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. is a city rich with history and tradition — a trait that plays out in the city’s restaurants, many of which have been open for decades (or in some cases, a century!) and have played host to former presidents, foreign dignitaries, and a wealth of other impactful figures. There are refined options for the most important of situations, as well as relaxed hangouts for daily life.
Given its place as a global player, the restaurant scene also reflects D.C.’s diversity and connection to the rest of the world. Here, you can find a Japanese izakaya that now doubles as a convenience store, eat pupusas while catching a baseball game, sample some of the country’s best Ethiopian food, and order off-menu Indian alongside White House staffers.
These restaurants make up The Greats, the spots that have shaped and continue to shape how people dine in Washington, D.C.
Old Ebbitt Grill (Downtown)
Having operated (albeit in different locations) since 1856, Washington’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 over the last century. And despite its age, the restaurant maintains its popularity as a place “for everyone and every time,” as it was once described by its director of operations to The Washington Post. Tourists and bureaucrats alike head to the Victorian-style dining room to enjoy a large menu of American fare, but the restaurant is known for its seafood and, in particular, its oysters. Settle into a wood-paneled booth for a dozen freshly shucked bivalves, some crab cakes, a crisp glass of wine, and contemplate the historical figures who might have done the same.
Dining at the restaurant: Old Ebbitt Grill is open for limited indoor dining. Don’t miss the beloved oyster happy hour that runs from 3 pm to 5 pm daily.
Takeout: Takeout orders can be placed through the restaurant’s website.
James Beard-nominated chef Amy Brandwein is D.C.’s pasta queen, presenting housemade noodles in preparations both traditional and innovative at Centrolina, her sleek downtown restaurant and marketplace. At the restaurant, dishes such as roasted chanterelle mushrooms with parmesan creme brûlée and rosemary broth, or lasagna layered with braised rabbit, sage, and parmesan have earned Centrolina a spot on The Washington Post’s list of top 10 restaurants for two consecutive years. The marketplace gives diners a way to bring pieces of the Centrolina experience home, offering sauces and sides from the restaurant’s kitchen alongside Italian specialty products such as dried pastas and olive oil, and a curated selection of wine and beer.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for both indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available from both the restaurant and marketplace, including grocery packages for one or two that include fresh produce, fruit, proteins, and pantry items. Orders for both can be placed via Centrolina’s website.
Zaytinya (Penn Quarter)
Chef and humanitarian José Andrés is known around the world, but D.C. is homebase. Andrés first won the hearts of D.C. residents with his tapas restaurant Jaleo, but when Zaytinya opened in 2002, he showed that his talents went beyond Spanish food, and the restaurant was quickly recognized as the best Mediterranean in the city, garnering praise from local critics and a Michelin Bib Gourmand award for four years and counting. The restaurant serves a menu of mezze (small plates) inspired by the cuisines of the Mediterranean in a modernist white room with soaring ceilings. Vegetarians will appreciate the large selection of meat-free dishes such as smoked beet salad with feta, pomegranate, roasted pistachios, and clementines, while meat and seafood lovers can choose from an array of kebabs or grilled Mediterranean octopus served over a yellow split pea purée. Be sure to explore the wine list, which organizes bottles from Lebanon and Greece into a user-friendly format under headers such as “wines like Chardonnay,” listed in order of lightest to fullest body.
Dining at the restaurant: Zaytinya is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining on the restaurant’s heated patio.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available via the restaurant’s website and through most third-party apps.
Central Michel Richard (Penn Quarter)
The late James Beard Award-winning chef Michel Richard described his restaurant as “…my American bistro, with a French accent,” an apt way to capture the menu’s blend of French techniques and American cuisine. Though Richard was a classically trained French chef who ran top restaurants across the country, Central Michel Richard became popular because of its accessibility, offering well-made food at prices that rarely exceed $30 an entrée. The warm dining room centers around the open kitchen (one of the first on the East Coast) that produces dishes such as cheesy gougères, ahi tuna burgers, and steak au poivre — with excellent fries, of course.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor and heated outdoor dining.
Takeout: Central Michel Richard offers takeout through third-party apps, or by calling the restaurant. Check out the restaurant’s three course “create your own meal” option, where diners can select one appetizer, one main, and one dessert for $30.
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 a variety of Balkan dishes, such as ajvar, a roasted pepper and eggplant spread; beef short rib goulash; or sesame crusted Atlantic salmon with eggplant jam. The knowledgeable staff delivers a bit of history with each dish, noting the influences from Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hungary, and the restaurant recently underwent a $3 million renovation, including a new rooftop with a retractable roof, adding a welcome year-round dining addition.
Dining at the restaurant: Ambar is open for limited indoor seating and open air dining on the restaurant’s rooftop space.
Takeout: The restaurant offers takeout experiences for two via OpenTable, with dishes such as pork belly-stuffed cabbage that comes with an assortment of spreads, salads, and choice of side dishes. Ambar also offers a la carte ordering for takeout and delivery through the restaurant’s website.
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 hot spot 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, diners can enjoy traditional preparations such as clam chowder and stuffed clams, along with original creations like rockfish tartare topped with pickled mustard seed, Worcestershire mayo, fried capers, and potato crisps.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining under covered, heated tents.
Takeout: The Salt Line offers a limited menu for takeout via third-party apps, including a dozen unshucked oysters, which the restaurant helpfully shows you how to shuck via a video on its website.
Letena (Columbia Heights)
D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian population in the country, and subsequently, Ethipian food is easy to find. Among this crowded field, Letena stands out. Owner Yamrot Ezineh’s chemical engineering background informed her methodical approach to recipe development, testing every dish extensively and 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 wat braised in a ginger-forward sauce. The modern dining room is also replete with nods to Ezineh’s home country, with walls lined with brightly colored woven baskets and other Ethiopian artifacts.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently not open for indoor dining.
Takeout: Letena’s full menu is available for takeout and delivery via the restaurant’s website. Grab one of the vegetarian or meat sampler platters for the opportunity to try a variety of stews and salads, such as the brightly colored carrot wot, a stew of carrots in a spicy sauce backed by chiles, garlic, and warming spices like cinnamon.
Tabard Inn (Dupont Circle)
Another venerable name in D.C. dining, The Tabard Inn’s restaurant has been operating continuously for close to a century within the hotel of the same name, earning it landmark status in February of 2020. An employee-owned business, the hotel and restaurant are both known for their high-levels of service. The bar room hearkens back to earlier eras, with low-slung, wood-beamed ceilings and clusters of cushy chairs and couches that beg diners to settle into them with a house cocktail, such as the “Hours Before Dawn,” a warming mix of rye, bitter aperitivo, cardamom, and orange. Or, snag a seat in the sunlit dining room or ivy-walled patio for the restaurant’s famous brunch, where the famous cinnamon sugar donuts are basically a required side order with any dish.
Dining at the restaurant: The Tabard Inn is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining on the restaurant’s heated patio.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the Inn directly. Additionally, diners can support the restaurants and inn by making a donation to the Save the Tabard campaign, designed to keep the business running and help it reach the 100-year mark.
Daikaya (Penn Quarter)
When you want ramen in D.C., you head to Daikaya. In non-pandemic times, the restaurant is split into two levels: a ramen shop on the first floor, and an izakaya on the second floor. During the pandemic, the owners have merged the menus to offer a few izakaya favorites such as fried chicken nuggets alongside the restaurant’s famed ramen; a version of the dish that comes in its most traditional form — no creative garnishes, just deeply flavorful broths and toothsome noodles imported from Japan. Try the mugi-miso ramen, a dish native to Sapporo, Japan that uses barley miso as a base for the bright, scallion flecked broth.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is serving a limited menu of ramen and izakaya items in the second-floor dining room.
Takeout: Daikaya’s full menu is available for takeout, and the restaurant has totally redone its ramen for takeaway, providing helpful videos showing diners how to reheat the ramen, which comes par-cooked.
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 item menu that consists of a $24.95 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. Inspired by the experiences that owners Mark Bucher and Tom Greg had in France, the aim was to create an accessible restaurant that served great food at a reasonable price point — an idea that proved so popular that the pair now own three locations around the Beltway. Another thing Medium Rare does well: give back to the community. Throughout the pandemic, the team has delivered free meals to elderly community members who had to quarantine, including free Thanksgiving dinners.
Dining at the restaurant: Medium Rare is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available through the restaurant’s website, and delivery is available via third-party apps.
Le Diplomate (Logan Circle)
Prolific restaurateur Stephen Starr operates restaurants all over the country, and his first foray into D.C. dining 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 guests at full capacity. Beloved by locals for its brunch, a classy mid-day break spot for tourists, and nice enough for client dinners, it’s one of the few restaurants that provides the perfect backdrop for almost any occasion. The interior details and precise renditions of French standards ground the restaurant, earning 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.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for limited indoor dining, or outdoor dining at open air tables or the heated patio or within individual, covered, and heated “streetside chateaus.”
Takeout: Pickup is available by calling the restaurant directly; delivery is available via third-party apps. Beyond a la carte items, Le Diplomate also offers a rotating selection of meal kits, such as the recent “burger américain” kit that included instructions and ingredients for four cheeseburgers and dilly potato salad for $90.
The Prime Rib (Foggy Bottom)
Stepping into The Prime Rib’s dining room is a throwback to an elevated era of dining and arguably D.C.’s most refined steakhouse. 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 Petrossian. Start with an ice cold martini, The Prime Rib’s famous potato skin basket, and — as the restaurant’s lengthy after-dinner drink menu indicates — settle in for a delightfully indulgent, leisurely meal.
Dining at the restaurant: The Prime Rib is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant’s entire menu is available for takeout via its website, including the signature cut slow-roasted prime rib.
Georgia Brown’s (Downtown)
Georgia Brown’s is the city’s premier destination for Southern comfort food, serving 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 through the additions of tropical plants and a lush color scheme. The cocktail menu has also been updated with a strong focus on American whiskey, but the food menu remains the same, focusing on the Southern staples such as Carolina gumbo, smothered pork chops, and peach cobbler a la mode that established Georgia Brown’s as a soul food institution. Though it’s currently on pause due to COVID, in normal times that restaurant’s soul food and jazz brunch is known as one of the most fun weekend meals in town.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available to order via Georgia Brown’s website.
Equinox surprised everyone in this red meat town when chef Todd Gray added a vegetarian tasting menu to the offerings of his American fine dining restaurant. The move immediately elevated Equinox further 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, completing the trifecta of five-course tasting menus that attract all types of diners looking to experience the chef’s deft handling of local ingredients. Vegetarian dishes include offerings such asHawaiian heart of palm cakes over a soba noodle salad dressed with Thai chile vinaigrette, while the carnivores in the room can enjoy sustainable meat and fish selections such as slow-cooked lamb shanks with fluffy couscous and red wine jus.
Dining at the restaurant: Equinox is open for limited indoor dining and seating under the restaurant’s heated garden atrium.
Takeout: The restaurant offers takeout and delivery, including a $35, three-course mid-week special that recently included dishes such as spinach pappardelle with duck bolognese.
Marcel’s by Robert Wiedmaier (Foggy Bottom)
In an era when many restaurants are having to simplify, chef and prolific D.C. restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier has doubled down on luxury at his tasting menu-only flagship. This is, after all, the restaurant where in normal times, the price of a pre-theater meal included black car service to and from The Kennedy Center. Offering four-course menus Wednesday through Friday and on Sundays, as well as a choice of up to six courses on Saturdays, Marcel’s is the place in D.C. to revel in extravagance. Here, diners can upgrade a dish of Icelandic cod dotted with creamed potato and leeks and crisp Mangalitsa pork with a spoonful of Osetra caviar, or add a flurry of fresh black truffle to any of the tasting menus.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining. Pro tip: book on a Friday or Saturday evening to enjoy live piano music alongside your meal.
Takeout: Marcel’s offers a pre-paid, three-course menu for curbside pickup, featuring comforting favorites such as roast chicken and braised short ribs.
Farmers Fishers Bakers (Georgetown)
Owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union, it’s no surprise that Farmers Fishers Bakers focuses on made-from-scratch comfort food, a formula that along with its enormous menu and waterside location, has earned it a loyal following among locals. There’s something for every taste and time of day here: the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and dishes range from scallop ceviche to prosciutto and fig pizza to St. Louis-style barbecue pork ribs. But the real star is the weekend brunch buffet, a $30 prix fixe extravaganza when diners can enjoy freshly baked cinnamon rolls, house-cured ham, customizable French toast, fried chicken, and more.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining, and also has heated, tented outdoor seating alongside the Potomac river.
Takeout: Farmers Fishers Bakers offers its entire menu, including wine, beer, and spirits, for curbside pickup via its website, as well as delivery via third-party apps. The restaurant also offers its famous brunch for takeaway, though note that items must be ordered at least a day in advance.
Housed in a low-slung, Federal style home, 1789 feels both refined and cozy — 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 has been happening in this iconic spot 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. While many items on the seasonal American menu look familiar, chef Kyoo Eom seeds in unexpected flourishes, such as the addition of coconut panna cotta and cranberry jam to butternut squash soup, or a base of potato rösti for the American wagyu tartare.
Dining at the restaurant: 1789 is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant offers a limited takeout menu that The Washington Post dubbed “some of the best high-end takeout” in the city. Diners can order via third party apps.
Bombay Club (Downtown)
Bombay Club has been a fixture in Downtown D.C.’s dining scene since it opened three decades ago, where owner Ashok Bajaj is known as a consummate host to the city’s power brokers — the restaurant is across the street from the White House, after all. Bajaj is responsible for being one of the first to introduce Indian fine dining to D.C., establishing himself as a major player in the city’s restaurant scene and opening nine other restaurants since. Here, the decor and menu don’t chase trends, relying instead on tried-and-true white table cloths and consistent preparations of dishes from across India’s vast culinary landscape. For the true Bombay Club experience, order the off-menu favorite, tandoori salmon, or one of the house thalis, which present an assortment of dishes on a silver, leaf-shaped platter.
Dining at the restaurant: Bombay Club is open for limited indoor dining and for outdoor seating on the restaurant’s heated patio.
Takeout: The restaurant offers takeout via OpenTable, as well as delivery via third-party apps.
Sushiko (Chevy Chase)
Before he brought Washingtonians perfect ramen at Daikaya, restaurateur Daisuke Utagawa introduced them to the wonders of raw fish at Sushiko: the city’s first sushi spot when it opened in 1976. Executive chef Piter Tjan prides himself on the restaurant’s top-notch a la carte sushi and commitment to traditional techniques, but he’s also willing to experiment and draw inspiration from other cuisines, such as a recent avocado roll that came topped with slices of smoked salmon and a ponzu “salsa.” When the restaurant is open for dining, it’s also worth investigating Kobo, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Sushiko that serves a vegan tasting menu so good, it earned three stars from The Washington Post.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently closed for onsite dining.
Takeout: Sushiko offers takeout via the restaurant’s website, and delivery via third-party apps.
Mi Vida (Southwest Waterfront)
Chef Roberto Santibañez’s contemporary waterfront restaurant is stunning, both in its design (The Washington Post praised its “stunning interior”) and its ability to consistently produce some of the city’s best high-end Mexican food. The menu is a mix of faithful renditions of classics, as well as wholly original creations. For instance, freshly made guacamole is straightforward on its own, but the restaurant gives diners the option to add on blue cheese, grapes, or smoked almonds. For one of the city’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.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining on the heated upstairs terrace facing the river.
Takeout: Mi Vida’s full menu is available on the restaurant’s website for takeout.
La Casita Pupuseria (Gaithersburg)
Since the 1970s, immigrants from El Savador have flocked to Washington D.C., bringing the country’s national dish with them: the pupusa. Among these pupuserias, La Casita quickly became a local favorite, known for its use of authentic Salvadoran cheese and incorporating local ingredients whenever possible. What started with one location in Silver Spring back in 2002 has grown into a full restaurant group, with five locations around the Beltway. At the Gaithersburg location, the group’s first full-service restaurant, diners can find pupusas served alongside Central American dishes from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, such as pan-fried steak with pinto beans, fried cheese slices, and plantains. Wash down your order with fresh tamarind juice, or a rum-based cocktail from the bar’s vast selection.
Dining at the restaurant: La Casita Pupuseria is currently closed for onsite dining.
Takeout: The restaurant’s full menu, including cocktails and beer, is available for takeout and delivery via La Casita’s website.