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Required Eating: Washington, D.C.’s Classic Meals

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Join the locals at Old Ebbitt Grill for half-priced oysters twice a day.

Courtesy of Old Ebbitt Grill

Join the locals at Old Ebbitt Grill for half-priced oysters twice a day.

Eat your way to the real Washington at a hot dog spot, soul-food diner, Salvadoran restaurant, and more.

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Google “best restaurants in D.C.” and you’ll get lists on lists of buzzy eateries, with everything from last year’s top spot to this month’s must-tries. They’re useful if you want to dine like a restaurant critic, but for a fuller picture of where to eat in Washington, you also need to consider the classics.

While the District may have some of the country’s best new restaurants, it’s also home to several iconic spots, from a tavern founded in 1856 to a soul-food diner that’s survived race riots, crime waves, and gentrification. There’s even a half-smoke joint so famous that President Obama ate there before his 2009 inauguration, a pizza place beloved by college students for its 16-inch-long slices, and an Ethiopian restaurant that tastes like home for a large diaspora.

Next time you’re in D.C., make a reservation at an exciting new place, then spend the rest of your time with the locals at one of the essential eateries listed below.

Old Ebbitt Grill

Washington’s oldest saloon, Old Ebbitt Grill is said to have been founded in 1856 in a boarding house—one where President McKinley lived during his time in Congress, and Presidents Grant, Johnson, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harding frequented the bar. The restaurant changed locations often over the years, but landed in its current spot, across from the Treasury Building on 15th Street NW, in 1983. Today, it remains one of the city’s most popular places for Sunday brunch, power lunches, and, most importantly, raw bar happy hour.  

Segway-riding tour groups may come here to see the collection of historic memorabilia—taxidermy supposedly acquired by Teddy Roosevelt, wooden bears allegedly from Alexander Hamilton’s private bar—but locals know to drop in any day between 3 and 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., when oysters are half price. Ebbitt takes its bivalves so seriously that it even has an “Oyster Eater’s Bill of Rights,” which includes such promises as every oyster will be shucked and presented traditionally on an ice platter within five minutes of being opened. Another is that the menu will always be offered alongside a selection of oyster-friendly wine and beer, so you can count on a crisp sauvignon blanc to pair with your Kusshi from British Columbia. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, go for the Orca platter, which comes loaded with one pound of lobster, six Jonah crab claws, six clams, 24 oysters, and 12 jumbo shrimp.

Ben’s Chili Bowl

President Obama himself is a fan of Ben’s famous half-smoke.

Ben’s Chili Bowl opened on U Street in 1958, when the surrounding neighborhood was the epicenter of black culture in D.C. Before or after a show at one of the nearby theaters or jazz clubs, locals would come here for hot dogs, burgers, and homemade chili, based on a recipe that remains secret to this day. Ben’s grew to be such an integral part of the community that, following the 1968 riots and resulting curfew, it was the only restaurant in the city allowed to stay open into the evening hours.

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Since then, everyone from Cornel West and Denzel Washington to Tavis Smiley and President Obama has stopped in, eager to try the famous half-smoke—a griddled pork-and-beef sausage, served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onions, and that signature chili. Despite its celebrity, Ben’s has stayed gloriously the same over the years—the original counter, booths, and stools remain, as does the menu. For a special experience, go on a Saturday morning, when the restaurant’s resident historian, Dr. Bernard Demczuk, hosts “office hours” to teach guests about the history of Ben’s and its neighborhood.  

Florida Avenue Grill

When Florida Avenue Grill opened in 1944, it was one of the few black-owned restaurants in a segregated city. A former Capitol Hill shoeshine man, Lacey C. Wilson Sr. founded the soul food spot with his wife, Betty, as part of a lifelong dream, financing it “two chickens at a time”—money was so tight that he would cook two chickens to sell, then send Betty out to buy two more. Though they started with just two stools and a basement kitchen, the couple quickly garnered a loyal fan base that included everyone from Howard University students and local jazz musicians to Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. Since those early years, the restaurant has remained standing through riots, economic downturns, and widespread gentrification. Today’s diners come as much for the menu as they do for the original plastic stools, springy booths, pink Formica counters, and pictures of celebrity clientele that still line the walls.

Said to be the oldest soul-food restaurant in D.C., Florida Avenue Grill is known for comforting classics like pig’s feet and chitterlings, but also serves fare like barbecue pork spare ribs, smothered fried pork chops, meatloaf, and Cajun-fried catfish. The sides—candied sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cornbread muffins—are alone worth a visit, but the real move is to come for breakfast and load up on hot cakes topped with cinnamon and sugar, scrapple with grilled half-smokes, and buttermilk biscuits smothered in gravy.

Round Robin Bar

You’re bound to run into a politician or two at the Round Robin Bar.

Located inside the historic Willard hotel, the Round Robin Bar has served as the de facto clubhouse for Washington’s movers and shakers since opening in 1847. The hallowed spot was reportedly a favorite of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman as well as 19th-century Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, who famously shipped in a barrel of bourbon and introduced everyone to the mint julep (which remains the Round Robin’s signature drink to this day).

Grab a seat at the circular oak bar, amid the oak-paneled walls hung with portraits of historical figures, and order up a classic cocktail while eavesdropping on the (almost certainly) important conversations going on all around you. If bartender Jim Hewes is working, ask him about President Obama’s favorite drink—he’s worked through six administrations and knows each president’s preferences from experience.

Zenebech Restaurant

D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian community outside of Africa, and Zenebech sits at the center of it all. The family-owned business launched in 1993 as an injera (a type of sourdough flatbread) bakery, serving restaurants and markets across the Washington metro area, but it slowly expanded to takeout orders and eventually opened as a full-service restaurant in 2017. Today, you can join homesick Ethiopians at the Adam’s Morgan spot for authentic dishes like beef sambusas (fried pastries), kifto (minced beef marinated in spices, butter, and herbs), and awaze tibs (tender lamb in spicy sauce), as well as the signature injera. Watch the diners around you, then do as they do and use the injera as a utensil to scoop up delicious servings of yellow split peas, collard greens, chickpea stew, and more.

El Tamarindo

Head to El Tamarindo for authentic Salvadoran pupusas.

Established in 1982 by Jose Reyes and his wife, Betty, El Tamarindo is D.C.’s oldest Salvadoran-owned restaurant—a significant fact when you consider that Salvadorans make up one of Washington’s largest immigrant populations. The Adam’s Morgan spot is beloved for its homestyle cooking and welcoming setting, plus its long hours—it stays open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on weekends. On the menu, you’ll find authentic Salvadoran dishes alongside Mexican favorites like fajitas and enchiladas, but you’re really here for the pupusas. The stuffed corn tortillas come in nine different varieties, from frijoles con queso (beans and cheese) to revuelta (pork and cheese), are served alongside homemade salsa and curtido (a pickled cabbage, carrot, and onion slaw), and make for the ideal snack after a night of drinking on 18th Street. 

Pizza Mart

Opened in 1995, this tiny New York–style pizza shop in Adam’s Morgan claims to be the “home of the original jumbo slice.” As the story goes, owner Chris Chishti had a ball of leftover dough lying around, so he rolled it out to a bigger-than-usual, 18-inch pizza. The resulting slices proved so popular that he kept making larger and larger pies, until one day he ended up with a 32-inch pizza that became the prototype for his signature slice. Today, Chishti’s 16-inch-long jumbo slice is the chosen late-night food of college students, who start packing into Pizza Mart around midnight most weekend nights and keep the place crowded until it closes at 3 a.m. While several knock-off spots have opened over the years, Pizza Mart still reigns supreme.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords

Brunch at Kramerbooks & Afterwords is a D.C. weekend institution.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords opened amid the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 as D.C.’s first bookstore-cum-café. Some 20-odd years later, it also became known as the shop subpoenaed by Kenneth Starr for Monica Lewinsky’s purchase records. Today, it’s simply a great place for brunch, especially if you need a new read. Every weekend morning, you can find a mix of locals, tourists, students from nearby George Washington University, and even political bigwigs waiting for a seat in the glass-walled café or, in nicer weather, out on the sidewalk lining 19th Street NW. Most are there for the crab omelet or the banana johnnycakes, but Afterwords also serves a great malted waffle with fried chicken, plus buttermilk biscuits with jam for starting your meal on a sweet note. When you’re done eating, head to the back of the restaurant and into the bookstore, where you can shop for the latest best sellers and check the schedule of upcoming events.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.