Ask anyone today about Washington’s food scene, and they’ll probably describe a landscape filled with bowls of ramen, Georgian flatbreads and cool restaurants with lines out the door. Such newfound obsessions reflect economic boom times in formerly boarded-up neighborhoods and exploding diversity across the region.
How did we get here? The meals we’ve listed below, suggested by historians, food writers and chefs, were essential to the city’s food evolution — more than 100 years of dishes from within the District’s borders. They epitomized the dining aesthetic, shattered its segregated restaurant scene or defied the notion that Washington was ever “a culinary backwater.” (For that 1981 descriptor, thank the New York Times. It’s somewhat better than “swamp.”)
Better to think of Washington as a city that moves — and eats — to the beat of its own drum. Here, in chronological order, are the 24 dishes that shaped how we eat in D.C.
Oysters at Harvey’s Oyster House
Chesapeake Bay oysters were once everyone’s food. In the 19th century, workers and soldiers consumed shucked-to-order oysters at popular “raw bars,” and small taverns sold fried oysters to families. A new trend of palatial seafood restaurants arose by the 1850s, but none was more famous than Harvey’s Oyster House, an iron-fronted building at Pennsylvania Avenue and 11th Street NW where Abraham Lincoln’s penchant for the signature “steamed oysters” sparked a craze for the dish. Oystermania hit its peak in the mid-1880s, when between 14 million and 20 million bushels were pulled from the Chesapeake Bay. But overharvesting and environmental issues caused stocks to crash decades later. It wasn’t until recent years that local producers, such as Rappahannock Oyster Co., revived Washington’s roots as an oyster town. Now, instead of imports from Canada or the Pacific Northwest, local bivalves fill the raw bars at Hank’s Oyster Bar and the Salt Line, bringing new life to a legacy that reached its height more than a century ago at Harvey’s.
Senate Bean Soup at the Senate dining room
Washington has never been easily defined by a singular cuisine. But for decades, until the half-smoke came along and toppled it, it did have a renowned dish among locals: Senate Bean Soup, the go-to lunch for generations of politicos on Capitol Hill. In 1907, the Rules Committee had the dish added permanently to the Senate’s menu, where over decades, it became so well-known that a popular restaurateur sold it canned. A brothy, simple Scandinavian stew with ham hocks, onion and navy beans, Senate Bean was everything everyone said about the city’s food, in one bland bowl. It wasn’t really from here (it was most likely brought to the Senate by a homesick Minnesota senator, Knute Nelson). And could any dish better embody what the Christian Science Monitor would call — in 2001, no less — the “limited range of D.C. food”? Ugh. Luckily, its reign over Washington waned as we developed a taste for more flavorful stuff, but you can still order the soup in at least one place: the Senate.
A bowl of soup at Thompson’s Restaurant
Mary Church Terrell didn’t choose to dine at Thompson’s Restaurant, at 14th Street and New York Avenue, because she was hungry. She and three companions went to the cafeteria-style eatery to strike a blow against segregation. So, on Feb. 28, 1950, the 86-year-old Terrell — a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — picked up a bowl of soup from the counter. (No records exist about what kind of soup it was.) When a supervisor informed them they couldn’t dine because of their race, the group filed a lawsuit against the restaurant, arguing that the anti-segregation laws passed in the 1870s in the District had never been repealed. In 1953 — years before bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins swept through the South — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the laws were still in effect. “EAT ANYWHERE” was the headline in the Washington Afro American newspaper. (People did — and black-owned restaurants actually suffered as a result.) The next day, Terrell and friends returned to Thompson’s, where they were courteously greeted by a manager. Once again, she ordered the soup.
Matzoh ball soup at Duke Zeibert’s
There was a time in Washington when “power lunch” meant a three-martini meeting of minds at Duke Zeibert’s, the city’s swingingest power restaurant. Its tables were packed with the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Vince Lombardi, Jack Kent Cooke, Larry King and President Bill Clinton, thanks to the joie de vivre carefully cultivated by proprietor David “Duke” Zeibert. The food? It’s now remembered as unremarkable and not delicious and also beside the point: Since Duke Zeibert’s arrival in 1950, patrons have come to accept power dining as a chance to mingle with boldface sorts of people rather than eat star-worthy food. Lucky for diners, Duke Zeibert’s had one specialty, a chicken consomme with matzoh balls, that was one of Washington’s most beloved dishes, not to mention the stuff of lore: When Duke and a former employee named Mel Krupin battled with competing restaurants, their feud became known as the city’s Matzoh Ball War. It was Duke’s that prevailed. He stayed open till 1994; Krupin shuttered his place in the late 1980s.
Prime rib at Blackie’s House of Beef
For decades, critics have made fun of Washington’s expense-account steakhouses — a stereotype that’s rooted in truth. Politicians have long had their favorite clubby hangouts, including Wormley’s Hotel near the White House — a black-owned steakhouse where politicians negotiated an end to the disputed election of 1876 — and the grill room at the Occidental Hotel, which, in 1912, didn’t allow women because the owner planned to cater to “officialdom.” The steakhouse became an ostentatious outlet for the powerful to display their wealth, reaching its apogee with the opening of Blackie’s House of Beef in 1953. The restaurant’s unofficial motto was “You eat beef or you don’t eat nothing” and had a reputation for its well-connected regulars: Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was known to greet guests at the host stand in the 1960s, while powerful Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) held court in a dimly lit dining room in the 1980s. Although Blackie’s closed in 2005, the wheeling and dealing (and the city’s steakhouse reputation) continues at such meaty establishments as the Palm and Charlie Palmer Steak.
Mighty Mo at Hot Shoppes
Try it now at Anthem at the Marriott Marquis.
Long before the Big Mac became the king of fast-food burgers, teenagers in Washington were heading to Hot Shoppes drive-ins to sip orange sherbet shakes and chow down on the Mighty Mo, a towering “colossus of beef” created in 1955 with two patties, a three-part seeded bun, lettuce, cheese, pickles and a popular sauce. Sound familiar? Some say the famous McDonald’s burger was inspired by the D.C. original. “It was a fabulous sandwich,” said Richard Marriott, 79, whose father launched Hot Shoppes in 1927. “The secret was the special Mighty Mo sauce.” He should know: Marriott spent his summers working in the kitchens at Hot Shoppes and said he made 200 to 300 per night. The burger’s draw was so great that radio station WMAL even offered the “Mighty Mo Show,” a “music for teens” program that played requests made at restaurants. The last Hot Shoppes closed in 1999, but the sandwich lives on at the Anthem, the nostalgia-heavy restaurant inside the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown. And, in its own way, at McDonald’s.
Chili half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl
Try it now at Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Whether you poll a transplant or a native about the District’s signature dish, there’s a good chance you’ll get the same answer: the half-smoke. The pork-and-beef sausage, invented by D.C. meatpackers Briggs and Co., was wildly popular in the 1950s and continues to be sold by street-corner vendors and at such casual places as Arlington’s Weenie Beenie and Silver Spring’s Woodside Deli. But it’s most identified with a U Street icon: Ben’s, opened by Trinidadian immigrant Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia, in 1958, has become a cultural and culinary landmark belonging to the District — not only political Washington — welcoming presidents, mayors, TV hosts and generations of customers. A survivor of the 1968 riots, the 1980s Metro construction and the corridor’s rapid gentrification, Ben’s and its half-smokes serve as the rare thing we can all agree on, uniting folks of all backgrounds to wait in line and groove to soul music together. Because the food itself has failed to impress critics, it’s that melting pot that’s the real draw — and the reason to extol its influence.
Mumbo sauce at Wings N’ Things
The origin of the District’s favorite condiment is shrouded in mystery, but its recipe is not: Mumbo sauce is usually a blend of barbecue, ketchup and sweet-and-sour sauces with varying levels of heat. Some old-timers say it originated at Wings N’ Things near 14th and U streets NW in the ’60s — civil rights leader Walter E. Fauntroy claims that was a favorite destination of Martin Luther King Jr.’s — although a company in Chicago has been selling it since the 1950s. As the capital has gentrified in recent years, the sauce, a staple at Chinese restaurants and carryouts catering to African American customers for generations, has become a cultural touchstone. Today’s upscale restaurants looking to add authentic D.C. flavor, including the Hamilton and Bluejacket brewery, offer their own versions, and you can even buy a bottled “mambo sauce” at Whole Foods. But the best way to enjoy it is still at an old-school carryout, poured liberally onto just-fried chicken wings.
Sweet potato pie at the Southern Dining Room
Try it now at Henry’s Soul Cafe.
By the late 1960s, soul food had become one of the nation’s most intriguing cuisines, its popularity bolstered by “a rise of appreciation for African American culture” and by the black pride movement, said John DeFerrari, the author of “Historic Restaurants of Washington D.C.” In the District, smothered fried chicken and mac and cheese had to be followed with sweet potato pie, and in 1968, the place to have it was the Southern Dining Room, a cafeteria helmed by Alabama-born chef Hettie Gross. Although she had competitors — including the Florida Avenue Grill — it was Gross who was dubbed the city’s “Soul Food Queen,” thanks to a pie that was little more than fresh sweet potatoes, evaporated milk, eggs, lemon extract and a ton of butter. After decades of feeding Howard University students, artists and activists, the Dining Room closed in the 1980s. But even today, soul food still can be found in the District, and so can the dessert: Henry’s Soul Cafe on U Street slings its own pie made from fresh sweet potatoes — just as it did in ’68.
Eggs Benedict at Billy Martin’s Tavern
Try it now at Martin’s Tavern.
Brunch has been an ingrained Washington tradition since long before the arrival of bottomless mimosas. The New York Telegraph took note of the growing popularity of the word “brunch” in 1906, and soon, the weekend meal infiltrated swanky D.C. hotels, bars and restaurant terraces overlooking the Potomac. By 1968, it had become so much a part of the city’s culture that The Washington Post reported that a common cry up and down Wisconsin Avenue on Sundays was “How d’ya like your eggs?” There was no place where the eggs Benedict were more legendary than at Georgetown’s Billy Martin’s Tavern, where the eggs, atop Smithfield ham and draped in hollandaise, were said to have been the favorite dish of future president John F. Kennedy. Today, Washington is the capital of drag brunches, brunch festivals and brunch as a day-long, debaucherous affair — but eggs Benedict remains Sunday’s hangover cure of choice.
Pupusas at Carlos Gardel
It’s tough to imagine a time when pupusas weren’t on the menu of every Latin American restaurant in the city. The delicious, molten-cheese-stuffed Salvadoran masa cake, after all, is one of Washington’s iconic eats — a dish we serve up better than almost anywhere else in the country, mostly because the District is home to the highest concentration of Salvadoran immigrants in the nation. But in the late 1970s, the Salvadoran population was just beginning to flood into the city as civil war brewed abroad, and there was only one place you could order a pupusa: Carlos Gardel, a lively carryout (billed as Argentine!) in Adams Morgan. The snack was so novel that it didn’t take long to catch on. By 1982, the city was in the throes of a pupusa craze. The mania eventually settled down (Carlos Gardel is now an AT&T store), but pupusas stuffed with loroco (a popular Salvadoran green); pork, beans and cheese; and even squash can still be found.
Brioche with anchovy butter at Jean-Louis
The bread and butter wasn’t the best dish at the late Jean-Louis Palladin’s restaurant in the Watergate Hotel, not by a long shot. In the more than 15 years that the 48-seat Jean-Louis was Washington’s most admired dining room, the brioche was simply the constant at every meal, the crack of the starter pistol for whatever lobster soup, or tender lamb with peaches, or pigeon, or Belon oyster that the chef sent racing out after it. (The mostly price-fixed menu transformed constantly.) The French-born Palladin, who opened Jean-Louis in 1979 after becoming the youngest chef to be awarded two Michelin stars, unabashedly embraced ingredients he found up and down America’s coasts, and he shunned the frozen, canned and imported foods his predecessors used. He introduced diners — from the city and then from around the world — to the notion of well-sourced ingredients; championed Maine lobster and created a one-man market for scallops dredged by deep-sea divers; helped cement nouvelle cuisine as the food trend of the ’80s; and influenced scores of chefs who would continue to transform American dining. There’s even a bread in town that still bears Palladin’s name — although it’s sourdough, not brioche. You can find it at Bread Furst, but, well, you’ll have to conjure your own anchovy butter.
Grass-fed beef at Restaurant Nora
The fancy restaurant where you went for your anniversary “proudly” lists the suppliers of its pasture-raised meats and local vegetables. So does Chipotle. And for that, you can thank Nora Pouillon, whose eponymous restaurant was the first in America to be certified organic. Beyond describing cuts of beef, the lengthy menu listed the cows as grass-fed. That distinction said everything you needed to know about Pouillon. At a time when many chefs were discovering fresh ingredients, she was setting the standard for the local, organic food movement: The restaurant, which opened in 1979, purchased ingredients from farmers in Virginia and Pennsylvania; shunned chemical-laden, red-dyed maraschino cherries; and so despised plastic that it refused to accept credit cards for more than a decade. Pouillon’s concerns stretched beyond her Dupont Circle walls: She was one of the founders of the FreshFarm farmers markets, which now number 15 — and sell grass-fed beef.
Injera at Meskerem
Ethiopian restaurants are common across Washington, but that wasn’t always the case: Following a military coup in their country, Ethiopians began settling in the area in the 1970s, building upon an existing community of diplomats, professionals and Howard University students that would swell into the largest Ethiopian population outside of Africa. In 1985, when Meskerem opened in Adams Morgan’s “Little Ethiopia,” it stood out: The restaurant served as a culinary embassy, as waitstaff in colorful dresses showed curious first-timers, stymied by the absence of silverware, how to rip off hunks of injera flatbread and scoop spicy wats with their hands. “It was a revelation,” said David Chang, the Momofuku restaurateur and Washington-area native who first tried the cuisine in Adams Morgan in the ’80s. “There were no plates! It was spicy. It was so cool. It was like nothing I’d ever had before.” No eatery had the longevity — or influence — of Meskerem and its injera: According to the Ethiopian-restaurant historian Harry Kloman, when Meskerem closed in 2015, it was the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in the United States to have operated at one address.
Fried whiting at Horace & Dickie’s
Try it now at Horace & Dickie’s.
Frying the flaky, mild whiting fish certainly wasn’t invented at Horace & Dickie’s, a casual, counter-service cafe that opened in 1990. Whiting, more popular in Britain than in Washington, became a specialty at 14th Street’s Black Muslim-run Shabazz Fish House in the 1970s, where fish made an ideal substitute for the pork-heavy soul food dishes popular at the time. At Horace & Dickie’s, the tradition has been preserved to the tune of hundreds of sandwiches a day, all served on white or “brown” bread and stacked with a somewhat obscene number of crispy, cornmeal-crusted fillets. The fact that fried whiting still has devotees, on H Street NE and at carryouts such as Oohh’s and Aahh’s on U Street, is a testament to its staying power, even in a city that has gentrified beyond recognition. While trendier restaurants adopt chicken and waffles and kale, whiting remains the domain of establishments owned and frequented by African Americans — it’s an old D.C. staple amid so much newness.
Le Kit Cat at Citronelle
Try it now at Central Michel Richard.
“Don’t play with your food” is a common admonishment from parents. Thankfully, no one ever seems to have said that to Michel Richard. The late French chef was renowned for having fun in the kitchen, most notably at the venerable, now-closed Citronelle, which opened in Georgetown’s Latham Hotel in 1993, and the more informal Central Michel Richard. His talent and wit shone brightly in his whimsical trompe l’oeil dishes, as clever as they were delicious: turning Israeli couscous and squid ink into “caviar,” or making an “egg” with pureed yellow tomatoes and mozzarella. But Richard’s best-known transformation may have been his take on the humble Kit Kat candy bar, using crushed cornflakes, chocolate mousse, peanut butter and hazelnut sauce to turn a childhood treat into a grown-up delight. Richard influenced a generation of chefs — David Deshaies (Unconventional Diner), Cedric Maupillier (Mintwood Place and Convivial), Austin Fausett (formerly of Proof and Trummer’s on Main) — who worked under him, and keep his sense of exacting playfulness and love of contrasting textures alive.
Gambas al ajillo at Jaleo
Try it now at Jaleo.
To think: There was a time when restaurant critics needed dependent clauses to explain that tapas are “exotic little Spanish appetizers.” Thanks to José Andrés — Washington’s most celebrated restaurateur and humanitarian — diners now know that small plates are meant to be shared. (They also groan silently every time a server reiterates that the plates arrive as they’re ready.) The Spanish-born Andrés, recruited as a 23-year-old by Jaleo’s founders ahead of its 1993 opening, helped popularize tapas across the country, spreading the idea that enjoying a few bites of a variety of dishes was more enjoyable than plowing through three large courses. His early success meant diners were soon snacking on a variety of small plates at his other restaurants in the city, including Zaytinya and Oyamel. But it’s the shrimp cooked in a perfectly balanced garlic sauce at Jaleo — perhaps southern Spain’s quintessential tapas dish, which graces almost every table at the Penn Quarter restaurant — that no longer needs an introduction.
Jumbo slice at Pizza Mart
Try it now at Pizza Mart.
A quintessential experience for D.C. college students and newcomers: enjoying a few too many drinks in Adams Morgan and waking up next to a grease-streaked cardboard box from Pizza Mart. The jumbo slice, a D.C. invention, refers to 16-inch slices of pizza cut from pies that can stretch to 32 inches. Only in Adams Morgan do you have dueling neon signs proclaiming the home of “Original Jumbo Slice” and “Real Original Jumbo Slice,” but Pizza Mart, which opened in 1997, is credited as the birthplace of the controversial pie. It’s loved by drunken revelers, who marvel at each oily slab’s size. It’s hated by residents, who gripe about the blizzard of napkins and pizza boxes littering the streets. Still, the so-big-you-have-to-fold-them slices have become a Washington tradition, even if it’s one you’d never do sober: A 2004 lab analysis for the Washington City Paper found that Pizza Mart’s jumbo slice packed in 1,117 calories and 47 grams of fat.
The Palena Burger at Palena
These days, top-flight chefs creating extravagant burgers with prime-cut sirloin and haute-cuisine toppings is no big deal. But the Palena Burger was a true masterpiece in its simplicity — and its originality: seven ounces of hand-ground beef “with the occasional trimming of Kobe,” topped with a truffled Italian cheese and garlic mayo on a buttery bun. (The fry plate offered as a side, with a mix of deep-fried Meyer lemons, dauphine potatoes and shoestring fries, was a hit in its own right.) Making it even more special was that the $9 Palena Burger came from former White House chef Frank Ruta, whose “cafe menu,” launched in 2003, offered affordable luxury for a fraction of the cost of the prix-fixe menu at the acclaimed Cleveland Park restaurant. The burger was deliciously ahead of coming trends, including the gourmet burger craze — evident today at Bourbon Steak and Le Diplomate — and celebrated chefs creating more affordable menus for their posh dining rooms.
The Guacamole Greens at Sweetgreen
Try it now at Sweetgreen.
When three Georgetown University business majors opened the doors to a tiny carryout salad shop just off campus in 2007, it became one of the earliest D.C.-born restaurants to embody the still nascent concept of fast-casual eating. Fast-casual turned out to be one of this era’s biggest dining innovations, and several local restaurants, such as Cava, &pizza and Beefsteak, have followed Sweetgreen in exporting their build-your-own concepts across the country. One of the most popular offerings at Sweetgreen, then and now, was the Guacamole Greens, a riff on guac and chips with mesclun, avocado, chicken and a lime-cilantro dressing. It wasn’t the old, unappetizing iceberg salad; it could appeal to even avowed burger lovers — a perfect example of the model that has made Sweetgreen one of the city’s most successful chains, now with more than 80 locations in eight states. Last year, in the Washington region alone, the company sold nearly a half-million orders of the salad.
Chocolate ganache cupcake at Georgetown Cupcake
From almost the moment Georgetown Cupcake opened on M Street in 2008 and began serving the aughts’ great trend food, an unexpected pandemonium sprang up outside the cheery, but very tiny, shop. The buttercream bombs, many of them decorated with a signature fondant daisy, generated lines that could stretch a hundred people long. Off-duty cops were hired to mind the guests. Cars slowed down to gawk. Georgetown’s cupcakes were indeed delicious; the moist, bittersweet, chocolate ganache version surpassed all others to win The Washington Post’s competitive “cupcake wars” that year. But when it got its own reality show, “D.C. Cupcakes,” on TLC in 2010, at the height of “Top Chef” and “Ace of Cakes” fever, the business and its sweets seemed to transcend the city and became a draw for tourists. The shop’s even-longer lines annoyed the locals, but they were a win for Washington: They proved that the food scene could be just as much an attraction as its museums.
Butter chicken at Fojol Bros. of Merlindia
The city’s first true food truck, the Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, rolled onto D.C. streets on Inauguration Day in 2009. From the beginning, its employees drew more attention than the actual food: The staff, who were white, dressed in turbans and curly black mustaches while hawking pale-orange butter chicken plopped into clamshell containers. The Fojol Bros. trucks (eventually there were three) had a sea of fans, and the founders proved trailblazers for the food truck community, which exploded from 10 trucks by late 2009 to nearly 150 five years later. (And despite its questionable bona fides, the butter chicken even landed in “Food Trucks,” a book about the burgeoning national mobile-kitchen trend.) In 2012, a controversy erupted when an online petition calling them “a brownface minstrel act” circulated. The founders insisted they were simply a “traveling culinary carnival,” not a representation of any ethnic group, but two years later they pulled their trucks off the road, blaming maintenance costs. The whole period remains a standout in Washington’s history: The Fojol Bros. not only gave the city its first modern food truck, but also its first Internet-fueled controversy over cultural appropriation.
Curry chicken hakata ramen at Toki Underground
Try it now at Toki Underground.
When Toki Underground opened in 2011, the city was a ramen wasteland. New York had Momofuku and Los Angeles had Daikokuya, but D.C. noodle fans had to head to the suburbs for a taste of the soup. None of chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s hip and unconventional dishes earned more praise than the curry chicken hakata ramen, a creative mash-up featuring rich curry stock and hearty hunks of fried chicken. Before long, Toki’s inventive bowls were generating huge hype, thanks to tales of Bruner-Yang’s apprenticeship in a Taiwanese ramen bar, and the 30-seat H Street restaurant became one of the first D.C. eateries where 20-somethings were willing to wait to put their name down for a table, then wait a few more hours just to be told it was ready. This became the new normal — it was years before the openings of Bad Saint and Daikaya — and taught D.C. foodies that if they wanted to enjoy a cool spin on the cuisines once found only in the suburbs, it was perfectly reasonable to wait.
Lychee salad at Rose’s Luxury
Try it now at Rose’s Luxury.
If there’s a dish that defines Rose’s Luxury, it’s the lychee salad. Has there ever been a more playful tease of textures and bracing flavors, an obsession-worthy combination from no place in particular and of no specific cuisine? With fragrant lychees, country ham, habanero, peanuts, garlic chips, coconut foam and raw shards of red onion, it has been the city’s must-order dish — and one of its most elusive. Rose’s Luxury, which opened in 2013, didn’t take reservations, instead embodying a move away from power and influence in Washington’s restaurant scene. Owner and chef Aaron Silverman was vocal about democracy in dining, and neither senators nor celebrities nor anyone with money to throw at the host could talk their way out of waiting in the lychee-loving line. (Well, Michelle Obama slipped past. Silverman once confessed: “There’s one or two people in this world that might be able to get a reservation, and she’s definitely one of them.”) Now, diners regularly wait at hot restaurants, and they’ve learned that with the wait comes a certain freedom — to dine anywhere tonight.
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Illustrations by Felicita Sala. Design by Katherine Lee.