Rick’s Top 25 DC Restaurants — Spring 2019
It’s time for a new top-25 list. How do I know? Well, for starters, my current list has two Mike Isabella restaurants on it. Not only have they all closed, but it was the better part of a year before that since I’d set foot in one. More importantly, the current list doesn’t reflect the continuing froth of the DC restaurant scene. Ten of the restaurants on this year’s list didn’t even exist when last year’s rankings came out, including my new #1 restaurant. That, as my daughter Emma would say, is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
One thing you won’t see on the list are any uber-pricey places with fancy tasting menus. Not only are those pretty well known and slow to change — think minibar, Komi, Inn at Little Washington, Metier and Pineapple and Pearls — I just haven’t been loving that format lately. It feels fussy and more about things like plating and being clever than the food. But if someone else is picking up the tab, by all means.
Nor does this list include my favorite budget restaurants. That list will be coming soon and there are just too many good spots to try to do them both at once. That means that a couple of my favorite pizza places slipped off this year’s list for no good reason other than there are so many new restaurants clamoring for attention. If you want good pizza, my top three remain Frankly…Pizza! in Kensington MD, Timber Pizza in DC, and Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Derwood MD — which I believe is the boyhood home of Dick York (that one’s for the pop culture fans).
Without further ado, here are my favorite 25 restaurants right now in the DC area.
1. St. Anselm, 1250 5th St NE, Washington DC (near Union Market)
Frank Bruni wrote a great column recently about how our restaurant needs change as we get older. Novelty becomes less important. You’re less willing to wait 90 minutes for a table, put up with uncomfortable seating, or “submit to cooking that’s about a self-conscious chef’s strenuous inventiveness as much as our simple pleasure.” You want things like to be able to talk to your tablemates and having our spirits restored rather than challenged.
Maybe that’s why I like St. Anselm so much. The room is comfortable with just the right amount of buzz. The food is generous and honest. And the hassles are minimized — reservations are not difficult other than peak hours and there’s plenty of free parking out front. I’ll still line up in the middle of the day and eat standing up if I have to (I’m looking at you, Spoken English), but there’s something increasingly appealing about familiarity and feeling cared for rather than chasing the new, new thing.
St. Anselm may be new, but it feels lived in. Owner Stephen Starr, based in Philadelphia, is the king of creating evocative, transportive spaces. Starr’s other restaurant in DC, Le Diplomate (#16), channels the Parisian bistro of your dreams. I have no idea what St. Anselm is channeling, but it works. My daughter called it a “turn-of-the-century post-manifest destiny boys’ club,” which doesn’t tell me anything other than her high school IB program wasn’t a total waste.
The talented Marjorie Meek-Bradley has created a menu with a steakhouse-meets-farmhouse vibe. Be sure to start with an order of biscuits and pimento cheese and then go as you will. There’s lots of love online for the Insta-ready salmon collar, but I prefer the just-cooked oysters and the salads. Then take your pick from the various cuts of beef or lamb — but don’t sleep on the seafood or the whole bobo chicken. Whatever you order will be well-conceived, well-sourced and well-executed. You’ll leave feeling restored and ready to stand in line for several hours at some of the other restaurants on the list.
Recommended Dishes: Buttermilk Biscuits and Pimento Cheese; Lamb Tartare; Just-Cooked-Through Oysters with smoked herb butter; Cucumber Salad with whipped feta; Salmon Collar; Ribeye and Butcher’s Steaks; Young Bobo Chicken; Crispy Beef Fat Potatoes; Cauliflower; Carrot Cake.
Getting in: Reservations on OpenTable can be tough during peak hours and weekends. Open for dinner and weekend brunch.
Buttermilk Biscuits and pimento cheese
Oysters with smoked herb butter
Grilled Salmon Collar
Crispy Young Bobo Chicken with mumbo sauce
Crispy Beef Fat Potatoes
Prime 16 oz. Ribeye
Ax Handle Ribeye
2. Himitsu, 828 Upshur St NW, Washington DC (Petworth) (Full Review)
[NOTE: Himitsu closed in September 2019. Chef Tien is opening Emilie’s, which I will be reviewing soon. In the meantime, a worthy new #2 restaurant in DC, which opened after this list was released, is Seven Reasons. You can read my review here.]
If I could have one DC chef cook me a last meal, it might be Kevin Tien. I didn’t know how much I needed “gnocchi” made from rice cakes until Tien showed me. Or that eggplant with szechuan black bean, garlic and pickled red onion may be the best way to eat eggplant. Or a slew of other memorable dishes that invariably combine Asian influences with fresh herbs and a pop of acidity. While the no-reservations policy remains a hurdle, the good news is you can now make reservations at the chef’s counter. So why did Himitsu fall from it’s #1 perch to #2? A good-but-not-great dinner when Tien wasn’t in the kitchen and the (mostly good) news that he’s opening a new restaurant on Capitol Hill and a hot-chicken sandwich shop in Arlington. The risk of a distracted Tien is enough to nudge Himitsu out of the top slot.
Recommended Dishes: Any of the raw seafood; fried oysters; Nasu Dengaku (eggplant); French Onion Dip; Karaage Fried Chicken.
Getting in: Challenging but getting a bit easier. You can now make reservations at the chef’s counter on Himitsu’s website. You’ll find options if you’re flexible on times and days of the week. Of course, you can still get a table the old-fashioned way by lining up before the doors open at 5 pm. Open for dinner.
Hamachi Sushi and Eggplant “Sushi”
Nasu Dengaku — eggplant with szechuan black bean, and garlic
“Gnocchi” — Rice Cakes with white pepper onion soubise, crispy shiitake, egg yolk + pickled red onion
Karaage Fried Chicken with mayo, pickles and buttermilk biscuits
3. Tail Up Goat, 1827 Adams Mill Rd NW, Washington DC (Adams-Morgan)
Tail Up Goat hasn’t lost a step since it was launched by a group of Komi alums in 2016. If anything, TUG has continued to hone its winning formula: unique, often seemingly odd combinations on shareable plates that focus on toasts, pastas, and for-the-table proteins. The signature lamb ribs are off the menu for now but order with confidence. And don’t be put off by ingredients you feel like you need to Google under the table. They’ll be the highlight of your meal.
Recommended Dishes: Whatever toasts or pastas strike your fancy; crispy salt cod; whole fish; pork shoulder.
Getting in: Reservations available on Tail Up Goat website, but they book quickly at peak times and can only accommodate parties of five or fewer, so plan accordingly. They do have a sixteen-seat bar for walk-ins where you can order off the regular menu. Open for dinner and weekend brunch.
Brown rice bread with cauliflower, yogurt, black garlic and benne seeds
Tallegio Ravioli with kale fonduta and garlic breadcrumbs
Pork Shoulder with blackberries
4. Kinship, 1015 7th St NW, Washington DC (Convention Center)
Here’s what I love about Chef Eric Ziebold. He tends to his own garden. His restaurants Kinship and its fancier sibling, Metier, share the same building. He hasn’t expanded to the Wharf or taken over the food service at some new hotel in town. He’s not selling cookbooks or pans on QVC. He hardly even works the dining room. He’s almost always in the kitchen, assuring quality control and implementing his vision. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ziebold lives upstairs and commutes to work by fire pole.
Whatever you order will demonstrate impeccable care and technique. You can’t go wrong with the Kinship classics like the lobster french toast and the chicken, but order with impunity and trust the Ziebold.
Recommended Dishes: Menu changes often, but the signature Kinship Roast Chicken is always on the menu and worth ordering.
Getting In: Reservations available on the Kinship website up to two months in advance; plan well ahead for Saturday night openings. Open for dinner.
Shoat Shoulder with asparagus and fennel
Lobster French Toast
Sauteed Maine Scallops
Kinship Roast Chicken
5. Momofuku CCDC, 1090 I Street NW, Washington DC (City Center)
One of the most amazing resurrections from the dead since Jon Snow. The local outpost of David Chang’s Momofuku brand started strong in 2015 but faded badly. People had heard the greatest hits album and craved some new material. So Chang took a big step. He hired a chef with local roots, Tae Strain, who grew up in Clarksville, to blow things up and start over. Strain got rid of some Momofuku classics like the signature buns and ramen — but thankfully kept the spicy cucumbers — and replaced them with a menu of dishes that reflects the Momofuku sensibility through the prism of Strain’s vision. One of the best dishes I had all of last year was Strain’s Middleneck Clam Toast, which is now off the menu. I don’t know if that’s because the clams he uses are seasonal, but I’m praying that’s the case and they’ll come back every spring to make the world a better place like the cherry blossoms and Shamrock Shakes.
Recommended Dishes: Spicy Cucumber; Bing Breads; Curried Red Beet Salad; Branzino Ssam; Dry-Spiced Chicken.
Getting In: Relatively easy on OpenTable. Open for lunch and dinner.
Spicy Cucumber — almond, togarashi
Middleneck Clam Toast with Sichuan sausage, oregano, dill mayo
Soy Marinated Beef Steak Ssam with Bibb lettuce, gochujang, beef fat & mushroom rice
6. Bad Saint, 3226 11th St NW, Washington DC (Columbia Heights)
Bad Saint moved up from #11 to #6 this year. It’s not that Tom Cunanan’s Filipino cooking has changed. It remains as bold and vibrant as ever. It’s something much more mundane: Bad Saint finally started taking reservations! No more getting in line in mid-afternoon for the privilege of eating at 5 pm when the doors open — although you can still do that for the non-reserved seats if you’d rather not plan ahead. Or get the best of both worlds and do what I do and sign up for the waitlist. You’ll get notices of openings a day or two out and you can decide whether to take them.
One word of caution for the Frank Bruni’s of the world. This is a cramped 24-seat restaurant. Much of the seating is at counters, not tables. The food and hospitality are well worth the inconvenience but don’t expect comfort.
Recommended Dishes: Littleneck Clams with Sichuan Sausage (not on current menu); Bitter Melon Salad; Pork Lechon; Ginisang Gulay (eggplant with fried tofu)
Getting In: Option 1: show up day-of and stand in line prior to 5 pm opening. Option 2: Try to reserve online 30 days in advance on the Bad Saint website (via local booking site giftrocker.com). Option 3: Do what I do and sign up for the waitlist to get notice of cancellations; you’ll get a couple of emails a week notifying you of openings. Open for dinner.
Ginisang Ampalaya — bitter melon, farm egg, preserved black bean
7. Convivial, 801 O St NW, Washington DC (Shaw)
Sometimes overlooked in favor of newer and flashier rivals, Convivial just keeps cranking out terrific French-American fare that relies on solid technique and over-delivering on brief menu descriptions. Chef-Owner Cedric Maupillier was a protege of Michel Richard and channels his mentor’s skill and playfulness. Maupillier’s poulet rouge is a whole, almost completely de-boned bird with ultra-crisp skin and a tarragon-vinegar sauce that might be the best thing to happen to chickens since the power failure at the Perdue plant.
Recommended Dishes: Leeks Lyonnaise, wedge salad; beef tartare, bavette steak frites; poulet rouge (for two); sticky toffee pudding; cinnamon bun (brunch).
Getting In: Not difficult on Resy. Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
Leeks Dijonnaise with capers, hard boiled egg, crouton
Poulet Rouge (for two) with tarragon vinegar sauce
8. Ellē, 3221 Mt. Pleasant St NW, Washington DC (Mt. Pleasant)
Ellē put Mt. Pleasant on the culinary map. That’s great for business but it means that Ellē is no longer simply a neighborhood gathering spot. It’s a destination. So it’s usually packed, even on weeknights. But plan ahead and deal with slightly tight quarters and you’ll be amply rewarded with an ambitious menu that isn’t easily categorized but is always flavor-forward and delicious. If you’re looking for a more relaxed vibe, try Ellē in the morning or midday for its excellent baked goods and other cozy fare.
Recommended Dishes: Country bread with butter; grilled kimchi toast with labneh and XO sauce; maple-marinated feta with toasted focaccia; whole fish.
Getting In: Reservations available on Resy a month in advance; try to plan well in advance for peak days and times. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
9. The Dabney, Blagden Alley, Washington DC (Btwn 9th and 10th and M and N Streets NW) (Convention Center)
The Dabney (#9) and Maydan (#10) serve very different food but in many ways provide a similar experience. You walk down an alleyway, through a nondescript door, and into a dining room focused on an open hearth. You marvel at the skill of the cooks who tend the fires and can turn out beautiful and consistent dishes using such an unpredictable cooking medium. They both feel like gigantic paradoxes — secretive yet communal, cutting-edge yet primal.
The Dabney’s cooking is an ode to the mid-Atlantic, and Chef-Owner Jeremiah Langhorne is a serious locavore, only cooking with food farmed, raised or gathered in the region. At one point they didn’t use lemons because they couldn’t be sourced nearby. Still, The Dabney continues to make localism a strength, not a limitation, even in the middle of winter. Try whatever veggies are being roasted in the embers or charred over the open fire. And you can’t go wrong with the whole grilled fish or any of the meats.
Recommended Dishes: Oysters (raw and fried); charred carrots; short ribs; Chesapeake rockfish.
Getting In: Reservations available on Resy hard to come by unless you plan ahead. They do have a nice bar for walk-ins. Open for dinner.
Charred Carrots with whipped ricotta
Bloody Butcher Cornbread
Fried Sugar Toads (Chesapeake pufferfish)
10. Maydan, 1346 Florida Ave NW, Washington DC (Cardozo) (Full Review)
Maydan is the coolest room in DC, even cooler than The Dabney. That’s partly because the open hearth at Maydan is even more front-and-center and really sets the mood. Load up the table with North African/Middle Eastern salads, spreads, kebabs, veggies, and a whole chicken or steak and you’ll feel like you’re feasting in some exotic encampment rather than right around the corner — and this is true — from the Doozydog! Club doggie day-care center.
Recommended Dishes: Halloumi cheese, Muhamarra spread, carrots, shrimp, Aleppo kebab, whole chicken, ribeye.
Getting In: Still very tough. Reservations available on Resy but you’ll rarely see openings. You need to pounce when they first open. Open for dinner.
Whole Chicken with turmeric, coriander, toum
Halloumi Cheese with hony
11. Unconventional Diner, 1207 9th Street NW, Washington DC (Convention Center)
Like Cedric Maupillier of Convivial (#7), Chef David Deshaies is a French-born acolyte of the late, great Michel Richard who reimagines American classics through equal parts classic technique and whimsy. Everything on the menu is good but don’t come to eat light. While it can be done — try the salmon — you won’t get the full UD experience.
Recommended Dishes: Corn bread muffins, pot pie poppers, avocado toast, iceberg salad, fried chicken, chicken parm “Florentine,” double cheeseburger, meatloaf.
Getting In: Easy on OpenTable. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pot Pie Poppers
Waygu Double Cheeseburger with egg and bacon
Fried Chicken with granny gravy and cheddar-chive biscuit
12. Sfoglina, 4445 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC (Tenley) (Full Review)
I’m singling out Sfoglina but this could be any of Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s stable of eateries that includes Fiola, Fiola Mare and Del Mar. Sfoglina is to the others what Kinship is to Metier. It’s more casual in a relative sense but hardly qualifies as casual dining or inexpensive. House-made pasta is the focus but the supporting cast like the grilled calamari and salads are terrific as well. If someone else is paying, go for one of Sfoglina’s pricier siblings and don’t look back.
Recommended Dishes: Soft polenta cacio e pepe, grilled calamari, Nonna Palmina’s meatballs, chopped salad, squid ink linguini, pappardelle with lamb ragu, branzino.
Getting In: Relatively easy to reserve at lunch on OpenTable; dinner is more challenging at peak hours and weekends. Downtown location open for lunch and dinner; Van Ness location open for dinner.
Squid Ink Casarecce with lobster, clams and scallops
Pappardelle with lamb ragu
Arctic Char with Israeli Couscous
13. Chiko, 423 8th St NW, Washington DC (Barracks Row) (Full Review), 2029 P Street NW (Dupont Circle)
It may be fast-casual, but some of the best dishes I’ve eaten over the past year have been at this chef-driven restaurant with a rock-and-roll attitude and a Chinese-Korean palette. If you’re at the Dupont Circle location, start with Shrimp & Toast (deconstructed shrimp toast) in a killer XO sauce. Then move on to the cumin lamb stir-fry or the Wagshal brisket. And throw in some house fried rice with smoked blue catfish. Whatever you order will exceed your expectations. The only exception I’ve found is the orange-ish chicken, which felt like a rock among the Halloween candy.
If you want a more traditional dining experience, reserve a spot at the Chiko chef’s counter. For a mere $50, you get good-sized tasting portions of almost everything on the menu.
Recommended Dishes: Shrimp & Toast (Dupont only), double-fried chicken wings, Wagshal’s chopped brisket, cumin lamb stir-fry, house fried rice with smoked blue catfish.
Getting In: Reservations available on website for Kitchen Counter only. Dupont Circle location open for lunch and dinner; Barracks Row location open for dinner.
Shrimp & Toast with XO sauce
Cumin lamb stir-fry
Wagshal’s Chopped Brisket with soy-brined soft egg, furikake butter, rice (tasting menu portion)
House Fried Rice with hot smoked blue catfish
14. Chloe, 1331 4th St SE, Washington DC (Navy Yard) (Full Review)
Chloe’s menu can feel like you’ve stumbled into the food court at Epcot. Vietnamese roast chicken rubbing elbows with Indian fish curry, house-made ricotta, meat-topped hummus, and several other far-flung cuisines. But in the sure hands of Haidar Karoum — ex-Proof, Estadio and Doi Moi — it all works.
Recommended Dishes: Sheep’s milk ricotta, cobia crudo, seafood gumbo, roasted cod, homemade garlic sausage, potato gnocchi, spice roasted chicken.
Getting In: Reservations not difficult to come by on Resy. Open for dinner and weekend brunch.
Chile Glazed Sablefish with bok choy
15. Primrose, 3000 12th St NE, Washington DC (Brookland)
Primrose is such a perfect neighborhood restaurant, it could be a new section of Westworld for vacationers to live out their neighborhood restaurant fantasies. But I quickly realized it couldn’t be Westworld because I understood the plot.
Primrose is owned by wine guru Sebastien Zutant and his designer wife Lauren Winter. So it’s as much about the distinctive wine program as the food. But the food is very good bistro fare. Sip some deep-track wines among the ostrich feathered-decor or out on the wood deck, order some lovely roast chicken or steak frites, and life is pretty good.
Recommended Dishes: Seasonal salads, steak fries, roast chicken, Parisienne gnocchi.
Getting In: Not difficult on OpenTable or walk in before 6:30 pm on nice nights for a seat on the deck. Open for dinner.
Salade d’été- Bibb, endive, apple slaw, country bread
16. Le Diplomate, 1601 14th St NW, Washington DC (14th St Corridor)
St. Anselm’s big sis whisks you off 14th Street and drops you directly into the 14th Arrondisement. It feels authentic rather than stagey because the food is the real deal. Start with the stellar bread basket and then tuck into any of the bistro classics or one of the best burgers in town.
Recommended Dishes: Bread basket, steak tartare, French onion soup, salade Lyonnaise, steak frites, loup de mer, burger Americain.
Getting In: Reservations on OpenTable but plan ahead, even for weeknights. Open for dinner and weekend brunch.
17. Estuary at the Conrad DC, 950 New York Ave NW, Washington DC (City Center)
Bryan and Michael Voltaggio have had a string of closures recently, including Bryan’s Range and Lunchbox in Chevy Chase. Estuary may turn things around for the brothers. It’s a sleek, modern space in the new Conrad Hotel (aka yes, it’s a Hilton, but it’s a nice Hilton) that focuses on seafood and other surprising, elevated cooking. I’d never had avocado confit before (avocado poached in avocado oil) and now I wonder where that dreamy creaminess has been all my life. I’ve only been once but I’m optimistic there are more revelations like that on the menu. The only risk? Whether Estuary can sustain itself when Michael and Bryan leave the building and others are in charge. Check this space in a few months for updates.
Recommended Dishes: Avocado confit, calamari, striped bass ceviche, Maryland crab roll, Atlantic cod with cuttlefish-enoki ramen.
Getting In: Not difficult right now on OpenTable, but that could change as it settles in. Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
Avocado Confit with young romaine lettuce, fermented blackberry vinegar
Maryland Crab Roll with crab chips, Old Bay
Atlantic Cod with cuttlefish-enoki ramen, cod bone tonkatsu, benne seed togarashi
18. Poca Madre, 777 I Street NW, Washington DC (Penn Quarter)
Victor Albisu closed his steakhouse, Del Campo, last year and split the space in two. He turned the front of the house into a second outpost of fast-casual Taco Bamba and the rear into Poca Madre, a refined take on Mexican cuisine reminiscent of Chicago’s Topolobampo or a cutting-edge restaurant in Mexico City. Most of the reinventions work beautifully, from the technicolor raw fish preparations to the large plates of chicken and duck. One dish that I wish restaurants would stop trying to reinvent is guacamole. The reinventions almost never are an improvement. Poca Madre’s version is no exception, the plate of “not guacamole” consisting of chunks of tempura avocado served with chili-lime dressing. It’s not bad. It’s just not guacamole. And reminding me of that fact only makes things worse.
Recommended Dishes: Hamachi ceviche, shrimp & cuttlefish ceviche, sablefish, burrito “The King,” shrimp and chorizo masa dumplings, arroz cremosa, pollo con mole, duck al pastor.
Getting In: On OpenTable, not difficult unless you’re looking for a Saturday night less than two weeks out. Open for dinner.
Sablefish with plantain maduro miso, hoja santa, ginger black beans
Pollo con Mole — fried chicken with mole nuestro
19. Clarity, 442 Maple Ave E,Vienna VA
Chef-Owner Jonathan Krinn (ex Inox, 2941) could have launched Clarity in some tony DC neighborhood but chose a nondescript strip mall in Vienna VA. It turned out to be a win-win. For Virginia residents, it means they don’t have to schlep to DC to get this kind of first-class cooking. For Krinn, it means he could truly become a part of the community and develop a client base that won’t move on when something new opens down the street. Sure enough, on a recent Saturday night most of the seats seemed to be filled with regulars who knew the ropes and seemed to know each other. Krinn was mostly working in the open kitchen, but found time to stroll over to the bar, pour himself a bourbon, and chat up the the folks eating at the bar. I’ve never seen that in DC but it seemed kind of great.
The food is well-executed and hyper-seasonal, which you can do when you change the entire menu every single day. Krinn also has a talent for the under-appreciated art of saucing. No annoying dots or swooshes of sauce here. Krinn actually gives you enough sauce so you don’t have to swab your plate to try to pick up enough dot-and-swoosh residue to flavor the food. Bless you, Chef Krinn.
And be sure to leave room for Liese Armstrong’s desserts, which absolutely nail the flavors and textures without being too sweet.
Recommended Dishes: Tamarind roasted beet salad, Oregon red rockfish, Pan-roasted Patagonia salmon, Toasted coconut rose custard
Getting In: Reservations available on Yelp Seat Me, link on the Clarity website; walk-in seats available at bar and Chef Krinn’s kitchen counter
Crisped Oregon Red Rockfish with morels, English peas, baby carrots, coriander emulsion
Toasted Coconut Rose Custard, kaffir lime curd, white chocolate, vanilla crumble
20. Kith/Kin, 801 Wharf Street SW, Washington DC (DC Wharf)
Truthfully, I wasn’t crazy about Kith/Kin when it first opened. At the time, I wrote that Kith/Kin was still a work in progress and felt like Chef Kwame Onwauchi was pulling his punches. Thankfully Onwauchi persevered, just like he did a couple years ago when his previous restaurant, the hugely ambitious Shaw Bijou, crashed and burned in a matter of weeks. It now feels like Onwauchi is hitting his stride and cooking with more vigor and consistency in channeling his West African, Caribbean, and even New Orleans and New York roots. If you want to learn more about Onwauchi’s journey, he has a pull-no-punches memoir coming out this week called “Notes From A Young Black Chef.”
Recommended Dishes: Mushroom forest, Brussels suya, Mom Dukes shrimp, Ethiopian hot chicken sandwich, Kith burger, braised oxtails, goat roti, king crab curry.
Getting In: On OpenTable. Lunch is relatively easy; dinner can be more difficult at peak times if you don’t plan ahead. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Ethiopian Hot Chicken Sandwich with waffle fries (lunch menu only)
Mushroom Forest — mushroom spread, charred eggplant dip, roasted mushrooms
Mom Dukes Shrimp
21. Fancy Radish, 600 H Street NE, Washington DC (H St Corridor)
I struggled with whether to include Fancy Radish on this list. Not because I didn’t enjoy my dinner there, but because I haven’t been craving to go back. Still, I do think it’s one of the 25 top food experiences in DC. The things they are doing with vegan cooking are truly impressive. They manage to achieve textures and flavors in dishes like the rutabaga fondue and the ice creams that I didn’t think were possible without eggs and dairy. And of course if you’re eating with a vegan — note I bit my tongue and didn’t stay “stuck” eating — it’s a no-brainer.
Recommended Dishes: Rutabaga fondue, stuffed avocado, trumpet mushrooms as “fazzoletti,” spicy dan dan noodles, za’atar grilled maitake.
Getting In: On Reserve; reservations can be hard to come by even weeks out. Open for dinner.
Trumpet Mushrooms as “fazzoletti,” grape tomato, basil
Dan Dan Noodles, sichuan pepper, five spice glazed mushrooms
22. Pappe, 1317 14th Street NW, Washington DC (Logan Square)
Swab a piece of garlic naan through the vindaloo sauce at Pappe and you know you’re in the presence of greatness. Chef Sanjay Mandhaiya doesn’t take shortcuts. He soaks his spices overnight and roasts and grinds them fresh each morning. You can taste the difference. Mandhaiya’s vindaloo is thick and complex where others’ are watery and one-note. I haven’t been able to explore a lot of the menu, but on the strength of the vindaloo alone, it cracks the top 25.
Recommended Dishes: Chicken and lamb vindaloo, butter chicken, plain and garlic naan, taar gosht, lamb shank, malabar curry, muttar paneer.
Getting in: On Reserve, not difficult. Open for lunch and dinner.
23. Centrolina, 974 Palmer Alley NW, Washington DC (City Center)
Centrolina Chef-Owner Amy Brandwein is having a well-deserved moment, winning Chef of the Year at last year’s RAMMY awards and being nominated in 2019 for the James Beard Award for the best chef in the mid-Atlantic. She worked for nine years under Roberta Donna before striking out on her own and opening Centrolina in 2015. The osteria format hasn’t changed: seasonal antipasti, then a selection of four or five pastas that are usually the stars of the show, and finally entrees and veggies cooked in the wood-burning oven. It seems simple, and in some ways it is. But there’s nothing more difficult than doing simple well.
Recommended Dishes: Burrata, winter citrus salad, whatever pasta is being offered, roasted branzino.
Getting In: On OpenTable, plan at least 2-3 weeks out for peak times. Open for lunch and dinner.
Agrumi — winter citrus salad, radicchio, honey, lime, pomegranate
Branzino with potato confit, tomato, olive, arugula
24. Call Your Mother, 3303 Georgia Ave NW, Washington DC (Park View)
I know I said this list didn’t include budget restaurants, but I had to sneak in Call Your Mother. C’mon, look at that Shyne breakfast sandwich. It’s the best in town because it starts with DC’s best bagels and adds freshly-scrambled eggs, high-quality bacon and oozy cheese. Every day I drive by Call Your Mother on my way to work and battle my steering wheel, which feels like a self-driving car programmed to pull up right outside CYM. All I can say is thank god they don’t have a drive-through. If there were even the slightest bit of convenience in grabbing a Shyne, I’d be a goner.
Recommended Dishes: Bagels, the Shyne breakfast sandwich, the Rihanna-flex (with smoked salmon), crispy pastrami rice, latkes.
Getting In: Get in line. Try to come at off hours or expect . Open for breakfast and lunch.
The Shyne Breakfast Sandwich (bacon, egg, and cheese)
25. Boqueria, 777 9th St NW (Penn Quarter) and 1837 M St NW (Dupont), Washington DC
I’m not a huge Spanish food maven, but thought I could make room for a representative on the list (other than the excellent but uber-pricey Del Mar #12; get the seafood paella if you go). A lot of people have told me to try Estadio, but for whatever reason I just haven’t made it there. Instead, I recently had lunch at the new outpost of Boqueria in Penn Quarter and really enjoyed it. The space is larger and more attractive than the Dupont location and the cooking is very good — the chicken and the potatoes are as crackly and flavorful as you’d want and the shrimp come lolling in a bath of garlicky goodness that begs for extra bread to sop it all up.
Recommended Dishes: Patatas bravas, Gambas al Ajillo, Rotisserie Chicken (Penn Qtr only), grilled octopus, churros
Getting In: On openTable, not difficult. Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.
Tabla de Quesos y Embutidos (Serrano ham, cheeses, chorizo Iberico, pan con tomate)
Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp)
Patatas Bravas (crispy potatoes, salasa brava, roasted garlic aioli)
Pollo Rustido (Rotisserie Chicken with salsa verde)
Top-25 Honorable mention: Kaliwa, Maketto, El Sapo Social Club, Izakaya Seki, Tiger Fork, Rose’s Luxury, Hazel, Little Beast, Little Serow, Doi Moi, Thip Khao, Pearl Oyster Bar, Chez Billy Sud, Rasika, Oyamel, Julii, Red Hen
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