Conservative politics were not all that dominated the nation’s capital for most of the past quarter-century. Washington, D.C., was culinarily conservative, too, to a degree that no recent tourist or transplant can perhaps appreciate. Most downtown dining rooms were formal places, and if you weren’t wealthy, then you probably weren’t going to dine all that well. No more. The city has witnessed an unprecedented boom of activity over the past seven years, as a slew of cooking styles has transformed where and how Washingtonians eat.
“We now have some of the best restaurants in the world, an enormous variety of ethnic restaurants, and a good crop of high-quality casual restaurants,” says Phyllis Richman, former food critic for the Washington Post, adding that while the city belongs, for the first time, in the culinary company of New York and L.A., it’s also blessedly free of “the high-powered tension that comes with their dining scenes.”
The city’s new casualism can be seen in the rise of small, food-savvy places that stick to the core principles of simple, thoughtful food made with good ingredients and served at reasonable prices. Palena Café (202-537-9250), helmed by 2008 James Beard Award nominee and former White House Chef Frank Ruta, offers soups both rustic (a zesty minestrone) and refined (a rotating lineup of exquisite consommés, like favas, nettles, and morels or pheasant, juniper, and cockscomb). Superb housemade charcuterie, hand-rolled pastas, and even a gloriously golden roast half chicken round out the menu—for less than $16 each.
Locavore-loving Liberty Tavern (703-465-9360), just across the Potomac in Arlington, blends a mix of the sturdy (roast Amish chicken and a veggie Shepherd’s pie) with the refined (diver scallops pan-roasted with black trumpet mushrooms).
Even steak houses—those dark, clubby dens where politicians conduct business over mammoth slabs of beef—have lightened. The lobster potpie at Michael Mina’s new Bourbon Steak (202-944-2026) is every bit as rewarding as the ribeye, while the latest satellite in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s global empire, J&G Steakhouse (202-661-2440), excels at subtle presentations of fish and seafood, including the most ethereal fried squid you’ll ever find.
The casual approach is also evident in a profusion of gourmet burger spots. BGR: The Burger Joint (202-299-1071) just opened its third location, in Dupont Circle, to feed demand for its tantalizing lineup of hormone-free beef burgers, lobster “burgers” (BGR’s take on a lobster roll), tuna burgers topped with sweet grilled pineapple and pickled ginger, and turkey burgers—this last cooked sous vide and finished on the grill. And Good Stuff Eatery (202-543-8222), from Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn, draws fans to Capitol Hill for camera-ready burgers and shakes. A must-try: the “Vegetarians Are People Too” portobello burger coated with panko and flash-fried to mimic browned beef. Hoagies are getting in on the action, as well. Philadelphia transplants Casey Patten and David Mazza at Taylor Gourmet Deli (202-684-7001) do their hometown proud with built-to-order sandwiches overflowing with high-quality imported meats and cheeses. Balance those heavy flavors with a side of pastina—tiny pasta shells tossed with arugula and cherry tomatoes in a light vinaigrette.
While many of the city’s new American restaurants are streamlining, more and more ethnic spots are going glam. Washington has long been an ethnic-food mecca, with some of the country’s best Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Bolivian, and Afghan food coming out of the suburban strip malls of Maryland and Virginia. Of late, however, some of the best ethnic cooking in the area can be found in the city, in restaurants that fuse gutsy cooking with stylish settings. Rasika (202-637-1222) typifies the “ethnic chic” ideal. Its cooking is a beguiling and often seamless blend of Indian flavors and spices with Western-style presentations and proteins. The crab cake, that Chesapeake-area staple, gets a subcontinental makeover with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and sweet coconut chutney, while bison, as New World a protein as can be found, is roasted with fennel seeds and spiced potato.
Most recently, a talented crop of mixologists has given Washingtonians reason to rethink what constitutes a proper drink. At new-age speakeasies such as PX (703-299-8385) and The Gibson (202-232-2156, bardc.com), bar chefs are not only developing their own flavored bitters (they change seasonally, but may include cherry in the summer or cranberry in winter), but they’re also making their own ice, employing everything from sour mix-infused cubes to trendy spherical Japanese ice molds. Try the “Plum Diggity” at PX: Citrus vodka meets Shiro plums and lemon-thyme ice cubes.
If beer is more your style, ChurchKey (202-567-2576), located in the hip Logan Circle neighborhood, offers a selection of 50 well-curated drafts by the glass (commitment-phobes can try before they buy with a sample 4-ounce pour).
BREAKFAST: Café du Parc
No place in the city is more evocative of European elegance than Café du Parc. The restaurant is part of the famous Willard Hotel, a block away from the White House, and its menus are overseen by Antoine Westermann, a 3-star Michelin chef with restaurants in Paris and Strasbourg. Tradition trumps innovation; classic French dishes evince a reverence for technical mastery that results in precise, cleanly cooked dishes. At breakfast, look to the buckwheat crepes, light and nutty, filled with ham and Gruyère.
Go there: Café du Parc, 202-942-7000
Make it at home: Savory Buckwheat Crepes with Ham and Mornay Sauce recipe
The large population of Ethiopian immigrants in the D.C. metro area has a considerable influence on the city’s cultural life. It’s not a stretch to say that feasting on the various wats, or slow-simmered stews, of the city’s Ethiopian restaurants when visiting D.C. is akin to chowing down on pizza in New York or cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. Etete, which translates as “mama” in Amharic, is one of the city’s best. It resides in the heart of Little Ethiopia, a stretch of restaurants, shops, and a bakery that hugs the eastern end of historic U Street. “Mama” is Tiwaltenigus Shenegelegn, and if you’re lucky, she may swing by your table.
Komi is a Mediterranean restaurant that speaks with a pronounced Greek accent (Chef Johnny Monis’ parents grew up along the Aegean). This is no place for rushed power dining—each meal is a long, leisurely affair, from a multicourse procession of meze that shows off Monis’ willingness to splurge (the seafood, in particular, tastes as if it has just been pulled from the deep) to a communal-style platter of roasted baby goat or pig.