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Planning a trip to D.C., have a couple specific food questions...

My husband and I live in San Francisco and will coming to D.C. in the fall. I'm starting my planning already, and have two questions:

1. We're hoping to stay in a hotel that is walking distance from a good variety of foodie-friendly destinations of all price ranges. What neighborhoods (or hotels for that matter) should we focus on?

2. What foods are D.C. known for? Specifically, which ethnic foods are strong there? We don't want to miss out on things we can't get here!

Thank in advance!

P.S. feel free to chime in with any specific "can't miss" restaurants.

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  1. 1. Neighborhood — I would choose the Chinatown/Penn Quarter area.
    2. Foods — half-smokes, Ethiopian, Vietnamese (outside the city)...i know there are more but i'm not thinking of any at the moment.

    1. Regarding question 2. There are great ethnic foods in the DC metro area. In Northern VA you will find a huge Vietnamese population as well as Korean. Also, there are large Peruvian and Salvadorian populations. All those are extremely well represented in restaurants. There are also some very good mughlai/kabob type places and a half a dozen excellent Ethiopian restaurants. If you would like specific recommendations, just let me/us know.

        1. I agree that Chinatown/Gallery Place/Penn Quarter is probably the best neighborhood for your needs - but there are others in the second tier: Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, U St. ... Also, the DC Metro is very user-friendly and easy to navigate so I would suggest using it to branch out of whatever neighborhood you find yourself in.

          I agree with what others have said about foods that DC is known for - especially Ethiopian and the "DC half-smoke." However, I've had better Vietnamese food in SF than I've had here. In particular, I have been searching in vain for a bahn mi that rivals Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin St. or for a Vietnamese place that could come near the Slanted Door (at least before it moved - not sure about it now). Korean places here are worth going to, but the best ones are not accessible by Metro. I would add soul food to the list.

          For can't miss restaurants, this would be my list:

          Etete (Ethiopian)

          The quintessential place to get a half smoke is the ultra-famous Ben's Chili Bowl, but I think a better one can be found at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, which is very fun to go to on a Sat. for many reasons. The half smoke is absolutely a food that DC is known for and they can be good, but I don't think it will rock your world.

          Rasika - upscale, very creative, adventurous food that uses Indian as its base, then takes flight. Their palak chaat has a huge fan club!

          Oohs and Aahs (soul food)

          I hope you enjoy our city!

          1. Although it's not a "DC" food per-se (more of a regional food), I would add BLUE CRABS to the list. There are a number of decent places in the immediate DC-area. (The Quarterdeck in nearby Arlington comes to mind).

            1 Reply
            1. re: jaydreb

              Or if you want have fun w/ crabs, go to the Seafood Wharf under the 14th St bridge.

              Its one of the last (might be the only) open air seafood markets on the East Coast/Mid Atlantic. You buy the crabs live. They spice and steam them on the spot, and you break them open over newspaper in the small standing tabled eating area nearby, over looking the docks/water. Other little shops at the Wharf sell crab cakes, sandwiches, chowders, oysters... all kinds of seafood meals.

            2. I think you have some very good information already.

              I would second the recommendations to stay in Penn Quarter/Chinatown or Capitol Hill because they have close proximity to multiple color metro lines and are walkable to many of the sites.

              I would try to stop by the Eastern Market for a crab cake or somewhere for a crab cake as suggested. They are very different from West Coast crab. I would second the recommendation for Rasika for Indian. It is really different and I think very good. As said above Northern Virginia has a large Korean/Vietnamese and Thai population. If you wanted to visit that area you could metro out the orange line a little and pick up a zipcar. Present and Four Sisters are two of the best for Vietnamese. Although I know you have good Vietnamese there. Han Gang is one of my favorites for Korean, as is Honey Pig for Korean BBQ. I think classic/modern American is also something DC does well, you might try Palena, New Heights or Corduroy or Central for this. We have many of the same things that SF does so it makes it a little difficult. I love the peruvian chicken here in the area, I think El Pollo Rico has the best chicken itself, but not as good of sides as other places. And I love a lot of the Salvadorian food, too. And I think DC does French/Belgian food very well.

              I am sure your plans for the day dictate what you will be near, though.

              1. You might want to give Tyler Cowens Ethnic dining Guide a look - http://www.gmu.edu/centers/publicchoi...

                Alot of the places are in the 'burbs, but it's an interesting and fun read.

                1. Bolivian in Northern Virginia, huge community. Close by, but not in DC.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Steve

                    Teaism, 2 Amys, Amsterdam Falafel, Julia's Empenadas, expand into Bethesda, Eastern Market,

                  2. Some unique choices that maybe you can't get in SF:

                    In the Penn Quarter area, you should check out CoCo Sala for their unusual menu of cacao-inspired foods. Tiny menu of small plates: limited to salads, sliders, and mac n' cheese. Flights of chocolate for dessert.

                    Also in Penn Quarter, the Latina Dim Sum Brunch at Cafe Atlantico is amazing. Sundays only. Unique to DC.

                    For completely downscale, true hole-in-the-wall, try Oohhs and Aahhs for soul food, near a metro station. One of you gets the broiled crabcake, the other gets the lemon pepper wings. Greens and rice with gravy.

                    If you go to the National Gallery of Art, take in the lunch NGA's Garden Cafe, menu created by Michel Richard. Super-convenient and shockingly good for a museum.

                    Near The White House, go for Breadline, a sandwich shop open only for midweek lunch. Their best sandwich is the bbq - Fridays only- order it on a ciabatta.

                    Againn, an Irish gastropub, near 10th and New York Aves.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Steve

                      Thank you! We are absolutely going to be museum-centric, so these recommendations are particularly thoughtful. Especially the gastropub!

                    2. That's kind of a tough one. The Penn Quarter area has plenty of good restaurants, some outstanding, and nice (but not inexpensive) hotels, but the real ethnic restaurants are in places where you wouldn't want to stay. Penn Quarter is pretty much the crossroads of the Metro (subway) so you can get into the nooks and crannies from there. As an alternate, you might look at hotels around Union Station. There are some pretty good restaurants right in the neighborhood, and the Metro Red line goes there (which means you're more likely to need to change trains to get to where you're heading).

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: MikeR

                        Yeah, I realized after I posted that we're really more interested in staying in a centrally-located hotel that allows us easy access to the Metro + good walkability than a place that's in the middle of good restaurants (who can afford to eat at 4 star places every night? Not us.). Penn Quarter is ideal but might be a bit too pricey for our 5 day stay.

                        I'm very excited to hear about the Ethiopian options, and agree that Saigon sandwiches here in SF is hard to beat. Maybe we'll focus more on the things there we can't get here.

                        Unfortunately, husband has a very strong aversion to crabs in their shells, so we/I may have to de-prioritize that excellent suggestion. Too bad.

                        1. re: Absonot

                          That's why god made crab cakes!

                          1. re: Absonot

                            In terms of your hotel, if I were you (and clearly I'm not!) I would focus on getting the cheapest central-ish located hotel you can find that is within easy walking distance of a Metro station - on any line, really. The Metro is really easy to use. You might want to familiarize yourself a bit with their system map before you come, which you can find on their website: www.wmata.com

                            In addition to Etete, I like Dukem and I've heard great things about Queen Makeda, which is next on my list of places to try the next time I get a hankerin' for Ethiopian. All these places are near the U St. Metro. Also near that Metro stop are the aforementioned Oohs and Aahs (you can't get this in SF!) and Ben's Chili Bowl, as well as the upstairs at Marvin, a really nice neighborhood watering hole - especially when the weather is nice. I think U St. is the best for nightlife in DC.

                            There is an excellent and recent report on Rasika here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/691037

                            I really think you'd enjoy the Eastern Market on Sat. morning. Breakfast at Market Lunch there is a very popular activity - get there early to avoid a long line. Or for fast and cheap - grab a hot half smoke in there to eat standing up.

                            In addition to Saigon Sandwiches, two other SF places that have no competition here are Incanto and A16, so I would cede that territory to them!

                            1. re: woodleyparkhound

                              Great advice regarding the hotel...we are avid mass transit users so that sounds like the best approach. Can't wait to try great Ethiopian, either.

                              1. re: Absonot

                                there are lots more great options in DC than there were 10 years ago, but I have to 2nd (or 4th) Ethiopian. my intro was Axum on Lower Haight which I liked, but the Injeera sponge bread is so much better here (granted SF wins on Baguette) but I'm still sort of disappointed. great French, Spanish (any Jose Andres place) soul/southern and seafood, a few great Japanese places, but yeah, sadly one has to run out to the suburbs for the out-of-the-way finds.

                                1. re: Absonot

                                  Just to throw out on the hotel question that my experience is the best deals here are at B&B's -- and good breakfast isn't always easy to find here, so getting that out of way at the hotel can be a good idea. I've only seen the inside of two or three of them, but you can find lists online and figure out a good location. I know, for example, there's one with an African-American literature theme around U St which would put you in a good location for some of places recommended here. Tabard Inn, also, has a restaurant that's recommended a lot, in the Dupont neighborhood. Not sure if there are any in Penn Quarter, but on the Hill there are.

                                  Tabard Inn
                                  1739 N St NW, Washington, DC 20036

                          2. I moved here from SF 2.5 years ago and here is my advice to a fellow San Franciscan re: Question #2 --

                            Do not bother eating Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai or Indian food here. You can get superior food back home for less. Trust me.

                            Everyone tells me that the Ethiopian food here is really good. I'm not a huge Ethiopian food fan so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this claim. That's just what I've heard.

                            While Mexican food is ubiquitous and delicious back home, in this area, it's very hard to find but what you can find is lots of Central American cuisine, like Bolivian and Salvadorean. I would say that Central American is one of the stronger ethnic foods here that is lacking in contrast to SF.

                            For a "local" experience, I'd recommend ordering a dozen or so crabs at a seafood place. It's messy but good, and definitely something you don't do back home, except at a crab feed, but these crabs are smaller than the Dungeness ones. I've been to the Quarterdeck in Arlington, but that may not be convenient for you in DC.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: lesan

                              Chinese in D.C. isn't going to stack up that well to the West Coast obviously, but you can find some pretty legit Szechuan. In the city you may not find extraordinary Vietnamese, but I have a hard time believing that the shops at Eden Center don't measure up. There are a lot of Vietnamese here, and a lot American locals with personal experience living in Vietnam from the war, who I'm sure insist on great food -- there's a reason famous chefs and the food network wander into the suburbs to find/feature this amped up strip mall.

                              Lesan is right about the price, but you can find equal and maybe superior Indian here. Like a lot of things, you have to be willing to go to the suburbs where these immigrant communities live. There, the clientele is 90% expat and the prices are normal.

                              Mexican is pretty weak here, true... allow me to speak blasphemy though... I'll take a Chipotle burrito over a soupy bean Cali burrito most days... I SAID IT

                              1. re: Russel Shank

                                As someone who has lived in both SF and DC (currently), I think the quality of the vietnamese in both places is about equal, certain places edging out others in a head-to-head comparison (banh mi places on Larkin, for example). But from what I experienced, Russel is right, there is nothing like the Eden Center in SF. It's really an amazing little enclave. Went again for the second time last weekend (wish I remembered the name of the deli, but it's one of the slightly bigger ones, in the upper lefthand corner, if that makes any sense), and was just blown away. The sandwich itself was great, although I prefered my husband's roasted pork to my pate, but the vast assortment of colorful, interesting products is just really fun. I highly, highly recommend Eden Center for a visitor.

                              2. re: lesan

                                VN food in SF is pretty sad. It's definitely a weak spot in the SF culinary scene, but at least it's better in San Jose, which isn't too outrageously far. But of course, nothing compares to Little Saigon on Orange County. Everyone talks about Eden Center being this beacon of good food but I'm just not that impressed by it. I'm glad that it's there because it's better than nothing, but I also grew up in Southern CA and spent quite a bit of time in Orange County, where Eden Center would be just a speck in the landscape of Little Saigon there.

                                But here is my point -- why come from SF to here to eat food that you can get better back home? It's a waste. Sure, you can find "pretty decent" Asian food here, but why bother when you know that it's still 10 times better back in CA?

                                When you're here, eat MD crab cakes, and go to Ben's Chili Bowl (the food is greasy American and is pretty good but not mindblowing... more of an experience), 2 Amy's (good pizza), and Amsterdam Falafel.

                                Ben's Chili Bowl
                                1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                                Eden Center
                                Falls Church, VA, USA, Falls Church, VA

                                Little Saigon Restaurant
                                6218 Wilson Blvd, Falls Church, VA 22044

                                Amsterdam Falafelshop
                                2425 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                                1. re: lesan

                                  It's such a shame to go to Ben's Chili Bowl when, in the same neighborhood, you have four of DC's top Chowhound destinations: Oohhs and Aahhs, Thai X-ing, Queen Makeda, and Etete.

                                  Amsterdam Feleafel is absolutely nothing to go out of your way for. It is hardly serious for a felafel bar.

                                  1942 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

                                  Ben's Chili Bowl
                                  1213 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                                  Queen Makeda
                                  Washington DC, Washington, DC

                              3. I would say the most happening place to be in DC if you're on a budget is the Adams Morgan area. 18th street (which is about a 15 minute walk from the Woodley park/zoo/ adams morgan metro) has tons of salvadorian, ethiopian and even west african resturants that are pretty cheap, and many have live music or happy hours as well.

                                I'm a broke college student, who has also lived in SF, so places that I've enjoyed in my very low price range are as follows:
                                Amsterdam Falafel in Adams Morgan: They have great falafel for about 5 dollars but the real uniqueness is their toppings bar which is extensive and insanely delicious. Their fries are also out of this world. I've had falafel in SF and this is way better. Also on 18th st is Madam's Organ which does southern cooking, which is something SF is lacking.
                                Bens Chilli Bowl on U st: the food isn't that amazing but definitely a DC stable, Obama and Bill Cosby are frequents. I usually get chilli cheese fries which are enormous and pretty cheap, and I ALWAYS get a milkshake because they can combine flavors (I get banana cherry). U St also has good soul food.
                                Sticky Fingers: a vegan bakery in Columbia Heights. Columbia heights, Mt. Pleasant and Adams Morgan are all pretty much in walking distance from each other and have an excellent collection of Central American food and eclectic bars. Mt. Pleasant st also has Radhius pizza and Marx Cafe, which have excellent food and a cool atmosphere.
                                2 Amys: a bit of a walk from the tenleytown metro stop, but It's some of the best pizza I've ever had. About 12 dollars for a large one, get salami if you eat meat.
                                - I'd recommend Eastern Market for breakfast or the crab cakes. They have a great flea market type of set up.

                                As far as upscale venues, I've heard good things about Marvin (also on U St, and a cool bar at night), Indique (the best Indian food I've ever had, but pricey). Citronello, Dino, and Komi.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: lauraz

                                  lauraz: does Amsterdam falafel beat that place at 16th and Valencia in SF? (name escapes me - Truly Med? if so I have to go)

                                  and for Salvadorean I haven't found anything in DC proper that beats Panchita's in SF. but I do have to say for Indian nuthin' beats Rasika in DC, granted it's not cheap.

                                  1. re: hill food

                                    hill food: As I was reading down through this, I was thinking that while I like Amsterdam Falafel, it isn't NEARLY as good as that place in SF... what was the name??? Then I got to your post. TRULY MEDITERRANEAN!!! That's the place. In my opinion, Amsterdam Falafel doesn't come within 10 miles of the deliciousness I encountered at TM!! But it's hard to compare them, really. They both do falafel, but in a completely different way. Still - no comparison in my opinion.

                                    Amsterdam Falafelshop
                                    2425 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

                                    1. re: woodleyparkhound

                                      thanks for the tip WPH as I rarely make it over to Adams Morgan

                                  2. re: lauraz

                                    Amsterdam Felafel is ok for DC but can't compare to Max's in Wheaton.

                                  3. I would stay in Penn Quarter because it is so accessible to metro, museums, and good food. In fact, I like the Hotel Monaco because it is more reasonable than many DC hotels, kinda cool, and has a good bar - always nice to grab a cocktail before heading out (and good bar food too). Restaurant Poste in the hotel is pretty good, although expensive. Nice outdoor patio.

                                    If you stay in Penn Quarter, it's great for combining touring and eating. Going to the National Portrait Gallery? Then grab a glass of wine and some amazing cheese at the bar at Proof across the street (you'll feel right at home because I know you'll need some good wine).

                                    Go to some of the Jose Andres places that are everywhere in Penn Quarter. Yes, you have many small plates places that are amazing in SF, but I think it would be fun to see what our celebrity chefs offer here. Do the Jose Andres grazing tour - couple of tapas at Jaleo, grab a ceviche at the ceviche bar across the street at Oyamel, and finish up a couple blocks up at Zaytinya (Greek/Turkish influence). If you like what you have, go to the Cafe' Atlantico Latin Dim Sum brunch on Sunday in the same area. Also, try Central on Pennsylvania Avenue another night if you want to sample some Michel Richard cuisine at not so terrible prices. If you don't have the difficult-to-get reservation, just try to eat at the bar which is definitiely possible for two people.

                                    Do a U street night too. Go to Dukem for Ethiopian, then hit one of the bars/lounges, and when you get the munchies again, head with the late night crowed to Ben's Chilli Bowl for a half smoke. (That night will may require some Rolaids).

                                    If you want to tour the sites in Old Town Alexandria (not sure how long you are here but if it's for more than a couple days, it's a nice historic destination to check out if you are into early American history), then of course you must try the places owned by Cathal Armstrong (not sure I spelled that correctly) - fish n' chips at Eammon's for lunch, tour of old town, then a drink at PX, and dinner at Eve if you want to break the bank. (Or just eat the lunch special at Eve in the bar on a weekday for $13.)

                                    Oh, and yes, agree with everyone who said you need to have some MD crabs - either in crabcake or shell form. I know people are going to yell at me because it is so touristy and not mega amazing from a food perspective, but I actually think Clyde's is a great destination for visitors because a) it's across from White House, b) I like all the rooms and the animal heads in the bar (plus the rumor that they were shot by Teddy Roosevelt), and c) the crab cake is pretty good and the staff is friendly. It's a Washington institution and the crab cake is a good enough version to have if you are trying to combine sightseeing/food sampling.

                                    Anyway, just some ideas to combine food/touring and do more than one place per night. I like to graze at lots of different places when I go to SF, so thought you might like to do the same.

                                    701 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: baconjen

                                      The dancing crab in tenley town I think is the only traditional "crab shack" in dc. Where you can order steamed crabs (males if they ask) or crab cakes. Blue crabs are a staple for any out of towners. If you like pubs fados across from the verizon center, Is a really cool place. both of these are metro accesible. And I would stay in farragut north or "midtown" as we call it, or Dupont circle (and no it's not all gay) That offers a million plaaces to eat and aren't crappy franchises. Both are the most central located in dc