Podcast Ep.13: Tips for Washington DC Restaurants September 1, 2019
Every visitor wants to know: what are the very best Washington, DC restaurants? It’s a tough question, not because there aren’t good places to eat, but because there are so many! Even if you ate at a new restaurant every single day, it would take years to sample all of the DC dining options. Rob is joined by Jessica Sidman to talk all about food and restaurants in Washington, DC.
Jessica is the food editor for Washingtonian Magazine. She covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper.
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There are a lot of resources for finding the best restaurants. In some cases it’s an almost overwhelming number of resources. A great place to start is Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants issue. That said, a hundred restaurants is far more than a visitor can ever expect to sample during a trip. A good place to start might be with some of Jessica’s favorites.
Dabney is the Shaw neighborhood and they serve Mid-Atlantic cuisine. Chef Jeremiah Langhorne is trying to forge a new identity for this region and its foods by looking back at historical recipes from the area. He works with local farmers to find ingredients that are native to this area that maybe aren’t as well known and showcase them on his menu. You really do get a unique taste of what this region is all about.
They have a wood-fired hearth and a Michelin Star. It’s high level but also very homey and comfortable and welcoming. It can be a little hard to get in sometimes. You probably need a reservation. Sometimes if you go right away when it opens, you can find a seat.
Another of Jessica’s favorites is Bad Saint. This is a modern Filipino restaurant that has received all kinds of accolades. It is a hole in the wall. It is so tiny might walk right by. It’s in the Columbia Heights neighborhood and it’s so popular that people line up outside in the hour or so before it opens, just to get a spot because it’s a very limited seating. It is a better place to go if you’re just two people. They only have two tables that connect and accommodate up to four people. Get there early!
The Michelin Guide to Washington, DC Restaurants
If you’re interested in restaurants, you’ve probably heard of the Michelin Guide. It’s the little red book that has a very prestigious reputation around the world for highlighting the very best restaurants. Michelin Guide expanded to the DC area in 2016.
The way it works is they have a group of anonymous inspectors who go to many restaurants. We do not know how many inspectors there are, what their backgrounds are, their names, or much of anything about them. So, the process is very opaque. It’s hard to know whether you should trust them. At least with local critics, you can follow them, you know, what their tastes are, you know who they are. You can decide for yourself whether you or disagree with them based on their track records. If you are curious about the Michelin inspectors, check out the article Lunch with M. from the New Yorker.
Michelin Guide does highlight some good DC restaurants. However, we recommend looking at your local regional magazine like Washingtonian or a newspaper like the Washington Post instead. One thing that is noticeable about the Michelin Guide is that the award winning restaurants don’t change much from year to year.
Washington, DC Restaurants Neighborhoods
Everyone asks about Georgetown. A pro tip is that Georgetown is one of the least exciting dining neighborhoods in DC. It’s fun to walk around. It’s fun to shop, check out the waterfront, and spend a day. But, if you’re really into food, there are only a couple of great restaurants.
Shaw is one of the hottest neighborhoods for Washington, DC restaurants. It is conveniently located just north of downtown. It is very easy to get to if you’re staying somewhere around the White House or the National Mall. A lot of the up and coming chefs and bar owners are opening up here. Restaurants in this area tend to have a little more personality than elsewhere.
H Street NE
This is a neighborhood that has a lot of great cheaper dining and more nightlife. There is not as much do during the day here, but if you go at night and you want to bar hop, that is a fun place to go for cheaper Washington, DC restaurants.
The Wharf is the new waterfront of DC. It is a big, shiny, expensive development. There are lots of restaurants and shops with beautiful waterfront views. It has a nice boardwalk and is very clean. Some of the restaurants are on the expensive end, but what is nice about the neighborhood is that the developers brought in local talent to run the restaurants. So you’re not going to find a lot of big chains that you can find somewhere else. You’re going to find some of DC’s best known chefs.
The seafood portion of the Wharf is historic and definitely worth a visit right on its own. Del Mar is very expensive, but extremely good. If you’re looking for seafood or a little bit on the cheaper end of things, there’s Hank’s oyster bar, which is a local institution. Another seafood choice is Rappahannock Oyster Bar. They have oysters and a great crab cake. One of the best cheap eats in DC is Falafel Inc.
Washington, DC’s Local Foods
Washington, DC doesn’t have the same local foods the way that other cities do. In New York you can get a dollar slice of pizza and bagel. Philadelphia has cheese steak. In Boston you’ll eat clam chowder. Washington, DC doesn’t have that rich culinary history but does have a few unique quirks.
The food most commonly cited as a “DC food” is the half smoke, which was made famous by Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW. Ben’s is a local institution. A lot of chefs have riffed off it and done their own half smoke. A half smoke is simply a sausage on a bun. The origin of the name is still debated to this day.
Washington, DC is a very international city. We have immigrants from all over the world. All the embassies are here. We have an enormous diversity of food, whether it’s Korean, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, or something else. You should go to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant when you’re visiting because DC has a bigger Ethiopian and Eritrean population density than any other city.
Best Fast Casual Restaurants
One of the things that stands out about Washington, DC restaurants is that we have a ton of fast casual places to eat. Fast casual is a term for slightly nicer fast food.
One of our favorite fast casual restaurants is Sweetgreen, which was founded in DC by Georgetown University students. They serve salad, and they have a lot of really delicious seasonal combinations. So, if you are trying to eat healthy check it out. Cava is another favorite if you’re looking for Mediterranean. There is a restaurant called Little Sesame that serves hummus bowls. You can also get hummus wraps as well with various ingredients and it’s a very fun place.
Another favorite is Chiko. The name is a combination for Chinese and Korean. It comes from really well known chefs here in DC. One of the chefs who used to run a fine dining Chinese restaurant. The other chef used to run a popular Korean restaurant. So, they bring a really high caliber of food and homemade noodles. But, they do it in a really casual way. So you still order at the counter, you get your food on a metal tray. But, the quality is something that you would get at a nicer sit down restaurants.
Washington, DC Food Halls
Food halls are the hottest food trend in 2019. Unlike food courts they focus on higher-end food and a better customer experience.
The most popular food hall in DC right now is Union Market. They have an oyster bar, sandwiches, cheese steaks, Indian food, barbecue, and everything in between. It’s all in one place so you can go with a group of people and try different things and have a perfectly awesome time.
There are at least six more food halls that are planned to open in the near future. La Cosecha is a Latin American food hall that is probably opening in late 2019. They are going to have many restaurants and casual places all focused on Latin and South American cuisine.
A lot of chefs like food halls because it’s a better business model for them. You can find a lot of up-and-coming chefs at food halls. Food halls are their way in the door a lot of times. So you get to try some new, more experimental types of foods sometimes.
Washington, DC Food Trucks
Another place where restaurateurs might get started is with the food truck. About 10 years ago it seemed like these were all the rage. There was like reality shows TV about food trucks. There were daily articles about where to find the best food trucks. Now it feels like this trend is over. Maybe it’s not over because there’s still plenty of trucks, but people are a lot less into them.
Some of the first food trucks launched with Obama’s first inauguration back in 2009. Back then it was kind of the wild west. There weren’t a lot of regulations at the time for food trucks, so a lot of people would buy a truck as a way to kind of get into this business and start selling food. Today the scene and the city has matured and now there are specific regulations and a lottery system where people can park. There are probably more food trucks now than there have ever been.
If you want to find good food truck, skip the National Mall. That’s not where the good food trucks set up. Since there aren’t many dining options on the Mall, a food truck may be perfectly fine for lunch. However, a lot of times it’s frozen and reheated food. Elsewhere in the city there are still some really great food trucks and the best way to find them is follow them on Twitter or their websites.
Two of Jessica’s favorite food trucks are Swizzler and Abunai. Swizzler serves really cool kind of curly hot dogs with gourmet nontraditional toppings. They also just launched a new truck that just focuses on hamburgers and veggieburgers. Abunai is a Hawaiian food truck. So, if you want a little bit of Hawaiian Comfort food, look it up.
A trip hack that people might want to use this to look up an event called Truckeroo. It’s only once per month, so you have to get lucky with the timing. However, you can look up the participating trucks, then go follow them on social media and see if you can find them elsewhere during your visit.
Chinese Food in Chinatown?
Chinatown in DC is mostly a Chinatown in name at this point. It has become a very expensive neighborhood. So, a lot of chains and other restaurants have moved in. They are actually very few Chinese restaurants here in 2019. There are some great restaurants in Chinatown. They’re just not Chinese. There is a ramen shop called Daikaya which is very popular. They import their noodles from Japan and they make a beautiful porky broth.
If you do want good authentic Chinese food, you can head out to Rockville, Maryland. You do need a car to get there but there are some great Chinese restaurants. The suburbs have a much bigger Chinese immigrant population, so that’s where you’ll find some of the better restaurants. This is also true of Vietnamese and Korean – the best restaurants are in the suburbs, not the city.
What’s the Deal with Founding Farmers?
Founding Farmers is close to the White House and is perhaps the most famous of the Washington, DC restaurants. It earned the distinction of first DC restaurant to earn 10,000 reviews on Yelp. It also is the most booked restaurant on OpenTable. And it’s one of the few restaurants that Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema awarded zero stars in his 30-plus year career. The food is “perfectly fine” but not in Washingtonian’s 100 very best list.
Jessica’s Sidman’s Favorites
To wrap up the episode we asked Jessica to name her favorite Washington, DC restaurants based on a fictional scenario.
Where would you pick to eat if you only had $10 to spend?
Union market and get a Bagel with lox and cream cheese from Neopol Savory Smokery. They smoke their own fish and it is delicious.
Where would you go if you only had $5 to spend?
There is a little sidewalk stand called Bôn Matcha. They serve all sorts of matcha drinks, but they also have matcha soft serve ice cream. It is so good and the most refreshing thing on a hot day.
Where would you go if you had your boss’s credit card and you didn’t plan on showing up to work on Monday morning?
Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle. It is extremely popular and has a Michelin Star, but it’s not too fancy. You can go during the week for lunch and get a bento box for less than $15 or you can have a fancy omakase meal for a few hundred.
They also have a great happy hour, maybe the best is the city. If you go between 5:00 and 6:00, at the bar, they sell all their sushi half off. The bar is very small and it’s very limited time so people will actually line up in advance. It’s a great option for a solo traveler.
Where would you go if you’re with a family or you’re in a group where nobody can agree on anything?
Unconventional Diner near the Convention Center. Whatever you think of a “diner”, don’t think about that. It’s an unconventional diner. They have a wide range of foods, mostly nicer comfort foods, a little bit healthier. It’s a place where you can take the pickiest eaters and they will find something they like.
Where would you go if you want to eat something unique that you cannot find in any other city?
Little Serrow is a great place for unique food. It is a northeastern Thai restaurant and is currently priced at $49 a person. You get seven courses, served family style. It’s a lot of food and it’s super interesting. It’s spicy, it’s funky, it’s sour. However, they do not do substitutions. So if you can’t eat pork or nuts or have other allergies, it’s probably not the place for you. But if you like more adventurous food and want something really special, that is a really special place. The couple that owns it also run a fine dining restaurant that’s considered one of the best in DC called Komi. So this a more affordable way to try their cooking.
Where would you go if you want an experience that you will never forget?
Bar Mini, which is connected to Minibar from Jose Andres, one of the best known restaurants in DC. Unlike Minibar, which is an expensive tasting menu experience, Bar Mini has really avant-garde well-executed cocktails. They do have some food but it’s more like snacky food. Still delicious nonetheless.
Where would you eat if you only have 15 minutes to get in and out?
Chiko, the Chinese, Korean fast casual restaurant. you can get in and out pretty fast. If possible, give yourself more than 15 minutes though.
Where would you go if you have vegans in your group?
Fancy Radish on H Street. They don’t like to call themselves a vegan restaurant, but rather a restaurant focused on vegetables. Regardless, both meat-lovers and veggie fans will find something they like here.
What about if you’re traveling with small kids?
Unconventional Diner is a good place for all ages. It is casual. It’s the place where the adults can feel like adults, but the kids can be kids and there’s a little something for everyone.
Where would you go if you want your best chance of sitting next to a politician?
If you want to find a current administration official, the Trump Hotel is where you will most likely to spot one. Otherwise Cafe Milano has a long history as a “DC power spot”. It’s an Italian restaurant. The food is not that great. The reason you go is to see and be seen and rub shoulders with “Washington’s elite”. It is in Georgetown and many past presidents have eaten there.
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