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If you haven't been to Washington D.C. in recent years—or ever!—it's time to book a trip. We partnered with washington.org to share NPR music writer and producer Lars Gotrich's favorite haunts in the city, by neighborhood, from food and music to culture and markets.
Tables and chairs are stacked against the wall, a barricade of red vinyl assembled to fend off a hulking monster—but the monster is inside, and it's playing blast-beaten noise-punk from the psychojazz planet. The band, Cellular Chaos, is the brainchild of extreme music lifer Weasel Walter, and the trio make dangerous music fit for a grimy basement, so what better place for the band to make the most of its name than a punk bar and burger joint?
This is Slash Run, complete with a wall plastered with a painting of former DC Mayor Marion Barry astride a lion, the burger menu teeters that line between gourmet and ridiculous, the Whiskey Wednesdays go well with loaded nachos, and, like any D.C. bar worth its salt, the beer list is a healthy mix of local pride and hard-to-find bottles and drafts. It fills the void of punk-friendly spots in a city that's grown too fast too quickly, giving a late-night performance space to punk, hardcore, and metal bands, all while also offering food like a Korean BBQ burger with pork rinds and avocado. It says a lot about Washington D.C. to me, and I love it.
I came to D.C. just a little over a decade ago for the same reason most 20-something non-natives do: for an internship, which eventually turned into a job as a writer and producer at NPR Music. In that time, I've watched the city bloom like the cherry blossoms that bring in tourists every spring, and stink like the ginkgo berries that drop in the fall. I love it all—as a Midwest-born Southerner raised by a Swedish immigrant and a New Yorker, the amorphous cultural identity of D.C. fits right next to my own like the jagged piece of a jigsaw puzzle. And while the half-smoke sausage is a helluva culinary legacy, D.C.'s food, music, and culture scenes require you to look a little harder to find your people.
So, here's a flyby of D.C. neighborhoods and the restaurants, bars, breweries, music venues, and whatnots that this proud local regularly inhabits, knowing that I'm blowing up a few spots (and keeping a few secret for my friends and neighbors).
While we're already in Petworth for Slash Run, just down the way is Timber Pizza Co., that rare success story of a food truck—really, a stone oven on a truck hitch-turned-restaurant—that actually kept the restaurant. Its wood-fired pizza favors sweet and spicy flavor combos like The Bentley (cured chorizo and soppressata sidling up to Peruvian sweet peppers and spicy honey), with a simple, chewy dough. Timber encourages splitting a pie, and the Green Monster (pesto, fresh mozzarella, feta, zucchini, kale) is a menu staple.
Columbia Heights is ground zero for D.C. development, as condos and new storefronts face down rowhouses built several decades ago (this did bring my beloved Chick-Fil-A to the capital—can take a boy out of the South, but...). Pho 14 is where to slurp a big bowl of rice noodles or chomp down on banh mi sandwiches. Sticky Fingers' vegan toasted coconut cupcake, if available, is what a sugar-frosted (and toasted) cloud tastes like. When my wife and I save up the money, we go to one of three places, and one of them is Bad Saint. You maybe have read about this tiny, much-venerated Filipino restaurant, no doubt, and I am here to tell you that I have laughed and wept from joy picking at an entire flash-fried fish by hand, accompanied by a different sauce and sautéed veggies every time we go. The menu is in constant flux, but the flavors continue to surprise and challenge me. Get in line super early, get a number, and go down the street to Meridian Pint for a beer while you wait.
Just up 14th Street NW is where you'll find the local hangs. For the longest time, Distrito Federal was the only place in town for good tacos—if D.C. had a culinary blindspot in the past, it was Mexican food. That's changed, but Distrito Federal's two-steps-down restaurant has been the standard-bearer, and the tacos al pastor are a personal favorite.
Among the city's newer Mexican highlights is Habanero, started by a husband and wife duo from Puebla, Mexico. Their fare is unapologetically traditional—food trends be damned—with homemade everything (tortillas, salsas, huaraches) and flavors that pop with understated complexity. Try anything, really: The horchata’s plenty, the michelada's peppery, and the tacos are small, which is a good reason to go big on the saucy enchiladas de pollo with green sauce. Then hit up Lyman's Tavern for a slew of pinball machines (Judge Dredd is infuriatingly entertaining), a pint of Atlas' slightly-fruity District Commons lager and pub fare that's far better than it deserves to be (shout out to the Viet tacos).
Pho 14, 1436 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC 20010
Sticky Fingers, 1370 Park Rd NW, Washington, DC 20010
Bad Saint, 3226 11th St NW, Washington, DC 20010
Meridian Pint, 3400 11th St NW, Washington, DC 20010
Distrito Federal, 3463 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20010
Habanero, 3710 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20010
Lyman's Tavern, 3720 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20011
Mt. Pleasant is, and has been for a long time, home to part of the city's Salvadoran population, many of them descended from refugees of the 1980s civil war. Those that stayed gave the city one of its landmark cuisines (besides the Ethiopian joints like Etete that dot U Street). You'll quickly fall in love with their food, particularly the doughy cheese-mechanism known as the pupusa, which is stuffed with pork, beans, and cheeses, griddled, and topped with vinegary slaw and salsa. Mt. Pleasant is full of pupuserias, and you'll find nuanced differences between each, but I always go for Ercilia's. Get a pupusa, but la sopa del día is the key to your success of the day. The soups change depending on what's available, generally chicken, tripe, bean, or seafood—all of them salty and homey and filling.
U Street & Florida Avenue
Speaking of U Street, that's where you'll find most record stores (Red Onion, Joint Custody, and SOM are all within a half-mile of each other!) and nightlife. Black Cat is a two-story music venue with a checkerboard floor upstairs and the Red Room bar and Food For Thought cafe on the ground. It's a safe haven for punks and locals in the midst of an increasingly party-centric street, and even at its booking stature, with the likes of groups like Waxahatchee and Shabazz Palaces playing there, still invests a lot into its local music scene.
Down the way is the 9:30 Club, regularly hosting big-ticket acts like Animal Collective and Sylvan Esso—don't miss the cupcakes iced with their iconic logo. And just around the corner is the three-story DC9, with a bar and patio sandwiching all of the bands between, and home to some killer garlic fries and a grilled pimento cheese.
Head east on U Street where the road turns into Florida Avenue (yeah, it’s confusing to us, too), and you'll find Thai X-ing. There are two locations within a half-mile of each other, but the original restaurant built into a rowhouse is where you can still find chef and owner Taw Vigsittaboot in the basement kitchen, minding over his signature pumpkin curry. Every night is chef's choice, so just tell the server if you'd prefer meat, fish, or vegetarian. It's one of the city's greatest restaurants, and one that creates a new experience each time. A local's tip: The more people you bring, the wider the selection, but make sure to call a week ahead.
Red Onion Records, 1628 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Joint Custody, 1530 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009
SOM Records, 1843 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
Black Cat, Red Room, & Food For Thought, 1811 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009
9:30 Club, 815 V St NW, Washington, DC 20001
DC9, 1940 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Thai X-ing, 515 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Bloomingdale is a tiny neighborhood where you can find retired folks on the porch with a cooler of cheap beer, young parents pushing strollers, and, without fail, go-go music blaring from both passing and parked cars on Sunday afternoons. There's a farmers market on Sunday mornings starting in May, with local produce, cheese and pickled goods. If you're on the way to a cookout, Meats & Foods is a necessary stop, with a rotating line of four or five homemade sausages—the roasted poblano is a recent addition, but the salt and pepper chicken sausage will make you rethink whatever reservations you ever had about non-pork sausages.
Jam Doung is the low-key take-out gem of D.C., mixing the Jamaican and Southern soul food traditions of the husband and wife duo that owns it. Everything here is slow-cooked and worth repeat visits, but my standard is the brown stew chicken—the meat falls off the bone into a slurpy, sweet, and richly-spiced roux. Order the mac 'n' cheese and cabbage as sides, and let it all swim together.
With one of the city's most forward-thinking wine programs and a menu that should encourage larger groups to share plates, The Red Hen is another place that my wife and I will save up to dine. The Italian-inspired restaurant is imaginative, but homey, and doesn't bat an eye when a couple on a fancy date sits at the bar next to some dude in shorts. The chicken liver mousse is divine, with a thin layer of fig conserva adding sweetness to the whipped goodness. The homemade pasta and mains are ever-shifting with the seasons, but the mezzi rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu and Pecorino Romano is a constant, and a local favorite. (And while we do tend to splurge at The Red Hen, you can get a hearty pasta dish and a glass of Georgian orange wine for $30, then go around the corner and get a cheap beer at Showtime.)
Meats & Foods, 247 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
Jam Doung, 1726 North Capitol St NW, Washington, DC 20002
The Red Hen, 1822 1st St NW, Washington, DC 20001
Showtime, 113 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001
On Wednesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m to 1 p.m., Greater New Hope Baptist Church will feed your soul and your belly. This is one of the great secrets of downtown D.C.: There's a legit church lunch with fried chicken and fish, candied yams, greens, and yellow cake at the checkout counter. You might need a nap after a styrofoam plate of smothered pork chops, or just a walk down the street to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and peace out in the courtyard or zone out to James Hampton's shimmery metallic foil masterpiece The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. After letting the soul food settle, Daikaya's earthy mugi-miso ramen is an excellent comedown—we're now in the tourist-y part of town, so while you should expect a line for this tiny restaurant booming reggae and '90s hip-hop, the food'll come out quick.
Union Market has transformed the historic warehouse district into an area for all things artisanal, and is well worth a browse for the Red Apron butcher shop and Dolcezza gelato place alone. But outside that main building are the polar ends of the Italian spectrum. A. Litteri's primary purpose as an Italian goods wholesaler (think olive oils, balsamics, dry and fresh pasta, deli meats and cheeses) is often eclipsed by its sandwich counter, with arguably some of the best hoagies outside of Philly, at least in the Mid-Atlantic. Its towering wine selection—literally shelves stacked on shelves—is unfussy, but full of deep cuts (you know, bottles that are real treasures), much like the extremely helpful sommelier on-site on Saturdays. When my mom visits, it is absolutely necessary that we visit him.
Masseria is our third splurge-worthy restaurant, a rich and inventive tour of the Italian coastline, with a focus on seafood and fresh ingredients. The cocktails reflect that experimentation, like the drink "Fumo di Uva" that includes brandy engulfed in black walnut-infused glycerin smoke, as do the multi-sensory desserts from pastry chef Jemil Gadea.
Just in the last six months, my wife and I moved to the outskirts of D.C., away from the noise and closer to the city's vibrant brewery scene. Atlas Brew Works' renovated bar has turned the brewery into a chill game-watching spot, and, lately, host to decibel-shattering shows by metal bands. DC Brau was the catalyst to this suds renaissance, and now shares a warehouse with Harper Macaw Chocolate Makers—that collaboration has already yielded some great results. If you like weird, 3 Stars Brewing is the most prone to unlikely tastes that go down easy. And with a brewpub in Shaw and tasting room in Brookland, Right Proper makes thoughtful, nuanced beers often at low ABVs and named for albums by Van Morrison and Earth.
Atlas Brew Works, 2052 West Virginia Ave NE #102, Washington, DC 20002
DC Brau, 3178 Bladensburg Rd NE B, Washington, DC 20018
Harper Macaw Chocolate Makers, 3160 Bladensburg Rd NE, Washington, DC 20018
3 Stars Brewing, 6400 Chillum Pl NW, Washington, DC 20012
Right Proper, 624 T St NW, Washington, DC 20001
For all the ways that 24-hour cable news, The West Wing and House Of Cards portray us, the nation's capital is really just a small town, full of music, culture, eclectic neighborhoods, and of course, good food.
From historic hole-in-the-walls to Michelin-starred restaurants, distilleries to craft breweries, and more scattered across a smattering of neighborhoods, DC's vibrant food scene is worth the trip alone to the nation's capital. Find out more about DC's food, culture, and more at washington.org.