Barbecue lamb kebabs at Albi. Photograph by Hawkeye Johnson Photography.
1346 Fourth St., SE
The most thrilling restaurant to open in the last two years? The one we still tell all our friends to visit, stat? This Navy Yard dining room from Michael Rafidi, which opened just before the pandemic began. His gorgeously plated dishes—whether carrots spiced with sumac and sweetened with smoked-date honey; hummus with ember-roasted mushrooms and black garlic; or rustic skewers of charred lamb belly—traverse an array of Arabic and Mediterranean cuisines. The best way to experience them is through the laid-back sofra tasting menu. And with a few clever pairings from wine pro Brent Kroll, who also oversees the adjoining bar, Maxwell Park.
425 I St., NW
Beloved Southeast Asian restaurant Baan Thai has relocated from Logan Circle to a sleeker setting in Mount Vernon Triangle with a patio and expanded bar (hello, frozen lychee cocktails). What hasn’t changed is chef Jeeraporn “P’Boom” Poksupthong’s dedication to spicy, punchy flavors. Thai vermicelli with chili-peanut sauce and khao soi remain staples, but newer dishes such as tom yum fried rice with shrimp are also worth a try.
914 14th St., SE
Chicken parm. Caesar salad. Tiramisu. Chef Matt Adler isn’t reinventing anything at his snug ode to Little Italy on Capitol Hill—and that’s what we love about it. Are those crinkle-cut carrots siding the lemony veal française? They are, but they’re far more buttery and delicious than anything you’d find in a freezer bag. Still, Adler—who previously led the kitchen at Navy Yard’s venerable Osteria Morini—throws in a few surprises. The secret to that best-in-class Caesar is Duke’s mayo. And a dirty martini (a very retro ten bucks) comes sided with a toothpick of not just olives but mozzarella and a tomato, too.
724 Ninth St., NW
With a restaurant in Singapore and roots in Barcelona, one might not expect chef Pepe Moncayo to be a regular presence here in Penn Quarter. But we’ve always spotted him in the open kitchen, plating exquisite dishes that speak to both his Spanish heritage and his career in Asia. Groups can dabble in seasonal plates such as oysters in bracing ponzu sauce, duck-rillettes-stuffed gyoza, and smoked-eel paella. A six-course omakase menu ($98 per person) is primed for celebrations, but diners can also mini-splurge on the best lunch deal in town: a bento box ($38) with ever-changing treasures like venison yakitori, maitake-mushroom tempura, and shrimp-stuffed lettuce tacos.
1451 Maryland Ave., NE
This collaboration between Rasika alums Dante Datta and Suresh Sundas was planned as a cocktail bar with snacks. The pandemic both delayed the place and fundamentally changed the game plan—it opened in August as a full-on restaurant. Sundas’s Indian cooking swings between comforting (smoky stewed eggplant, chicken makhani) and positively electric (potatoes with pomegranate and Szechuan pepper, a tandoori-chicken kebab with blue cheese and sour cherries). To go with it all: excellent za’atar-crusted naan and Datta’s ace spice-accented cocktails.
300 Seventh St., SE
This chicly homey dining room near Eastern Market is one of three pandemic-born places from former ThinkFoodGroup chief operating officer Hollis Silverman. The evening menu conjures a dinner party you never want to leave. Hang out over cranberry daiquiris and a parade of snacks (beautiful crudités with goat butter, crackly blue-cheese-stuffed dates), then dig into shareable mains such as an enviable roast chicken and a nicely seared butcher steak. During the day, the kid-friendly place churns out cinnamon rolls and transforms that bird into a fabulous chicken-salad sandwich.
1509 17th St., NW
Fine-dining destination Komi has reimagined itself as a Greek-inspired, veg-centric carryout—one clearly still operated by a Michelin-starred chef. Sourdough pizzas and vegetable sides embrace whatever’s in season that week, while the “freak-a-burger,” made of freekeh grains and topped with skordalia, the Greek garlic-potato dip, rivals most beef patties. Save room for cheffy ice creams, particularly if olive oil with cocoa crumble is available.
200 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Perhaps you’ve seen the Instagram-famous 40-layer lasagna laced with truffled cheese. It’s worth the hype, sure, but there’s so much more to Unconventional Diner chef David Deshaies’s five-month-old Italian dining room than a pretty pasta. Spend lots of time in the wide-ranging menu’s antipasti section, where you’ll find leaves of grilled cabbage dotted with sweet-tart currants and trout roe; silken eggplant with dates and plenty of mint; and a first-rate Caesar salad. Then move on to a thin pizza spread with onion cream, Brussels sprouts, and pomegranate, or a peppery carbonara. For dessert, the tiramisu, ignited with a blue flame at the table, is what turns heads in the dining room. Less flashy but just as good: a swirl of mandarin-orange sorbet and vanilla soft-serve.
1101 S. Joyce St., Arlington
The pandemic equivalent of waiting in line for a seat at Bad Saint or Rose’s Luxury was racing to score dinner from Tim Ma’s Chinese-American all-takeout/delivery joint, which in the beginning would sell out fast. Now that it’s moved from DC to Pentagon City and expanded its hours to include lunch, you can be more leisurely with your planning. Props to Ma’s orange beef for being more nuanced than the candy-sweet stir-fry that Americans have grown used to, and to his veggie-packed lo mein for its smoky savor. On the seafood side, go for pockets of crab rangoon and fat, salt-and-pepper-showered shrimp. And in March, Lucky Danger is planning a return to the District, inside Foggy Bottom’s Western Market food hall.
1522 Wisconsin Ave., NW
It’s been a while since a buzzy little bistro opened in Georgetown—and this mod-French revamp of Café Bonaparte checks all the boxes. The snug brick dining room and candlelit marble bar feel more Brooklyn than DC. (Chef Matt Conroy came from a Michelin-starred eatery there.) His curated menu is full of simple-seeming pleasures you could cozy up to on a cold night: housemade breads with cultured butter, spice-grilled scallops drizzled in smoky oil, dry-aged steak in bordelaise sauce, and buttery gnocchi with mushrooms and Comté cheese. The best seat in the house: one of two tables flanking the open kitchen, where a four-course chef’s-choice menu goes for $65.
3400 11th St., NW
Former Maketto chef James Wozniuk became enamored with Malaysian cooking when he began regularly traveling to the country several years ago. These days, he’s fueling our own obsession with dishes like pineapple curry and—Malaysia’s national dish—nasi lemak (fried chicken leg with coconut-pandan rice, sambal, crispy anchovies, cucumber, and a soft-boiled egg). We’ve yet to find a better chicken satay with peanut sauce and never skip the pickled sides, such as sweet-and-sour Key lime with golden raisins.
3110 Mount Pleasant St., NW
Tara Smith and Demetri Mechelis, husband-and-wife alums of Tail Up Goat, are behind this delightful sliver of a pizzeria. Naturally fermented sourdough pies—known to sell out—draw a following for their thin, nutty crusts and inspired toppings like littleneck clams with Brussels sprouts and clam-liquor cream (a must: crust dippers such as bagna cauda). Small plates are equally engaging—we love the anchovy-heavy Caesar and sticky pork ribs with pickled chilies and honey. All can be made for eating there or to go—you’ll want to grab a bottle of something offbeat regardless, such as a Greek pét-nat rosé.
1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington
When Dublin native Cathal Armstrong was running Restaurant Eve, his late fine-dining destination that put Old Town on the culinary map, he would gently nudge diners toward the cuisine of Ireland. At this Pentagon City pub, named for his grandparents, he gives the country a full-on bear hug. Start with an upgraded pig-in-a-blanket—zesty sausage wrapped in flaky pastry with Dijonnaise for dipping—or a cool shrimp salad in pink Marie Rose sauce. There’s a strapping haddock soup packed with smoked fish and mussels, a superlative corned beef, and a pot pie filled with nubs of lobster and perfectly carved vegetables. Fans of Armstrong’s old projects will be happy to see Eve’s leafy bacon-and-egg salad and the terrific fish and chips from his also-closed Eamonn’s.
845 Upshur St., NW
Chef Eric Yoo was a ramen-obsessed home cook who left a job as a financial consultant to open this pop-up turned minimalist noodle-soup joint. His Petworth kitchen prides itself on making every component from scratch, whether it’s the tare that seasons the broth, thick-cut chashu, or spaghetti-straight noodles with just the right amount of chew. The menu is short but wide-ranging: Truffle shoyu is delicate but fragrant, while the tantan with creamy pork-and-chicken broth is rich, spicy, and satisfying.
801 Wharf St., SW
DC lost one of its most exciting restaurants when the Wharf’s Kith and Kin closed in the summer of 2020. Meanwhile, one of the city’s most exciting chefs, Kevin Tien, was looking for a new home after suddenly departing his Hill hot spot, Emilie’s. So in the fall of 2020, this glassy mod-Vietnamese place was born. We love it most for its smaller plates. Few balance the crunch, tartness, and sweetness of crudos and tartares as well as Tien, and his slider-size riff on a fish-filet sandwich is one of the best things we’ve eaten in the last year.
5029 Connecticut Ave., NW
This narrow Forest Hills Mexican joint from Oyamel alum Christian Irabien has gone through a few iterations—what started as an early-2020 pop-up has morphed from a carryout into a destination for a patio dinner, a lunchtime chorizo burrito, or an exciting (really!) brunch spread. Irabien is all about bright flavors, spiking grilled-sunfish tacos with mustardy tartar and conjuring showstopping moles. He’s a detail obsessive, too: We’d come here for the rainbow of creative salsas, perfectly pressed corn tortillas, and Rancho Gordo black beans alone.
88 District Sq., SW (third floor)
Sceney Japanese spots like this one, with pricey fusion rolls and edible flowers, may feel a little Nobu-in-the-’90s. But the splashy Wharf newcomer is pure fun for a night out. Credit no-attitude service and the combined talent of consultant Kaz Okochi (of Kaz Sushi Bistro) and Morimoto-trained head chef Lucas Irwin. Plates are expensive, yes—those sunset water views don’t come cheap—but are designed to feed a group, whether the Technicolor maki (we like the “electric eel” with shrimp tempura, unagi, and lemon mascarpone), a bouquet-like presentation of tuna sashimi under a smoking cloche, or entrées such as seared duck breast cloaked in kimchee foam and capped with foie gras.
1440 Eighth St., NW
You don’t have to be vegetarian to swoon over veggie-centric Oyster Oyster, named for owners Max Kuller and Rob Rubba’s favorite mushroom and bivalve. (Non-sentient oysters are the exception to their plant-based rule.) It’s easy to share in the Shaw dining room’s enthusiasm for hyper-seasonal delicacies such as midwinter carrots over pecan mousse or a rare wild winter mushroom crisped to a schnitzel and doused in truffle/brown-butter sauce. Another treat: a golden beet boule warm from the oven with marigold “butter” (a rare set of quotation marks on a menu that eschews faux anything). Seven-odd courses for $85 feels bountiful—all the more reason to splurge on beverage director Sarah Horvitz’s illuminating pairing ($55), with natural wines and ciders.
3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier
Jesse Miller’s cheffy comfort fare is a little bit neo-Southern, a little eclectic, and a lot satisfying. At this dining room, done up with potted ferns and patterned wallpaper, the duck rillettes show up with johnnycakes, vegans can order a pot pie, and a squash-and-Taleggio lasagna is perked up with lemongrass and ginger. At lunch, Miller—who long led the kitchens at Bar Pilar and Cafe Saint-Ex in DC—serves one of the best sandwiches we’ve had in recent memory: extra-crunchy cornmeal-fried blue catfish with hot sauce, rémoulade, and pickles.
1775 Columbia Rd., NW
It’s tough to go wrong with any of the housemade pastas at this wine-centric Adams Morgan destination, whether it’s tagliatelle draped in duck-leg-and-marsala ragu or curls of casarecce with smoky wood-roasted cauliflower. If you’re veering beyond carbs, though, make sure it’s for the hot-honey-glazed half chicken with an extra crunch and zap of flavor thanks to a flurry of fennel and chilies. Let co-owner Bill Jensen, one of the most engaging somms in DC, steer you to the perfect wine pairing.
3411 Fifth St. S., Arlington
The centerpiece of this all-day restaurant is a custom-made wood-burning hearth visible from across the sunshine-filled dining room. Chef Matt Hill, an alum of Charlie Palmer Steak and Liberty Tavern, channels his North Carolina roots for modern takes on Southern staples, including sticky honey-and-soy-glazed spare ribs and meat-and-two (or -three) platters with a standout smoked brisket. Smoke is also the secret ingredient in the dough used to make chocolate-chip “campfire” cookies, served warm and topped with cookie ice cream.
3212 Georgia Ave., NW
You could be perfectly happy popping a bottle of pét-nat and sharing a generous spread of cheeses and charcuterie in the tree-lined backyard of this Park View wine bar. But chef Joel Hatton delivers so much more. Snack on addictive horseradish-caviar dip or decadent duck-confit croquettes before digging into one of the housemade pastas. The kitchen’s lobster bucatini and paccheri amatriciana hold their own against the city’s better Italian joints.
2321 18th St., NW
Darren Lee Norris pioneered the modern izakaya concept in DC a decade ago with long-gone Kushi. Now he’s pushing boundaries in Adams Morgan with a three-in-one Japanese concept. Casual diners and drinkers can fuel up on yuzu cocktails, housemade udon, binchotan-grilled skewers, and stellar sushi at the moody Death Punch Bar or basement Shibuya Eatery. In the middle: a Zen-like dining room starring shabu-shabu hot pot at its finest—think broths simmered for days (go for the rich duck version) and ingredients such as A5 Wagyu for swishing. Diners can round out a meal with reserve sakes, specialty hand-rolls, and seasonal small plates such as crunchy katsu-style foie gras.
1280 Fourth St., SE
What started as casual all-day Mexican places in La Cosecha marketplace have morphed into two separate concepts: a taqueria and a swankier sister destination (Destino). At the former, Yesenia Neri-Diaz fashions tortillas stuffed with the likes of housemade green chorizo and potato, or shredded beef tongue and cheek with zesty salsa verde. At Destino, Robert Aikens gets playful with dishes such as crispy pork belly with cilantro-spiked mole and housemade egg noodles, or head-on prawns in fragrant chili broth. Don’t miss the margaritas at either.
4700 Riverdale Rd., Riverdale; 1309 Fifth St., NE
If you’re skeptical about finding great barbecue in our area, head to this Riverdale joint or its sandwich-centric Union Market stall. Salvadoran immigrants Fernando González and Debby Portillo specialize in central-Texas-style meats from an oak-fueled smoker, including thick, buttery slabs of American Wagyu brisket, peppery pork ribs, and jalapeño-cheddar sausages. But they also bring a taste of their roots with sides such as caramelized cinnamon-honey pineapple or brisket-stuffed pupusas.
Operating hours—and the availability of indoor dining—are fluid, especially this winter. Check a restaurant’s status before visiting.
This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Washingtonian.