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Best Washington DC Restaurants

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For decades, D.C. was a steak-and-potatoes town with clubby, federalist-style steakhouses and Irish pubs—the province of lawmakers and lobbyists—dominating the restaurant scene. In the 1990s all of that changed. Star chefs like Michel Richard of Citronelle fame and José Andrés burst on the scene, followed by other superchefs like Todd Gray and Wolfgang Puck who showed Washingtonians what excellent cuisine really tasted like—it wasn't long before those same lawmakers and lobbyists were hooked. Many of the best Washington DC restaurants are located downtown and feature innovative cuisine artistically prepared by these superchefs. If you're willing to splurge and spend upwards of $30 per entree, you can find dining options that rival New York and Los Angeles. On the budget end, it still takes some digging to unearth quality dining, but it's there if you look for it. From pizza and chili to authentic Mexican cuisine, a few of the best Washington D.C. restaurants serve delicious eats for the budget traveler. While the culinary scene still tends toward conservative (there’s no shortage of all-American options and pub fair) in the middle of the price spectrum, there are also plenty of restaurants serving cuisine from around the world.     

Equinox

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
Chef Todd Gray‘s nouveau American menu is heavy on classics (which explains its success in a conservative town like D.C.) but with a sustainable modern twist—tuna, for example, is dressed up with caramelized artichokes and Nicoise olives and sweetened with a touch of Piquillo Pepper Relish. Soft shell crabs come with brown butter, but also apple turnip puree and a drizzle of sweet hazelnut vinaigrette. Sides range from Southern Comfort dishes like macaroni and cheese to innovative combos like rice tossed with chicken livers and pecans. Equinox is on of the best Washington D.C. restaurants for a posh dining experience. The décor in this splurge restaurant is airy and modern, with floor to ceiling windows. If you're looking for a down-home take on upscale American, this is your place.

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Wolfgang Puck's - The Source

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
Wolfgang Puck certainly chose an apt location to headline his appearance on the D.C. scene—the restaurant is located inside the Newseum. The clean-lined, transparent, glass-and-steel concept blends seamlessly into the museum's architecture, but the tranquil atmosphere inside is a world apart from the hustle and bustle of its neighbor. Scott Drewno is the chef who oversees the Asian-infused American plates (we can't get enough of the Kobe short ribs, which are slow-cooked with Indian spices). There’s also a well-curated cocktail list, not to mention an impressive array of wines. The Source is one of the best places to eat in Washington D.C. while you're downtown. Come here for an aperitif and the tasty pork belly dumplings as an affordable alternative to shelling out around $75 for a full meal.

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Citronelle

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
When it comes to cuisine, D.C. is indebted to Michel Richard who, some say, single-handedly set the city on a course to culinary greatness when he swooped in with his restaurant Citronelle in 1994. Michel has an almost magical talent for turning ordinary ingredients into otherworldly creations—like Citronelle’s duck which is slow-roasted with persimmons and then topped with a sauce made from a pureed blend of black beans, beets, and cocoa. If you're not in the mood to give your wallet the kind of workout this establishment demands (we’re talking in the ballpark of $500 for a dinner for two), there's also his sister bistro, Central, where you can find Michel's equally otherworldly interpretations of burgers and fries for much friendlier prices (1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-626-0015; www.centralmichelrichard.com).

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Ray's the Steaks

Neighborhood: Rosslyn Price: Moderate
At its roots D.C. will always be a meat-and-potatoes town, so it would be a shame to visit the city without indulging in at least one robust, well-prepared steak. Don't be fooled into thinking that you need to pay Charlie Palmer prices though—an enterprising young man named Ray has made quite a name for himself in these parts by serving up excellent and affordable quality cuts. It's saying something that he was able to steal sommelier Mark Slater from Michel Richard's Citronelle. Ray's is one of the best Washington DC restaurants if you're looking for well-prepared, mouthwatering steak. There's no pretense here—paper menus explain temperature, color and char and sides are included at no extra cost. The only downside is the location, just outside D.C. proper—you'll need to travel over the river to Rosslyn (an easy metro stop on the orange line). Make reservations or be prepared to wait hours for a table.

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Eatonville

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Calling all literature majors—Eatonville is as much a must for Zora Neale Hurston enthusiasts as it is for anyone who has a deep appreciation of Southern Comfort fare. The name comes from the historic town where Zora grew up and the entire restaurant is an ode to her life and work, with splashy murals depicting her likeness and passages from her various novels. The theme is carried through to the menu, which features some of her favorite ingredients such as okra and shrimp. Try the cheese grits with the added kick of jalapeño, hush puppies, corn bread, grilled catfish and hearty bowls of gumbo. Even the drinks are served in satisfying quantities in mason jars.

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Old Ebbitt Grill

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
You'll find the Old Ebbitt Grill on every list of the best D.C. restaurants, and for good reason—the establishment, which bills itself as the "oldest saloon in Washington", has been a staple of the D.C. political scene since it opened in 1856. The interior has lots of character, with a heavy mahogany bar, stately oil paintings and taxidermy-laden walls. The main points to be aware of at Old Ebbitt: It's only a few blocks from the White House; you'll need to elbow your way past hoards of tourists and politicos to get to the bar (worth it); and you can't leave until you've tried the oysters (what they're famous for).

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Rasika

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Moderate
Rasika is not only D.C.’s best Indian restaurant, it’s also easy on your wallet. Expect Indian staples such as buttery, spice-laden chicken makhani, as well as more inventive concoctions like lamb chettinad—a tantalizing combination of lamb, fennel, cashews, coconut, star anise, and curry leaves. Definitely leave room for desert—the chef will recommend the signature desert, gulab jamun, but the staff universally (and rightly) sides with the transcendental date and toffee pudding. The candle-lit interiors and red-topped tables give Rasika a decidedly romantic air—although the bold curtain of crystal beads suspended from the ceiling looks out of place.

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Teaism - A Tea House

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
Teaism is a teahouse at heart but its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus are an excellent deal for the price. It's also one of the few affordable restaurants with any atmosphere at all—we fell in love with the quietly sophisticated, Japanese-style interior. There are two locations—one in Penn Quarter and one in Dupont Circle. Teaism is one of the best places to eat in Washington DC on a budget. Try any of the great value bento boxes—for under $10 you get a full, healthy meal (our favorite is seared rare tuna bento box, which comes with wasabi sauce, broccoli, sweet potatoes and rice).

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2Amys Pizza

Neighborhood: Adams Morgan Price: Budget
If ever there was a D.C. pizzeria to rival New York pizzerias, this would be it. The crust is appropriately thin and flaky, baked in a wood-fire brick oven. Our favorite is the straightforward Two Amys, a simple combo of tomato and fresh mozzarella. For those with more complex tastes, they have a full selection of toppings ranging from pepperoni and Gorgonzola to pesto and eggplant confit. 2Amys is the best place for dine-in pizza in DC. Don't come starving because you could easily wait up to an hour for a table and they don't take reservations.

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Ben's Chili Bowl

Neighborhood: U Street Corridor/Columbia Heights Price: Budget
A guide to D.C. just wouldn't be complete without mentioning Ben's Chili Bowl—a local favorite for 50 years. As the name suggests, this place is famous for all things chili, from straight-up chili to chili dogs and chili cheese fries (heck, they even do vegetarian chili). Ben’s stays open until 2AM Monday through Thursday and until 4AM on Fridays and Saturdays, making it popular with the post-clubbing crowd. Just come with cash—credit cards not accepted.

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Mixtec

Neighborhood: Adams Morgan Price: Budget
According to the Mexican community, this is the only authentic Mexican restaurant in D.C.  The owner, "Don" Pepe, is the talkative, friendly mastermind behind this unassuming neighborhood joint. For him the restaurant is more a labor of love than a money-making enterprise and his dedication shows in the quality of the cuisine (according to Don Pepe, the key to a successful Mexican restaurant is having fresh corn tortillas—something that he prides himself on). We recommend the queso fundido con chorizo (even better if you combine it with guacamole and wrap it in a tortilla) and the huevos a la Oaxaquena (a satisfying combination of eggs scrambled with pasilla salsa, dried red peppers and served with heaped portions of home fries and refried black beans). The margaritas are also some of the best in the city.

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