The best French restaurants in Washington, DC
Fourteenth Street’s transformation is never more apparent than when you walk into Le Diplomate. From the globe lights overhead and the wood floors underfoot, to the woven bistro chairs and the curieux that adorn the walls—most everything you can touch or see or even hear in restaurateur-impresario Stephen Starr’s brasserie is literally imported from France itself. Even the name, Le Diplomate, is taken from a Parisian bistro Starr once visited. While some patrons have likened their experience to a trip to Epcot, that hasn’t stopped the 265-seat restaurant from filling up nearly every night since it opened last April —and not just because political royalty such as Michelle Obama and the Biden family have dined here. In other words, word has gotten out that Le Diplomate’s Frenchy fare is fantastic. Even with so many great raw bars around town, les fruits de mer are not to be missed. Nor is the steak tartare de parc, which features a tender, sweet filet chopped fine and topped with salty capers and a velvety quail egg. For entrees, the grilled loup de mer is lightly seasoned and served overtop a rich, buttery tapenade and hearty, oversized white beans. If its simple bistro fare you cherchez, the steak frites is a wise choice. Note that your inner-Francophile may have to wait one month for a weekend reservation. In the meantime, hit up Le Diplomate’s brunch, when seats are less in demand, but the food is just as good. C’est bon.
You can see why Michel Richard’s effusive Pennsylvania Avenue brasserie wins raves. The playful menu fuses American and French classics with Richard’s signature whimsy. There’s "faux" gras (made from chicken liver not foie gras), a towering lobster burger, a spin on fried chicken, and a monstrous banana split sure to attract any nearby spoon.
Marcel’s is the kind of restaurant that you’d expect to find on Pennsylvania Avenue: exquisite food, beautifully served in a sumptuous dining room by adept professionals. Chef Robert Wiedmaier’s Flemish-inflected French fare manages the classical balance of taste and textures: subtle versus sharp-flavored, savory versus sweet, generous versus leaving you wanting more. Boudin blanc with black mushroom truffle purée and truffle madeira sauce is exemplary, and a gratin of mussels with Chimay, salsify and bacon is a blast of intense flavors. The servers get extra points for friendliness: even if you’re not one of the place’s traditional, old-money clients, they’ll still treat you as if you were.
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.
Its dining room bustling even when it’s not full, its patio seats constantly occupied, Montmartre is much beloved of Capitol Hill residents, who stop by for weekend brunch and people-watching (Eastern Market is just steps away) as well as reliable daily dinners. The walls bear the inevitable Moulin Rouge poster, but the vibe is sophisticated, and the elegantly presented food is more than just café fare: in addition to hanger steak and duck confit, the menu includes such dishes as braised rabbit leg, or lighter fare such as endive salad with blue cheese, roasted walnuts and apples or home-made country pâté.
A soigné restaurant in the George hotel, within walking distance of the Capitol and Union Station, Bistro Bis serves the gamut of French food, from mussels and pommes frites to complicated preparations and composed plates. Of-the-moment design firm Adamstein & Demetriou created the decor, a riff on the classic brasserie: the dining room features warm woods, tile floors and frosted glass; and the front room, which opens on to a patio with more tables, popular for summing dining, has a zinc-topped bar. Weekend brunch, which adds egg dishes and beef-based bloody marys to the brasserie mix, is justly popular.