The search for America’s best food cities: Washington, D.C.

The search for America’s best food cities:

Washington, D.C.

The search for America’s best food cities: Washington, D.C.

The search for America's best food cities:

Washington, D.C.

The search for America's best food cities: Washington, D.C.

Published on December 8, 2015

Tenth in a monthly series.

A surprise only to those who haven’t tried it, the finest Indian food in the country seduces with its spices in a city that’s home to just over 650,000 residents — and 2,000 restaurants. Downtown, the most daring example of avant-garde cooking this side of the Atlantic is yours, starting at $250 a head. And a 10-minute cab ride away awaits the spot Bon Appétit called the best new restaurant in the United States — not bad for a place that makes all but the First Family stand in line for a chance at a table.

The Search for America's Best Food Cities: The Search for America’s Best Food Cities
Part I: Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston

For some of you, the aromas from all three kitchens linger right under your noses. Rasika, Minibar by José Andrés and Rose’s Luxury, respectively, reside in Washington, the final stop on my national tour to determine the 10 best food cities in America, which I will rank later this month.

[Rose’s Luxury review: Yes, you’ll have to stand in line. Yes, it’s worth it.]

When I began the high-calorie survey, starting with Charleston, S.C., in April, I wasn’t sure whether the city I call home would earn a place on the list. Now, having spent a week or more each in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland (Oregon), Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles and Houston, plus a few other cities that didn’t make the cut, I have no doubt that the nation’s capital deserves to be on the roster. The sentiment springs from neighborhoods that have recently blossomed into food destinations (Petworth, Shaw, H Street NE in the District and the Mosaic District in Fairfax) and, this year alone, a flurry of impressive restaurant launches that have made headlines outside the Beltway.

Turn in your foodie badge if you haven’t heard about the debuts of Convivial, the Dabney, Maketto and Masseria — served to Washingtonians by homegrown talent — or the two fresh suburban Chinese restaurants from cult chef Peter Chang. At the same time, established players are tempting diners with new tastes. After well-considered makeovers, the French-leaning Marcel’s and the Asian-inspired Source, among other top brands, are performing at their peak.

Thrilling eats, at all price points and in all quadrants, are a large part of what makes Washington such an enticing food destination right now. Lucrative, too, with restaurants projected to ring up an astounding $3 billion in sales this year in the District alone. But our treasures aren’t limited to what’s on the plate.

Note: Clockwise from top:Barmini patrons sip specialty cocktails and snack on inventive cuisine by chef José Andrés; a dish of pickled rockfish served at Convivial; chef Nick Stefanelli prepares dishes for plating at Masseria. From top to bottom:Barmini patrons sip specialty cocktails and snack on inventive cuisine by chef José Andrés; chef Nick Stefanelli prepares dishes for plating at Masseria; a dish of pickled rockfish served at Convivial.

Nowhere else, for instance, is there a José Andrés, hailed three years ago by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. (Name another chef who makes the country’s best paella, teaches cooking at Harvard and races to trouble spots around the world to feed the vulnerable.) Only Washington has an Ashok Bajaj, the courtly, highly industrious owner of eight good-to-great restaurants, all of which he visits to greet guests every day, setting a sterling example for hosts across the nation. Johnny Monis is the lone chef of my acquaintance to ace both contemporary Greek and northeastern Thai with Komi and Little Serow, respectively. Worlds and price ranges apart, both restaurants enjoy four-star recognition. And in the District’s back yard, no less an authority than British wine maven Jancis Robinson has sipped Virginia wines and dubbed some “thrillingly good,” comparing the output of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane to the nectars of Bordeaux.

I’m including Washington on my list despite its singular disadvantage compared with the other cities I visited: Because I cover the District and its environs on a weekly basis, I’m as familiar with its weaknesses as its strengths. But this exercise has me more convinced than ever that many of those frailties — including our expense-account-steakhouse and “power lunch” obsessions — have more to do with an obsolete reputation and myopic reviews from national media than with reality. Some argue the city has no culinary identity; 15 years ago, the closest thing Washington had to a signature dish, according to The Post Magazine, was a half-smoke, famously featured at Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street NW. I counter that Washington, a mighty global metropolis, is a melting pot of well-seasoned ideas, and has been for a long time. (The finest Chinese restaurant ever in this country: arguably Sichuan Garden, the ’80s-era showpiece staffed by Chinese master chefs.)

Washington will forever be linked to power and status, but the days when where you sat was more important than what you ate are blessedly long gone.

Where Tom went:

Store/Market

A. Litteri

Tucked among nondescript warehouses, Washington’s oldest Italian grocery story is chocka­block with pasta, wine, olive oil, sweets and sauces (some in gallon sizes). A deli in the rear can build six-foot subs.

517-519 Morse St. NE

202-544-0183

alitteri.com

Restaurant

Bad Saint

What began as a pop-up recently morphed into a no-reservations (again?) Filipino restaurant, a cocoon of a dining room in Columbia Heights where the go-to dishes include a spiky tangle of sweet potatoes and freshwater shrimp.

3226 11th St. NW

badsaintdc.com

Bar

Barmini by José Andrés

Had Willy Wonka been a mixologist, this neighbor to Minibar would have been his liquid laboratory. While embracing the classics, the drinks list revels in surprises: blue elixirs that turn purple, coupes animated by liquid nitrogen, and an aquavit-propelled Ticket to Phuket, garnished in part with a pipette filled with Thai chili tincture, for upping the heat. A flight of the latest fashions, spread over two hours in a futuristic lounge, costs $60.

855 E St. NW

202-393-4451

minibarbyjoseandres.com

Bakery

Bread Furst

If you're looking for the city's best baguette, muffuletta or loaf made with ancient grains, you'll find it near the Van Ness Metro stop, at longtime baker Mark Furstenberg's tidy, yeast-perfumed storefront, also the source of meals to go and designer pantry staples.

4434 Connecticut Ave. NW

202-966-1300

breadfurst.com

Store/Market

Broad Branch Market

A general store as painted by Norman Rockwell, Broad Branch Market stocks necessities (beer on tap); niceties (blackened catfish, sushi rice); and candy and ice cream dispensed in a room of their own. Picnic tables out front let you enjoy your purchases before you leave.

5608 Broad Branch Rd. NW

202-249-8551

broadbranchmarket.com

Coffee

Compass Coffee

Created by two former Marines and Washington-area natives, Compass Coffee features nine light-to-dark blends roasted in state-of-the-art equipment. A neighborly vibe infuses the joint, which offers a community bookshelf along with its espressos.

1535 Seventh St. NW

202-838-3139

compasscoffee.com

Restaurant

Convivial

The fizzy new American cafe from French chef Cedric Maupillier lives up to the promise of its name, with medium-size plates (vs. small ones) and such novelties as lamb tongue moussaka and boudin noir ravioli.

801 O St. NW

202-525-2870

convivialdc.com

Restaurant

The Dabney

One of the most-anticipated arrivals of the year, the Dabney returns Charlottesville native Jeremiah Langhorne to the Mid-Atlantic, where the former chef de cuisine of McCrady’s in Charleston hopes to call fresh attention to the region. Bring on the Surryano ham, and break out the RdV wine!

122 Blagden Alley NW

202-450-1015

thedabney.com

Restaurant

Del Campo

Chef Victor Albisu’s lusty salvo to his Cuban dad and Peruvian mom, Del Campo uses smoke and char to lend intrigue to much of the meaty menu — cocktails included. You don’t have to like meat to eat well, however, as evinced by Lima-worthy seviches and roasted pumpkin risotto set off with sage and goat cheese.

777 I St. NW

202-289-7377

delcampodc.com

Store/Market

Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market (Sundays)

A favorite of local cooks, this year-round outdoor attraction brings together more than 40 farmers in peak months. A recent shopping spree found heirloom cauliflower, nitrate-free bacon, quark, superlative juices, hen eggs “from happy chickens” (or so a sign said) and a side of live jazz.

20th Street NW between Massachusetts Avenue and Hillyer Place

202-362-8889

freshfarmmarkets.org

Store/Market

Eastern Market

The longest line inside the city’s oldest continually operating fresh-food public market is inevitably for Market Lunch, known for its blueberry-buckwheat pancakes. On weekends, outside stalls offer seasonal farm produce and crafts by artisans, including a tablemaker.

225 Seventh St. SE

202-698-5253

easternmarket-dc.org

Restaurant

Enat

The Amharic name translates to “mother,” an apt description for the homey Ethiopian cooking offered in this 30-seat restaurant, where the top seller is the beefy kitfo drenched in clarified spiced butter. Devotees of the dish know to ask for it uncooked, or “tirre.”

4709 N. Chambliss St., Alexandria

703-642-3628

enatrestaurant.com

Restaurant

Fiola

Its younger sibling in Georgetown, Fiola Mare, gets more attention and counts a Potomac River view, but the elegant original in Penn Quarter deserves a shout-out for some of the most rococo Italian food, and pampering, anywhere.

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

202-628-2888

fioladc.com

Restaurant

Garrison

Capitol Hill has a winner in chef Rob Weland, whose American cooking captures the season along with his knack for interesting combinations, foremost with vegetables. Picture a fall salad composed with radishes, heirloom apples, sage and tangerine “lace”; or mushrooms made sublime with avocado, thyme and jalapeño.

524 Eighth St. SE

202-506-2445

garrisondc.com

Store/Market

Hana Japanese Market

Slim and crowded, Hana brims with Asian staples: yam noodles, dried squid, barley tea, fresh burdock root, pickled plums and green tea ice cream. Tempting customers at the checkout counter: rice balls in sundry flavors.

2000 17th St. NW

202-939-8854

galaxygalaxy.com/hana

Store/Market

The Hour

A cocktail enthusiast’s dream, the Hour specializes in vintage barware: glasses, trays, shakers, carts, coasters — truly, the only thing missing is the booze.

1015 King St., Alexandria, Va.

703-224-4687

Thehourshops.com

Restaurant

The Inn at Little Washington

Not all of Washington’s monuments are in the city proper. Take Patrick O’Connell’s dream of an inn near the Blue Ridge Mountains, unparalleled in this country for its witty cooking, entertaining service and over-the-top decoration. The staff takes its fun seriously: The cheese cart is a cow on wheels, and it moos.

309 Middle St., Washington

540-675-3800

theinnatlittlewashington.com

Restaurant

Jaleo

One of the brightest stars in the constellation of celebrity chef José Andrés, the festive Jaleo sets the bar for tapas in the United States. Spring for salt cod fritters, chorizo wrapped in fried potato and noteworthy paellas.

480 Seventh St. NW

202-628-7949

jaleo.com

Restaurant

Kogiya

Chowhounds flock here for top-notch Korean barbecue, grilled at big tables by deft servers in a room wrapped in metal. (Yes, it’s smoky. And LOUD.) Plentiful gratis banchan and a stellar seafood pancake help sell the place.

4220-A Annandale Rd., Annandale

703-942-6995

kogiya.com

Restaurant

Little Serow

The East Coast’s best source for northeastern Thai is a green basement that doesn’t take reservations or tailor its nutty-spicy-meaty set menu to individual tastes. Brace yourself for a trip to Chiang Mai and back, hold the jet lag.

1511 17th St. NW

littleserow.com

Restaurant/Coffee/Store

Maketto

It’s a retail store! It’s a coffee shop! It’s yet another great idea from chef Erik Bruner-Yang, whose ground-floor restaurant, blending the flavors of Cambodia and Taiwan, anchors one of the coolest destinations in town.

1351 H St. NE

202-838-9972

maketto1351.com

Restaurant

Masseria

Hard to find but worth the effort, Masseria, located behind a wall of wood across from Union Market, revels in Italian-accented tasting menus and the good life. (Note the Frette linens and a courtyard modeled after the country homes in Puglia.)

1340 Fourth St. NE

202-608-1330

masseria-dc.com

Store/Market

The Mediterranean Way

A one-stop shop for when your list includes Italian torrone, French hot chocolate, Turkish coffee, Tunisian cooking utensils made from olive wood and Greek yogurt -- the real deal, and divine. Here’s the place to sample olive oil in such diverse flavors as blood orange and rosemary, or a balsamic vinegar fruity with huckleberry.

1717 Connecticut Ave. NW

202-560-5715

themediway.com

Restaurant

Momofuku

Northern Virginia native David Chang brings his New York hits — shiitake buns, pork belly ramen, rotisserie chicken — to a window-wrapped stage in CityCenterDC, and look what happens: Lines run out the door.

1090 I St. NW

202-602-1832

momofuku.com/dc/ccdc

Restaurant

Partisan

A tribute to meat from Nathan Anda, the guy who raised the bar for butcher shops with Red Apron, Partisan in Penn Quarter does as well by cocktails and salads as by charcuterie, schnitzel and “pig feasts” that celebrate the whole hog.

709 D St. NW

202-524-5322

thepartisandc.com

Bakery

Praline Bakery

A combination cafe, market and bakery, Praline whips up textbook examples of croissants, macarons, tarts and more in a cheerful environment.

4611 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda

301-229-8180

praline-bakery.com

Restaurant

Rasika

For his inspired modern Indian cooking, Vikram Sunderam received the award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic from the prestigious James Beard Foundation last year. No kitchen issues flakier breads, better Indian desserts or more intriguing combinations. (Duck vindaloo, anyone?) Timed to coincide with its 10th anniversary, a recent renovation of the dining room, which has a younger sibling in the West End, only adds to Rasika’s allure.

633 D St. NW

202-637-1222

rasikarestaurant.com

Restaurant

Rice Paper

A gem among the many Vietnamese restaurants in Eden Center, the pretty Rice Paper always seems to be packed, even at lunch on a Monday. Worth the wait: floppy-crisp rice-flour crepes, among the 100 or so possibilities in this corner of “Little Saigon.”

6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church

703-538-3888

ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com

Restaurant

Rose’s Luxury

Hailed as the Best New Restaurant of 2014 by Bon Appétit, the no-reservations creation by Aaron Silverman continues to draw hordes eager to sample offbeat but brilliant flavor combinations (pork sausage, litchis and habaneros are a match made in heaven) and exemplary service at everyday prices.

717 Eighth St. SE

202-580-8889

rosesluxury.com

Store/Market

Salt & Sundry

On display, in two inviting locations: the superb taste of owner Amanda McClements. Looking for a host gift? Want to spruce up your kitchen? Salt & Sundry comes to the rescue with elegant place mats, salt cellars, food-related greeting cards, cocktail flasks, kid-size aprons and choice cookbooks.

Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE

202-556-1866

shopsaltandsundry.com

Store/Market/Bakery

Society Fair

A whimsical bakery/butcher shop/cafe/delicatessen from the owners of the nearby upscale Restaurant Eve, Society Fair peddles in deliciousness: duck fat caramels, coconut cake, terrific sandwiches made with house-baked breads, cocktail aids and support for the home cook (lard included).

277 S. Washington St., Alexandria

703-683-3247

societyfair.net

Bar

Southern Efficiency

Local drinks maven Derek Brown calls this, one of his three themed bars in Shaw, “my heart.” Its focus? Whiskey — including a draft Vieux Carré — and Southern eats. Research shows a Sazerac makes a great companion to a grilled pimento cheese sandwich.

1841 Seventh St. NW

202-316-9396

whiskeyhome.com

Restaurant

Sushi Taro

The most extravagent way to experience this Japanese model in Dupont Circle is to book the six-stool omakase counter in the rear of the second-floor dining room, where Nobu Yamazaki whips up edible poetry from the freshest fish, starting at $140 a person (and worth the splurge).

1503 17th St. NW

202-462-8999

sushitaro.com

Restaurant

Toki Underground

Hands down, this second-floor noodle shop dishes up the best ramen in Washington. Behind the bowls (and other amazing cheap snacks) is chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang, whose artistic bent extends to the snug, 30-stool interior dressed with red paper lanterns and skateboards reincarnated as guardrails and foot rests.

1234 H St. NE

202-388-3086

tokiunderground.com

Restaurant

Two Amys

A local pizza pioneer near National Cathedral, Two Amys packs ’em in with distinctive Neapolitan pies, small plates and sweet endings, including Marsala custard. The best perch for the over-21 set: the wine bar off the clattery main dining room.

3715 Macomb St. NW

202-885-5700

2amysdc.com

Bar

2 Birds 1 Stone

Bar director Adam Bernbach not only dreams up his five or so weekly-changing drinks, including a punch du jour, he also sketches them on the menu at 2 Birds 1 Stone, an underground watering hole whose Asian-style snacks — spicy cashews, shrimp-and-pork spring rolls — come from the adjoining restaurant, Doi Moi.

1800 14th St. NW

2birds1stonedc.com

Store/Market

Union Market

A source of cool for the city, the gleaming Union Market brings together knife sharpeners, butcher shops, barbecue makers, dosa specialists, oyster shuckers, fishmongers, flower arrangers, chocolate artisans, pop-up restaurants, even a couple of produce vendors.

1309 Fifth St. NE

301-347-3998

unionmarketdc.com

Restaurant

Vidalia

For shrimp and grits, sweetbreads and waffles and lemon chess pie, the best representative of Southern cooking in Washington remains this inviting underground dining room downtown, whose chef-owner, Jeff Buben, received the 1999 award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. The sleeper of the lot is Vidalia’s vegetable-focused, daily-changing blue plate.

1990 M St. NW

202-659-1990

vidaliadc.com

Coffee

Vigilante Coffee

Home base is in Hyattsville, in a pleasing, light-filled roastery and cafe, but the excellent coffee from owner Chris Vigilante, who sources single-origin beans, is also poured at Eastern Market on weekends.

4327 Gallatin St., Hyattsville

301-200-3110

vigilantecoffee.com

Store/Market

Wagshal’s

Running low on dried ancho chili peppers, coconut milk or live lobsters? The neighborly Wagshal’s in Spring Valley comes to your rescue. But the shop is best known for its superb meats, cut the way you want them, hopefully by ace butcher Pam Ginsberg. Just a few doors away is a more expansive sibling showcasing a deli, wine and a freshly minted restaurant.

4845 Massachusetts Ave. NW

202-363-5698

wagshals.com

How Washington stacks up

Creativity

Washington’s culinary achievements are as singular as its status as a world capital. They include José Andrés, the outsize talent behind a worldly collection of small-plates restaurants embracing the country’s best tapas bar, Jaleo, and the futuristic food laboratory Minibar; Vikram Sunderam, whose modern Indian cooking led to a Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award from the James Beard Foundation; and Patrick O’Connell, whose romantic and whimsical Inn at Little Washington sets the bar (sky-high) for dining retreats in the United States.

Community

Socially conscious chefs, VIPs and worker bees alike can be found volunteering at such forward-thinking organizations as D.C. Central Kitchen, Food & Friends and Martha’s Table. DonRockwell.com, created in 2005 by local food enthusiast Don Rockwell, gives 5,000 or so chowhounds a forum for discussing restaurants, cooking, travel and food news. Both The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine host weekly live online food and dining discussions. Edible DC, a quarterly, explores the local world of chefs, restaurants and artisans. L’Academie de Cuisine, in nearby Gaithersburg, Md., ranks as a small but premiere training ground for chefs. Icing on the cake: a first lady, president and State Department that rely on local chefs to promote the administration’s food initiatives and take routine advantage of area restaurants to make high-profile visits.

Tradition

It’s the lone top-food city without a bona fide signature dish — save, perhaps, for whatever news an anonymous source might feed you. One of the most sought-after tickets in town is the weekend-long, wine-fueled Oyster Riot, hosted every November for the past 20 years by the Old Ebbitt Grill, one of the oldest saloons in town. Every spring, fish lovers look forward to shad, one of the few foods available for only a fleeting time.

Ingredients

The District relies on its neighbors, Maryland and Virginia, for sublime blue crab, corn, rockfish, oysters, apples and wine.

Shopping

The city’s abundant farmers markets and specialty shops — Dolcezzo for gelato, the new Fruitive for juices, A. Litteri for anything Italian, Wagshal’s for meat — best the experience at brand-name grocery stores. Salt & Sundry specializes in chic cooking and entertaining notions; the Hour, in Old Town Alexandria, rates as one of the country’s best sources of vintage cocktail accessories.

Variety

Washington counts top restaurants that are as good as anywhere; varied neighborhood establishments; and an eviable mix of cheap eats and homegrown fast-food.

Service

The quality of attention in most establishments is average to good; blame it on a shallow talent pool.

Home to a U.N. delegation’s worth of cuisines, Washington and its environs offer impressive food at all price levels. Among the world capital’s singular treasures: the modern Indian Rasika, the contemporary Greek Komi, the avant-garde Minibar and the most fabled inn in the country, the Inn at Little Washington. Enriching the scene are some of the country’s most prominent food activists, foremost the First Lady; liquid assets, including Virginia’s impressive wine country; a deep bench of senior chefs and a new wave of young and often home-grown talent. 2015 was also a banner year for restaurant debuts in the city.

Ahead of his time

The chef credited with having put a fusty Washington on the food map, Jean-Louis Palladin, died too young at age 55 in 2001. He’d left France in 1979 — the youngest chef ever to win two Michelin stars — to helm a restaurant in the Watergate hotel. Right from the start, the rangy Gascon native had observers on the edge of their seats.

In a novel move at the time, when the chef of Jean-Louis couldn’t find ingredients he liked, he introduced himself to conscientious farmers and growers, going on to sing their praises to his peers and having servers announce them as the sources of his delicacies. A Frenchman was swooning over American lamb and scallops! (Among Palladin’s underlings was a 20-something cook named Eric Ripert, who went on to open what may be the most acclaimed seafood restaurant in the country, Le Bernardin in New York.)

“He made my career,” says another institution, Phyllis C. Richman, who covered the dining landscape as food critic for The Washington Post for nearly 24 years, from the nouvelle cuisine era to the dawn of the locavore movement. “He put me on a different playing field.” In a 1985 review of the establishment, she praised the restaurant thus: “If Jean-Louis were in Paris, New York or Tokyo, its star would shine no less brightly.” During the Reagan administration, word had it that the White House sent out for the restaurant’s passionfruit sorbet.

Veteran Washington baker Mark Furstenberg recalls “a freshness to the menu” at Jean-Louis at the Watergate: ingredient-based food and high-style arrangements before those notions were popular. “He loved life so much,” says Furstenberg. “And he gave other people a lot of fun.” Another of Palladin’s talents was bringing together colleagues, young and old, from across the spectrum. “He created a fraternity of chefs,” remembers Ann Brody, an excutive tastemaker at the late Sutton Place Gourmet. “He wasn’t competitive with them.”

After his Washington jewel closed, in 1996, Palladin blazed yet another trail when he opened Napa in the Rio Suite Hotel in Las Vegas — the first world-class chef to see potential amid casinos in the desert.

The master’s influence lives on at the James Beard Foundation, which offers grants in his name to help working chefs learn about ingredients at their source.

‘We punch above our weight class’

Washington loves its liquids, no surprise for a city stocked with nearly 200 foreign embassies, a penchant for home entertaining and “a high-stress environment,” says restaurateur Todd Thrasher, who notes that his audience tends to change, as administrations can, every four years. A fluids pioneer best known for introducing the speak-easy PX in Alexandria almost a decade ago, he’s poised to open a contemporary tiki bar and rum distillery on the redeveloping Southwest waterfront in 2017.

When it comes to wine, drinkers don’t have far to go to sip some local prizes. In less than 45 minutes, Washingtonians can find themselves in some of the best vineyards in the country, in Virginia — “closer than San Francisco to Napa or Sonoma,” teases chef Andrés. In an email from across the pond, Robinson, the wine authority, writes, “I love that the Virginia wine industry enjoys such enthusiastic local government support and find it difficult to think of a parallel anywhere — other than the Chinese province of Ningxia!”

We knock back the hard stuff with gusto, too. The data miners at Yelp, the online review site, report a 76 percent increase in the number of cocktail bars in Washington, based on consumer and business posts, in just the past two years. (On a recent Wednesday night, reports Thrasher, his 30-seat PX shook and stirred a record-breaking $6,000 worth of drinks.) Three of the city’s more personal watering holes are block mates in Shaw owned by Derek Brown, a leader in the classic cocktail movement: Mockingbird Hill, a slip of a sherry-and-ham retreat; Eat the Rich, emphasizing seafood; and Southern Efficiency, touting whiskey and lunch-counter fare. “My brain, my stomach, my heart,” says Brown, distinguishing the trio. Compared with bar scenes in other cities, he says, “we punch above our weight class.”

That dripping noise? It’s probably coming from one of Washington’s top-quality roasters, including Qualia in Petworth and Vigilante in Hyattsville, plus shops and baristas whose wares and skills would look at home on the West Coast.

Note: Clockwise from top left:Co-owner Genevieve Villamora talks to guests at the Filipino restaurant Bad Saint; black cod is one of the signature dishes at Rasika; Vivian Anderson, 2, and Mitchell Anderson, 2, share an egg cream from Union Market’s Buffalo & Bergen; cars pass Le Diplomate, one of the busiest restaurants along 14th Street NW. From top to bottom:Co-owner Genevieve Villamora talks to guests at the Filipino restaurant Bad Saint; black cod is one of the signature dishes at Rasika; cars pass Le Diplomate, one of the busiest restaurants along 14th Street NW; Vivian Anderson, 2, and Mitchell Anderson, 2, share an egg cream from Union Market’s Buffalo & Bergen.

A global tour of the ’burbs

No sooner did my annual collection of favorites roll out last year than my counterpart at Washingtonian magazine took me to task, chastising me in an essay for not including more suburban restaurants.

What’s Missing From the Washington Post Dining Guide?” screamed the headline. “A Lot.”

Todd Kliman was therefore the first person I invited to tag along on a tour of eateries outside the District, specifically Northern Virginia, where some of our mutual interests lie. I met Kliman at Vigilante, near his Maryland home, for a bracing espresso and an update on the immediate area, where neighbors can find a Chipotle-style Indian treat (Spice 6) and Jamaican meat patties that taste of the tropics (Shortcake Bakery). A home-grown roaster known for its careful sourcing of beans, Vigilante is one of several signs of a percolating food pocket just outside the District. Celebrity chef Mike Isabella is planning to extend his Greek-themed brand, Kapnos, to nearby College Park, and pizza guru Ruth Gresser is eyeing a summer 2016 roll-out for another Pizzeria Paradiso, alongside the Arts Work Studio School in Hyattsville.

Kliman and I count ourselves fans of Ethiopian food, a cuisine he knows, having researched it in its homeland, and a style of cooking I’ve been familiar with in this country for decades. (Ethiopians represent the largest African immigrant population in the District; the epicenter for their restaurants has shifted over the decades from Adams Morgan to Shaw and now Silver Spring.) So off we Uber to Enat in Alexandria, its tan interior a shade of injera, the floppy and tangy bread that does double duty as a utensil in Ethiopia.

How to make Ethiopian injera, the utensil you eat

Play Video

I invite my fellow critic to do the ordering: a vegetable sampler, yebeg wat (bone-in lamb in a cloak of warm spices) and kitfo, a good test of an Ethiopian restaurant. The last dish, chopped beef, is similar to steak tartare but splashed with clarified butter spiced with coriander and mitmita, a rust-colored powder made racy with bird’s-eye chili peppers and warm with cloves. Kliman gives the injera a nod: “I like the laciness” of the edges of the crepe, made partly with the pricey grain called teff. We rip off pieces of the bread and use them as scoops to make a dent in the kaleidoscope of green (collards), gold (lentils) and red (beets) as well as a ruddy, buttery mound of beef, all served on a platter the size of a hubcap.

As we break bread (Washington politics at work!) I ask Kliman how Ethiopian food tastes in Ethiopia. “Chicken is stringier” but also free-range and more flavorful, he says. Some injera packs so much flavor, you could eat it plain on its home turf. And as vivid as the spicing can be in this country, it’s a “string quartet” compared to the “symphonic” notes he experienced overseas, where the fresh spices don’t travel far. Although he’s previously had sharper cooking at Enat, he still gives today’s spread a thumbs up. Enat means “mother” in Amharic. The comforting food lives up to the billing.

Time for something light: Rice Paper, one of dozens of Asian retreats in the Eden Center, the sprawling shopping mall in Falls Church known as “Little Saigon.” “White people have discovered it,” says Kliman, surveying the cheerful dining room, “but there are still lots of Vietnamese here.” It’s just after noon on a Monday, but we still have to wait for a table. Patience pays off in an herby salad of baby clams and pork nestled in a sail of a sesame rice cracker, and a clay pot bubbling with peppery caramel pork. While the food is the sort that encourages lingering, and our conversation in the snug space prompts a neighbor to ask, “Are you a food critic?,” we peel off for the flavors of another country, Kogiya in nearby Annandale, which we agree makes the region’s best Korean barbecue.


Note: Clockwise from top:(Left to right) John Sheffield, Carl Blake and Brian “Mr. Motown” Summers have lunch at the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street; a Hennessy Jed cocktail poured at Masseria; lunch on a rainy day at Union Market.From top to bottom:(Left to right) John Sheffield, Carl Blake and Brian “Mr. Motown” Summers have lunch at the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street; lunch on a rainy day at Union Market; a Hennessy Jed cocktail poured at Masseria.

‘A blend of everything’

We’re shown to a low table with a built-in grill and drawers containing metal chopsticks. Already waiting for us are a party of gratis salads and other side dishes that all but make the table disappear. Familiar with the menu, we ask for a crisp seafood pancake and crescent-shaped steamed dumplings to start, and kalbi (short ribs) and pork belly to follow. As the meat sputters over the heat, the air is perfumed with garlic and chilies: Seoul in a snapshot.

PHOTOS: The dishes and places that make Washington, D.C. one of the best food cities

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Kliman is most curious about the status of Saba, a Yemeni outpost in Fairfax that his magazine championed earlier this year as one of the area’s Top 25 cheap eats. He doesn’t even have to taste the haneeth, braised lamb on a bed of rice, to see it’s missing the attention of the chef-owner. Among other disappointments is the rice, each grain of which swelled with the flavor of lamb when the critic first sampled the dish, but which now induces a yawn. Crestfallen, my comrade in eating apologizes to a sympathetic listener (hey, restaurants change), a conversation that leads to a larger question: What does Washington lack?

A clear identity, “a sense of it-ness sometimes,” says my dining companion, who grew up in Greenbelt, Md. Trends and movements don’t start in Washington, Kliman says, and in contrast with, say, New York, San Francisco or even Charleston, “when visitors step off a plane or train in D.C., I don’t think even their second thought is, “Where will I eat?’ ”

A new generation of chefs is determined to answer the question.

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Washington basks in fast food done right, evinced by home-grown chains including Beefsteak, Cava Mezze, Five Guys, Sweetgreen and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, the last an idea from Chipotle’s Steve Ells that was born in the District. All either have spread nationally or are poised to.

Washington revels in personal statements, too, be it Jeremiah Langhorne promoting Mid-Atlantic cuisine at the fledgling Dabney or Eric Ziebold, chef of the late four-star CityZen, rethinking fine dining at soon-to-open Kinship (and later, Métier).

Washington respects the past, sometimes by tweaking it: The Taiwanese chicken piled on a half-baguette at hipster Maketto pays homage to the fried fish heaped on a slice of white bread at the soulful Horace and Dickies on H Street NE, says chef Erik Bruner-Yang.

“We are not one thing, but so many things at once,” says Andrés.

Kliman has the same thought when he describes our afternoon adventure — and the city’s best asset — by saying, “D.C. is a blend of everything.”

As full as my lunch-easing-into-dinner date and I are, neither of us wants to be the one to cut short the moving feast, so we mentally loosen our belts and forge on to Ravi Kabob in Arlington, where we manage to knock back a few bites of juicy skewered beef and yogurt-marinated chicken, both singed from the grill and served with fragrant rice and naan warm from the tandoor. Then it’s back to my house in Washington, where two like minds do the only sensible thing: divvy up our abundant leftovers, souvenirs from a trip around the world in a day.

Recipe: Vidalia's Lemon Chess Pie

This dessert has been served at the downtown Washington restaurant since it opened more than 23 years ago.

Recipe: Barmini's Ticket to Phuket

This fresh, spicy and complex drink was inspired by trips to Scandinavia and Thailand.

Where Tom went:

Store/Market

A. Litteri

Tucked among nondescript warehouses, Washington’s oldest Italian grocery story is chocka­block with pasta, wine, olive oil, sweets and sauces (some in gallon sizes). A deli in the rear can build six-foot subs.

517-519 Morse St. NE

202-544-0183

alitteri.com

Restaurant

Bad Saint

What began as a pop-up recently morphed into a no-reservations (again?) Filipino restaurant, a cocoon of a dining room in Columbia Heights where the go-to dishes include a spiky tangle of sweet potatoes and freshwater shrimp.

3226 11th St. NW

badsaintdc.com

Bar

Barmini by José Andrés

Had Willy Wonka been a mixologist, this neighbor to Minibar would have been his liquid laboratory. While embracing the classics, the drinks list revels in surprises: blue elixirs that turn purple, coupes animated by liquid nitrogen, and an aquavit-propelled Ticket to Phuket, garnished in part with a pipette filled with Thai chili tincture, for upping the heat. A flight of the latest fashions, spread over two hours in a futuristic lounge, costs $60.

855 E St. NW

202-393-4451

minibarbyjoseandres.com

Bakery

Bread Furst

If you're looking for the city's best baguette, muffuletta or loaf made with ancient grains, you'll find it near the Van Ness Metro stop, at longtime baker Mark Furstenberg's tidy, yeast-perfumed storefront, also the source of meals to go and designer pantry staples.

4434 Connecticut Ave. NW

202-966-1300

breadfurst.com

Store/Market

Broad Branch Market

A general store as painted by Norman Rockwell, Broad Branch Market stocks necessities (beer on tap); niceties (blackened catfish, sushi rice); and candy and ice cream dispensed in a room of their own. Picnic tables out front let you enjoy your purchases before you leave.

5608 Broad Branch Rd. NW

202-249-8551

broadbranchmarket.com

Coffee

Compass Coffee

Created by two former Marines and Washington-area natives, Compass Coffee features nine light-to-dark blends roasted in state-of-the-art equipment. A neighborly vibe infuses the joint, which offers a community bookshelf along with its espressos.

1535 Seventh St. NW

202-838-3139

compasscoffee.com

Restaurant

Convivial

The fizzy new American cafe from French chef Cedric Maupillier lives up to the promise of its name, with medium-size plates (vs. small ones) and such novelties as lamb tongue moussaka and boudin noir ravioli.

801 O St. NW

202-525-2870

convivialdc.com

Restaurant

The Dabney

One of the most-anticipated arrivals of the year, the Dabney returns Charlottesville native Jeremiah Langhorne to the Mid-Atlantic, where the former chef de cuisine of McCrady’s in Charleston hopes to call fresh attention to the region. Bring on the Surryano ham, and break out the RdV wine!

122 Blagden Alley NW

202-450-1015

thedabney.com

Restaurant

Del Campo

Chef Victor Albisu’s lusty salvo to his Cuban dad and Peruvian mom, Del Campo uses smoke and char to lend intrigue to much of the meaty menu — cocktails included. You don’t have to like meat to eat well, however, as evinced by Lima-worthy seviches and roasted pumpkin risotto set off with sage and goat cheese.

777 I St. NW

202-289-7377

delcampodc.com

Store/Market

Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market (Sundays)

A favorite of local cooks, this year-round outdoor attraction brings together more than 40 farmers in peak months. A recent shopping spree found heirloom cauliflower, nitrate-free bacon, quark, superlative juices, hen eggs “from happy chickens” (or so a sign said) and a side of live jazz.

20th Street NW between Massachusetts Avenue and Hillyer Place

202-362-8889

freshfarmmarkets.org

Store/Market

Eastern Market

The longest line inside the city’s oldest continually operating fresh-food public market is inevitably for Market Lunch, known for its blueberry-buckwheat pancakes. On weekends, outside stalls offer seasonal farm produce and crafts by artisans, including a tablemaker.

225 Seventh St. SE

202-698-5253

easternmarket-dc.org

Restaurant

Enat

The Amharic name translates to “mother,” an apt description for the homey Ethiopian cooking offered in this 30-seat restaurant, where the top seller is the beefy kitfo drenched in clarified spiced butter. Devotees of the dish know to ask for it uncooked, or “tirre.”

4709 N. Chambliss St., Alexandria

703-642-3628

enatrestaurant.com

Restaurant

Fiola

Its younger sibling in Georgetown, Fiola Mare, gets more attention and counts a Potomac River view, but the elegant original in Penn Quarter deserves a shout-out for some of the most rococo Italian food, and pampering, anywhere.

601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

202-628-2888

fioladc.com

Restaurant

Garrison

Capitol Hill has a winner in chef Rob Weland, whose American cooking captures the season along with his knack for interesting combinations, foremost with vegetables. Picture a fall salad composed with radishes, heirloom apples, sage and tangerine “lace”; or mushrooms made sublime with avocado, thyme and jalapeño.

524 Eighth St. SE

202-506-2445

garrisondc.com

Store/Market

Hana Japanese Market

Slim and crowded, Hana brims with Asian staples: yam noodles, dried squid, barley tea, fresh burdock root, pickled plums and green tea ice cream. Tempting customers at the checkout counter: rice balls in sundry flavors.

2000 17th St. NW

202-939-8854

galaxygalaxy.com/hana

Store/Market

The Hour

A cocktail enthusiast’s dream, the Hour specializes in vintage barware: glasses, trays, shakers, carts, coasters — truly, the only thing missing is the booze.

1015 King St., Alexandria, Va.

703-224-4687

Thehourshops.com

Restaurant

The Inn at Little Washington

Not all of Washington’s monuments are in the city proper. Take Patrick O’Connell’s dream of an inn near the Blue Ridge Mountains, unparalleled in this country for its witty cooking, entertaining service and over-the-top decoration. The staff takes its fun seriously: The cheese cart is a cow on wheels, and it moos.

309 Middle St., Washington

540-675-3800

theinnatlittlewashington.com

Restaurant

Jaleo

One of the brightest stars in the constellation of celebrity chef José Andrés, the festive Jaleo sets the bar for tapas in the United States. Spring for salt cod fritters, chorizo wrapped in fried potato and noteworthy paellas.

480 Seventh St. NW

202-628-7949

jaleo.com

Restaurant

Kogiya

Chowhounds flock here for top-notch Korean barbecue, grilled at big tables by deft servers in a room wrapped in metal. (Yes, it’s smoky. And LOUD.) Plentiful gratis banchan and a stellar seafood pancake help sell the place.

4220-A Annandale Rd., Annandale

703-942-6995

kogiya.com

Restaurant

Little Serow

The East Coast’s best source for northeastern Thai is a green basement that doesn’t take reservations or tailor its nutty-spicy-meaty set menu to individual tastes. Brace yourself for a trip to Chiang Mai and back, hold the jet lag.

1511 17th St. NW

littleserow.com

Restaurant/Coffee/Store

Maketto

It’s a retail store! It’s a coffee shop! It’s yet another great idea from chef Erik Bruner-Yang, whose ground-floor restaurant, blending the flavors of Cambodia and Taiwan, anchors one of the coolest destinations in town.

1351 H St. NE

202-838-9972

maketto1351.com

Restaurant

Masseria

Hard to find but worth the effort, Masseria, located behind a wall of wood across from Union Market, revels in Italian-accented tasting menus and the good life. (Note the Frette linens and a courtyard modeled after the country homes in Puglia.)

1340 Fourth St. NE

202-608-1330

masseria-dc.com

Store/Market

The Mediterranean Way

A one-stop shop for when your list includes Italian torrone, French hot chocolate, Turkish coffee, Tunisian cooking utensils made from olive wood and Greek yogurt -- the real deal, and divine. Here’s the place to sample olive oil in such diverse flavors as blood orange and rosemary, or a balsamic vinegar fruity with huckleberry.

1717 Connecticut Ave. NW

202-560-5715

themediway.com

Restaurant

Momofuku

Northern Virginia native David Chang brings his New York hits — shiitake buns, pork belly ramen, rotisserie chicken — to a window-wrapped stage in CityCenterDC, and look what happens: Lines run out the door.

1090 I St. NW

202-602-1832

momofuku.com/dc/ccdc

Restaurant

Partisan

A tribute to meat from Nathan Anda, the guy who raised the bar for butcher shops with Red Apron, Partisan in Penn Quarter does as well by cocktails and salads as by charcuterie, schnitzel and “pig feasts” that celebrate the whole hog.

709 D St. NW

202-524-5322

thepartisandc.com

Bakery

Praline Bakery

A combination cafe, market and bakery, Praline whips up textbook examples of croissants, macarons, tarts and more in a cheerful environment.

4611 Sangamore Rd., Bethesda

301-229-8180

praline-bakery.com

Restaurant

Rasika

For his inspired modern Indian cooking, Vikram Sunderam received the award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic from the prestigious James Beard Foundation last year. No kitchen issues flakier breads, better Indian desserts or more intriguing combinations. (Duck vindaloo, anyone?) Timed to coincide with its 10th anniversary, a recent renovation of the dining room, which has a younger sibling in the West End, only adds to Rasika’s allure.

633 D St. NW

202-637-1222

rasikarestaurant.com

Restaurant

Rice Paper

A gem among the many Vietnamese restaurants in Eden Center, the pretty Rice Paper always seems to be packed, even at lunch on a Monday. Worth the wait: floppy-crisp rice-flour crepes, among the 100 or so possibilities in this corner of “Little Saigon.”

6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church

703-538-3888

ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com

Restaurant

Rose’s Luxury

Hailed as the Best New Restaurant of 2014 by Bon Appétit, the no-reservations creation by Aaron Silverman continues to draw hordes eager to sample offbeat but brilliant flavor combinations (pork sausage, litchis and habaneros are a match made in heaven) and exemplary service at everyday prices.

717 Eighth St. SE

202-580-8889

rosesluxury.com

Store/Market

Salt & Sundry

On display, in two inviting locations: the superb taste of owner Amanda McClements. Looking for a host gift? Want to spruce up your kitchen? Salt & Sundry comes to the rescue with elegant place mats, salt cellars, food-related greeting cards, cocktail flasks, kid-size aprons and choice cookbooks.

Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE

202-556-1866

shopsaltandsundry.com

Store/Market/Bakery

Society Fair

A whimsical bakery/butcher shop/cafe/delicatessen from the owners of the nearby upscale Restaurant Eve, Society Fair peddles in deliciousness: duck fat caramels, coconut cake, terrific sandwiches made with house-baked breads, cocktail aids and support for the home cook (lard included).

277 S. Washington St., Alexandria

703-683-3247

societyfair.net

Bar

Southern Efficiency

Local drinks maven Derek Brown calls this, one of his three themed bars in Shaw, “my heart.” Its focus? Whiskey — including a draft Vieux Carré — and Southern eats. Research shows a Sazerac makes a great companion to a grilled pimento cheese sandwich.

1841 Seventh St. NW

202-316-9396

whiskeyhome.com

Restaurant

Sushi Taro

The most extravagent way to experience this Japanese model in Dupont Circle is to book the six-stool omakase counter in the rear of the second-floor dining room, where Nobu Yamazaki whips up edible poetry from the freshest fish, starting at $140 a person (and worth the splurge).

1503 17th St. NW

202-462-8999

sushitaro.com

Restaurant

Toki Underground

Hands down, this second-floor noodle shop dishes up the best ramen in Washington. Behind the bowls (and other amazing cheap snacks) is chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang, whose artistic bent extends to the snug, 30-stool interior dressed with red paper lanterns and skateboards reincarnated as guardrails and foot rests.

1234 H St. NE

202-388-3086

tokiunderground.com

Restaurant

Two Amys

A local pizza pioneer near National Cathedral, Two Amys packs ’em in with distinctive Neapolitan pies, small plates and sweet endings, including Marsala custard. The best perch for the over-21 set: the wine bar off the clattery main dining room.

3715 Macomb St. NW

202-885-5700

2amysdc.com

Bar

2 Birds 1 Stone

Bar director Adam Bernbach not only dreams up his five or so weekly-changing drinks, including a punch du jour, he also sketches them on the menu at 2 Birds 1 Stone, an underground watering hole whose Asian-style snacks — spicy cashews, shrimp-and-pork spring rolls — come from the adjoining restaurant, Doi Moi.

1800 14th St. NW

2birds1stonedc.com

Store/Market

Union Market

A source of cool for the city, the gleaming Union Market brings together knife sharpeners, butcher shops, barbecue makers, dosa specialists, oyster shuckers, fishmongers, flower arrangers, chocolate artisans, pop-up restaurants, even a couple of produce vendors.

1309 Fifth St. NE

301-347-3998

unionmarketdc.com

Restaurant

Vidalia

For shrimp and grits, sweetbreads and waffles and lemon chess pie, the best representative of Southern cooking in Washington remains this inviting underground dining room downtown, whose chef-owner, Jeff Buben, received the 1999 award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. The sleeper of the lot is Vidalia’s vegetable-focused, daily-changing blue plate.

1990 M St. NW

202-659-1990

vidaliadc.com

Coffee

Vigilante Coffee

Home base is in Hyattsville, in a pleasing, light-filled roastery and cafe, but the excellent coffee from owner Chris Vigilante, who sources single-origin beans, is also poured at Eastern Market on weekends.

4327 Gallatin St., Hyattsville

301-200-3110

vigilantecoffee.com

Store/Market

Wagshal’s

Running low on dried ancho chili peppers, coconut milk or live lobsters? The neighborly Wagshal’s in Spring Valley comes to your rescue. But the shop is best known for its superb meats, cut the way you want them, hopefully by ace butcher Pam Ginsberg. Just a few doors away is a more expansive sibling showcasing a deli, wine and a freshly minted restaurant.

4845 Massachusetts Ave. NW

202-363-5698

wagshals.com

Credits

About the series

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema explores America’s best food cities, 10 of which he’ll rate at year’s end.