up coming to us and that's a place they go with their parents.

  • 12:08:43

    NNAMDIOh, that makes absolute sense.

  • 12:08:44

    SHEAAnd now we want to be a place where they come with their friends or a place where maybe their parents didn't go and they're just coming to us and telling their parents about us. So we're trying to, you know, meet those demands and grow our clientele base, because you can't be around for 40 years and, you know, keep doing the same thing necessarily without adding some new components to it.

  • 12:09:07

    NNAMDIThe New York Times recently discovered that D.C. has a good restaurant scene. And, yes, some of us rolled our eyes at that. But I'd like to read you all a quote that was part of the story they did about the dining scene here and get your reactions. Quoting here, "The most powerful force driving the critical reassessments are restaurants from immigrant and first generation American chefs and restaurateurs many of whom cut their teeth in the surrounding suburbs." You would say that's accurate, Arturo?

  • 12:09:34

    MEIA little bit. I would say that a lot of the immigrants just moved out of the city, because it was getting extremely expensive. It was much easier to, you know, live out there. Driving was much easier. I mean, school was better too. So a lot of them just moved out there and just happened -- they wanted to open restaurants near where they live. So it just naturally happened, I think.

  • 12:10:03

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Andrew?

  • 12:10:04

    SAMPLEYeah, absolutely. You know, where I grew up in Leesburg, we had, you know, 40,000 people back in the day and I don't know the exact number now. But it's like 350,000 and the amount of immigrant and other ethnic restaurants that we live in now in our area has quadrupled. I mean, people hit me up all the time and, "You know, I'm looking for an Afghani restaurant. Do you know any around here?" "Absolutely. There's one in Leesburg. And they ask me a question. I know where it's at, but it's definitely blown up in our area from transplants that have moved from other cities to move to Northern Virginia. And that's what -- it's great and the food scene in Northern Virginia is because of that.

  • 12:10:47

    NNAMDISame question to you, Grace.

  • 12:10:48

    SHEAWell, it's interesting. You start off saying people would travel for food, but they don't have to anymore. Before you had to travel for food, if you wanted Lebanese and you lived in Fairfax, you had to come to Arlington to Lebanese Taverna, 20 years ago. Now there's plenty of Lebanese restaurants and Middle Eastern restaurants all around us. So I think the more neighborhoods are being developed the more development is going around a place like Mosaic or the National Harbor or -- they are creating places that necessarily aren't neighborhoods in of themselves. But they're making them dining destinations. So although people will travel for food, they don't have to anymore. So that's a little bit different than 20 years ago.

  • 12:11:31

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. But Karen in Crofton, Omar in Fairfax stay on the line. We'll take your calls when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:27

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about food and foodies in the suburbs with Andrew Sample. He's the Founder of the Northern Virginia Foodies Facebook Group. He's also a food photographer. Grace Abi-Najm Shea is the Executive Vice President and Owner of the Lebanese Taverna Group, which runs restaurants and fast casual spots across the D.C. region. And Arturo Mei is the CEO and Co-founder of The Block, an Asian food hall in Annandale, Virginia. He has plans to open other locations in Bethesda and the District. Let's go to Angeli in Springfield, Virginia. Angeli, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:00

    ANGELISure. So you ought to ask what is the difference between the food experiences in D.C. versus that of Northern Virginia. And I'm a Northern Virginian native so I just wanted to say I feel like food as a cultural experience is more accessible in Northern Virginia than it is in D.C. where things are a bit more upscale. You can have everyday people, who started restaurants right next to each other in a strip mall. For example, you can have an Ethiopian restaurant right next to an Indian restaurant. So you can grab a bowl of amazing Ethiopian lentils and grab some Indian chai and you have now had two different cultural experiences accessible to you. And where as if you go into D.C. it's just so upscale you don't get to have the same type of experience and get to meet every day people as well. So I think that's one of the key differences.

  • 12:13:59

    ANGELIAnd as of today in Northern Virginia there are more opportunities to explore, because there is more fusion foods and people are courageously exploring and trying out new things. So you're having a brand new genre emerging in Northern Virginia.

  • 12:14:18

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got a tweet from Muddy Paws who says, my twin sister introduced me to The Block. I love that place and welcome something like in it in D.C. Arturo, in some ways you're following the pattern that the New York Times laid out and that is the first generation American chefs and restaurateurs many of whom cut their teeth in the surrounding suburbs. You got your start in Northern Virginia and now you're looking to open a location in D.C. How did you decide you were ready to move in to the D.C. market?

  • 12:14:48

    MEII actually grew up in Chinatown in D.C. for 10 years. And my parents actually had a Chinese restaurant on 14th called Great Wall when I was 14. And then we moved to the suburbs.

  • 12:15:02

    NNAMDIIt's still called Great Wall, isn't it?

  • 12:15:04

    MEIYes. It's still called Great Wall.

  • 12:15:05

    NNAMDIBut your parents don't own it anymore.

  • 12:15:06

    MEIWe don't own it anymore, and then, yeah. We moved to the suburbs and I lived there. Went to school, college -- went to out of state for college, came back, and I was like, hey, let me start a restaurant in Annandale. And now I feel like I want to go back to D.C. and see how this is going to work out out there.

  • 12:15:24

    NNAMDIAndrew, does the New York Times assessment of the relationship between the D.C. restaurant and the suburban scene ring true to you that the suburbs are essentially a proving ground for downtown?

  • 12:15:34

    SAMPLEAbsolutely. I believe with the wineries and the breweries just becoming so sporadic in Loudoun County and in that area and having the farm to table restaurants that are using the -- you know, the cows and the pigs and the goats from these farms that are directly right next door to these restaurants and using them in the food and then pairing it with the wine that's literally made right next door. That is why I believe that the Northern Virginia food scene is skyrocketing.

  • 12:16:06

    NNAMDIGrace, on the other hand, there's often a sense that the market for good food in D.C. is getting more and more crowded. In an interview with Washingtonian about opening a new restaurant in Tyson's Corner the D.C. restaurateur Ian Hilton said, quoting here, "I don't know what's left to do in D.C. Quite frankly I really don't." Do you agree with that sentiment?

  • 12:16:24

    SHEAAbsolutely. D.C. -- the culture has been here longer and so it's becoming more and more saturated. One of, I think the differences is the size of the restaurants. In D.C. you pay a lot more for a little place. And in the suburbs you can get a lot more space. You can get a lot more exposure and with less competition. They've been doing it a long time here and nothing seems -- there's no new ideas. And so you take your idea from D.C. and you go to the suburb it's very possible that it's new there. But here it's usually been done already. So there is something to be said about expanding and it can go both ways. You know, coming from the suburbs to D.C. I feel like the people in the suburbs are more likely to come to D.C. Where the people in D.C. are less likely to go to the suburbs.

  • 12:17:27

    NNAMDIOn now to John in Arlington, Virginia. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:32

    JOHNOh, hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to put a -- I guess a little tip in. I live between Arlington and Falls Church and there's this little Egyptian restaurant that just opened up or not. I shouldn't say just opened up. We just learned about it about a month or so ago. It's called the Fava Pot. And they serve Egyptian food. And they interestingly started out as a food truck just like some of your guests were talking about earlier.

  • 12:18:01

    NNAMDIWell, John, listen to what Karen Lega just tweeted us: There's a rare and outstanding Egyptian restaurant in Falls Church, Fava Pot. And they also have a food truck in D.C. The restaurant in Falls Church has beautiful murals of famous Egyptians and a special oven for fresh Egyptian bread. Is that what you enjoy about it, John?

  • 12:18:21

    JOHNI enjoy everything about it. (laugh) I remember many, many years ago, one of my health food buddies introduced me to, I think it's called saada bread, which has got -- sort of a flatbread that has a real -- not real spicy. It's pretty subdued, but it's just wonderful tasting. And they do probably the best job I've ever had, as far as the saada bread is concerned.

  • 12:18:47

    NNAMDIWell, Karen Legette obviously agrees with you, so, John, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Karen in Crofton, Maryland. Karen, your turn.

  • 12:18:55

    KARENHello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. As a vegan, I do travel out of my way to go to restaurants where I know I can get a nutritious, plant-based entrée. And in the suburbs, I can name a couple in particular. There's the New Deal Café in Greenbelt, Maryland that's entirely plant-based, as is the Great Sage Restaurant in Clarksville, the NuVegan Café in College Park. There are many others in the D.C. area and suburbs, but these are the three that popped into mind first of all.

  • 12:19:31

    KARENAnd I will also go out of my way to go to other restaurants that are not necessarily 100 percent plant-based, but which at least have a designed area on the menu for vegetarians or vegans. A previous caller mentioned Ethiopian and Indian restaurants. Those are two that have a variety of food offerings for vegans such as myself, as do cuisines from various other ethnic groups. So, I just wanted to add that commentary that, yes, I travel (laugh) for plant-based food. And I gave up eating meat in the 1970s, so I have seen a lot of development, and I'm really happy that plant-based eating is becoming part of the mainstream.

  • 12:20:18

    NNAMDIKaren, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. Grace, as you mentioned, when your parents started Lebanese Taverna, the restaurant was not serving up a lot of traditional Lebanese dishes until your customers started wondering what you were eating and wanted some of that. But how has the menu evolved over time? And with the menu now, are you still thinking about balancing what feels true to your heritage with the sense of what your customers' tastes are?

  • 12:20:41

    SHEAWell, as the last caller mentioned, vegan, vegetarian dietary concerns are a big part of what we do. These keto, there's gluten-free, there's so many beyond the vegetarian, vegan diets. And that's one of the great things about Lebanese food. And I think it's true for most immigrant food, is that Lebanese food is very vegetarian and vegan-friendly, because they didn't have refrigeration. So, they would cook up dishes that did not have meat or dairy, because they need it to last for a couple of days outside of any kind of refrigeration.

  • 12:21:20

    SHEAAnd so, especially in Lebanon, we have a large Christian population. And so we have Lenten meals, and then we have regular meals. So, we have grape leaves without meat, which are served cold. And those are traditional during Lent or times of fasting. And then you have the grape leaves with meat that are served the rest of the year when you don't need to fast.

  • 12:21:41

    SHEASo, for us, at our restaurant, we've tried to take what is already traditional and make it relevant. You know, pomegranates became such a popular thing, with their antioxidants and all these exciting things. Well, we've been putting pomegranates on our baba ghanoush for 40 years. Or something like cauliflower. Cauliflower's huge, especially as a vegetarian or vegan main course. It's a very meaty vegetable. And so we fry cauliflower. It's been on our menu for 40 years. So, we just try to highlight some of the things that we've already done, or something that's already in our cuisine to accommodate, you know, the growing, you know, changes.

  • 12:22:24

    SHEASmall plates. You know, 10 years ago, small plates became a thing. Well, we've been doing meza for 40 years. So, it's just trying to highlight and bring out the things that are most relevant with what's going on today.

  • 12:22:38

    NNAMDIArturo, similar question to you. The Block is known for being centered around Asian cuisine, but within that extremely broad label, some of your vendors are playing around a bit, maybe fusing elements of a few different types of Asian cuisine together to make something new. Do you feel any pressure to serve food that's, quote, "authentic"?

  • 12:22:55

    MEINo. We want to bridge a lot of cultures together. And, in order for us to do that, we are very hard on social media just to expose these different types of cuisines that we're coming up with. That's what gets people out to Annandale. We use social media and post a lot of different food that we create. And we just want to bridge a lot of cultures.

  • 12:23:23

    MEII think bridging a lot of these cultures together is what's making everyone trying all these new foods. And like Lebanese food, like, they've been around for so long, but not a lot of people knew about it. So, now, with the social media exposure, everyone's trying a lot of different things, not (unintelligible) or steak anymore. They're intrigued by this now. So...

  • 12:23:46

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Margot, who said: my favorite restaurant in the suburbs is Esposito's in Fairfax. It's a wonderful Italian restaurant. Many of the sauces served are homemade and extremely tasty. We got a tweet from Greg, who says: I would put the ethnic foods available in Herndon and Reston up against anything in D.C. and Annandale. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:32

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking food and foodies in the suburbs with Grace Abi-Najm Shea, executive vice president and owner at the Lebanese Taverna Group, which runs restaurants in fast casual spots across the D.C. region. Arturo Mei is CEO and co-founder of The Block, an Asian food hall in Annandale, Virginia. He has plans to open other locations in Bethesda and in the District. And Andrew Sample is the founder of the Northern Virginia Foodies Facebook Group. He's also a food photographer.

  • 12:24:58

    NNAMDIAndrew, you're almost 50,000 members on the Northern Virginia Foodies Group, so it's not surprising that there's quite a bit of cultural and ethnic diversity on the page, including people who are new to the area, or even to the country. How do you see people using the group both to teach and to learn about the foods that they love?

  • 12:25:15

    SAMPLEWell, not only do restaurants share their -- or people that share their restaurant experiences, but it's also the home cooks, the recipes that they share online. And that's what we really want to promote, is people that come from overseas and out of town to share with us their grandmother's recipe and share with us about that. I really want to grow that more than the -- I mean, obviously, with the restaurants, but just home cooked meals and show us what they have to offer. And I'm really excited for what the future has bring with that.

  • 12:25:47

    NNAMDIGrace, one potential reason for the proliferation of immigrant and first generation-lead food business in the suburbs is that the operating costs are just lower than they would be downtown. Was that a factor in your family's decision to open in Arlington decades ago?

  • 12:26:01

    SHEAAbsolutely. And it is changing. The suburbs are not as -- what's the word -- business-friendly as they used to be, because development keeps moving further and further. We have a store on Lee Highway, in Arlington. It's the Lebanese supermarket, and we've been there for almost 30 years. And now development's coming, and they're trying to do it in a way where it's planned, which is wonderful. And the Lee Highway Alliance is doing a lot with that.

  • 12:26:33

    SHEABut, at the same time, I'm worried that with that, you'll lose the strip malls where a mom and pop can go in and open up a restaurant and succeed and take care of their family. Because when you have the landlords that have a large apartment building, and you're in the base, or national companies, they have to make a certain amount of money. It's a very different model than the strip mall that, you know, has many different ethnic places in it. They want a business that has financial backing that they are guaranteed that they'll get those rents.

  • 12:27:10

    SHEAAnd so it's a matter of finding those unique spots still in the suburbs where a mom and pop can open and not have to have all these assets to guarantee their rent. So, it is changing. Development has come further and further out from the city into the suburbs. And so, for us, that was a deciding factor at that time. It isn't anymore. Now it's become so cosmopolitan that Bethesda or Arlington is almost the same as D.C. And, actually, sometimes in D.C., you can find more of those small strip malls where you can open up and start a business.

  • 12:27:54

    NNAMDIHere is Christian in Arlington, Virginia. Christian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:27:59

    CHRISTIANHey, Kojo. I just want to say, a big fan. Thank you for taking my call. One place I love going to, it's been around since before I was even born. My folks have been going there for a while. It's Poileko (sounds like) behind the George Mason Law Library off of Wilson Boulevard.

  • 12:28:14

    NNAMDIAnd you've been going there literally all your life.

  • 12:28:18

    CHRISTIANPretty much, yeah. (laugh)

  • 12:28:20

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your recommendation. We move onto Omar, in Fairfax, Virginia. Omar, your turn.

  • 12:28:26

    OMARHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call...

  • 12:28:28

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:28:29

    OMAR...and thanks for this great topic. I just wanted to bring up a great restaurant in Fairfax that makes Yemeni food. I'm multicultural. I'm half Filipino and half Palestinian, so I grew up, you know, trying many different foods. And I thank my mom for always encouraging me to try new things. And this Yemeni food is a very -- you know, it's a very small country, and not many people know about it, but they make this wonderful lamb. It's really flavorful, not too many spices, but has this great flavor.

  • 12:29:05

    OMARAnd I think everywhere I go, I always look for Yemeni food. I travel a lot. I was in med school, so I did fellowship in Houston, which is another foodie town. And I spent some time in San Francisco. And everywhere I go, I always look for Yemeni food specifically, because of their lamb. And I'm so happy that now I'm in Fairfax, you know, just down the street, there's this great place. The name of the place is, yeah, Saba (sounds like).

  • 12:29:32

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Thank you for sharing that with us. Arturo, you mentioned your parents worked in Chinatown, owned that restaurant on 14th Street when you were growing up. How formative was that family history in prompting your decision to go into the food industry?

  • 12:29:45

    MEIIt had a lot to do with it, because, growing up, eating was the way we only had time to spend together. And because of that, I wanted to bring food and other cultures together with food and showcasing a lot of these cultures' food for everyone. And I love food. I travel for food. (laugh) I don't travel for sightseeing. (laugh) So, I'll go far and beyond for food. So, that's why I'm thinking a lot of people travel anywhere for food these days.

  • 12:30:19

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Inanana, (sounds like) who says: a huge difference in suburban restaurants and city restaurants is foot traffic. Restaurants in the suburbs have to work that much harder to get people to stop their car to go in, as opposed to people walking on the street and stopping by. The threshold is higher.

  • 12:30:35

    NNAMDIGrace, some parts of the suburbs are trying to become less car-centric, though. Tyson's Corner, for instance, is looking to become more of a main street and less of an office park. Restaurants can be a big part of creating that more pedestrian-friendly favor. Are those kinds of developments a significant opportunity for food businesses in the suburbs?

  • 12:30:53

    SHEAWell, I think food businesses are usually the ones that are targeted to bring people to those developments. As we know, retail is slowly dying, and it's a lot harder to create an environment where people want to come, but restaurants tend to do that. But the problem is that they're relying heavily on restaurants to do that. And you have a place where all there is is food, and it's not enough to sustain that center.

  • 12:31:24

    SHEAAnd so you have to -- I think one of the -- Ballston again, I talk a lot about Arlington. It's where I live and where I -- a place like Ballston Quarter, they've transformed Ballston Commons into a place where you have experiences. You have a cooking school. You have a 5 Wits, which is similar to -- you know, there's one of those mystery places where you go -- escape rooms, sorry, escape room. You have Punch Bowl Social, where you can go play foosball. So, they're paring food with an experience. And that's definitely something that I'm seeing as more of a trend. The Wharf is another example where you have music halls and food, so that brings people to it.

  • 12:32:07

    SHEAYour caller's absolutely right, though. You do have to work twice as hard in the suburbs because there are more destination places. Where in the city, you have the people living right there walking by, whether it's a neighborhood residential area or a tourist area or a business district. You have a higher concentration of people in one place. Where in the suburbs, they're much further spread out, and so you do have to work twice as a hard to get them to come into your store.

  • 12:32:37

    NNAMDIGot a tweet from Evie Buckley: I love Lebanese Taverna. Really wish you would come to Howard County. So, there. (laugh) Andrew, I'd like to ask you about the word foodies, which, of course, is part of the title of the Facebook group. For some people it conjures up a pretty specific image. What does foodies mean to you?

  • 12:32:55

    SAMPLEWell, no one ever looks at the definition. I believe it's just going out and enjoying food. It can be a home-cooked meal, or it could be going out to an expensive restaurant or a not-expensive restaurant. You know, a hot topic on the page recently is fast food. And, you know, fast food is still food, but I don't typically like to eat it. But, you know, if someone wants to talk about a chicken sandwich, you know, we can let them talk about chicken sandwich for a while, which has been a hot topic recently with the Popeye's craze and everything craze lately. But I believe it's just sitting around and enjoying food and having great conversation. That's what I believe a foodie is.

  • 12:33:37

    NNAMDIArturo, what about you? Are there expectations that, quote-unquote "foodies" have of The Block that you know you need to live up to?

  • 12:33:46

    MEIDefinitely. They want something that's Instagrammable, picturesque, looks good, tastes good. Obviously, we want to make our food taste good and look good. People eat with their eyes first, before they come in. So, (laugh) definitely.

  • 12:34:03

    NNAMDISame question to you, Grace: what are some of the expectations that you're contending with from foodies these days, especially in terms of the dining experience at your restaurant that you didn't used to have to think about?

  • 12:34:13

    SHEAWell, people have a lot more opinions, because they know more about food. Before, you had...

  • 12:34:18

    NNAMDIAnd they have more avenues to express those opinions.

  • 12:34:21

    SHEAOh, yes, they do. That's a whole other show. (laugh) But they know more about food. A lot of times, the diner will know more than the server about the food that they're eating. Between the internet and before you only knew about food from a magazine that came once a month, whether it was Bon Appétit or Gourmet or Saveur. And now you have all this information, not just for food, but for everything in our world. And so that makes -- you have a much more educated consumer.

  • 12:34:53

    SHEAAnd so I don't know that we've done anything particular to cater to them. I have to tell you, we are not fabulous on social media. And, you know, our food is our food. But I think our customers appreciate us for what we are. But I was talking to Andrew. Maybe I'll get him to come take some (laugh) photos for me.

  • 12:35:15

    SAMPLEAbsolutely.

  • 12:35:16

    NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. Grace Abi-Najm Shea, thank you so much for joining us. Arturo Mei, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:22

    MEIThank you.

  • 12:35:23

    NNAMDIAnd Andrew Sample, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:25

    SAMPLEThank you.

  • 12:35:26

    NNAMDIOur conversation about dining in the suburbs was produced by Margaret Barthel. Next week is our Winter Book Show. We'd like to know what was the best book you read this year. Record a voice memo on your phone, no more than 30 seconds, and send it to kojo@wamu.org with the subject line Best Book. We'll play a selection of your responses next week.

  • 12:35:46

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, thousands of people in the D.C. region are expected to fall off the food stamps rolls, and holiday toys. What you need to know about buying safe presents for the kids in your life. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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