The nation’s capital welcomed a record 22 million visitors in 2016 (the latest statistics available). Many of those congregate in the tourist core, visiting the museums and monuments of the National Mall. But there's so much more, including the District Wharf, one of most anticipated developments in the District. The newly revitalized mile-long waterfront along the Potomac River has attracted restaurants headed by celebrity chefs such as Kwame Onwuachi, along with shops and three new hotels. Want a more curated, local-tested experience? Here are some ideas.
Those of us who grew up here still find it hard to think of DC as a food city. It wasn’t so long ago that federal cafeterias, chain restaurants, and stuffy power-lunch K Street steakhouses dominated the dining scene, and one had to make a trip to New York to have a good meal. But years of urban revitalization, innovative restaurateurs like José Andrés, and a First Couple (the Obamas) who liked to dine out put DC on the map. Michelin made it official in 2017, with a coveted Michelin guide—only the fourth American city to receive one (after New York, San Francisco, and Chicago). Three two-star restaurants top the list: Andrés’s avant-garde Minibar; Pineapple and Pearls, Aaron Silverman’s fine-dining spot; and Inn at Little Washington, Patrick O’Connell’s destination restaurant, not in Washington at all, but a two-hour drive away, in Virginia’s horse country. There are eleven restaurants with one star, including Alex Zink and Jeremiah Langhorne’s the Dabney, a paean to Mid-Atlantic bounty, and the two newest—Komi, Johnny Matis’s delightfully unfussy Mediterranean oasis in a nondescript Dupont Circle townhouse; and Métier, Eric Zeibold’s soaringly elegant French spot, where every polished dish comes with a transportive tale. But honestly, I tend to favor Michelin’s less pricey Bib Gourmand list—which honors affordably priced gourmet restaurants—especially for a busy weeknight. My go-to, the venerable Two Amys in Cleveland Park, still slings the perfect Neapolitan pie.
Please Don’t Call it a Hot Dog
DC’s most iconic food is the half-smoke, its origins dating to the ’50s when the now-defunct local Briggs and Co. meatpackers distributed the half-pork, half-beef link, a cross between a hot dog and a sausage. The place to get it is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, which has been selling its signature version smothered in chili since 1958, when there were still forty-eight stars on the flag. Unsurprisingly, upscale versions of the humble dish have popped up, none better than the porkier artisanal version offered at Meats and Foods in Bloomingdale. But I, along with many federal workers, like to get a cheap fix from the street carts lining the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. The half-smoke, nestled in a steamed bun, drowned with onions and chosen condiments and paired with an ice-cold classic Coke, is at peak flavor when the air shimmers and tourists swelter in the summer heat.
The Politics of Food
But let’s not kid around, the business of Washington, DC, is power and pushing the levers of power. And there’s no better way to grease those levers than through aged porterhouse steaks and old-fashioneds. Those blatantly currying favor slip past protesters and into the Trump International Hotel, housed in the castle-like Old Post Office Pavilion, its interior now gilded and accented in royal blue. But most prefer furtive deal-making in the back rooms and dark corners of upscale hotel bars near the halls of power. Off the Record, in the basement of the historic Hay Adams, overlooking Lafayette Square near the White House, feels like a speakeasy, with its 1920s-style Oriental red decor. Caricatures of pols line the walls, and eighteen-dollar politically themed cocktails (Trumpy Sour, Fill a Buster) poke fun at the often serious business at hand. Even closer to the White House and more historic is the Willard Hotel, which has hosted almost every president since Zachary Taylor and from whose lobby the term “lobbying” was birthed. Its iconic Round Robin Bar features dark-wood paneled walls and leather chairs. Every third Thursday, veteran bartender Jim Hewes, sometimes joined by a presidential historian, leads a “History Happy Hour” with political tales paired with the appropriate cocktail. After a late night, join lobbyists fueling up with eggs benedict and fresh squeezed orange juice before heading out to Capitol Hill or their K Street offices at Seasons, in Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel. For lunch, try the bean soup served every day at the Senate dining hall. You’ll need a letter from your senator, or must be in the company of a Senate staffer to get in, but the hearty dish made with smoked ham hocks is worth it.
Dining options have proliferated, but not so much on the National Mall, the rectangle of federal parkland dotted with Smithsonian museums, monuments, and memorials between the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Without leaving the quadrangle, your choices are the food trucks or the museum cafeterias. Thankfully, not all cafeterias are created equal. Those who know will position themselves outside one of two museum eateries at 11 am or 2 pm for lunch (to avoid the crowds). Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian serves a seasonal indigenous menu from the Americas, from cedar-planked wild salmon to grilled bison strip loin to blue corn bread, many of the ingredients sourced from tribal co-ops; the five-region sampler saves you from having to choose and is good for two or more.
At Sweet Home Cafe inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, choose from an array of dishes that represent the black experience in the US, such as catfish po’ boy, slow-cooked collard greens, or pepper pot. As the Smithsonian’s newest museum, tickets are scarce, and you’ll need to have one to get in. For a more relaxing, full-service experience, reserve a table at the Garden Cafe in the National Gallery of Art’s west wing; dine on charcuterie, salads, and European desserts among classical statuary and a burbling marble fountain.
With the mega-hit musical Hamilton opening in June as well as a major expansion (including three pavilions designed by American architect Steven Holl) underway at the Kennedy Center, glitz and glam have returned to Foggy Bottom. The neighborhood has also seen the reopening (after a nine-year hiatus) of mid-century-hip Watergate—saucy but elegant in its curves and swoops; stop here for pre-theater bourbon cocktails or post-theater noshes. The hotel whose name became the definition of scandal pays wink-wink homage to its history with room key tags that read No Need to Break In, mod staff uniforms designed by Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, and the ability to book the infamous room 214. The Next Whiskey Bar is perfect for tête-à-têtes. But if it’s a clear spring evening, the place to be is the rooftop bar and lounge, Top of the Gate. Order up a glass of rosé and absorb the unparalleled 360-degree views of the pink city with its marbled monuments and the cherry-blossom-laced river. It’s the civilized way to ponder Washington scandals old and brewing.
The Cultured Sophisticate
Despite the coarsening of the political discourse and faddish ascendency of the social rube, culture in DC is alive and well. It’ll take more to erase the legacy of noblesse oblige left on museums and estates by moneyed philanthropists—the Mellons, the Posts, the Cafritzes, the Phillipses, the Kreegers, and more. There is no better place in Washington to experience one benefactor’s artful tastes than Hillwood, the estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. The house-turned-museum holds one of the world’s most impressive collections of Russian Imperial art and eighteenth-century French decorative art. (Think Fabergé eggs and chairs made for Marie Antoinette.) Lunch on chilled cantaloupe soup and a Coronation chicken salad sandwich, and spend the rest of the day strolling the extensive gardens, which range from French formal to Japanese zen. For a weeknight dose of high-brow, duck into the Phillips Collection for one of the private museum’s “Phillips after 5” events, held on the first Thursday of the month. The eclectic offerings vary from Nordic style to a modern fete in the style of Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party, with canapés and the original masterpiece itself in attendance.
There was once little reason to visit the blighted Warehouse District in Northeast DC, between New York and Florida Avenues. That changed when the former wholesale Union Market was revamped in 2012, now housing some fifty upscale food and retail vendors, from sustainably harvested Chesapeake bay oysters at the Rappahannock Oyster Co. to Korean barbecue with a Mexican twist at Takorean (which started life as a food truck on the city streets). “I visit the market almost daily,” says Nicholas Stefanelli, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred, Italian inflected Masseria, the first free-standing restaurant to set up in the neighborhood. “I use the shrimp and scallops from District Fishwife, and Harvey’s has some of the best pork belly in town.” If you notice many young people using American Sign Language, it’s because many students from the nearby Gallaudet University, the world’s first and preeminent institution for the education of the hearing impaired, work and eat here. Looking for a fabulous yet fiscally responsible Friday night date? Dine at Bidwell, one of a few DC eateries to receive a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Then head outside to catch a free movie projected against the wall (April through November).
Paris in springtime? Please. DC is the place to be, when its 3,000-plus cherry blossom trees (a 1912 gift of friendship from Japan) clustered around the Tidal Basin, Hains Point, and the Washington Monument turn riotous shades of pink. Spring is when DC’s low-slung skyline shines, white marble and blush blossoms enveloping a cynical city in an annual blanket of optimism. Catch the spirit at the city’s signature Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 to April 15) with events from sake tasting to origami making. With the redevelopment of the Wharf nearby, now you can take a ferry to the sights—hop on the boat in Old Town Alexandria or Georgetown and take a short walk to the Tidal Basin or the free water taxi to East Potomac Park. As if on cue, businesses haul out their cherry-themed everythings, from Buttercream Bakeshop’s lemon cupcakes with sour cherry pie filling cloaked in Japanese matcha buttercream to Bayou Bakery’s sour cherry hot cross buns to Ted’s Bulletin’s house-made cherry-lime pop tarts. I like to go on a late afternoon stroll around the Tidal Basin when the blossoms are at peak bloom (there will be crowds, no way around it), then tuck into a dimly lit booth at a Japanese izakaya, such as Daikaya (make sure you go upstairs to escape the din of the ramen house) and nibble on small plates such as fried tofu pockets filled with sweet vinegared rice and chopped, salted cherry blossoms while sipping on a cherry blossom paloma.
The Immigrant ’Burbs
Where I live in the Northern Virginia suburbs, I can hit a Korean grocery for fresh kimchi and sweet persimmons, the halal market for ground kafta meat and fluffy pita bread, the Latin mercado for dulce de leche and Argentine chorizo, and the Vietnamese shopping center for fried tofu and bánh mì sandwiches, all in the space of a Saturday morning. Immigrants make up more than 20 percent of the metropolitan area’s population, making DC one of the most diverse regions in the country. Immigrant enclaves dot the region, but for its wide range of ethnic restaurants and proximity to DC (just across the Potomac with multiple Metro stops), nothing beats Arlington, Virginia. “You can dine the alphabet here,” says Cara O’Donnell of the Arlington Office of Economic Development; she has literally compiled a list from Afghan to Zairean. My tastes are as exotic and capricious as the choices but my current faves are Rus Uz in Ballston, offering Russian and Uzbek cuisine and Queen Ammanisia in Crystal City, the first Uyghur restaurant in the DC region.
This piece was first published in the February 2018 issue of The Local Palate. See article here.