My daughter moved last week to Portland to begin her post-doc at OHSU in molecular biology. Before we hung up, I teased her, ‘I hope you get the local restaurant scene all figured out by the time I get up there this spring. I expect to eat some excellent breads and seafood kind of things I can’t get in Mexico.’ I chided her further, ‘You remember how well we had Washington, DC dialed in, right?’
I was reminding her of the many restaurant and food surprises I had waiting for her when she moved to DC in 2011.
I moved to DC in 2005 and Sarah came 6 years later to attend George Washington University to get her MS in Systems Engineering. I spent 7 years there, living first in the posh NW neighborhood of DuPont Circle before moving to the SE neighborhood of Capitol Hill. Sarah stayed with me briefly in the SE before finding her own apartment in the NW neighborhood of Adams Morgan.
I loved the city. Every single weekend I would walk (or bike) and explore. When Sarah joined me it got even better. Get to know it and you’ll discover the city has so much more to offer than just the monuments and museums on the Capitol Mall. There are literally dozens of historic neighborhoods in DC, many with their own unique architecture and food.
Le Droit Park bordered by Florida Ave. NW is probably the grandest African-American neighborhood of anywhere in the entire United States. The neighborhood architecture is mostly late 19th century while the food is best represented by maybe a half dozen old school soul kitchens serving up delicious items like my favorite ham hocks and greens. The neighborhood is like a gorgeous trip back in time. It has been wonderfully preserved and sits coincidentally on the edge of the old DC blues/jazz district called the U Street Corridor, another one of those famous Washington, DC neighborhoods that only the locals seem to know about.
And there is so much more. If you start in a different part of the city – say, the SE – and walk a dozen or fifteen blocks north up 3rd St. SE, and cross that same Florida Ave. (but this time Florida Ave. NE) you’ll end up at Union Market which is packed with all kinds of foods and eateries. The entire NE is not tourist country; like most of the city it is locals only. Why? Because most tourists never get past downtown or the Capitol Mall.
What You Must Know
To navigate, the single most important thing to know about Washington, DC is that it is divided into 4 quadrants: NW, NE, SW, and SE and that center of the quadrant is the Capitol Building. If you look closely at a map you’ll see how Capitol St. become Capitol St. NE (or SE, etc.) depending on which side of the Capitol Building it is on.
Simply put – with the center of the Capitol Building being the center of a circle – 0-90 degrees is the NW sector, 90-180 degrees is the NE sector, 180-270 degrees is the SE sector, and 270-360 degrees is the SW sector.
Note: I once had some very lost and confused ladies come up to me in my old Capitol Hill neighborhood in about the 300 block of E St. SE and asked me where the such and such hotel was. I said something like, ‘Well, you’re on E St. SE. You say your hotel is on E St. – but not E St. SE – but probably downtown – near the White House, right? Well, that would be E St. NW – which is that way’, pointing in a direction, about 2 miles away.
First, there are some other things you should know. One – there are lots and lots of restaurants in and around Washington, D.C. but just like most other cities, there are really only a few worthy of your time and money.
(I would guess there are something like 50-100 great restaurants in the greater DC metro area out of possible 4000-5000 restaurants total. That’s about 1-2% which sounds about right to me. So if you’re visiting for a long weekend or have business for a short week then you owe it to yourself to do some pre-planning or you’re going to have some possibly quite expensive yet very disappointing meals.)
Two – If like most short-term visitors you intend on spending the majority of your stay on or near the Capitol Mall then please be advised that there are no closeby dining options – that’s anything adjacent – save for some random hotdog carts and the single solitary restaurant that sits under the east building of the National Gallery of Art.
I am serious.
Lunch Time around the Capitol Mall
The Capitol Mall is enormous and if you get hungry then please know you are at least 30-45 minutes away from a decent restaurant depending on where exactly you are on the Mall so plan accordingly.
North side of the Mall – (National Archives) Go up 7th St. NW to Chinatown where you’ll find Chinese food and more including some Thai and a pretty good 5 Guys hamburger joint up around 7th and I St NW.
South side of the Mall – (National Air and Space Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, etc.) go south to the vicinity of 100 Maine Ave. SW where you will find lots of good and inexpensive outdoor seafood places on the river. This is another mostly locals haven. Oh, and be sure to try the local delicacy, softshell crabs if they are in season.
East side of the Mall – (National Gallery of Art, Capitol Building, etc.) your best bet is to continue east up Penn. Ave, Constitution Ave. or Independence Ave. and head for the old Eastern Market (7th and C St. SE) where you will find lots of solid lunch options, too many to list here, save for a quick mention of the famous Hawk ‘n’ Dove Bar on Penn. Ave. SE.
West side of the Mall – (Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, etc.) there is absolutely nothing within blocks and blocks. Your best bet is to head north up to the stately old neighborhood of Georgetown where you’ll find lots of lunch choices along K St. NW which runs through the heart of Georgetown.
My advice is to get the hell off the Mall and see the real Washington, DC and some of the most diverse architecture and neighborhoods in the city. I am talking about Navy Yard, H Street Corridor, Adams Morgan, Woodley Park, Foggy Bottom, Chinatown, DuPont Circle, Colombia Heights, Georgetown, Mt. Pleasant, and Capitol Hill to name just a few.
Here are a few of my favorite restaurant lunch places:
- Chinatown Express restaurant in Chinatown for great homemade noodles. Their menu is nothing special but they really excel at a great noodle soup. I’d typically order a large bowl of beef or pork with noodles and Sarah would get a large vegetable noodle soup. The broth is delicious and I remember this tabletop condiment of pureed ginger and cilantro that we’d add by the spoonful to load up the flavor to each bowl. I ate there dozens and dozens of times, usually only the soup and it was an especially a great place on cold winter days.
- Super Tacos and Bakery in Adams Morgan in the NW. This was my go-to joint for celebrating what came to be known as ‘Super Taco Sunday’. They do a really nice lengua taco among others. Oh, and they do a pretty good menudo too.
- The Florida Ave. Grill for some good old time soul food (1100 Florida Ave. NW)
- Mandu for Korean food (spicy seafood soup) on 18th St. NW in the DuPont Circle neighborhood. I was a bit disappointed when they first opened up, that their menu was a bit too fusion, but eventually their flavors – like their excellent spicy seafood soup – won me over. Note: There is better Korean over in Alexandria (better as in more like the food I actually got when I was working in Korea) but this neighborhood joint was okay by me.
- Bistro D’Oc for good French food across from the Ford Theater downtown. That’s the Ford Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated some 150 years ago. I’ve never been in the theater although I’ve eaten lunch at the restaurant dozens of times. Note: There are most probably better French bistros in town but for the reasonable prices, the consistent quality, and location I’ve been pretty well served there.
- Keren Restaurant and Coffee Shop at 18th and Florida Ave. NW serves up some pretty tasty Eritrean food. Had any good ful lately? And Eritrea. You know where that is, right? Anyway, damn good food.
- The Eden Center – Excellent and abundant Vietnamese food – one of the best and greatest epicenters in all of America lies nearby in Arlington, VA. Can 25,000 Vietnamese people be wrong?
- Ethiopian food – I am not particularly a big fan but FYI there are a lot of these places all around U St. NW.
- Salvadorean food – I am not particularly a fan here either (I prefer tacos to pupusas) but if you want it the best is up in Colombia Hts. Lots to chose from and the area has got some serious Latino ambiance that reminds me quite a bit of Mexico.
I’ll be adding to this list in the future as the ideas and memories come to me but for now this is it. If you go to Washington, DC be sure to take some hints from my notes and email me if you have any questions. Enjoy!