Though it sometimes gets a bad rap as a town filled with expense-account steakhouses, there’s plenty of great food in Washington, D.C. This guide will help you sort the best restaurants in Washington, D.C. from the “concept” dross.
The Best Restaurants in Washington, D.C.
As befits a true world capital, D.C. is seeing increasing numbers of innovative restaurants specializing in cuisines from beyond America’s borders. That said, there are also more than a few standbys serving up classic American cuisine.
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One of the best restaurants in Washington, D.C. is an Indian place so good that they’re even talking about it in India. Meet Rasika, which is helping to turn Indian food from a safe bet for a dinner out with new acquaintances into something truly exciting. Rasika’s menu promises a culinary tour of the subcontinent, from kebabs and biryani to curries and southern seafood dishes, including classics like the lentil stew known as dal dhungaree, and tandoori salmon—a decidedly inauthentic creation that is a strong argument for the power of fusion cuisine. For dessert, don’t pass up the sweetly beguiling gulab jamun.
The unsung gem of the D.C. Chinese scene is Panda Gourmet, a joint located at a Days Inn with indifferent service and a positively grody website. While its name may invoke visions of food-court culinary disasters, “this place,” as Washington Post food critic Tim Carman puts it, “is not that kind of Panda Gourmet.” The restaurant specializes in authentic stick-to-your-ribs cuisine from China’s Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces. Among the hits are rou jia mo, the hard-to-find stewed pork “burgers” from the ancient imperial capital of Xi’an, and spicy, hand-pulled biang biang noodles.
With just two dozen seats and a no-reservations policy, Filipino trailblazer Bad Saint occasionally incurs the wrath of self-important D.C. power brokers who can’t fathom the prospect of a two-hour wait in line. Who cares: It’s still one of the best restaurants in Washington, D.C., and if you’re willing to make a personal commitment to getting a good meal, this place is worth your time. The menu changes constantly, but includes Philippine staples like cane vinegar-marinated chicken and adobo pork belly. It often puts the spotlight on the archipelago’s seafood and fish, including prawns, clams, branzino, and snakefish, spiked with hot peppers, tamarind, toasted young rice, and pomelo.
Should you ever need to ride out a long-term zombie invasion in D.C. (insert your own political joke here), you could do worse than holing up in Union Market. Opened in 2012 on the site of a market originally opened eight decades earlier, the food hall is home to roughly two dozen places to eat, serving up Indian dosas, Korean tacos, Venezuelan arepas, multi-ethnic empanadas, and good old American barbecue. The market is also home to several gourmet food purveyors and grocers, a pair of well-regarded butcher and fish shops, and a Japanese knife store.
For something truly exotic, check out Golden Samovar, opened by a transplanted master chef. Specializing in cuisine from Central Asia, Turkey, Russia, and the Uighur ethnic group (now located primarily in China), the varied menu includes smoked fish, cured pork fatback, khachapuri (a cheesy Georgian bread), pierogi, shurpo (Uzbek lamb soup), Georgian lamb sausage, kebabs, laghman (a delectable Uighur soup), and roast sturgeon—plus a kids’ menu.
If you’re looking for good, square ethnic cooking that moves beyond pretentious interpretations, hoof it out to Eden Center, a Vietnamese mecca 6.5 miles over the Potomac in northern Virginia. From banh mi joints to sit-down restaurants (plus a good number of nail salons, jewelry shops, and medicinal herb emporiums), Eden Center is a collective testament to the American promise of a fresh start. The shopping mall has a sleepy vibe during weekday evenings, and then roars to life on weekends.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Not everyone agrees on its culinary merit, but on one point there is no controversy: Ben’s Chili Bowl is a genuine institution among restaurants in Washington, D.C. Although hamburgers and veggie burgers appear on the menu, that’s not why you go to Ben’s. The star of the show is the “half smoke,” a half-beef, half-pork smoked hot dog that’s native to D.C. Ben’s smokes its version for four hours and then smothers it in chili; it’s also available for breakfast, which purists argue is the proper meal at which to eat a half smoke. Ben’s now has three locations (not counting a storefront at Reagan National Airport), but the original location, on U Street, has survived race riots and urban redevelopment since 1958.
The Block Food Hall
For an entirely new twist on the power of food to bring people together, leg it out to The Block Food Hall in Annandale, Virginia, nine miles southwest of downtown D.C. This food hall, anonymously tucked near a Kmart, is home to six venues serving food ranging from Hawaiian poke to Thai and Vietnamese to Taiwanese shaved ice. More importantly, it’s a nod to Singapore’s traditional hawker centers and Taiwan’s night market, buzzing community spaces that allow diners to mix and match food from a multitude of storefronts to fit their tastes.
If you’re on the prowl for Japanese food, make sure to check out Daikaiya. The first floor is home to a creditable ramen shop, but the real show is upstairs at the Japanese pub-style restaurant, or izakaya. Start with Japanese drinking-house appetizers like fermented Japanese vegetables, shishito peppers and beef tongue. Then choose from entrees such as salt-grilled mackerel, grilled octopus, mentaiko (cod roe) “spaghetti,” and chicken kara-age. There are also some slightly less authentically Japanese—but equally delicious—offerings like tuna poke.
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—Original reporting by Matt Jenkins