After I sent in The Banh Mi Handbook manuscript, my husband and I practically ran out of town for a much needed vacation. It’s been years since we traveled with a loose itinerary. He’d just finished a massive work-related report so we were in the same boat, ready to paddle as fast as we could to escape the daily. Our plan was to visit national monuments and historic Civil War sites in and around Washington, DC.
Why? In the late 1990s, I edited a collection of short biographies on the American presidents and my husband is a political scientist. We’re geeks. Plus, many of the DC sites are FREE. American tax payers have paid for everyone’s admission! We packed light and took a red-eye to the East Coast.
There are many wonderful things to see in Washington, DC, including Julia Child’s kitchen, the Wrights brothers’ flyer from their groundbreaking flight at Kitty Hawk, and buildings such as the Capitol and Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). I’d heard a lot about DC restaurants being up and coming. Naturally, we tried as many as we could. Here’s a recap.
The focal point for most visitors to DC. It was sweltering (upper 90s with high humidity) so the museums are where we spent most of our time. It was a hike to restaurants in the heat so I stashed a bag of almonds in my purse, along with a bottle of water. None of the food trucks lined up on 7th Street caught our eyes for lunch. Surprisingly, one of the best lunches we had in DC was at the SCOTUS cafeteria. Fast, wholesome, and affordable. Made-to-order sandwiches, a salad bar, and wok and carving stations comprised the facility. It’s very low key. The friendly staff told us that on occasion, the Supreme Court justices come down for coffee.
Several years ago, the SCOTUS cafeteria food was deemed unconstitutional in a review by the Washington Post, but the sandwich and salad we got were just fine – not any worse or better than what you’d get at Whole Foods. The National Mall is huge and certain places like the Supreme Court and Capitol are ticketed with limited hours. You don’t have time for a leisurely lunch if you want to soak it all in.
Alexandria and Arlington
We stayed in Alexandria because it’s relatively affordable (check sites like Hotwire.com) and extra historic. For example, the cobblestones at the top of this post date back centuries. George Washington had a townhouse there.
Old town Alexandria around King Street is where noteworthy spots like Vermillion, Brabo, Restaurant Eve, Majestic, and others are located. It’s perfect for strolling and if you’re not in the mood for a full-on meal, go for happy hour. Seriously, on a Friday night at 5pm, the restaurant bars were full of local professionals celebrating TGIF.
We popped into Brabo and had a couple glasses of wine and snacks. Not wanting to eat too heavy of a dinner, we ended up ordering roast chicken at Nando’s Peri Peri (an slightly upscale South African take on El Pollo Loco). All things in moderation was our approach to eating while on vacation.
The next day we kinda splurged on delicious food. First, we headed to Arlington for a Louisiana lunch at Bayou Bakery by David Guas. I was recently introduced to his wife and the couple treated us to his muffuletta sandwich, pimento cheese, grits, crawfish and cheese melt, cornbread, and beignets. It was all excellent and luscious. David thoughtfully sources and prepares his ingredients at his popular establishment. My husband fell in love with pimento cheese, which I’ve now started making at home.
Lunch fueled our ability to go through several Smithsonian museums but somehow, we got hungry by early evening. I also remembered that it was our 17th wedding anniversary (neither of us could believe it had been that long). My husband’s response was, “We have to celebrate!” It was Saturday night and we couldn’t get a reservation at most places. However, if you’re a party of two with flexible schedule, there’s always the bar. Up from the National Mall on 7th Street is Jaleo, a ginormous tapas bar and restaurant by Jose Andres. If you’re in DC, sample Andres’s food because his Spanish fare has helped to put the DC food scene on the map. The salt-cured cod salad was illuminating.
After cocktails and a couple snacks, we felt lucky and walked to nearby Rasika, hailed as one of America’s best Indian restaurants. I’d called for a reservation but they had none but when we walked in, there were two seats at the open kitchen counter. We had a fantastic meal of dishes such as fish grilled in banana leaf. Fabulous Indian food done with grace and flair. A terrific beer and wine list too.
Where is the Chinatown in DC? It’s not much anymore because it’s been turned into an entertainment and live performance hot spot. We were going to the National Portrait Gallery (the courtyard is great for lounging over a beer) so we ended up in the neighborhood. Daikaya Ramen on 6th Street is considered among the best in DC and while our bowls were filled with toothsome noodles and decent broth, the experience was rather soulless. A little too hip for its own good. Down the block and across the street was a little Chinese spot where a woman was making soup dumplings from scratch. A gal coming out of the restaurant said that Chinatown Express was worth her driving from Maryland. A pho and banh mi shop was around the corner. I’m heading there next time I’m in Chinatown.
Logan Circle (14th St NW)
Cookbook author and Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan tipped me off to going to Logan Circle for interesting new restaurants. We ended up there two nights in a row. The first was for antipasti and pizza at Etto, where they grind their own flour. They also have wonderfully-prepared Roman-style artichokes, which are time consuming to make at home and hard to find at restaurants. The Margherita pizza was excellent.
One our final night in DC, we dined with Joe at Le Diplomate, a new brasserie close to Etto on 14th Street. The decor and menu reminded me of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurants. Very, very charming. The difference was that the service was a little more friendly at Le Diplomate than at Keller’s establishments. The selection of East Coast oysters was a major high point, as was the old-fashioned pan-fried trout almondine. Diplomate takes reservations whereas Etto does not.
Among the spots that I regret not going to was Falls Church where the Viet community is and Little Serow, a northeastern Thai restaurant that’s getting raves. We couldn’t squeeze everything in. We were on vacation. It’s better to leave the table a little hungry.
All of these establishments were easily accessed by DC’s metro system. If you have eating suggestions for DC eats, do share!
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