Washington, DC: A Culinary Capital
Always known for power lunches and elegant State dinners, Washington, DC is now beginning to turn heads as a diverse culinary capital. With a dizzying number of new eateries, celebrity chef hot spots, international gems, fresh farmers markets and budget-friendly food trucks at every corner, DC is a food lover’s playground. Read on to discover what the District is cookin’.
Walk through any one of DC’s neighborhoods and you’ll quickly discover DC’s mighty appetite for new culinary experiences and tasty adventures. From sizzling tapas to Victorian steakhouses and 24-course affairs, the city’s new eateries continue to bolster DC’s rep as a diner’s dream frontier.
Recently opened in Dupont Circle is Boqueria, a tapas bar and restaurant famous for its fresh ingredients and bustling atmosphere. Nearby is Little Serow, recently named Best New Restaurant by Washington City Paper. The no-reservations hot spot serves up prix-fixe Isaan-style menu that changes weekly.
Along Connecticut Avenue is District Kitchen, a straight-forward eatery that plates organic farm-to-table meals and locally-sourced beer and wine in a rustic setting in Woodley Park.
The U Street corridor is the new home of Victorian-style steakhouse, Lost Society. Brought to the scene by the business-minded DJs of the Thievery Corporation, the restaurant/lounge is the perfect space for those both hip and hungry.
North Gate Grill, named for its proximity to The White House, is serving up classic American cuisine inside the Capital Hilton. Also near the presidential digs is The Hamilton, DC’s largest restaurant/bar/music venue boasts a menu expansive enough to cover any craving, from sushi to burritos to oat & honey pancakes.
For those who crave a taste of everything in one sitting, there is Rogue 24 in the Shaw/Logan Circle neighborhood, which offers an expansive and interactive culinary adventure of 24 courses created by James Beard Award-winner and Iron Chef competitor RJ Cooper.
Over in Georgetown, Top Chef’s Mike Isabella will open Bandolero, which promises an authentic Mexican experience poured to the brim with margaritas, traditional favorites and, according to Isabella, “the best tacos, period.”
Still hungry? Head over to Burger Tap & Shake in Foggy Bottom for a low-key yet high-quality burger or head next door to its sister restaurant, District Commons for a more upscale affair.
While there are always exciting things brewing in DC, now there is something exciting brewing with hops, barley, yeast and water: beer. Over the past five years, local brew masters have revived the DC brewery scene that hasn’t been tapped (literally) since the Christian Heurich Brewing Co., once DC’s largest brewery, closed in 1956. DC Brau was the first on the scene, opening its doors and its canned beers – The Public (Pale Ale), The Corruption (IPA) and The Citizen (Belgian Ale) - in 2011. Following their lead, Chocolate City Beer opened a few months later on 8th Street NE and has wet the whistles of thirsty Washingtonians. And if you’re looking for a hearty meal to accompany your lager, head over to one of three Capitol City Brewing Company locations, a DC staple since 1992.
Other breweries “hopping” on the brew train include Alexandria VA’s Port City Brewery and the up-and-coming Bluejacket, led by Greg Engert, DC’s beloved beverage connoisseur and beer director at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
Power Dining Spots
If you’re eager to mingle with the media, spot a Senator or rub elbows with a Representative, familiarize yourself with DC’s power dining spots.
Between the White House and the Capitol, Ristorante Tosca entertains its share of high-powered lobbyists, and it’s reportedly the historic location where former Sen. Tom Daschle urged then Sen. Barack Obama to run for president shortly after the 2006 election.
Also near the White House, the Willard InterContinental Washington is a political landmark, where Ulysses S. Grant popularized the term “lobbyist.” At the Willard’s Round Robin & Scotch Bar, Senator Henry Clay introduced Washington, DC to the mint julep. An amateur historian and political buff himself, Round Robin bartender Jim Hewes also serves up special cocktail menus throughout the year, including of “All the President’s Cocktails,” listing the libations of choice of all men who’ve held the highest office. And while may not have a seat in the Oval Office, you can dine among those that do across the street at The Oval Room, where Chef Tony Conte has earned a 2012 James Beard nomination for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
A must-see on any political dining tour is the Old Ebbitt Grill. Opened in 1856, the Ebbitt relocated several times before settling into its current home across the street from the White House on 15th Street in 1983. A legendary Oyster Bar, tasty crab cakes and lively happy hours make the Ebbitt a favorite meeting spot for downtown workers, White House staffers, visitors and theatre-goers.
On Capitol Hill, lively bars and restaurants welcome a continuous stream of notable political figures, staffers and interns. Capitol Hill’s “first table cloth restaurant,” The Monocle set the stage for the neighborhood’s power dining reputation when it opened in 1960 as the closest restaurant to the Senate side of the Capitol complex. JFK was an early fan, frequently requesting roast beef sandwiches to be delivered to the White House.
With its big food, bold flavors and an unparalleled rooftop view of the U.S. Capitol, it is no wonder that all of the movers and shakers flock to Charlie Palmer Steak, located on Constitution Avenue. Check out its innovative “wine cube” in the main dining room. It features over 3,500 American-made wines and over 600 selections. And with its move from Dupont Circle to the Hall of States building on North Capitol Street – also home to Fox News, MSNBC and C-Span, Johnny’s Half Shell is the go-to spot for talking TV heads and seafood lovers alike.
Near the K Street lobbying district, The Palm plays host to a continuous stream of deal-makers and politicos. Seldom do you visit without a political celebrity sighting. Since the DC institution opened in 1972, Tommy Jacomo has entertained every president since Nixon – and is anxiously awaiting Obama’s first visit.
Georgetown claims a legendary list of notables among its past and present residents—and a selection of restaurants and pubs that meets with their approval.
Diners at Billy Martin’s Tavern use a tableside map to find the favorite booths of legendary customers like Lyndon Johnson or Alger Hiss. As a bachelor Congressman and Senator, JFK liked to sit in the half-booth just inside the door, known as the “rumble seat.” He is rumored to have proposed to Jackie in booth #3.
Head west towards the Capitol and you'll find Article One-American Grill & Lounge, a restaurant inside the newly renovated Hyatt Regency Washington. You'll dine on American fare while catching the "who's who" of the Hill mingling and catching up on the day's events. Keep your eyes peeled for celebrity and politico sightings - Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Denzel Washington and Nancy Pelosi have all been guests of the hotel.
Known for their good taste and romantic date nights, the Obamas have certainly set the precedent for DC dining:
Just before the inauguration in 2009, the Obamas celebrated Michelle’s birthday at Equinox, a DC favorite known for its dedication to earth-friendly practices, local farmers and seasonal ingredients. For her latest birthday celebration, the party was held at one of Michelle’s favorite DC hot spots, BLT Steak.
President Obama took German Chancellor Andrea Merkell to a Georgetown favorite, 1789, in which antiques and equestrian prints decorate the dining room. The guests feasted on a summer salad, beet salad and beef tenderloin. Spring lasagna, and leg of lamb with baby vegetables are among the offerings, served with a side of house-baked bread.
First Lady Michelle Obama had a ladies’ lunch Louisiana-inspired Acadiana. Gumbo, boudin, and fried green tomatoes reign as delicious first courses, while crowd pleasers such as soft shell crabs, cornmeal crusted catfish and roast duck with sides of grits or collards are served as mains.
Whisked toward the private dining room at Blue Duck Tavern, President Obama and his wife celebrated an anniversary at the elegant restaurant offering seasonal dishes. The couple ordered the tasting menu, which included oysters and crab cakes. Guests who require less security can people watch at the bar, enjoy sunshine on the patio or tuck in to a table in the airy dining room.
The multi-course menu at Komi is an epic journey of beautiful takes on seasonal ingredients from every corner of the globe. The Obamas went here for date night, a leisurely meal with many culinary gifts from the dazzling young chef, Johnny Monis.
Most recently, the Obamas were spotted celebrating Valentine’s Day at Old Town’s Vermillion and hosting campaign donors at trendy Boundary Road on DC’s revitalized H Street.
Get a taste for the international flavor of DC in eclectic restaurants that serve cuisine from all over the globe.
African: DC is home to more Ethiopian restaurants than any city outside of Africa, and many of them – including popular spots Etete and Dukem - are clustered around 9th and U Street NW in what is commonly referred to as “Little Ethiopia.” Servers ladle stews, vegetables, meats and legumes around a 16-inch circular piece of bread, called injera. You’ll eat with your hands, using another piece of injera as a scoop. Some more famous dishes include Wat, a rich meat or legume stew seasoned with a blend of chili peppers and spices; Tibs, a sautéed, grilled or sometimes deep-fried cubed lamb or beef with onion, tomato, jalapeno pepper and rosemary; and Kitfo, ground, lean, seasoned beef served raw or cooked to order. (Foodie tip: if you find Ethiopian food intriguing and crave an introduction, sign up for DC Metro Food Tours' Little Ethiopia dining tour). While Ethiopian restaurants are the most common African eateries you’ll see in DC, the District is also home to Moroccan and West African restaurants.
Asian: Asian fare runs the gamut in DC, from fine dining restaurants like OYA and Asia Nine Restaurant & Lounge in Penn Quarter, Zentan Restaurant in Dupont Circle and Rasika in Penn Quarter to noodle shops and pho takeout places in Chinatown. Steve Ells of Chipotle fame opened his first ShopHouse: Southeast Asian Kitchen in Dupont Circle, offering quick-serve rice bowl combinations. A second location is due to open in Georgetown in summer 2012. There's also excellent Asian food to be found in the northern Virginia suburbs, where large immigrant populations give rise to tasty, affordable eateries. But if you’re simply craving fresh sushi, zesty Pad Thai or flavorful curries, you’ll have plenty of options within walking distance of DC’s most popular attractions.
European: European cuisine abounds in all parts of DC, where diners can sample Italian, Greek, Spanish, French, German and other familiar favorites. DC’s French and Belgian influences are particularly evident on the fine dining scene, where acclaimed chefs like Michel Richard and Robert Wiedmaier delight and amaze diners with their high-end creations. Flavors of the Mediterranean shine through at casual tapas and mezze bars like Jaleo and Zaytinya and upscale eateries like Taberna del Alabardero and Komi. European influences don’t end on the plate, however. Choose from more than 50 Belgian beers on draft at Brasserie Beck, or head to Logan Circle's ChurchKey for more than 555 artisan beer choices. Italian cuisine is the focus at many of DC staples, like Chef Amy Branderwein’s Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle, as well as the city’s newest hotspots, including Bibiana, whose restaurateur Ashok Bajaj is nominated for the 2012 James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year and Fiola, nominated by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington for “New Restaurant of the Year.”
South & Central American: Thanks to DC’s large South and Central American communities, the regions’ cooking traditions are well represented on the District’s menus. Diners frequently stop for pupusas and empanadas, or meat and vegetable-stuffed pastries, at casual storefronts in the Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods. Sip caipirinhas and mojitos as you take salsa lessons at the lively bars and clubs in the neighborhood. For high-end Nuevo Latino flavors, try stylish downtown eateries like Oyamel and Ceiba.
The District’s dining scene has caught the attention of serious foodies and some of the best-known names in the culinary world. As local chefs and home-grown talent make names for themselves in DC restaurants, some of the world’s leading chefs have also set up shop in the District.
With the opening of the first W Hotel in Washington, DC, the city also welcomed the cuisine of highly-acclaimed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. His in-house restaurant J&G Steakhouse offers a worldly collection of steakhouse classics against the backdrop of sweeping views of the White House Gardens and Washington Monument.
The Four Seasons Hotel Washington DC boasts internationally acclaimed chef Michael Mina at the helm of its destination restaurant, Bourbon Steak, where beef is slow-poached in herbs and butter before being grilled over a wood fire.
The St. Regis Washington, D.C. is home to Adour by Alain Ducasse. Like its sister restaurant in New York, Adour is named after the river is southwest France near the town where Ducasse was born and the menu features elegant French cuisine.
Inside The Liaison Hotel on Capitol Hill, James Beard Award recipient and frequent Oprah guest Chef Art Smith presents Art and Soul. The restaurant features indoor and outdoor patio seating and built-in conversation areas, contemporary lighting, 16-foot rolling glass walls and stainless steel curtains to create an atmosphere of stylish urban sophistication. Other celebrity chef ventures include Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, Wolfgang Puck’s The Source and Bobby Flay’s latest, Bobby’s Burger Palace. Soon to come to DC is Eataly, the massive Italian marketplace whose founders include acclaimed chef Mario Batali.
In addition, Top Chef favorites are flourishing in DC. Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza are all the rave on Capitol Hill. Season six contestant and Top Chef All Stars runner-up Mike Isabella recently opened Graffiato in DC’s Chinatown neighborhood, an Italian-inspired eatery featuring seasonal ingredients and Prosecco on tap. Isabella is testing Bandolero, his next restaurant concept (Mexican street food) in Cleveland Park. The new restaurant will open in Georgetown this summer.
Sample fresh flavors of the season at one of DC’s lively farmers markets, where you'll find endless amount of the freshest food, entertainment and atmosphere— a great alternative to traditional restaurant meals.
Follow in the First Lady Michelle Obama’s footsteps and make your way to the FRESHFARM Market by the White House. It’s seasonal, and first debuted in fall of 2009. Mrs. Obama was on-hand at the market’s opening and has been a frequent customer ever since, buying fresh fruits and vegetables to display her commitment to healthy eating.
On weekends, Eastern Market on Capitol Hill is the place to go for produce, flowers, meats, and cheeses, along with arts and antiques. Built in 1873 and designed by architect Adolf Cluss, the renovated Eastern Market reopened in June 2009 after surviving a tragic 2007 fire that almost destroyed it. Now a National Historic Landmark and one of “America’s Best Public Markets” according to Frommer’s in 2011, Eastern Market is a favorite among locals and a must-see for visitors. Check out local artisans’ work at the flea market, and make sure to try the “bluebuck” (blueberry buckwheat) pancakes at Market Lunch.
On Sundays, head to Dupont Circle for its popular FRESHFARM market, which also features cooking demonstrations by the city’s top chefs. On Thursdays from 3-7 p.m., the Penn Quarter neighborhood is filled with even more excitement as its seasonal market is in full force. Seafood lovers can sample the catch of the day or feast on fried oysters and crab cakes at the Maine Avenue fish market in Southwest, open daily.
When spring, summer and fall bring out the year’s richest harvest, DC’s market season reaches its peak, with markets in locations like Downtown, Georgetown and even on the National Mall. Log on to freshfarmmarket.org for a list of hours and locations.
National Association for Specialty Food Trade’s Summer Fancy Food Show
The 57th Summer Fancy Food Show relocated to Washington, D.C. from its longtime home in New York City, and the move was a success. The 2011 show was held at the state-of-the-art Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where exhibit space sold out weeks in advance. The 58th Summer Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest food and beverage event will also take place in DC, June 17-19, 2012.
The exhibit halls were filled with 2,400 specialty food companies featuring 180,000 foods and beverages from 80 countries and regions, including hand-crafted salami from Salt Lake City and hibiscus jam from Senegal. The products represented the best in new flavors, ideas, trends, and innovation of global specialty food.
There were 15,400 attendees representing important names in retailing and restaurants from across the U.S. and around the world. The show attracted a new cadre of attendees: almost half the buyers had never before been to a Fancy Food Show, or had not attended in the past five years, reflecting a lot of potential new business for exhibitors.
The show used the entire convention center, covering more 318,000 square feet of exhibit space. There were 197 first-time exhibitors, including 46 international newcomers such as Botswana, Bulgaria, and Kenya.. Accordingly, the Summer Fancy Food Show made headlines around the world. Close to 500 journalists scoured the show for trend-setting products and the stories behind them.
On the last day, exhibitors donated 153,000 pounds of specialty food, the largest SFFS donation ever, to D.C. Central Kitchen, a leading anti-hunger organization in Washington, D.C.
For more details on Washington, DC's restaurants, visit Washington.org.
About Destination DC: Destination DC, the lead destination marketing organization for the nation’s capital, is a private, non-profit membership organization of more than 800 businesses committed to marketing the area as a premier global convention, tourism and special events destination with a special emphasis on the arts, cultural and historic communities. www.destinationdc.com
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