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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