A guide to culinary culture in Washington, DC
Experiencing an exciting urban renaissance, the US capital is awash with ‘Wild West’ breweries and distilleries, as well as a wave of restaurants championing cuisines shaped by immigration.
“Richard Nixon actually created the Environmental Protection Agency,” said the suit-and-tie-clad guy to his companion at the barstool next to me. He was right. But also, so very on-brand for where I was: about a block away from the White House at Old Ebbitt Grill, the oldest tavern in Washington, DC. I’d popped in for a late dinner of steak frites on my first evening in the US capital. Overhearing buttoned-up lobbyists and civil servants spout off political minutiae is exactly what I’d imagined would happen at a wood-panelled, white-tableclothed restaurant where taxidermied heads of horned animals grace the walls. Here, locals knock back glasses of bourbon and talk about their favourite sport: politics.
This is the Washington, DC portrayed on TV shows and in films; a place of cigars, red meat, whiskey and backroom deals. Those things are still part of the fabric of this city of almost 700,000 — especially the backroom deals — but they belong to an artery-hardening DC that’s fast being watered down. In the past decade or so, the former US crime capital has developed other tastes. A fresh generation of Washingtonians have created a blossoming city that’s better than ever, full of new breweries, distilleries and immigrant chefs shaking up the restaurant scene.
In an attempt to make some sense of this, I visit Al Goldberg, who founded Mess Hall in 2014 as an ‘incubator’ to help food entrepreneurs launch their businesses.
It’s the place where a lot of now-established restaurants got their start. When I ask Al about his hometown over the past decade, he answers my question with another: “Do you want the answer that everyone’s going to tell you or do you want the real answer?”
I opt for the latter.
To understand the cultural currents at play in modern DC, you need to look back to the 1990s, says Al, to when DC was a crime-ridden metropolis. During this decade, two important things happened. In 1993, superstar Spanish chef José Andrés opened Jaleo downtown, kick-starting a dining renaissance. A few years later, the city’s pro basketball and ice hockey teams (who’d been playing in Maryland) moved into a jazzy new arena in the Penn Quarter. And then, to confirm the city’s lucrative sporting revivial, a professional baseball team moved to town in 2005, rebranding as the Washington Nationals — the first pro baseball team in the city since 1971.
According to Al, all this instilled a new-found sense of excitement and pride in the city. “At the same time, something else interesting was going on,” he says. “DC has always been a transient city, because a new presidential administration comes and goes every four or eight years. But about 20 years ago, because crime was down and there was this burgeoning city pride, people started to stay. People actually wanted to live in DC and they wanted to make it a better place to live.”
One of those people is Greg Engert, founder and beer director of Bluejacket brewery. Greg was a graduate student at the DC-based Georgetown University in 2004 and, to make a few extra dollars, started working at a beer bar called Brickskeller, which served more than 1,200 beers from all over the world. “At the time, beer wasn’t mainstream,” he says when I meet him at his airy brewery housed in a century-old former factory in the Navy Yard neighbourhood, an area revived by the construction of a new baseball stadium in 2008.
Greg became figuratively (and, in some cases, literally) intoxicated by the budding beer scene. Instead of staying on to earn his PhD and flee the city for an academic job, he stayed, trading his books for beer. “What made Brickskeller the best beer bar in the US at the time is that DC has long had loose laws when it comes to alcohol,” he says. For example, the capital was the only place in the country where you could buy directly from the producer, rather than going through a distributor. This allowed the bar to stock a legion of obscure brews, which, as Greg explains, was instrumental. “As a global city, and with our still-permissive liquor laws, we’ve had access to beer that no one else in the US has,” he says. “We’ve used those beers as a basis for ours, and that’s what makes drinking in this city unique.”
When DC Brau fired up its kettles in 2011, it was the first brewery to open in the District of Columbia since the Heurich Brewing Company closed in 1956. The following year, 3 Stars Brewing Company launched, and Bluejacket followed in 2013. Today, there are 18 craft breweries in DC, all of which owe a debt to little (now defunct) Brickskeller.
It’s a similar situation for distilleries. In 2011, local entrepreneurs successfully lobbied the city government to change a Prohibition-era law against distilling in the capital. The result was the first new distillery in the city in almost a century.
After that, distilling, like the craft brewery scene, blossomed, particularly in Ivy City, a traditionally industrial neighbourhood. Today, six of the city’s 10 distilleries are based here. It’s where I meet up with Alex Laufer, co-founder and head distiller of One Eight Distilling, named after article one, section eight of the US Constitution, which called for the establishment of a district to serve as the country’s capital. “DC was pretty late to the craft craze that hit big US cities in the US [around 15 years ago],” says Alex, as he gives me a tour of the distillery. “But we had a real hunger for it. Plus, it’s the Wild West of booze making. Lax laws have allowed for distilleries to really explode here.”
Just down the road, Pia Carusone, co-founder of Republic Restoratives — the only female-owned-and-operated distillery in town — agrees. In 2015, the city passed a few other laws that allowed distilleries to operate and grow within the District. One allowed for distilleries to have in-house bars. Pia opened her Ivy City-based distillery a year later, making bourbons commemorating the likes of Hillary Clinton and, more recently, vice president Kamala Harris. “So, we’re a distillery pub now,” says Pia. “At least, we will be when we eventually reopen after the pandemic.” Although sports teams and liquor-friendly laws have helped shape the city in recent decades, Pia also gives a lot of credit to Barack Obama. “When Obama was elected it created a lot of enthusiasm in the city,” she says. “Suddenly we all wanted to be in DC and we wanted to do things to make it a better place to live.”
If Obama helped to inspire the artisanal movement in DC, then his successor helped, indirectly, to influence the dining scene. In the past five years, an emphasis on immigrant food has become something of a phenomenon in the District, perhaps as a defiant response to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. There are now a handful of organisations and restaurants that are helping to promote immigrant chefs in the city. One is Open Kitchen DC, whose founder, Mary Johns, organises events where immigrant chefs give cooking demos and teach attendees about the country and culture of their birth.
“DC is the most international city in North America,” says Mary, as we graze on lamb-stuffed samsa pastries at Dolan Uyghur Restaurant. “And immigrants gravitate here,” she adds, saying that a number of Afghans who fled the August 2021 Taliban takeover had landed at a nearby US Air Force base and were settling in the area.
Immigrant Food — a restaurant that recently opened in Planet Word (the world’s first voice-activated museum), at the Franklin School — takes this a step further by serving a fusion of cuisines based on immigration patterns to DC. Peter Schechter, co-founder of the new restaurant, says that the inspiration for the project was born out of his concern for the US and its immigrant population during the Trump administration. “Immigrants pick our food,” says Peter, who previously worked as an international political strategist. “They drive the trucks to transport our food. They cook our food. And they serve our food. Immigrants are totally connected to the food on your plate. Rather than write more opinion pieces in newspapers, I decided to combine the two things I love: activism and restaurants.” He calls it “gastro-advocacy”.
Immigrant Food’s Venezuelan-born executive chef, Enrique Limardo, spent weeks studying immigration to the DC area and its associated foods. “I knew it was possible to fuse various cuisines once I studied Ethiopian and Salvadorian cookery — the food of the two biggest immigrant groups in DC,” he tells me. “I found a lot of commonalities between them.” The result is an odd but delicious marriage of ingredients from various groups, such as Caribbean spiced chicken doused with a Vietnamese pho-inspired sauce.
But immigrant cuisine goes far beyond just Open Kitchen and Immigrant Food. For instance, Spanish chef José Andrés, through his World Central Kitchen nonprofit organisation, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for helping communities in need around the world, as well as supporting immigrants. “There are no borders, no limits,” says Peter Schechter. “There’s nothing more beautiful than people communing around the table eating food from different parts of the planet.”
The next morning, my last in town, I feel the need to embrace some old-school but still-beloved DC culture, so I trek over to the famed U Street Corridor, a historically Black neighbourhood that’s home to the legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl. This fast-casual spot has been simmering chilli since 1958 when its stove burners were first fired up by Ben and Virginia Ali.
Ben, originally from Trinidad, died in 2009, so 88-year-old Virginia is now in sole charge of the place. Ben’s Chili Bowl is famous for the mural on the alley wall outside, portraying famous Black Americans, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Prince, DC-born comedian Dave Chappelle, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s longstanding lone representative in Congress. Ben’s is also famous for the fact that it’s become a ritual for sitting US presidents to stop by to eat a half-smoke, a smoked half-pork, half-beef sausage that’s the signature delicacy of DC. Barack Obama was so eager to check out Ben’s renowned version that he visited a full two weeks before he was inaugurated as president.
Placing a chilli-dappled half-smoke in front of me, Virginia Ali joins me at my table. “Mom” — as both employees and regular customers call her — begins reminiscing about all that she’s seen from the restaurant’s window, referencing everything from Civil Rights marches in the 1960s to the more recent protests that occurred here when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020. At one point, she says, off the cuff: “Did you know that Martin had a satellite office two blocks away from here in the mid-1960s? He used to pop in every couple of days to chat with me about what he was up to.”
“Martin?” I ask.
“Martin Luther King Jr,” she says, and then changes the subject to how Washington has changed in the past decade. “We’ve become a maker city. There’s much more pride here now than there ever was before. My generation has done its work to make this city a better place,” she adds, “but it’s time for us to step aside and let the younger generations take over.”
And, as I’ve discovered during my week in Washington, DC, that’s exactly what’s happening.
There are a lot of rooftop bars in DC, but only Vue makes you feel like you’re looking down on the White House — and also offers a stellar view of the Washington Monument. Drinks aren’t cheap at the Hotel Washington’s rooftop bar, but the view is worth it.
If you’re criss-crossing the city via the clean, comfortable subway, buy a three-day ($28/£21) or week-long pass ($58/£44). The Metro connects all four quadrants of DC via six colour-coded lines.
Love food? Spend an afternoon grazing at the recently revitalised Union Market, which is a feast for the senses. The burgeoning post-industrial NoMa neighbourhood around it is sprinkled with cool coffee places and bars.
How to spend the day in Washington, DC
9am: Breakfast at Unconventional Diner
It looks like a traditional American diner of the sort where the waitresses say things like, “Want me to warm that up for you?” before filling up your coffee mug. But as the name suggests, this establishment near Mt Vernon Square is anything but trad. The morning menu nods to the Middle East with sweet potato shakshuka and Lebanese fried rice, as well as the Mexican hangover favourite pozole, a soup with such a kick that you’ll have sweated out last night’s booze by the bottom of the bowl.
10am: National Museum of American History
Washington is a museum town if there ever was one, and visitors to the US should spend a couple of hours in the one dedicated to American history. It’s not only about wars and revolutions here, though. The museum incorporates American pop culture into its displays as well, exhibiting Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, one of Prince’s famed ‘cloud’ guitars and the Batmobile. Admission is free.
1pm: Lunch at Ghion Ethiopian Restaurant
Ethiopians make up one of the largest immigrant communities in the city. Ghion, which is located in an area that’s brimming with Ethiopian spots, serves traditional stewed vegetables and meat on platters, layered with spongy injera bread. Eating Ethiopian is a classic Washington, DC dining experience.
2pm: National Gallery of Art
Admission is free, so it’s easy to nip into the National Gallery to glance at a few paintings and sculptures. Rivalling The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for one of the greatest art collections in the country, the National Gallery, which opened in 1941, is a fascinating place to wander around. The collection includes works by El Greco, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Joan Miró, Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci and Jasper Johns, among many others.
4pm: Stroll around the Library of Congress
Once stocked with Thomas Jefferson’s personal book collection, this library is now one of the greatest on the planet. The high-ceilinged Reading Room, bedecked with finery from the Gilded Age, is worth the visit in itself. Admission to the library, which hosts regular exhibitions on US history, is free. Register for a timed ticket on the website.
5pm: Walk the Mall
The National Mall, that long grassy stretch between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial (with the Washington Monument obelisk in the middle), was designed to give people a place to linger. The 1.9-mile expanse is flanked by world-class museums and, along the way, several striking memorials, including those dedicated to the fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War and the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.
8pm: Dinner at Tail Up Goat
Located in the always-buzzing Adams Morgan neighbourhood, this Michelin-starred restaurant is a casual affair serving inspired New American fare. The menu is divided into dish size, so mix and match, indulging in creamy chicken liver mousse, crispy cod croquettes, and fork-tender pork loin with grilled carrots. The bar menu has a selection of excellent cocktails and the wine list is heavy on natural wines.
11pm: Nightcap at MccLellan’s Retreat
Drink your way into the Civil War at this dimly lit Dupont Circle bar, named after a Union general. It shakes up cocktails inspired by the 1860s conflict with a menu that leans heavily towards dark, barrel-aged spirits. The cocktails change with the seasons, but regulars often opt for the DC-invented Rickey: a highball made with gin or bourbon, plus lime, seltzer and ice.
Q&A: Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congresswoman
Why are you an advocate for DC to become the 51st state?
Only with statehood would we get a few important things: Congress would not interfere in our local affairs; we would get two senators; and I, as the sole representative of Congress, would finally get to actually vote on the House Floor.
Is there a link between the surge in support for DC statehood and the rise in artisanal cuisine?
There is. Now that the rest of the country is realising that DC should become a state, people are becoming more interested in DC than ever before. They realise it’s more than just the seat of the Congress and the President. They see there are real people here and become interested in the city itself. They begin to dig deeper.
What are some of the made-in-DC things visitors should check out?
I’m a third-generation Washingtonian. People come here and they’re drawn to the main landmarks, but they should be going to a real DC institution — eating a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl, for example, something made in DC that has worldwide significance. After all, President Obama went there early on in his presidency. But also visit one of the handful of breweries that now exist within the District. Who would have thought the nation’s capital would have a brewery, not to mention so many?
Getting there & around
American Airlines, Delta, British Airways, KLM, Virgin Atlantic and Air France all fly direct from London to Washington, DC.
Average flight time: 8h20m.
The city’s metro is quick and easy to use. Single trips start at $2 (£1.50), while a three-day unlimited pass costs $28 (£21.50) and a seven-day unlimited pass $58 (£44.50). The city’s bike-sharing programme, Capital Bikeshare, is an inexpensive way to get around. A ride costs $1 (£0.75), plus 5 cents per minute (about 4 pence), or $8 (£6) for an unlimited day pass. Uber and Lyft are also available.
When to go
Washington, DC is humid; spring and autumn are the most comfortable times to visit. The average summer high is 31C, dropping to a low of -4C in winter.
Where to stay
Mayflower Hotel, Downtown. From $322 (£234).
JW Marriott, Penn Quarter. From $300 (£218).
Visit Washington, DC.
Visit the USA.
How to do it
America as you like it offers a five-night stay in Washington, DC, from £909 per person, including return flights on British Airways and accommodation.
Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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