Food & Drink

The 16 Most Important Restaurants in DC

Published On 07/27/2015 Published On 07/27/2015
Courtesy of Zaytinya

Every once in a while a restaurant comes around that leaves a King Kong-sized impact on the DC dining scene. From catalyzing new dining neighborhoods to starting food trends that are impossible to escape today, these are the 16 most important restaurants in the District.

Courtesy of Jaleo

Jaleo

Penn Quarter

Small plates: you either love them or you hate them, but there’s no denying where the craze originated as far as DC goes. When Jaleo opened its doors to serve tapas in 1993, a new way to dine in DC was born. Some dishes from the original menu are still available today, like the gambas al ajillo and tortilla Española. In the years that followed Jaleo’s debut, DC saw small plates at Mexican, Mediterranean, Asian restaurants and beyond take hold.

Laura Hayes/Thrillist

Zaytinya

Downtown

Another José Andrés original makes the list because of its status as a maker of men. Many of DC’s top chefs who’ve gone on to open their own restaurants did a stint in this high-volume, high-pressure kitchen, churning out tasty Mediterranean small plates. We bet you’ve heard of a few: The Red Hen’s Mike Friedman, Ripple/Roofers Union’s Marjorie Meek-Bradley; and Mike Isabella of Graffiato/Kapnos. Zaytinya has also managed to convert thousands of Brussels sprout haters into loyal fans with one spectacular dish -- Crispy Brussels Afelia -- making moms at Thanksgiving so much happier.

Laura Hayes/Thrillist

Le Diplomate

14th Street

A restaurant has to be pretty buzzy to attract folks from the Hill who generally prefer not to stray more than 100 yards from the dome (you know, in case there’s a vote). Or more steak to be had. Dinner at Le Diplomate often becomes an exercise in who’s who in DC, in large part because the food and wine satisfies. Le Dip (the adorable name regulars drop) is also important because it’s Stephen Starr’s first DC restaurant. He’s like the José Andrés of Philadelphia.

Courtesy of Ben's Chili Bowl

Ben’s Chili Bowl

U Street

Ben’s Chili Bowl is way more than a place to hit for half smokes during a late night bender. The classic spot has been the heart and soul of U Street since 1958, enduring race riots, tough economic times and revitalization. The African American-owned small business has been getting big nods of approval lately, as they’ve been expanding to H Street NE, Nationals Park, and National Airport. They’ve been visited by many notable personalities, too, including then-president-elect Barack Obama.  

Courtesy of Founding Farmers

Founding Farmers

Foggy Bottom

Before the tidal wave of the “farm-to-table” movement swept DC, there was Founding Farmers. The restaurant was committed to working directly with farmers before it was a buzz-generating line to put on a menu. In fact, American family farmers from across the country collectively own it. They’ve also served as a model for how to do high volume craft cocktails, and have contributed to brunch’s status as DC’s favorite meal. Spend just five minutes near the hostess stand on a Sunday morning and you’ll see what we mean.

Courtesy of Graffiato

Graffiato

Chinatown

Top Chef fans still go to Graffiato because they remember when Mike Isabella was on Top Chef and Top Chef All Stars. But Graffiato has played an even bigger role in the DC dining scene. Think of them as the consummate host of pretty much every after-party. This began back when they held Monday “Industry Nights,” which lured 20-somethings with free food and stiff drinks late at night while chefs partied upstairs. When Graffiato’s industry night was laid to rest, other spots were inspired to start one. In sum, Graffiato is the kid in high school who had a Ping-Pong table and whose parents were always out of town.

Courtesy of The Red Hen

The Red Hen

Bloomingdale

Ask your Uber driver where he drops people off the most and you’ll probably hear “that red restaurant,” or “the one with the hen.” This well-traveled route is partially because there’s no immediate Metro stop in Bloomingdale, but also demonstrates The Red Hen’s success in making the neighborhood a new dining destination. Chef Mike Friedman lures diners with his rigatoni and other rustic Italian eats, while Sebastian Zutant uses his wine list to introduce DC to orange wine and small producers.

Courtesy of Occidental Grill & Seafood

Occidental Grill & Seafood

Downtown

DC restaurants are known to pay it forward -- that’s why you see big name chefs at charity events several times a month (or week!). But, the Occidental was one of the first to be philanthropic. Gustav Buchholz, the original operator of Occidental when it opened in 1906, decided to donate all the profits from the Occidental cloakroom to the American Red Cross during WWI and purchased $40,000 worth of war bonds. If the walls of Occidental could talk, they would tell you everything you need to know about DC. You can still expect to see elected officials there, and here.

Courtesy of ChurchKey

ChurchKey

Logan Circle

When ChurchKey and Masa 14 opened on 14th Street in Fall 2009, they ignited a chain reaction of restaurant openings creating what is now one of DC’s hottest nightlife corridors. In addition to introducing DC to perfect tots and fig prosciutto flatbread, ChurchKey (and Birch & Barley downstairs) should also be credited with catalyzing DC’s thriving craft beer scene. Where else can you try more than 500 craft brews from around the world?

Courtesy of Debbie Smith

Little Serow

Dupont Circle

The opening of this hip, underground Thai restaurant allowed those priced out of Komi to try Johnny Monis’ food for less ($45 instead of $125). The lines that quickly began to form outside the no-reservations Little Serow demonstrated something else too. DC palates were changing -- diners were okay being along for whatever ride the kitchen threw at them, including heat, funk and fermentation. It cleared the way for other restaurants like Thip Khao and Baan Thai to open in the District, which also serve food that isn’t the muddled American version of ethnic food. Before, you had to skip town to the 'burbs to eat authentic Asian cuisine.

Courtesy of Black Salt

BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant

Palisades

BlackSalt started the increasingly popular trend of having a market housed inside a restaurant when they opened in 2004. Diners could now load up on top-notch products to take home and prepare in the days following their dinner. Today you see places like this sprouting up all over like Red Apron Butchery/The Partisan and Centrolina. BlackSalt also makes an impact on DC by serving a side of education with their seafood. The restaurant’s fishmonger, MJ Gimbar, takes every teachable opportunity by posting about ocean treasures, and sustainability in particular, on his blog.

Courtesy of Michael J. Colella

Rasika/Rasika West End

Penn Quarter/West End
Chef Vikram Sunderam gifted DC with its most recent James Beard Award when he took the title of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2014 for Rasika West End. And, for good reason. His modern Indian dishes are so good that Washingtonians have actually learned to pronounce them -- "palak chaat" rolls off people’s tongues as easily as "double cheeseburger" these days. Then there’s his downright addictive truffle naan, soul satisfying curries, and flame-kissed tandoori dishes. Everything combines to create a restaurant that folks keep going back to even though a new restaurant opens seemingly every day.  

Flickr/Ted Eytan

Florida Avenue Grill

U Street/Cardozo

“The Grill” is an antidote to soulless eateries where staff members change as often as tablecloths and value is a distant memory. The restaurant that opened at 11th and Florida Ave NW in 1944 is as alive as ever -- slinging all-day breakfast and serving soul food with wide smiles. When they say “world famous,” they mean it. Florida Avenue Grill has gotten hat tips in papers like the Boston Globe and New York Times, plus there’s that cult classic, D.C. Cab. If you haven’t had their hot cakes, you haven’t lived.

Laura Hayes/Thrillist

Rose’s Luxury

Barracks Row

Every good boss in DC knows not to schedule Monday meetings at 11am, because that's when the whole city pauses to compete for Rose’s Luxury rooftop garden reservations. Having breakthrough click power on GiftRocker is the only way to get an actual reservation at DC’s hottest restaurant, bypassing the daily long line for a regular table. Aaron Silverman’s first restaurant has certainly developed a following -- and we too have hit the Kool-Aid, HARD. Now, we wait for restaurant number two to open next door, along with everyone else in the city.

Courtesy of Old Ebbitt Grill

Old Ebbitt Grill

Downtown

Old Ebbitt Grill is more than one of DC’s oldest spots. It should also be credited with igniting our addiction to briny bivalves, spawning countless $1 oyster hours throughout the city. This dining institution near the White House is also responsible for throwing one of the best parties in DC, Oyster Riot, which goes down every year in November and should be on your bucket list. Seemingly everyone who passes through our nation’s capital makes a stop at Ebbitt, and that’s why the restaurant’s Facebook page says, “164K people have been here.” Who else can claim that stat?

Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Jaleo 480 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004 (Penn Quarter)

Small plates: you either love them or you hate them, but there’s no denying where the craze originated as far as DC goes. When Jaleo opened its doors to serve tapas in 1993, a new way to dine in DC was born. Some dishes from the original menu are still available today, like the gambas al ajillo and tortilla Española. In the years that followed Jaleo’s debut, DC saw small plates at Mexican, Mediterranean, Asian restaurants and beyond take hold.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
2. Zaytinya 701 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 (Downtown)

This airy Mediterranean spot, with Greek, Lebanese, and Turkish influences in its fare, is overflowing with flavor -- and light. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows line the space headed up by Chef José Andrés. Be sure to bring along your family and friends, and have everyone dig into a variety of the menu's shareable small plates (mezze), like spice-rubbed lamb kebab and pan-roasted sweet breads. You'll also find traditional salads, soups, and flatbreads in the lineup, plus a vegetarian-friendly mezze menu that's worth a try whether or not you're meat-free.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
3. Le Diplomate 1610 14th St NW, Washington, DC, DC 20009 (Logan Circle)

Le Diplomate is a Logan Circle brasserie from acclaimed restaurateur Stephen Starr, meaning you can count on its classic French dishes to be consistently tasty. From hors d'oeuvres like steak tartare with quail egg to entrees like moules frites, the menu is brimming with traditional and delectable choices. They even have a killer burger on a house-baked brioche bun. Be sure to grab a sidewalk seat for that extra Parisian feel.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
4. Ben's Chili Bowl 1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009 (U Street)

Ben's Chili Bowl has been an iconic part of the DC food landscape since first opening its doors in 1958. Its hot dogs, burgers, and subs are time-tested, Obama-approved classics. Of course, you're really there for the signature smoky chili, which tastes great in a bowl but even better atop a cheesy, onion-y hot dog. Ben's might be cramped, but the sizzling smell is too enticing to pass up.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
5. Founding Farmers 1924 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20006 (Foggy Bottom)

This spot was doing farm-to-table before it was even cool; enjoy your tasty, sustainable, family-farmed eats in a LEED-certified setting that's as green as the food.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
6. Graffiato 707 6th St, Washington, DC 20001 (Chinatown)

Opened by former "Top Chef" Mike Isabella, Graffiato is an innovative Italian eatery in Chinatown (yes, confusing). What's not confusing is the tastes or the fact that there is a ham bar where locally-cured meats are carved to perfection right in front of you. The open wooden bar-style kitchen allows you to converse with the chef as he kneads the dough for your personal wood-fired pie.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
7. The Red Hen 1822 1st St NW , Washington, DC 20001

The open kitchen, bare brick walls, and simple, maple furnishing make you feel like you're in your own home when you eat at The Red Hen, as does the comfort of their classic Italian and American dishes. Just upscale of what you'd find in a chain, roasted chicken with black truffle polenta, house made cavatelli with spicy lamb, and grilled swordfish show impressive culinary chops but don't break the bank. They stick to simplicity here, even with its global wine list, and it works.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
8. Occidental Grill & Seafood 1475 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20004 (Downtown)

Dine on fresh fishes amongst portraits of Washington's who's-who at this classy White House-adjacent seafoodery.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
9. ChurchKey 1337 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 (Logan Circle)

With 55 draft lines and 500-plus bottles that all manage to deliver on quality, ChurchKey is a chic Logan Circle destination for DC's die-hard beer fans. In addition to the meticulously curated lineup of domestic brews and collabs one would expect from a top-flight beer bar, this stylish spot above sister restaurant Birch & Barley has its finger on the pulse of what’s happening craft-wise overseas, too, allowing you to one-up your friends by saying things like, “I’ve really been impressed by what’s happening in Estonia’s beer scene lately” with complete seriousness. The food menu is loaded with plenty of hearty bites like tater tots, burgers, and flatbreads to soak up all those suds.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
10. Little Serow 1511 17th St NW, Washington, DC 20036 (Dupont Circle)

Though you may have to brave a serious line (we're not kidding, get there early!), the family-style Thai meal that you'll encounter at Little Serow will be well worth the wait. They don't make any substitutions, so make sure you're adventurous, allergy-less, and ready to rumble.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
11. BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant 4883 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC 20007 (Palisades)

BlackSalt started the increasingly popular trend of having a market housed inside a restaurant when they opened in 2004. Diners could now load up on top-notch products to take home and prepare in the days following their dinner. Today you see places like this sprouting up all over like Red Apron Butchery/The Partisan and Centrolina. BlackSalt also makes an impact on DC by serving a side of education with their seafood. The restaurant’s fishmonger, MJ Gimbar, takes every teachable opportunity by posting about ocean treasures, and sustainability in particular, on his blog.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
12. Rasika 633 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004 (Penn Quarter)

Rasika has some of, if not THE best Indian cuisine in DC, with all your favorites done right, plenty of dishes you probably haven't tried before, and reasonably priced tasting menus to let someone else decide for you.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
13. Rasika West End 1177 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC 20036 (West End)

Rasika is an elegantly designed contemporary Indian restaurant with a boundary-pushing menu that still keeps its roots in traditional Indian cuisine. Its wine list also spans across the globe and is hand-selected to complement the menu.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
14. Florida Avenue Grill 1100 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009

When Lacey and Bertha Wilson opened Florida Avenue Grill way back in the 1940s, they envisioned a home-style cafe where you could get a meal any time of the day without selling out big bucks for it. With heaping plates of Southern dinners like smothered fried pork chops and all-day breakfast with options like fish & grits, smoked sausage, eggs, and hotcakes, their vision is still living on past their era of ownership.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
15. Rose's Luxury 717 8th St SE, Washington, DC 20003 (Barracks Row)

Rose's Luxury is a small, first-come first-serve establishment that's into all sorts of rule-breaking: grilling salad, posting framed profanity, and pairing popcorn with lobster. Come early enough and you can get a front row seat at the open kitchen and watch the magic happen from the chef's counter.

Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
16. Old Ebbitt Grill 675 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 (Downtown)

Whether you're stopping by for their raw bar happy hour, or just in the area after taking a White House tour, Old Ebbitt Grill is a historic restaurant that's worth a visit.

Clickbait