Dining in the District: A Newcomer's Guide to Washington, D.C.

There's more to the capital than bureaucrats and pandas: Washington, D.C. has become a world-class culinary destination. 

©Photo by Scott Suchman/Washingtonian Magazine

Photo By: Greg Powers ©Greg Powers Photography www.gregpowers.us

Photo By: Greg Powers ©Greg Powers Photography

Photo By: SCOTT SUCHMAN ©Photo by Scott Suchman

Photo By: Joshua Cogan ©Joshua Cogan 2013

Photo By: BIRKENT STUDIO

The Culinary Capital

Pay no attention to outsiders’ snickers about steakhouses and lobbyist lunches: Washington, D.C. is a dining destination. The city’s international scene, expansive growth and proximity to the Chesapeake and Mid-Atlantic farmlands and watersheds have made it an irresistible place for chefs to set up shop. Both homegrown talent and national names have contributed to D.C.’s restaurant boom, which shows no sign of slowing as new neighborhoods become food hot spots every year. If you still want to spy boldface names at a power lunch, we’ve got you covered. But within this guide you’ll also discover neighborhood gems, inspired Southeast Asian food, local gelato and many more reasons to eat your way through the nation’s capital.

 

Photo: Scott Suchman

Burger: Garden District

There are a lot of good restaurant burgers in the District, but Garden District’s may be the only one that masters the spirit of the backyard cookout. Open only in warmer seasons, the Logan Circle beer garden is perfectly suited to maximize summer burger appreciation, with sunbaked picnic tables, icy steins of American and German craft beers, and the occasional pie special for dessert. The burger starts with a well-seasoned, hand-formed patty, which Chef Tad Curtz tops with a thin cap of sharp cheddar, ripe tomato, Thousand Island-style sauce and dill pickles, which the kitchen cuts by hand to ensure uniform crunch. The whole lot goes into a buttered, griddled bun that manages to just barely hold itself together, much like the typical family cookout.

 

Photo: Wilson Andrews

Garden District

Power Lunch: Fiola Mare

When there’s a $50 plate of (lobster) ravioli on the menu and not an empty seat in the house, you know you’re in a D.C. power spot. Though the Fiola Mare dinner is exceptional, we like Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s seafood-focused Italian dining room best at lunch, preferably with a window seat overlooking the Georgetown waterfront and the Kennedy Center. If you’re dining sans expense account, zone in on the Presto! lunch menu at the bar, which offers your choice of an entree (think spaghetti with clams or grilled calamari with salsa verde) and a cocktail for $22. Or avoid that too-stuffed-to-go-back-to-work predicament with the lightened-up Maria lunch menu, just $28 for three courses. But if you’re on someone else’s dime, we’d spring for that decadent ravioli or the simply grilled whole branzino. 

 

Photo: Greg Powers

Fiola Mare

Tasting Menu: Little Serow

You won’t find pad Thai on the menu at Little Serow. The Dupont Circle kitchen, overseen by award-winning D.C. native Johnny Monis, focuses on the spicy, herbaceous Isaan style of Thai food, with no substitutions allowed. Dishes from the ever-changing seven-course menu (a bargain at $45) could include fiery nam prik dip, best scooped up with raw vegetables or house pork rinds, or whiskey-lacquered pork ribs with dill. The tear-inducing heat doesn’t discourage the crowds, who queue up five nights a week, 90 minutes before the 5:30 opening, for a chance at a spot in the small, subterranean space. Cool off with Thai beer or let the vintage-clad servers handle pairings like funky cider, homemade vermouth and wines that wouldn’t seem out of place at Monis’ elegant upstairs restaurant, Komi. 

Little Serow

Steakhouse: Del Campo

This Latin meat emporium from Chef Victor Albisu is the rare restaurant that can equally delight adventurous diners and the meat-and-potatoes crowd. For the latter group, the Asado section of Albisu’s menu offers butcher-board platters of prime steak, including a 48-ounce tomahawk rib eye for two that looks impossible to finish until you take a bite of the gorgeously marbled, flavorful meat and somehow keep eating until it’s gone. Potatoes take the form of grilled steak fries with a bright salsa, or potato salad laced with poached egg, mustard and crema. Those looking beyond beef should zone in on the perfectly charred octopus with lump crab, crispy pork belly chicharones and bucatini Del Campo — a smoky pasta dish with pancetta and rapini that would pass muster in any great Italian dining room.

 

Photo: Greg Powers

Del Campo

New Restaurant: Thip Khao

Typically, buzzworthy chefs first open a place in the city and then expand to the suburbs once they’ve gathered a following. Seng Luangrath took the opposite path. Once heat-seeking Washingtonians got word of her secret spicy Laotian menu at Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, they began making the reverse commute to Virginia for their fix. Now Luangrath’s sleek second spot, in Columbia Heights, focuses entirely on the dishes of her native Laos, with an extra-fiery “Let’s Go to the Jungle” menu for the truly adventurous. If you’re not quite ready for searing heat and soups made with pig’s blood, introduce yourself to Laotian cuisine — a funkier Thai neighbor — with dishes like sour soup fragrant with tamarind, succulent pork neck and a bright crispy rice salad that hits every texture note.

Thip Khao

Cocktail Bar: 2 Birds 1 Stone

The menus at cocktail den 2 Birds 1 Stone are nearly as impressive as the beverages themselves. Colorfully and boldly hand-drawn, the menus are the perfect showcase for Bar Director Adam Bernbach’s brilliant drinks. Offerings don’t lean in any particular direction, though all are made with impeccable ingredients, including fresh juices, house sodas or innovatively infused liquors (think za'atar-spiced bourbon or berbere-infused grappa). Though set below ground, Bernbach’s space feels bright and welcoming, like the ultimate clubhouse.

 

Photo: Laura Hayes

2 Birds 1 Stone

Iconic Dish: Rasika’s Palak Chaat

Though many would cite the half-smoke as the District’s most-iconic dish, no single sausage could inspire the passion of this inventive spinach starter. Included on countless best-of lists and ordered more frequently than any other dish at the hip, modern James Beard Foundation Award-winning Indian destination, the Palak Chaat is a tango of textures and flavors. The beloved small plate starts with crackle-crisp shards of fried spinach below a fluff of yogurt and tamarind with diced tomato, red onion and cilantro. Though it’s meant to be shared, insiders know that ordering one per person is the best way to keep everyone happy, even at a table packed with Cauliflower Bezule, anise-scented Black Cod and other enticements. 

Rasika

Date Night: The Red Hen

The Red Hen manages to master the date-night paradox: It is both hip and homey, destination-worthy and charmingly local. Chef and co-owner Mike Friedman’s Italian-leaning menu is ideal for sharing with a paramour: In lieu of Lady-and-the-Tramp spaghetti, there is rigatoni with brawny fennel-sausage ragu that could inspire fork wars between even the most starry-eyed lovers. Beyond pastas, dishes luxuriate in seasonal flavors — silken Burrata with grilled asparagus in spring, or wood-grilled spicy chicken with herbs and mushrooms in cooler months — and are ideal for sharing. Narrow the options over a Negroni or entrust the staff with wine selections: Co-owner Sebastian Zutant is skilled at sourcing adventurous yet perfectly paired options. 

 

Photo: Scott Suchman

The Red Hen

Hot Spot: Rose’s Luxury

If you line up outside a restaurant at 4 p.m. and don’t end up eating dinner until after 8, it had better be worth it. Despite all the hype Rose’s Luxury has received since it opened in 2013, it still delivers, every time. There are only a few menu standbys at chef Aaron Silverman’s charmingly quirky Barracks Row spot, which means there’s always something new and exciting to sample, even for regulars. Rose’s cuisine is boundless: Silverman dabbles in Asian (an outstanding pork-and-lychee salad is one of those few menu fixtures), Italian (in a town spoiled for solid Italian restaurants, his cacio e pepe is the best around), Southern (soft-shell crawfish with Tabasco butter) and beyond. Not many chefs can make all that work together, but in his hands, it’s a flavorful, eclectic and fun dinner party, and everyone wants an invite.

 

Photo courtesy of T. Tseng

Rose's Luxury

Late-Night Eats: Amsterdam Falafelshop

Step away from the Jumbo Slice. This stellar falafel joint’s original location is a savory beacon nestled among the bars and oversized pizza emporiums on Adams Morgan’s main drag. Open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday (3 a.m. on Thursday, 2:30 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, midnight Sunday and Monday), Amsterdam hits the spot whether you’re jonesing for “drunk food” or just good food. The falafels are fried to order, and the extensive DIY toppings bar brims with fresh Israeli salad, pickled vegetables, hummus and other colorful, crunchy enticements. Load up your pita to your hungry heart’s content and round out the meal with an order of super-crispy Dutch-style fries to dunk in curried ketchup or mayo-y “fritesaus.” Now there are two more locations in D.C., plus outposts in Maryland, Virginia and Massachusetts. 

Amsterdam Falafelshop

Cheap Eat: Keren Restaurant

This sunny all-day cafe in Adams Morgan is Eritrean, but fans of Ethiopian food will find many familiar dishes and the same rolls of spongy and addictive flatbread, injera, to scoop up the robust stews in place of utensils. Try an appetizer of ful, sort of an African take on hummus made with fava beans, served warm and topped with yogurt and berbere spice. The combo entrees are an incredible deal — enough food to feed two hungry people for $11 (vegetarian, including lentils, chickpeas, spinach, cabbage, potatoes and salad) or $14 (all of the vegetarian items, plus tibsi: chopped beef or chicken laced with jalapeno, tomato and onion). Wash it down with a few ice-cold Ethiopian beers and you’ll still get out of there happily stuffed for under $20 per person. 

Keren Restaurant & Coffee Shop

Rock-Star Chef: José Andrés

In 1992, a little-known chef from Spain opened Jaleo in then-fledgling Chinatown and introduced D.C. to tapas. Fast-forward more than 20 years and that neighborhood — now rechristened Penn Quarter — is booming with restaurants, small plates have all but replaced traditional appetizer-entree-dessert dining, and that chef, José Andrés, is a nationally renowned powerhouse who can pretty much claim full credit for the aforementioned two phenomena. In the D.C. area, his ThinkFoodGroup now encompasses two more Jaleos, plus Zaytinya (Middle Eastern), Oyamel (Mexican), America Eats Tavern (American), China Chilcano (a Japanese/Peruvian mash-up) and Minibar, a boundary-pushing tasting room with a cocktail-den offshoot, Barmini. He’s even tapping into the fast-casual game with Beefsteak, a veg-focused spot named for the tomato. With sizzling-hot restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, José Andrés may be earning fans throughout the country, but he’s one of D.C.’s hometown heroes.

 

Photo: Blair Getz Mezibov

Ice Cream: Dolcezza

Don’t go looking for peach ice cream at Dolcezza in December. The local gelato company sticks to ultra-seasonal, mostly local produce, meaning that owners Robb Duncan and Violeta Edelman won’t source peaches until they’re ripe, juicy and sweet enough to make the peachiest gelato imaginable. The same holds true for strawberries, mint and even Sicilian blood oranges (a good winter alternative to peaches). There are scoop shops throughout the area, as well as a factory in Northeast where visitors can try freshly spun soft serve or a creative sundae. Because the flavors are so locally sourced, Dolcezza even sets up at two of D.C.’s FreshFarm farmers markets, so fans can sate cravings morning through night. 

 

Photo: Josh Cogan

Dolcezza

Brunch: Union Market Crawl

Why settle for one single morning meal when you could spend a few hours assembling the ultimate culinary tour from breakfast through lunch at this bustling, food-centric market? Start with a pour-over coffee at Peregrine Espresso. Then make your way over to Buffalo & Bergen to take down a first-class New York-style bagel sandwich with a killer Bloody Mary from owner and “mixtress” Gina Chersevani. Browse the beautifully curated selection of tableware and bar goods at Salt & Sundry until you’re hungry again. Now it’s time for a full loop around the market, stopping by Red Apron Butcher for charcuterie to nibble on, DC Dosa for made-to-order Indian crepes, TaKorean for bo ssam tacos and Rappahannock Oyster Bar for the obvious: briny, freshly shucked Virginia oysters. Be sure to hit Trickling Springs Creamery for an ultra-creamy cone — we’re partial to the peanut butter — as you roll your way out. 

Union Market

Dinner and a Show: Thai X-ing and 9:30 Club

D.C.’s legendary 9:30 club has been a music-lovers’ destination for more than 30 years, hosting luminaries like Bob Dylan as well as homegrown local bands like OAR. 9:30 moved to its current V Street digs in 1996, long before the neighborhood became an epicenter for great dining and drinking. These days, there are plenty of ways to make an evening of a show, but our favorite game plan is to plan a pre-event family-style feast at Thai X-ing, located catty-corner to the club. Bring a couple of bottles of wine — it’s one of D.C.’s few BYOB establishments — and dig into Chef Taw Vigsittaboot’s luscious pumpkin curry, refreshing papaya salad and whatever else he’s cooking up that day. After the concert, pop over to the Satellite Room next door for a nightcap or three. 

Thai X-ing

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