EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Tasty two-course lunches and dinners for under $12 a person
I've visited Washington, D.C. many times in my life - for work, to visit friends, to march in protest - but until recently couldn't recall a single meal that I had on any of those occasions. I must have eaten! I do so every day without fail. Yet the food there was never as memorable as equivalent dining in my hometown of New York or in Rome, New Orleans, San Francisco, Paris...virtually any city of note served better budget-priced meals.
Not anymore. After spending serious recent time "eating D.C.," I'm delighted to report that the capital currently ranks with the best of them, especially for frugal fare. It abounds with budget restaurants distinctive for their decor and the high quality of their chow, where you can easily get tasty, filling dinners (appetizer and entree or entree and dessert) for $12 or less, and tasty two-course lunches for under $10.
Most of these places are international in flavor, as D.C. has a large immigrant population. One of them reflects the city's proud southern roots. All are great values and a real improvement over what the capital used to offer. Here are eight different picks, each with their higher dinner prices listed (to calculate the cost of lunches, subtract $1 to $3). I've also listed Metro stops where available:
Caribbean Dreams 1836 18th Street NW, Metro: Dupont Circle
Sunny decor, a charming staff, and interesting food of the Tropics make this a top choice, especially since dinners start at a mere $10.95 for appetizer and entree. My first pick is, quite simply, one of the happiest restaurants in town. Canary-yellow walls, an infectious reggae soundtrack, and a tremendously amiable, helpful staff set the scene. Then comes the parade of tropical food, a dazzling show of virtuosity, with the cuisines of Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados all represented. For appetizers or "likkle tings" (as the menu puts it), there are sweetly addictive fried plantains ($2.95), a searingly spicy corn soup ($3), or crunchy "love patties" ($2), which come in beef, chicken, or vegetable. Jerk chicken ($9.95) is an obvious highlight of the menu, but you can't overlook the tangy Bajan BBQ chicken ($8.95) or curried goat ($9.95), especially the latter - no, I mean it, it's tender and tasty. Finish off, if you still have room, with a slice of the not-quite-Caribbean, but still ethereal key lime cheesecake ($3.50). Closed Mondays.
AV Ristorante Italiano 607 New York Avenue NW, Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown
A Washington landmark serving old-style Italian meals from just $8.50 for soup or salad and pasta or pizza. Stepping into AV Ristorante is like stepping into a scene from The Godfather: the lighting is dim, the walls a marinara red, the waiters craggy and Italian. You pass scores of autographed celebrity headshots (everyone from Cary Grant to Janet Reno to the previous Pope - he didn't sign his picture), and make your way to one of the tables, which is covered in - what else - a checkered red-and-white oilcloth. Then the food arrives, and it's simple and robust and by and large unchanged from what was served here a good 52 years ago when AV made its debut. Even the prices are old-fashioned, with soup costing $3.50, a massive salad just $2.95, single-person white pizzas from $5, and pastas starting at $6. You finish your meal, kiss the ring of the fat man in the back (just kidding), and are on your way, having emerged from this time warp a little fatter, a little happier, and a bit nostalgic for the days when an Italian meal meant spaghetti and meatballs, not tuna carpaccio over arugula puree. Closed Sundays.
Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant 2434 18th Street NW
The best in Ethiopian and the one place in Washington never to skip. Tasting menu $11.95 with meat, $11 vegetarian. Sure you can visit the White House and the Smithsonian, but you can't say you've really done Washington until you've tried Ethiopian food. It's the city's most popular cuisine - in fact, there are more Ethiopian restaurants here than in any other city in the United States. Most are scattered about the ethnic enclave of Adams Morgan, and the best of them is bustling Meskerem, three stories filled with African art and artifacts. Request a table on the top floor and ease yourself down onto one of the low-to-the-ground chairs or cushioned poufs that make up the seating (if you have a bad back, choose one of the more upright chairs on the ground level). Then order a messob, basically a tasting menu delivered to your table on a platter the size of a medium pizza. At the bottom and to the sides of the platter will be injera, bread with the texture of a damp sponge and a taste akin to sourdough, that you will use as your utensil to scoop up the stews piled on the plate. They (either lamb, beef, chicken, seafood or vegetarian stews) are remarkably varied in flavor, from the extra-spicy wat dishes to the mustard-intensive misir azifa to more gentle altichas. A truly unique dining experience.