The 9 DC Restaurants We Loved Most in 2021
A salute to the survivors of an impossible time
Usually this column is reserved for the year’s best restaurants. As we close out 2021, though, we wanted to instead celebrate those restaurants that have weathered the storm — the ones that, through a combination of hard work, innovation, and no small amount of help from devoted diners, managed to survive the repeated shutdowns and closures to continue to bring excellent food to the capital.
Anyone currently running a restaurant these days deserves a standing ovation. As we bid adieu (good riddance? a cry for help?) to 2021, these are the places we’re most thrilled are still going strong.
You’re here because… you’re a stalwart locavore, and it’s hard to get more local than Jeremiah Langhorne’s Mid-Atlantic cuisine. This spot in the once-maligned Blagden Alley has become known for its eclectic prix fixe featuring local produce and products, many of which are prepared in the wood-fired oven. It’s no wonder that when the Dabney launched takeout for the first time ever during lockdown, so many clamored to bring this Michelin-starred fare home.
You’re dining on… seasonal, local dishes with international flair, like winter radish with fried oyster and aji dulce or Chesapeake rockfish with clam velouté. Many choices are informed not only by local terroir but local tradition, such as the house-made apple butter served with Birchrun Hills Fat Cat Cheese or the whiskey-glazed Autumn Olive Farm pork. And while there’s far more of a fine dining feel to the offerings now as there was when Langhorne pivoted to takeaway breakfast sandwiches and donuts during lockdown, the bourbon brown butter ice cream with toasted marshmallow is just as cozy and comforting an option.
122 Blagden Alley NW, Washington, DC 20001 (map)
Rooster & Owl
You’re here because… thankfully, Rooster & Owl has thus far fulfilled the mission, featured prominently on its website — “survive the pandemic with our business intact” — and this is in large part thanks to support from the community, according to co-owner and GM Carey Tang. “So many things during the closure were out of our control, so we focused internally on what we know best: cooking.” By adapting to takeaway and delivery, Tang and the team showed determination and adaptability — and the result is that this restaurant remains ready to serve locals today.
You’re dining on… a hybrid of shared plates and a tasting menu featuring a whole lot of plant-based and gluten-free options and loads of international touches. Think octopus ceviche with passion fruit vinaigrette, sunchokes with pistachio, Asian pears and Buffalo sauce, or duck breast with red kuri squash and curry. Enjoy it in the dining room or on the new covered, heated patio.
You’re here because… you’re craving the abundance and conviviality evoked by this Michelin-starred spot’s name: Maydan, or “gathering place.” The menu here is known for marrying dishes from North Africa and the Middle East, much of which is prepared over its beautiful open hearth, one of the focal points of the restaurant. The other? The bar, which co-owner Rose Previte calls the restaurant’s “centerpiece,” noting that while the restaurant never closed its doors completely during the pandemic, its ambience suffered when it pivoted to outdoor dining. “It felt empty without the bar,” she says. “I cry on the regular when I see the bar full or, you know, people around the fire again.”
You’re dining on… warm, house-made flatbread with dips ranging from hummus and baba ganoush to Syrian red pepper muhammara to whipped garlic and lemon toum. On-site, the bread is always served fresh out of the oven, and you could easily make a meal just from these. But of course, that would deny you the pleasure of following this smorgasbord with Eritrean spiced beef tenderloin kebab, halloumi with dukkah and honey, or Syrian seven-spice scented lamb shoulder.
1346 Florida Avenue NW (map)
The Red Hen
You’re here because… you’ve been missing that oh-so-comfy feeling and rustic charm of an Italian joint boasting exposed brick walls and exposed wooden beams on the ceiling. “It’s an amazing little restaurant,” says chef Mike Friedman. “A glowing fire radiates the brick-lined dining room, and the restaurant takes on a life of its own when guests are there. My favorite thing about being there is to hear all the joy — the clinking of glasses, the last spoonful of rigatoni coming out of a bowl, the hustle and bustle of the bar — it’s an amazing experience. I hope it stays that way.”
You’re dining on… Campanelle with porcini crema and wild mushrooms, garganelli verde with duck leg Bolognese… Friedman’s pasta excellence shines through in his seasonal, creative combinations. While Friedman has been staying busy throughout the pandemic, notably with pop-up menus saluting individual Italian regions including Emilia-Romagna, Friuli, Tuscany and Piedmont, it’s particularly enjoyable to be dining on these dishes the way they were designed to be eaten.
1822 1st St NW (map)
You’re here because… indoor dining still has you a little nervous, and beer garden Garden District was made for outdoor dining all year long.
You’re dining on… burgers, brisket sammies, four cheese grilled cheese, fried chicken … in other words, the comfort food you crave, served alongside loads of German and American craft beers on tap. The new QR-code-based ordering system admittedly “lacks a little of the personal interaction of the old days,” says pitmaster James Waterhouse, “but allows us to run the restaurant with a leaner staff, which with the ongoing labor shortages restaurants are dealing with, is quite helpful.”
You’re here because… you have been waiting for it for so long! Chef Rob Rubba’s plant-based tasting menu, slated to appear on DC’s dining scene in 2020, was put on hold in favor of simpler takeout options when the pandemic first hit. Now, after conquering the hearts of locals with a hastily designed takeout menu, Rubba is serving the menu he’d always planned — to much acclaim.
You’re dining on… ultra-local produce and Chesapeake oysters (the only non-plant-based offering at this oystertarian establishmen aside from, occasionally, a hint of butter). On a given day, the prix fixe menu may feature savory pecan mousse with broccoli and Asian pear, winter squash cooked in a cedar sauce or cider-cooked apple with black walnut granola and fig leaf.
1440 8th Street NW (map)
You’re here because… contemporary Korean ain’t just for LA! Danny Lee and Scott Drewno have cultivated a modern yet homey Korean spot at Anju that notably proved to be Rose Previte’s first stop once she could take a breath from her work at Maydan. “It was really just a total joy,” she says.
You’re dining on… a range of dishes both traditional and innovative from Impossible meat mandu dumplings to rice porridge with curried butternut to a classic kimchi jjigae. At brunch, dig into grilled kalbi and eggs or, for a sweeter take, peaches and cream French toast.
1805 18th St. NW (map)W
You’re here because… no matter how good you got at trying out new recipes at home during the pandemic, you probably didn’t get your barbecue skills up to 2Fifty’s level. (And if you did… can I come over?) Seriously, though, 2Fifty has landed on top of so many top BBQ joint lists for good reason – it really is that good. The proof is in the pudding: This summer, 2Fifty inaugurated a new stall at Union, which means you no longer have to go out to Riverdale to dig in.
You’re dining on… Central Texas-style BBQ classics: brisket, yes, but also full spare ribs and pulled pork. Go for the Texas Trinity Tray for a bit of everything, and don’t miss the classic sides like brisket beans, mac and cheese, or cornbread.
1309 5th Street Northeast (map)
You’re here because… you need to taste the food at this Filipino spot to believe it. After being named one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants in 2016 (and years of snubs from the Michelin guide), Bad Saint remains a favorite among locals (including District Garden’s Waterhouse). After shuttering for much of the pandemic, the restaurant pivoted to takeout in June of last year, following the departure of chef Tom Cunanan. Today, this spot still wows outdoor dining and takeout options, and it also offers weekly and biweekly produce subscriptions, with pickup Wednesdays and Thursdays.
You’re dining on… Filipino classics from bringhe — a paella-like dish with crawfish and andouille — to grilled and marinated prawns. A Filipino fried chicken sandwich is an awesome option for a takeaway lunch. And many options, like the adobo (a Bad Saints classic) are vegan, and a lovely wine list ensures there’s something for everyone.
3226 11th St NW (map)
You’re here because… the Washington Post nailed it in calling this restaurant “the neighborhood restaurant more neighborhoods wish they had.” This convivial spot is known for plant-forward cuisine from chef Jon Sybert, who co-owns the restaurant with wife and service director Jill Tyler and beverage director Bill Jensen. Part of the pleasure of dining here has always been the attentive, friendly service, so it’s lovely to be able to return.
You’re dining on… an assortment of small, medium, and large plates to share, many of which are plant-based and boast a Mediterranean flair. Think carrot and chickpea panisse with Aleppo pepper or baby butternut squash with dill yogurt, black garlic and chili crumb.
1827 Adams Mill Rd NW (map)
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