Washington is the capital of workaholics; we leave the club scene to Los Angeles
and the never sleeping business to New York City
. But if we weren’t meant to eat late at night then why are there street lights? Not everyone in D.C. goes to bed early, so where do foodies go in the wee hours for cimmerian culinary sojourns?
Rather than offer a perfunctory list of places that stay open when the rest of the city is asleep in bed, we’ve taken the word “best” to heart and have found late night joints that are the sort patronized by chefs and restaurant industry types. Our choices prepare delicious satisfying food that is never a compromise or a last resort. Granted, not all the food may be what your mom would want you to eat, but it will be nourishing, satisfying, indulgent, and sexy; and it can pass muster with discerning prime time dining patrons too.
Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
Restaurant, North American, Mexican, $$$
Oyamel is acclaimed Spanish chef José Andrés’ salute to Mexican cuisine, and it heads above most other Mexican restaurants no matter what time it is. The vibrant décor evokes the colors and culture of Mexico
, and the place is hopping at night when crowds come in search of the late night menu
Sunday through Wednesday 10–11:30 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 10–1:30 a.m. What’s popular in the drink category? The mojito made with Dorado white rum and three signature margaritas plus $4 Mexican beers and $5 house wines.
If the taste of the seven regional tacos doesn’t swear you off the imitation drive through versions, the price will; you can buy two for just $4, and there is a style for every palate. Seafood lovers will appreciate the pescado Baja California made with seared cobia, and the Yucatan-style pit barbecued pork called cochinita pibíl is deeply flavored from marinating in sour orange, and vegetarians will appreciate the flavors of meatless taco made with housemade refried beans, sour orange requeson cheese, and Mayan salsa chiltamate.
Restaurant, Asian, Korean, Street Food, $$$
We’re bully for Bul, D.C.’s first upscale indoor pojangmacha
, no matter what time of day we eat there. If you have never tried Korean or Japanese street food, this is a good place to start. The staff makes everyone feel like old friends and Sophie; the capable bartender, is ready with intuitive food and drink recommendations if you are new to Korean food.
Bul is only open late on Fridays and Saturdays (until 2:00 a.m.) but it’s worth the wait when you need some K.F.C. or you’re having withdrawals for their seafood pancakes. Be sure to sample the steamed veggie mandu, or dumplings filled with shiitake, lettuce, carrot, onion, and zucchini; order the o-dari crispy fried squid legs that come in a huge pile and are so good you won’t want to share; honestly; and try the bulgogi tacos, it’s worth the few minutes of heat to savor the meaty flavors.
Bar, Bistro, Contemporary, Tapas, North American, American, Spanish, $$$
In Madrid and southern Spain, sherry is served in tiny bars with little nibbles of olives, Iberico ham, and other local specialties. Mockingbird Hill owners Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng frequently traveled to Spain and were captivated by the simplicity and quality of the food served.
Derek and Chantal wanted to capture the essence of the sherry bars but offer American patrons a variety of experiences that include Iberico de bellota from Spain as well as locally cured hams and duck prosciutto. Mockingbird Hill offers small plates that are complemented by the different sherry styles on the extensive list designed by Chantal whose favorite style is dry, nutty fino, what she calls her “spirit drink.” You can take a seat at the long bar and watch one of their staffers expertly slice paper thin slices of ham from the Gondola-shaped jamonero that holds the ham steady and is a fixture in tapas bars and restaurants around Spain.
New Big Wong
Restaurant, Asian, Chinese, $$$
Anthony Bourdain has made a career out of being the smart aleck bad boy chef living on the precipice of mainstream America. His travels and culinary forays often include “insider” revelations of the after-hours antics and dining habits of restaurant chefs and front of the house professionals. After hours around the same smells and tastes, restaurant workers go on the prowl for delicious but different flavors and a chance to decompress over drinks.
For years, D.C. chefs have headed to New Big Wong, and at first glance, the basement location and dark, drab interior may not inspire hunger but order what the chefs do, and this Cantonese and Szechuan restaurant will surprise you.
Local chefs like Mike Isabella and Scott Drewno know to order dishes that are expertly prepared: Cantonese lobster made with chilies, fried garlic, pork, black bean and dried shrimp; Dungeness crabs perfectly steamed with scallions and ginger; wok-fired Chinese watercress; fried rice with lobster and dried scallop; and Cantonese-style duck. Crisp skin made sweet with honey reveals bits of browned fat and melt in your mouth moist meat. The slightly sweet, earthy sauce offers hints of spice and umami soy that are profoundly satisfying. Should you be up, they are open until 3:00 a.m. Sunday to Thursday and 5:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Sandwich Shop, Contemporary, Healthy, American, Fast Food, $$$
When it’s late, and you’re hungry after hours of drinking, working, or studying you need comfort food to carry you through the night and at times like those a hearty sandwich can hit the spot. Taylor Gourmet takes the hoagie up a few notches by hand-rolling the meatballs, roasting and braising turkey, beef, and pork daily, making fresh batches of sauces, stocks, and risotto, and using crisp, flavorful bread like the Italian sesame seed hoagie roll.
For meat eaters, try the classic Philly cheesesteak with ribeye, the Federal made with Italian cured ham, pepperoni, hot capicola, Genoa salami, zesty tomato vinaigrette, fresh mozzarella, Roma tomatoes, and red onions, or try the Cumberland vegan sandwich. It’s a taste of the Mediterranean made with chick pea fritters, fresh tomatoes, tahini, and peperoncini. Taylor doesn’t skimp on salads and offers new, inventive blends of seasonal and dried fruits and nuts with baby lettuce and other fresh produce, you can also choose soups, starters, and small-batch, craft sodas.
Old Ebbitt Grill
Restaurant, Contemporary, American, $$$
D.C. may not have a distinct cuisine, but we have dozens of eateries, bars, and food places that are just as much a part of the city’s identity as the monuments, museums, and the cast of characters on Capitol Hill. Old Ebbitt Grill is the quintessential D.C. restaurant. It’s always crowded, sources the best produce, seafood, meat, and drinks, and it’s one of the few places where suited lobbyists jockey with sunburned tourists in cargo shorts for primo seats at the bar or to slurp down tasty local oysters.
Day or night, the place is always busy and later it’s filled with people winding down after parties, concerts, in search of dinner after long hours on the job. The Old Ebbitt Grill’s architecture epitomizes Victorian excess and can be pricey, but they offer some of the best deals in D.C. after 11:00 p.m. The best things to order are the juicy, grilled 6-ounce grass-fed burgers; oysters on the half shell, they are always 50% off ($1.50 each); and the jumbo lump crab cake sliders with Cajun remoulade sauce.