The Best Dishes We Ate This Year in Washington, DC

From donuts worth a lengthy line to the lasagna that Washingtonians couldn’t stop talking about, these are the dishes that got us through 2021.

Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

With another year in the books, it’s time to reflect on the highlights of the year. And while 2021 may not have lived up to all that we had hoped it would be, there were some serious bright spots.

In the District, we welcomed in a new president to kick off the year, saw some of our favorite spots reopen, and watched a ton of new restaurants open in the city, seemingly against all odds. Through all the ups and downs of this year, this city’s incredible bars and restaurants brought us much-need comfort and opportunities to celebrate—and a handful of dishes from new restaurants helped this year shine brighter. From donuts worth a lengthy line to the lasagna that Washingtonians couldn’t stop talking about, here are the best dishes we ate this year.

Daru | Photo by Tim Ebner

Nariyal lamb shank from Daru

Daru was one of the most anticipated restaurants of the year and it delivered with a menu that’s chock full of inventive Indian dishes. But among them, the succulent Nariyal lamb shank stands out. Cooked in a spicy coconut sauce, the secret to this dish is its time-intensive preparation. The lamb is well-seasoned and marinated for 24 hours in a mix of spices like mace and garam masala, before being roasted in a fiery chili paste with coconut milk and saffron. It has been by far one of the most popular orders since day one, according to co-owner Dante Datta. Just be sure to accompany this dish with plenty of naan—the sauce is savory goodness to the very last swipe.
How to try it: Book a table via website
—Tim Ebner, Thrillist Contributor

Dope Kiladescope from Disco Mary

Ever since it opened this fall, this pop-up at the Columbia Room has been expanding the definition of what a bar can be. From the bedazzled statue of Mary that greets you at the door to some brightly painted murals on the walls, the vibe at Disco Mary is anything but ordinary. That’s because this bar embraces mindful drinking and herbalist drinks. Founder Maria Bastach and her partner Derek Brown converted the dark and moody Columbia Room into an effervescent, glittery bar for no- to low-ABV cocktails, including a popular drink called the Dope Kaleidoscope. It’s made with hemp oil, pumpkin-spiced syrup, aquafaba, apple cider vinegar, and coconut milk (with a shot of dark rum added as an option for imbibers). Best of all, the drink comes garnished with a hemp leaf (grown by Bloomingdale Organic) and is designed to help alleviate stress and tension, so we can’t think of a better drink to sum up what it was like to sip through 2021.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—TE

2fifty Texas BBQ dc
2fifty Texas BBQ | Photo by Sam Portillo

Brisket from 2fifty Texas BBQ

2fifty Texas BBQ has built a loyal following of smoked-meat enthusiasts in just under two years, and that’s mainly due to the dedication of a husband-and-wife team Fernando Gonzalez and Debby Portillo—two Salvadoran immigrants who opened a pithouse in Riverdale Park during the pandemic and are revolutionizing what Texas barbecue can be. While it’s no question that the spot honors the time-tested traditions of Texas barbecue, it also injects Salvadoran cuisine into American-style barbecue with dishes like pupusas stuffed with melty cheese and smoked brisket—a protein that has attracted much of the spot’s critical acclaim. The smoked brisket requires Gonzalez to get up early with his crew for the time-intensive process of smoking the meat to juicy perfection. Aside from time, the other secret is sourcing Snake River Farms American wagyu gold grade meat—one of the best grades of brisket in the United States.
How to try it: Stop by or order via website
—TE

Caruso’s Grocery  dc
Photo courtesy of Caruso’s Grocery

Antipasti dirty martini from Caruso’s Grocery

Caruso’s Grocery channels the red sauce joint vibes of Italian-American cuisine, and that translates through every part of the restaurant, including the cocktail menu created by spirits director Nick Farrell. His antipasti dirty martini is the ultimate appetizer and cocktail in one and combines all of the flavors of caprese into drinkable form. It’s made with tomato-flavored Moletto gin and mixed with fresh basil and some olive brine, and comes garnished with a skewered snack: mozzarella, tomato, and an olive. Dunk it into the drink to combine all those flavors together, then sip and nosh. It’s the perfect complement to all the housemade pasta and hearty Italian fare on chefs Matt Adler and Marvin Lopez’s menu.
How to try it: Book a table via OpenTable
—TE

L’Ardente
L’Ardente

40-layer lasagna from L’Ardente

One of DC’s buzziest dishes emerged in the 11th hour, but nevertheless remains one of the most talked-about dishes of the year. When L’Ardente opened at the end of October, chef David Deshaies, who has already won over DC with his perennially popular Unconventional Diner, wasn’t setting out with the intention of creating a city-famous lasagna. But given the intensive attention to detail that manifests in the 40 alternating layers of housemade pasta and fillings, it comes as little surprise that this is one pasta dish for the ages. Layer by layer, we have short rib sugo made with meat braised in red wine with a traditional mirepoix; sottocenere al tartufo, a cheese imported from Italy; truffle mornay sauce; and, of course, 20 layers of pasta. The pasta sheets themselves are rolled thin enough to avoid overwhelming the sugo and truffle mornay sauce with starchy carbs, but not so thin that they disappear against the bold flavors of the dish, making this truly epic dish way more than just an intriguing concept.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—Elsie Yang, Thrillist Contributor

Maiz64
Maiz64 | Photo by Ignacio Urquiza

Broccoli taco from Maiz64

It’s the little things that really set Maiz64 apart from other restaurants in town—everything from the chunky, charred salsa made of eggplant, tomatillo, and jalapeno that starts your meal, to the brightly colored reusable bags that are used to hold your leftovers (if you’re so lucky to have them) is carefully thought through and executed with care. And the same is the case for the broccoli taco, the unassuming dish that you would never expect to be one of the stars of a heavy-hitting menu. Three large, grilled broccoli florets sit flower-side down on a bed of black mole with cashews, and atop a Maiz64 non-negotiable: a yellow corn tortilla. With the sweetness of the black mole, the char from the broccoli, and the faint dusting of cheese adding just enough salty acidity to cut through the rich sauce, this simple-seeming taco deserves a spot on every table.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—EY

Spanish Diner
Spanish Diner

Callos con garbanzos from Spanish Diner

The ever-expanding empire of chef and philanthropist Jose Andres added a new home in Bethesda at the aptly-named Spanish Diner. Think less cheeseburger and chicken noodle soup, and more pan con tomate and callos con garbanzos, a dish that’s a favorite of Andres himself—and it shows. This traditional Madrid-style stew is everything you could want for a cold winter’s day. Its main ingredient, tripe (or the lining of a cow’s stomach), is stewed for hours with onions, paprika, bay leaf, and other spices. The dish gets a spicy kick with the addition of chorizo and is thickened with chickpeas, making an ultra-cozy dish that was perfect for providing comfort in this tumultuous year.
How to try it: Book a table via OpenTable
—EY

Dauphine's
Dauphine's

Duck jambalaya from Dauphine's

This year, homestyle southern fare met with Mid-Atlantic influence to produce one of the best restaurants of the year. It’s difficult to pick a favorite from the Louisiana-centric menu by chefs Kristen Essig and Kyle Bailey, but even among giants, the duck jambalaya stands out. Served in a Staub cast iron dish, this jambalaya for two (the only large-format dish at the restaurant), features a dry-aged duck breast that is roasted and lacquered with cane syrup straight from Louisiana. The rice is cooked with the trinity of onions, bell peppers, and celery, and of course, duck stock. And to drive home the fact that this is, indeed, a duck dish, the sausage served with the jambalaya is made with braised duck leg and jalapeno. For brightness and texture, there’s sauerkraut and duck skin cracklins, proving that every aspect of this must-have dish was thoughtfully considered.
How to try it: Book a table via OpenTable
—EY

Cranes
Cranes

Unagi paella from Cranes

After an untimely opening just before the pandemic, Cranes hit its stride this year while serving up some of the most inventive dishes in the District. The Japanese- and Spanish-influenced menu has plenty of standouts, but the unagi paella fully represents the visitation that chef Pepe Moncayo had for this downtown restaurant. To start, high-grade sushi rice is cooked in a deep stock of Katsuobushi dashi and a white soy ponzu, before getting topped with snap peas, smoked eel, and dollops of jalapeno aioli. Between the melding of flavors from across continents to combining textures like delicate sauces and a crispy rice bottom, this dish is an all-encompassing experience you just have to taste.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—Aparna Krishnamoorthy, Thrillist Contributor

Makan
Makan

Char kway teow from Makan

In a year that kept most of us in the District, a restaurant inspired by years of travel and research hits just a bit harder. And that’s exactly what you’ll find at Makan, chef James Wozniuk’s Malaysian restaurant. In his iteration of char kway teow, a popular street food dish, wok-fried flat rice noodles are jazzed up with Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, and egg in a flavorful sauce. The hearty bowls are deeply satisfying, with a depth of comforting flavor and smokiness that pushes this dish over the edge.
How to try it: Book a table via Resy
—AK

Donut Run
Donut Run

Boston cream donut from Donut Run

Another year, another new favorite spot to wait in line. All year long, Donut Run had Washingtonians spilling out of its bright pink building in Takoma in lines for the spot’s epic lineup of vegan donuts. Chances are if you’ve waited outside of Donut Run to get your fix of morning confections, it’s been hard not to make it a weekly affair. The donuts from husband-and-wife duo Shawn Petersen and Nicole Dao are habit-forming—but you’ll quickly forget about the early wakeups and trips out to Takoma upon first bite. The shop’s ever-rotating slate of vegan donuts includes classics as well as more inventive flavors, but one of the real standouts is the Boston cream. The airy donut and rich chocolate frosting on top are enough to cement its spot as a favorite, but consider that the creamy custard inside is vegan, and you’ll be sold.
How to try it: Get up early and take your spot in line
—AK

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Tim Ebner is an award-winning food, drink, and travel writer. He lives on Capitol Hill and has a weakness for Old Bay Seasoning. Follow him on Twitter: @TimEbner.
Aparna Krishnamoorthy is a freelance food and travel writer based in Washington DC. You can generally find her obsessing over the next meal or planning the next getaway. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for more dining and wanderlust adventures.
Elsie Yang is a contributor for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram.