It’s only appropriate that the nation’s capital has an excellent array of American restaurants. From Capitol Hill power-broker canteens like Ted’s Bulletin to chic Georgetown steakhouses like Bourbon Steak, we round up the essential spots.
RECOMMENDED: The best restaurants in DC
The best American restaurants in DC
Johnny Monis is gathering quite a following for himself in his tiny Dupont Circle restaurant. Komi’s low-key dining room, a straight shot from front window to kitchen window, is home to some of the most adventurous eating in the city; the youthful chef is essaying New American cuisine with nods to his Mediterranean heritage and whatever else strikes his fancy. But neither he nor his staff of personable, fashionable servers is lacking in discipline; just as his talent is for showcasing unusual ingredients without showboating, theirs is for putting guests at ease with the ever-changing menu. Foodies will be talking about Monis’s suckling pig for years. See also Power Points.
Look for the line on the sidewalk in front of the glass garage door and you’ve found Birch & Barley and its raucous upstairs beer bar Churchkey. (The line is for the latter, though you’ll need a reservation for the dining room many nights.) Inside, a massive copper beer "organ" funnels some 500 choices, all served at the proper temperature and in the correct glassware, to thirsty patrons. The kitchen here turns out rustic yet elegant dishes such as risotto with cuttlefish, marinated white asparagus, tarragon and squid ink, and flatbreads topped with figs and prosciutto. Do not skip dessert—you’ll find clever renditions of all-American sweets like peanut butter cheesecake and an updated hostess cupcake. Then head upstairs to the casual Churchkey, with low lighting and its own beer-friendly menu (think grilled cheese, wings and poutine).
If you’re looking for a decadent splurge and a high probability of a celebrity sighting, head to this modern restaurant inside Georgetown’s Four Seasons hotel, where steaks are poached in butter and movie stars and power players rub shoulders. California-based chef Michael Mina opened a branch of his contemporary steakhouse as part of a very posh makeover of the Four Seasons. Steakhouse classics such as an aged porterhouse, creamed spinach and wagyu beef are joined by locally sourced fare such as Virginia swordfish, plus a shellfish and caviar selection. The complimentary fries that land on the table are crisped in duck fat and very addictive. The swank bar is a regular hangout for VIP guests and, true to its name, offers a nice selection of rare bourbons and Scotches.
The team behind Matchbox and Ted’s Bulletin have another crowd-pleaser in DC-3, their hot dog joint on Capitol Hill. Named for the Douglas DC-3 air plane from the 1930s—which explains the giant vintage propeller on one wall—the counter-service restaurant dishes up a roster of regional hot dogs from around the US, from the famous DC half smoke to the New Jersey bacon-wrapped ripper, the Chicago 7 with pickles and tomatoes, and even a version of the standard New York dirty water dog. And then there’s the not so classic. The Bay Bridge pretzel dog nods to the mid-Atlantic with crab dip heaped on the hot dog. Fried pickles, cotton candy and soft-serve ice-cream round out the playful menu.
Chef Todd Gray is known for his emphasis on the seasonal and regional; Equinox’s three- to six-course tasting menu generally includes such delicacies as Chesapeake Bay crab, Carolina grouper and locally grown organic vegetables. The suited power brokers who frequent the place may or may not appreciate Gray’s efforts to acquire sustainably farmed fish and humanely raised meat, but they surely appreciate the deceptively simple preparations in which such ingredients shine. Service is deft and friendly. Call well in advance for reservations.
DC claims several stars from the popular Top Chef tv cooking competition, and one of the most recognisable is Spike Mendelsohn. His fun, laid-back burger joint on Capitol Hill (right next to his We, The Pizza restaurant) is a favorite of Hill staffers and First Lady Michelle Obama. The Michelle Melt, a free-range turkey burger with Swiss cheese and a wholewheat bun, is named after her. Grab your order at the counter and don’t miss the dipping bar where you can doctor up your handcut fries with flavored mayonnaises and sauces. The delicious toasted marshmallow milkshake is the stuff of legend.
Everything about this bistro is inviting—the relaxed, almost rustic decor that evokes an upscale farmhouse, the welcoming service and, most of all, the satisfying French-American comfort food, often presented with an inventive twist. You could easily make a meal of starters such as escargot hushpuppies and bacon-and-onion flammekuche, or dig into a wood-grilled bacon cheeseburger, President Obama’s pick when he dined here. But it would be a shame to miss out on entrées like the tagliatelle bolognese or roasted pork for two. For dessert, try the dreamy brownie sundae or the apple tart à la mode.
Ris Lacoste, who earned her stellar reputation as former executive chef of Georgetown’s classic 1789, struck out on her own with this comfortable West End restaurant. (Pronunciation hint: Ris is short for Doris.) Neighbors, power players and the chef’s devotees fill the 200-some seats, spread over a bar, café, patio and segmented dining areas with plush banquettes. The American menu taps into international influences, with dishes like monkfish osso bucco, braised lamb shank with chickpeas and yogurt, and sesame crusted salmon with red curry broth. Regular daily specials include meatloaf on Mondays.
The only problem with Capitol Hill’s go-to comfort food spot is that you’ll have to get your hung-over arse outta bed early to beat the Barrack’s Row brunch crowd. But of course the place is crowded: At Ted’s you’ll find breakfast served all day and plates that will make you feel like a kid again without any judgment about overindulgence from your ma. Slip into one of the cozy leather booths, zone out to whatever old school movie the projection screen is playing, and order up a Mark on an Off Day—two eggs, a choice of bacon or sausage, toast, and pile of hash browns that will change your life. Ted’s grilled cheese and tomato soup is always a staple, and Nana’s beer biscuits and sausage gravy will have you saying, “Diet? What diet?” Speaking of dieting, there are house-made poptarts that are a must (the peanut-butter-bacon is a favorite). If you haven’t slipped into a calorie coma by the end of your meal, note that Ted’s serves up a long list of old-fashioned milkshakes with a grown-up twist: booze! Shakes are prepared in a steel can and served in a tall glass with toppings and a straw. The grasshopper (Kahlua and crème de menthe) or the Nutty Professor (hazelnut liqueur) can turn any day around. Stretchy pants are recommended, but not required.
From the owners of the ever-hip Eighteenth Street Lounge, Marvin turned a former Subway fast-food shop into one of the 14th and U Street neighborhood’s coolest hangouts. The name is a nod to Marvin Gaye, one of owner (and half of DC’s music duo Thievery Corporation) Eric Hilton’s musical role models. The dimly lit space is two floors—a bistro on the ground level serves a hipster crowd a clever mix of Belgian dishes and soul food, like moules frites, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken with waffles. A lounge with a regular line-up of talented DJs resides on the second floor. Also up top: a spacious outdoor deck complete with heaters for chilly nights.