The 13 Most Essential Washington DC Food Experiences

Chesapeake Bay crabs, iconic half-smokes, and more must-eat foods in DC.

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

We have 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.

L’Ardente
Photo courtesy of L’Ardente

Capitol Crossing
If you’ve been on Instagram in the past year, chances are you already know which restaurant is home to an epic 40-layer lasagna that requires two to take down. L’Ardente is the city’s splashiest new restaurant from chef David Deshaies and restaurateur Eric Eden of Unconventional Diner. It has a grand and gilded-style dining room that makes it destination-worthy on its own, but its signature dish is what earns the restaurant’s spot on the bucket list of all DC diners. Once you eat through the delicate layers of short rib sugo, truffle mornay, and sottocenere cheese, sample the other wood-fired favorites like Bucatini alla Carbonara and Whole Grilled Branzino stuffed with fennel, tomatoes, and olives.
How to book:Resy

Hi-Lawn
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, The District Fishwife, and Buffalo & Bergen.
How to book: Via Tock

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 book: Stop by for takeout

Kinship
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” with 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.
How to book: Via Tock

Compass Rose
Compass Rose

14th Street
Planning a trip soon? Skip the jet lag, and book a table at Compass Rose to 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. Her restaurant includes dishes from around the world and 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. The newest addition to the restaurant is a private and elaborately decorated Ukrainian train car, called the Sunflower Coach, where guests can order a family-style meal featuring Ukrainian Borscht and Potato Vareniki. Proceeds support World Central Kitchen’s relief effort in Ukraine.
How to book: Via Resy

Bas Rouge
Bas Rouge

Easton, Maryland
The Chesapeake Bay may be more synonymous with steamed crabs or oysters on the half-shell, but in the historic town of Easton, Maryland (only 90 minutes by car from Washington, DC), you’ll find a city of European delights, thanks to one restaurant group that now occupies an entire strip of businesses. Bluepoint Hospitality Group has injected the region with everything from Italian, German, Austrian, and French fine dining to single-malt Scotches and high tea, plus wines sourced from around the world. Start your weekend away at Bas Rouge, where executive chef Harley Peet prepares a menu of seasonal dishes with German and Austrian roots. Just down the street you’ll find The Stewart, a Scotch bar that hosts one of the most impressive collections in America. Rarities from each region of Scotland are enhanced by decadent small plates like Russ & Daughters Osetra Caviar and grilled cheese with braised short rib. And no trip to Easton would be complete here without a stop in at The Wardroom—an all-day cafe and wine shop showcasing premium ingredients and wines from top vintners worldwide.
How to book: Via OpenTable

The Inn at Little Washington
The Inn at Little Washington

Washington, Virginia
As DC’s only three Michelin star restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington is a destination. Located about 90 minutes west in the other Washington (in Virginia), this tasting meal experience with a $300-plus price tag per person 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 book: Via Tock

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 pizza but it’s a 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 to Pizza Mart and Bestolli Pizza for other jumbo-sized options.
How to order: Do as most revelers do, order a jumbo slice for takeout and eat it on the curb

Beteseb Restaurant
Beteseb Restaurant

Embark on an injera crawl

Silver Spring, Maryland
Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland houses 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, coffee ceremonies, and markets filled with imported goods. Shops along Georgia and Colesville Avenue, including Beteseb, Shalla Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar, and Bete Ethiopian Cuisine & Cafe, are all great stops.
How to book: Varies by location

Eden Center
Eden Center

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, boba shakes, and cha gio (Vietnamese spring rolls). Start your experience at Nhu Lan Sandwich for a banh mi 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 book: Varies by location

Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt Grill

Downtown
After extensive renovations during the height of the pandemic, Old Ebbitt Grill is bigger and better than ever 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

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

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 spots where 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 part pork, park beef sausage 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 book: Walk in

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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.