Seek out these 6 unique restaurants in Washington, D.C.

The tasting menu at Oyster Oyster, a plant-forward restaurant in Shaw, changes with the farming season. | Credit: Rey Lopez

Restaurants in Washington, D.C. aren’t just places to grab quick meals. They’re culinary hotspots that transform seasonal ingredients. They present lesser-known dishes from all corners of the globe. And they lay the groundwork for game-changing, sustainable initiatives, all while serving as worthy backdrops for power meals—this is the nation’s capital, after all.

Dig into inventive Chifa fare (a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese food) at a snug U Street hideout. Dine at an herbivore-friendly restaurant with a carefully sourced tasting menu in Shaw. Check out a reimagined Southern barbecue smokehouse in Arlington, complete with a custom wood-burning smoker.

These innovative Washington, D.C. area restaurants urge people to rethink their definitions of dining out. Read on for a list of some of the District’s most cutting-edge spots.

Tabard Inn (Dupont Circle)

The Tabard Inn, first established in 1922, became an industry gamechanger after adopting an employee-ownership model in 1993. Employee-owners at this century-old Dupont Circle stalwart can still learn all aspects of the restaurant business, whether its understanding how the Tabard Inn costs out food or how its creative minds conceive menu favorites such as the kale and frisée salad and the veal porterhouse. That’s not where the creativity ends: executive chef Cliff Wharton began incorporating his Filipino heritage into the Tabard Inn’s menu—highly unusual for a restaurant that’s so historic—when he took the helm in 2019. Top choices include quail adobo with ginger scallion rice and banana ketchup, as well as pancit, a classic noodle dish with vermicelli, shrimp, chicken, pork, vegetables, lemon, and soy sauce.

Oyster Oyster (Shaw)

A spread at Oyster Oyster. | Credit: Rey Lopez

Sustainability lies at the core of everything award-winning chef Rob Rubba does at Oyster Oyster, one of D.C.’s most eco-conscious restaurants. That means a kitchen without plastic wrap or sous vide bags. To keep things as hyperlocal and mid-Atlantic as possible, Rubba refrains from using olive oil and citrus in his avant-garde tasting menus. Plant-forward dishes that change with the farming season include confit garlic (served with beet bread in the fall) and allspice carrot cake garnished with a pecan mousse-enclosed carrot shell. Opt for the drinks pairing—the curated list, by beverage director Sarah Horvitz (who comes from other D.C. favorites such as Doi Moi and Maxwell Park) features responsibly sourced natural wines, ciders, and beers.

Juniper Restaurant (Georgetown)

This modern American brasserie inside the storied Fairmont Washington, D.C. stands out for relying on a fleet of winged insects to champion sustainability in its kitchen. Housed in hives on the hotel rooftop, 105,000 Italian bees provide the honey for dishes such as honey granola and salad lyonnaise. The bees also pollinate the hotel’s interior courtyard garden, which provides many herbs and edible flowers for its culinary program. A meal at Juniper isn’t complete without a honeycomb-garnished beetini, the hotel’s signature cocktail, made with vodka, elderflower liqueur, rooftop honey syrup, bitters, and citrus blossom essence.

El Secreto de Rosita (U Street)

Rainforest-inspired interiors at El Secreto de Rosita. | Credit: El Secreto de Rosita

El Secreto de Rosita is a comprehensive and groundbreaking ode to Peruvian cuisine, highlighting both the country’s ancient Incan roots and newer immigrant imprints—a concept not easily found in Washington, D.C. The romantic U Street lair, designed to resemble a rainforest, recently landed a spot in MICHELIN’s D.C. dining guide. Indigenous Peruvian ingredients, such as purple corn and yellow pepper, distinguish the imaginative menu. Expect an entire section dedicated to ceviche, plus plenty of Nikkei and Chifa cuisine; the latter was brought to Peru by Chinese immigrants. It’s all whipped up by Eugene Perret, a Peru native who has cooked at MICHELIN-starred spots including Siren and Komi. Must-tries include arroz chaufa, a Peruvian-Chinese fried rice, and kam lu wantan, a sweet and sour stir-fry served with crispy wontons, shrimp tempura, pineapple, and snow peas.

Ruthie’s All Day (Arlington)

Sticky spare ribs at Ruthie’s All Day. | Credit: Ruthie’s All Day

Helmed by James Beard Award semifinalist Matt Hill, Ruthie’s All Day redefines what it means to be a Southern barbecue smokehouse. A custom wood-burning smoker—oak and hickory are the fuel of choice—flavors the restaurant’s signature meat-and-three dishes, such as brisket that’s perfectly seasoned with garlic, onion, and paprika and smoked overnight. The true standouts, though, are the poultry options. The smoked duck, brined, oak-smoked, and wood-grilled to order, takes its inspiration from an unlikely source: Sichuan cuisine. The half-chicken dish with white barbecue sauce is marinated in soy, lemon, and lime juice for two days. Pair it with a side of dirty rice with charred kimchi, and crispy brussels sprouts tossed in a fish vinaigrette for a truly inimitable take on barbecue.

dLeña Roja (Mt. Vernon Triangle)

dLeña Roja features one of D.C.’s largest agave spirit collections. | Credit: Zeph Colombatto

After feasting on contemporary Oaxacan fare at acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval’s beloved restaurant, dLeña, head downstairs to Roja. This rustic-chic, subterranean lounge features a prolific selection of 300 agave spirits, one of D.C.’s largest, including 250 tequilas. Sit at the leather-lined bar or one of the moody, candlelit tables along the walnut tambour-paneled walls and sip on craft cocktails such as the tamarind paloma—it’s an especially creative spin on the tequila drink, rimmed with chamoy chile salt. Agave spirit aficionados who store mezcal bottles in one of the bar’s 44 exclusive private tequila lockers receive it served in bespoke crystal decanters on every visit, along with a personalized membership card that guarantees a table at this unrivaled, walk-in only haunt.

Christabel Lobo is a food and travel writer based between Washington, D.C. and south India. Find her on Instagram @whereschristabel and Twitter @wheresbel.

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