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 its director of operations once described to The Washington Post. Both tourists and bureaucrats head to the Victorian-style dining room to enjoy a large menu of American fare, but the restaurant is known for its seafood—particularly 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 indoor dining. Don’t miss the beloved oyster happy hour that runs from 3 pm to 5 pm and 11 pm to 1 am daily.
Takeout: Takeout orders can be placed through the restaurant’s website.
Zaytinya (Penn Quarter)
Chef and humanitarian José Andrés is known around the world, but D.C. is his 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 in addition to a Michelin Bib Gourmand award for four years and counting. The restaurant serves a menu of mezze 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 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 bicultural blend. 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 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 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 influences from Greece, Turkey, Austria, and Hungary. In 2020, the restaurant underwent a $3 million renovation, including a new rooftop with a retractable roof, adding a welcome year-round dining option.
Dining at the restaurant: Ambar is open for 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 come with an assortment of spreads, salads, and side dishes. Ambar also offers a la carte ordering for takeout and delivery through its 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, the menu here includes time-honored dishes such as clam chowder and stuffed clams, along with more original creations like rockfish tartare topped with pickled mustard seed, Worcestershire mayo, fried capers, and potato crisps.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining is available. Outdoor dining features covered and 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, Ethiopian 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 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, or stew, braised in a ginger-forward sauce. Letena’s modern dining room is also replete with nods to Ezineh’s home country, featuring 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 fueled by chiles, garlic, and warming spices like cinnamon.
Tabard Inn (Dupont Circle)
A venerable name in D.C. dining, The Tabard Inn’s restaurant has been operating continuously since 1922 within the namesake hotel, earning it landmark status in February 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 urge 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. 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 basically a required side order with any dish.
Dining at the restaurant: The Tabard Inn is open for indoor dining and outdoor dining on the restaurant’s heated patio.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available by calling the Inn directly.
Daikaya (Penn Quarter)
When you want ramen in D.C., you head to Daikaya. The restaurant is split into two levels: a ramen shop on the first floor, and an izakaya on the second floor. The restaurant’s famed ramen 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 accepting reservations for its second floor dining room. Its ramen shop is for walk-ins only.
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.
Alta Strada (Mount Vernon Triangle)
Rustic sauces with fresh in-house-made pasta, expertly crafted part-Roman, part-Neapolitan, part-New York-style pizzas, and a refreshing selection of Italian cocktails feature at Alta Strada. Neighborhood vibes reign supreme at Washington, D.C.’s first outpost of a popular Northeastern Italian chain by Boston-based, James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow—his third district establishment. The Chianti-colored booths and warm, olive green walls also make it intimate enough for diners looking to celebrate a special occasion or indulge in date night.
Dining at the restaurant: An open kitchen provides a view of pizza orders going into the gas-fired oven for those dining indoors. Alta Strada’s covered outdoor patio has tables with heated lamps, making dining comfortable even in the middle of winter.
Takeout: Alta Strada offers takeout and delivery.
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: In addition to indoor dining, Medium Rare also offers outdoor sidewalk seating.
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 district restaurants that provides the perfect backdrop for almost any occasion. The interior details and precise 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.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for 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.
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 Armenia’s finest. 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 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 through additions such as 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 Southern staples such as Carolina gumbo, smothered pork chops, and peach cobbler a la mode that established Georgia Brown’s as a venerated soul food institution. Though it’s currently on pause due to COVID, in normal times the restaurant’s soul food and jazz brunch is known as one of the most enjoyable weekend meals in town.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for indoor dining. Outdoor seating is also available.
Takeout: Takeout is available to order via Georgia Brown’s website.
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 make Founding Farmers one of Washington, D.C.’s most-reserved restaurants. Owned by the Farmers Restaurant Group, this local hotspot chain is frequented by Washingtonians for its weekend brunches, while out-of-towners prefer it for its ideal location, just three blocks away from the White House. Don’t miss a plate of Uncle Buck’s beignets that come with a choice of raspberry, chocolate, or caramel sauce.
Dining at the restaurant: Founding Farmers offers indoor dining. A covered outdoor patio is also available.
Takeout: This restaurant offers takeout and delivery.
Equinox’s chef Todd Gray surprised everyone in this red meat town by adding a vegetarian tasting menu to the offerings at this swanky American spot. 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, attracting all types of diners looking to experience the chef’s deft treatment of local ingredients. Vegetarian dishes include plates such as Hawaiian heart of palm cakes over a soba noodle salad dressed with Thai chile vinaigrette. 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: Indoor dining is available along withd 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.
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 weaves in unexpected flourishes, such as the addition of coconut panna cotta and cranberry jam to butternut squash soup, or a potato rösti base for the American wagyu tartare.
Dining at the restaurant: 1789 is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant offers a takeout menu that The Washington Post dubbed “some of the best high-end takeout” in the city. Diners can order via third-party apps or by directly calling 1789.
Bombay Club (Downtown)
Bombay Club has been a fixture in Downtown D.C.’s dining scene since it opened in 1988. Its 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 tablecloths 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 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 flawless 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 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 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.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for 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.
Las Placitas (Capitol Hill)
A neighborhood gem for over three decades, Las Placitas has been serving Washingtonians an enticing mix of Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine since first opening its doors on the hill in 1990. Along with the classic Salvadoran dish of pupusas, diners at this cozy family-owned restaurant can also find impeccably caramelized plates of fried plantains and creamy bowls of seafood soup. Not to mention the soft tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. Wash down your order with a refreshing pitcher (or two!) of margaritas.
Dining at the restaurant: In addition to indoor dining, Las Placitas also has covered outdoor seating.
Takeout: This restaurant offers takeout and delivery.
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. Originally founded by Lacey C. Wilson and Bertha Wilson in 1944, this iconic Washington, D.C. institution—affectionately nicknamed The Grill—serves up some of the city’s best soul food. Order the fish and grits breakfast that’s served all day and comes with eggs of your choice, grits, and a choice of fried catfish or salmon cakes. The Grill’s famed corn muffins are not to be missed—they’re crisp on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for takeout and outdoor dining only. Pickup is also available by calling the restaurant directly.
Takeout: Florida Ave Grill’s full menu is available for takeout.
Tried them all? Check out other options here.