Food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Washington, DC—the current news cycle being what it is, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the District is home to more than just lawmakers, political pundits, and lobbyists. But DC has a thriving culinary scene to rival that of any American city, one that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years.
Where the image of dining here may have once conjured primarily brass bars, dark booths, steak-and-martini dinners, and rubbing shoulders with political elite, for the past couple of decades the city has been pushing the boundaries of culinary creativity with restaurants like Minibar, José Andres’s 12-seat, fine dining restaurant; Vikram Sunderam’s modern Indian hotspot, Rasika; and Rose’s Luxury, the inventive New American small-plates joint that has daily lines down the block.
Of course, many of the classics are still around, too—Old Ebbitt grill is still a meeting spot for politicians, restaurant industry insiders, and locals craving happy hour oysters. And because DC is an international hub, it’s an excellent place to find top-notch restaurants specializing in cuisines from every inch of the globe, from Laotian and Spanish to Georgian and Ethiopian, with mashups of everything in between.
With 20 Michelin stars across 16 restaurants, multiple James Beard awards, and countless “Hot 100" lists to its name, Washington, DC, is, more than ever, a destination dining city.
To guide us through the maze of options, we consulted some of the chefs and restaurateurs that have had a hand in building DC’s impressive dining culture. These include Pizzeria Paradiso’s chef-owner Ruth Gresser and beverage director Drew McCormick; Rubén Garcia, director of creativity at Minibar; chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina; chef Opie Crooks of A Rake’s Progress; and James Simpson, beverage director of Espita Mezcaleria.
Here are some of their favorite spots for drinks, late-night eats, breakfast and brunch, special-occasion meals, and local classics that you absolutely can’t miss on a trip to the nation’s capital. You'll see that some locations are technically in Maryland, but all restaurants are accessible via the DC metro.
Best Late-Night Eats
Chinatown gems, industry hangouts, and kimchi on everything: Here’s where to go for a good meal in the wee hours.
New Big Wong
New Big Wong in Chinatown, is cozy, consistent, and always welcoming! They have great American-Chinese food and they’re open until 4 a.m. every night. I discovered it mainly because I was trying to date my now-girlfriend, Annie, and she said she “might stop by there after work" one night. It’s an essential gathering place for lots of industry folks, as it has a big dining room that can fit large groups.
They have a lot of things that you wouldn’t see at a Panda Express, like little salt-and-pepper sardines and pig intestines. My go-to dishes are the pan-fried meat dumplings, garlic scapes, crispy beef, vegetable fried rice, scallop fried rice, shrimp toast, walnut shrimp, beef chow fun....I could go on and on, but personally I like the pan-fried meat dumplings the most. They’re super hot and super flavorful, they make them to order, and they come with a soy sauce that I like to keep and put on everything else.
— Opie Crooks, Executive chef of A Rake’s Progress
My new favorite late-night restaurant is Anju, a modern Korean restaurant near Dupont Circle. It’s from the Fried Rice Collective, a restaurant group run by Danny Lee, Scott Drewno, and Drew Kim. Everything they do is absolutely delicious. One of the famous things at Anju is a dish consisting of fried potatoes with salad and citrus aioli. But my favorite is the kimchi slaw dog—a late-night hot dog works for everyone—with gochujang, hot mustard, and slaw made with incredible house-made kimchi, which uses a family recipe and is fermented for 100 days. The fried chicken is great, too: it’s crispy, and it comes with creamy white BBQ sauce and spicy Korean BBQ sauce, both made in-house.
The place feels really homey and cozy, especially the second floor—it’s like you’re in someone’s house. You have these big tables with lazy Susans, where hotpot is served. And Chef Danny Lee’s family is involved in the daily operation of Anju, which makes it really special—his aunt is a painter, so they showcase her art. His mom could be there making mandu (Korean-style dumplings) and handing them to you over the counter. She comes to the table and talks to the guests. She’s trying to make everyone feel really welcome in her house. It’s unique to see that these days.
— Rubén Garcia, Director of Creativity at Minibar
TallBoy is directly across the street from my restaurant, Espita, and after I lock the doors late at night, I can always count on their Kim Cheese (grilled cheese with kimchi), and smoked wings for a great late night meal. The wings are smoked in-house in the same kitchen where Marjorie Meek-Bradley (Ripple, St. Anselm) used to smoke her famous pastrami, and they have tremendous flavor. They have a few different sauces for the wings, but go with the classic Buffalo, no garnishes.
The whole vibe of the place reminds me of the local watering holes in Charleston, South Carolina, where I come from: Good beer, simple food with great ingredients, excellent bar staff. The walls are lined with corrugated aluminum siding and vintage beer cans, it’s small and only holds about 30 people, and it’s open until 2 a.m. every night.
— James Simpson, Beverage director of Espita Mezcaleria
Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt is a classic DC restaurant that serves burgers and other delicious, straightforward American-style food until 1 a.m. But it’s best known for its huge old-school oyster bar—think lots of dark wood, brass fixtures, and big mirrors.
The restaurant’s been around for eons, and a ton of people from both the political world and the restaurant industry go there after work. I especially love the late-night oyster happy hour, which runs from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Their oysters are fantastic and fresh; I’m partial to eating an order of the small, tasty Kumamoto oysters with a bit of mignonette.
— Amy Brandwein, Chef–owner of Centrolina
Whether it’s tiki cocktails, killer wine lists, or just a really good Cuban coffee you’re after, DC delivers.
Archipelago does tiki right, and sitting at this bar is as much of an education in tiki culture as it is an imbibing session. It’s located right on U Street, but whoever the genius is that leaves the shades down in the front, I have to thank them: it makes Archipelago the perfect escape from the busy U Street–crowd.
For the best experience, sit at the six-seat bar downstairs in front of their rum collection. The bartenders aren’t very chatty here unless you buy them a shot, and the décor is classic tiki: kitschy wallpaper and slowly moving blacklight projections all over the walls. The general ambience can only be described as chill island vibes. I can't remember when I first discovered this place, but isn't that how it goes with your favorite bars?
Ask the bartender for my favorite cocktail, the Macadamia Nut Chi-Chi (you won’t see it on the menu; it falls under “classics”). This drink is all secret ingredients, except for the macadamia nuts, but think tropical and boozy with a bright, clean finish. It’s hand-blended, then poured on the rocks in a classic green head-hunter tiki mug. Also off-menu is my second-favorite drink, a frozen Piña Colada served in the bottom half of a pineapple with an assortment of decorative tiki garnishes, like paper dolphins and plastic monkeys.
— James Simpson
I live in the apartment building above Ellē, in Mount Pleasant. It’s all your favorite things in one beautiful, relaxing place: coffee, sweets, and drinks; plus a good selection of pickled foods. It’s a place that brings craft cocktails and delicious baked goods to Mount Pleasant, all while honoring the legacy of the former bakery [that was in the space]. Although Elle is housed in the historical Heller's Bakery space, even the most loyal Heller's customer wouldn't recognize it. A coffee counter with warm lighting, fresh flowers, and beautiful pastry display cases leads to the back bar and dining room space. A beautiful green-stone bartop urges you to relax, sit a while, and order a martini. The rotating cocktails by Sean MacPherson and Dante Datta always keep me coming back—a favorite right now is the Cashmere Gold, with gin, cognac, lemon, saffron cordial, Domaine de Canton, orange bitters, and soda. It’s light and floral, with a warming ginger spice and notes of saffron.
— Drew McCormick, Beverage director of Pizzeria Paradiso
I love Colada, in Cardozo—it’s a Cuban-inspired coffee shop that serves Cuban pastries and Cuban-style coffee during the day, and turns into a cocktail bar come evening. It’s really fun: a place where you can go to have breakfast, then lunch, and then drinks. It’s a very welcoming and friendly space, really relaxed; I love the bright colors. During the day, it’s a place for neighbors and office workers. At night it changes and becomes more of a hang out spot with some of the best cocktails in the city. The music and aromas transport you to Cuba (especially after the third cocktail!).
Their offerings are straightforward, but they use really high-quality ingredients, products, and techniques. “Colada" is the name of a Cuban coffee drink with super-strong brewed coffee—like, really strong—with sweet crema, and they of course serve that here. It’s bittersweet and creamy; it goes great with pastelitos (pastries with sweet or savory fillings) or empanadas.
The cocktails are in the style of Miami’s Calle Ocho—the famous street where there are hundreds of Cuban restaurants and clubs with live music. I like all of the cocktails at Colada, the majority of which are based on rum. So you have classic drinks like mojitos, piña coladas, and the Hotel Nacional—a mixture of white rum and dark rum, along with pineapple and lime—there’s always lime in these cocktails.
— Rubén Garcia
When you’re looking to go all-out on a dinner in the District, here’s where to drop your money.
I try to visit a new “splurge" restaurant about once a season. It’s a great way to connect with the changes in local ingredients and celebrate the year in food and drink. But now, having been to Gravitas, a modern American restaurant in Ivy City, I think I might have to change my routine and go only here. Helmed by Matt Baker, Gravitas’s exceptional team consistently creates new, inspiring, and refined menus that have me eagerly awaiting my next meal.
The cuisine at Gravitas focuses on ingredients from the Chesapeake watershed. This means a lot of seafood, like tuna and oysters, but also locally raised meat and vegetables. Recently, I've been wowed by their oxtail porridge with black truffles and parsnips, perfect for early fall. The oxtail is served with its braising liquid, and it’s incredibly juicy and pulls apart easily. The oat porridge is arranged around the oxtail centerpiece and the parsnips are on top and have a touch of earthy sweetness.
— James Simpson
I always love going to Little Serow on a night off. It serves up Northern Thai specialties, and I think it’s consistently one of the best places to eat in the city, hands down. It’s just great, straightforward cooking. The dining room is small, no frills, but cozy and inviting. It’s generally always busy. It’s pretty dark in there but every time I’ve been, I’ve seen another chef or another industry person. There really isn't anything else like it in DC.
The dining experience itself is also very unique: you never know what you’re going to get, because they only serve a pre-set, rotating menu; the food is super spicy; and they don’t make any special accommodations. I am a huge fan of the Golden Mermaid Menu, which is a fish- and shellfish-based menu that they do several times a year. It’s different every time they do it, but last time I had this crazy fried fish; it was a whole fish with Southeast Asian-style flavors—fish sauce, chilies, that kind of thing. Before heading over, do note that the restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
— Opie Crooks
Del Mar is a light-filled and impeccably designed space in the new Wharf area, a neighborhood that screams high-end luxury. DC is just starting to embrace its waterfront, and this is a chance to try food from one of the city’s most celebrated chefs—Fabio Trabocchi, of DC seafood hotspots Fiola Mare and Sfoglina Pasta House—with the Potomac as a backdrop. Del Mar is a Spanish seafood restaurant, and with chef Fabio at the helm, you can’t go wrong with any fish on offer. I recently went for a celebratory lunch and had a delightful time. I've enjoyed the crudo, which came plated with lots of edible flowers, and the paellas are known to be some of the best in the city.
Del Mar has a more-is-more feel to it, which is not the style of restaurant that I’m typically drawn to, but it works, it’s very luxe. It really leaves no detail overlooked, which is obvious in its intricate plating and presentation, and stellar service; everything combines to create a very special restaurant that is done well, from the time you enter to the time you leave.
— Ruth Gresser
Whether your brunch tastes tend toward footlong quiches, classic dim sum, or a bowl of spicy ramen, DC’s got you covered.
I enjoyed Convivial’s brunch recently—the chef there, Cedric Maupillier, puts out a big, beautiful spread. It’s modern and bright inside, and it has a casual feel with a backbone of fine dining—similar to us at Centrolina. I took my mom and she loved it. She felt very entertained because we were going to a hot spot—we weren’t going to a classic brunch, we were going to a hip brunch. It’s definitely a take-your-mom-for-fun kind of place.
The food there is all served à la carte, and it’s really creative and well done. I liked the smoked salmon a lot, which was homemade; it comes with capers, red onions, toasted brioche and crème fraîche. I remember they had a lot of wonderful juices, too, like fresh grapefruit juice. The beef tartare is delicious, served with crispy potato, hard boiled egg, and fresh herbs. But Convivial is best known for its quiche. It is a very artistic quiche—one inch by one foot long! It’s got leeks, onions, and Gruyère, has a crispy crust and it’s served with a nice fresh salad.
— Amy Brandwein
Hollywood East Café
Hollywood East makes the case for going to a shopping mall to eat. It’s just good, solid dim sum. I discovered it when I moved north of the city, near Wheaton, Maryland—meaning, it’s near my house—which has a very large immigrant population and many great restaurants featuring cuisines from around the world. Plus, chef-owner Janet Yu is a longtime friend, and I like supporting women-owned businesses.
It’s always very busy for dim sum; the restaurant has a large, well-run dining room, with roving carts—there always seems to be a new cart in front of you, just when you want to try a new dish. I like the turnip cake, most of the dumplings, and, if my spouse isn't looking, sometimes I’ll order the chicken feet. It’s hands down one of the best places for dim sum in the city.
— Ruth Gresser
From a classic French bistro beloved by José Andrés to an artsy neighborhood joint outfitted with canoes on the ceiling, these places are must-visits for a true DC experience.
It’s hard to define Rose’s Luxury as a classic because it always feels so new every time I visit, but it’s definitely a don’t-miss for anyone visiting me in DC. Aaron Silverman and his team define hospitality and really showcase the best of DC, specializing in seasonal New American small plates that bring together influences from all over the globe.
The space itself is cozy and warm, full of little nooks, decorated with plants and string lights. Their staff is smart and engaging; they pay attention to the details and inspire conversation with their service and their dishes. My first visit here, I stood in line for two hours, ordered every single item on the menu, and left feeling like I wanted to get right back in line.
Rose’s Luxury has a great lychee salad with pork sausage, habanero, and peanuts that has a bit of everything: creaminess from coconut, sweetness from the lychee, and savory notes from the sausage and peanuts. The menu’s put together straight off the chalkboards at the weekend farmers market—it’s very seasonal, incorporating whatever’s being harvested at the moment, with loads of flair and creative pairings. I look out for early spring when all the fresh, garlicky greens start popping up in everything on the menu.
— James Simpson
Bistrot du Coin
This one is personal to me: Bistrot du Coin. It’s the first place José Andrés took me to have dinner in DC. One night after service, he asked if I was hungry, and took me to this little French bistro in Dupont Circle. It’s authentic—like something you would find in Paris—and as soon as I got there, I felt like it was a really casual, honest, and beautiful restaurant to enjoy a classic French meal. It’s got a good and fun environment. There’s also something romantic about it; I used to take dates here, too.
As for the food, it’s the kind of thing you’d eat at home, they’re not trying to make it too fancy. You can’t go wrong with a really good grilled ribeye, cooked to perfection, served with freaking delicious French fries made from scratch and served with Béarnaise sauce. Meat, butter, and fries: no one goes wrong with that.
— Rubén Garcia
Buck's Fishing & Camping
Buck’s Fishing & Camping, in northwest DC, has an awesome ambience. It’s a neighborhood place with terrific food and a great vibe—artsy and sort of moody. The decor is meant to conjure an old fishing camp: There are canoes in the ceiling, and big huge plants, and great, dark red lighting. It’s like going to a private dinner for two anytime you go in: it’s very intimate and dark, and it feels like an escape from DC.
I really like their cheeseburger, with great prime beef and a brioche bun. The burger comes with these massive French fries, which I think are cut by hand, and are served with the best aioli I've ever had. Buck’s was just listed in Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsma’s hall of fame, because it’s one of those restaurants that’s been able to withstand the test of time. It lives and functions on its own wavelength.
— Amy Brandwein
Bethesda Crab House
Bethesda Crab House is an old-school kind of place: brown paper–covered picnic tables on the patio; pitchers of beer; sports on TV; large, tasty crabs to eat, and dozens of crabs in brown bags heading out the door for crab feasts at area homes. The place and its vibe haven't changed in years, so to any new customers: make sure the host doesn't seat you on the patio by the dumpster!
I get steamed Maryland blue crabs—they’re local to this region and always served Maryland-style with an Old Bay–style spice blend—and whatever local beer is on offer. They have other things, too...but they’re not why I go there. My DC-native spouse took me to this place before there was really an established food scene in the city, and it's remained an essential DC spot for this Baltimore girl.
— Ruth Gresser
4958 Bethesda Ave, Bethesda, MD 20814, 301-652-3382
Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.