Washington, D.C. is becoming a world-class food city, thanks to its thriving restaurant scene. In particular, there are some dishes that are not only loved by locals, they tell a bit of D.C. history as well. Here are 10 food items that you should gravitate towards when visiting the nation's capital.
Sometimes known as D.C.'s signature dish, this meaty entrée is kind of like a sausage or kielbasa; it's seared on the griddle and often covered in chili, onions, and cheese. The half-smoke's lineage is murky, but the most famous place to get it is Ben's Chili Bowl, a restaurant that opened on U Street in 1958. The restaurant itself has a storied history, staying open through the D.C. riots and hosting President Barack Obama during his term. Lines of tourists head to the original location to try a half-smoke with a side of fries.
Ben's Chili Bowl now has multiple locations, with outposts in Arlington, on H Street NE, and at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Other local restaurants that sell half-smokes include Meat and Foods in Shaw and the aptly-named Halfsmoke on U Street.
A perfect match for wings, this sauce (also called mambo sauce) is a favorite of Washingtonians. It's similar to sweet and sour sauce, but with more heat.
Mumbo sauce is often found in take-out shops around the city, like Wingo's and Yum's Carryout locations. For a sit-down option, the Hamilton in downtown D.C. sells wings covered in the tangy goodness. If you love mumbo sauce so much you want it in your own kitchen, check out Capital City's version.
As the Chesapeake Bay area is famous for its crabbing industry and Maryland blue crabs, D.C. is the perfect place to order a crab cake on a summer day.
Like crabs, this area is renowned for its oysters—and Chesapeake oysters in particular are having a strong resurgence in the bay. You can try them at places all over town.
Boasting its own oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Bar has been recognized by the Michelin Guide and has locations at Union Market and the Wharf. The historic Old Ebbitt Grill—known for its oyster selection and oyster happy hour—has become a huge tourist stop as well. Other great bets include Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Hank's Oyster Bar.
Start a day of sightseeing with a hearty breakfast of pancakes. Head to Eastern Market and check out The Market Lunch stall, famous for its unique blueberry buckwheat pancakes (served with a side of maple syrup, of course). Just be sure to arrive early to beat the breakfast line.
Georgetown Cupcake became famous nationwide thanks to the owners' popular TLC show—but because the cupcakes are too adorable to resist, the D.C. flagship continues to draw crowds to this day.
Join the line at Georgetown Cupcake on M Street for a signature red velvet cupcake or one of many other inventive flavors. Or, check out nearby Baked & Wired, a local favorite that serves up cupcakes in flavors like carrot cake and cherry.
This addictive veggie dish is the most popular menu item at Rasika, which also happens to be one of D.C.'s most famous eateries. The Indian restaurant fries its spinach at exactly 400 degrees F, and dresses up the light and crispy greens with sweet yogurt, tamarind, and date chutney.
You can find palak chaat at both of Rasika's two downtown locations.
If you're visiting D.C. and you love food, you will likely find yourself at one of José Andrés's restaurants. Whether you're into Spanish, Mexican, Peruvian, or American cuisine, the famed chef's got you covered. Make your way to barmini (attached to gastronomy destination Minibar) and order one or two of the inventive cocktails. Feeling hungry? Do yourself a favor and try the truffle butter grilled cheese.
The Mint Julep may make you think of Kentucky, but it has roots in D.C. as well. Senator Henry Clay, a 19th century U.S. politician from Kentucky, once shipped a barrel of Kentucky bourbon to Washington to help with his diplomatic efforts. He even went so far as to introduce the Mint Julep to the city via Round Robin Bar at The Willard. Made with mint leaves, Maker's Mark, sugar, and San Pellegrino sparkling water, the Mint Julep is the signature drink of this wood-paneled, leather-covered historic hotel bar.
Tibs and Doro Wat
Washington, D.C. is home to a thriving Ethiopian community, making the city a wonderful place to try Ethiopian cuisine. Awaze tibs, cubed beef sautéed in Berbere sauce, are a great option for meat lovers, while non-meat eaters can order the vegetarian samplers piled high with curried potatoes and spicy chickpeas.
In Adams Morgan, Zenebech is very popular for its doro wat (chicken stew with awaze sauce, a boiled egg, and drumstick) and homemade injera bread. Dukem on U Street is a long-running staple, and Ethiopic on H Street is another favorite.