Hungry? Make Like a Local and Follow the Food Trucks
“Meet you at McPherson Square—lobster rolls!” “Time for a cupcake break—corner of 3rd and D.” All day long weekdays and somewhat on weekends, D.C. workers of all trades and echelons text, tweet, e-mail, or phone friends to arrange a food-on-the-move rendezvous. They track the routes of favorite “food trucks,” that most unappetizing name for the legion of mobile cook-and-serve vendors, each hocking its own irresistible specialty: gourmet macaroni and cheese, empanadas, Philly cheesesteaks, Maine lobster rolls, all sorts of desserts—you get the idea.
Traditional sidewalk and roadway merchants selling hot dogs and T-shirts still abound in all the usual sightseeing places, including in clusters around the National Mall. These are not them. This next generation of food trucks switches up street fare, tweets its location so hungry patrons know where to go, and still manages to keep prices reasonable (generally ranging from $3 for a Curbside Cupcake to $15 for a Red Hook Lobster Pound lobster roll). These days, close to 200 different trucks roll around town, setting up shop at designated spots before driving on to their next location.
For a complete list of D.C.’s food trucks, go to www.foodtruckfiesta.com, which also displays a map in real time of food-truck stops and messages. The website includes links to each truck’s website, where menus, travel routes, and prices are posted.
Laws prohibit gourmet food trucks from parking and serving on federal property, so you won’t find these trucks parked along the inside roads (Jefferson and Madison drives) of the National Mall (though the aforementioned stationary vendors selling hot dogs and T-shirts are allowed, for some reason). They’re never far away, though.
Chocolate Lounges & Cupcake Shops
Busted! Washingtonians are finally exposed for what we are: chocoholics and sweet-cake addicts. An explosion of chocolate lounges and cupcake shops has forced us to come clean. Outposts of Sprinkles and Crumbs keep popping up around town, as do those of Paul Bakery. But let’s talk about excellent homegrown sweet shops, shall we? If you answer to the same passion for something desserty, join the queue at one of these four personally vouched-for places:
Co Co. Sala, 929 F St. NW (www.cocosala.com; tel 202/347-4265): This chocolate lounge and boutique is a sweet refuge in the heart of the Penn Quarter, dispensing coffees, cocoas, pastries, and small plates of light fare throughout the day. Dessert cocktails and chocolate-spiked liqueurs are on tap into the wee hours.
Dog Tag Bakery, 3206 Grace St. NW (www.dogtagbakery.com; tel 202/407-9609): Both bakery and work study program for disabled vets, this sunny Georgetown café makes my favorite cinnamom bun. It also serves up superb breakfast breads and pastries, bundt cake, apple pies, and non-bakery items, too, like sandwiches and soups.
Georgetown Cupcake, 3301 M St. NW (www.georgetowncupcake.com; [tel] 202/333-8448): Two sisters, 12 daily flavors, darling designs and packaging, and perfect baked goods. Locals vote the chocolate ganache the best cupcake in the city; I love the lemon cupcake with lemon cream cheese frosting. Georgetown Cupcake is so popular that the TLC network developed a reality TV show featuring the lovely cupcake makers, Sophie LaMontagne and Katherine Kallinis. Georgetown Cupcake now has locations in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Boston.
Rare Sweets, 963 Palmer Alley NW (www.raresweets.com; tel 202/499-0077): CityCenterDC is full of chi chi shops and big names: Dior, Hermes, David Yurman, Carolina Herrara. And then there’s this tiny gem tucked away on little Palmer Alley, where pastry chef Meredith Tomason concocts variations on classic cakes, as well as seasonal specials: German chocolate, lemon and rhubarb, and lavender and buttercream, to name a few flavors. At $5 or $5.50 a slice, it’s the best deal in the upscale complex.
Red Velvet Cupcakery, 505 7th St. NW (www.redvelvetcupcakery.com; tel 202/347-7895): Located in the heart of the Penn Quarter, Red Velvet stays open until 11pm nightly, happy to accommodate the bar and club crowd when a yen for a sweet something hits. It also serves hot chocolate to go.
Dinner? Drinks? Shaw-Thing
Visit Shaw by day and you’ll encounter conference-goers (the convention center lies within its northwest D.C. boundaries), residents, and people who work here. Few tourists, little hustle-bustle. Except for the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, and the smattering of retail shops on or near U Street NW, there aren’t notable daytime attractions worth a detour from the sites awaiting you on the Mall and elsewhere. I invite you instead to visit Shaw in the evening, to dine, perchance to drink.
Overnight, it seems, the district has turned into the place to go for some of the city’s best dining and drinking experiences; at least 25 restaurants, bakeries, coffeehouses, and bars have sprouted here in the last couple of years, James Beard Award winners among them. You may be puzzled when you arrive here, though—for now, at least, Shaw looks like what it was and still is: an old neighborhood of historic churches, modest housing, and corner shops, even amid the rising luxury condos and construction sites. The restaurants are scattered over several streets, rather than primarily along a single stretch or two (as they are in the U&14th Street Corridors or on 8th Street SE in Barracks Row). In fact, some of the hottest spots are hidden down alleyways. You have to seek them out. Among my favorites are:
1250 9th St. NW between N and M streets: Sharing the same street address but with separate locations right next to one another on the block, are these three different and individually owned establishments: All Purpose Pizzeria (www.allpurposedc.com; tel. 202/849-6174), creating fresh takes on pizzas and classics such as eggplant Parm; Espita Mezcaleria (www.espitadc.com; tel. 202/621-9695), with excellent southern Mexican cuisine and an awesome selection of mescals; and Buttercream Bakery (www.buttercreamdc.com; tel. 202/735-0102), serving and selling sausage-stuffed breakfast bombs in the morning and funfetti cookie cream pies for take-home desserts. Now look directly across Ninth Street and what do you see? The convention center, right? But hiding in plain sight within that glass facade is Unconventional Diner (1207 9th St. NW; www.unconventionaldiner.com; tel. 202/847-0122), open for breakfast and lunch weekdays, brunch weekends, and dinner Monday through Saturday, serving the most cunning little takes on diner food (the meatloaf incorporates Gruyère cheese, for example) in one large room decorated with colorful pop art and including a café, bar, and banquette-filled dining area.
In Blagden Alley (more like a quaint little brick-paved village with its nookish space behind buildings on 9th and 10th sts. and M and N sts.): The Dabney (www.thedabney.com; tel. 202/450-1015), whose chef, Jeremiah Langhorne, took home the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for his inventive regional cuisine; Tiger Fork (www.tigerforkdc.com; tel. 202/733-1152), bringing “Hong Kong’s gritty, badass culinary culture” to D.C., from Chinese barbecue to chili crab; and the Columbia Room (www.columbiaroomdc.com; tel. 202/316-9396), the gift of Derek Brown—esteemed mixologist, spirits historian, and perennial James Beard Award nominee—offering a punch garden, spirits library, and a three- or five-course tasting menu of cocktails and snacks.
On O Street NW at 8th Street: Convivial (www.convivialdc.com; tel. 202/525-2870) is French chef Cedric Maupillier’s interpretation of “an American café,” and it’s as merry an experience as the name suggests, with a full house of happy diners enjoying the fried-chicken coq au vin followed by French strawberry shortcake.
1015 7th St. NW, between New York Avenue and L Street NW: Kinship and Metier (www.kinshipdc.com; tel. 202/737-7700) both serve creative contemporary American cuisine, in a casual dining room upstairs at Kinship and in the acclaimed and more intimate and formal, $200-a-person tasting room/restaurant Metier downstairs; Washingtonian magazine named Metier the city’s best restaurant in 2018.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.