You've been able to get a good bowl of chili or a fancy steak dinner in Washington, D.C. for years, but passionate locals, in true Beltway fashion, have been lobbying for more. And they've gotten results, thanks to a growing number of lively casual and fine-dining spots with an emphasis on sustainable foods and creative cocktails. Here are five of our favorites.
Chef Harper McClure studied Martha Washington's cookbooks and Thomas Jefferson's menus from his legendary epicurean dinner parties at Monticello to create modern versions of 18th-century meals. Dishes such as Chesapeake rockfish with Carolina Gold rice are made with ingredients sourced from farms within a day's drive of the city. The interior of the restaurant adjacent to The Madison Hotel feels elegant without being stuffy.
What to Order: Budget-minded diners can get a taste of the good life (circa 1776) by ordering the charcuterie board ($16) with nine meat variations including house-cured duck hams. 1177 15th Street NW.; thefederalistdc.com
Brought to you by the same guys who created Capital favorites such as DC Coast and Ceiba, this modern take on a classic American tavern offers a menu that runs the pub-grub gamut. Offerings range from a barbecue-braised short-rib burger with sweet-and-spicy slaw to the poached, chilled lobster from the well-stocked raw bar.
What to Order: Try one (or more) of the 99 different American beers displayed on the wall, and pair it with a pretzel baguette ($2) served with beer-mustard butter. Late-night crowds keep the evening going by dropping in at 10 p.m. for the made-for-splitting special dish ($12) that ranges from meatloaf to chicken-fried steak. We're also partial to "The Pig Board" with biscuits, pickled cherries, and daily-changing hams (served appropriately on a pig-shaped board, $12). 2200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.; districtcommonsdc.com
After working as executive chef at Jose Andres' Zaytinya restaurant and participating in the Top Chef television show, Mike Isabella opened one of the most buzzed-about D.C. restaurants of 2011. (He has three more eateries on the way.) A bustling joint in Chinatown, Graffiato reflects the chef's New Jersey and Italian upbringing—hence the Jersey Shore pizza with fried calamari, cherry pepper aïoli, and provolone.
What to Order: If you're looking for simple comfort food, try the Classic pizza ($14) with melted cherry tomatoes. Or, if you're feeling adventurous, spice things up with the wood oven-roasted, marinated octopus ($13). Better yet, let Mike choose your meal with the chef's tasting menu ($55/person). 707 Sixth Street NW.; graffiatodc.com
This tiny, 28-seat Thai eatery in Dupont Circle is chef Johnny Monis and wife Anne Marler's alternative to their Greek spot, Komi, next door. More an extension of their own kitchen than a traditional restaurant, Little Serow (rhymes with arrow) reflects the couple's love of the sticky-rice-and-lots-of-spice cuisine of Thailand's Isaan region, and Anne's penchant for the country and bluegrass music that booms from the restaurant's speakers. "We cook food that we crave on our days off," Anne says. "Food that's vibrant, salty, spicy, sour, and funky."
What to Order: The prix fixe menu ($45) features seven dishes such as Ma Hor (sour fruit, dried shrimp, and palm sugar) and Si Krong Muu (pork ribs, Mekhong whiskey, and dill). Johnny and Anne open their doors precisely at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It's first-come, first-served at Little Serow's one long table—so make sure you arrive early to get a seat. 1511 17th Street NW.; littleserow.com
The Columbia Room
Open the sliding door of this reservations-only place next to The Passenger bar and you enter a 10-seat joint displaying jars of herbs, roots, and other ingredients ready to be stirred into great cocktails. Owner Derek Brown mans the bar with head bartender Katie Nelson, a North Carolina native with a talent for creating drinks that are twists on classic concoctions.
What to Order: The prix fixe menu ($67) gets you a welcoming drink, a seasonal cocktail served with a plate of bite-size hors d'oeuvres, and a made-to-order specialty drink. 1021 Seventh Street NW.; passengerdc.com