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April 09, 2009

Best Cheap Eats in Washington, D.C.

By Karen Chen

comments Comments (13)

The back terrace of The Tabard Inn (courtesy, The Tabard Inn)

I was in New York City last weekend and ate at some really great spots, all on the suggestion of friends who lived in the city.  It occurred to me then that the best travel guides for any given place are its residents, especially true for food recommendations if you have friends who love to dine out.  They've already figured out the area's best joints for pizza and burgers, they've sought out the best brunch spots to nurse a hangover with an eggs Benedict and Bloody Mary, and they know which restaurants are really worth the $25 for the salmon fillet and which ones aren't. 

In that spirit, I give you my picks for the best bites in my current hometown (and of the last six and a half years), Washington, D.C.  And to sweeten up the pot, these places are cheap, too.  Sure, some of the best meals you can have in any city will set you back a good $200, but like my philosophy with movies, the tried-and-true favorites are the ones you can go back to over and over again and not get bored—or go bankrupt.  Especially with money as tight as it is for most, all you really need is a good healing bowl of $6 noodle soup. 

(As a note, anyone who knows me, or has been following awayblog on Twitter, knows that I am unabashedly crazy about food. I am always looking for new places to try and am not above knowing that I still have a few things to discover about my own city. So please, leave comments with your own suggestions and I'll be sure to add them to my "Must Try" list!)

- Best Brunch: The Tabard Inn. Consistency is why I love this place; I'm always thoroughly impressed by the food.  Not your typical greasy spoon, its menu offerings speak for themselves: savory tart with grilled shrimp, leeks, Swiss chard, and gruyère, or delicate eggs with cream cheese and chives and merguez sausage.  You get a complimentary basket of melt-in-your-mouth muffins and biscuits, and the menu changes regularly to reflect the freshest, most seasonal ingredients. Set in one of D.C.'s oldest hotels, The Tabard Inn is nice enough to impress your parents, and casual enough for you to show up in jeans and a crummy T-shirt. And for the price ($11-17 for brunch entrees—I know, I know, a little pricey, but worth it!), you can't get a more delicious meal expertly prepared by chefs, rather than cooks, to fuel up for the day. Call ahead to reserve a table—everyone else wants to spend their weekend mornings on their beautiful sun-filled garden patio as well.

- Best Comfort Food: The Diner.  Whether you crave a grilled cheese with cheddar oozing out the edges, or a mac 'n' cheese topped with thick gruyère, parmesan, and cheddar broiled to a golden crisp, this place will satisfy—at all hours of the day, too, as it's open 24 hours. Just don't ask for the nutrition facts. Because it's right on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, one of the most lively neighborhoods in D.C., if you go on weekends, prepare to wait.  Or if you want to skip the wait altogether, head down the street to Bourbon, which serves great bar food (they've combined chili and mac 'n' cheese to make—gasp!—chili mac!), and has some of the best Old Bay-seasoned waffle fries ever to come out of a deep fryer.

- Best Ethnic Food: Etete (Ethiopian). So a disclaimer about this one: It's not for everyone.  Some people don't like eating without utensils (you eat Ethiopian food by scooping it up with the injera bread it's served with), and some people don't like the texture of the spongy injera.  But good lord do the Ethiopians know how to make some tasty food.  Made with a mix of spices, garlic, onions, and peppers, and simmered to perfection, the marinated chicken, beef, lamb, and vegetable dishes are drool-worthy (literally, I think I once drooled while waiting for our food) and will keep as great leftovers.  Besides, D.C. is known for its wealth of Ethiopian restaurants—you might as well try the best one while you're here.

- Best Sushi: Kotobuki. If you're a sushi eater, you know there are three types: the cheap mediocre kind that will stave off a sushi craving, the really expensive kind that cleans out your checking account, and the really cheap kind that's so good you would've paid more for it.  At Kotobuki, the sushi's so good, but so cheap, that you wonder how the tiny upstairs hole-in-the-wall stays open. (And then you look at the line of people waiting for a table.) The spicy scallop and tuna rolls are divine, and only $3.50. Most of the nigiri is only $1 a piece. Since Kotokbuki is located in the Palisades and is (for all intents and purposes) only accessible by car, another good bet is Sushi Taro in Dupont, which also serves cheap, fresh, masterfully rolled sushi. 

- Best Burger: Ray's Hell-Burger. Owned by the same people behind Ray's the Steaks, one of the best steakhouses in D.C. (OK, technically Arlington), you know this place takes pride in its ground beef.  The huge, juicy, perfectly seasoned patties are made to order and come with all the fixin's you could want. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, jalapeños, and melon and corn on the cob come free.  Add applewood-smoked bacon, guacamole, or even truffle oil (!) for an extra $1 or more. Or, go minimalistic if you like.  Their mac 'n' cheese makes for an excellent starter. No such luck if you want fries with your order. That, the owner says, would "push the experience into excess."

- Best Soothe-Your-Soul Noodle Soup: Pho 75. If you're in the mood for something more exotic or less gut-busting, or just an elixir to melt some stress away, head next door to Ray's (see above) and dig into a large steaming bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup.  Its fragrant concoction of beef broth flavored with lemongrass, coriander, and star anise will be sure to heal what ails you. Though this restaurant looks like a stark middle school cafeteria hung with a few vaguely Asian decorations, they focus not on the decor, but on getting you in, out, and deeply satisfied. 

- Best Sandwich: Dupont Market.  This place made me happy to be a city dweller. If you are anywhere in the Dupont/Adams Morgan/U Street areas of D.C., and want a seriously scrumptious sandwich to go, order the Borracho Italiano, the Deborah's Special, or the Umberto from here and be enlightened.  Top-quality ingredients like ciabatta bread (just barely crisp on the outside and slightly doughy on the inside), creamy fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomato pesto, and marinated artichokes round out my list of favorite sandwich fillers. On nice days, purchase a microbrew six-pack inside and you can sit out front with your sandwich in one hand and a cold one in the other.

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Related Topics: Budget Travel · Food and Drink · Travel Raves


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Wow nice list you provide here. There is fide Texas roadside barbecue shack, look no further than D.C.'s Chinatown. And the the best thing on the menu is the beef brisket.

Next time you're in the area, you should try Z Burger. It has by far the best onion rings in the area and the burgers are delicious and made to order. The Cake milkshake is really tasty too.

Thanks so much for the NYC info and the great DC list - we will enjoy ourselves in both cities because of it!

Hi Sara, thanks for your comment. I spent most of my (eating) time in the East and West Villages last time I was in New York City, so I can speak to those areas.

For a really great brunch, check out The Little Owl ( in the West Village. It's small and a line starts forming right away, so get there early! (I suspect lunch and dinner would be great there, too.)

For "legendary" (New York mag's words, not mine) New York-style pizza, go to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker St., also in the West Village. Across the street is the Blind Tiger pub (, great for delicious sandwiches and brews.

Finally, for dinner, head east to Alphabet City and get Italian at Giano ( The food is excellent and very reasonably priced.

Hope that helps!

Hey, Sara, hope we get to you in time. We'll bat around some ideas in the office, but the Washington Post just put up a story on NYC for cheap this weekend. Check it out here
Have a great time!

Any chance you would share your food spots in NYC - we are heading there after DC.

Karen, you forgot beer...

Recessions, while not the nicest for summer drinking, offers the best happy hour deal in town. $4.00 "King Kong" 28oz drafts and $4.00 food specials.

Great list. Here's a few to add:

Uni Sushi (P St, west of Dupont Circle). Excellent and creative sushi. Very reasonably priced. Good tea as well.

1800 Cafe (N St, just west of Conn Ave). Perfect whole in the wall sandwich shop. Very small, limited seating, but great old-school style (you eat at the counter) and really good sandwiches. I could eat the Turkey Avocado Delight for lunch everyday. Sandwich, chips and a drip will run about 8 or 9 bucks.

When I was planning a trip to DC, I found this website that shows places to eat for $10 or less person. Hopefully it will help others.

Great list, especially Dupont Market. I recommend the roast turkey and provolone with only lettuce. It's delicious. However, you are missing one of the best restaurants in DC. Its called Applebeans, they have good food, good service, and good laughs with good people. I'm out.

2Amy's is okay -- but kind of overrated, in my opinion. for great, cheap pizza, an even better beer selection, and a much smaller wait-time than 2Amy's, head to Pizzeria Paradiso (locations in Dupont AND Georgetown). the half-cheese, half-pesto/potato on wheat is killer. add in a microbrew you've definitely never heard of (or four), and you're beyond set.

Don't forget the "best pizza" category. Everyone in DC knows this but visitors might not hear about it until too late. 2AMYS's pizzas ( are certified by the Italian government's d.o.c. as authentically Neapolitan. Enough said. It's also right up the road from the National Cathedral so make sure to carve out some time for lunch/dinner if you're up that way. Don't be discouraged by the line if you come on a weekend evening, there's a bar in back where you can order some pretty delicious apps to hold you over. Also, I'm a fan of the fizzy wine.

Yum, great list. To add to this, I'd recommend the Tortilla Cafe across from Eastern Market for its breakfast burritos, the Italian Store in Arlington for great subs (get the Milano; watch for the crowds on NFL game days), and Taqueria Poblano in Del Ray, Alexandria, for the fish tacos.

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