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.
Talay Thai 406 First Street SE, Metro: Capitol South
Consistently good eats in an exceedingly pleasant setting, from $11 for soup or salad and entree. I'll call it "the lemon test." At your run-of-the-mill Thai restaurant, you order that prototypical Thai dish, Pad Thai (it's noodles, peanuts, shrimp or chicken, egg, bean sprouts, and scallions), and then take a first bite - but only after squeezing the slice of lemon or lime perched on the rim of the dish. If the cook is good, you'll need a very small squeeze. Not-so-good, you order extra lemon to make the dish palatable. At Talay Thai, they don't give you a lemon slice at all. They don't have to - the Pad Thai ($7.95) here is that perfect. The same can be said for the majority of the menu from the generously portioned tom kha gai soup ($2.95) to a dizzyingly fiery green curry platter ($8.95). Add service that is beamingly friendly, a setting downright chic with bright orange tabletops, fine wood paneling, and orchids on each table, and you have a budget beauty, definitely worth a visit by any aficionado of Thai cuisine. Closed Sundays.
Oodles Noodles 1120 19th Street, Metro: Farragut North
A line-out-the-door neighborhood favorite offering Asian pasta and other assorted specialties of the Far East, from just $9.90 for a starter and main dish. This Pan-Asian paragon attracts swarms of suit-clad admirers by day, couples on dates, and families at night and on the weekends. It's partly the prices, which easily undercut the other nearby eateries; partly the polished decor; and mostly the food, which spans a numbing number of nationalities (Japanese, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian) with remarkable ease. For starters, try the spring onion cake ($2.95), a fluffy pancake crisp on the edges, with a gingery sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. For an entree, choose the lemon chicken ($7.95), a plump well-seasoned breast with just the right dash of tartness. Try the peanutty dan dan noodles ($6.95) and a meal-size soup called curry Laksa ($7.95), a fiery bowl of chicken, noodles, and still-crunchy green beans. As a nice added touch, each dish comes in a platter reminiscent of its heritage, so expect to fork your grub from lacquered red-and-black bento boxes, mini-woks, Vietnamese clay pots, or mint-green Japanese bowls. The setting? Like the food, it's a mish-mash of all things Oriental, with Balinese masks, Chinese calligraphy scrolls, ceiling light-covers made to look like Japanese screens, and bamboo, bamboo everywhere. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the space itself is so light and airy that you forgive the designer for occasional slips.
Luna Grill and Diner 1301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Metro: Dupont Circle
An eclectically decorated hangout for Dupont Circle's party crowd. Early bird special before 6 p.m.: salad, entree, and dessert for $10.95. Other times: soup or salad and entree from $9.90. Our waitress shifted her weight and stared at the decorated walls. "What does the mural mean?" she responded to our query. "It's modern society being blown up, I guess," she went on, quickly adding, "but we want you to be comfortable." That just about sums up Luna Grill for me, a quirky, fun little joint that is warmly cozy despite its colorful, lightly menacing wall and ceiling mural. The fare is greaseless, classically American comfort food, from a firm, slightly peppery meat loaf ($8.95) to Friday's blue plate special, southern fried catfish ($8.95), sided by delectable slabs of fried sweet potato and sour cream. Other menu highlights: a tangy cream of tomato soup ($3.95) in its own bowl of bread, any of the mix-and-match pastas and sauces ($5.95 and up; the marinara sauce tastes remarkably like the tomato soup, so don't pair them for a meal), and the freshly baked pies ($4.95 a slice). One last note: this is a very popular restaurant, jammed at both lunch and dinner by a young, hip crowd, so be sure to come early if you don't want to wait (you can get the early bird special that way).
Taverna 305 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Metro: Capitol South
Escape to the Greek Isles for just $10.50, covering soup and entree or entree and dessert. Thirty-five years ago, two brothers from the island of Cephalonia opened a lunch counter on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was an instant success, and by the mid-'70s the pair was able to expand, buying the building, adding a bar, and turning the restaurant into a simulation of a typical Greek island taverna, the kind with stuccoed white walls, curved doorways, and lush hanging plants everywhere. The illusion they created is so nifty that if you sit with your back to the street you'd swear you'd crossed the pond. The same will happen when you taste the food, even though the brothers are no longer overseeing it (Taverna has been passed down to two nephews). You'll be pleased with any of the Greek specialties: the flaky fresh spanakopita (spinach pie for $8.95), the slivered lamb and beef gyro platter ($8.95), the lemon-dill chicken soup called agnolika ($3.50), or any of the delicious appetizer spreads (most are $3.75). Taverna also turns out a mean rizogalo (rice pudding for $3.25).
Caravan Grill 1825 18th Street NW, Metro: Dupont Circle
Kebab house that delivers much more than the same old Middle Eastern fare. $7.95 buffet lunch, $10.95 buffet dinner, children 50 percent off. You can order all sorts of kebabs, hummus, and other typical Middle Eastern dishes at Caravan Grill. Don't. Put down your menu and head straight for the buffet table for a selection of authentic, unusual selections not often seen outside Iran. These include subtly spiced yogurt soup laced with spinach; dazzling pomegranate, almond, and chicken stew; and massive lamb shanks so tender that it's difficult to tong them onto your plate without the meat falling off the bone. Of course, the buffet changes daily, so these delights may not be on hand when you visit, but then you may get a chance to taste the smoked eggplant mirza or vegetables lightly dusted with salt, pepper, and oregano and roasted until tender. Staples of the buffet: homemade yogurt mixed with cucumber and spices, torshi (diced cucumber, tomato, and green pepper marinated in vinegar), and a number of hot relishes and pickles for an added touch of spice and vinegar. If the weather is warm enough, make your way to the restaurant's garden out back, with its twinkling white Christmas lights and hanging lanterns.
Cafeterias of power
For an inexpensive lunch on your visit to the capital city, eat where the politicos do: at one of a myriad of cafeterias, buffets, and restaurants in Washington's buildings of State. Although sometimes hard to find (purposefully so?), they provide tourists with a fascinating glimpse into everyday life on the Hill - you never know what sort of governmental gossip you'll overhear at the frozen yogurt machine! For some general indication of price level, see our Burger Meter at the end of each write-up.
House of Representatives Restaurant Room H118, The Capitol
Tops on the list isn't a cafeteria at all, but a full-scale sit-down-and-be-served establishment offering breakfasts and lunches in one of the most magnificent settings in town. In two deeply impressive rooms, with sparkling Georgian chandeliers, carved mahogany chairs, and historic paintings and prints on midnight blue walls, this is where your congressperson refuels between sessions. A cup of the creamy bean soup (a tradition since 1904) will set you back just $1.50; the "small" Caesar salad - actually big enough for a meal - is a mere $3.25; and deli sandwiches run $4.75 to $5.50. If you feel like something more substantial, the shrimp saute or grilled chicken platters are a steal at $9.95. The only downside to dining here is the hours, which can change depending on Congress' schedule. Call 202/225-6300 on the day of your visit to check times. Cost of a burger: $5.50
Dining at the Supreme Court
You have two eating options here, just across the hall from each other: a pleasant well-priced cafeteria and a somewhat cramped, harshly lit snack bar. Like the House of Representatives Restaurant, their first function is to serve the folks who work in the building, so each eatery is closed to the public for key 15-minute periods during the lunchtime rush. As for the fare, it's fresh and cheap with make-your-own sandwiches (on the cafeteria side) at just 52:/ounce, daily-changing specials such as Salisbury steak or linguini with clam sauce at around $4.95 a plate, or a cheese steak for $4.25. Cost of a burger: $2.95.
Lunch in the Library of Congress' James Madison Building 101 Independence Avenue
For a meal with a view, visit either the cafeteria or the Montpelier Room on the sixth floor. Both feature floor-to-ceiling windows, flooding these modern watering holes with an abundance of sunlight. The cafeteria, open to the public from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., has a wide variety of choices from an "international" wings bar (35: per ounce) to a number of pasta selections ($3.65 to $4.95) to all the usual pizzas, grilled selections, sandwiches, and salad bar. The Montpelier Room is a daily-changing buffet in a refined setting of white linen tablecloths and fresh flowers. For $10.75 per person, you get a gourmet salad bar, a pasta selection, and such dishes as chicken curry, stuffed tomatoes, corned beef brisket, or vegetarian pilaf. Cost of a burger at the cafeteria: $3.13
Dirksen Senate Office Building At First and C Street
Cheapest on the Hill is the cafeteria here, where you can get a grilled cheese sandwich for only $1.75, a substantial fresh fruit platter for $2.50, and a good-size rotisserie chicken entree with your choice of two side dishes for $5.50. Of course, this basement dining room has all the ambiance of your middle-school cafeteria, but if you're out to save money, you can't do better. For a slightly more upscale experience, walk down the hall to the South Buffet Room, where an all-you-can-eat meal is had for $10.85/adults, $6.85 children. Cost of a burger at the cafeteria: $2.25