20 Coolest Restaurants & Concepts of 2013
January 1, 2014 @ 12:00am
Over the last few years, DC has come into its own as a serious eats and drinks town, and 2013 was a foodie stunner: 50 new restaurants opened in the spring months alone, and the pace never slowed. So what emerged as the year’s coolest restaurants and concepts? Read on to see who we think made the cut.
Please note that restauants that opened late December 2012 are included in this list, late 2013 will go into next year’s.
DRINKING WELL: DC was so fully engulfed by craft cocktails that mediocre bars felt the need to rebrand their sub-par offerings as ‘craft.’ And even beyond cocktails, DC still wanted to drink good alcohol.
TO THINE OWN REGION BE TRUE: the best openings this year in DC were driven by a commitment to local suppliers and a commitment to an authentic voice driven by tastes their chefs are passionate about.
BRANCHING OUT: DC has some fantastic restaurants and restaurant groups with long histories and deep community ties – and they outdid themselves this year with new locations and re-imagined concepts.
ESCAPE: in financially difficult times, diners crave more than just a good meal sans washing-up. They want to be transported far away – and quite a few establishments provided elaborate and charming escapes this year.
The establishments on the OnTap 20 Coolest New Restaurants list each drove one or more of these trends while embodying excellence in their work. Without further ado, here is the list:
2 Birds 1 Stone
Why: A cocktail a day keeps the doctor away.
2 Birds 1 Stone came from the team behind Proof, Estadio and the upstairs Doi Moi and distilled the city’s craft cocktail trend into a way of life. The menu features high-quality ingredients mixed into simple (but not simplistic) beverages that can be quickly made. In other words, you will not be left waiting around while the bartender preps tinctures. The space, which features a streamlined, bird-themed decor, exudes effortless cool, but the vibe is relaxed and inclusive (ie, no dress code). The frequently changing, hand-drawn menus are adorable and will probably become collectors’ items. Let’s make this craft cocktail thing permanent – and here’s hoping that the Proof team strikes again, soon. 2 Birds, 1 Stone: 1800 14th St. NW, DC; www.2birds1stonedc.com
Why: Buffalo heads.
Beuchert’s picked up a level of street cred few others in DC can claim when it opened in what was once a real speakeasy (fronted by a gramaphone store). And no, it is not a gimmick. Sure, we admire the handcrafted walnut bar and the gargantuan buffalo heads looming overhead. We swoon over the classic cocktails. But what we really love is that most of the restaurant’s ingredients come from East Oaks Organics Farm in Poolesville, MD, which is owned by Beuchert’s partner Brenden McMahon. How much more local can it get? Beuchert’s Saloon: 623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; 202-733-1384;www.BeuchertsSaloon.com
In 2013, we learned that Buffalo Trace was going to be in shortage, and that Maker’s Mark cannot get away with sneakily lowering its ABV. America’s demand for whiskey in all its forms spiked to insatiability, and Black Whiskey swept onto the scene to help take care of DC with almost 70 options behind the bar. With edgy music offerings ranging from live bands to punk rock karaoke, this is not a cocktail lounge, but the Old Fashioneds have been getting solid reviews. Black Whiskey: 1410 14th St. NW; DC; 202-800-8130; www.blackwhiskeydc.com
Why: Epic. Finally.
Epic. That one word summarizes everything about the Bluejacket complex. The oft-delayed, heavily-anticipated opening. The soaring ceilings, full-production brewery and stunning collection of brews. Beers that even non-beer drinkers (me) love. Neighborhood Restaurant Group had created a locally oriented empire (which includes Birch & Barley and Churchkey), but they rose to another level with their brewery in Navy Yards. Do not mistake the accompanying restaurant for a brewpub (most of which exist to sop up excess booze in your stomach). Run by former Vermillion chef Dan Hahndorf and focusing on beer pairings, Arsenal is a dining destination in its own right. Pasta made using grain left over from the brewing process? Yes, please. Bluejacket Brewery & Arsenal Restaurant: 300 Tingey St. NE, DC; 202-524-4862;www.bluejacketdc.com
Why: Ramen on a plane.
A few years ago, I met Akito, a Japanese SAIS student who disliked DC for two reasons: Metro escalators that didn’t work and the conspicuous absence of his favorite drunk food: ramen. No, not your sad dorm room staple, but the rich, complicated, multi-layered feast that heals the soul (and your hangover) that can be found across Japan. While the escalators are still sputtering, DC is now awash in high-quality ramen joints. If Akito had not gone home, I think his favorite remedy to home-sickness would be Daikaya, which flies its wheat noodles in from Sapporo, Japan, and lets them ‘age’ for a week before serving. With an edgy attitude and accompanied by pounding music, the menu just offers five ramen variations – I like the spicy miso – and the option of gyoza (dumplings) on the side. Upstairs from the noodle shop is an ‘izakaya’ where you can have a Ricky-San (gin and green tea soda) and some Japanese bar snacks. Daikaya: 705 6th St. NW, DC; 202-589-1600; www.daikaya.com
Eat the Rich
Why: Cocktail pitchers, local oysters.
Derek Brown should just get it over with and open an eponymous bar. The clever names are nice, but DC is obsessed with him (the brains behind The Passenger, Columbia Room, Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency). And for good reason: his partnership with local star Rappahannock River Oysters is just his latest venture to feature creative beverages and high-quality, uncomplicated, locally-sourced food. The pitcher cocktails are available by the glass as well (and they’re made to order, not pre-mixed), but the pitcher is more fun. Eat the Rich: 1839 7th St. NW, DC; 202-316-9396; www.etrbar.com
Why: Airfare to Italy is too $$$.
At Ghibellina, you cut your own pizza with shears, after it has had a chance to rest. Cutting it in the kitchen allows the oils to seep under the crust, prematurely destroying its crispness. Thus do the restaurant’s two owners, Ari Gejdenson and Ralph Lee, impart Italian wisdom to 14th Street pizza seekers. The beautifully inviting restaurant is named for a street they once lived on in Italy (while they ran and worked in restaurants there), but the pair are actually native Washingtonians and childhood friends, so you are supporting locals while enjoying your escape. PS: Gejdenson and Lee also own Acqua Al 2 and the adorable Harold Black, both at Eastern Market. Ghibellina: 1610 14th St. NW, DC; 202-803-2389; www.ghibellina.com
Why: A permanent theme party.
A good theme party is the ultimate escape, and Kabin ups the ante by giving DC an apres-ski every night – after all, everyone goes to Aspen for what happens after a day on the slopes, right? Kabin layers on other themes to spice things up, including its ‘Decades Happy Hour’ on Wednesday nights – every hour of music corresponds with a different era (take a guess what they play at, say, 8pm?). Anyway, skip the skiing part, get your spiked hot beverage from your ski-booted waitress and settle into the Nordic-hued, firelit party. Kabin: 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; 202-810-2770; www.kabindc.com
We have good French food in DC, but we we did not have France (outside the French Embassy, that is) – until Le Diplomate. The build-out cost $6.5 million, but the result is a little piece of Paris – the patio chairs just need to face out towards the sidewalk to maximize 14th Street people-watching (why do Americans feel compelled to face each other when they dine?). But with its charming outdoor seating, drool-worthy bread station, and beautifully-executed brasserie menu, this is easily the best stay-cation in the city. PS: the brunch desserts are too beautiful to eat, except they are also too delicious to leave untouched. Le Diplomate: 1601 14th St. NW; 202-332-3333; www.lediplomatedc.com
Why: Green is the new black.
Mad Momos takes ‘local’ to a whole new level: locally sourced fixtures and furniture are from salvaged, green materials; the bars and roofdeck were built using reclaimed wood from the restaurant’s original structure; and local art adorns the walls. Now, enjoy your beer and momo (which is a Himalayan dumpling) with a clear conscience – and with a glimpse into what many other restaurants are doing when they construct their spaces. On the weekends, brunch on the cardamon French toast while sipping ‘mad-mosas.’ Mad Momos Beer Garden: 3605 14th St. NW, DC; 202-829-1450;www.madmomos.com.
Why: Get a key to Mother Russia.
New York, London, Moscow: the hottest cities in the world have a Mari Vanna and DC has finally joined their ranks. If the quaintly costumed staff like you, they’ll hand you a key to open the front door on private party nights – at any location. The food has lots of dill and cream, just like they do it in Mother Russia, your babushka grandmother (if you had one) was in charge of the interior decoration, and the bar features a rotating selection of 70 house-infused vodkas. The horseradish infusion has been getting surprisingly good reviews – but I’ll stick with, oh, ANY of the fruit infusions. Mari Vanna: 1141 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; 202-783-7777; www.marivanna.ru
I thought sherry was just for my 90-year-old maiden aunt (if I had one), but I was wrong. DC’s favorite mixologist power couple, Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng (she formerly of Tabard Inn), have de-musted Sherry’s reputation and turned it into an elegantly edgy choice for young drinkers. Order the very educational flights and have the bartenders explain to you in detail what you’re tasting — Sherry ranges from instantly drinkable to an acquired taste, depending on its age and maker. Accompany your edgey drink with some duck prosciutto, and you’ll be the coolest imbiber in the city. PS: the bar’s oft-overlooked secret gem is the gin-and-tonic on tap, which is stunning. Mockingbird Hill: 1843 7th St. NW, DC; 202-316-9396; www.drinkmoresherry.com
Why: Worth the risk.
High quality, locally-focused restaurants have become the ultimate driver of revitalization in neighborhoods across DC, and Mothership is leading the way in Park View with its foodie heart and liquid courage. Bacon & Basil Wrapped Tenderloin of Rabbit, anyone? The cocktails are as creatively delicious as they are reasonably-priced; I’ll go back for the house-infused apricot brandy and half-price happy hours. The decor is dominated by local, repurposed materials and feels more hippie than hipster – the bulletproof Plexiglass that shielded the previous tenant’s cashier is now a lamp over the communal table. Mothership also represents another trend that picked up in 2013: food trucks (in this case, the popular sandwich purveyor El Floridano) expanding into bricks-and-mortar.
Mothership: 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; 202-629-3034
Petworth Citizen and Reading Room
Why: Drink well, be smarter.
This establishment appropriated the name of an old-time newspaper — but then elevated itself from appropriation to homage with the addition of a free reading room. As befits the newest establishment from the co-founder of The Passenger and Room 11, Petworth Citizen offers smartly made cocktails, and whatever is in the punchbowl is not to be missed. The menu features fancy comfort and bar food (whoever thought up the ‘s’mores-waffles’ is a genuis). Just don’t spill anything on your books, or you’ll be sent back to your college library. Petworth Citizen and Reading Room: 829 Upshur St. NW, DC; 202-722-2939
Why: Escape from home.
Top Chef’s Brian Voltaggio finally came to the city in 2013 with the hotly anticipated Range, a sprawling 14,000-foot ode to the taste buds that includes one of the most unusual cocktail menus in DC. The scotch-based “Vegan Sacrifice” features beef ice; I prefered the bracing East Sea (gin, St. Germain, kombu broth, hellfire bitters). That, or the chartreuse on tap. Even though it is tucked away in a mall, people dress up a little more for Range, and the dining room is reminiscent of an upscale cruise ship – this is not the mall food court frequented by your younger self. Range: 5335 Wisconsin Ave. NW, DC; 202-803-8020; www.voltrange.com
Why: Home-cooking that died and went to heaven.
Red Hen is deceptively simple. It’s comfortable, accessible, unintimidating. The three-sided bar keeps the room buzzing, and the food is what you would make – if you could. The house-made pasta and seasonal menu is the star, along with the neighborhood-drawn staff and carefully curated wine list. Red Hen: 1822 1st St., NW, DC; 202-525-3021; www.theredhendc.com
Why: Popcorn soup.
Very few restaurants make as personal statement as Rose’s Luxury – but the imagination that drives chef Aaron Silverman (a Rockville native) is part of the larger burst of creativity across the District. Named for Silverman’s grandmother (a “great cook” who “wrote poetry”), the space is gorgeous and inviting, and the dishes are unlike anything anywhere else – the popcorn soup with lobster really does taste like a movie theatre, and the pork and lychee salad is an unexpected joy. The locally driven menu changes according to the season and Silverman’s mood. Rose’s Luxury: 717 8th St. SE, DC; 202-580-8889; www.rosesluxury.com
Teddy & The Bully Bar
Why: Racing Presidents need restaurants.
The team behind Lincoln refuses to rest on its well-deserved laurels (or stand only on its penny-covered floor), and branched out this year to open Teddy & The Bully Bar. In honor of the conservation-oriented President, the restaurant serves simple, seasonal, locally-sourced food, with an emphasis on manly meat (Teddy loved hunting wild boar) and strong cocktails. Here’s hoping this team gives Thomas Jefferson his own restaurant soon. Teddy & The Bully Bar: 1200 19th St. NW, DC; 202-872-8700;www.teddyandthebullybar.com
Shaw transformed itself this year, and leading the change was stable-themed Thally (pronounced “Tallee”), co-owned by chef Ron Taneka, who has left his mark on a half-dozen of DC’s best restaurants. The menu is local and fresh, and cocktails incorporate house-made sodas, all reflecting Taneka’s commitment to a modern American aesthetic. Thally: 1316 9th St. NW, DC; 202-733-3849; www.ThallyDC.com
Restauranteur Jeffrey Buben has been a DC fixture for over two decades, but he’s still hungry. Since opening a block from the White House, Woodward Table (his first new restaurant in 15 years) has evolved under the motto “more is more.” We’ll take it: bottomless brunch mimosas for the yuppies, crayons for the kids, thoughtful cocktails for the city’s notoriously hard drinkers, and Woodward Takeout Food (WTF) for time-pressed feds who want more than government fat. Woodward Table: 1426 H St. NW, DC; 202-347-5353; www.woodwardtable.com.