Washington DC is after another title. With what seems almost like a collective will it has set its increasingly softening heart on being the No 1 restaurant city in the US. It’s gone from being the nation´s crime capital to the place where residents murder a Carolina Shrimp Tempura.
The perception of an impoverished city where the locals have low paying civil service jobs or no jobs at all (in 2000 unemployment was almost 11%) has changed drastically in recent years. Wealth has entered the city but with a twist.
The dramatic increase in the wage of the average Washingtonian, which is now 18% higher than the US mean, has provided the fuel for many a fire in the cities restaurants.
This “financialisation” of Washington DC is helping the capital sneak up on its city rivals. You might not know it, but Washington now sees itself very much a food town. As with its newly found philanthropic approach – with the wealthy lobbying for an increase in taxes – many of the dishes here also have a twist. During our visit to seven restaurants across the city we sampled, Orange Wedges with Beetroot on a bed of Smashed Lemon Potatoes, which was a mild success, Ginger Caipirinhas, a splendid mix, and the most terrible addition of cardamon in a Latino salad. But on to the details.
With three bars and restaurant on the ground floor and a gorgeous 500 capacity music venue in the basement, this is much more than a beautiful restaurant. The main dining space has an exceptionally welcoming feel and despite it looking nothing like your house – unless you have a spectacular bird-themed decor, all commissioned by the owners of The Hamilton – you instantly feel at home.
The cosiness isn’t just on the walls it’s serving you the food. A restaurant lifer, Sean, was our server, in part some of the entertainment and in full our sagacious advisor. I was quick to ask for his advice. I find it hard not to over-order and then over-eat with one cuisine in particular, so I asked Sean, “Do you think I’ve ordered enough Sushi?” His reply, “Well, Sir if you eat Sushi like my wife eats crabs, you gonna want to order some more.” Nicky, Practically PA’s Editor, was restrained opting for a Single Crab Cake sat on a bed of Sweet Potato. The sushi arrived and then kept on coming.
We met Jenna and David, the Restaurant and General Manager and both spoke knowledgable and passionately about the menu and the spectacular venue. I couldn’t let anybody down, so I tried both the Bourbon based cocktails Jenna raved about, and I must say neither the Angle’s Kiss or the District Cider disappointed. We followed both of Sean’s dessert suggestions with much anticipation after he described his colleague as “I think….the best dessert chef in the state” Sean, my man, you know your stuff! Not only were both the desserts amazingly tasty but I did indeed eat that pile of sushi like Mrs Sean devours crabs.
We arrived for lunch but ended up eating from the dinner menu. We weren’t that late, but rather our smashing hosts wanted us to sample as many dishes as possible from the tapas menu.
Living in Barcelona, as I do, means that I tend to be overly critical of tapas when I eat it elsewhere in the world so I would undoubtedly advise taking this into account when I detail the food. The choice on offer was excellent, but most of our dishes just felt that little bit flat. Even the two cocktails I had during lunch couldn’t lift my mood or some of the dishes.
One of the resoundingly positive features of Washington restaurants is their unshakeable desire to mix unusual flavours. At Cuba Libre the majority of times it worked, but sometimes it didn’t. Pineapple in guacamole is genius, coconut milk in a latte is brilliant, the Mango Scallop Ceviche somewhat disappointingly flopped. However, for a low to a mid-budget meal with some exciting surprises, there is enough here to keep you happy. Especially if you don’t eat tapas almost every week. We heard that Cuba Libre was a great night spot so we popped back on Friday evening to see this with our own eyes and I can confirm the place was swinging.
North of Pennsylvania Avenue offers some pretty fine dining. But before you get to that, you have to spend some time at the bar. I would recommend the top left-hand shelf, home to a score or more Bourbons. Even if you aren’t a regular Bourbon drinker, you should try at least one. Many of the varieties are craft Bourbons ranging from the smokey to the sweet. They had my favourite Kentucky Bourbon “Angel’s Kiss”, and I had one while chatting to two locals. They had made it halfway along the top shelf, and they were as talkative as their eyes were misty.
We had excellent service from our three different servers throughout the night. NoPa deliberately has a straightforward menu with a focus on very fresh fish and beautiful steaks. Across all of the restaurants, we visited it had our favourite selection of sides, and we were delighted that our old favourite Brussels Sprouts was back. The Cheese Mushrooms were terrific.
The main restaurant was beautiful, but when we saw the two private dining areas, we felt that the eating environment somehow jumped up a notch! If you need to plan a large client dinner in DC, put NoPA at the top of your list.
City Tap House
Unashamedly more of a drinking establishment than a restaurant the City Tap House has the balance about right. It’s low-end fare with mid-range prices. It’s stodgy, soak up the ale food, and it is done pretty well. This is the exceptional restaurant from our trip in that it didn’t try to be too fancy and innovative. Our Editor chose, from reasons that still escape me, a Waffle with Maple Syrup and Chicken. This is what arrived. You can’t say there is anything fancy about that!
What the City Tap House did very well as craft beers. You will no doubt have come across the word “craft” in all its excellent food forms, and ale “craft” has a beautiful partner. No other establishment we ate or drunk in did we find a more genuine craft approach — top scores for that.
We ventured out to 17th street kind of halfway between Downtown Washington and the cool college area of Georgetown for some Mediterranean food and ate at a beautiful looking and nicely busy restaurant.
I have reservations about Greek and Turkish food. This is why I seldom make reservations at Mediterranean restaurants. So again please take this review with a pinch of salt; something that the chef should have done with more of the dishes: I can’t think of ever eating anywhere where the food was so poorly seasoned.
If you look at our pictorial review, you will see many wacky concoctions the majority of which unfortunately fell flat on taste and texture. The service was excellent, and if you are looking for a nice light meal with a few twists, and your choice wisely, you would enjoy the experience at Agora.
Loads of choices and if you find the right twists, you will be ecstatic!
With more than 2500 restaurants in Washington DC reviewed on TripAdvisor, we thought it would be helpful to list the six things that are making the good restaurants great in DC:
1. Bringing back some old school dishes
We loved seeing Brussels Sprouts on almost every menu. I feel this particular vegetable should get out more. They shouldn’t be just for Christmas.
2. Craft is crucial to the DC food scene
We found the craft culture in almost every place we ate, and we loved it.
3. The use of locally sourced ingredients
Every restaurant proudly highlighted the use of local produce. From seafood and steaks to wine, beer and Bourbon. This is something that Washington should rightly congratulate itself on.
4. Juices and cocktail ingredients all made in house
None of the restaurants we ate in would have considered buying in concentrate or pre-made juices. This went so far that Cuba Libra crushed its cane sugar!
5. Wonderfully beautiful places to eat
Every venue looked fantastic with a real studied approach to making sure that the diner’s eyes were feasted on the decor before they sampled the food.
6. Just simply wonderful service
It seems like a genuine pleasure that you have chosen to eat in a particular restaurant. What a welcome relief for anyone who regularly eats in any major European city!
These six areas are the type of things that the best food cities in the world are based upon. Should Washington DC’s restaurants mature, become more comfortable with their menus and experiment that little bit more wisely, then it won’t just be the increasing wealth of the region that finds its way into cash registers but dollars from all across the US.
While in Washington, we also had an excellent takeaway lunch from WTF in downtown DC. Unfortunately, we chose to eat dinner at Rialto in Georgetown. If you miss the rudeness of a typical Italian waiter, love being rushed and enjoy mediocre Italian food, this place is for you.
Next week is Restaurant Week in DC. So it is the best possible time to check out some of the restaurants we visited.
Practically Perfect PA was hosted at the above restaurants and was very grateful for the opportunity to sample the food and drink. We have tried to be as honest as possible for the benefit of our readers.