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good food in National Mall area

My wife and I will be visiting DC, for fun, next weekend April 3-5.
We will be staying at the Hilton Regency on New Jersey Ave, near Union Station and the Capital Building. We heard there was a homeless shelter nearby, but booked it anyway.
We do not have much of schedule planned yet, but want to visit Patomic (Potomac?) Park while the cherry trees are in bloom, and catch the Memorials, Monuments, White House, Mall, etc. Probably spend one day at one of the Smithsonian museums. There is a cherry blossom parade and Japanese Street Festival on/near Constitution & Pennsylvania Ave on Saturday, and we may do that.
We will not have a car so we need to rely on transit around this area.
My wife and I are terribly adventurous chow-hounds, and prefer good ethnic street food, gastro-pubs, tapas/small plates/dim sum, and specialty places - over fancy white linen venues, but we are open to anything. Our food choices generally dictate the rest of our trip! But, for this touristy "neighborhood" I am expecting the worst. Overpriced fancy restaurants catering to politicians, lobbyists, tourists and the like. It would be great if you have any suggestions.
Considering the over-booked nature, and amount of walking expected, sandwiches, snacks, and finger-food recommendations are also appreciated.
Less than $30 pp for breakfast & lunch would be nice but not mandatory. Dinner w drinks tab under $70 pp would be nice but not mandatory. We are on vacation.
An Ethiopian dinner IS mandatory, so any recommendations for a place in Little Ethiopia would be appreciated. I've read on other threads about Queen Makeda, Etete & Dukem. Any other ideas/opinions? Is this neighborhood safe at night? I do not know which neighborhoods are rough, so any insight there would be helpful.
Part of this married couple is ethnically Chinese, so a visit to Chinatown is always expected - as are noodle places and Chinese grocers who also sell porcelain tableware.
We are also big fans of Jose Andres, and my wife has been to Jaleo in Baltimore, so we may try and hit Zaytinya this time round.
Any thoughts?
Many, many thanks to you in advance.

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  1. For your aims, you picked a good hotel location -- good start. Given your transportation constraints and time frame, you probably want to stick to just a few neighborhoods. Were I in your shoes, I would keep it to: Capitol Hill (& Mall); U St Corridor & Logan Circle; Georgetown (which is an easy bus ride). Counting time in pursuit of meals, you might add Chinatown and Dupont Circle to that mix.

    One of D.C.'s dirty secrets is that its fancy restaurants are almost exclusively mediocre. What the town does well is ethnic food. Within walking distance of the National Mall, the best places to eat food that isn't priced for expense accounts are in the nooks of Capitol Hill, mostly along the east and south portions of the neighborhood (as opposed to the west, which is closer to more office buildings). You should have a few good options in terms of Indian and Thai, among others.

    For Ethiopian, Little Ethiopia and Georgetown both have good options. As for safety, the few blocks north of U St and east of about 16th St might not make you feel safe at night. If you get more than about a mile outside the Capitol into either NE or SE or SW, you also probably would not be safe -- but these probably aren't places you would seek out on a short trip. (NB: Old-timers do not consider U St corridor safe, but they are basing that on dated information.)

    Between Dupont and U St neighborhood, just south of Adams Morgan, you can find some good Malaysian food on 18th St.

    Jaleo is weaker than New York tapas i.e. Tia Pol et al, and Zaytinya is probably similar in quality -- but, much more so than with Jaleo, people go to Zaytinya for the scene rather than the food. Oyamel is the newer tapas place in D.C. that people talk about.

    As for hidden gems: if a Chinese tea house called Ching Ching Cha still exists in Georgetown, then it is worth a visit. Also, Quick Pita is the best fast food in D.C., and they would deliver to your hotel. Opened by Lebanese (?) immigrants I think. (NB: The Georgetown location, the main one, is the one to use -- the lunch extension they have for businesspeople & bureaucrats in the Old Post Office is no good.)

    Finally, a word about the monuments etc. The best ones in the Mall area are pretty clearly the Jefferson and Lincoln, plus the FDR and Vietnam. As for the Smithsonian, you should really try to do more than one of the museums. The National Gallery of Art has the best collection of Renaissance art outside of Europe. The West Wing is better than the East, but the East is a spectacular building with some treasures in it. No other Smithsonian museum matches these, but Air and Space and American History and Natural History are all justifiably tourist spots. The Native American Museum is interesting, and right in that neighborhood, though I haven't been since its first year, when its collections remained scant. The Botanical Gardens are nice. The Sackler and Freer are magnificent if you like African or Japanese art, respectively. Hirshorn Museum can be skipped on a quick trip, as can the Corcoran. Some people argue that The Holocaust Museum is the best in D.C. I have never been, and I cannot schedule it as easily now that I have morphed into a New Yorker, but I will quit making excuses later this spring when I make my bi-monthly family visit to Washington.

    5 Replies
    1. re: CityOfGlass

      Lunch at the Native American Museum is a wonderful experience.

      1. re: skipper

        be prepared, though, to wait in a long line of tourists to get into the museum's cafeteria.

        1. re: alkapal

          It gets better if you are willing to have a late lunch (around 1:30-2pm).

          1. re: Elyssa

            What makes this lunch special and stand out (especially after 1:30pm)?

            1. re: percyn

              After 1:30 the crowds are smaller so it's easier to find a seat and the lines go faster.

              What makes it so special is the unique set up of the cafeteria and the high quality of the food. You can choose from the various regions of the US and American Indian cuisines are represented for each region. Plus the food is very good...which is hard to find at Smithsonian cafeterias.

    2. If you're going to be in the Penn Quarter area (Jaleo and Zatinya), make sure you stop by the National Portrait Gallery - many consider this the best Smithsonian museum after the National Gallery of Art. Proof is an excellent wine bar across the street from the Portrait Gallery for pre-dinner drinks (and a good dinner too if you want to wait).

      1. Your wife has been to Jaleo in Baltimore? I don't even know where to start with the questions about this...

        6 Replies
        1. re: Jason1

          At this point DC's Chinatown has very little in the way of Asian markets or anything fun at all. Do not go to Chinatown Express even if people recommend it. You will be disappointed. The Chinatown area at this point is better for yuppie places like Proof, Zengo, Matchbox, Zaytinya.

          I must respectfully disagree with CityOfGlass on one point. If in Georgetown, do not go to Quick Pita. Totally mediocre. In that neighborhood, I would go to Amma for vegetarian Indian (very simple place), or Bonaparte for crepes (cozy atmosphere), or Leopold's for a drink/brunch/dessert (a very nice terrace).

          Since you're into gastropubs, I would consider Bar Pilar for small plates. I had a lovely dinner there last week. Their whole menu is online so you can check it out in advance. This is in the U Street neighborhood, on 14th St.

          1. re: hamster

            An awesome gastropub in Capitol Hill is called Granville Moore's.
            If you enjoy mussels & frites (the best I have ever had) & a great beer list in a very cool, mellow atmosphere, then this is the place for you. However, it is not metro accesible, but you could take a cab-it is worth it, IMO. Enjoy your visit...
            By the way, they were recently profiled in NY Times and Food Network showdown W/ Bobby Flay- Granville Moore's won.

            1. re: chicken kabob

              Sorry, I have to disagree about Granvilles.

              1.) it is not on Capitol Hill - It is on H St. NE which is it's own neighborhood
              2.) Food is decent, but not mind blowing
              3.) It is impossible to get a table or even a bar stool anytime after 6 pm with a wait of less than an hour.

              I guess the atmosphere would be a fun thing to try if you're not from the city (and in fact, most of the folks I've seen in there are clearly "bridge and tunnelers"), but mostly it's just over-hyped. Better mussels and frites can be had at a number of other places around town - including Beck and Belga which both take reservations.

              1. re: scotcheroo

                Scotcheroo- I respect your opinion... with that said....I went at 7:30 on Sunday and was seated immediately at Granville Moore's. Maybe I was just lucky?
                Anyway, I have had mussels & frites at Beck, too- and I think Granville Moore's were far superior- plus it has a more authentic, edgy vibe than Beck. Any other opinions out there about Granville Moore's?

            1. re: Jason1

              My apologies. I now recognize that Jaleo is in DC, not Baltimore.

            2. You didn't say where you live. If it's NYC or the West Coast, you probably want to ignore the rest of my answer.

              The Sakura Matsuri (Japanese street festival) has some decent authentically Japanese festival food. However, you have to look for it; it's actually outnumbered by the vendors selling Chinese and pad thai.

              The DC area's real Chinatown is actually Rockville, MD. Although it's outside of DC proper, there are several places that are accessible by Metro, such as Joe's Noodle House (for the Sichuan food, not the noodles) and the Maxim grocery store.

              Eden Center, a mile from the closest Metro stop, in Falls Church, VA, is a Vietnamese shopping center that is unique for the East Coast. Good Vietnamese can also be found in Arlington along the Orange Line (but, I would say, is rare in DC proper).

              1. The only place in Chinatown I trust is Full Key. I recommend the ginger and oyster casserole, the duck stuffed with shrimp paste, and the snow pea leaves.

                From the Ust/Cardozo metro stop at 10th and U to Little Ethiopia on 9th st below U is safe. I admit it might not look safe at night, but you should have no problem.

                Zaytinya is a good choice. I recommend the kibbe, salmon, and the carrot apricot fritters.