Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Washington, D.C. Greats.
Washington, D.C.’s best restaurants are defined by global flavors. There are storied spots that have hosted former presidents, foreign dignitaries, and a cavalcade of other changemakers. But the District’s dining all-stars also include relaxed hangouts for laid-back everyday moments.
Head to Georgetown for a mid-Atlantic seafood feast at one of the city’s oldest fine-dining restaurants. Share crispy spinach chaat at an acclaimed Indian spot in Penn Quarter. Tuck into an all-you-can-eat Balkan spread at a Capitol Hill favorite.
Sample the tastes that are essential to Washington, D.C. by booking a table at one of the city’s 20 greatest restaurants right now.
Old Ebbitt Grill (Downtown)
Having operated since 1856 (albeit in different locations), D.C.’s oldest saloon is the restaurant equivalent of Forrest Gump—a presence that has consistently butted up against American history, hosting figures such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. Despite its age, the Old Ebbitt Grill maintains its popularity as a place “for everyone and every time,” as its director of operations once described to The Washington Post. Tourists and bureaucrats fill the Victorian-style dining room to enjoy a large menu of American classics. But the restaurant is especially known for its seafood, particularly its oysters. Settle into a wood-paneled booth for a dozen freshly shucked bivalves, some crab cakes, and a crisp glass of wine, and contemplate the historical figures who might have done the same.
Peacock Café (Georgetown)
This Georgetown stalwart has served a faithful lineup of salads, pastas, and sandwiches along with Persian specialties since 1991. The latter offerings reflect chefs Maziar and Sahab Farivar’s Iranian heritage. The duo introduced the neighborhood to their Middle Eastern roots through crowd pleasers such as pistachio-crusted cod with a sweet and sour sauce of dried apricots, figs, sour cherries, and shaved almond and qaymeh, a hearty lamb stew. On weekends, Washingtonians come for made-to-order fruit juices and brunch classics, including top-notch steak and eggs.
Ambar Capitol Hill (Capitol Hill)
Most people associate the phrase “all you can eat” with quantity over quality. Ambar Capitol Hill challenges that assumption, offering limitless, made-to-order Balkan dishes for lunch, brunch, and dinner. Far from a gimmick, the “Balkan experience” is a great way to try dishes such as ajvar, a roasted pepper and eggplant spread, ćevapi, or grilled Balkan kebabs, and sesame-crusted Atlantic salmon with eggplant jam. The knowledgeable staff shares a bit of history with each dish, noting influences from Greece, Turkey, Austria, and Hungary.
The Salt Line (Navy Yard)
The Salt Line might be steps from Nationals Park, but it feels like it should be perched on the New England coast. The spacious patio and interior mix of weathered wood and tile bring a seaside vibe to the banks of the Anacostia River, making it a hotspot for D.C. residents on warm days and game days alike. But it’s the food that landed the restaurant a spot on The Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list. Focusing on sustainable seafood, the menu here showcases time-honored dishes such as clam chowder and stuffed clams, along with more original creations including rockfish tartare topped with pickled mustard seed, Worcestershire mayo, fried capers, and potato crisps.
Letena Ethiopian Restaurant (Columbia Heights)
D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the country, so Ethiopian cuisine is an important part of the city’s eclectic restaurant scene. Letena stands out in this crowded field. Owner Yamrot Ezineh’s chemical engineering background informed her methodical approach to recipe development as she tested every dish extensively, even traveling back to her native Ethiopia to consult with some of the country’s top chefs. The result is a menu full of precisely prepared Ethiopian standards made with all-natural ingredients such as richly spiced goat wot, a stew braised in a ginger-forward sauce. Vegetarians shouldn’t miss the carrot wot flavored with chiles, garlic, and warming spices such as cinnamon. Letena’s modern dining room is full of nods to Ezineh’s home country, featuring walls lined with brightly colored woven baskets and other Ethiopian artifacts.
Tabard Inn (Dupont Circle)
The Tabard Inn’s restaurant is a venerable name in D.C. dining and has operated continuously since 1922 within the namesake hotel, earning it landmark status in February 2020. The hotel and restaurant are both employee-owned businesses and known for their high levels of service. The bar room evokes a bygone era with low-slung, wood-beamed ceilings and clusters of cushy chairs and couches. The seats urge diners to settle in with a house cocktail, such as Here Comes the General!, an intense mix of blackstrap rum, Madeira wine, maple cinnamon, and chocolate. Snag a seat in the sunlit dining room or ivy-walled patio for the restaurant’s famous brunch, where the renowned cinnamon sugar donuts are practically mandatory with any dish.
Jaleo DC (Penn Quarter)
When chef and humanitarian José Andrés debuted Jaleo in 1993, he challenged the idea that a fine meal had to be a prim and proper one. That very accessible ethos still steers the lively tapas spot. Groups gather here to share plates such as croquetas de pollo, crispy golden chicken fritters filled with creamy bechamel sauce (the labor-intensive dish takes three days to prep). Order the José’s Way tasting menu and graze on the chef’s favorites as you take in the transportive Mediterranean interiors, all wooden beaded curtains, mounted bull heads, and azulejo-tiled floors.
Founding Farmers (Foggy Bottom)
A farm-to-table menu featuring sustainably sourced produce and meats, freshly baked loaves of bread, and in-house distilled spirits makes Founding Farmers one of Washington, D.C.’s most-reserved restaurants. Owned by the Farmers Restaurant Group, this local hotspot chain is loved by Washingtonians for its weekend brunches while out-of-towners prefer it for its ideal location, just three blocks away from the White House. Another crowd pleaser: Uncle Buck’s beignets that come with a choice of raspberry, chocolate, or caramel sauce.
Floriana (Dupont Circle)
This Italian gem scored fan-favorite status soon after opening in 1979. Locals flock to the historic red-brick rowhouse for its intimate interiors and attentive staff. But it’s the superb seasonal plates that seal the deal, such as a milestone-worthy beef lasagna with housemade mozzarella and hand-made paccheri pasta with a hearty tomato-based meat sauce of pork belly, short rib, and sausage.
Medium Rare (Cleveland Park)
In a city of high-roller steakhouses where loaner jackets hang in the closet to maintain the dress code, Medium Rare has a cult following for offering exactly the opposite: a single menu item that is a $28.95 prix-fixe meal. For that price, diners receive a signature culotte steak cooked to their liking, hand-cut fries, crusty bread, and a simple green salad. Owners Mark Bucher and Tom Greg were determined to deliver the simple but elegant dining experiences they had in France. The idea of creating an accessible restaurant that served great food at a reasonable price point proved so popular, the pair now own three locations around the Beltway. The restaurant is also known for giving back to the community: Throughout the pandemic, the Medium Rare team delivered free meals to elderly community members who had to quarantine, including free Thanksgiving dinners.
Le Diplomate (Logan Circle)
Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr operates restaurants all over the country, and his first foray into D.C. dining in 2013 was an immediate hit. Le Diplomate is a sprawling love letter to France, with red banquettes and marble bistro tables that can seat almost 300 diners at full capacity. Since 2013, it’s served as a popular brunch place for locals, a classy mid-day break spot for tourists, and a restaurant nice enough for client dinners. The interior details and careful renditions of French standards ground the place and earned it three stars in a Washington Post review. Vintage cycling jerseys sit above the lengthy zinc bar where diners can sip a French spritz made of Lillet blanc, sparkling wine, sour orange, and rhubarb—a great way to contemplate whether to start with a chilled seafood tower, escargot bathed in garlic parsley butter, or both.
Housed in a low-slung Federal-style home, 1789 feels both refined and cozy. It’s the type of place where one expects to find professors from nearby Georgetown University sipping cocktails or exchanging ideas over foie gras-dotted pheasant ballotine. And that’s exactly what’s unfolded since it opened in 1962, making it one of D.C.’s oldest fine-dining destinations. The space, like the food, is timeless—a formula that has served it well over the years. CIA-trained chef Adam Howard (who was most recently the executive chef at Blue Duck Tavern) is all about sourcing bounty from the mid-Atlantic region. That regional commitment shines in dishes such as rockfish with delicata squash caponata and fairy tale eggplant and a farmhouse salad with Shenandoah pears, fennel, almonds, brioche, and honeycrisp dressing.
The Prime Rib (Foggy Bottom)
The Prime Rib’s dining room offers a throwback to an elevated era of dining. The restaurant’s dramatic black walls and tufted black leather seating contrast with the stark white table clothes, creating a luxe environment befitting of a restaurant that has trademarked the slogan “The Civilized Steak House.” Jackets are required, but the pomp and circumstance is all part of the experience. The restaurant’s exacting standards apply to ingredients as well: The beef is USDA prime, sourced from a single farm in Kansas, and the caviar is Armenia’s finest. Start with an ice cold martini, The Prime Rib’s famous potato skin basket, and settle in for a delightfully indulgent, leisurely meal.
Georgia Brown’s (Downtown)
Georgia Brown’s is the city’s premier destination for Southern comfort food and has served low-country cuisine in Downtown D.C. since 1993. During the pandemic, the owners renovated the space, brightening the interiors and creating a warm weather vibe to match the Southern menu with additions such as tropical plants and a lush color scheme. The cocktail menu was also updated with a strong focus on American whiskey, but the food menu remains the same, prioritizing Southern staples such as Carolina gumbo, smothered pork chops, and peach cobbler a la mode. The restaurant’s soul food and jazz brunch is known as one of the most enjoyable weekend meals in town.
Rasika (Penn Quarter)
D.C.’s power players make regular appearances at this revered spot, arguably one of the best Indian restaurants in the country. The modern South Asian flavors come courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam, whose standard-setting palak chaat (fried baby spinach drizzled with sweet yogurt, tamarind sauce, and date chutney) is ordered by about half the restaurant’s diners on any given day. Other celebrated dishes include a decadent take on dal makhani, aromatic chicken biryani, and Chesapeake Bay crab pepper masala. Rasika’s owner Ashok Bajaj (of Bombay Club fame) is well-known for catering to D.C.’s elite—including three U.S. presidents—so you’re in great hands here. Cap off your meal with an inventive cocktail such as the Saunf Rita, Rasika’s riff on the margarita made with tequila blanco, anise liqueur, triple sec, port, and lime.
Equinox’s chef Todd Gray surprised everyone in this red meat town by adding a vegetarian tasting menu to the offerings at his swanky New American spot. The move immediately pushed Equinox further ahead in D.C.’s competitive fine-dining scene, earning the restaurant a two-and-a-half star review from The Washington Post. Gray has since added vegan options as well, attracting all types of diners looking to experience the chef’s deft treatment of local ingredients. Standout vegetarian dishes include sesame-glazed eggplant and crispy tofu with sweet peppers and a cucumber papaya slaw served over a bed of basmati rice. Carnivores can enjoy sustainable meat and fish selections, such as red miso-glazed salmon with braised celery, warm soba noodles, and shishito peppers. Also of note: the restaurant’s nearly zero-waste kitchen which composts and regrows ingredients used in day-to-day operations.
Sushiko (Chevy Chase)
Before he brought Washingtonians flawless ramen at Daikaya, restaurateur Daisuke Utagawa introduced them to the wonders of raw fish in 1976 at Sushiko, the city’s first sushi spot. Executive chef Piter Tjan commits to traditional techniques, but he’s also willing to experiment and draw inspiration from other cuisines. Case in point: a recent avocado roll was topped with slices of smoked salmon and a ponzu “salsa.” Throw in some striking wall art, intimate booths, and a central chef’s table, and Sushiko’s got all the trappings of a sophisticated city standby.
Mi Vida (Southwest Waterfront)
Chef Roberto Santibañez’s contemporary waterfront restaurant is stunning, both in its design and its ability to consistently produce some of the city’s best Mexican food. The menu is a mix of faithful renditions of classics plus wholly original creations. For instance, freshly made guacamole is straightforward on its own, but the restaurant lets diners add blue cheese, grapes, or smoked almonds. For one of the District’s best seafood dishes, order the pescado a la talla, a butterflied hearth-roasted branzino that’s covered on one half with red adobo, and on the other with green adobo, creating a photogenic and delicious plate.
Lauriol Plaza (Dupont Circle)
Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor are among the many fans of this convivial Mexican stalwart. The Dupont Circle hotspot is best known for enormous bang-for-your-buck seafood enchiladas and sizzling platters of beef and veggie fajitas. But crowds are just as drawn to Lauriol Plaza’s zesty margaritas and “swirled” sangria pitchers, best sipped on the sprawling roof deck.
Florida Avenue Grill (U Street Corridor)
Step back in time with a meal at Florida Avenue Grill, billed as the world’s oldest continuously run soul food restaurant. Founded by Lacey C. Wilson, Sr. and Bertha Wilson in 1944, this iconic D.C. institution—affectionately nicknamed the Grill—serves up some of the city’s best Southern food. Dishes that have stood the test of time include a fish and grits breakfast that’s available all day (it comes with eggs of your choice, grits, and fried catfish or salmon cakes) plus the Grill’s famed corn muffins, crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.
Tried them all? Check out other options here.
Christabel Lobo is a food and travel writer based between Washington, D.C. and south India. Find her on Instagram @whereschristabel and Twitter @wheresbel.
Marion Brewer contributed to this guide.