Editor's Note:Between the upcoming election and the financial crisis, all eyes right now are on Washington, D.C., making this the perfect time to scope out the city’s best eats. In the latest installment of Serious Eats City Guides, we check in with food writer Jane Black at the Washington Post for her top picks in the nation’s capital.
Full disclosure: Having lived in Italy, I’m partial to individual-sized rustic pies from a wood-burning oven. 2 Amys makes exact replicas of the ones I knew. (No surprise: their pizza meets strict Italian standards laid out in 1988 to protect the Neapolitan pies.) Funky Comet Ping Pong feels more Brooklyn than Bologna, but here, too, the pizzas are close to perfect. The chewy crust is dusted with herbs and spices and toppings, both locally procured and creative. My favorite: The Ace with braised bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fontina.
Ray’s Hell Burger (real name: Ray’s Butcher Burger) is the latest entry into Washington’s burger wars—and an immediate victor. For $6.95, you get a 10-ounce burger made of hand-trimmed prime beef (including juicy scraps from nearby Ray’s the Steaks), corn on the cob, and a slice of watermelon. There are only a few seats and no fries here. But who needs 'em? For a more civilized experience, I go to cafe at Palena. The beef is hand-ground, the bun, pickles and mayonnaise homemade. The fry plate, which includes fries, onion rings, and fried lemon slices, is extra and well worth it.
Natives complain about the lack of a truly great DC bakery. And with good reason. That's why, though it doesn’t have everything, I go to Baked & Wired. What it lacks in bread, it makes up for in homey but flawless baked goods. I love the pies and the "bee sting" pastry, shortbread topped with almonds and honey. And, for the record, the much-buzzed about cupcakes deserve the buzz. The strawberry cupcakes rule.
Baked & Wired: 1052 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Washington DC 20007 (map); 202-333-2500.
Best Wine Bar
A good wine bar needs an excellent cellar and knowledgeable staff who are not afraid to give you a steer. It’s served me well at Proof, where I've drunk wines I'd never pick myself: exquisite California chardonnays, so out-of-fashion these days, and red dessert wines I love. You can’t go wrong. And if you try, someone will probably tell you.
Proof: 775 G St. NW, Washington DC 20001 (map); 202-737-7663.
Best Beer Selection
Rustico has a casual atmosphere but beer director Greg Engert is very serious about the beer. There are 30 on tap and more than 300 in total—everything ranging from German Black Lagers to hard-to-find American microbrews. Look for a new outlet opening downtown on 14th Street soon. If you’re a Belgian beer freak, try Belga on Capitol Hill. They have white beers, lambics and my favorite, sour red ales, which manage to have oomph and be refreshing at the same time. Any of them goes down well with an order of equally authentic Belgian frites.
Best Cocktail Lounge
When I want a bar as beautiful as my drink, I head to PX, a '30s-style speakeasy in Alexandria. The atmosphere and the clientele are as elegant as what's in the glass. The menu changes seasonally but the Smoker’s Delight, made with tobacco and honey syrup, is a regular. In DC proper, divey Bar Pilar has equally thoughtful cocktails. Stop by Tuesdays for a special menu.
Best Ethiopian Food
I’ve been told there are other things on the menu at Etete besides the vegetarian combo but most of the time I can’t bring myself to branch out. For $12, I get every vegetarian dish on the menu—collard greens, cabbage, carrots, lentils, potatoes—and plenty of spongy injera to scarf it down. Besides good food, Etete is also great for groups. The food is easy to share and affordable and the service is friendly and efficient.
Etete: 1942 9th St. NW, Washington DC 20001 (map); 202-232-7600.
Best Bargain Lunch
For fast and casual, I go to Greek Deli. Owner Kosta Fostieris makes enormous and delicious souvlaki, Greek salads, and entrees like fresh roasted lamb and orzo or the traditional lemony Avoglemeno soup. For fancy, I go to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, which between 11:30 AM and 4 PM on weekdays offers a "Lickity Split" menu. For $13.50, you get either a main course and dessert, or one course and a cocktail, whipped up by house mixologist Todd Thrasher.
Best Date Night Spot
Don’t worry: Buck’s Fishing and Camping is not what it sounds like. This neighborhood joint in Northwest has low-lit, dramatic crimson walls and chef Carol Greenwood's simple but seductive food: chicken livers spread on toast, terrific shrimp and grits and a serious steak. If the date doesn’t work out, you might still fall in love.
Buck’s Fishing and Camping: 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008 (map); 202-364-0777.
Sushi Ko goes beyond the usual salmon, tuna, and yellowtail. There are spot prawns, sea urchin, and monkfish liver. All are sparklingly fresh—even that tuna. When available, splurge on the fatty kind. In this case, the o-toro could easily be mistaken for a slab of beef tenderloin. It melts, butter-like, on your tongue.
Sushi Ko: 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC 20007 (map); 202-333-4187.
Former White House chef Frank Ruta at Palena is the kind of chef every city needs. He refuses to leave the kitchen and work the dining room—even if a VIP is in. If he gets bored, he takes things off the menu, even if guests complain. Ruta’s singular focus: creative, delicious food. That’s why everything in his elegant restaurant is homemade—from the burger bun in the casual café in front to the salumi and desserts in the more formal dining room in back. Don’t miss the gnocchi, which are the best I've tasted in Italy or outside.
Palena: 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008 (map); 202-537-9250.
Best Ice Cream
Family run. All homemade. You can’t quibble with Max’s Best. I’m not even a chocolate person—I know, I know—but even I crave the cinnamon-laced Mexican chocolate.
Max’s Best: 2416 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC 20007 (map); 202-333-3111.
Restaurants Most Worth the Splurge
Palena, just mentioned above. Komi, where you get eight creative, Greek-inspired mezze, like mascarpone-stuffed dates and smoked consommé—before what you ordered even starts to arrive.CityZen because Eric Ziebold learned a thing or two during his five years as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry.
Palena: 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20008 (map); 202-537-9250. Komi: 1509 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036 (map); 202-332-9200. CityZen: 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington DC 20024 (map); 202-787-6006.
Sadly, brunch is usually a disappointment. Boring pancakes. Eggs benedict that look like they got to know the heat lamp a little too well. Creme Café does it right. Try the chicken and waffles with one of the house bloody Marys. Or if you can’t find something you like, you can order the omelet called “tell us what you want in it and if we have it we’ll make it” for $10.
Creme Café: 1322 U St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 (map); 202-234-1884.
Big Bear Café is the kind of coffee shop that made coffee shops popular in the first place. There’s lots of room to hang out and really good (read: not burnt) coffee. And unlike other DC destinations, the well-trained baristas here turn out perfectly smooth and correctly sized cappuccinos without any attitude.
Big Bear Café: 1700 First St. NW, Washington DC 20001 (map); 202-470-5543.
Best Near the National Mall
The best place on the Mall is the Mitsitam Café at the Museum of the American Indian. It’s a cafeteria but the stations offer more than the usual fare. The seasonal menu offers treats like sweet potato and banana soup, inspired by Southwest native American tribes, and plank-grilled salmon at very reasonable prices. Inside the Newseum, try The Source by Wolfgang Puck. The downstairs has upscale bar food: wood-grilled pizza, and trite but addictive sliders. Upstairs is the Asian-inspired fine dining room where you can find Puck's famous lacquered duck.
You need a little energy to go to Ray’s the Steaks; it’s a guaranteed mob scene. But with good reason. The meat is cut daily from Hereford and Angus beef, grilled simply and served at bargain prices. At the other end of the spectrum is Charlie Palmer Steak. It’s elegant, hushed and airy; in short, the kind of steakhouse a woman can love. The steaks are not to be missed, of course, but I’ve also done well with the delicate fish dishes and, at the bar, the excellent burger.
Best Late Night Eats
Most people who've eaten at Amsterdam Falafel don’t remember it because they’ve had a wee bit too much to drink. Sober or drunk, this is the spot for a late night bite. The flavorful falafel is made to order, then you add from more than a dozen toppings including hummus, tahini, pickled radishes—you name it. For something more upscale, Bistro Francais in Georgetown serves classics like pate, crab salad, and an awfully authentic steak au poivre until 4 AM.
Best Frozen Yogurt
The frozen yogurt fad finally arrived in DC. But unlike other cities that are overrun with Pinkberrys and Red Mangoes, our shops are locally owned. I like Tangy Sweet, a hip, minimalist boite opened by local Aaron Gordon who spent nearly a decade in Los Angeles. The yogurt, which comes in plain, green tea, and pomegranate, is crisp without being icy. The fruit toppings are always ripe and mostly local.
Tangy Sweet: 2029 P St. N.W., Washington D.C. 20036 (map); 202-822-2066.
Don’t Leave the City Without…
Trying the chaat at Rasika. As a food writer, I always try to order something different. But at Rasika, there’s no way I could skip the chaat or Indian street snacks. My favorite is the palaak chaat, crispy fried spinach topped with cool yogurt and tart tamarind-date chutney. I also adore the bhel puri, crispy puffed rice crackers topped with soft vermicelli and chutney.
Rasika: 633 D St. NW, Washington DC 20004 (map); 202-637-1222.
Best Value Dining
At Washington restaurants the old adage is true: You get what you pay for. But the bar at CityZen is the exception that proves the rule. For $50, you get a three-course meal that isn’t lowly kitchen leftovers but the highlights of the dining room’s $80 three-course menu: pan-seared stone bass with gnocchi and chanterelles or braised shoulder of shoat (baby pig) with summer beans and chorizo. Order the wine pairing for $25 more and you get three glasses to sample, including many that are not usually offered by the glass.
CityZen: 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington DC 20024 (map); 202-787-6006.