One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. — Virginia Woolf
Whew! The restaurant scene in Washington, D.C., has been a roller coaster ride the last three years, and in 2016 it was almost impossible to keep up with the new diners, pop-ups, distillery pubs, and brew houses. An influx of talented chefs, chef-driven restaurants, and diverse cuisines has changed the city’s culinary landscape.
After years of mediocre dining options, the public is no longer willing to settle for overpriced, poorly prepared food and inadequate service – and guess what? Chefs and restaurant owners have been giving them what they want. Dining well is a priority, and as a result, D.C. is no longer “bush league,” and Washington has the numbers and awards to prove it.
There are now more than 2,233 places to eat and drink in D.C., and according to Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), these busy spots account for nine percent of the employment in the city – a whopping 61,600 jobs – and projected restaurant sales in D.C. in 2016 are close to $3.6 billion.
Critics and experts have showered Washington’s food scene and restaurants with accolades and praised innovative chefs and restaurant owners for their originality, expansion into previously marginalized or ignored neighborhoods, and passion for independent, chef-driven restaurants. And 2016, was a banner year that propelled the city into the international spotlight—twelve restaurants received Michelin stars; nineteen were included in Michelin’s Bib Gourmand category, Bon Appétit Magazine named Washington, D.C. the 2016 Restaurant City of the Year, and Zagat awarded it the title of Hottest Food City of 2016.
If you’re not sure how to keep up, relax. We’re here to guide you; just think of us as your personal food gurus and going out experts. We’ll make sure you know what’s hot, what’s not, and what’s trending.
Here’s our list of the six best restaurants that opened in 2016.
In Japan, loud slurping followed by exclamations of “Oooiiishii!” (“delicious”) aren’t bad manners but high praise for the ramen at hand. In 2016, hungry hordes of Washingtonians headed to Bantam King for their personal “Oooiiishii!” moments. What they got was a feast for their bellies and their eyes – Bantam King is a pop art version of tasty Tokyo fast food with a quirky sense of humor.
The limited but focused menu exemplifies Japanese cuisine’s approach to making a few ingredients mouthwatering. Executive Chef Katsuya Fukushima’s ramen comes in several intensely flavored styles of chicken or miso broths served with curly custom-made Sapporo noodles, sent from Japan, topped with garnishes ranging from pulled chicken to corn, nori, and menma (dried, fermented bamboo shoots).
Chicken is the “thing” here, and with each taste of Bantam King’s crispy Tokyo-style fried chicken, or crispy chicken sandwich, Kentucky Fried memories will quickly fade into the past.
Meal service:Dinner, Lunch
Atmosphere:Casual, Gourmet, Relaxed, Quirky
Walk into RPM Italian to be transported from the noise and clamor of the city. The design seems more Milan than metropolitan D.C., and it certainly looks nothing like other pasta restaurants or steakhouses in Washington. The design is elegant and sexy, with details meant to create a more comfortable dining experience (like soundproofed floors and ceilings for intimate, noise-free cocoons at banquettes and tables).
Due to the restaurant’s co-owners, TV celebrities Bill and Giuliana Rancic, along with the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, RPM Italian is assumed to have a snooty vibe or cater exclusively to beautiful people, but that’s not the case. Instead, fresh handmade pasta is the star (as in Paolo Atti & Figli in Bologna), with complementary fresh fish, steaks, and classic Italian-American dishes. A smart wine list features Italian wines from small, artisanal producers; the Apero bar oozes sophistication; and the long, white Carrara marble bar turns out some of the best cocktails in the city.
Meal service:Dinner, Lunch
Atmosphere:Gourmet, Modern, Relaxed, Romantic, Stylish
Ottoman Taverna is a good example of substance superseding style, never to be confused with shabby Doner kebab shops. Touches of marble, white lattice, and camel-colored plush leather seating make it hard to shake the impression of dining in a Turkish sultan’s palace. But don’t be intimidated by the drop-dead gorgeous décor – the mood and service are relaxed and friendly.
Many of the servers are from Turkey and offer well-informed suggestions of what to eat and drink. The menu is a mosaic of Turkish flavors and textures that offer salty, sweet, sour, and savory tastes: meze, entrées, pideler (flatbread-like pizzas), soups, and salads.
Go with a few friends and order some dishes to share, beginning with a chef’s platter of meze, köfta made with ground lamb, beef, and bulgur wheat, and classic lahmacun pide made with ground lamb, lettuce, and tomatoes. A balanced wine list includes selections from Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, and Israel complemented by equally exciting cocktails with a nod to Turkey’s regional flavors.
Meal service:Dinner, Lunch
Atmosphere:Modern, Gourmet, Relaxed
Timber’s story on their website reads that “founders, Washington native Andrew Dana and Annapolis local Chris Brady met and became buddies who shared two primary passions in life: pizza and basketball.” Later, they were joined by Dani Moreira, a talented Argentine chef, who helped them create a three-location artisanal pizza business with a soul.
From the minute Timber opened its newest Petworth location, it has been packed with local residents in search of much-needed delicious nourishment. Despite the constant jangle of the phone and busy take-out line, the place is cozy and familiar with an adorable bar that makes satisfying drinks.
Go for the atmosphere and stay for the wood-fired pizzas. Each handmade pie is made with hand-milled semolina flour from Italy and comes out of the oven paper-thin, properly scorched, and topped with fun combinations. Don’t plan on sharing, though – the pizzas come in one size: eight inches. Try the Pretty in Pepperoni (made with tomato sauce, pepperoni, and provolone and mozzarella cheese), or go vegetarian and try the Green Monster (pesto, fresh mozzarella, kale, feta, and zucchini).
Atmosphere:Casual, Cosy, Gourmet, Quirky, Open Kitchen
For an exciting dining experience done right, look for any restaurant from Ashok Bajaj, the restaurateur foodies love to love and owner of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. Bajaj creates dining experiences, not restaurants, and he’s the force behind The Oval Room, Rasika, and now Bindaas.
This new 50-seat restaurant and bar is a nod to the fabulously innovative street food, architecture, and urban art found in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Jaipur, and each dish is brilliantly interpreted by Mumbai native and James Beard Award-winning Chef Vikram Sunderam.
According to Bajaj, “The name Bindaas originated in India in 1993 and means independent, cool and carefree, just like I envision this new concept to be.” The menu is bursting with flavor and includes the infinite range of spices and seasonings typical in Indian cooks’ well-stocked masala dabbas, or spice boxes.
Bindaas’ menu includes a variety of vegetarian and meat-centered chaat (snacks), like masala popcorn with coriander, curry leaves, and cumin; pathar gosht kebabs with lamb, saffron, and cashew sauce; kathi (flat bread) made with chicken tikka masala; and fluffy rolls of pao bhaji, a slightly chunky vegetable purée with ginger and masala. A well-rounded drinks list complements the cuisine and includes international wines, Indian beer and whisky selections, and green mango and Asian-themed cocktails.
Meal service:Dinner, Lunch
Atmosphere:Casual, Gourmet, Stylish
Espita Mezcaleria is always filled with passionate food lovers. They go for the beauty and timelessness of regional Southern Mexican cuisine, especially from Oaxaca, and for smokey mezcal and cocktails.
Master Mezcalier Josh Phillips is the owner and brains behind the mezcal and tequila selections, while Executive Chef Alexis Samayo runs the kitchen. His menu features soups, fundidos (essentially Mexican fondue), five different ceviches, seven Oaxacan moles, eight tacos, shareable plates, tlayudas, and hand-pressed tortillas made with freshly ground flour. Most portions are large and easily shared, like the spectacular negro mole (made with lamb belly) and the classic tlayuda (refried beans, avocado, pickled jalapeño, salsa roja, and Oaxacan cheese).