This summer, Smorgasburg might become Washington’s hottest dining destination. That’s not just because the weekly food market in Navy Yard includes purveyors of tacos, bao buns, hot chicken and yakitori, but because it’s held on a shade-free brick plaza on the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
Smorgasburg comes from the founders of the Brooklyn Flea, who launched the urban food market in Williamsburg in 2011, and later expanded the concept to markets in Los Angeles in 2016 and Manhattan this spring.
Consider this an alfresco urban version of a super-trendy food hall, with some weekend day-drinking thrown in. The crowd at last week’s launch event was heavy on groups of millennials, and a fair number of visitors seemed less than familiar with most of the vendors, outside of Milk Cult or Timber Pizza. You don’t have to know that an unassuming stand called Skew’d sells yakitori from the chef behind one of the District’s most esteemed Japanese restaurants, but when you’re trying to decide between skewers and a so-so taco stand, every bit of knowledge helps.
The overall experience on opening day was, as you might expect, a little rough around the edges. While waiting in line to buy drinks, I heard other customers ask the bartender, “Which of these [drinks] has the highest level of alcohol?” Hanging out here might drive me to something strong, too, but here are a few tips to help you make the most of a trip to Smorgasburg, which is open through October, and possibly beyond.
Plan to arrive early.
Blame first-day hype, a 4 p.m. Nationals game or a rare sunny Saturday without the chance of rain, but crowds descended on Smorgasburg right at lunchtime and held steady throughout the afternoon. Lines got long, but most moved at a steady, if slow, clip. While the market runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., an increasing number of vendors began selling out of food after 2. No one wants to stand in line for 10 minutes before the chef comes out to announce that the dish you’re craving has sold out, and early arrival improves your chances of sampling.
If you’re there for the food, look for the unfamiliar.
The market has done a great job curating the stands, with a vibrant mix of cuisines and businesses operated by women and people of color. But if you’re a regular visitor at other urban farmers markets, you’re bound to see familiar-looking branding: Timber Pizza! Pinch Dumplings! Bay Pearl crab cakes! If you’re giving up your Saturday afternoon to visit Smorgasburg, don’t order the same things you can find at CityCenter’s lunchtime market or at the Dupont Circle farmers market. Look for the vendors that make Smorgasburg special.
Among the stands you won’t find anywhere else is Skew’d, a project from Sushi Taro’s Nobu Yamazaki, which finds the chef grilling scallops, skewered octopus tentacles and chicken meatballs over charcoal. The scallops, which take on a nice smokiness, are splashed with a ginger sauce and served on shells.
There are some Washingtonians who refuse to cross the Potomac for any reason. Unfortunately, that deprives them of some of the area’s buzziest restaurants — including Hot Lola’s, the Ballston fast-casual concept from Himitsu chef Kevin Tien. The outstanding hot-chicken sandwiches fuse Sichuan and Nashville spices in exemplary (and sometimes sweat-inducing) ways. Hot Lola’s was one of the first stands with a “SOLD OUT” sign on opening day, so arrive early to see what the buzz is about.
Ekiben is a fixture at Baltimore farmers markets, where its Neighborhood Bird has become a legend. For their only Washington market, Ekiben brought the Bird — a chicken thigh marinated in Taiwanese curry, popped in a bao bun and topped with pickles and a garlicky sambal sauce — in both bao and fried rice form, as well as Tofu Brah, an option with fried tofu, peanut sauce and pickled veg.
Roy Boys, which is moving to the neighborhood later this summer to replace Justin’s Cafe, had a small spot in the beer garden, where they were serving potent bloody-mary oyster shooters (the green version with “firewater tincture” has a nice kick). But the standout was Nashville hot-oyster sliders: Virginia War Shore oysters in a spicy, crackly cornmeal crust.
Bring sunscreen and a hat.
Smorgasburg’s vendors are arrayed in rows on Tingey Plaza, a sunbaked brick square that surrounds a squat, industrial World War I-era electrical substation. The exception is the beer garden, which fills a narrow green berm between the plaza and Tingey Street SE. On a summer afternoon, there’s no escape from the blistering sun. The picnic tables — located at one end of the plaza and on the beer garden’s grass — don’t offer umbrellas or any shade.
The one respite is on the Transportation Walk, on the other side of the Tingey Plaza fountain from Smorgasburg, where you’ll find a tree-shaded path directly behind the U.S. Transportation Department. Bench-width ledges, which sit among exhibits about the history of planes, trains and automobiles, are popular for anyone looking to avoid direct sun, but most people will want to sprawl out in the grassy area in the beer garden, where they might need protection from the heat.
Don’t forget your water bottle.
At times, the lines to get free water from a cooler rivaled the most popular vendors, and it’s more rewarding to wait for bao or spicy chicken than to fill a plastic cup. Many vendors sell sodas, while the holding pen-like beer garden — which requires you to show an ID to enter and wait in more lines — has local beer, cider and wine, and cocktails made with D.C. spirits. A plastic of Bluejacket’s Self-Portrait Pilsner was $2 more than at the brewery a block away, though bartenders were pouring Old Westminster Rosé, which won our recent rosé taste test.
Grab and go.
Once you’ve found your food, there’s no need to try to squeeze in at the communal picnic tables or try to find some grass in the beer garden that isn’t adjacent to the lines. Take your takeout container a block south to Yards Park, where there’s plenty of green space, seating, breezes from the water and waterside stands that (whisper it) sell adult beverages without making you jump through hoops.
Smorgasburg: Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tingey Pl. SE.