25 November 2008

Going local: Eastern Market

A week ago Saturday I visited Eastern Market with friend Amanda. Eastern Market is located in the upper-left corner of Southeast Washington, DC, not far from the Capitol. It's easily accessible by rail--it has its own Metro stop on the Blue/Orange line--or by car. Just park on the street in the surrounding neighborhood.

Unlike the other markets reviewed thus far, Eastern Market is open more than just one day a week, and it's much more than a farmers' market. The farmers' portion, plus the arts & crafts and flea markets are open on Saturdays and Sundays (farmers' market: 7 am to 4 pm, arts & crafts and flea markets: 9 am to 6 pm). There's also an indoor area known as the South Hall, open Tuesday through Sunday (Tuesday-Friday: 7 am to 7 pm, Saturday 7 am to 6 pm, Sunday 9 am to 5 pm). There. Logistics out of the way.

Now to the meat of the matter. A visit to Eastern Market, as you may have guessed, is much more than a visit to a farmers' market. If you go there and all you do is buy a sack of apples, you've missed the boat.

The first thing I do at Eastern Market is enter the South Hall and eat at Market Lunch. In spite of the name, my last visit here was the first time I'd actually ordered a midday meal. Usually I would go in the morning, but this particular Saturday I was looking to fill the afternoon. I ordered the crab cake sandwich with a side of collard greens. The sandwich was very good (not as amazing as the girl in front of us in line would have had me believe), and I liked the collard greens, but I could have used half the portion they gave me. Breakfast is really where Market Lunch shines. I especially recommend the blue bucks (blueberry buckwheat pancakes) or the French toast (paying extra for the pecan topping is a must). The fellow who works the counter is sassy in a way that keeps you coming back, the service is fast, and the prices are more than reasonable. And on any given Saturday morning, you're going to see Mormons standing in line with you. The rest of the South Hall is home to butchers, fishmongers, and bakers who sell high-quality, fresh products.

Next on my list of stops is Capitol Hill Books. Not technically part of Eastern Market, the used bookstore is located right across the street to the south of the old South Hall (the original brick South Hall building suffered an electrical fire last year; it is currently under renovation and should reopen next summer). Capitol Hill Books is probably the folksiest, most mom-and-pop-type operation I've ever seen. What's more, it pulls it off without feeling forced. I would be surprised if I found out the proprietors ever said, "Hey. Let's figure out how we can be more folksy around here." The ambiance is achieved naturally.

The view from the front window is indicative of the interior as a whole--stacks and stacks of books, not necessarily on shelves (look at the staircase). The store is organized in a patchwork manner, with genres assigned to general areas (fiction, mystery, poetry, and music upstairs; sci-fi and gardening in the basement; nonfiction main level), and subgenres posted on the shelves with helpful notecards. The notecards are spread throughout the store, wherever they might be helpful in your careful search for a particular author or title. "John Gardner on floor behind Hesse." "Gabriel García Márquez located under García." "M-R goes down and across (Arrows may help)."

A friend of mine refers to Capitol Hill Books (really one of her favorite haunts) as "the socialist bookstore;" she's sure that the owners and employees are teetering off the left-hand side of the political spectrum. I couldn't really say; I've never been indoctrinated or even engaged in any kind of political conversation. The gentleman seated at the checkout counter usually just makes humorous and good-natured comments about your purchases. Once he went so far as to quote an entire Yeats poem to Amanda. She melted into a puddle, but she remained a moderate voter.

Stomach full of blue bucks, newly purchased used books in hand, I then return to the market and pick up produce. The vendors line the sidwalk that runs on the east side of the old South Hall. Most of the vendors sell vegetables or fruits, though there is a regular table that offers homemade salsa and dips--both as samples and as packaged wares. The produce is good, nothing notable about the quality, though I did discover a handy feature at one of the vegetable stands during this last visit. The seller packaged small varieties of veggies together into food storage bags and sold them as a bunch for three dollars each. I got a bag with red potatoes, green beans, and a little bit of broccoli. A good deal for what you pay. I also walked further down the line and picked up some Nittany apples (my new fall favorite).

Finally, there are the flea market and the arts and crafts portions of the market. The flea market is located to the south of the temporary South Hall, and it's filled with all sorts of wonders: rugs, trunks, statuettes, jewelry, scarves, handbags, and so on. The arts and crafts booths are set up on the sidewalk opposite the farmers' market sidewalk, and also on the patio north of the old South Hall. Jewelers, potters, painters, photographers, and others show their handiwork. Even if you're not in the market for anything from here, it's always worth it to peruse. Some of the vendors are quite talented--Dan Kessler, whose work has been commissioned by the White House, is there every Saturday.

Eastern Market, as a farmers' market, is not a place I would regularly frequent. The produce is decent, but not spectacular, and the commute into DC takes much longer than a jaunt over to Arlington or a walk to Del Ray. But combining the farmers' market with the prospect of delicious breakfast and used books and local culture adds an allure that keeps me coming back.

18 November 2008

Going local: Old Town Farmers' Market

Several weeks after my visit*, my review:

The Old Town Farmers' Market is situated on the fountain plaza next to City Hall, at the intersection of King Street and Royal, right in the liver of Old Town (I really think the heart of Old Town is the waterfront at the end of King Street and the Torpedo Factory--King and Royal is close, though). It's the earliest starter of all the markets I've reviewed so far; it opens at 5:30 and shuts down at 10:30. Like the Arlington Farmers' Market, Old Town is open year-round, availability of fresh produce notwithstanding.

It probably has the largest area out of the markets I've reviewed as well. In spite of the large fountain in the middle, Market Square has a lot of space, and the vendors sprawl across it. The large area provides for a wider variety of wares than I've seen in other places. Beyond the traditional produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods, crafts peddlers and florists dot the rows of booths. This is good for those looking for more than just food offerings. Bad for those creeped out by severed doll heads used as mounts.

Questionable display choices aside, I also haven't been as impressed with the quality of produce I've picked up in Old Town. Mealy apples, fresh cider that tastes like it's from concentrate--not up to par with Del Ray or Arlington, in my opinion. To be fair, I've shopped those other markets much more frequently than I've shopped Old Town. I shouldn't judge from this past experience; I may have picked a lesser vendor or just gone on a bad week.

The best thing Old Town does have going for it is its location. Like the Del Ray and Arlington markets, it's situated in the middle of a bustling area well known for its shops, haunts, and restaurants. At the Old Town Farmers' Market, you're within walking distance of the waterfront (the heart), several good restaurants, and a few notable historical sites (such as the Alexandria Courthouse and the John Carlyle House). It also has the feeling of community that exists at the other markets, only it's the Old Town community as opposed to the Arlington or Del Ray communities. Choosing a market out of the three to visit based on the neighborhood depends, then, on what you're in the mood for. Old Town is definitely more full of tourists. Arlington's Courthouse/Clarendon area is a target spot for yuppies, while Del Ray attracts former hippies, indie hipsters, and yuppies who are pretending to be hipsters.

Overall, I prefer the Arlington and Del Ray markets to the Old Town offering.

This past Saturday I also visited Eastern Market and took some pictures. I hope to have that review up by the end of the week.

*Special thanks to special guests who accompanied me for my site visit: Amanda, KE, and especially Katherine, who loaned me her camera and emailed me the pictures for this post (I forgot my camera at home).