You’re in DC for the first time (no, that fifth-grade field trip to the Washington Monument doesn’t count) and have a few nights to explore the city. While it’s not as big as New York or LA, you’ll still want a plan for eating and drinking your way through the nation’s capital. You’ve come to the right place.
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of every great spot in the District, but it will steer you in the right direction so you’re never in danger of grabbing lunch at a Smithsonian gift shop.
Maketto is a Cambodian and Thai-influenced restaurant on H Street that also happens to be a high-end fashion store and coffee spot. Unless you’re in the market for a $180 T-shirt, skip the shopping, head straight to the communal tables out back, and get ready for things like bao, rice bowls, and noodle soups. The crispy dumplings and fried chicken will absolutely derail your sightseeing plans for the day, but they’re worth it. If you have work to do on your trip, the cafe upstairs has coffee and pastries and is a good place to power through your to-do list.
If you’re seeing a show or a game at Capital One Arena, stop by Hill Country for some of the best barbecue in the District beforehand. Get a platter of the smoked brisket and mac and cheese, and if you’re not seeing a show, head downstairs to the bar for somewhat cheesy but enjoyable live music (usually with no cover, but check ahead online). It’s pretty casual and a lot of fun.
Timber is where you want to be for some of the best pizza in the city. It started out as a food truck in 2014, and we Washingtonians felt like we were watching our child graduate when it opened its first brick-and-mortar location in Petworth in 2016. The space is small with mostly communal tables, so finding a seat isn’t always the easiest, but there’s a cozy neighborhood feel. Order at the front (we like the Bentley and Green Monster pies the best), and grab a local beer or cocktail while you wait for your name to be called. We can also vouch for takeout, if you want to bring your pizza elsewhere.
Florida Avenue Grill has been serving Southern comfort food in the U Street corridor since the 1940s. If you have a long sightseeing agenda ahead of you that includes everything down to finding your state tree at the National Arboretum and want a simple breakfast to start it off, come here for some DC history and huge portions of eggs, bacon, and cornbread. And if you’re getting a late start, don’t worry - breakfast is served all day (though you should expect to wait after 10am).
CenterCity is an upscale mall downtown where the political elite of DC go to get fitted for their inauguration outfits. And even though you probably don’t need a $4,000 tux for your upcoming half birthday dinner, this is a cool, modern-looking development where you can do some window shopping and have a good meal. You have a lot of options for lunch, but our pick is Centrolina, a fancy-ish Italian place for seafood and pasta. It’s a little pricey, but we have yet to eat something here that wasn’t great. If you want something more casual, pick up a sandwich from the attached market.
Even though you’re only in the city for a few days, you may find yourself looking for an escape after getting caught in the middle of a Segway tour on the National Mall. Thomas Sweet is a classic ice cream spot that will make you feel better about ruining that family’s photo opp in front of the Capitol. This place is pretty popular with the tourist and 14-year-old first date crowd, which means there’s usually a line, but it’s worth waiting in for the classic ice cream in a classic old-time shop.
You’ve probably heard of Georgetown Cupcake. We’re here to tell you it is not, in fact, the best cupcake place in Georgetown. Instead of waiting in the hour line for kid-sized stuff there, wait 30 minutes for the much better and very adult-sized cupcakes at Baked and Wired. The small shop near M Street is slightly more off the beaten path, and they also have cookies, muffins, and granola called “Hippie Crack.”
José Andrés is DC’s best-known chef, and you’ll definitely want to get to one of his many Mexican/Spanish/Mediterranean spots around Penn Quarter. They’re all good, but Oyamel is the most fun. Plan to go with a big group, and order the tableside guacamole, brisket tacos, sautéed shrimp, and margaritas with salted foam on top. If you can’t get there for dinner, It’s also open until 2am on the weekends and is a very solid late night move.
If you go out in Adams Morgan, Tail Up Goat is where you should be eating beforehand. This small Caribbean-inspired spot is laid-back and everything on the menu delivers - from the bread to the crispy salt cod to the house-made pasta. But if you’re going with a like-minded friend, the $55 lamb ribs for two will not let you down.
Since you’re new to the city, it’s OK to admit it - you want to see the pandas. They cute as hell. Own it. But after you do, avoid the hot dog from the zoo and take a five-minute Uber to Sfoglina for some excellent pasta. It’s all handmade daily, and it’s all delicious. Sit on the patio, split the $65 tasting with the table (which includes any three pastas on the menu), and finish with the soft serve.
You may have heard of Rose’s Luxury, the American spot in Capitol Hill with creative pastas and vegetable-heavy small plates. You may have also heard about the no-reservations policy and the hours-long lines that come with it. Don’t let all that steer you away, though, because even a few years into the hype, it’s difficult to have a bad time at Rose’s. So stop by early - they open at 5pm, and the earlier you can put your name down for a table the better (also, follow their @lastminutedinnerplans Instagram account for updates on available group reservations or slow nights). While you wait, grab a cocktail upstairs or head over to Javier’s, a rooftop bar down the block. The menu changes regularly, but the lychee salad and reginetti pasta are staples, and some of our favorite dishes there.
If you want to go somewhere where you have a solid chance of being seated next to Wolf Blitzer, head to Le Diplomate. And if you just wind up next to a lobbyist who talks really loudly, the French food and Parisian bistro environment here will make up for it. Make a reservation a few weeks beforehand, sit on the patio if you can, and get the steak frites. They also serve brunch on weekends (try the truly excellent duck, potato, and egg dish) until 3pm.
Shaw is one of the cooler neighborhoods in DC right now, and Kinship is one of our favorite restaurants there. We’d go just for the lobster French toast, but pretty much everything is great. It’s one of those new American places where the menu is inexplicably divided into sections called “craft,” “history,” “ingredients,” and “indulgence,” but we promise it’s not stuffy or pretentious. The incredibly friendly servers will make sure you’re happy with whatever you order. (But really, get the lobster French toast.)
Since DC has a large Ethiopian population, a true food tour of the city is incomplete without a stop at one of the many great Ethiopian spots. One of the best is family-owned Zenebech, on the main Adams Morgan strip. Check it out for authentic dishes like flavorful lamb, beef, and injera (sourdough flatbread), and get ready to eat a fantastic meal with your hands.
A visit to the Georgetown waterfront should be on your itinerary, but the area isn’t isn’t exactly known for its food options. Here’s how to do better than eating at a chain on the tourist hellhole that is M Street: make your way to the courtyard of Chez Billy Sud, order the mussels and duck confit, and acquaint yourself with the wine menu.
Drinking your way through a new city is a solid way to get the lay of the land, and Dacha is a good place to start. The year-round outdoor beer garden in Shaw serves a rotating mix of local and German beers and snacks. Head here for an afternoon, and you’ll probably end up sticking around until dinner.
If drinking in DC were a video game, Barmini would be the final level. Reservations are required, as is a $15 per person down-payment (prepare to spend around $75 total), but don’t let that scare you away. Once you’re seated, bartenders make drinks in front of you using blowtorches, liquid nitrogen, and other things Bill Nye might find useful. You can order a la carte, but the cocktail flight is worth doing. It gets you a nice mix of drinks, and leaves the decision-making up to the pros. Sit back and watch the chemists go to work.
Right across the street from Capital One Arena, Denson Liquor Bar is your go-to spot for a pre-game or -concert drink that’s more than a light beer. The underground, 1920s-style lounge has classic cocktails and private, dimly-lit leather booths. It’s all perfect for a gin and tonic and an escape from the street.
P.O.V. Rooftop515 15th St NW
To be honest, POV Rooftop is pretty touristy, but we’re here to break the earth-shattering news. You’re a tourist. Swallow your pride and check out this bar at the W Hotel for some of the best views in the city, overlooking the White House and Washington Monument.
14th Street is one of the main areas to go out in around DC, but even if a bar crawl isn’t on your agenda, a trip to Sotto should be. It’s hidden in plain sight on a busy block, and the live jazz and great cocktails make it one of our favorite low-key places to end the night. Look for the door next to Pearl Oyster Dive, and walk downstairs to the cool, deep basement bar with communal tables.