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Apr 26, 2002 10:54 AM

washington dining scene

  • h

hello all,

philly chowhounder here.

the last i had heard, about 2 years ago, the washington food scene wasn't that much of a culinary landscape. there were places for the politicos and staffers in town, but mostly steakhouses and a few american-continental places.

this is all info from someone else, as i haven't been to washington since i was a kid.

recently, my friend, in washington curently for a few days, has told me that the food scene is burgeoning, especially the asian restaurants.

i was just wondering what locals thought of the food scene (general, asian & chinese) and how it compares to others around the nation, and how much of it has been in the past 2 years or so.

comments, grandiose evaluations, updates all appreciated. thank you all.

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  1. sorry, always forget to put the question marks on.

    i know it makes it easier for some.

    18 Replies
    1. re: herbalicious

      Your friend sounds like someone that stayed in a downtown hotel for a two day convention, didn't know anyone local, and didn't stray more than a block away from the convention center because DC is "dangerous". The dining scene in DC is excellent. I think everyone would agree it isn't NYC or SF, but pretty much any type of food you want any level of quality and presentation is available. The combinations of the dotcom boom and huge immigration rates have done no doubt improved the area's selection in the past several years. If you're wondering about something specific in the DC metro area, just ask. As you can see from this amazing board, someone will know.

      1. re: SeanS

        I agree. D. C. is not on the level of New York or San Francisco but it certainly is equal to Philly, Boston, Seattle and most other major North American cities. From Obelisk, Citronelle, Kinkead's, Vidalia, to Tosca, Laboratorio and Johnny's Half Shell with stops at Jerry's Seafood and as many superb ethnic restaurants (ethiopean to Korean to Peruvian chicken) as any city in North America D. C. has come a long way.
        There are still some things lacking like great deli and a local source for live Alaskan King Crab (!) but overall we're equal to most.
        It is getting more difficult to find a good rum bun or half smoke, though.

        1. re: Joe H.

          ok, joe, you got me. i'm a native baltimorean, only 30 miles north of dc most of my life, and yet i have no idea what a rum bun or half smoke is! do tell!

          always curious,

          1. re: trix

            Phwell, there was a time when D. C. had ONLY great rum buns and half smokes. Specifically, O'Donnell's on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Warner Theatre (God, do I feel OLD remembering this!). It was so good that I remember my mother complaining that I should not eat it BEFORE the meal, but, well Trix, they were r-e-a-l-l-y good! Anyway, never mind how many years ago that was.

            Half smokes? D. C. had great half smokes. While you had Polack Johnnie's (first place I went when I turned 16 and got my driver's license was the Gayety and afterward Polack Johnnie's! This, of course, speaks volumes about the real me!) D. C. had half smokes at places all over the city. At Georgia and Alaska at the Silver Spring line a newstand called Eddie's had the definitive half smoke (Brigg's) on a bun heated in a steamer. It was so good that several decades later the Washington Post decided that this should be called D. C.'s definitive hometown food, forgetting that the rum bun preceeded it by fifty years! (Post editors typically have not grown up in D. C. so they wouldn't know better.) On the Maine Avenue wharf both Hogates and the Flagship had rum buns as did Bethesda's Bish Thompson's and even Wheaton's Anchor Inn. But they all were cheap imitations of the original and the best, O'Donnell's on Pennsylvania Avenue.
            Today, Trix, all of them are sadly gone. O'Donnell's is no longer in Bethesda let alone downtown D. C. Phillip's is now on Maine Avenue and is part of an homoginized chain (sometime I'm going to start a thread on here of how many people remember the ORIGINAL PHILLIP'S CRAB HOUSE IN OCEAN CITY WHEN IT WAS REALLY A CRAB HOUSE-AND WAS REALLY GOOD). Polock Johnny's and the Block? It's really a block! And Polock's has left. (Where you around when the Varsity was on 40 west? And Johnny Dark was on CAO, not WEAM.)
            Most frightening of all is that Blaze Starr, who I snuck into the Gayety to see when I was sixteen and was thoroughly embarassed when she offered me one of her powder puffs in front of a full Friday night audience, she must be 80. (My God, 80!) If she's still around.
            God, I miss rum buns.
            And Johnny Unitas.

            1. re: Joe H.

              O'Donnells is in Gaithersburg now and still has yummy rum buns!

              1. re: Katie

                I was at O'Donnells a few months ago and, sadly, rum buns are the only thing they do well anymore.

                1. re: Silent Bob

                  OK, Joe H. kinda hinted about what rum buns are, but could someone explain so us who have no idea can understand. And smokes, too, if you don't mind.



                  1. re: wrayb

                    An original O'Donnell's rum bun from the 1950's and '60's (maybe later and remember: the original O'Donnell's on Pennsylvania Avenue opened, I believe, just after the turn of the 20th Century.) was actually somewhat similar to what today is called a cinnamon roll. Yet the rum bun was far superior and much more fattening. Plus rum replaced cinnamon as flavoring. I'd even go so far as to suggest that the cinnamon roll chains that show up in shopping malls today sell dietetic versions of the original rum buns. They were wa-a-a-y over the top. Both calorically and in taste.
                    A half smoke is a half smoked sausage, similar to a hot dog except much thicker, meatier and with a mildly smoked flavor. The definitive half smoke was from Brigg's.

                    When I was an undergraduate at MD I drove a cab part time in Bethesda for Barwood. I remember picking up one of the owners of the Briggs meat plant and driving him to his home in Potomac. As a tip he gave me four or five pounds of half smokes.
                    That was a tip that thirty years later I still remember. I had to buy the mustard and rolls, though.

                    1. re: Joe H.

                      thanks for the memories, joe! i laughed out loud reading your fond reminiscences of dc's rum bun glory days. (i think the baltimore nostalgic pastry equivalent might have been the jelly turnover, luckily there's still one place that does 'em right, keller's). but what i'm reallly jonesing for now is a half smoke...polack johnny's (there are still three pj's left!) never had'em. any ideas where to go now for a good half smoke????

                      1. re: trix

                        Probably Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street but honestly I haven't had one in twenty years or so (maybe much longer). In fact it's possible that after the first time I had a Polish Sausage with the works at Polack Johnny's I never had a half smoke again.
                        By the way, Trix, are you serious that there's no Peruvian chicken or good rotisserie chicken place in Baltimore?

                        1. re: Joe H.

                          well, joe, it sounds to me that half smokes and polishes are two pretty different things, and i'd love to try a half smoke...but i've been pretty happy all my life enjoying a good polish with kraut & mustard!

                          i'm serious about the lack of chicken places. there are a couple latino restaurants that serve roasted chicken as part of an extended menu, but -- to the best of my knowledge -- no dedicated rotisserias, with just chicken and sides, like say super chicken in falls church. we had one, in fells point, but they closed about 6 months ago. and i wonder why, because they always did land office business.

                          however, baltimore's recently burgeoning latino population will probably bring about such a place in the near future. we're waaaay behind dc as a desintation for immigrants from that part of the world, so it's only been the past 5 years or so we've had good salvadoran restaurants and mexican mercados, etc., opening up in east baltimore!


                          1. re: trix

                            But you do have Pit Beef which is unique to Baltimore. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single place in the entire D. C. metro area that sells "pit beef."

                            1. re: Joe H.

                              ah, yes, pit beef! and its close relatives, pit ham and pit turkey!

                              i've always referred to pit beef, when explaining the phenom to non-baltimoreans, as our region's entry on the barbecue spectrum -- the far end! (when you think about it, pit beef's not that different from texas-style bbq brisket).

                              it would be interesting to try to puzzle out the exact point between baltimore and dc where the pit beef stands disappear -- demarking the southern boundary pit beef belt, as it were. i think it's much less prevalent south and west of the city than east or north; pulaski highway (rt. 40) is the population center of pit beef stands! i guess glen burnie, on the south side, holds it own too.

                              i've never thougth about pit beef this much in my LIFE, joe!

                              1. re: trix

                                On 301 it is Crofton (fifteen years ago there was a legendary "Mexican Special" served at a concrete shack there), BW Pkwy Odenton with an outpost near Fort Meade, on 40 West just beyond 29.
                                Pit Beef-as ridiculous as this sounds-really does separate the D. C. suburbs and its association from Baltimore. Yes, I know this sounds truly ridiculous, but I'm embarassed that I would even know the location of pit beef joints in these areas. (Great O. C. fries at the 40 West location jusst beyond 29!)

                                1. re: Joe H.

                                  joe, of COURSE you know where the southernmost pit beef stands are -- along with all sorts of other bits of food-related trivia! you're a CHOWHOUND EXTRAORDINAIRE!!!

                                  and i applaud your knowledge! i didn't know about those places, and now i do.


                                  1. re: trix

                                    You're sweet but truth be known, I just have many opinions from having invested my calories wisely.

                  2. re: Katie

                    Having had the old rum buns, I sadly have to tell you that the current ones are a mere ghost of the former glory of the Rum Bun! They were 2 times the current size and always fresh, hot and soft back in the old days.

                    Oh well, I shouldn't be eating them anyway... ;o)