The 12 Most Essential Washington DC Food Experiences

Check all the boxes.

When you think of your ultimate food bucket list, you probably think of far-flung travel, like sampling street food in Mexico City or eating your way through the Temple Night Market in Hong Kong. Globetrotting is certainly special, but here’s the thing: the world also turns its eyes to Washington, DC for some destination dining.

We have the award-winning chefs, lauded restaurants, and exciting pop-ups to prove it. The District is a dining capital that runs the gamut from high-brow tasting menus to everyday eats, including the quintessential half-smoke sausage and jumbo pizza by-the-slice, and it’s your duty as a local or visitor to sample them all at some point. So put your basic lunch on hold or try out a new dinner spot, and check off this bucket list of all the most essential food experiences in DC.

Jessie Taylor Seafood
Courtesy of Jessie Taylor Seafood

Pick crabs at The Wharf

The Wharf
These days, The Wharf may be known as the neighborhood that’s undergoing a $2.5 billion renovation. But the historic Fish Market, which is the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States, and Jessie Taylor Seafood, where you can score steamed Chesapeake crabs doused in Old Bay by the dozen, are still standing. The seafood here is arranged into display cases that span the length of the shop and is open from sun up to sundown.
How to order: Takeout-only dining. Social distancing required and patrons must follow the directives of staff and signage on-site.

Hi-Lawn on the rooftop of Union Market
Hi-Lawn on the rooftop of Union Market | Photo Courtesy of Hi-Lawn

Get higher on Hi-Lawn

Union Market
For a breath of fresh air and some elevated eating, visit Hi-Lawn on the rooftop of Union Market. It’s an outdoor concept that has helped support local chefs throughout COVID-19 and offers a casual, park-like space for the neighborhood. The roof features some stunning views of the Capitol Building, and the menu offers everything from DC craft beer and cocktails to meze platters. Plus if you’re still hungry, you can visit the dozens of vendors downstairs like 2fifty, Lucky Buns, Immigrant Food, and Buffalo & Bergen.
How to book: Via Resy

Choose your own adventure at Kinship

Shaw
Tasting menus are fun, but chef Eric Ziebold also recognizes that sometimes diners want to call the shots. That’s why Kinship offers a “choose-your-own” adventure take on an a la carte menu that celebrates classic American cuisine. Menus are grouped into one of four categories: dishes that celebrate craft, history, ingredients, and indulgence. On that last one, Ziebold has a swanky version of “chips and dip” which has Maine lobster French toast served with marinated rhubarb, cucumber, and sesame mousse. The full menu is also served in the bar area which includes twelve seats and three booths, available on a walk-in basis. That combined with a fireplace adds to the classic and oh-so cozy vibe for either special-occasion dining or casual meet-ups with friends.
How to book: Via Tock

Compass Rose Khachapuri
Courtesy of Compass Rose

Dine around the world in one meal at Compass Rose

14th Street
At a time when we’re all hankering to get back out there, there’s no better time to visit Compass Rose and sample its worldly menu. Restaurateur Rose Previte brings a world of options to the intimate and personal menu that’s also a reflection of her personal travels—from sampling wine in Georgia to riding the Trans-Siberian Rails through Russia. Her restaurant includes dishes from around the world and, right now, includes Argentine Asado, Tunisian Kebab, and Spanish Patatas Bravas. With such a global menu, it’s possible to sample several dishes across thousands of miles in a single night. Just be sure to save room for dessert. Pastry chef Paolo Velez, who also runs La Bodega Bakery, has a devoted following including her poppy and sumac chocolate chip cookies.
How to book: Via Tock

Sample European fare in Georgetown's alleys

Georgetown
People flock to Georgetown for waterfront strolls and shopping in trendy stores that adorn M Street, but some of the best dining outposts on this side of town are tucked away down side streets and into alleys in this European-inspired neighborhood. First, head to Grace Street and turn down Cherry Hill Lane to find Reverie. Chef Johnny Spero’s kitchen envelopes the dining room and embraces fresh ingredients with bold flavors inspired by his time cooking in Spanish Basque Country. Meanwhile, old-school beer nerds will want to wander up Wisconsin Avenue and turn down a narrow alley to find The Sovereign, which offers pages of Belgian-style beer, plus a robust menu of Flemish-inspired fare. And for schnitzel or a Viennese coffee, Kafe Leopold is the place to people watch and watch time pass by a tranquil fountain.
How to book: Check each restaurant’s website

The Inn at Little Washington
The Inn at Little Washington

Book a reservation at The Inn at Little Washington

Washington, Virginia
The Inn at Little Washington is DC’s only three-star Michelin restaurant, and it’s a destination unto itself. Located about 90 minutes west in the other Washington (in Virginia), this tasting meal experience has a $265 per person, plus tax and tip, price tag meaning this could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime eating experience. But you’ll savor each moment with chef Patrick O’Connell’s whimsical menu of modern American cuisine—everything from lobster mousse to tuna and foie gras washed in black truffle vinaigrette. There’s even a cow cheese cart named Faira, and she carries fromage aplenty.
How to order: Reservations accepted by phone or online 

Jumbo slice at Pizza Mart
Jumbo slice at Pizza Mart | Flickr/Nick Sherman

Take a jumbo-sized pizza tour

Adams Morgan
Anyone who has had a few too many in Adams Morgan knows that Jumbo Slice is the spot for pizza so big, you’ll need two paper plates to hold a slice. And sure, this certainly isn’t DC’s best version (pizza snobs, go here) but it’s part-nostalgia, part-novelty dish that can easily feed a small family or cure a giant-sized hangover. For the very best in jumbo slice, head to Duccini’s at the corner where U Street meets Florida Avenue NW. And if you can stomach even more carbs, meander up 18th Street in Adams Morgan for stops at Pizza Mart and Bestolli Pizza for other jumbo-sized options.
How to order: Do as most revelers do, order jumbo slice for takeout and eat it on the curb

Beteseb Restaurant
Beteseb Restaurant

Embark on an injera crawl 

Silver Spring, Maryland
Along Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, one of the largest concentrations of Ethiopian eateries in the United States. Let injera, a spongy textured bread, be your guide as you nosh your way through a city filled with doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, coffee ceremonies, and markets filled with imported goods. Most of the shops along Georgia and Colesville Avenue, including Beteseb, Shalla Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar, and Bete Ethiopian Cuisine & Cafe.
How to order: Stop in to the restaurants for indoor dining, outdoor dining, or takeout

Eden Center
Eden Center

Enter an earthly Eden of eats 

Falls Church, Virginia
The Eden Center center in Falls Church, Virginia has more than 125 Vietnamese vendors and many out-of-this-world eating options, including banh mi, but also lesser-known sleeper hits, like boba shakes and cha gio, Vietnamese spring rolls. Start your experience at Nhu Lan Sandwich for $5 sandwiches that might be the best in DC, then swing by Huong Binh Bakery & Deli for sweets and boba teas. And save room for extra dessert. Wing Sheng Bakery (located inside the Good Fortune Supermarket) serves pillow-soft buns stuffed with sweet and savory options and priced at just $1.50 to $2 each.
How to order: Walk in or check out takeout and delivery menus online

Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt Grill

Slurp oysters at Old Ebbitt Grill

Downtown
After a year of extensive renovations, Old Ebbitt Grill is now reopened and offers both indoor and socially-distanced dining options for patrons eager to slurp down oysters on the half-shell. This spot is nothing less than a quintessential DC bar and restaurant, whether you’re a tourist or have lived here for decades. The ambiance, service, and fresh seafood are the main draws. But it’s the extensive list of oysters that keeps people coming back for more. Find varieties like Great White, Pink Ladies, and Dutch Islands. 
How to book: Via OpenTable

Iron Gate Restaurant
Iron Gate Restaurant

Eat at one of DC’s oldest restaurants

Dupont Circle
Iron Gate in Dupont Circle is a secluded spot with a secret garden and patio that happens to be one of the oldest continuously operated restaurants in the District. Aside from almost a century’s worth of history, its latest inhabitant, chef Anthony Chittum, has been cooking dishes inspired by his love for Greece and Italy. He also sources the menu from local farms in the Shenandoah and Path Valleys in the Mid-Atlantic region. While this restaurant has an impressive track record in terms of history, the menu offers up many new surprises according to seasonality.
How to book: Via OpenTable

Ben's Chili Bowl
Ben's Chili Bowl

Do the half-smoke shuffle down U Street  

U Street
Ben’s Chili Bowl is the legendary landmark for Washington, DC’s half-smoke doused in chili and cheese, but along U Street there are several more options so you can try this iconic dish that is beloved by tourists and locals alike. It rose to fame at Ben’s, but you can also find the half-pork, half-beef casing at Florida Avenue Grill, Half Smoke, and Meats & Foods. All four restaurants are located within a short half-mile distance of each other, which means you can easily plan a “half-smoke shuffle” for weekend fun.
How to order: Ben’s is open every day for dine-in and patio service, curbside pickup, and delivery on GrubHub.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Tim Ebner is a food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C. and writes for Eater, Edible, Washington City Paper, and Forbes Travel, among others. He's from Maryland and has a weakness for Old Bay seasoning. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.