These local eateries are often on tourists’ to-do lists (and often mobbed), thanks to the hoopla surrounding presidential visits, reality TV shows and best-of lists. Here are some tips on beating the crowds or avoiding them altogether by checking out equally worthy alternatives.
This landmark Washington bar and restaurant is known for its raw bar and proximity to the White House, but, as Post critic Tom Sietsema says, “breaking bread at Old Ebbitt Grill is as relaxing as eating in the Metro Center station at rush hour.” The half-price raw bar Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. is particularly popular, but general manager Christian Guidi suggests another option, one that’s particularly suited to night owls: Old Ebbitt’s half-price raw bar Sunday through Thursday from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Guidi adds, “The other thing a lot of people don’t realize is that we’re open for breakfast. Seven-thirty in the morning, we’re open serving a really good breakfast.”
Good alternatives: For a raw bar with a more relaxed atmosphere, hit up Hank’s Oyster Bar, which has two locations - Dupont Circle and Old Town Alexandria. Another good choice - Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. You won’t necessarily avoid the crowds there, but it’s a fun alternative to Old Ebbitt.
Ben’s is best known for its half-smokes, the city’s signature sausage, which developed a following long before President Obama lunched there in 2009. Lines during peak hours from April through July are often out the door. To avoid a long wait, co-owner Nizam Ali suggests a strategy. “Try to come before 12:30 p.m., even on weekends. Peak times are 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., but then it mellows out by 5 p.m. The evening is always pretty decent,” he says. “On the weekends it will get crazy from midnight till 4 in the morning, but 7, 8, 9 or 10 o’clock on a Saturday night it’s actually pretty empty.”
Good alternatives: Amsterdam Falafelshop, a tiny Adams Morgan spot that offers the spicy fried chickpea balls, may not have been visited by the commander in chief, but it, too, serves up a tasty lunch or late-night eats. For an after-hours alternative closer to Ben’s, hit up Oohhs & Aahhs for stick-to-your ribs soul-food comfort. The mac and cheese is not to be missed.
You might feel like you’re on a first-name basis with “D.C. Cupcake” reality sisters Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne. So does the rest of America. That means that if you’re hankering for one of their elegant mini-cakes, you can expect to stand in a line that often extends way, way past the Georgetown shop. The bakery, however, is less hectic Monday through Wednesday from morning to early afternoon. And a little-known fact: You can bypass the line entirely by purchasing online ahead of time. “No matter what day of the week,” LaMontagne says, “as long as you place your order the night before . . . your order can be as small as one cupcake, and you don’t have to wait in line.”
Good alternatives: Just a few blocks from Georgetown Cupcake is Baked & Wired, an alternative coffeehouse that also sells tasty cupcakes, biscotti and something the shop calls “hippy crack” (don’t worry, it’s just homemade granola).
If your sweet tooth isn’t necessarily drawn to cupcakes, head two blocks south to Kafe Leopold. The Austrian oasis has one of the city’s most gawk-worthy pastry cases, and we’re willing to bet that the praline mousse, lighter-than-air meringues, dark chocolate tortes and five-layer hazelnut cake will have you forgetting the reality-TV crazed masses in no time.
The flagship eatery of the fedora-wearing “Top Chef” bad boy Spike Mendelssohn serves up tasty burgers, but you have to be patient to get Spike’s Sunnyside (a burger topped with cheese, applewood bacon and a fried egg) or his toasted marshmallow shake. To beat the burger-bound crowd, stop in Monday through Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m.
Good alternatives: Ray’s Hell Burger seems like a natural alternative, but the Arlington restaurant is known for its crowds - even before 2009, when it attracted highest-profile semi-regular Obama. Still, there are two Ray’s locations in the same strip mall, giving you a decent chance at seating.
For a less hectic meal, head to Burger, Tap & Shake, where chef Jeff Tunks offers an expansive menu of imaginatively topped burgers. It’s just a few blocks north of the Mall and offers something that neither Ray’s nor Good Stuff does: an impressive list of American craft beers on draft.
Sorry, folks - there’s no easy way around this one. This upscale, modern Mediterranean restaurant is so popular that you have to make reservations at least a month in advance. (Even Drew Barrymore couldn’t wiggle her way in earlier this year.)
Good alternatives: If you’re still determined to try eats from Komi chef Johnny Monis, head next door to the fiery Thai spot he opened recently with his wife, Anne Marler. The 28-seat no-reservations Little Serow is strictly first-come, first-served and features a fixed menu that rotates weekly. (They will text you when your table’s ready if you want to go elsewhere for a drink.) Your best bet at snagging a table is to show up when the doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday or Wednesday, or later on those evenings, say, after 9 p.m.
If you’re looking for a romantic tasting-menu experience, try Vermilion in Alexandria; it’s the kind of restaurant that savvy diners keep in their back pocket. In a picturesque Alexandria row house, chef Tony Chittum creates elegant modern-American cuisine a la carte or as a multi-course menu. You can snag a prime-time table a week in advance, and if you willing to eat on the late or early side, you can sneak a reservation with just a few days’ notice.