WASHINGTON - For tourists and residents, alike, the District of Columbia has an endless list of must-see museums, monuments and historic landmarks. And while double-decker buses, Segways and Potomac cruises will take you to the sites, there's another way to experience the nation's capital — through your taste buds.
As the area's food scene continues to boom, food tours are attracting tourists and locals who are hungry for a slice of the city's culture and cuisine.
In 1999, Carolyn Crouch founded Washington Walks, a walking tour company. Three years later, she expanded her list of walks to include a tour of the district's Penn Quarter neighbourhood — from a food perspective.
"We felt like it represented a real local aspect of Washington that's not necessarily about straight history and architecture," says Crouch, whose tours generally attract 10 to 12 people. "Locally owned food businesses and local food purveyors represent an aspect of district life that's getting more and more attention, so we thought we would highlight that in the tour."
On the Penn Quarter food tour, guides lead participants on a walk that combines history with gastronomy at local food sites.
"It might be the location of what was once the biggest public market, it might be a place where demonstrations about unfair practices in department store restaurants and lunch counters (took place), maybe where there used to be a dairy processing place in downtown D.C.," Crouch explains.
The tour also takes participants to locally owned cafes and shops in Penn Quarter that represent the current food scene in the district, and tour-goers are encouraged to try a snack or a beverage from the neighbourhood vendors. Teaism, Cowgirl Creamery and Pitango Gelato are frequent stops along the tour.
Just across the river in Alexandria, Va., Jeff Swedarsky, 32, led his first food tour in 2008 through the streets of Old Town.
Now, his company, DC Metro Food Tours, which is part of Swedarsky's Food Tour Corporation, holds tours in 13 different area neighbourhoods, including Capitol Hill; Georgetown; U Street; Del Ray, Va.; downtown Leesburg, Va., and Fells Point in Baltimore.
"These places, what do they all have in common? ... Each one of them has its own character. They're historically significant, they're culturally significant, they all have great food and they're all walkable," Swedarsky says.
His inspiration for founding the company, which co-ordinates public and private tours, comes from several years of travelling and living abroad.
"One thing I really loved about travelling is the amazing feeling when you go from one place to another, how you can see completely different architecture, different cultures, different languages . and so much of it revolves around the cuisine, the food and the drink. It's a source of pride," says Swedarsky, who lived in Slovenia and wanted to bring his international food adventures and experiences to the U.S.
Unlike Crouch's model, Swedarsky's tours stop at restaurants, where participants sample small plates, specially prepared by the chef or kitchen staff.
"(The dishes) are supposed to embody what the restaurant is all about, how it connects with the area," Swedarsky says.
The restaurants on the tours are selected based on their uniqueness, their relationship to the highlighted neighbourhood and their ability to accommodate a group of roughly 12 to 15 people.
"We want places that ... have significant roots, or something cool . They serve a certain style of food that is special, that's something different . That's what we look for," says Swedarsky about his walking tours. "We want high-calibre quality, we want great restaurateurs, we want local."
Due to a growing public interest in the food tour business (Swedarsky is on track to see a 40 per cent increase in business this year, compared to last year), both Crouch and Swedarsky hope to expand their tours to reach additional neighbourhoods.
Swedarsky, who began conducting tours in Loudon County, Va., last year, says he does plan to expand, but wants to do it "the right way."
Meanwhile, Crouch has her eye on a food tour in Dupont Circle.
"There are now so many really interesting spots (in Dupont Circle) that are all about the local food scene and sustainably sourced food," says Crouch, who adds that despite the location, people like coming together to enjoy food and culture with others.
"When people are eating together — even just snacking — it promotes a lot of happy conversation," Crouch says.
Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com