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United We Eat in D.C.

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Friends share a laugh at a communal dining area in D.C.'s Union Market. (Photograph by Seth Rubin)

Hoping to witness democracy in action in Washington, D.C.?

Head to Union Market, a new seat of culinary power northeast of the U.S. Capitol that’s as much of a throwback as it is progressive. Here in an up-and-coming neighborhood known as NoMA (north of Massachusetts Avenue), what was once a gloomy warehouse has been transformed into a bright gathering place.

With 40-some local vendors, Union Market follows the tradition of 19th-century markets that once pulsed at the heart of American cities, including D.C.’s historic Center Market, which made way for the National Archives in 1931.

Today’s urban market exemplifies the booming capital’s new grassroots food culture—rife with collaborations and chefs working the counter—helping D.C. shed its dated reputation as one giant steak house.

Shoppers examine crates of arugula while sampling Korean BBQ tacos, slurping Chesapeake oysters and egg creams, or downing Ethiopian espresso and perhaps a bite of baklava.

“Union Market has given a lot of creative people the opportunity to pursue their ambitions on a small scale,” says Michael Babin, the restaurateur behind more than a dozen Washington restaurants and bars, including the market’s Red Apron Butchery, where regional beers pair with porchetta sandwiches. “D.C.’s food scene finally feels like a scene.”

  • Tip: Grab an Italian sub at A. Litteri, a small grocery a block from Union Market serving Washington insiders since 1926.

This piece, written by David Hagedorn, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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