July 24, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Farmers Union Has D.C. Diners Figured Out | Meal Ticket

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Patrons looks at menus in the dining room of Farmers Fishers Bakers restaurant on the Georgetown Waterfront.

“This is really good. I don’t usually get lucky at this franchise,” a dining companion blurted out after registering what sounded like a pleasurable — but evidently rare — experience at the revamped Farmers Fishers Bakers.

To the restaurant’s credit, the compliments kept coming as that particular meal unfolded.

But the initial critique resonated, particularly since I, too, had, over the past several years, endured some less-than-stellar evenings at the various outposts planted around town by the seemingly indomitable North Dakota Farmers Union. And I was hardly alone.

Still, it’s inarguable the NDFU has established one of the most successful hospitality brands in the D.C. area — no small feat given the marquee dining projects that try, and often spectacularly fail, to take root.

Here Comes the Farm Lobby

Though certainly not the first to embrace the now-ubiquitous farm-to-table concept, the NDFU still made a big splash when Agraria opened in 2006 on the Georgetown Waterfront.

Riva Warrilow, marketing and public relations director for Farmers Restaurant Group, said the original project had been in development for several years before the backers brought the finely polished end product to market.

“The board of directors initiated the idea of opening a restaurant back in 2004 as a means of bringing the importance and value of the American family farmer and rancher to the spotlight and to help educate the public about food awareness,” Warrilow said.

The newcomer scored points early by recruiting top talent, including founding beverage manager Derek Brown, who has since established a network of his own swanky cocktail dens, but Agraria soon struggled under the weight of high expectations. “Nice views and good desserts are rare commodities in Washington; political hot air and $35 steaks are ubiquitous. For better or worse, Agraria promotes them all,” Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsema warned a few months after the grand opening.

Warrilow said the owners noticed as much — “It was a good idea, but lacked true identity,” she suggested — and a major overhaul was approved. They hired a consulting firm to soften the rough edges and in July 2009, welcomed folks to the updated Farmers & Fishers. In the interim, the NDFU launched Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW).

“George Washington University profs and students, World Bankers, and the IMF crowd have turned the place into a kind of second cafeteria, while tourists in search of cooking that’s several cuts above fast-casual land there instead of at pricier nearby spots such as Kinkead’s and Marcel’s,” Washingtonian’s Cynthia Hacinli surmised in May 2009.

The downtown spot has only gotten busier, courting early birds and weekend warriors alike with breakfast service and perennially packed brunches, while office drones flood in for claustrophobia-inducing happy hours. A spinoff followed in Montgomery County, Md.

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