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.
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
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
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
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
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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