Food writers outside the city like to talk about Washington's culinary scene as if it has newly come into its own. They're out of touch. The truth is that the capital has been cultivating an enviable stable of truly excellent restaurants gradually for about the last 10 years -- and by "excellent," I don't necessarily mean fine dining/expensive. For example, newcomers Masa 14 and Estadio, like old-timer Jaleo, are all about exquisite small-plate choices; at Masa 14 it's tastes of Latin-Asian fusion, at Jaleo and Estadio, it's authentic Spanish tapas; at all three spots we're talking prices of $4 to $14 per plate. At Georgetown's Tackle Box, a full dinner of wood-grilled fresh fish and two delicious sides runs you about $14.
It is true that our restaurants keep getting better and better. They consistently receive high marks from readers' polls and from experts in the culinary field, receiving AAA Five Diamond ratings, James Beard Award Foundation distinctions, and glowing reviews in the national press.
All of this attention has encouraged countless of the world's most esteemed chefs to establish restaurants in the capital, including Wolfgang Puck, whose The Source is in the Newseum; Eric Ripert and his Westend Bistro, which sits in the Ritz-Carlton Washington; Alain Ducasse, whose Adour is the St. Regis Hotel Washington's resident restaurant; Michael Mina, of Michael Mina Bourbon Steak, in the Four Seasons Hotel; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's J&G Steakhouse, which presides inside the W Hotel Washington.
Washingtonians are in the catbird seat, licking their lips. Eating out is a way of life here, whether simply for the pleasure of it, or for business -- the city's movers and shakers meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When Congress passed a ban prohibiting members of Congress and their staffs from accepting gifts of any value, including meals, restaurateurs feared that their clientele would stop going out to eat. But business is flourishing, it turns out, with congressional members and staff paying for themselves, if need be, and with corporate executives, lobbyists, and other professionals taking each other, but not elected politicians, out for a meal.
One other thing to note here: When Congress is in town (that is, not out on recess), restaurants are full and reservations are an absolute must. When Congress is in recess, in August, mid-December to January, and at other times, many restaurants, especially those close to Capitol Hill and in the downtown area, are sometimes so empty, it's creepy.
You have quite a number of restaurants from which to choose: 1,900, from delis to showplace dining rooms, according to the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. An immense variety of cuisines is on hand, representing the international population of the capital, including the diplomatic staffs of 187 foreign embassies and our immigrant communities from Ethiopia and El Salvador, especially, but from scores of other countries, as well. A strong African-American presence means that the District has some delicious soul food eateries and our location in the Mid-Atlantic region near the Chesapeake Bay means that crabs are a favorite item here, served in soft-shell, hard-shell, soup, or cake form.
Currently, the capital is witnessing a variety of culinary trends, with wine bars, gastropubs, chocolate lounges, food trucks, cupcake shops, comfort fooderies, and burger joints proliferating and vegetarian options on the rise. Drinking is serious business here, as well, and exotic concoctions and made-to-order cocktails, are increasingly a draw at popular restaurants, many of which now include a bar lounge for those who want to unwind with a whistle-wetter before dinner, or sip a nightcap afterward.
A growing concern about the environment is inspiring restaurants to pursue ecologically friendly policies, like the sustainable seafood restaurant Hook, which serves only those varieties of fish that can reproduce at the rate they're being caught; or Poste brasserie, which despite its downtown location, grows and harvests its own herbs, vegetables, and greens on-site for immediate use; or Founding Farmers, owned by a collective of American farmers and designed to use natural and recyclable products, composting, and farm-to-table practices.
All in all, Washington's eating and drinking culture, already hot, keeps getting hotter.
Locals and visitors both benefit from the capital's multicultural population and the resulting abundance of restaurants serving cuisine from around the world. If you want to taste the most authentic food available in the capital from a particular country, seek out one of the restaurants on the following list. Though hardly comprehensive, the list, at least, names reliable "real deals" for ethnic eats. If you don't see a mention of your favorite cuisine, for instance, Chinese, it's probably because the restaurants best representing that country have fled to the suburbs.
Belgian: How is it that Belgian cuisine has become such a hot commodity in the nation's capital? (There are at least nine Belgian restaurants.) I have no idea. But for yummy tastes of lamb sausage, beef carbonnade, and Belgian beers like the one pictured here, and for a superfun time, try Brasserie Beck.
Ethiopian: Washington is said to have more Ethiopian restaurants than any other American city. The preponderance of Ethiopian restaurants in the U Street Corridor has even lent the name "Little Ethiopia" to the area. Etete is recommended for its spicy stews and lentil-filled pastries (sambusas), to name just two good examples.
Greek: Kellari Taverna has been a hit since it opened in 2009. It's the warm and zesty atmosphere combined with really fine Greek cuisine, emphasis on seafood, served in a very, very pretty room. The menu covers classics you've heard of, like spanakopita and moussaka, and some you may not have, like seafood yiouvetsi (oven-roasted orzo with shrimp, mussels, clams, and scallops).
Indian: Everyone seems to have her own favorite Indian restaurant, so let's go with two standouts: The 2-decade-old Bombay Club is located near the White House and favored by one administration after another and by the press corps that have covered them, for its elegant decor, gracious service, and specialties such as the Malabari shrimp and simmered-overnight black lentils. Younger sibling Rasika, in the Penn Quarter, is one of the best restaurants in the city, period, its Indian dishes taken to cutting-edge levels, its shimmery, sexy dining room filled with shimmery and sexy diners.
Japanese: The city's oldest sushi restaurant is still the best: Go to Sushiko, in Glover Park, for superb sushi and sashimi, but also for shrimp in tempura and other non-sushi, Japanese tastes.
Lebanese: Our Lebanese Taverna might be considered a national treasure, 2 decades old and still going strong. For the best, most authentic tastes of Lebanon, choose from the mezze dishes: hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, and so on. Hip Zaytinya in the Penn Quarter, serves a mélange of cuisines, Turkish and Greek as well as Lebanese, and all of it first-class.
Mexican: Owner/chef José Andrés is Spanish, nevertheless his Oyamel is the uncontested place for true regional tastes of Mexico, from ceviche to avocado soup to chipotle-sauced meatballs.
Peruvian: Las Canteras, in Adams Morgan, is a pretty restaurant serving pleasurable, traditional Peruvian dishes, such as the seco de carne (a slow-cooked beef stew) and causa (a cake of yellowed potatoes layered with corned and shredded chicken).
Salvadoran: Salvadorans make up the largest immigrant population in the capital, and yet a good Salvadoran restaurant is hard to find. El Tamarindo, in Adams Morgan, 1785 Florida Ave. NW (tel. 202/328-3660; www.eltamarindodc.com) is your best bet for great pupusas, tamales, and other Salvadoran favorites. Plus, the place stays open 24 hours on weekends.
Spanish: The Penn Quarter's Jaleo, ignited the small-plates craze when it opened nearly 20 years ago, and is still counted as tops among tapas places, and among the best D.C. restaurants, too. Following in its footsteps is new favorite, Estadio, which focuses on fine tapas, too, but offers a frenzied atmosphere and amazing cocktails on 14th Street.