If Washington D.C. were a character in a movie, it’d be the nerdy girl with glasses who—after taking off her specs and shaking out her pony tail—suddenly turns everyone’s head. The District has a reputation for being conservative, and while that can certainly be the case, those with a more intimate understanding know that underneath the sea of red tape and pleated khakis it’s all that.
I’ve lived in D.C. for almost ten years, and I never get sick of defending the city’s coolness, in particular, its exploding food scene. Washington D.C. tends to attract the ambitious and the well-intentioned, and the restaurant scene is no exception. Many of the most notable and beloved dining spots are helmed by chefs who have left illustrious corporate careers to pursue their passion for cooking, or are determined go-getters who have pulled themselves up by their Crocs straps.
I’m not the only one taking note of these dynamos. In 2016, Michelin announced it’d be launching a guide in D.C., and—judging by the number of restaurants that consistently make its top ten list of the best newcomers—I’m starting to think Bon Appétit magazine “like-likes” us.
Furthermore, D.C.’s diverse population lends itself to a bounty of global cuisines you’d otherwise have to hop a flight to taste. On one stretch alone, you can bounce between award-winning Laotian food, lauded Mexican, and a Vietnamese restaurant with a bowl of phở that will bring tears to your eyes (more on that gem below).
The key to loving D.C. as much as die-hard fans like myself is two-fold: you need to know what to look for, and you need to keep an open mind. Otherwise, you might be missing out on the beauty lying beneath.
3221 Mt. Pleasant Street NW
When Heller’s Bakery closed after eighty years of slinging doughnuts and cupcakes to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, residents collectively held their breath and hoped something legendary would replace it. Prayers were answered with Ellē, an all-day cafe and restaurant from a co-owner of Bad Saint, Room 11, and Paisley Fig. An all-star team of bakers prepares crusty loaves of naturally fermented breads, seasonal pies, and pastries in a grandma-chic setting. The breakfast sandwich is an other-worldly combination of brisket, cheese, and a farm egg that seeps into an airy potato bun drenched in butter. In the evening hearty, vegetable-rich dishes further delight guests.
1770 Euclid Street NW
Spoken English, the hidden Tachinomiya-style restaurant in the belly of The LINE D.C. Hotel, is the culinary equivalent of a trust fall and just as exhilarating. Minimalistic menu descriptions (“fizzy,” “mushroomy,” “awesome”) suggest to the diner: just have faith. To access the standing-only restaurant, guests must bypass the hotel lobby and “sneak” into the kitchen simply marked by a Japanese noren curtain. There, a flurry of cooks prepare inventive dishes, including chicken skin dumplings and a kushiyaki of milkbread, camembert, and fermented honey that is so satisfying it’s been known to elicit expletives. The vibe, much like the food, is playful; it’s not uncommon for the kitchen staff to break into song when a Britney Spears or Salt-N-Pepa classic hits the airwaves.
926 N. Street NW, Suite A
Lest you forget that everything is made from scratch at Seylou, the 1,600-pound mill in the middle of the kitchen should serve as a reminder. The wholegrain bakery in Shaw is run by husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Bethony and Jessica Azeez, who share a fanatical commitment to quality all the way down to the locally sourced grain. Bethony has a fondness for less-common varieties, including buckwheat, millet and sorghum, which results in flaky loaves with tons of depth. Although the breads are the star of the show here, don’t overlook the whole wheat croissants.
1822 1st Street NW
My Italian grandmother’s ragu sets the bar, so my expectations for red sauce are impossibly high. Chef Mike Friedman’s take on the classic—laced with fennel sausage and fennel pollen—is as good if not better than what I grew up with (I’m sorry, Grandma Rose!). Other standouts at this upscale red sauce joint include the pan-roasted chicken with polenta, and the ricotta cavatelli tossed with spicy lamb sausage. The off-menu cacio e pepe is a mind-blowing dish you need to know to ask for, and save room for the hazelnut custard dessert and expertly curated wine selections.
3513 14th Street NW
Don’t be fooled. Beyond Pho Viet’s unassuming exterior lies one of the city’s most remarkable bowls of phở. The cramped, sparsely decorated restaurant—from husband-and-wife duo Minh Chau and Phi Nguyen—attracts a cult following of slurpers in-the-know eager for Pho Viet’s aromatic broths. The liquid simmers for hours with ginger, onions, oxtail and brisket before it’s spooned into your bowl with a choice of meat. Go for the eye-of-round steak, which is served raw and cooks once its submerged in the piping-hot broth. The intoxicatingly spicy lemongrass option packs a sinus-cleaning level of heat, and the vegetarian version is just as rich as those with meat. Start with the addictive egg rolls and wash it down with a Vietnamese iced coffee.
1346 Florida Avenue NW
Maydan is such an immersive culinary journey that you may be tempted to hand your passport to the host upon entering. The breakout restaurant is a reflection of the far-flung travels of owner Rose Previte who last year, along with Maydan’s co-chefs, trekked through Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Georgia and Lebanon learning ancient cooking techniques directly from the sources. The cavernous warehouse—which is hidden behind a discreet blue door at the end of an alley—is anchored by a crackling fire pit that spits roaring flames into the air. Dishes like fire-kissed racks of lamb and piquant muhammara spread recently netted the restaurant a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Awards for Best New Restaurant.
1511 17th Street NW
If you can’t stand the heat, you may want to sit this one out. Although nuanced, the spice at Little Serow intensifies with each course, meaning the tasting menu culminates in a fiery finish. The sleek Thai restaurant comes from Johnny Monis (the same chef behind Komi, the Michelin-starred, fine dining Mediterranean restaurant located upstairs), so you’ll see some gourmet touches. The food is rustic and at $49 per person it’s one of the best bangs for your buck in the city. Although it’s been open for years, Little Serow still draws long lines so prepare to wait before grabbing a seat.
Sally’s Middle Name
1320 H Street NE
The food at Sally’s is so fresh I’m convinced there’s a garden patch in place of a walk-in refrigerator. Chef Sam Adkins, who owns the restaurant with his wife Aphra, plucks only the best produce from local growers and turns them into artful, American dishes. Although it’s not vegetarian, Sally’s Middle Name is accommodating to non-meat eaters, and flags gluten-free and vegan dishes on its menu board. Offerings rotate nearly daily and may include heirloom tomatoes with blue cheese aioli and everything spice, a jerk chicken thigh, and lamb merged with fermented tomato. If given the choice, take your meal on the rooftop.
1110 H Street NE
Who knew Chinese street food and classic cocktails would make such a winning combination? Devin Gong did. The owner of Copycat Co. (previously of Barmini, José Andrés’s celebrated cocktail playground in Penn Quarter) opened the split-level bar on H Street in 2014 to much fanfare. In addition to manhattans that are so perfect they’ll make you slip into a New York accent, Copycat serves a heavy rotation of original cocktails displayed on a meticulously detailed menu board. Bartenders are more than happy to share recommendations or educate you about that rare bottle of liquor over there on the shelf. The opium den-like setting is cozy, sultry, and draws big crowds, so keep an eye out for an open seat.