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The Off-Mall Tastes of D.C.

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

Discover some of the best food in the capital in one of the nation's oldest neighborhoods.

Photo by Caleb Wright on Unsplash

In the spring of 2018, Washington was not the city I was keenest on visiting. Besides the obvious political turmoil (which had not yet begun to snowball), D.C. seemed stiff, without the grit and grime I love most about major cities. This excursion, an odd tack-on to a rich trip in NYC with my mother, wowed me for one reason: This is a city for foodies.

Beyond the stark white buildings along the National Mall lies residential Capitol Hill – and the Eastern Market, founded by Thomas Jefferson. In stark contrast to its neighbor, this zone is full of quirky character. While the rest of the world lingers outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, head ten blocks south, and you may see a senator out for a coffee on her day off. Each street (surprisingly quiet for a national capital) is lined with 18th-century brick row houses, some painted, some bare, but none identical. Bars and restaurants are all conveniently located near the Eastern Market Station. Here’s how to make the most of this historic neighborhood.

Start with a good night’s sleep. In the morning, prepare for a day of sight-seeing with breakfast at Ted’s Bulletin, an Art Deco diner that serves house-baked pastries, including their famous tarts – perfectly flakey pastry dough stuffed with homemade jam. The joint itself is full of history: It’s named for a farmer with a passion for good food who used his restaurant to bring people from all walks of life together during the Great Depression with his open-door policy. That sentiment is reflected in the hearty breakfasts and friendly staff at this restaurant started by Ted’s children.

Before heading downtown, stop by the neighborhood’s namesake: Eastern Market. Pick up picnic supplies in the same booths that have been offering local delicacies for more than 200 years. From simple sandwiches to charcuterie plates and bottles of fine wine, it’s a true locals-only spot. (This is not the place to find personalized keychains.) Take your supplies out for a sunny day on the Mall, with views of landmarks and some of the best people-watching in the city. Whether you’re on a budget or planning a personal five-course meal, it will be a welcome break and a chance to enjoy a quintessential D.C. spring.

Ambar offers a true Serbian feast (Photo: Shutterstock)

When evening rolls around, you may be tempted by the fine surf-and-turf near the Capitol Building. For a more intimate experience, head back to Eastern Market. Tucked amongst plethora we explored earlier is a real treat: Ambar, serving Baltic and Serbian cuisine – tapas style. The robust menu includes an entire section dedicated to spreads; a delicate kaymak dip is an almost-sweet cheese spread lighter than whipped butter – or, for a stark contrast, try the hot chili urnebes (a savory vegetable dip). Light fry breads pair well with one of Ambar’s signature herbaceous cocktails.

Main courses include tuna and steak tar-tar with tomato or squid ink butter and vegetables, and veal root soup with crème fraîche. The menu includes unlimited food and drinks for $50 a person (Yes: you read that right.) This is a perfect option for both date nights and group dinners. (Warning: Ambar’s staff WILL refill your wine without asking or throw in complimentary grappa.) If you haven’t gotten your fill (you could spend the whole night here), head a block or two over to Barrel for an artisanal bourbon nightcap in one of their warm booths.

No trip to D.C. is complete without visits to the myriad of museums (most of which are free) and historical landmarks, of course. But this city’s diverse culinary scene was a welcome surprise to me. The warm spring nights lit by Edison lights and diverse cuisines that defy the rigid political partisanship of the city was proof that no place is as it appears on the surface.

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