From Lobster Bibs to White Tablecloths, D.C.'s Seafood Spots Run the Gamut
By Holly Smith
As with its politicians, monuments and museums, Washington, D.C., has too many excellent seafood places to count. There are lots of glittery, upscale eateries — places like BlackSalt, DC Coast and The Oceanaire Seafood Room -- offering high-end dishes in a setting to match. There's the seafood-focused bistro fare at casual (but not too casual) places like Pesce. And (mercifully for anyone on a budget or with little kids) there are several of the delightfully low-key, relaxed-atmosphere places that would inspire Jimmy Buffet to wax poetic. Think Hank's Oyster Bar, Tackle Box and the rollicking Chasin' Tails (whose "dump it out and dig on in" serving style stretches "laid-back" to the far reaches of its meaning). Of course, there are also seafood restaurants that are barely restaurants at all, places like the Maine Avenue Fish Market, where customers are as likely to take their fresh catches home to cook as they are to stick around and savor something ready-to-eat. But no matter how you like your seafood — served with a bottle of fine wine by a tuxedo-clad waiter or piled in a plastic basket and plunked down next to your beer — you're sure to find just what you're looking for at one of D.C.'s many seafood spots.
PassionFish - Reston
From the same family of restaurants as DC Coast, PassionFish is a short drive from the District in Northern Virginia's Reston Town Center. The decor evokes the spirit of the grand ocean liners that ply the world's seas; the ever-changing menu features the best those seas have to offer, from char-grilled whole branzino to American red snapper. For a unique taste treat, try the macadamia-nut crusted grouper, the kung pao calamari or the red Thai curry lobster "Claypot" served with golden pineapple and jasmine rice. End your meal with a plate of warm donut holes with coffee Bavarian Cream. You'll be glad you did. (7032303474)
You've got to love any place with the motto "No plates, no forks, no rules." Located across the Potomac River from the District in lovely Arlington, VA, Chasin' Tails is famous for its Cajun-style seafood, especially crawfish. Authentic to its core, Chasin' Tails serves its "mud bugs" just like they do in Louisiana: boiled with special seasonings and then dumped in a heap right onto the table. (It's dining the way 9-year-old boys always dreamed it should be.) The menu also features lobster, shrimp, mussels and other seafood standards, while the bar offers Bourbon Street-inspired libations. And hopefully a wet-nap or two. (703-538-2565)
In business for more than two decades, this always-popular bistro is on every local seafood-lover's short list. Order a classic -- such as lobster risotto -- or opt for something exotic like pan-roasted skate wing with parmesan grits, mustard greens, capers and sage brown-butter sauce. Of course, the appetizer list is extensive enough that you could easily make a tapas-style meal out of pre-entree nibbles, which include smoked salmon, grilled calamari, seared octopus and tuna tartare with seaweed salad. And just how fresh and up-to-the-minute seasonal are the offerings at Pesce? Well, the menu is written in chalk for a reason. Metro: Dupont Circle. (202-466-3474)
Johnny's Half Shell
Inspired by New Orleans' down-home cuisine, Johnny's Half Shell features fantastic seafood dishes expertly reinterpreted by Chef Ann Cashion. Succulent shellfish from nearby waters is spotlighted in dishes like Chesapeake bouillabaisse, classic Maryland crab cakes and grilled rockfish, while the offerings of more distant seas shine in the New Zealand salmon fillet, Mississippi Delicata catfish and wild Maine mussels. Great for lunch and dinner, Johnny's is a must-try for happy hour, too, where decadent nibbles are paired with premium cocktails at a price that won't break the bank. And good news for parents with a guppy in tow: There's a kids' menu, too. Metro: Union Station. (202-737-0400)
Hank's Oyster Bar
At Hank's Oyster Bar, coastal favorites and New England beach fare are the name of the game. Expect lobster rolls, Ipswich clams and oyster po'boys, as well as daily fish specials, light fare (such as popcorn shrimp and calamari) and a raw bar featuring oysters and ceviche. By the way, those oysters come from different locales, and each type has its own unique qualities, so don't be afraid to let your server guide you toward ones you'll like best. With locations in Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Old Town Alexandria, diners in all parts of the city can find a Hank's near them. (202-462-4265)
Oceanaire Seafood Room
Part of a small chain of Oceanaire Seafood Rooms across the country, the D.C. location, just blocks from the White House and National Mall, is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. With fresh catches being flown in daily, the Oceanaire prides itself on serving unique and creative dishes in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. The menu reads like a geography text -- Carolina rainbow trout, stuffed Canadian turbot, Maine sea scallops, Scottish salmon -- with plenty of regionally inspired and seasonal dishes available, too. Half a dozen "steakhouse offerings" will satisfy hungry carnivores at the table. Metro: Metro Center or Gallery Place-Chinatown. (202-347-2277)
Maine Avenue Fish Market
For a completely different seafood experience, head down to D.C.'s Maine Avenue Fish Market. Yes, a real, honest-to-goodness fish market in the nation's capital. While not as big as its coastal counterparts in cities like Seattle, the Maine Avenue Fish Market nevertheless features a wharf lined with multiple vendors in an open-air setting. In addition to raw seafood, many of the stalls sell steamed blue crabs with Old Bay seasoning, fried catfish, fish sandwiches, hush puppies, chowder and more. A popular lunch spot for locals, the place is often overlooked by tourists crowding the museums and historic locales just a few blocks away. It's their loss. (202-484-2722)
If you've spent any time hanging out along America's shorelines, then you've probably seen an eatery like Tackle Box. You just don't expect to find such a place in D.C. Billed as a "lobster shack," this little spot has the ambiance of a beach-side bar, complete with fruity drinks and all types of seafood, fried and otherwise. (The decor, with its buoys and fishing equipment, is reminiscent of the Herman Melville school of design.) The menu includes a New England clambake, a shellfish pot, lobster rolls and grilled, fried and steamed fish (along with soup, salad and dessert). Regulars swear by the healing powers of the clam chowder. (202-337-tbox)
DC Coast offers sophisticated seafood-seekers the right mix of atmosphere, service and fine dining. Unlike so many cramped District restaurants, DC Coast is situated inside a large space in the landmark Tower Building, an Art Deco structure on K Street. Modern American cuisine is the style here, where the seafood dishes are inspired by the waters of the Mid-Atlantic, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast. Pan-roasted Alaskan Halibut, Chinese-style smoked lobster, grilled Norwegian salmon, pan-seared skate wing, Tahitian-style tuna tartare and monkfish cassoulet are just some of the dishes that lure in diners time and time again. Metro: McPherson Square. (202-216-5988)
BlackSalt is near the top of everyone's "best seafood place in D.C." list for good reason. It's cozy (a polite word for "on the small side") and hard to get into, but it's worth the effort. (Reservations are usually a must.) Once seated, prepare yourself for such tantalizing dishes as wood-grilled Mediterranean sardines, fried Ipswich clams, bigeye tuna tartare and house-cured anchovies. If it's a special occasion, splurge on one of BlackSalt's many varieties of caviar (true connoisseurs may want to spring for the farmed Royal Imperial). And be sure to toast your good taste in seafood with a bottle from the restaurant's well-curated wine list. (202-342-9101)
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.