Most visitors would never know it, but the Washington DC area is actually one of the best areas in the country for really authentic international cuisine. You name it, we’ve got it, from Bolivian to Chinese to Ethiopian, all fairly cheap and bringing total realness.
From the make-up of downtown DC however, the city seems to consist mostly of chain restaurants, cocktail bars and overpriced fusion places. I mean, we have the most pathetic Chinatown in probably the entire world: it’s colorful gates are flanked by a Hooters and a Fuddruckers. Not exactly inspiring.
There are plenty of great, popular mid-range restaurants in DC, but I’m not talking about them today. I’m not even going to recommend individual restaurants, just try to steer you in the right general direction so you can eat like a local in DC.
To find the really, really great food you have to look a little closer: the local neighborhoods and the suburbs, specifically the suburbs of Northern Virginia which are full of ethnic communities. For this, it really helps to have a car. Even if you don’t however, there are a lot of areas you can check out for a taste of the real, global DC. We’ve got a little bit of everything.
Here is where to direct your stomach so you can eat like a local in DC:
Did you know that DC has the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, at over 200,000? That means that there are tons of legit Ethiopian restaurants in the area, the highest concentration of which can be found in the Shaw neighborhood at 9th and U street. Here you can find about a dozen Ethiopian restaurants as well as an Italian-Ethiopian fusion place (which I definitely need to check out).
Columbia Heights- Salvadorian Food
I mainly know Colombia Heights and Mount Pleasant as the gentrifying area where all my downtown friends rent houses, but it’s also a hotbed for Salvadorian cuisine. Cheap and tasty pupuserias (pupusas are a kind of stuffed tortilla) abound as well as sit down places with cheap beer and local specialties.
DC has a couple of really great local markets with interesting food. Eastern Market is a really great place to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning shopping for crafts and local produce, as well as a place to munch at street vendors (the elusive crepe man is legendary). Inside the market, itself are a few more pricey but delicious local restaurants.
I haven’t yet been to Union Market but it’s high on my to-do list. It’s open Wed-Sunday and is a new revitalized spot for artisan food shops and eateries, including pop-up restaurants. A pretty great example of DC’s rising local fresh food scene.
Then there are the food trucks- a rising and exciting trend in DC that is going to warrant an article all its own, maybe next week. These mobile restaurants serve everything from pho to tacos to chicken satay, and many of them actually hang around downtown, making a nice alternative to eating at Cosi. You can track the many trucks on the Food Truck Fiesta website.
Unique DC Foods
When I was working on Eat The World I realized that despite having amazing food, DC doesn’t have many distinctive food specialties to call it’s own. There are a couple of DC dishes to look out for though:
The Half-Smoke– If you do end up eating at one of those ubiquitous hot dog carts around the Mall, at least order a half-smoke, DC’s unique hot dog of choice. It’s half-beef, half pork, and is usually chopped with chili. The most famous place to eat a chili dog is, of course, Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.
Jumbo Slice– available only in Adams Morgan, these are the biggest slices of pizza you will ever see in your life, bigger than your head. Sadly they are only good when you are drunk (oh but if you ARE drunk, they are delicious- I ate more of these in my early twenties than I can count).
Now: if you have a car or a friend with a car, head out to NoVa for the really good stuff (and I’m not just saying this because I am a Northern Virginian):
The Eden Center- Vietnamese Food Paradise
When I came back from Asia I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to have this thick slice of Vietnam just ten minutes from home- I am a lucky girl, let me tell you.
The Eden Center is a strip mall shopping center on the edge of Arlington and Falls Church that has over 100 shops and restaurants all catering to the local Vietnamese population. Everything from sit down full-service restaurants to pho shops to karaoke bars to bakeries to an Asian supermarket. It can be hard to know where to start, so here’s a handy article with some restaurant suggestions. Pho Xe Lua is my favorite pho place in the area.
Need More DC Tips? Read On!
Annandale, VA- Koreatown
This is a bit further afield but if you love Korean food it’s totally worth the trip. Koreatown is a 1.5-mile section of Little River turnpike that is home to over 1000 (seriously) Korean owned businesses, everything from churches to bookstores to yes, lots and lots of restaurants.
The area is definitely intimidating at first if you don’t know where to go- many of the signs are in Korean and the area is really set up for Korean locals, not visitors. But if you head here you will definitely eat like a local in DC. Check Yelp and do some internet research beforehand to help determine where you’re headed.
Spread out across Northern Virginia you’ll also find real and authentic Chinese (Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot is the only thing keeping me from dashing right back to China), Indian, Afghani, Bolivian and more.
Anything I missed? Where do you eat like a local in DC?
Headed to DC? Here are Some Places to Stay
HI – Washington DC Hostel is a comfy modern hostel located just a half mile from the National Mall. Relax in the common room, game room tv room or library after a day sightseeing and take advantage of the continental breakfast every day!
The Remmington is a fantastic option if you want to live like a local in DC. This chic apartment is located in Foggy Bottom right near George Washington University and offers all the comforts of home.
Birdhouse Bed and Breakfast is a charming seven-room BnB near Mount Vernon Metro. Each room is different and the Birdhouse Bed and Breakfast will welcome you like family.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links which means that if you click and purchase something through these links, Steph and I make a commission at no extra cost to you.