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Locals Know Best: Eating Out in D.C.

by Laura Carlson

Shuck some in the District. Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

It's business as usual in the nation's capital. But who knew it would ever sound so appetizing? Laura Carlson takes a break from red carpet reporting to eat lunch. Again and again.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When I moved to D.C. a few years ago, I knew I would be in a place filled with politics, power, and monuments. But the food scene caught me by surprise. Growing up in Boston, I was well-versed in fresh seafood; living in LA made me fall in love with fine food truck fare at dirt-cheap prices. I assumed D.C. would be row after row of steakhouses for big-time lobbyists on K Street. But the town is made up of transients from all over the world, and it's easy to find excellent French, Indian, and Italian restaurants on the same block. 

Gelato

SWEET MORNING

When coffee is such an integral part of your day, it pays to get to know the best baristas.

Dolcezza helps me wake up every morning. The Dupont Circle coffee shop takes its java very seriously. Not to mention its gelato.

Tryst is a quirky cafe with oversize couches and coffee mongers trained in a special facility before they step behind the bar, which is why they pull perfect espressos and the best iced mochas around.

Peregrine Espresso has an adorable café across from Eastern Market. And if you are lucky enough to live close by, you can have Counter Culture beans delivered to your door.

A few bright Georgetown grads launched popular chainlet Sweetgreen, and they've even parlayed their salad-to-go concept into a sustainable food and music festival called SweetLife.

The Diner is the sort of place where you can have breakfast for dinner, 24 hours a day. I go for The Royale, which feels like two meals for the price of one.


Lincoln

The Flag Room. Photo: Courtesy of Lincoln

GO-TO STAPLES

For a nice meal that doesn't require a suit or Amex Black.

Cork Market & Tasting Room serves great bottles of wine and the best fried chicken in town (just ask Bon Appetit).

Toki Underground, on hipster-friendly H Street, is great if you adore a big bowls of steaming ramen. The chef, who was raised in both Taiwan and Japan, has taken family recipes to a very modern level, making this tchotchke-filled eatery extremely popular. Expect a wait most nights, as they don't take reservations.

 Boqueria

Embracing the small plate trend? Boqueria's Spanish tapas have found their way to D.C. Expect the same incredible balance of flavors and textures as the big brother resto in NYC. I like to end my week with white sangria and almond- and cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon.

Lincoln is a chic restaurant that uses local ingredients for things like chicken fricassee and prepared oysters (Abe Lincoln's favorite foods). The whimsical interior is dedicated to the 16th president of the United States, but the mai tais are an homage to Trader Vic's.

For a little bit of New Jersey in the District, Graffiato's Jersey Shore pizza is just right. This is Top Chef Mike Isabella's first eatery, and he's got me hooked on sweet corn agnolotti. Another treat is seeing Isabella overseeing the open kitchen on the first floor.

Bar Pilar, with its juke box, Hemingway-inspired theme, and gastropub appeal, is where I go to find the unexpected — like fried pig ears and Cuba libre cocktails served in old-school Coca Cola bottles. The newly renovated second floor is the perfect first-date destination.


Rasika West End

The prism-like Rasika West End. Photo: Courtesy of Rasika

SCENE STEALERS

For haunts with the best food fanfare.

Komi may feel impossible to get into, but it is worth the 30-day wait. There is no menu; put your culinary trust in chef/owner Johnny Monis and sit back for a dozen delightful courses. Ask for table 11, the best seat in the house (once occupied by the President and First Lady).

Beloved Italian chef Fabio Trabocchi (formerly of Maestro in Tyson's Corner) is finally back in D.C. after a stint in NYC. His new home, Fiola in Penn Quarter, is a super stylish dining room where the menu consists of authentic pasta done up fancy. Not to miss: the famed lobster ravioli.

I was never a huge fan of Indian cuisine until I went to Rasika West End. Cardamom, tamarind, and saffron appear in ambitious cocktails; modern curries and the fried spinach are to die for. The newest location, with its Jetson-esque interiors, includes a library of presidential autobiographies.

The Source Sliders

America's best Spanish chef José Andrés is known for the classic tapas bar Jaleo and the innovative Minibar, but my favorite in his D.C. empire is Zaytinya because the Greek-inspired menu has the creamiest homemade hummus. Double up on orders of grilled octopus.

For more name-dropping, head to Wolfgang Puck's sleek, glass-walled The Source, which serves a fun Japanese izakaya menu.

Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak has everything you want in a high-end steakhouse, along with the best hamburger in town for $19. The black truffle popcorn and lobster corn dogs are pretty clever, too.


IMPROMPTU & SPONTANEOUS

When you want to play it casual.

Birch & Barley is where beer lovers go when they grow up and eat things like fig-and-prosciutto flatbread and truffled-herb mac-and-cheese.

La Forchetta inspires with its wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas. 

Jack Rose Saloon has a killer rooftop, tons of scotch and bourbon options, and a rockfish entree that is always seared to perfection.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace doesn't take reservations, so I like to pass the waiting time (on occasion, an hour long) playing bocce at the bar Black Jack.

Below the W Hotel's dining room is my favorite secret spot, Wine Bar. Follow the hidden staircase at the back of the J&G Steakhouse down to this cozy little bar. Tapas and champagne await.


Fojol Brothers

Eat standing up. Photo: Courtesy of Fojol Brothers

FOOD ON WHEELS

When you're on a roll.

I've had my fair share of cheap-but-charming food truck lunches. D.C. has stayed on point with the trend. See: the very popular Red Hook Lobster Truck D.C.

If you have trouble getting a reservation at one of José Andrés's restaurants, check out his food-on-wheels concept, Pepe. The treats are so memorable Lady Gaga hired the truck to follow her on tour.

For authentic Korean BBQ, spicy kimchi, and tacos doused in Sriracha, find the Takorean truck, which rolls through places like Union Station, the State Department, and Chinatown.

If you've never tried Merlindian or Benethiopian food, don't worry — I didn't even know it existed until I met up with the Fojol Bros food truck. A hearty, spicy, toothsome container will satisfy vegetarian and carnivorous fantasies.

MAP IT

See the locations mentioned in this restaurant guide. (Google Maps)

Laura is a writer obsessed with foodie- and pop-culture. Follow her @lauraleecarlson. She travels for the meals, of course.

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