My 12 favorite places to eat in DC

By Ezra Klein

On Monday, a reader asked me for my top picks for Restaurant Week. here’s my answer: Don’t go. But I only noticed that that was the question when I double-checked it. Originally, I thought it was to name my favorite restaurants in DC. And since I actually thought of a list, I’ll just pretend that was the question.

The following list is not an argument for the best restaurants in DC. Nor are they even the finest restaurants I know in the area (that list, for instance, would include the tasting room at Restaurant Eve). They’re just my favorites. And mindful of Ben Casnocha’s insight that lists with an overly pat total (5, 10, 15, etc) are probably either including irrelevant entries or excluding relevant ones, we’ve got 12.

12) Spice Express. I go to the one on 15th and Vermont. In the wasteland that is DC’s takeout lunch scene, Spice is one of the few places with ample vegetarian options, evident care in the food, a great concept, and the occasional total home run. I never put up my post bashing the dull meal I had at Rasika, but there were definite items on the list that compared unfavorably with lunches I’ve had at Spice Express. And  Shiv, the owner, makes you feel like a regular: He’s warm, solicitous, and acts happy to see you even when the line is out the door.

11) Super H Market. This isn’t a restaurant, exactly. But it does have a lot of samples, and the spicy tofu soup they hand out near the scallions is a joy, with enough heat to leave me hiccuping as I finish shopping. But more to the point, Super H is just the happiest place on earth. The produce — both America and Asian — is fresh, bountiful, and cheap, cheap, cheap. I buy both my bok choy and my dill there. And the rest of the building is filled with every flavor I call a favorite — from roe to Chinese black vinegar to Korean red chili pepper — and more than a few that I imagine I’ll be calling a favorite a year from now. It’s also got an oddly comprehensive selection of Latin foods.  I finally found epazote, for instance.

10) Great Wall Szechuan. The mala menu at Great Wall is the only Chinese I’ll order, or even happily eat, in the city. The mapo tofu, mala cucumber, mala kung pao, mala bean sprout, and mala double-cooked pork are all terrific. Plus, they deliver widely and quickly. (Previous post on Great Wall.)

9) Vace. People say the pizza here is great. I wouldn’t know. I always buy the fresh pasta. Four bucks and three minutes in boiling water later and you’ll forget that you’re in a city with a little Italian deli, as opposed to an actual Little Italy. Vace is also the home of great anchovies and olives, smoked mozzarella, burrata, the best prosciutto di Parma…

8) Taylor deli. Sounds weird, but Taylor has become my go-to brunch place. I get the Spring Garden — broccoli rabe and sharp provolone — with extra hot peppers and cheese. Add in some root beer from the yuppie soda machine.

7) Bar Pilar. Amanda and I had a corn soup there that was so good I had to order it twice. I’m not certain I’ve ever had a better soup than that one. I love the anchovies, the prawns, the olives, the Marcona almonds, and pretty much everything I’ve ever ordered here. It’s a well-known bar, but it doesn’t get sufficient credit for the absurd excellence of its food, or the quiet ambition of its menu.

6) Hong Kong Palace. Try the lamb cumin, which a nicer restaurant would charge $28 for and be made famous by. Or maybe the spicy fish and tofu. No, wait, go for the tea-smoked duck, which tastes like I always hope barbecue will taste. Actually, get the tendon. Definitely the tendon.

5) Central. I wasn’t originally a fan. The scallops were a disappointment and the tuna burger unexciting. It wasn’t till much later that I was taken there and ordered the lobster burger. Holy shit. Then there’s the beef cheeks, which come with more cheeks than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time. The salmon and lentils. The chicken. The perfect, crusty bread. The best dirty martini in town. The best desserts in town, particularly the “chocolate bar.” I also love that this place is in DC. We deserve more restaurants that try this hard, and think this much of us.

4) Jaleo and Oyamel. Speaking of restaurants that respect DC, you can’t leave out the Jose Andres joints. I group Jaleo and Oyamel in the same line because I use them in different seasons. I go to Jaleo for the cold soups, the perfect salads, and the tomato bread with Manchego cheese. It’s best in the summer and spring. Oyamel is just the opposite: Roasted Brussels sprouts, plantain fritters filled with black beans, warm salads, rice with corn truffles, fries in a mole poblano sauce, and great drinks. I’m there in fall and winter. Both are great for vegetarians.

3) 2 Amy’s. The best pizzas in town. If you see any special pies with egg or green tomato, order them. Great vegetable specials. The best charcuterie in town. Suppli a telefono, or however you spell that. Not sure I’ve ever had a bad meal here. Not sure I ever will.

2) Komi. Arguably the single best meal of my life. And I’ve had some good meals in my time, at some restaurants that are pretty well known. Komi edges them all out. Which isn’t to say it’s my favorite restaurant. It’s pricey, and it’s sterile. But it’s the most brilliantly conceived meal I’ve ever eaten, and probably the best executed. The feeling is awe more than it is love. But awe is good. I want more awe. (My review of Komi. Amanda’s less-impressed review of Komi.)

1) Palena Cafe. I could eat here every night for the next month and never get bored. Think that’s impressive? I’d probably also order the same thing most nights. Roast chicken. Might start with a burger now and then. But roast chicken now, roast chicken tomorrow, roast chicken forever. And I don’t even like chicken! But at Palena, it’s easily my favorite dish in DC. At $14 — which is about par for the cafe — it’s easily the best value in DC. And it’s easily my favorite place to go on a weeknight in DC. If I didn’t limit my meals with meat, I’d probably be there three times a week. As it is, the plurality of the meals where I do eat meat take place in those walls, over that perfect, perfect roast chicken. Awe is great, but Palena is love. (More gushing over Palena’s roast chicken.)

Obviously, the comments could be about how this list sucks. And don’t let me dissuade you from making such comments. But do the folks googling “best places to eat in DC” a favor and leave some more options in the comments. Who isn’t on this list, but should be?


27 responses to “My 12 favorite places to eat in DC

  1. Thank you, I feel like I have been singing Bar Pilar’s praises to deaf ears. My favorite meal in the U street/Logan circle area if not the city, the good wine/cocktail list and relative affordability doesn’t hurt either. Good list.

  2. What’s your take on Founding Farmers? My wife and I have been there twice (for the two times we’ve been in D.C. in the last year—I know, I know, “try something new,” but we were on a tight schedule the second time). We’ve been thrilled with each visit, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  3. At least five of these would be on my list too. A secret at Jaleo — everyone focuses on the tapas but the sandwiches rock too. And don’t let the Palena cafe overshadow the restaurant — you always get a special meal there.

  4. Been to Founding Farmers twice. Thought it was terrible. Like the Daily Grill in a hipper atmosphere. But maybe I went on bad nights.

    As for Palena restaurant, I’ve been, but for the money, I’d go to Komi, Eve, Minibar, or others. It’s a bit fussy for me.

  5. Good list! Though I’m not sold on Komi or Central, and Vace and Super H are still on my agenda.

    I’d add:
    CF Folks
    Market Lunch
    Belga Cafe

  6. Vace spinach linguine with a healthy blob of fresh pesto – ummm…

  7. In NYC, epazote grows plentifully as a weed in public parks & other marginal spots. I’d be surprised if the same wasn’t true in DC. This is helpful, since you really don’t want a whole “bunch” of epazote. God I miss California at this time of year … *eyes dead thyme balefully*

  8. Do these places serve dishes with dill in them? Please identify those particularly so that the rest of us can avoid them.

    No, I can’t let the dill thing slide. It’s too disheartening a revelation. I trusted Ezra, looked to him for guidance, nodded in agreement when reading his posts on health care, cheered him on when he got into it with his Post co-workers. But now, with this dill thing, it casts a pall over every happy memory. I don’t know who you are anymore, Ezra! I just . . . don’t know . . . Should I still regard your judgment on the Health Care bill as valid?

    Reject Satan, Ezra, and all his works! Come back to us! Denounce dill! It can be the same as it was before if you only denounce dill!

  9. I wish you included locations. Where is Super H?

  10. Super H is in Fairfax, I fear.

  11. Taylor sucks. Overpriced, stingy on the meat and the bread’s not that good. Better Italian subs at Litteri’s or Mangialardos

  12. Brassiere Beck is amazing, I have never had a bad meal there. Second Belga Cafe (maybe I have thing for Belgian?) As for smaller out of the way places, Kotobuki is my favorite sushi restaurant for its simplicity and freshness. Also Red Rocks is MUCH better than 2 Amy’s in my opinion. Try the eggplant pizza! Heller’s Bakery is my favorite for bagels and coffee.

  13. Paul, I say this as someone who was going to Sarcone’s deli in Philly for years before Taylor opened and started shipping down their bread: you are misunderstanding the Philly sub. That’s just a question of preference, perhaps, but it’s incorrect to imply that Taylor is doing it wrong (and certainly incorrect to say that the bread is bad — that’s THE canonical bread, the very same loaf!).

  14. This list sadly lacks any mention of Loew’s Deli, the fantastic sandwich shop located on 14th at McPherson Square. As such, I’m afraid I can’t take it seriously.

    (Oyamel and Jaleo are both terrific.)

  15. This is a great list. I especially second Palena Cafe, 2 Amy’s, and Oyamel, where they have a great hora feliz…mmm, tacos.

    I might add Bistro D’oc, across from Ford’s Theater downtown. Once inside you feel worlds away from the tour buses, etc. Also Bistro du Coin, where I like to meet friends after the Sunday market at Dupont Circle.

  16. One more — how is it possible that not a single Pho place has been mentioned? My pick is Pho 75.

  17. Here is a good video about this:

  18. Tom, I think you’re misunderstanding the purpose of a sub. I understand the novelty of shipping rolls three hours down I-95. I just don’t see the point, or at least not at $7.90 for a six-inch sub no one with a last name of Testa would call Italian. It’s fetishizing food over fulfillment to the detriment of my stomach and my wallet. I say this as someone who’s been eating subs for years before Taylor opened: you’re absolutely right it’s a question of preference. I’d gladly have the real thing in Philly, but in D.C. there are better options.

  19. I went to Sarcone’s the last time I was in Philly and actually didn’t think the bread was nearly as thick or hard as it is at Taylor’s. I’ve been there twice now and have also noticed that the quality varies significantly by time of day. For instance, the sub I ate at 1 a.m. was not very good–the bread was basically day old at that point. By contrast, the one I ate at 1 p.m. was much better with softer bread. But with images of Sarcone’s still in my head I have to say that it really is an inferior experience that makes me wistful for going to Philly every time I eat one.

  20. This is also the H&H bagel problem. They’re just awful when shipped.

  21. Bump Paul. Taylor blows.

  22. Crisfields, right across the line on Georgia Avenue. Nothing has changed in the last 50 years, except they take credit cards. (My memories go back no further.)

    The old ways is the best ways!

  23. Almost right on H&H, Ezra: They’re just awful. Period. An abomination.

  24. I’m surprised at your enthusiasm for the ma la dishes at Great Wall, given that it was only a year or two ago that you mentioned your dislike of szechuan peppercorns. You’ve changed your mind?

  25. Taylor reeks of indecency. I have never been in there when the barista behind the counter did not have his shirt off. Authentic Italian subs do not come in chains.

  26. Kotobuki would be on my list. And Makoto (downstairs), although it’s too pricey to go to regularly. But Kotobuki is amazingly cheap given the quality of the sushi.

    A&J’s in Annandale — best dumplings around, in my view. And the sliced pig’s ear — don’t even get me started.

    Teatro Goldoni on K St might make the cut as well. They have a lunch special at the bar that comes with an entree, wine, and bread for like $13.

    Good calls on Hong Kong Palace and Great Wall Szechuan.

    I know you’re not a fan of Zaytinya, but I’ve had some spectacular meals there.

    I really need to get to Bar Pillar — I’ve made plans twice but stupid shit came up and I had to cancel.

  27. Love the Super H Mart and Hong Kong Palace. You should try Szechwan Pavilion in Rockville, it is every bit as good but has a different selection of szechwan dishes. I love their minced chicken with steamed buns and their crispy fried tofu. They also have a shockingly delicious potato dish where the potatoes are left crunchy and almost raw.

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