10 Low-Key Date Night Restaurants That Won't Break The Bank
photo credit: Simo Ahmadi
DC is full of swanky places where you can wine and dine until your heart's content, your belly is full, and your bank account is overdrawn. But damn, sometimes you just want to roll up to a neighborhood spot in your sweats and slides, eat good food, and stare into (one of) your favorite person’s eyes. Whether you plan to snuggle up side-by-side or post up across the table like “normal people,” these spots are perfect for chilling out and chowing down on a budget.
We all love a baddie that can quickly go from brunch babe to late-night sex appeal, and that is Bar Chinois in a nutshell. The Chinese-French restaurant in Mt. Vernon Triangle has an industrial feel thanks to the exposed brick, metal windows, and concrete floors. But it’s the lighting that really sets the tone—whether it’s a bright dance party vibe on drag brunch Sundays or a soft red glow after 9pm. It’s great for an early-on date, where you want to start with a casual dinner, but also have a chance to ratchet up the sexiness as the evening goes on—all while keeping things under $100.
This Black-owned Bloomingdale barbecue restaurant serves up all the brisket, turkey, and ribs (for starters) in exactly the kind of joint we trust to do us right. They’re always bumpin’ '90s and 2000s jams and serving up fantastic food here in a space that's basically a refurbished garage complete with two roll-up car doors for entrances (so it can get drafty during the winter). While you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, try the smoked wings, which burst with flavor once your teeth cut through the crispy skin. Pair with the brussels sprouts and spiced fries for a belly-rubbing meal. The meats are finger-sucking good, so make sure whoever you're with doesn’t mind getting messy with you.
The next time you’re looking for a date night night cap, head over to Tiger Fork. The Chinese restaurant feels like a private lounge with its moody lighting and lanterns cascading across the room. Sit at the huge circular bar, where you can try the Shaw spot’s impeccably curated cocktails—and some awkwardly named ones. The In the Mood For Love, which if you can get past the embarrassment of ordering, is actually quite good. Made with yuzu, miso, and honey, it's smoky and savory in all the right places.
We love Sura for a lot of reasons, but especially for spicing up your dating life. Literally. The Thai restaurant in Dupont is located in a dark basement where the wooden tables are small enough that you can feed each other across them, if you’re into that kind of thing. And while it’s always busy, Sura is never too crowded, and the food comes out in a flash if you’re trying to grab something quick before heading home. Menu items rotate, but if the spicy belly rice is available, get it. Also split the lychee creme brulee, which has chunks of lychee in the custard.
Unconventional Diner feels like you’re coming from a sock hop as you snuggle up next to your date in one of the old-timey leather booths. The Mt. Vernon Square restaurant’s menu looks familiar, which is the mark of a good diner. There’s also a full bar, so you can get boozy even if you decided to go before 4pm for the everyday brunch. If you do that, get two orders of the loaded breakfast biscuits, a buttery, crunchy bite piled with hash brown, fried eggs, homemade sausage, and bacon jam—because you’re not going to want to share, no matter how much you love your partner.
Menomale, a pizzeria in Brookland, is the kind of place where longtime lovers rekindle their flame over pizza and the soothing sounds of Etta James and Nat King Cole. The converted rowhouse is intimate but casual, with just 20 seats and a bar so small you can’t even sit at it. There’s a tiny patio outside, as well, but if you sit there you won’t get to walk through the kitchen and past the mosaic-tiled pizza oven. There's better Neapolitan pizza in the city, but it’s worth 20 bucks and pairs well with the Happy Hour wines. Plus they give you scissors to cut it if you get it unsliced.
If you’ve ever wanted to whisk your person off to a romantic Italian dinner a la Lady and the Tramp, Il Piatto will give you the cozy booth, twinkling lights, and $20 pasta to do just that. Plus, you can dress down while you do it at this downtown spot. You won’t get the best meal of your life here, but the arancini is fried to perfection and served with an excellent tomato cream sauce. Add the dark chocolate mousse for dessert, which is great for sharing.
You're dreaming of a vacation but you’re on a budget, so the closest you’re getting to South Beach is Royal Sands in Navy Yard, which is doing its best to deliver beach party vibes. You can slide into the built-in pool bar, grab a cocktail on tap, and eat some less-than-stellar bar food while listening to music that will have you thinking you’re about to go fist pumping in 80-degree weather (even if you’re shivering). Take in the umbrellas and fake palm trees downstairs or head to the second floor and enjoy the Miami sunset painted on the wall. On the weekend, you can stretch your dinner date into a dance party when the DJ turns up the volume from the lifeguard stand around 10pm.
A solid dive bar is important to have in your date night rotation and Sticky Rice on H Street gives that grungy vibe without the sticky floors and questionable smells. Decorations like the huge gong behind the bar or the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling add flair. Grab a high-back wooden booth if you’re looking for extra privacy, but like any good dive bar, no one is paying much attention to you. Also like most dive bars, the drinks are strong, but the food isn’t the best, so expect decent noodles and OK sushi. The Sweet Jesus bucket of tots is your best bet if you’re just looking to keep the two of you upright (or three, we don't judge) as you work your way through the drink menu. Try the pina colada sake, which is unexplainable, but worth every sip.
The Wharf sounds like a great date night on the surface. Except you’re stuck choosing between mediocre, overpriced meals at the likes of Hell's Kitchen and Ilili or sticking to a budget eating… Shake Shack. Skip all of that and pop into The Brighton, a laid back sports bar where you can actually find a meal for less than $20. It’s also one of the few places around here where you can walk in on a Saturday night and not have to wait for a table. And it’s great if you’re both sports fans, since there are five televisions at the downstairs bar, plus a huge projector on the wall upstairs, all of which are tuned into whatever local team is playing.