D.C.'s Most Fab Restaurants Span the Culinary Globe
By Holly Smith
Once considered a fine-dining wasteland, Washington, D.C., has become a veritable foodie destination in the past decade or so. With innovative, unique restaurants like Range and Le Diplomate bursting onto the scene, the nation's capital is now almost as renowned for its culinary offerings as it is for its politics. (And unlike politics, everyone can agree that excellent food is a good thing.) While it's impossible to choose the 10 best restaurants of all -- too many contenders make for a crowded field -- the ones featured here all deserve to be considered among the finest out there. From Oyamel, with its uncanny ability to elevate often misunderstood Mexican cuisine to an art form, to Rasika, a Penn Quarter fixture and go-to spot for peerless dal, roti, naan, vindaloo and other Indian standbys, the city offers no shortage of globally themed bites. But that's not all the District has on its menu. Good ol' American dishes get the star treatment, too, and nowhere better than at places like Buck's Fishing & Camping or 1789, both of which are worth a visit (or several!). So no matter what kind of nosh you're in the mood for, you'll find a spectacular place to sample it at one of these wonderful D.C. eateries.
Toki Underground was the first ramen shop to open in DC and has been a popular restaurant in the Atlas district since Chef Erik Yang poured the first bowl of ramen noodle soup in 2011. A blend of Taiwanese and Japanese cuisine, the menu is simple, consisting primarily of ramen and dumplings. The restaurant itself is small and thus intimate; diners pull a stool up to the bar that wraps around this second-floor restaurant (located above the Pug) on H Street. Expect long lines, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, and make a commitment to stand in them. Toki Underground is worth the wait. METRO: Union Station. ((202) 388-3086)
Step back in time as you enter this elegant Federal-style country inn. Indeed, the early American antiques, Limoges china, Currier and Ives prints, and rustic fireplace create a comfortable yet luxe dining space. Skillfully prepared American dishes such as fresh Maryland crab cakes, Chesapeake rockfish, and rack of lamb with creamy feta potatoes keenly remind patrons why 1789 is praised as one of the area's most distinguished restaurants. The superb wine list and suggested dress code only add to the legend, as does a cast of regulars that includes members of DC's "old money" crowd and the occasional public servant. METRO: Foggy Bottom. (202-965-1789)
With its stark white walls, high ceilings and dramatic glass facade, Zaytinya has emerged as a popular after-work gathering place. Hot and cold mezze ("middle-of-the-day" meals) enrich the dining scene with contemporary Eastern Mediterranean fare -- for example, lamb with hummus, and spiced sirloin with dry fruit compote. For more substantial appetites, the kebab platter or braised lamb shank with eggplant does nicely. An added perk: their wine list focuses almost exclusively on Greek, Turkish and Lebanese selections. A Jose Andres restaurant, Zaytinya consistently tops the best DC dining lists. Dress upscale casual. Reservations recommended for lunch and dinner. METRO: Gallery Place/Chinatown. (202-638-0800)
Buck's Fishing & Camping
If the name evokes images of fried catfish and grilled bear, be prepared to think again. Despite the lodge-inspired decor, this intimate dining spot caters to a sophisticated clientele, and the creativity in the kitchen knows no bounds. One night you might enjoy a thick, juicy sirloin with sweet potato fries or a wood-grilled, bone-in pork chop with savoy cabbage slaw; the next time out, the signature pan-roasted mussels might call to you. The seasonal menu changes daily; the smartly curated wine list features a wide range of affordable European imports. METRO: Cleveland Park or Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan. (NOTE: Free parking is available behind the restaurant.) (202-364-0777)
Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio has spun his fame into a mini empire; Range, his latest restaurant, proves he deserves all the accolades he gets. A sprawling eatery in Friendship Heights, Range lives up to its promise of serving "modern interpretations using seasonal ingredients from the Mid-Atlantic region prepared through classic and progressive techniques." Just how progressive? Imagine roasted marrow bones with shallot marmalade; rockfish with foraged mushrooms and dandelion greens; wood-fired pizza topped with asparagus, pecorino, ramps and country ham; and truffle macaroni and cheese. Artisanal cocktails and an extensive wine list provide the perfect accompaniment to your meal, while Range's onsite truffle counter is a great place to find a sweet ending. (Recently opened is Aggio, a fantastic "restaurant within a restaurant" located inside Range.) (202.803.8020)
New on the scene but certainly a classic in the making, Le Diplomate recreates the experience of the classic Parisian cafe. Spend an afternoon sipping a frothy cappuccino and people-watching from your outdoor seat under the red awning. Or come for an aperitif paired with a crusty, homemade baguette and a selection of French cheeses. Stop by in the evening for dessert; the menu features classic Gallic treats like vanilla bean creme brulee. Le Dip (as the locals call it) is open daily for dinner; on weekends, it also offers brunch and a midday meal. METRO: U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo. (202-332-3333)
L'Auberge Chez Francois
This warm, intimate restaurant recollects the quaint roadside inns so revered in the French countryside. Surrounding it is a beautiful garden that helps foster a relaxed environment for guests, who are treated as though they are neighbors -- even family. The prix-fixe menu includes a variety of Alsatian dishes, including escargot with garlic butter sauce and fresh frog legs. Superbly done seafood, duck and veal are also notable. For dessert, guests are encouraged to try the plum or apple tart with cinnamon ice cream. And throughout the meal, be sure to sip vintages from the restaurant's outstanding wine list. NOTE: L'Auberge Chez Francois is located in Great Falls, VA, a 20-minute drive from downtown D.C. (703-759-3800)
Rasika in Penn Quarter is a spicy, rich, authentic dining destination. (It was also a favorite of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; woe to any diner who was found sitting at "his" table when he arrived.) Rasika (from the Sanskrit word for "flavors") is a modern Indian restaurant where the appetizers and entrees are meant to be shared communally with your table mates. The open kitchen allows you to observe the dishes being prepared An open kitchen allows guests to watch as food is prepared on the tawa (griddle) and sigri (barbecue). A favorite from the sigri -- the paneer shashlik, a heavenly combination of marinated cottage cheese, onions and peppers. (202-637-1222)
Trendy and popular, Oyamel is one of those places that lives up to the hype. One of several popular restaurants created by famed chef José Andrés, Oyamel features dishes inspired by Mexico's many different regions and cultures. The menu is made up of antojitos -- basically small plates, or tapas -- perfect for experimenting and sharing with your dining partners. Known for its margaritas, tequilas and mezcales, Oyamel's cocktail list will loosen you up -- perhaps even giving you the courage to try the Chapulines tacos made with sauteed grasshoppers, a Oaxacan specialty. Whatever you order, it's impossible to go wrong. METRO: Gallery Place-Chinatown. (2026281005)
About Holly Smith
Holly is an award-winning writer and editor with 15+ years of experience working with newspapers and magazines primarily in the Washington, DC, metro area. She also has a Master of Arts in Writing degree from the Johns Hopkins University, a fact that no longer impresses even her own four children.
Read more about Holly Smith here.