Most chefs' “off” hours are different from most other professionals' non-working time (lawyers usually aren't required to consume law during their downtime, for example, but chefs must eat). When chefs decide to spend their rare unscheduled time, cash, and calories dining at another restaurant, it is a high compliment (or an experiment that will yield a good story).
This is a running list of DC places this chef wants to go on his days off. They are not listed in any particular order.
We are pleased to start including the voices of other trusted chefs to identify the places they eat on their days off.
Pros: I have worked with Chef John Yi on a collaborative event. I have dined at his joint three times. Each of those occasions was unquestionably superlative. Get the “chefs choice” sushi menu. It is the best sushi experience I have ever had in DC.
Cons: Limited wine list and the décor feels somewhat discordant to spending $100+/person.
Bottom Line: worth it! The best sushi experience I have had in DC...and maybe anywhere.
Pros: I love pizza and I think this is the best pizza joint in the DC area by a country mile, but of equal import is the incredibly kind service. The best Caesars salad I have had in DC. The hummus and lamb dish inspired me to make my own version (that is a really high compliment from this chef). Let me be really clear, I have dined at every “highly regarded” pizza place in the area, Martha Dear smokes em' all.
Cons: their only heating element is the pizza oven, so some people might consider their menu limited...those people would be afflicted with a narrow mindset. The well-curated wine program is stocked with boutique labels that might require assistance from their charming staff.
Bottom Line: I am convinced that Martha Dear is one of the best restaurants in DC based on the three metrics that matter to me: service, food, and most importantly, how I feel when I am paying the check.
Pros: The best smash burger in the area. I can tell you that the burgers are made from brisket trimmings of their sister restaurant, a great bbq joint, smoked and then griddled.
I take great joy in sharing this place with people, especially fellow restaurant pros, just to watch their reactions when they taste their first bite. Ridiculously generous happy hour. Conspicuously kind and generous service.
Cons: Upon my first visit to HEB, one of the owners recognized me as industry/a chef. He asked me for feedback about the place. I told him that all I had was that the napkins were insufficient for a burger joint. Upon my next visit, the napkins were of higher quality. While the burgers are underpriced, it can get a little spendy if you want to spend a night eating/drinking here as wine & cocktails average $13+/glass
Bottom Line: The best smash burger joint, excellent fries, and impossibly kind staff.
Pros: THE BEST SOFT SHELL I have had in DC that I didn't make myself (apologies for not crafting this list while the softies were still on the menu). Their Parker House rolls will make you want to eat bread for dinner. I've been three times and they haven't missed with a single dish. Not a single miss.
Cons: Please forgive this "moment of petty"...restaurant pricing was complicated before the disruptions of COVID and all of the attending volatility and inflation, but I still know what things cost and my checks from Nina May felt like they could have been 5% lower.
Bottom Line: I love Nina May. The cooking is precise, soulful, and soul-satisfying. NM has destination-level pricing (for everyone without FU money), and it is worth the trip.
Pros: SUPERLATIVE SERVICE! (I am not a man prone to using all-caps or exclamation points.) I often reminisce about their Wafu pasta (Japanese-Styled Italian - read about it on their website or google for yourself). The pizzas are a joy. The beverage program is excellent for cocktails, wine, and sake. This chef who usually pronounces dessert as "whiskey", doesn't miss an opportunity to have a bite of anything Chef Mary Mendoza has on her dessert menu.
Cons: The beer program is limited and I listed this "con" because this section had to have something.
Bottom Line: While I think every place on this list needs to be at the top of your dining "to-do" list, put Tonari at the tippy-tippety-tippiest top.
The Coffee Bar
Pros: Since TCB opened in 2012, I have considered it the best coffee shop in DC. They carefully source beans, make very well-crafted pour-overs, and their espresso drinks feature the expected offerings and unique pours like the honey badger and the damn-near-addictive Ameri-Cola. The staff is also conspicuously kind – an extension of the “gets it” owner, Cait (the culture of any organization, but especially restaurants, exists from the top down). Circa 2014, there was a day that I was sitting at the TCB bar enjoying a Burundi pour-over when I watched an interaction between one of the baristas and a new customer. In that moment, a core business philosophy was crystalized: you can hire people and teach them to smile and warmly greet customers, or you can hire people who do it naturally. TCB does the second thing.
Cons: Parking ain't easy. That's it.
Bottom Line: The best coffee shop in DC.
Pros: Torai represents an incredible value in sushi restaurants. Get the Sushi Lover for Two Silver platter (chef's choice of 18 pieces of sushi, two rolls – also chef's choice, and miso soup for 2) for $55...and call it a day. It is too much food for 2 people, just enough for 3 but there are 9 pieces of sushi so not as easily shared for 3.
Cons: This isn't destination-level sushi like Takara 14 is. It is great carry-out sushi if you're on the Hill or close to it. If you wish to dine in, there is very limited seating - about a dozen seats.
Bottom Line: Great for carry-out/better-than-sufficient sushi, extremely satisfying from a dollar-for-dollar perspective.
Pros: Anafre is on the short list of $ for $ best restaurants in DC. Their ceviche is modern-Mexican style and comically good. The portion size is impossibly generous too...if you're a party of two, resist the urge to eat it all because you're going to want to try as many things on the menu as possible. Don't skip the birria. Do. Not. Skip. The birria. The pizza is worth a look too...yes, the pizza at a primarily Mexican joint is worth it. And Anafre is only five doors down from one of the best places to drink in DC, The Red Derby (more on them later).
Cons: The beverage program shines in different margaritas, and variations thereof, but is rather limited when it comes to beer and wine.
Bottom Line: Dine here at your earliest convenience, come with a crew so you can have as many things off their menu as possible. Try not to giggle too much when you get the check.
Pros: The Spice Kitchen wings are a crave-inducing dish. You will think about the balance of heat with a kiss of sweet, and wonder what manner of culinary sorcery created their suya spice blend. The Jollof rice is the familiar staple you expect if you know it, and a wonderful surprise if it's your first time. You will not want to tell your Mamma how good the greens are. Spice Kitchen is also very budget-friendly/a great value, and located in mIxt food hall with La Michoacana.
Cons: I love the concept behind mIxt Food Hall (culinary incubator, art gallery, community gathering spot, and communal bar). I love most of the execution, but the bar is not the strongest element of the place. To be extra clear, I love going to mIxt. I love the Spice Kitchen. I just wish the beer program was more interesting and the wine program was more drinkable. Stick with the guava margaritas (discounted every day during happy hour) and you'll be happy.
Bottom Line: if the Brentwood neighborhood is anywhere close to your side of town, Spice Kitchen is going to be one of your new favorites. You're welcome.
Pros: La Michoacana helps prove my culinary theorum #15: Tacos and Dumplings. You can never have enough. Sure, you can have too many, but you can never have enough. Chicken, Steak, Shrimp, and El Pastor tacos are all excellent. Do not skip the birria. Indulge all of the sauces. If you need to eat on the move, their burritos are excellent “walking” food.
Cons: As noted in the Spice Kitchen section, I love mIxt Food Hall, but I wish the bar was better.
Bottom Line: If I need to explain the value of another great taco place on your list or mine, then I have no idea why you're reading this.
Pros: The Midlands is the best beer garden in DC. Their carefully curated beer list rotates often and with the seasons. In warm weather, the network of fans, pergola, and umbrellas keeps the large patio cool (at the time of this writing, I was recently there in 95° weather and perfectly comfortable outside). When it gets cooler, Midlands features a promiscuous number of fire-pits and heating elements. Wine drinkers aren't ignored at this beer hall – I love their short but excellent wine list. The food is bar food...very good bar food. And I think about the smoked ribeye sandwich...often. The Midlands has lots of TVs inside and out, and they are all-in on World Cup. The patio is dog-friendly and the place is generally family-friendly (except on game days when the joint is too crowded for small humans).
Cons: I am not impartial about The Midlands. I love this place. I love their staff. The owners, Trent and Robin, have been dear friends and two of my favorite humans since before they opened this place. I root for them.
Bottom Line: The Midlands is a great year-round beer garden that is good for so many things (families, groups, game day, happy hours, pub grub, and general merriment).
Pros: This nearly 100-year-old DC institution (founded in 1926) produces some of the best sandwiches in the area. The Rueben, Chicken Parm, and Sausage & Peppers Subs are the reigning standards against which all others should be measured. The Italian Classic is accurate to its eponymous title. I've never had any of their salads but trusted friends tell me they're great (if (under)salted for the masses). A. Litteri is also a wonderful Italian market with a great selection of wines, cheese, pasta, and other specialty items. If you're in a sandwich kinda mood, you're not going to find any place better in DC. All of their cold sandwiches can be “pressed” to make it a hot sandwich.
Cons: Parking can be a challenge. If you've had the prosciutto from The Italian Store, you'll know that A. Litteri's prosciutto is good, very good, but not the best in the area. No seating.
Bottom Line: worth the trip for sandwich aficionados, Italophiles, and anyone within reasonable driving distance of the Union Market Area.
Pros: The Italian Store is similar to A. Litteri – it's an Italian specialty store with a great wine program, lights-out-good sandwiches, and pizza (ignore the pizza). The prosciutto di parma is a wonder. I don't know how they do it, but their prosciutto impossibly tastes like it has cheese in the meat. It doesn't, of course, but it is simply amazing and not to be missed. They have two locations, the modern and very charming “new” location in the Westover section of Arlington, and the original in the Lyon Village section of Arlington.
Cons: Much to this chef's consternation, TIS has continued with their COVID change of pre-making sandwiches and only making them to order when you call ahead. Call ahead. Add mustard.
Bottom Line: TIS makes the best (cold) sandwiches in the area. Whenever you visit, get ¼ pound of prosciutto to put in your prosciutto-hole. The Westover location has a brick patio, and a few tables out front that are great for people watching. The Lyon Village location has a few tables outside but are strip-mall-charming.
Pros: Ivy & Coney is one of the best dive bars DC has ever known (not for nothing, but I know they take “dive” as a compliment or at the very least an accurate description.) The “dive” term, however, does them a tremendous disservice. The food here has always been so much better than it needed to be for a joint that is known for an inexpensive buzz and a great place to watch games (Detroit-Style pizza, ball park dogs, some of the best wings in the city, and an incredibly craveable smash burger are the places I would start.) For lovers of baseball, the charm of their commitment to the perfect game will warm your heart. The annual “Hanukkah Bar is not to be missed either.
Cons: if crowded bars aren't your thing, skip this place on the weekends (Sunday afternoon is an exception), and on College Football Saturdays.
Bottom Line: casual pub-food done extremely well for a “stealing-it” price, complimented by inexpensive drinks, and a deliberately unpretentious divey-ness.
(listed by 2 chefs)
Robin: Albi has impeccable food, gracious and kind service and is a place [Robin & Trent] go for a romantic night or just because they feel like eating good food, prepared by good people, and splurging on themselves for a night.
danny: I agree with everything Robin wrote about Albi and they were on my list too (I just had not written about them for this list yet). I will add that Albi has one of the most interesting wine programs going.
Con (from danny): This is an incredibly petty con, but one that I want to note because some people don't like or aren't comfortable talking to somms or other restaurant professionals about wine. To get the most from every good wine program, guests should consult with the people who created it, that is extra, extra true of Albi as they seem to love obscure wines
Bottom Line: Albi is the first two-time inclusion on this list and Robin and danny agree that means something. Great special occasion restaurant.
Robin: Tail Up Goat is everything that Albi is for us but in a different part of town... and different style of food, but like in music, in food, greatness is greatness.
Robin: my newest obsession that is definitely more affordable and comes with the experience that makes it such a joy for me is Yellow... yes it's the same folks as Albi but it's just so damn good. It's also special because Trent knows my love for it and also plans an afternoon adventure around it. (Let's be honest, no one wants to just drive to Georgetown without a full day planned there – danny co-signs this so hard.)
We start our morning early with a row at Thompson Boat Center (Pro-Tip: best parking in Georgetown), then have a nice stroll up to Yellow. I recommend the za'atar and labneh croissant and coconut cardamom iced coffee. Afterward, I like walking around and people-watching and then doing a pass by the Transformer Statues. If you don't know that story - it is one of my favorite stories of a showdown of power and I hope he is able to keep those statues there. Long Live Transformers!
Robin: The soup dumplings and khachapuri are delicious
Robin: The best food, service, and all-around warm fuzzy feeling I get is from Heat the Spot on Georgia Ave. These women make my day, every time I am in there. Don't skip their special hot sauce, it's addictive.