Dining Out in Washington, D.C.

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 20 Guide

Excite your tastebuds with local seafood, soul food, and a range of ethnic cuisines, including Ethiopian. Washington, D.C.’s contemporary food scene grew out of three movements: fresh, local food; recipes from both colonial and later immigrant traditions; and new combinations that offer exciting experiences to adventurous palates.

This guide looks at a variety of D.C.’s neighborhoods and their food traditions. In particular, we focus on:
• Seafood
• Soul food
• The Adams Morgan neighborhood
• Historic dining locations
• Food festivals

Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!

Seafood

When European settlers first arrived in the Chesapeake Bay and explored the Potomac River, they were amazed by the abundance of seafood. The bay, in particular, is famous for two types of seafood: the blue crab and the oyster. Blue crabs are the most important commercial fishing species in Maryland.

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When you order your crabs, you may be asked what size you want, and whether you want males or females. They might be graded as small, medium, large, jumbo, or colossal, or they might be graded as number 1 (the largest), number 2 (medium), and number 3 (small). Marine biologists suggest eating more male crabs, leaving females behind to lay eggs and sustain the population.

The traditional way to eat Maryland blue crabs is at a crab house, although many locals pride themselves on cooking their own crabs. You will find traditional crab houses all over Maryland and even in Virginia. But when you are in Downtown D.C., your best bet is to head down to the fish market at the District Wharf. The wharf is a short walk from either the Waterfront or L’Enfant Plaza metro station. There, you will have a choice of enjoying crab in a crab house or restaurant, or you can pick up expertly steamed crabs to go.

Chesapeake Bay blue crabs stock piled
The bay in particular is famous for two types of seafood: the blue crab and the oyster.

Before crab became king of the Chesapeake, Maryland’s most profitable seafood species was the eastern oyster. Their population has crashed, and though conservation efforts are underway, they may be scarce.

Regardless, oysters remain permanently popular in the nation’s capital. You will find dozens and dozens of raw bars in the city, featuring not only Maryland oysters but also other oyster species from the East Coast’s best fisheries.

In particular, a short walk from the White House, you will find the oldest, continuously operating restaurant in the district: the Old Ebbitt Grill, at 675 15th Street NW. The main attraction is its top-ranked oyster bar. If you are an oyster lover, you might be interested in the restaurant’s annual Oyster Riot.

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The Oyster Riot is a relatively new tradition, starting in 1995. Each November, to close out oyster season, the Old Ebbitt oyster bar hosts a multi-day, all-you-can-eat event, with up to 20 different oyster varieties served with expertly selected wine pairings. Tickets are sold in advance and often sell out in under an hour. If you want to experience this quintessentially D.C. food event, you will need to keep an eye on the website for the schedule and move quickly when the tickets go on sale.

The event is also held for a good cause: Discarded shells are sanitized and returned to the bay, where baby oysters use them for anchorage during their early growth cycle. Additionally, a portion of the proceeds from Oyster Riot are donated to the Oyster Recovery Partnership every year.

Soul Food

Landmark Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington D.C.
Ben’s Chili Bowl was one of the few buildings to survive the riots in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Oysters and crab are both important parts of D.C.’s particular soul-food tradition. The term soul food refers to the African American variants on American Southern cuisine that spread to the rest of the country during the Great Migration of the early 20th century.

Soul food’s focus was on ingredients including corn and beans, potatoes and sweet potatoes, collard and turnip greens, game meat, pork, chicken, seafood (especially catfish), and biscuits. The two main ways soul food differs from other cuisines of the region is consumption of the whole animal—including organ meat—and a flavor palate that emphasizes hot and spicy. Hot sauce is a staple.

One popular option for soul food is Sweet Georgia Brown’s, just a few blocks from the White House at McPherson Square. For a more casual soul food dining experience, you could start your journey in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C. The Florida Avenue Grill, for example, at 11th Street and Florida Avenue a few blocks north of U Street, has been serving up soul food since 1944.

However, the most famous dining destination in this neighborhood is not a soul food restaurant; it is a chili restaurant. Ben’s Chili Bowl, on U Street between 12th Street and 13th Street, is a D.C. landmark.

Opened in this location in 1958 by Ben Ali and his wife, Virginia Rollins, it has witnessed major events in D.C. history. It was one of the few buildings to survive the riots in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, staying open throughout the struggle and feeding police officers and protesters alike.

Their specialty is chili. However, the true icon at Ben’s is the half-smoke: a spicy, half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage served with mumbo sauce—D.C.’s homegrown version of barbecue sauce.

Another restaurant in D.C. with roots in African American foodways is located at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. There, you will find the Sweet Home Cafe, which serves fresh, seasonal food from four African American regional cuisines. The food is phenomenal, but you have to get into the museum to get into the cafe, so make your plans accordingly.

The Adams Morgan Neighborhood

Colorful buildings in the Adams Morgan Neighborhood
The Adams Morgan Neighborhood is home to rows of colorful buildings.

Immigrants have made D.C. home since its founding, so it has always been a great place to discover world cuisine. One notable location is the neighborhood of Adams Morgan, which is centered on 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. For much of the late 20th century, this was D.C.’s immigrant gateway community and one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

Salvadorian and other Central American immigrants in particular made their home in Adams Morgan in the 1960s, followed by Caribbean and African immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s, all of them bringing foodways with them. Some of these cuisines are rarely found anywhere else in the United States. For example, Ethiopian cuisine came to D.C. in the 1970s, and is still a local favorite.

One D.C. institution found in Adams Morgan is Mama Ayesha’s. The founder, Ayesha Abrams, was born in Jerusalem in the late 19th century and came to D.C. to work as a cook at the Syrian Embassy. She opened this restaurant on Calvert Street in the 1960s, calling it the Calvert Café and pioneering Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food in the city. The restaurant was renamed Mama Ayesha’s after Abrams’s passing in the early 1990s and is still run by her family.

Adams Morgan is also notable because of its nightlife. In Adams Morgan, you will find everything from craft beer brewers to blues-and-bourbon clubs, but it is particularly known for its rooftop dining and drinking, made possible by the flat-roofed Victorian and Edwardian architecture that makes up most of the area.

Possibly the best way to get to know Adams Morgan is the annual Adams Morgan Day festival. Held on the Sunday after Labor Day Weekend for more than 40 years, this festival celebrates the neighborhood’s eclectic roots with music and dance performances, an arts and crafts festival, family friendly games and activities, and delicious food. Local restaurants often have booths at the festival, as well as food and drink specials in-house.

Food in the Suburbs
If you are willing to go a bit farther afield for great ethnic cuisine, you might consider venturing out into D.C.’s suburbs, where new immigrant communities are forming and bringing even newer dining experiences to the city. A few that are worth seeking out are the Vietnamese restaurants of Falls Church, the Korean community in Annandale, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines in Arlington and Fairfax, and Indian food throughout the suburbs.

Historic Dining Locations

D.C. features several, historic dining locations. The Old Ebbitt, discussed earlier, often tops the list thanks to its age. Another one of D.C.’s oldest restaurants is just a few blocks from the Old Ebbitt, tucked inside the historic Willard Hotel. It is called the Occidental Grill, and it has been serving food for 110 years.

The Tabard Inn Restaurant in Dupont Circle, just south of Embassy Row, has a country-inn aesthetic that is unique in downtown D.C. It is a popular spot for Sunday brunch.

Georgetown is the oldest part of Washington, D.C., and it is home to two of the city’s most historic restaurants. Martin’s Tavern, on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and N Street NW, is a family-run business. The tavern opened in 1933, right as Prohibition was ending. The menu features classic Anglo-American pub fare.

Another longtime Georgetown favorite is found at Prospect Street and 36th Street. Opened in 1962 by a Georgetown University alumnus named Richard McCooey, it is called, simply, 1789—the momentous year when the U.S. Constitution went into effect and The Georgetown University was founded. The interior of 1789 is filled with 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century art and antiques. The menu focuses on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients and an outstanding wine list.

Aside from its historic restaurants, Georgetown is also renowned for the finest of fine dining restaurants. Restaurants like Fiola Mare and Café Milano are the spots where Washington’s elite show up, not just for the outstanding food but also to see and be seen.

Food Festivals

Woman ordering food at food festival

The best week for food lovers in Washington is Restaurant Week. Many cities around the country have a similar span of time when fixed-price, three-course menus, often with drink pairings, are available at bargain rates to eager and curious diners.

D.C. is no exception. In fact, it has two Restaurant Week events: one in mid-August and the other in late January. About 200 restaurants, bars, and cafes participate in the program. If you are visiting during Restaurant Week, the best way to find out which restaurants are participating and what is on their menus is to check the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s Restaurant Week website, or scan a local newspaper for reviews and advertisements.

Other food festivals occur in the city throughout the year. Examples include chocolate festivals around Valentine’s Day; the Japanese Street Food Festival in the spring; the Embassy Chef Challenge in May; the Capital Barbecue Battle in late June; and multiple local wine, beer, and cider festivals throughout the summer. No matter when you visit, you are likely to find something delicious going on.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Old Ebbitt Grill
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History
Adams Morgan Day Festival
Restaurant Association of Washington’s Restaurant Week

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