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
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
Tasting Menu: 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
New Restaurant: 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
Iconic Dish: Rasika’s Palak Chaat
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
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
Late-Night Eats: Amsterdam Falafelshop
Cheap Eat: Keren Restaurant
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