In the last 15 years, and even more rapidly over the past 8 to 10 years, Washington has evolved from an extremely predictable restaurant town, in which dining out was more a matter of convenience or expense-account entertaining than pleasure, to one of the top-10 culinary centers in the country—and, like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, it’s one of the places the biggest-name chefs want to plant a culinary flag.
The traditional French and Italian (or steak and seafood) restaurants that were the norm in Washington have been replaced by market-fresh, innovative, healthful, and sustainable cooking—as well as, paradoxically, by a raft of throwback American burger bars and blue-plate diners. (The Riggsby in Dupont Circle even makes sly reference to “old” Washington by describing its menu as “American with a dash of ‘old School Continental.’”) Several kitchens, most notably Minibar and Rogue 24, highlight the imaginative and technically demanding style loosely referred to as molecular gastronomy.
Even more exciting are the number of chefs who are turning back the clock to the true roots of ethnic cuisines, whether the chefs are native to the region or simply admirers. Scores of good restaurants in the Washington area are turning out Afghan, Algerian, Argentine, Balkan, Belgian, Burmese, Ethiopian, Filipino, Honduran, Indian, Korean, Laotian, Mediterranean, Northern Thai, Peruvian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Uzbeki, and Yemeni, as well as the more familiar Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, and so on.
As is obvious from the explosion of what might be called food truck/survivor reality competitions, food trucks of all ethnicities, originality, and pop-up parking are not just a trend, they’re a lifestyle, especially at lunch. There are at least three sites claiming to monitor all mobile meal activity around town: Food Truck Fiesta and its various mobile apps, Food Trucks DC, and Roaming Hunger, or check Washingtonian magazine’s daily blog update.
A word of warning for visitors watching their budgets as well as foodie blogs: A growing number of restaurants now offer only prix-fixe or tasting menus, an almost imperial edict previously limited to the most famous of culinary figures such as Patrick O’Connell, Eric Ziebold, or José Andrés. Also keep in mind these fixed prices do not include wine pairings, tax, or tips, and likely require reservations well in advance.
Be sure to double-check a restaurant’s reservations policy: Many are stringent—Seasonal Pantry allows for no more than 6 of its 12 seats to a single party—or nonexistent, as at Little Serow, Compass Rose, and the small but trendy Etto pizzeria. Rose’s Luxury, Pearl Dive, Estadio, and Toki Underground offer only very few reservations, and generally before dinner rush (the “senior special” for hipsters).
Along with the awakening of the Washington palate has come a rearrangement of the dining map. While Georgetown remains a busy shopping and nightlife area, it is no longer a dominant restaurant strip (with a few notable exceptions), and the ethnically mixed Adams Morgan neighborhood (just northeast of Dupont Circle), though still intriguing, is gentrifying and “graying” slightly. Upscale redevelopment created around various suburban Metro stations—most notably Ballston and Clarendon in Virginia, and Bethesda and Rockville in Maryland—have lured both established and first-time restaurateurs to those mini-cities. Just as an example, the restaurants in and around what has been branded Rockville Town Center offer Indian-French fusion, Japanese, Korean fusion, Lebanese, Peruvian, Southeast Asian fusion, Russian/Tajik, Szechuan, Taiwanese, tapas, and Thai, and there’s a classic but pleasingly moderate French bistro, two brewpubs, an Irish pub, a global-fare martini bar, as well as buffalo wings, burgers, frozen yogurt, ice cream, Korean chicken, tortillas...well, you get the idea.
While we have included some less-convenient standouts in the restaurant profiles, for the most part we have stuck to areas that are easily accessible to visitors, especially via public transportation, and preferably around popular attractions where hunger may strike. our profiles are organized by neighborhood because that way it's easier to see what's around you at any given time.
The concept is not new--fast food with higher quality wares--but the number of fast casual restaurants has exploded in recent years, no where more than in D.C. The basic premise for all of these is the same: you order from a counter, customizing your food as you like. The ingredients are often fresh and there are usually several possibilities at each step; think Chipotle or Subway.
We really like these places for a few reasons: they're faster and cheaper than sit-down dining. The quality is also often high for the price you pay. Fast casual dining mixed with the occasional splurge meal can be a great way to dine without emptying your moneybags. In each neighborhood we will also mention a few fast casual places if you're dining with a time (or money) limit. You'll notice the same names (and reviews) in a few areas--many of these places are local chains.
There are a lot of restaurants in Washington, D.C. Many more than we can accurately review and so many that it would be totally overwhelming to try to list them all. Therefore, what we have chosen to do is list our favorites for each neighborhood. Some of them will be the top restaurants in town (with the top price tags) while some will be casual, family-friendly spots. We do our best to keep the listings up to date and provide you with a wide range of options no matter where you are.
For each restaurant we list information that we think is important to you. We give our rating of course, along with a brief description, but we also list the hours, nearest Metro stop, and its proximity to popular tourist attractions. That way you can decide where is best to dine based on where you are now or where you plan on going. Please be aware that although our rating system for Table Service and Fast Casual dining uses the same 1-5 stars comparing between the two is not advisable. Our expectations for Fast Casual are much different than a Table Service restaurant, and our stars adjust accordingly.
In each dining review we list a cost signifier that includes an appetizer and an entree, but not drinks or a tip. Here is how those costs can be translated: Inexpensive: $25 or less per person Moderate: $25-$40 per person Expensive: $41-$60 per person Very Expensive: More than $60
We do not list a cost for Fast Casual restaurants, they are all considered "inexpensive."
You may notice that we don't have The Mall listed. That's because there aren't a lot of places there we recommend. The only places we really like to eat there are the food courts at the American Indian Museum and the African American History Museum and the cafes at the National Gallery of Art. Other than that, we recommend that you walk, Metro, or taxi to one of these neighborhoods: