Is the nation’s capital a great food city?
Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema thinks so. Last year, he ranked his town as ninth on a list of top 10 food cities (L.A. was No. 3).
He called D.C.'s reputation “obsolete,” adding: “The days when where you sat was more important than what you ate are blessedly long gone.”
It's difficult to argue with his assessment. Washington and its suburbs are home to an increasing number of establishments that should please even the fussiest gastronomes, who, if they bother to visit, will have to conclude that our long national nightmare — 200-plus years of mediocre food in the nation's capital — is over.
During a summer trip to Washington, D.C., with my daughter, Madeline, I was determined to compile a food and drink itinerary that relied, in part, on those who believe the city’s cuisine should be celebrated.
Taking recommendations from those friends, relatives and critics, we made reservations for some of our meals; other culinary experiences were a matter of serendipity or convenience.
That mix of planning and stumbling around allowed for a series of culinary forays that varied, from old school to contemporary (and back) in a matter of hours.
We arrived by train just in time for lunch, and left about 46 hours later. Here's how the itinerary played out.
2 p.m. Saturday: Jaleo
Known for: The imprint of José Andrés, the Spanish chef who helped launch the small-plates revolution around the world.
Jaleo, which opened in 1993 in the Penn Quarter (part of the District’s original downtown just east of the White House), is part of his sprawling restaurant group, which includes Bazaar in Beverly Hills.
Highlights: The gazpacho was well balanced; the acidity didn't obliterate the fresh tomato, cucumber and pepper flavors. Cauliflower, sautéed with olives and dates, had a lovely sweetness, and patatas bravas, with a spicy tomato sauce and aioli, reaffirmed our obsession with potato products.
Vibe: The brightly colored dining area suggested "party," attracting a healthy mix of tourists and locals. A nearby couple chatted us up, dispensing advice on what we might do — shops, galleries, museums — after lunch. Their graciousness, the food and the attentive wait staff made for an auspicious start.
Conclusion: Go. Engage. Order many small plates.
Info: 480 7th St. N.W.; (202) 628-7949, www.jaleo.com/dc
8 p.m. Saturday: Fairfax Grille & Lounge
Known for: Its location in the Fairfax at Embassy Row hotel, which opened in 1927 and has undergone several name changes and transformations since then. True to its name, the hotel is within walking distance of many embassies.
Guests have included Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra and Samuel L. Jackson. Former Vice President Al Gore lived here as a child when the Fairfax was both a residential hotel and a stop for temporary visitors.
Highlights: Many of the hotel’s public spaces have a mid-’60s feel: wood paneling, stately chairs and elegant flower arrangements. The Grille & Lounge sports a nautical theme with models of various boats displayed on the walls. We toasted the theme with whiskey sours.
Vibe: Every season of “Mad Men.” As I walked through the hotel, I found it easy to imagine what the scene might have looked like 50 or 60 years ago — men in suits and women with hats and gloves, sipping Manhattans and martinis in a Lucky Strike haze.
Conclusion: Come with a vivid imagination and an appreciation for plush rugs and lots of wood.
Info: 2100 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.; (202) 293-2100, www.fairfaxwashingtondc.com
9 p.m. Saturday: Obelisk
Known for: Some of the best Italian food in the city, according to the Post’s Sietsema and other D.C. foodies.
Highlights: We had been warned not to fill up on starters but were powerless to resist the rustic bread, burrata and crostini, lamb lollipops and zucchini with red wine vinegar and mint. After all that, we plowed through our other courses, including a memorable gnocchi drizzled with pesto and thin slices of tender beef served with rapini.
Vibe: By 9:30 p.m., most of the seats in the small, elegant space were occupied by assorted diners, including millennials and professor emeritus types. The wait staff — all women — provided knowledgeable, leisurely service.
Conclusion: Turn off your phone and stay awhile.
Info: 2029 P St. N.W.; (202) 872-1180, www.obeliskdc.com
9 a.m. Sunday: Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe
Known for: A beautifully curated selection of titles, a tiny bar and a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating.
Highlights: We had stopped at Kramerbooks for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, abandoning ourselves to browsing through towers of books, then returned the next morning for breakfast.
My longtime friend Geraldine and I sat outside and picked at fruit, oatmeal and omelets as we powered through 90 minutes of gossip, mutual outrage and career advice.
Vibe: Kramerbooks was hopping on a Saturday afternoon, but 17 hours later, the mood among patio diners was Sunday-morning appropriate. Patrons used their indoor voices, murmuring about the glories of summer mornings in the District of Columbia before temperatures started to climb.
Conclusion: What's not to like?
Info: 1517 Connecticut Ave. N.W.; (202) 387-3825, kramers.com/cafe
11 a.m. Sunday: Mintwood Place
Known for: French-American cooking, first-class desserts and pressed-tin-ceiling-meets-neo-farmhouse decor.
Highlights: With six in our party (including a niece and her husband and a nephew and his girlfriend), we were able to sample deviled pickled eggs, wood-grilled shishito peppers, brioche toast with apple pear butter, spring vegetable succotash with an egg over easy, a croque-madame and steel-cut oatmeal with rhubarb.
The vibe: Happy. Busy. It's an Adams Morgan hangout and a national destination, attracting diners of all ages sitting at casual tables inside and out or clustering around the bar as they wait to hear their names called.
Parents chased toddlers while the childless ordered mimosas and beers, delivered by servers who somehow knew when we needed them.
Conclusion: Take any reservation you can get. Hope for a table by a window.
Info: 1813 Columbia Road N.W.; (202) 234-6732, www.mintwoodplace.com
2 p.m. Sunday: The Cakeroom
Known for: A hot pink exterior (with bits of white trim that suggest butter-cream frosting) and refrigerated cases displaying red velvet cupcakes, three-berry pie, lemon lavender cake and other go-big-or-go-home items.
Highlights: The tiny Adams Morgan storefront was an ideal place to meet a friend for caffeine and sugar. Most customers were in a take-out mood; a handful lingered in the small downstairs area or went upstairs where there's a smattering of tables and chairs. We ordered six items (some to take home, of course) and departed in a sugar coma.
The vibe: Fondant meets gingham.
Conclusion: Enter at your peril. It's unlikely that anyone can leave without giving in to the siren call of sucrose.
Info: 2006 18th St. N.W.; (202) 450-4462, www.cakeroombakery.com
7 p.m. Sunday: Beuchert's Saloon
Known for: Its location in the long, narrow building where John Ignatius Beuchert opened a bar toward the end of the 19th century.
Highlights: The menu, which emphasizes locally sourced ingredients, featured pub snacks of the moment, including a deviled egg plate and roasted bone marrow. “Whole meals” included seared sea scallops and an unexpected (and noteworthy) bánh mi sandwich.
The vibe: Turn-of-the-last-century shotgun shack meets Silver Lake patio.
Conclusion: If you like waiters who don’t have self-esteem problems and if you appreciate the look and feel of 125-year-old brick, this is the place.
Info: 623 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E.; (202) 733-1384, beuchertssaloon.com
11 a.m. Monday: Thunder Grill
Known for: Location, location, location. Thunder Grill is tucked into a space adjacent to the main hall of Union Station, a major transportation hub/shopping mall where the rushing crowds, Beaux-Arts-style architecture and a 96-foot-tall ceiling will reaffirm your notions of early- and mid-20th century travel and glamour.
Highlights: Most of the restaurant, which lists Southwestern dishes for lunch and dinner, hadn’t opened when we sat down, but there was a handful of breakfast tables in the hall — the ideal perch for people watching. The standard offerings — omelets, waffles, French toast — were sort of beside the point. We ordered bagels with lox and watched the crowds rush in and out.
The vibe: Union Station pulsed with energy that emanated from tourists in flip-flops, power-suited lobbyists and groups using Union Station as a meeting place, including 20 or so gun control advocates.
Conclusion: Go for the movie-set-worthy vistas.
Info: 50 Massachusetts Ave. N.E.; (202) 898-0051, arkrestaurants.com/thundergrill