Washington DC Dining Guide: Why another food guide?
Owing to its close proximity to the more bustling cities of New York and Boston, Washington DC has generally been overlooked as a culinary destination, but all that is about to change because I now present to you the ultimate Washington DC dining guide, filled with some of the trendiest, hottest and tastiest spots in town. The growing number of names on the annual James Beard list of culinary gems is increasing and so are the number of trendy, modern, funky, quirky new places which are bringing in world class cuisine, replete with the global theme of experimentation. Fearless chefs, rooted in tradition, yet modern in their approach, as well as lots of local favorites and ethnic eateries are prized gems of this city echoing with the powers that rule the land. So without further ado, let’s get started on the Washington DC dining guide covering breakfast, lunch and dinner spots while you are at the capital.
Washington DC Dining Guide: Day 0
Dinner at Maketto (excuse the iPhone photos taken in the dark)
There is nothing better than starting this Washington DC dining guide than with local recommendations (which are a sure shot success) and this is what happened when I reached out to Soma, the food blogger of one my favorite blogs Spices and Pisces, and she kindly recommended this hep spot on H street, when I asked her of a place where she would drop everything and run to eat when in D.C. This part restaurant, part cafe, part retail space, hit the sweet spot when it came to asian flavor infused food and is possibly the best place where I dined during my short stay at the capital. Maketto’s co-owner Erik Bruner-Yang, who arguably makes the best Ramen in town at his other joint Toki Underground, offers his take on Taiwanese and Cambodian dishes at this space. There are plenty of vegetarian options to satisfy those who stay away from meat (such as the yummy vegan noodles) and their red bean paste beignets (which look like cream puffs) are to die for! A must visit if you are looking for bold, spicy, rich flavors!
Washington DC Dining Guide: Day 1
Breakfast at The Coupe
This charming cafe in the quiet neighborhood of Columbia Heights (north of the buzzing Adam Morgans), our second spot in the Washington DC dining guide, was another word of mouth recommendation by the kind server lady at Maketto, and was just what we needed as the heavens opened up and it started raining like crazy. A hot cup of Pacific Chai (with soy milk for my lactose intolerant tummy) and some yummy meat free breakfast (tofu hash and omelette) were delicious to boot. The ambiance is nice and cosy with plush chairs and inviting warm colors. Another must visit breakfast spot in D.C.
Lunch at Oyamel
Rockstar chef Jose Andres calls D.C. home with two amazing restaurants Oyamel and Jaleco, the latter being featured on the prestigious James Beard list this year. Oyamel, now located in Penn Quarter, is the chef’s ode to the vibrant and diverse cuisine of Mexico city with antojitos (small Mexican plates/Tapas) comprising of tapas, ceviche and tacos being the highlight. There is also an impressive collection of alcoholic drinks such as wine and tequila as well as non alcoholic ague fresca of the day. The decor is super funky and very colorful with Oaxacan paper-mache figurines scattered everywhere. The food was excellent (lots of vegetarian choices available) and the ceviche, fish and the mole were out of the world delicious. Another must visit if you are in town.
Dinner at Rasika (apologies for lack of photos, it was too dark)
Rasika, D.C.’s pride of the pack and often referred to as the best Indian restaurant in North America, is right next to Oyamel in Penn Quarter. Chef Vikram Sunderam finally got his dues as James Beard winner of the Mid-Atlantic Best Chef title and that merit shines through his food, a simple yet nuanced take on Indian cuisine. No overdose of cream or tomato sauce, it’s Indian food but with the complexity and creativity of a master chef without making it seem so. No deconstructed hoopla, no molecular gastronomy tricks. Its Indian food, comforting yet charismatic in how perfectly the spices blend together. We settled for a 6-course tasting menu (both veg/non-veg options available) but that amounted to a lot of food! So I recommend choosing an appetizer, entree and dessert a la carte style so that you can finish your meal. In case you are residing in a hotel suite or Airbnb apt with a kitchen, bring the leftovers (as we did) to enjoy the tasty morsels the next day. Rasika has two locations (Penn Quarter and the new one at West End) and the price is insanely reasonable for the amount and quality of food. Another must visit for the food lover in D.C.
Washington DC Dining Guide: Day 2
Breakfast at Busboys and Poets
This funky place where art meets poetry meets activism meets politics also doubles up as a cafe with great food and drinks and is in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. We grabbed a bite here on Friday morning and shared only a plate of tofu scramble since we were anxious to stay hungry for our upcoming food tour in Georgetown, D.C.’s most happening neighborhood.
Washington DC Dining Guide: Food Tour
Food tour ahoy! Our Washington DC dining guide could not have been complete without a food tour in the works, as is customary for us when we visit any new urban destination (Santa Fe, Seattle, Miami, Madrid, Portland and our very own San Francisco). A good food tour, i.e. a well organized one with a knowledgable tour guide who genuinely loves food and the local cuisine, helps you to savor and sample local flavors and gets your foot in the door for all the hidden local favorites, unknown to tourists. A food tour is a must for all adventurous food lovers out there and is also a great way to explore the neighborhood of the tour in question, getting to know about its history and other interesting trivia. I highly encourage you to take one if you are a visitor and are curious about what the new city has to offer. Read my detailed blog post on the inner workings of food tours here.
This time too we were determined to squeeze in a food tour in our itinerary, hectic as it may seem since we were only there for three days and had so much to see and do. We decided to put our bets on DC Metro Food Tours and opted for the “Gastronomic Georgetown Food tour” which promised us sampling of local flavors in D.C.’s coolest neighborhood within 3.5 hours which would involve food stops and lots of in-between walking to get a feel of the neighborhood and its history. We met our tour guide at 3 PM at the designated spot and off we went! Our food tour guide was Alisa, a sprightly young lady who was born and raised (thus bonafide) in D.C., LOVED food (as much as I do) and knew the inner workings of the city like its nobody’s business. In short, a perfect guide for a food tour. Alisa was very friendly and knowledgeable about the neighborhood and took us to our first stop which was a saloon named J. Pauls, famous for its crab cake sandwiches and crab-tomato bisque. Although bite sized, the blue crab cake sandwich (Chesapeake bay is famous for them) served between two buttery buns was delicious and so was the tomato bisque.
Our next stop was Paolo’s Ristorante, right across from President Nixon’s favorite hangout spot (a dive bar) which is another iconic Georgetown restaurant serving good old Italian fare. Its meatball recipe, perfected over several generations, is a perennial secret (we had some of it) and its tortellini was super delicious as well. One more winner in our books as we left happy and smiling for our next destination.
Our third stop was Georgetown’s most popular French Bistro, Cafe Bonaparte! Started by an Afghani couple (yes you read it right), this cafe had a charming, parisian decor and was already buzzing with people in the early afternoon. We got a slice of Paris as we dug into a Florentine crepe with a glass of white wine to go with it. The wine (from good old California) was excellent, but I felt the crepe was a bit too cheesy for my taste. Anyway, we left for our final destination , i.e. a bakery, after our last savory meal.We made our way past the canal and up to Canal street to enter D.C.’s most popular bakery Baked and Wired, a local’s favorite and unknown to tourists who unfortunately for them (and fortunately for us) usually make a beeline for Georgetown cupcakes (which as per our trusted gourmand guide Alisa, was highly overrated). Baked and wired, a bakery started by couple who used to be graphic designers by profession (thanks to Alisa’s immense knowledge of restaurant origin stories) was spilling over with people, waiting patiently for their turn to order their yummy goods but we skipped the line and got our share of the baked goodness-an OMG bar (cause its so good it will make you roll your eyes and say OMG) and a peanut-almond crusted shortbread. Both were sinfully awesome, but my favorite was the OMG bar with layers of chocolate, marshmallow and fruit pate all sacked up on a crumble base. This was our last stop and we kindly thanked our guide (with gratuity of course!) and departed ways.
Parting thoughts on the food tour? The tour was good but I wish there were more food stops to sample some more diverse offerings of the neighborhood. Although the tour page promises a 1.5 sized meal that will not make you want to have dinner, both S and I were underwhelmed by the amount of the food. The food was very delicious and this tour thoughtfully accommodates food restrictions and choices (such as vegetarians) but I felt the walking was a wee bit more than the eating. Alisa was immensely knowledgeable about both food and the neighborhood’s history and we were so lucky to have that one nice day of sunshine where we could walk through this beautiful neighborhood as Alisa pointed out its elegant Federal style buildings, gave us some brownie points on its history that predates D.C., the firefighter signs on the building, JFK’s house and a lot of other interesting tidbits on the neighborhood, its architecture, politics (when in D.C., the P-word hangs like a thick curtain on everything), Presidential hangouts and the food itself. For first timers trying out a food tour, I would recommend this or something similar. Just read the reviews and make sure it is in a good, walkable neighborhood and your tour guide is a food veteran!
Dinner at Momofuku CCDC
Momofuku CCDC is part of the Momofuku group of restaurants founded by the bad-ass rockstar chef David Chang who made asian food trendy for Manhattanites with his Momofuku noodle bar. We gave into the hype and stopped by the noodle bar to enjoy some late night bites, since we were still pretty satiated from the food tour earlier, and also got the famous cereal milk soft serve from the adjacent noodle bar. The place is hip and trendy with D.C.’s youngest and hippest urban crowd occupying the space from corner to corner. We managed to grab a spot at the counter/bar area and got a serving of pepper and egg (bite size) and spicy hand cut noodles. Both were good, but honestly, I feel my expectations were a bit too sky-high and thus I felt a tad let down by the food. It is very good though, but Maketto and Chego (the latter specially for what its doing to Korean food right now) have my respect. I made a mental note to check out the original Momofuku at Manhattan to compare the food. Anyway, long story short, cereal milk softee is all the rage and so I had one (after seeing tons of Instagram photos, I caved in) but that is not my cup of flavor. Overall, if you are into what is trendy, then Momofuku is a fun place to grab a bite. Or slurp on a soft serve.
Washington DC Dining Guide: Day 3 in D.C.
Breakfast at A Baked Joint
Don’t let this unimaginative name fool you for even a second,cause the breakfast grub and beverages at this bakery are anything but bland. Sister spot of the insanely famous Baked and Wired (more on it later) bakery in Georgetown, this is another local’s favorite in Mount Vernon triangle and thankfully, a stone’s throw from our residence, where we sought refuge from the rain and snow. That too in April-east coast you have a serious case of bad weather! My matcha latte (with soy milk) was sublime and so was the veggie quiche and the sweet delight I couldn’t pass up on since it was staring so temptingly at from my the glass case. S’s savory oatmeal was hearty as hell and tasty to boot. Perfect for a rainy day, this spot is extremely popular as attested to by the long line (the first we saw in D.C.) inside. Highly, highly recommended! Oh, did I tell you that they also have pizza nights?
Lunch at Mitsitam Cafe
Mitsitam cafe is a proper cafeteria. One where you pick up plastic trays at the entrance and go around different stations to pick up your food. It is also in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. You might be wondering at this point as to why this place is even finding a mention in my Washington DC dining guide, being a cafeteria in a museum and all that shebang, but let me tell you that this cafe is like no other. Featured in the top 100 museum cafes of the world in Conde Nast Traveler mag no less, this one not only meets the Green Restaurant Certification standards (for recycling and reusing resources, for sustainability and for prudent water usage) but is unique in its mission of showcasing America’s indigenous cuisine, i.e. the food of the land before European settlers arrived. Mitsitam means “lets eat” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway People and painstakingly recreates the cuisine of the original people of this land. The regions featured here are all the corners of the Americas, including:
1) Northern Woodlands- spanning from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi and from Southern Canada to the Chesapeake,
2) Mesoamerica- Home of the Papago or “Bean People” , spanning from American Southwest to Mexico and Central America (hence the name Meso or middle America)
3) South America
4) Northwest Coast- spanning from Southern Alaska to Northern California
5) Great Plains- includes land spanning from Alberta, Canada to Texas
This cafe, the only in the Smithsonian museums, is famous and rightly so. Chef Jerome Grant has transformed it into a place where one can experience the bounty of this land in the way natives enjoyed and utilized. It harks back to a way of life which is rapidly dwindling and is not accessible to most. The museum exhibits come with their fair share of controversy because of the nature of the subject, but the cafe is where all is forgotten over scrumptious food. Lots of vegetarian options available, but if you are a meat-eater, i highly recommend the fry bread tacos.
This brings me to the end of yet another food guide. I hope you enjoyed reading the Washington DC dining guide. For more ideas on how to visit DC to see the cherry blossom festival, read my guide here. For even more DC travel inspiration, read this guide to 25 tips for your first trip to Washington DC! If you are visiting DC for a short time, this post on a weekend in Washington DC is another excellent resource to get you inspired.
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