mkgallery names the best restaurants, bakeries and bars, from a 12-table modern Greek to chef Cathal Armstrong’s sprawling, two-story rec-room serving expert Irish pub food. Plus: where to sample the benefits of the cupcake craze and find over 500 beers in one place. » mkgallery’s Full Washington, DC Travel Guide
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Washington, DC Restaurants: Insider Picks
Photo © Stacy Zarin Goldberg.
Vintage World Cup games play on the television screens at Mark Kuller and Haidar Karoum’s tapas , the follow-up to their wine-centric Proof. Karoum’s menu includes an excellent blood-sausage bocadillo (sandwich) with Cabrales blue cheese; the mostly Spanish wine list is complemented by frozen “slushitos” in flavors like grapefruit with bourbon and chamomile. Photo courtesy of Fiola.
Chef Fabio Trabocchi served elegant, decadent Italian food at Maestro in McLean, Virginia, and then at New York City’s Fiamma, where he shaved truffles atop pasta with abandon. At the Italian villa–inspired Fiola, Trabocchi focuses on more casual Italian dishes, like eggplant parmigiana and tomato-braised oxtail. But he can’t seem to go totally rustic: That parmigiana comes in a delicate lemon froth. Photo courtesy of District Commons.
DC chef-restaurateur Jeff Tunks’s upscale, 185-seat District Commons serves American comfort food (brick-pressed chicken, shrimp and grits), excellent charcuterie from the country’s best producers (Allan Benton, Col.) and 99 types of beer. Every night at 10 p.m., a loud bell rings, signaling the availability of the night’s special late-night entrée—a $12 dish featuring items from the kitchen staff’s meal, like fried chicken, meat loaf or pupusas. In an homage to DC’s past, the restaurant’s walls are lined with sepia-toned photographs of the city from the 1930s and ’40s. Photo © Greg Powers.
Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella launched this industrial-chic two-story Italian in 2011 with Bravo alum Bryan Voltaggio as a business partner. The modern Italian menu changes seasonally but is anchored by wood-oven-roasted dishes and pizzas, such as a fried calamari–topped offering called the Jersey Shore. Photo courtesy of Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.
The newest from DC empire builders Jeff and Barbara Black (BlackSalt, Black’s Bar and Kitchen) is an urban fish shack inspired by the Gulf of Mexico, with two oyster bars and a menu of seafood gumbos and po’ boys. Upstairs is a different restaurant, Black Jack, with a wide-ranging pub menu, craft cocktails, a spiked-slushie machine and an indoor bocce court.
Restaurant PS 7’s is named after the initials of chef-owner Peter Smith (formerly of Vidalia). The American bistro menu covers all the current food obsessions, from small plates and sliders to house-made hot dogs and gluten-free dishes. Cocktails are stellar, including Pete’s pickled Martini with house-pickled Cuban hat peppers and two kinds of sangria.
At this modern Indian restaurant decorated with oil paintings and sculptures by contemporary Indian artists, Bombay-born chef Vikram Sunderam creates phenomenal dishes, such as star anise–scented black cod and mango shrimp marinated twice (first in garlic and ginger, then in a more complex marinade of yogurt, cashews, green chile and mango pulp). The menu features plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, including a vegetarian prix fixe.
At this sprawling, two-story rec-room, Dubliner Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve combines expert Irish pub food with dart boards, a pool table and retractable video screens for playing Nintendo Wii. Executive chef Ryan Wheeler prepares spicy deviled eggs and mushroom dumplings alongside mixologist Todd Thrasher’s beer-based “hoptails.”
Washington, DC Restaurants: Splurge
Chef Nicholas Stefanelli has cooked in a number of stellar Italian kitchens, including Maestro in McLean, Virginia, and Fiamma in New York City. At Bibiana, his own elegant Italian menu is full of clever flourishes: He makes tagliatelle with onion ragù and lardo, and hay smoked veal sweetbreads arrive with charred eggplant puree, candied black olives and fennel puree. Photo courtesy of Komi Restaurant.
At the tiny, 12-table modern Greek restaurant Komi, young chef Johnny Monis treats pristine ingredients with reverence. The result: a transcendent $135 prix fixe dining experience composed of deceptively simple dishes including a series of mezzethakia (light bites), one of Monis’s always excellent pastas (like spaghetti with crab and sea urchin) and roasted meat, often baby goat or suckling pig. Photo courtesy of Restaurant Eve.
At his flagship in Alexandria, Virginia, chef Cathal Armstrong (Eamonn’s, Virtue Feed & Grain) uses produce from his own organic garden to create refined New American food, like whole roasted branzino with fennel confit and saffron cream. There are two options for guests: a formal 34-seat tasting room where the tablecloths are actually ironed on the tables and prix-fixe menus come with five, seven or nine courses; and the a la carte bistro and lounge. Photo © Greg Rogers.
Former Vidalia chef R.J. Cooper doesn’t just cook out of an open kitchen, he stars in a kitchen-as-performance space (complete with $12,000 rotary evaporator) located in the middle of a 52-seat dining room. Diners choose the 16-course Progression or 24-course Journey for modernist dishes like the Sea Floor, silky sea urchin served with pickled seaweed and crispy squid ink “lava rock.” Photo courtesy of The Source.
Scott Drewno, an alum of Los Angeles’s Spago and Chinois, heads up Wolfgang Puck’s first DC fine-dining restaurant, which takes over three floors of the Newseum museum just off the Mall. The first-floor lounge serves Asian snacks like pork belly buns with house-made hoisin and crispy chicken wings with chili sauce. In the upstairs dining room, politicians and lobbyists eat modern Asian dishes like squares of suckling pig with ginger-peach puree.
Washington, DC Restaurants: Classic
Superstar chef José Andrés has restaurants all over the country, but he made his name at Jaleo. There are now four outposts of the brightly colored Spanish restaurant, each serving dozens of authentic tapas—from the supersimple, classic pan con tomate (toasted bread rubbed with tomato) to more intricate ones like Basque-style squid ink stew—along with hearty paellas and Spanish wines. The bar serves excellent versions of José’s favorite cocktail, the gin and tonic, like one with Hendrick’s gin, juniper, lemon and artisanal Fever Tree tonic water.
This 90-year-old hotel, five blocks from the White House, has seen its share of talented chefs. Currently, Paul Pelt combines influences from New Orleans, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa for a menu that might include seafood gumbo with house-made sausage or Berbere-crusted Berkshire pork ribs.
Washington, DC Restaurants: Best Value
Photo courtesy of Bayou Bakery.
The author of one of mkgallery’s favorite cookbooks, DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth New Orleans Style, chef Davis Guas turns his attention to sandwiches and savory comfort food at this Arlington, Virginia café. For dinner, Guas updates NOLA dishes he grew up with, like spiced Gulf shrimp with green onion remoulade and blackened turkey meatballs with roasted tomato sauce, but hasn’t entirely forgotten his pastry chef roots. There are expert biscuits on the menu and super fluffy beignets with a generous coating of powdered sugar.
Next door to Jeff Tunks’s upscale District Commons is his counter service Burger, Tap & Shake, which features elevated burgers prepared with a blend of house-ground, three-day-aged, naturally raised–beef brisket and chuck on house-made buns. Also on the menu: liquor-spiked “shaketails” like the Apocalypto, which combines cinnamon whisky, homemade marshmallows, and chocolate ice cream, and 20 American craft brews on tap.
Superstar chef Michel Richard is known for ingenious French presentations at Citronelle and his newest restaurant, Michel by Michel Richard at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner. At the more casual Central, overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, the focus is on hearty portions of French and American comfort food classics, like the “faux gras” terrine and fried chicken with mashed potatoes. Photo courtesy of The Majestic.
In 2007, Cathal Armstrong (Restaurant Eve, Eamonn’s) took over this Alexandria, Virginia, landmark after hearing it was about to close. He installed chef Shannon Overmiller, who prepares homey American dishes, like meat loaf with mashed potatoes. The Majestic’s Sunday night supper is worth trying: the $22 family-style meal includes mains that change each month like barbecued pork ribs, sides and homey dessert such as peach pie or Irish rice pudding.
The suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, is a hub for the DC-area’s large Vietnamese community and a great place to go for papaya salad and shrimp rolls. Present, a strip-mall owned by Gene Nguyen, offers truly exemplary versions: The papaya salad comes topped with strips of beef liver jerky, and the shrimp rolls are assembled with house-made rice wrappers.
Washington, DC Bakeries
Photo © Tiffany MacIsaac.
As Birch & Barley pastry chef, Tiffany MacIsaac was famous for her delicious bread basket and elevated dessert classics. Now her two outposts of Buzz Bakery—in Alexandria and Ballston—serve cupcakes, pies and tarts, plus divine breakfast pastries, like buttery brioche rolls stuffed with scrambled Amish eggs, cheddar cheese and applewood-smoked bacon.
DC is still deep in its cupcake craze, with Georgetown Cupcake’s two area locations feeding much of the frenzy. Dozens of rotating flavors include an ode to springtime in the city: the Cherry Blossom, a Madagascar bourbon vanilla cupcake baked with fresh cherries and topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting and a fondant cherry blossom.
Washington, DC Bars
Photo courtesy of Birch & Barley.
A bistro with the heart of a beer bar, Birch & Barley has the city’s largest selection of brews (500 in bottles, 50 on tap, five in casks) and a beer sommelier to guide diners. Chef Kyle Bailey’s food naturally pairs well with beer, from the Brät Burger (a veal, pork and beef patty topped with sauerkraut) to the honey-glazed duck breast with nutty wild rice.
This pseudo-speakeasy from local DJ/restaurateur Eric Hilton doesn’t allow standing at the bar and takes reservations in two-hour blocks. It’s a sign that the focus here is on the mellow mood and well-made cocktails, not the party scene. The smart cocktail menu is divided into categories: Dry, Sweet, Sour and Bitter.
At this unmarked bar above Cathal Armstrong’s fish-and-chip shop Eamonn’s in Alexandria, Virginia, mixologist Todd Thrasher makes his own bitters, tonics, sodas and vermouth for both vintage drinks and his own wildly creative concoctions that use ingredients like whipped pickle foam and crushed Altoids. Among Thrasher’s more out-there cocktails: the Norfolk Dumpling, homemade duck sauce mixed with tequila, pisco and bitters, then garnished with a shrimp cracker.