At last count, Washington and environs had more than 2,500 restaurants to choose from -- everything from burgers, pizza, and USDA Prime aged beef to cuisine of just about every ethnic persuasion you can think of. So finding a place to eat is never a problem in Washington. The hard part is choosing. Be adventurous; your family's education doesn't end when you leave the Smithsonian. If you're raising your children in a meat-and-potatoes environment, expand their gustatory horizons and try a Thai or Greek restaurant (check out the "Restaurants by Cuisine" listing below). And if your family has never tasted fresh crabmeat, here's your opportunity to savor this delicious local specialty that's harvested from nearby Chesapeake Bay from late spring through fall (Aug and Sept are prime).
Because space prohibits listing every family restaurant, consider this chapter a sampling. Well-behaved kids who like to dine rather than eat and run are welcome at just about any restaurant in the city. However, when deciding where to dine with a very young child, please consider the appropriateness of your choice. Kids who would rather blow bubbles into their drinks than eat a square meal are served better by casual restaurants, fast food, or takeout. Nobody wants to dress up and pay a lot of money in a fine restaurant to play peek-a-boo with an antsy tot at the next table. Consider what shape your kids are in, too. (They might not be on their best behavior after 14 museums in 2 days.)
The drinking age in D.C. is 21. No exceptions are made for almost-21-year-olds dining with adults, so don't even think of offering your offspring a sip of your cocktail. A single violation could close the restaurant for good.
To save time on days when you want to pack in as much downtown sightseeing as possible, eat in a museum or federal-building restaurant or cafeteria. When you want simple, walk-away fare -- hot dogs, chips, ice cream, and sodas -- look for the pagoda-style roofs of the freestanding food-service kiosks nestled among the elms on the Mall. Or head for a food court in one of D.C.'s enclosed malls. Hey, this is Washington, so everyone should exercise their freedom of choice at these popular eateries. The selections are consistent and inexpensive. On a beautiful day, get it to go and picnic on the grass or on a park bench.
Nothing can ruin an otherwise pleasant day faster than an interminable wait in a mobbed restaurant. Because sometimes service might be less than speedy, especially during peak times, you could bring along some crayons, scrap paper, and a few playthings. Of course, it's always a good idea to have crackers or other snacks in your bag to pacify impatient little ones. If you don't have reservations and you want attentive service, try to get seated before noon or after 2pm for lunch and no later than 6 or 6:30pm for dinner.
The tax on restaurant meals is a hefty 10% in the District.
A Note on Prices -- Our reviews include a range of specific menu prices as often as possible. I've also categorized the restaurants as expensive, moderate, or inexpensive, based on rough estimates of what it would cost to feed a family of four: two parents and two children, assuming that one of the kids is young enough to be satisfied with either a kids' meal or a half portion or just an appetizer. If this mythical family would have to spend $120 or more for dinner (excluding any bar tab), I've classed that restaurant as very expensive; $75 to $120 as expensive; between $50 and $75, moderate; and under $50, inexpensive.
Best Dining Bets
Best Burgers: Houston's, 7715 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, MD (tel. 301/656-9755; www.hillstone.com), and 12256 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD (tel. 301/463-3535), consistently serves the best burgers in the area. I mourn the day Houston's closed its Georgetown location. Go at off times or bring a copy of War and Peace to read while you wait. Runner-up award goes to Fuddruckers, 734 7th St. NW (tel. 202/628-3361; www.fuddruckers.com) or 18th St. and Jefferson Place NW, just off Connecticut Ave. (tel. 202/659-1660).
Best Hot Dogs: Nathan's, the top dawgs introduced almost 90 years ago in NYC, get my vote. But outside of some D.C.-area supermarkets, you will have to travel to Pier C at either Reagan National Airport or BWI Airport to get one. Word has it that Nathan's will be more readily available in our area in the coming years. Runner-up goes to the much-easier-to-find Sabrett's. Just look for the carts with the blue and yellow umbrellas downtown and near the Mall.
Best Kids' Menu: Senators Grille at the Holiday Inn on the Hill serves free food to kids 12 and under (with an adult) at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The portions may not be huge, but hey, who's complaining? Youngsters can choose among a bunch of well-prepared kid faves -- pancakes, hamburgers, pizza, and the like -- on the kids' menu.
Best Place for Politicking: Head for the exclusive Senators' Dining Room (tel. 202/224-2350) in the U.S. Capitol to rub elbows with U.S. senators and order a tureen of famous Senate Bean Soup, which, after many years, still costs only $4.50. You'll need a "request letter," and men must wear a suit and tie to experience this D.C. moment.
Best Pizza: Pizzeria Paradiso, at 2029 P St. NW (tel. 202/223-1245; www.eatyourpizza.com) and 3282 M St. NW (tel. 202/337-1245), is the place for wood-oven-baked classic pizza. I usually stick to the basic Margherita or Quattro Formaggi (four cheeses). Pizza this good doesn't need extra toppings.
Best Tex-Mex: Austin Grill, 750 E St. NW, between 7th and 8th streets (tel. 202/393-3776); 2404 Wisconsin Ave. NW (just north of Georgetown; tel. 202/337-8080; www.austingrill.com); and in the Maryland and Virginia 'burbs, has a varied menu of deliciosa Tex-Mex favorites and Margaritas for Mom and Dad. Muy bueno!
Best Food Court: The Food Court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/312-1300), is in a primo location for hungry downtown sightseers. Belly up to one of the stands for hamburgers, chicken, salads, deli, Cajun, wraps, and ethnic fare (pizza, sushi, dim sum, and filled pita). On Capitol Hill, you will find similar fare with even more selections (plus all those trains and shops) at Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE (tel. 202/371-9441).
Best Restaurant for Teens: A trip to the Hard Rock Cafe, 999 E St. NW, next to Ford's Theatre (tel. 202/737-ROCK; www.hardrock.com), will make you a hero to your kids. Here, you can ogle (depending on your age) Britney Spears' costume, an autographed Stones photo, or one of Chuck Berry's guitars. This will take your mind off the food, which is okay but nothing to write a song about.
Best Ice Cream: Gifford's, 7237 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, MD (tel. 301/907-3436), has been pleasing generations of area ice cream lovers for decades with its rich ice cream treats. Try the Hot Fudge or Swiss sundaes or double-dip cone. If you can't make it to Bethesda, head for one of Ben & Jerry's six D.C. locations.
Best Ice Cream Parlor: Thomas Sweet ("Sweet's" to locals), 3214 P St. NW (at Wisconsin Ave.; tel. 202/337-0616), reminds me of my youth and the Malt Shoppe in Archie comics. The ice cream is made on the premises, and a single-dip ice cream cone is $2.15; a double, $2.75. Quite a deal in this day and age.
Best Milkshake: Chick & Ruth's Delly, 165 Main St., Annapolis, MD (tel. 410/269-6737), makes the kind of thick shakes and malts of which poetry is writ. If you have to ask how much ice cream goes into these monsters, you shouldn't go here. You could nurse one of these too-thick-to-sip-through-a-straw babies for an hour.
Best Breakfast: The Market Lunch (in Eastern Market), 225 7th St. SE (tel. 202/547-8444), is the place for blueberry pancakes and local Capitol Hill ambience. You may have to wait, but that's part of the experience. For hearty breakfast platters -- bacon and eggs, omelets, and the like -- head to Afterwards Cafe, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/387-1462; www.kramers.com), or Luna Grill and Diner, 1301 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/835-2280; www.lunagrillanddiner.com). If you want more formal trappings (for example, tablecloths), make a reservation at the Old Ebbitt Grill, 675 15th St. NW (tel. 202/347-4801; www.ebbitt.com).
Best Place for a Picnic: Tote that hamper or brown bag to the National Mall, between 4th and 7th streets NW. For picnicking alfresco, you can't beat the lawn between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. (Aren't you glad you don't have to cut the grass?) When in Georgetown, go to Washington Harbour Park, foot of 31st (below M Street).
Best Waterfront Dining: Friends, we have a three-way tie here. Sequoia, 3000 K St. (tel. 202/944-4200), perched on the Potomac in Georgetown, has a drop-dead view of the riverfront and pretty good food. At the Chart House, 1 Cameron St., Alexandria, VA (tel. 703/684-5080; www.chart-house.com), on another part of the Potomac, you can drool over the yachts along with your coconut shrimp. Cantler's Riverside Inn, 458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis, MD (tel. 410/757-1311; www.cantlers.com), is situated on picturesque Mill Creek and is the place to go for steamed Maryland blue crabs.
Best Selection: America, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE at Union Station (tel. 202/685-9555), serves tasty takes on regional favorites and comfort food (meatloaf, steak, pizza, pork chops, ribs, burgers, wraps, soups, and sandwiches). Few, other than linebackers, can finish the oversize portions here. Let the kids split an order, or doggy-bag the leftovers.
Best Romantic Restaurant (for Night When You Hire a Sitter): The Sea Catch Restaurant and Raw Bar, at Canal Square, 1054 31st St. NW, Georgetown (tel. 202/337-8855; www.seacatchrestaurant.com), has seating overlooking the picturesque C&O Canal. Many think the restaurant serves the best seafood in D.C. Make a reservation for a coveted outdoor table as soon as you plan your escape.
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