But First, Coffee

Starbucks isn't the only coffee game in town anymore. Independent coffee shops are pouring into D.C. and satisfying Washingtonians' love for a great cuppa joe while also supporting local businesses. While typically open early (7am) to late (8pm), most have cut back hours and close in the afternoon (around 3–5pm). Still plenty of time to caffeinate up for the draining museum circuit! 

  • Two former Marines who served together in Afghanistan established the original Compass Coffee (1535 7th St. NW; tel. 202/838-3139) in 2014, and it’s grown to 12 locations in the area. The coffee menu regularly rotates nine varieties/flavors, and the interiors are spacious and airy, with free Wi-Fi.
  • Founded in 2008, Peregrine Espresso (660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; tel. 202/629-4381) was one of the first to arrive on D.C.’s independent coffee scene and has since expanded to another location on in Union Market. Its espresso and flash-brewed iced coffee are some of the best in D.C. 
  • Just steps from Dupont Circle, Emissary (2032 P St. NW; tel. 202/748-5655) is an independent neighborhood coffeehouse, bar, and cafe. Go in the morning for almond butter toast topped with sliced strawberries and a house-brewed matcha latte. Then go again at night for the grilled cheese and craft beers. Happy hour is Monday to Friday from 4 to 7pm. There’s a second location at 1726 20th St NW (at S St. NW).
  • Owner Joel Finkelstein takes his brew seriously at Qualia Coffee (3917 Georgia Ave. NW; tel. 202/248-6423). The beans are carefully sourced from around the world and roasted frequently and in small batches on-site. The coffee is always fresh, served within 3 days of roasting. Grab a bite here, too, and sit outside on the patio. If you’re around Union Market, there’s another Qualia not far away (10 Harry Thomas Way NE).

The Patio Scene

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the pandemic, it’s that outdoor dining has become a fixture at restaurants across the city. Yes, you’ll now see people eating al fresco even in the swampy heat of summer and the cold and wind of winter. Patios have popped up in unlikely places: parking lots, alleyways, sidewalks. Lanes of traffic or even whole streets have been transformed into “streateries,” with restaurant tables spilling out onto the asphalt. 

If open-air meals are your top priority, head to these spots:

17th Street NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood is a mini corridor dotted with restaurants and gay bars, many of which have ample outdoor dining options. One of the best bets is Agora (1527 17th St. NW; tel. 202/332-6767), which serves shareable Mediterranean mezze dishes under an open-sided permanent awning which will keep you dry in the rain. Other standouts with outdoor seating on this strip include Floriana Restaurant (1602 17th St. NW; tel. 202/667-5937), which in addition to fresh pastas and Italian fare, is known for its eye-catching political displays, such as its giant Christmas tree celebrating Vice President Kamala Harris; and an outpost of Hank’s Oyster Bar.

A short walk from 17th Street, Lauriol Plaza (1835 18th St. NW; tel. 202/387-0035) has turned the back lot formerly used for valet parking into a massive tented dining space. The restaurant has been a neighborhood fixture forever, and while its generous plates of Latin American food are reason enough to come, the main draw for many are the pitchers of frozen swirled margaritas. 

Another neighborhood with ample al fresco dining is The Wharf on the Southwest Waterfront. Most restaurants have outdoor setups here, and some, like La Vie, are on upper-level floors so have unobstructed views of the water (just keep in mind that you’ll pay for these views in your menu prices). Hank’s Oyster Bar has a large outdoor setup here, as do modern Mexican restaurant Mi Vida (98 District Square SW; tel. 202/516-4656), Italian trattoria and market Officina (1120 Maine Ave. SW; tel. 202/747-5222) and Irish hangout Kirwin’s on the Wharf (749 Wharf St. SW; tel. 202/554-3818). 

Navy Yard has revitalized the Anacostia River waterfront around Nationals Park, bringing in a slew of outdoor-centric dining options (many with water views). Large canvas canopies cover a patio full of tables overlooking the river at District Winery (385 Water St. SE; tel. 202/484-9210), which carries a tasty menu of charcuterie, fresh salads, crispy soy glazed chicken wings and more. (Plus, wine!) Right near the stadium, The Salt Line (79 Potomac Ave. SE; tel. 202/506-2368) and All Purpose Pizzeria (79 Potomac Ave. SE; tel. 202/629-1894) both have huge patios and are popular pre- and post-game stops for oysters and pizza, respectively. 

Part of the new development around Buzzard Point, not far from Audi Field, Seafood restaurant The Point D.C. (2100 2nd St. SW; tel. 202/948-2522) has one of the best outdoor setups I’ve seen in the city. A massive deck overlooks the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and a retractable roof keeps you covered if the weather starts to turn. 

Union Market

Where can you sample savory Indian crepes one minute, poke bowls the next, and finish with delicious doughnuts and homemade gelato? It's all found in Union Market (1309 5th St. SE). This vibrant, historic market and the streets that surround it are an all-in-one hotspot for eating, drinking, and shopping. Wander among the nearly 40 vendor stalls and you may feel as though you’re on a foodie world tour. This is also a great one-stop-shop to try some of D.C.’s local culinary faves, like Al Volo and Lucky Buns. Sample the craft-roasted Blue Bottle Coffee and bread from Pluma by Bluebird, then head over to Shouk for modern Israeli street food. Italian eatery Masseria (1340 4th St. NE; tel. 202/608-1330), one of the only free-standing restaurants in Union Market, stands out for its elegant Italian menu in a country-chic setting. Shops include District Cutlery, a chef’s knife shop; the lifestyle/homegoods shop Salt & Sundry; and Three Littles, selling children’s goods, heirlooms and toys. It’s an eclectic mix and worthy of a stop for the tastes alone.

La Cosecha, a 20,000-square-foot contemporary market celebrating Latin American culture, opened in Union Market in 2019, adding at least six new food vendors. Among them is El Cielo, from Colombian chef Juan Manuel “Juanma” Barrientos, which recently became the first Colombian restaurant to receive a Michelin star; Las Gemelas, a chic coastal-inspired Mexican kitchen and a sister taqueria; and Serenata, a “Latino cocktail experience” with an all-day menu of small bites. Coffee lovers should head to Café Unido, which specializes in Panamanian beans, including Geisha, the world’s most expensive type of coffee.

Union Market is open daily 8am to 9pm, though individual businesses’ hours may vary (Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet/New York Ave., just a few blocks north of H Street Corridor).

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.

Dessert wars: Cupcakes vs. Ice Cream


D.C. made a splash on the cupcake scene years ago; it’s TV-show-spawning Georgetown Cupcake still sees lines wrap around the block for its designer treats, while many Washingtonians will argue that there are better cupcakes at their go-to cakery. But these days, it seems like the dessert of the moment is ice cream (it helps that the new resident of the White House has a major weakness for the treat). Whichever your weakness, here are some sweet spots you need to try. 

Cupcakes: Georgetown is ground zero for cupcakes in the city. Georgetown Cupcake (3301 M Street NW; tel. 202/333-8448) opened by two sisters in 2008 and launched the cupcake craze in Washington with its impeccably designed cupcakes. There’s often a line here, but you don’t have to wait in it. Instead, just place your order online the day before, and you’ll be able to bypass the queue. Nearby, Baked and Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St. NW; tel. 703/663-8727) is often compared (and dare I say preferred?) to Georgetown Cupcake. The homey family-run bakery whips up cakes in a variety of tempting flavor combos, like the Smurfette, a summery lemon cake with blueberries mixed into the batter, with lemon buttercream frosting. 

Ice Cream: Georgetown isn’t just cupcake turf; there’s some longstanding ice cream cred here too. Ask any university student and they’ll point you to Thomas Sweet (3214 P Street NW; tel. 202/337-0616), the no-frills corner spot scooping out ice creams, fro-yo, and frosty blend-ins. A newer ice cream purveyor with a devoted fanbase, Ice Cream Jubilee’s (1407 T St. NW; tel. 202/299-90422) creative flavors are entirely made in Washington. Try the banana Bourbon caramel or Thai iced tea ice creams, or the mango habanero sorbet. There’s a second location in Navy Yard near Nationals Park. And if you’re more of a gelato fan, head to Dolcezza, which has multiple locations around town. This coffee and gelato shop uses ingredients from local farms in its seasonally inspired gelatos, which are freshly made each morning here in D.C. 

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, Michelin star and James Beard Award winners among them. You may be puzzled when you arrive, 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 St. Corridors or on 8th St. 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 (tel. 202/849-6174), creating fresh takes on pizzas and classics such as eggplant Parm; Espita Mezcaleria (tel. 202/621-9695), with excellent southern Mexican cuisine and an awesome selection of mescals. 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; 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 (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 (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 (tel. 202/316-9396), the gift of Derek Brown—esteemed mixologist, spirits historian, and perennial James Beard Award nominee—offering a robust menu of cocktails and spritzes, including artful alcohol-free options.

On O Street NW at 8th Street: Convivial (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 happy diners enjoying the steak frites with green beans followed by sticky toffee pudding or the crunchy raspberry-rhubarb tart.

1015 7th St. NW, between New York Avenue and L Street NW: Kinship and Metier (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 Métier downstairs; Washingtonian magazine named Métier among the city’s best restaurants in 2020. (Dress sharp; jackets are required for men, but ties are optional.) 

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.