D.C.'s food scene is increasingly exciting, welcoming new eateries in both established and up-and-coming neighborhoods all the time. With an infusion of millennials, a political workforce that changes every four years or so, a diplomatic corps from nearly every country on the planet, and 22 millions tourists a year, it’s no wonder that the nation’s capital offers food options for every budget and taste.
Consider yourself lucky to dine at any of Washingtonian magazine’s “100 Very Best Restaurants” — including Mediterranean marvel Komi and French bistro Le Diplomate — or at any place by resident celeb chefs José Andrés (his Minibar is a molecular gastronomy celebration) and Mike Isabella (for Italian or Greek fare). Pinch yourself if you snag a seat at Michelin-two-starred Pineapple & Pearls, by native son Aaron Silverman (inspired tasting menu: $325); farm-to-table the Dabney; and the buzzy, no-reservations Rose’s Luxury and the Filipino darling Bad Saint, which may be the toughest reservation to nab in town.
In fact, the city has seen a parade of super chefs open signature places in recent years, many of them wallet-friendly: David Chang’s small-plates hit, Momofuku CCDC; Carla Hall’s Southern-influenced Page at Reagan National Airport; Daniel Boulud’s French-American DBGB Kitchen and Bar; Wolfgang Puck’s innovative-Asian the Source; and eight — count 'em — Shake Shacks from hotshot New York restaurateur Danny Meyer.
You can’t leave Washington without trying at least one classic crab cake, the signature dish of both D.C. and Maryland, thanks to the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Hank’s Oyster Bar, BlackSalt Restaurant and Cafe du Parc (in the Willard Hotel) offer some lip-smacking versions. And try to make the Sunday jazz brunch at Georgia Brown’s downtown, a celebration of Low Country cuisine — peel-'n'-eat shrimp, Carolina gumbo, fried catfish and stone-milled grits — along with stone-cool jazz.
Make reservations for fine-dining spots (at least a month in advance for some) by phone or via OpenTable, used by more than 4,000 D.C.-area restaurants. Booking ahead is essential during the holiday season, the Cherry Blossom Festival, and Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
New York gets theater luminaries, and L.A. its movie stars — but D.C.’s VIPs are politicians. Although political restaurants go in and out of vogue, some colorful stalwarts remain, but they are costly. The Willard Hotel’s Round Robin Bar has been a diplomatic watering hole since Lincoln first ducked through its doors, and it supposedly served up D.C.’s first mint julep. Dupont Circle’s the Palm is a “nonpartisan” melting pot for politicians and journalists alike, who get a kick out of dining underneath their own caricatures. Behind the Capitol, the Monocle is so popular among senators that waiters are warned about pivotal impending votes. And near the White House, the Old Ebbitt Grill has seen a who’s who of American history come and go since its founding in 1856 (Teddy Roosevelt reputedly bagged animal heads for the main bar). Newer power-dining hot spots include Cafe Milano in Georgetown, Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill and, most recently, BLT Prime by David Burke in the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Diplomats and immigrants from the world over have infused the city with tantalizing ethnic flavors. While there are a few ethnic-food neighborhoods — Chinatown, for one, at H and 7th streets, and Ethiopian (where diners can eat with their fingers from the same plate), along 9th and U streets — the thing about D.C.’s ethnic cuisine is that it is sprinkled throughout the city. Thus, you will find modern Israeli street food at Shouk in Mount Vernon Triangle, Mediterranean takeout at the Greek Deli in Dupont Circle, white-tablecloth Georgian fare at Supra in Logan Circle, Spanish tapas at Jaleo and Indian Rasika in Penn Quarter. Follow the informal "pupusa trail” through various neighborhoods (Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and others) for that unbridled cheesy goodness stuffed into a corn tortilla, courtesy of El Salvador’s large population. Try the granddaddy of pupuserías, El Tamarindo, on Florida Avenue.
Self-service never tasted so good. D.C.’s museum cafeterias are award-winning and often themed. The worth-a-detour Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian offers innovative indigenous cuisine, such as roasted green papaya tamarillo or salmon fire roasted over a cedar plank. Sweet Home Cafe at the National Museum of African American History & Culture is steered by Top Chef star and D.C. native Carla Hall, known for jazzing up traditional soul food. The dishes are regional (Gulf shrimp and stone-ground grits served at the Creole Coast station). While most of the cafeterias are easy to wander into, a visit to Sweet Home Cafe comes only with your timed-entry pass. And even though they're cafeterias, they can be pricey, so if you’ve got the whole family along, this will be a sizable lunch tab.
Food hall, food trucks and more
Nestled among gracious row houses on Capitol Hill, the enclosed Eastern Market is one of D.C.’s oldest public markets. Eat your way through the pastries, produce, deli products and prepared foods, and rummage through the outdoor flea market on weekends. Union Market, a bustling food hall, sports an array of artisan burgers, pasta, ice cream and ethnic bites. Get your fill before meandering into one of the rotating event spaces for culinary classes, craft fairs and screenings at the pop-up cinema.
Gourmet food trucks are like D.C.’s shiny new penny — but you’ll fork over a lot more than that. The days of $1 hot dogs are over. At lunchtime, top chef José Andrés sends his best Spanish baguette-sandwiches out on the town with his food truck Pepe, and Red Hook Lobster Pound passes out buttery Maine lobster rolls. And don’t worry, you can still get your dogs; they’ll just be topped with whipped herb goat cheese and house-fermented sauerkraut, courtesy of Swizzler. Most trucks claim spots in office districts or tourist areas, like Franklin Square or around the Mall. The Food Truck Fiesta app tracks their locations. There are cheaper mobile bites from no-name trucks, but you likely won’t find lunch for less than $8.