Updated June 27, 2020.
When you think of United States foodie destinations, you probably think New York, Chicago, Nashville, Napa Valley, etc., but I have to urge you to put D.C. on your list of foodie bucket list destinations! D.C. restaurants have to be excellent to last around here, so when you find one with longevity, you know it’s for good reason. Here’s the short list of D.C. institutions that require one thing: a big appetite.
Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown is the oldest family-run restaurant in the Nation’s Capital. That’s really something! They’ve been serving D.C. since 1933, and notable patrons include Madeleine Albright, Mickey Mantle, and every U.S. President from Harry Truman to George W. Bush! Their biggest claim to fame is the time that JFK proposed to Jackie here in their aptly-named “proposal booth.”
But aside from its history, Martin’s has staying power for another reason: its food! From their traditional oyster stew to their shepherd’s pie (Billy Martin’s own recipe) to their bread pudding a la mode, you will definitely leave happy with a full belly. I recently stopped in for lunch and had one of the best Monte Cristo with applesauce ever!
Read on: What to Eat in Georgetown
Ben’s Chili Bowl
This U Street institution started in 1958. Ben and Virginia Ali started their restaurant as a young couple, and it has seen everything from protests and riots to presidents and prestigious awards. There are now multiple locations around the D.C. area, including Nats Park, Arlington, and Washington-National Airport (DCA)! When U Street had a reputation as the “Black Broadway,” world-famous performers such as Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, and D.C.-born Duke Ellington stopped in between performances nearby!
Their longevity can be credited to down-home friendly service, milkshakes, and lots of chili! Their most notable item is the “half smoke,” which is a hot dog on a warm bun served with mustard, onions, and their famous chili!
Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt is perhaps the most famous restaurant in D.C. for its location so near the White House and being the oldest saloon in Washington. It hasn’t always been so close to the presidential home; in fact no one is quite sure of its original location! Legend has it President William McKinley rented a room at Ebbitt’s when he was a mere Congressman. Many presidents have been said to refresh themselves around the bar.
Its current location on 15th Street is an old theater, perfect for historic ambience and displaying the memorabilia it’s collected over the last 160+ years! Aside from the beautiful architecture and history, Old Ebbitt is known for its oysters (in many forms!), seasonally-inspired menu options, classic brunch, and all-American desserts. Pro Tip: Get reservations, especially for the weekends!
More here: Where to Eat in Downtown D.C.
Speaking of political hangouts, don’t miss Tortilla Coast if you find yourself on Capitol Hill! I’m admittedly not a fan of Mexican food (it hurts my tummy!), but even I was able to find something delicious here. Starting in 1988, Congresspeople started going to Tortilla Coast for lunch, and they brought work with them (of course). Fun fact: Wisconsin Congressman, former Speaker of the House, and former Presidential hopeful Paul Ryan was a server here in the 1990s!
Most Americans love Tex-Mex, and even I can recommend this restaurant! My dad really wanted to eat here on his latest trip to visit me in D.C., and I’m glad I let him talk me into it! He got the chimichanga and a beef soft taco, and I got the cheese and spinach quesadilla! If we’d had room, we would have gotten the churros with chocolate dipping sauce!
The Willard Hotel
The Willard is one of the oldest hotels in Washington, D.C., just a few short blocks away from the White House. Needless to say, innumerable foreign and domestic statesmen have come to stay here, and of course they dined here as well. In fact, in 1830 Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay introduced the mint julep (for the first time outside of Kentucky), and it became the hotel’s signature beverage! In 1862, Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the hotel. And in 1869, former President Grant coined the term “lobbyist” to describe the self-promoters who would bother him in the Willard’s lobby!
There are several dining locations at the Willard, including the Round Robin Bar, Le Bar, and Cafe du Park. (And don’t forget room service if you’re lucky enough to stay at this historic hotel!)
The best way to become world famous is to get a TV show, and that’s what happened to Georgetown Cupcake! They are not the “original cupcake shop,” but they have been doing a swift business since 2008, often selling out during the day even before TLC started filming! Pro Tip: The line can easily be out the door and up the sidewalk, so try to go in the middle of the day and in the middle of the week for the shortest wait. But the line moves pretty quickly even during the busiest time!
Some classic favorite flavors are around every day, but others change often and with the seasons! So whether you want classic vanilla or a seasonal delight, there’s something for everyone.
Want more D.C. foodie recommendations, ideas for things to do, and itineraries? Check out my Washington, D.C. Page!
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