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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.

                1. Many thanks to all who replied!

                  We are from Buffalo but, between family and business trips, are in NYC 2 or 3 times a year. We travel often and enjoy ethnic food so, yes, our standards are pretty high regarding Asian and tapas.

                  Thank you, CityOfGlass, for all the detail beyond the food scene. It is appreciated.
                  And Lori D, thank you for the heads up about pad thai at a Japanese Festival!

                  Any other suggestions would be appreciated.
                  I will report back with our experiences after the trip.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: jerryc123

                    If you're from Buffalo, IIRC, you can go to Canada for pretty good Chinese food. So, for Asian ethnic, you might want to concentrate on:

                    The food at the Japanese Sakura Matsuri (since it's close to the tourist attractions you'll be at anyway, and the festival itself is fun).

                    Vietnamese, if you want to take the time to leave downtown DC (if you don't want to take the time to go to Eden Center, there is Pho 75, Minh's, and Nam Viet along the Orange line in Arlington; not far from downtown at all via Metro).

                    We have very good Korean in the DC area, but most of it is not Metro accessible. There is good Thai as well outside of DC, but easier to get to via public transportation, if you are interested.

                    One informal place in the vicinity of your hotel that I've heard is worth going to (never been myself) is Taqueria Nationale.

                    Taqueria Nacional
                    400 N Capitol St NW, Washington, DC

                    1. re: Lori D

                      Yes, we do get to Toronto a few times a year, as it is only two hours away.

                      Thanks for the heads-up on Tacueria Nacional. It is so conveniently located between Union Station and the Capital building, perhaps we can try it.

                      1. re: jerryc123

                        I find the tacos at Nacional to be a bit dry and unexciting. They do, however, make their own horchata and I believe it is the real thing, not from a powder mix, so that is a rarity. Very delicious.

                  2. I may have missed it, but in the Capitol Hill/Union Station area, you have Bistro Bis. Which is very good and will be around $70 pp.

                    Definitely no Jaleo in Baltimore though.

                    1. I may get shot down on this but just for kicks you could have lunch at the dining room in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office building. When I've been there all the patrons were senators and staff. The tourists don't know about it.They have a pretty good salad/hot buffet for about $12 or $15. Really good fried chicken. There's a cafeteria there too but go to the dining room.There's a Senate gift shop just down the hall. After lunch you can go upstairs and say hi to your senator and pick up some freebies.

                      1. Welcome to DC! You'll be in between were I work and live. First don't worry about the Mitch Synder homeless shelter which is a block from your hotel. However, the neighborhood is a bit empty during the weekend. Bitro Bis is good (and relatively expensive) and very close by. Good thing is that it is in the Hotel George, so it is open over the weekend. Unfortunately there's not much to recommend at Union Station except the redline metro (subway downstairs) or the yellow Circular bus (outside, nice tour to Georgetown for $1 each person -- about $10 for two back to your hotel by cab). There are lovely cherry trees between your hotel and the Capitol off Louisiana Avenue. (The cherry blossoms just started.) The Capitol is very close to your hotel. And there is a lovely relatively new memorial also off of Louisiana Avenue (to Japanese WWII victims?) with cherry trees and water. (I'm mentioning this because the Tidal Basin will be packed with people -- instead you could also go to Hane's Point also called East Potomac Park to see lots of cherry trees.) Granville Moore is about 15 blocks away on H St NE. I enjoy it. H St is getting better but I don't know if an outsider would see that. The building is nearly gutted but cool looking. Regardless of what you think of the food, it can get very crowded, particularly during the weekend. I go to Full Kee in what's left of Chinatown (sorry). I like the baby calms in black sauce, eggplant in garlic sauce, and leek flowers in garlic sauce. I wouldn't walk up North Capitol Street. On Capital Hill, The Market Lunch at Eastern Market (closed Monday) is a nice walk across the Capitol grounds. It has great French toast (but no breakfast on Sunday) and crab cakes. (Eastern Market is a stop on the blue/orange line on the metro and could be taken to the Indian Museum (agree, good lunch spot), Botanic Gardens, Hirshorn Museum, Air and Space Museum, and Tidal Basin). Eastern Market would also be a good place to get healthy snacks. Dirksen Senate Office Building cafeteria isn't fabulous but kind of cool (and inexpensive). Holocast museum is very good but depressing yet very close to Tidal Basin. (You may need reservations). Zaytinya is also a good walk for you -- just past Chinatown. I love it for its good little dishes. Good Ethopian can be had conveniently at the entrance to Georgetown (Merakesh?). I hope this helps.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: lbstuart

                          Some great ideas...but DON'T eat Ethiopian in Greorgetown. Don't. Go to the area between U and 9th, and U and 13th. Along 9th, and along U, you get much better choices than the place in Georgetown (which is Zed's, by the way).

                          1. re: lbstuart

                            I really appreciate all the effort you folks are putting into this,
                            Of course I will report back with our findings!

                            A friend's brother, who spends a good deal of time in Ethiopia, recommended Almaz at 1212 U St, for Ethiopian. We may try there, as well.

                            1. re: jerryc123

                              First, I would like to thank everyone who helped with recommendations for our trip. I promised I would report back with our experiences at the establishments we visited.

                              We arrived in the mid-afternoon, at Union Station, so after checking into our hotel, a quick lunch was needed before walking to the Capital and Smithsonian Mall.

                              Taqueria Nacional
                              This tiny take-out was set behind Johnny's Half Shell seafood restaurant in the courtyard of a large office building, so it could be easy to miss. I would not be surprised if Taqueria National was somehow affiliated with the other restaurant.
                              We ordered fish, pork, and beef tacos that were made to order and very fresh tasting. I was disappointed that the horchata aqua fresca was gone, but the strawberry version was delicious. A quick and inexpensive lunch.

                              After site-seeing and museum-walking, a quick ride on the metro delivered us to...
                              We are comfortable ordering and eating Ethiopian food, but our server may had misinterpreted our indecision during ordering for inexperience. She was very friendly and helpful. This restaurant would be a good choice if you are not entirely familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, and would like some guidance. We found all our dishes very good, if somewhat lacking in heat. We would have preferred our Wot, for instance, to have the more authentic bold spiciness, and we should have mentioned that during ordering. Again, perhaps they tone-down the heat for the western palate. The restaurant was cozy and comforting, and not overwhelmingly busy. The bar and restaurant was also filled with customers of Ethiopian decent - always a good sign in my book.

                              After our meal, we were not ready to head back to our hotel, so we opted for a glass of wine at...
                              Bar Pilar
                              This small gastro-pub was packed on a Friday night with young attractive people. We stood at the crowded bar and ordered wine from the undistinguished wine list, which is what we were in the mood for, but a better choice would be to order from their list of good micro-brews on tap. We studied the menu and spied on our neighbors who had ordered food, and thought the small plates - while inventive and attractively presented - may be highly priced for the portion size and atmosphere. We chatted with the bar keep and learned that the 4-year-old bar had "instant old world character" from the purchase of the bar and interior from a former DC pool hall.

                              The next morning, a latte with double shots fueled our walk to...

                              Eastern Market - and Market Lunch
                              I was instantly transfixed by this open-air farmer's and artist's market.
                              We shopped for jewelry at the flea market, and after locating the Market Lunch, decided to shop more, due to the hour-long line. We purchased some handmade cutting boards, assorted pickles from In A Pickle, and tender flaky croissants from Fine Sweet Shop. I was transfixed by the variety of meats at Canales Quality Meats - so many fine products packed into a very small booth. Bower's Fine Cheese shop also had a fine selection, and I eaves-dropped as the passionate cheese-sellers explained their offerings. If I lived in DC, I am sure I would spend every weekend morning at this market.
                              After shopping, the line at Market Lunch was only slightly smaller, so I got in line for a 45-minute wait. I believe part of the appeal of this eatery must be the wait, and the free show that goes along with it. Tom Glasgow, the owner, came by to tell us "how things work," that is - breakfast is over. Afterward, we were reminded several times my one of the wait staff "No more breakfast - only lunch" (in quite the same vein of the famous Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" sketch.) No problem. We were here for the crab-cakes anyway.
                              In the end, the crab-cake sandwich was under-whelming. I was looking forward to the crab soup, but they were out. Wait, didn't lunch just begin? How can they be out? I was last in line for breakfast and should had ordered the famous "Blue-Buck" pancakes.

                              We then spent a few hours shoulder-to-shoulder at the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, (we passed on the hour-long lines for seemingly mundane "teriyaki chicken skewers" over rice) and, instead, ate our flaky croissants, before heading to shoulder-to-shoulder cherry blossom viewing at the Tidal Basin.

                              A very late dinner at...
                              Brasserie Beck
                              was one of the highlights of this trip. Because it was so late, I ordered only Mussels in garlic wine sauce with Frites, while my wife ordered the Country Pate Plate. The pate was served with a mostarda of fruit, which was my introduction to this dish, and one I am intent on duplicating at home. The 15-page Belgian Beer list was enviable, and I was disappointed I only had room for two. The Bacchus (cherry kriek?) and Artevelde were both outstanding.
                              I would definitely return to Beck on another occasion.

                              The following morning was our last, so we only had a quick trip to Georgetown before heading out. The circulator bus was easy to take from Union station, and we walked for an hour sightseeing. A quick lunch at the Persian take-out restaurant
                              Moby Dick
                              for chicken & beef kabobs was tasty and filling, and recommended if you are in the area.

                              Again, many thanks to all who went through the trouble to give us suggestions. We enjoyed our weekend very much, and hope to visit the DC area again soon.

                              Eastern Market Grocery
                              225 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20003

                              Brasserie Beck
                              1101 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005

                              Moby Dick of Georgetown
                              1070 31st St NW, Washington, DC 20007

                              Bar Pilar
                              1833 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                              Taqueria Nacional
                              400 N Capitol St NW, Washington, DC

                              Almaz Restaurant Ethiopian Cuisine
                              1212 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                              1. re: jerryc123

                                very nice report -- and so nice of you to report back!

                                1. re: jerryc123

                                  I'm sorry I didn't halp you out more, because it sounds like you did only ok. 9th street is better for Ethiopian with the two best places: Queen Makeda and Etete, although Queen Makeda is one of the least spicy places around, it's a true mom n' pop operation where the the food demonstrates clearly the link between African and American Soul Food.

                                  At Bar Pilar, I was charged $7 for a peach. True, it was lightly sauteed in olive oil, but that was the extent of the preparation. Nice work if you can get it.

                                  I can see clearly why Beck was the highlight of your trip. Central Michel Richard, a French bistro, offers similar quality, a joy to have around.

                                  1. re: Steve

                                    No, I really did appreciate your input. In fact I looked for the horchata aqua fresca on you recommendation.
                                    As far as our Ethiopian choice was concerned, we went there on the advice of a friend, who's brother spends a great deal of time in Ethiopia, and declared this place very authentic.

                                    1. re: jerryc123

                                      Thanks for the info on Taqueria National. I just went to DC with my 9 year old son and had searched the boards for ethnic and interesting places to go that are kid friendly and found your rec here. We enjoyed our lunch at Taqueria National. Tried a bunch of different tacos, and thought the pork were the best. Had watermelon agua fresca, which was perfect on a scorching hot day. Also enjoyed the huge serving of very chunky, tasty guacamole. Cheap, casual, interesting, and (especially for a touristy area) very good.