Washington D.C. -- What to see/do and eat off the beaten path?
November 9, 2008 3:26 PM   Subscribe

Foodie recommendations and off the beaten path things to see/do in the Washington, D.C. area?

Yes, we are two crazy people from the San Francisco area going to DC inauguration week, 2009. We just couldn't help ourselves, especially when we got incredibly cheap airfare. I'm just so overjoyed and I really want to be able to tell my grand kids I was there. Yes, I know it will be crowded and totally nuts, but.. but.. yeah. We just had to do it.

Here are my questions:

1) Aside from the museums and monuments we all know about, what should we see or do in the area. We're not limited to D.C. -- but looking for interesting stuff the regular tourists might overlook. We are not at all interested in shopping. Pa-tooy. Basically we are open to any and all suggestions.
a) I'm big on the weird/quirky stuff as well as Americana, History, film, exploring other cultures.
b) My companion has a penchant for music, art and science.

2) Food: Are there any awesome food experiences we shouldn't miss? Bonus on the cheap and cheerful end of the scale, but plan at least one expensive dinner. I love the little hole in the wall places that have great food and/or are an interesting experience. We are open to all cuisines, except um.. sushi.

3) Drinks: We tend to favor dive bars or little out of the way places where we'd feel welcome. We care not about the "see and be seen" kinds of places.

4) Where can we find good calendars of events in the area?

5) Yeah, I called my State Rep & Senator to see about inauguration tickets, but I'm not holding my breath. Assuming we don't get inauguration tickets, where would be a good spot to be or try to be?


We arrive on the 15th and leave on the 23rd.
Staying with friends in Vienna, VA (last stop on the Metro)
We plan to take the metro when we go into DC, but will have a car so we don't have to limit ourselves to just D.C.
We also plan to do the MeFI meetup that's being set up!
posted by trixare4kids to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (39 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide for the greater DC metro area; I've never been to any(?) of the places but would like to if I ever get down there.
posted by grobstein at 3:31 PM on November 9, 2008

(Interview; scroll down to end of post for current restaurant highlights.)
posted by grobstein at 3:35 PM on November 9, 2008

Vidalia Restaurant. Specializes in vidalia onions, with delicious results. www.vidaliadc.com
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:51 PM on November 9, 2008

Response by poster:
I forgot to mention -- THEATRE! We both adore the theatre and aside from being season ticket holders to the Berkeley Rep for 10 years, we do a lot of volunteer ushering around the San Francisco Area.

Any theatre suggestions either for buying tickets, or that have volunteer ushering programs?

Great suggestions - this is why I love Mefi. The Ethnic Dining Guide is perfect and we've put Vidalia on the itinerary for lunch. grobstein, I'm a big fan of Ethiopian and we are going to visit a friend in Falls Church, so I'm thinking we'll check out Meaza
posted by trixare4kids at 4:06 PM on November 9, 2008

My favorite secret lunch spot in DC is a sandwich counter at an Italian grocery store. It's really off the beaten path, and kind of in a bad part of town, but you can walk there from a metro stop and it's delicious. Cheap, awesome sandwiches with fresh cut meat and cheeses.

A Litteri

It's by the New York Ave. stop on the red line. Go there for lunch. It's absolutely amazing.

Caveat - no place to eat there. So you'll have to grab the sandwich and take it somewhere to snack. Maybe hop back on the metro and head to the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery?

There are a million other places to eat as well. Most of Jose Andres's places are awesome, and they're all in Chinatown by the Portrait Gallery. Zaytinya for Mediterranean, Oyamel for Oaxacan Mexican, and Jaleo for tapas.
posted by SNWidget at 4:08 PM on November 9, 2008

When you're down on the Mall doing the museum thing, stop by the Holocaust Museum and come up to the fifth floor (the elevator is kind of hidden, near the Museum Shop). You can stop by the Library reference desk and say hi (I should be working that week), but be sure to walk all the way down to the end of the hall and cross the glass bridge to see the unique view of Washington afforded by the Museum's location. The sweeping view lets you see across the Tidal Basin to Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the WWII memorial, and the Washington Monument. The glass is etched in such a way to make photos difficult to take, but the view is worth taking the time to see.

There are lots of other "things to do in DC" posts that are with exploring, but I don't think that and of them highlight the view from the Museum.

As for theater, check out the League of Washington Theaters site, and stop by TicketPlace on 7th street while you're here. If Shakespeare's your thing, you'll be spoiled for choice as we have three major Shakespeare groups in the city.
posted by arco at 4:11 PM on November 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of great places to eat in DC. These are mostly hole in the wall places.

Ben's Chili Bowl is not exactly off-the-beaten path, but it is a necessary stop. It's also the heart of progressive DC (at one point it was called Black Broadway, but sadly, it is quite gentrified now) so the mood should be pretty buoyant.

Pho 75 in Arlington has the best pho I've had outside of South East Asia.

Awash on 18th in Adams Morgan has great Ethiopian food.

Dive Bars

The Raven in Mount Pleasant is the oldest bar in DC and a great dive. Toledo Lounge in Adams Morgan is fun.

Other stuff:

The Kennedy Center has free music every day at 5. The Black Cat is good for indie rock/punk, Madame's Organ for blues.
posted by lunasol at 4:14 PM on November 9, 2008

Oh, and Bagels and Baguettes near Union Station has excellent breakfast sandwiches. It's also right next to the Heritage Foundation office, so you can feel smug next to the forlorn Young Republican interns.
posted by lunasol at 4:16 PM on November 9, 2008

If you're into real Chinese food, try Full Kee in Chinatown. There are a lot of crappy, touristy places in Chinatown, but this is definitely not one of them. They have a wide variety of authentic Hong Kong style dishes, including some of the best noodles you've ever eaten.
posted by littlerobothead at 4:20 PM on November 9, 2008

W Domku is thoroughly charming and low-key.

Two of my favorite places, the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, won't be much fun in January. Hillwood Museum is awesome--but it's also one of the few admission-charging places in DC.

Some random ideas: the Exorcist Steps are a Georgetown tradition. I love the Library of Congress. It doesn't take long to get a library card there, which is a great souvenir. The new Capitol Visitor Center might be open by then, but I doubt it.

Finally, I used to volunteer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and, as bleak as it is, I think everyone who gets a chance should go see it. It's free admission, but the tickets to the main exhibit are timed. It will be even more crowded than usual, I think, while you're here, so it might be worth your while to order tickets online (there's a small surcharge). Also, give yourself time to get through security.

Hope this helps! Welcome to DC, and I hope I'll see you at the meetup!
posted by orrnyereg at 4:23 PM on November 9, 2008

Oh, and a decent lunch and excellent views can be had from the DC federal courthouse (of all places!): 333 Constitution Ave NW.
posted by orrnyereg at 4:26 PM on November 9, 2008

You MUST MUST MUST MUST go to Adam Express in Mount Pleasant. You won't get a seat, because there are only four, but it is THE BEST Korean food in DC. Run by a couple who used to run a shop in Seoul. You'd have to go to Annandale for better.
posted by parmanparman at 4:56 PM on November 9, 2008

Contradancing at Glen Echo on Jan 16! Make sure you go for the instruction at 7:30, dance starts at 8.
posted by jvilter at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2008

Be sure to bring your warm clothes/coats/hats/gloves.

At the higher end, Zaytinya is good but a reservation is definitely recommended. I like it quite a bit but would go to Rasika myself. Also, since you are staying outside DC consider going to Me Jana or the Eden Center.

Relatively inexpensive and located downtown: Nando's Peri Peri. One of the best places to eat if you are on the Mall and doing the Smithsonian would be the Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian.

You might be interested in Busboys & Poets restaurant or Galaxy Hut in Arlington, VA.

Things to see and do - the new Sant Ocean Hall and the Butterfly exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History are both great.

A place with a good overall view of the city is the clock tower at the Old Post Office Pavilion.
posted by gudrun at 5:09 PM on November 9, 2008

Yes! How could I forget about Adams Express! I used to live around the corner, and the bibimbap is sooooo good. If it's nice out, you can eat in the square across the street. If not, go to the Raven, order some beers, and eat it there.
posted by lunasol at 5:38 PM on November 9, 2008

Zaytinya is a fantastic dinner spot and not that expensive as you can sample small dishes.

A fun off-beat activity would be taking a bike ride from DC down the C&O Canal and back.

Check out the Hirshorn and National Galleries.

See if there are any concerts that would match your taste at 930 club or the Black Cat. Nightlife around there might please you as well.

Try and make an appointment for a tour of the Capitol Building.

Check Washingtonpost.com CITY GUIDE--> Going Out Gurus Recommendations for localized events around the time you go.

posted by stratastar at 5:46 PM on November 9, 2008

Oooh! For bars, try Nanny O'Brien's in Cleveland Park, or Pharmacy Bar in Adams Morgan. For eating, try Cafe L'Enfant in Adams Morgan, and my absolute favorite expensive place is Rasika for great Indian food...
posted by echo0720 at 5:50 PM on November 9, 2008

The Washington City Paper (in paper and online) has a pretty comprehensive list of events -- music, theater, talks, exhibitions, etc. Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and the U street corridor are DC neighborhoods with a large number and variety of restaurants, bars, and clubs -- I find yelp.com to be a good resource for finding new places.
posted by Sar HaPanim at 6:49 PM on November 9, 2008

Bar Pilar is really good for brunch and they have bacon bloody marys.
posted by whoaali at 7:14 PM on November 9, 2008

Peruvian chicken! Various locations and I don't know what's best. Maybe just try the closest one. Or see what Tyler Cowen says.

Free, no tickets required, nightly at 6pm, performance at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. An amazing freebie that's been going on for years, different every night.


The Frederick Douglass house overlooking the Anacostia. You need to reserve tickets for the tour a day in advance.

Folger Shakespeare Library.

Great Falls.

Drive up Mass Avenue past the embassies. There may be exhibits and performances there open to the public.

Eastern Market.

Library of Congress.
posted by sevenstars at 8:00 PM on November 9, 2008

Food: If at all possible, try to have your one expensive dinner at Mini Bar. There is nothing particularly "DC" about it, but it is magnificent and a truly unique foodie experience. Well, perhaps not entirely unique, but closer to Feran Adria's El Bulli than you can find just about anywhere in the States.

(Don't get me wrong, I'd take the French Laundry over Mini Bar any day, but it's just a different kind of meal. Mini Bar is more whimsical, silly, and sometimes challenging. They basically play with your food, and do it in front of you -- it is, literally, a mini bar in a restaurant that might as well be a separate establishment.)
posted by lionelhutz5 at 9:05 PM on November 9, 2008

I'm not sure how the Ethiopian at Falls Church compares overall, but in my experience the Ethiopian near Adams Morgan is OK but much better in the area around U St & 9th. (see my prev comment).

I had an interesting dining experience, for lack of a better descriptor, at Soul Vegetarian. I was guided there by a friend so don't know the location off-hand. It serves 100% vegan soul food and is pretty tasty food overall. Nothing like fine dining, but really unusual flavor combinations (the vegan pizza, topped with what I *think* may have been some kind of nutritional-yeast based sauce, was surprisingly addictive).
posted by Deathalicious at 9:08 PM on November 9, 2008

Ethiopian, yes! The DC area has some great, authentic Asian food, but that's probably something you get plenty of in San Francisco. Ethiopian food, on the other hand, will likely be much more of a novelty, and it's quite good. Zed's in Georgetown is a pretty safe bet, but may feel a little too Americanized and is not really Metro accessible. Meskerem and Fasika's in Adams Morgan may be better choices. I used to prefer Fasika's, but it may have closed (sorry for incomplete information -- a quick Google was inconclusive).
posted by lionelhutz5 at 10:06 PM on November 9, 2008

I haven't been, but can't wait to check out Thai X-ing.
posted by nitsuj at 7:39 AM on November 10, 2008

Zatinya's is very good and when we had "foodies" come to DC they requested we go there. You can also go for lunch. And, yes, make reservations now. Jaleo's on 7th and E, NW is also good.

And, while you're in that area please come by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Kogod Courtyard is beautiful (disclosure: I work there).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 8:47 AM on November 10, 2008

Definitely definitely definitely get some Ethiopian food. Meskerem is a great spot, as are any of the little joints around U st NW. Also, you must have Ben's Chili Bowl for the D.C. classic half-smoke. They have a crazy history that you can read about, and for years have had a sign behind the counter that reads: "People who eat for free at Ben's: Bill Cosby. No one else." It's been recently (and probably temporarily) edited to include: "The Obama family."

There's been plenty of threads around here about dive bars in D.C. So, instead of re-recommending them, I'll recommend checking those threads out. The best brunch in town is at Georgia Brown's.

The best calenders are really the Washington City Paper, but if you follow it, DCist regularly posts events coming up through the week.
posted by General Malaise at 8:58 AM on November 10, 2008

Oh, and Jaleo, Zatinya, Oyamel (my favorite of them), Cafe Atlantico, all located around Penn Quarter, are restaurants run by José Andrés, who's famous for a. besting Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, b. bringing the small plates to America, c. something about foam.
posted by General Malaise at 9:02 AM on November 10, 2008

This might be too in-doorsy for your taste, but I'd recommend checking the Smithsonian Associates' page of upcoming lectures/events for anything that might strike your fancy.

Also, this year is the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and the city is planning a ton of events and other fun stuff.

Foodie-wise: Makoto for Japanese. Komi. Citronelle. Central. You can find more at Yelp's DC page. Also, take the Metro to Alexandria and try Restaurant Eve.

Dress warm and have fun!
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:23 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't believe how much people are recommending Zaytinya here. It's good, but nothing special in my mind. Same goes for the rest of the family.

My favorites - these are all cheap food: Etete (Ethiopian - you really must have Ethiopian in DC). Do NOT eat Ethiopian in Adams Morgan when you could go to Etete or Dukem (or I'm sure lots of others). Amsterdam Falafel is good and very cheap (Adams Morgan). Heritage India has good Indian. Nam Viet (in Clarendon, VA or Cleveland Park, DC). There are SmartKarts all around the city now (on the fly DC). Cheap, good food. I've never had Ben's Chili Bowl, for some reason, but from what I hear it sounds like a must-stop. Busboys and Poets would be fun for you (U street and Convention Center/Chinatown) - cheap decent food but fun political atmosphere. Tryst (good coffeeshop in Adams Morgan). Tabard Inn (absolutely fantastic weekend brunch, very cozy atmosphere, Dupont. RESERVE WELL IN ADVANCE). The dragqueen brunch at Perry's (Adams Morgan) is fun and good. I'm a pretty big fan of Kramer Books (good food, nice bookstore, Dupont).

For expensive food, I recommend: Citronelle (Georgetown), Kinkaids (Foggy Bottom), Cashion's Eat Place (Adams Morgan), Dino (Cleveland Park, italian food, not super expensive but great food and cozy atmosphere), Taberna del Alabardero (Spanish food - fantastic - recommended by the Spanish embassy, supposedly), Johnny's on the Halfshell (Capitol Hill).

The Washingtonian's restaurant finder is extremely helpful. You could also check out dcfoodies.

For divey bars (there aren't tons) : The Raven, Wonderland (Columbia Heights), Recessions (Dupont). However, DC is also really a town of hotel bars - there are quite a few good or historic hotel bars you might want to consider. There used to be a great list on the internet, but I'm having trouble finding it.

Stuff to do: Kennedy Center's 365 theate has already been mentioned. I'd basically recommend the free museums & zoo (so many to choose from and they're fantastic). But if you're willing to pay, I also highly recommend the Spy Museum. It's just so cool and so DC. And I've been hearing good stuff lately about the Newseum (although I haven't been).

posted by Amizu at 9:47 AM on November 10, 2008

The Marian Koshland Science Museum has great exhibits and is one of the few not-free museums that are worth the admissions charge. If you have plans for the Smithsonian museums on the mall, add the US Botanical Gardens to your list; it's a good place to shake off the January cold and the orchid room is amazing.

DC used to be the nation's Bluegrass hotbed. Wednesday nights at Madam's Organ and any night at Tiffany Tavern are both good places for beer and bluegrass.

Marrakesh is a knock-your-socks-off Moroccan restaurant that's off the beaten path. It's pricey but an absolute treat, reservations are required.

The Washington Post started reviewing dive bars in their Going Out Guide.

The Washington City Paper's food guide provides a wide, if not shallow, survey of the town's eateries.
posted by peeedro at 11:09 AM on November 10, 2008

If you are thinking of visiting the often mentioned Raven in Mount Pleasant, they usually host a reading of The Raven to commemorate Poe's birthday. It might be an event worth checking out as this Jan 19 will mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
posted by peeedro at 11:36 AM on November 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Weighing in late, but thought I'd mention:

1. Movies: The free films at the National Gallery of Art, Freer Gallery, and the Mary Pickford Theater. The Avalon and AFI Silver theaters are both gems - restored 20s/30s neighborhood movie houses with interesting programing.

3. Drinks: A few more neighborhood bars to consider: Marx Cafe (Mt. Pleasant), The Saloon (U St.), Colonel Brooks Tavern (Brookland), Martin's Tavern (Georgetown), Looking Glass Lounge (Park View), Townhouse Tavern (Dupont). If you head out to Silver Spring for the AFI, the Quarry House is a good spot for beers and a burger. The Vienna Inn is the best, last vestige of real local culture in Vienna, VA - don't miss it!

4. Food: Seconding I Litteri - the entire Capital City Market is well-worth exploring, and a side of D.C. most tourists never see. Mangialardo's on Capitol Hill has cheap, delicious subs - it's carry out only, so walk over to Congressional Cemetery if the weather cooperates to sit, eat and contemplate the pleasures of being alive :)

I'm also a big fan of Cafe La Ruche - inexpensive French comfort food, and especially good if you get a cold, rainy night. Seconding the bar at the Tabard Inn, and nthing Zatinya as being overrated.

5. Music: If you're at all interested in jazz, I highly recommend a night out at Twins Jazz on U Street. The folks who run Twins genuinelly care about art and hospitality, and you can feel it.

I've bookmarked a pile of local events calendars. A few other spots not-to-miss:

  • The main hall of the National Building Museum - one of the most stunning public spaces in D.C.

  • Oak Hill and Rock Creek cemeteries - especially somber and beautiful in the winter.

  • I spent two hours in the Folger Shakespeare Library's Breaking News exhibit - it's fascinating (take the cell phone tour).

  • posted by ryanshepard at 12:52 PM on November 10, 2008

    Oops: Heritage India has good Indian. It is good, but not cheap. Good cheap Indian food is mostly had in the suburbs - that's true of ethnic food in general in DC, except for Ethiopian.
    posted by Amizu at 1:06 PM on November 10, 2008

    Correct URL for the AFI Silver Theatre:

    posted by ryanshepard at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2008

    Two more for when you're down near the White House:

    M.E. Swing Co. at 17th and G is a D.C. institution, and serves very good, locally roasted coffee. A few blocks away is Breadline - their sandwiches are expensive ($7-8), but big and worth every cent.
    posted by ryanshepard at 5:34 PM on November 10, 2008

    This is great. Also, from last year, Unmissable food in DC? got lots of responses.
    posted by mediareport at 8:38 PM on November 10, 2008

    Weighing in waaaay late, but --

    Ethiopian: Fasika's is indeed closed after a fire 2-3 yrs ago; I'll second the recommendation for Dukem (caution: website has sound).

    Stage: Many of the area theaters (Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre, etc) have volunteer usher programs, so you can definitely see performances for free, but the time commitment is pretty big for only being here a short while...

    Museums: the Smithsonian Textile Museum is off the beaten museum-going path and hence pretty calm when all the Mall-side ones are packed. (Also, nearby is Embassy Row -- I love to just walk around and look at all the flags, but I'm a dork.)
    posted by Westringia F. at 12:28 PM on November 22, 2008

    Response by poster:
    Ya'll are just peachy -- thanks everyone. This gives me a lot to go on!
    posted by trixare4kids at 9:32 PM on November 22, 2008

    late as well but my post from another thread:

    Oohs and Aahs

    if you like southern/soul food its amazing, and as someone who has foolishly gone to georgia browns (another soul food place in DC) it doesnt compare. more food, cheaper, better atmosphere, etc.

    now is it cheap? no but i ate there last night for 22$ - got 2 huge pieces of lightly fried catfish (have 1 left over - literally half the fish), a LOT mac-and-cheese and 2 large chunks of cornbread.

    i would skip the cornbread (a little dry for my tastes) but since i havent had good southern/soul food since i moved to DC in July -- WOW. be aware that lunch is until 4 and dinner is 4 to close.

    if your around dupont and want good pizza check out Alberto's - close to dupont circle

    good italian (also near DuPont circle) - Giovanni's Trattu - good italian, not too expensive

    finally if you want a good hamburger, check out Ray's Hell Burger. Have to take the metro to get there (Courthouse) but its the best burger in DC, hands down.

    if your looking for anythign else you can me-fi me or check out yelp DC

    i would suggest oohs and aahs above all
    posted by knockoutking at 4:49 PM on December 13, 2008

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