A constant flow of new residents arrives in Washington, D.C., each political cycle, and their diverse influences converge in a richly textured cultural gumbo. This is a place that takes living well seriously, as evidenced across the city: morning jogs along the C and O Canal, neighborhood organic markets, first Friday gallery openings. The city abounds with amenities: ample green space, adventurous chefs, and plenty of quiet places to slip away. Locals and visitors all converge at some point in America's front yard, the National Mall, site of major events in U.S. history and countless individual moments of clarity and respite.
Washington, D.C., earned the third spot on our top 20 list of Cooking Light cities because it ranked highly in the following categories: the number of James Beard nominees for best restaurant and chef per capita; the number of farmers' markets per capita; the percentage of residents who consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day; and its walkability.
Table for six: Call ahead for Minibar, the in-demand microrestaurant tucked within Cafe Atlantico (202-393-0812) in downtown D.C. A dozen lucky diners score one of two nightly seatings (at 6 and 8:30 P.M.), for which Chef José Andrés and cohorts whip up elaborate, 30-course tasting menus both whimsical (dainty olive oil bonbons, crispy tumbleweed of beet) and sublime (smoked oyster and apples). If you miss the Minibar cut, request a second floor table in the Cafe, where you can watch the chefs in action while savoring Atlantico's Nuevo Latino courses, such as quail with mango and anchovy ravioli, or seared salmon drizzled with sweet papaya-vanilla sauce.
Best emerging star chef: Family ties (his wife, Meshelle, grew up here) and local produce drew 2007 James Beard nominee Chef Cathal Armstrong from D.C. six miles south to Alexandria, Virginia. "There's nothing more delicious than food that comes off the vine and goes on your plate," says Armstrong, who crafts daily menus based on seasonality. Past and future impress on Armstrong's culinary philosophies: His father in Dublin, Ireland, grew vegetables in the family yard, while concern for his own children's future inspires advocacy for sustainable agriculture, as well as the names for his elegant Restaurant Eve (703-706-0450) and comfy Eamonn's, a Dublin Chipper (703-299-8384). The recently reopened Majestic Cafe (703-837-9117) adds a third eatery to Armstrong's Alexandria fold.
Best urban forager: Though D.C. ranks high for farmers' markets per capita, Chef Robert Weland has upped the ante by cultivating an organic garden in the courtyard of his restaurant Poste (202-783-6060), in downtown's happening Penn Quarter. Housed in D.C.'s former central post office (hence the broad skylights above the main dining room), Poste houses nearly 80 pots of mixed greens, herbs, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, and more. Diners anticipate dishes like house-cured prosciutto, salmon tartare in five-spice cones, and crisp, just-picked arugula salads with Parmesan. On Thursdays, Weland leads small group excursions (10 guests max; call to reserve your spot) to the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market (202-362-8889), where he selects ingredients to be developed into a special three-course meal.
Best urban playground: National parks are rare in American cities; what further distinguishes Rock Creek Park (202-895-6070 is how quickly hikers find peace and quiet within its boundaries. Spilling 15 miles south from D.C.'s northern corner, the 1,754-acre park traces a stream valley along forests of maples, oaks, and sycamores, sheltering white-tailed deer and migratory birds. Three primary trails run through the park, a boon to D.C. residents.