Shopping at Almaala Farms at the Union Market in Washington.
By ANN MAH
Published: April 24, 2013
Washington’s culinary scene has traditionally been known for its power restaurants: clubby spots, often run by celebrity chefs, where political movers-and-shakers cut deals and charred steaks. But recently, the city has embraced the flip side of fine dining. Several casual spots have opened, offering fresh, inexpensive, vibrant fare that gives fast food a good name.
The Union Market (1309 Fifth Street NE), perhaps the centerpiece of this development, is a gleaming food hall in a gritty northeast corner of the city. Since opening in November, it has hosted local farmers, butchers and other artisanal vendors offering quick, casual bites.
At Rappahannock Oyster Company’s stand at the market, diners perch at a long counter to slurp Chesapeake Bay shellfish and sip wine. A few feet away, the popular area food truck, Takorean, has established a brick-and-mortar presence for its Korean-inspired tacos, while the whimsical soda fountain Buffalo & Bergen blends egg creams, floats, and cocktails infused with house-made syrups in original flavors like orange sassafras or spiced blackberry.
“There are high-quality groceries — the little farm stand sells really nice lamb chops,” said Roy Edroso, a regular market customer. “But I keep coming back for the prepared food. It’s terrific.”
Cured meats are the focus at DGS, or District Grocery Store Delicatessen (1317 Connecticut Avenue NW; 202-293-4400), a modern spin on a Jewish deli. Nearly everything — pickles, pastrami, corned beef, the Reuben sandwich’s sauerkraut, even the crowning dollop of mustard — is house-made. An airy dining room features an open kitchen, brick walls and shelves displaying jars of pickles, while a takeout counter dispenses quick sandwiches at lunchtime.
Elsewhere, it’s an actual fast-food chain that’s pushing the genre’s boundaries. Chipotle Mexican Grill chose Washington to test its new Southeast Asian dining concept, opening its first branch of ShopHouse (1516 Connecticut Avenue NW; 202-232-4141) in Dupont Circle in 2011. The restaurant features the same industrial-chic ambience, fresh ingredients and cafeteria-style service as its Latin parent. Diners combine noodles or rice with grilled meat or tofu, wok-blistered vegetables and sauces like tangy tamarind vinaigrette or searing red curry. The venture has been so successful, the company is planning a second outpost in Georgetown, as well as one in Los Angeles.
“D.C. has a very international population and a lot of new customers open to trying new kinds of food,” said Chris Arnold, the communications director for Chipotle Mexican Grill. “There are a lot of the same characteristics as New York, but without the spotlight glare.”
Two doors from ShopHouse, the bright and buzzy salad emporium Sweetgreen (1512 Connecticut Avenue NW and other locations; 202-387-9338) tosses locally sourced vegetables into creative combinations like the spicy sabzi, which mixes baby spinach, roasted broccoli, quinoa, a squirt of sriracha and chile-carrot vinaigrette. A chalkboard menu lists the provenance of many ingredients, like Maryland goat cheese or kale from Delaware. Opened by three Georgetown University undergraduates in 2007, the business has expanded to 12 Washington-area stores.
“There’s a high density of very educated young professionals here,” said Nicholas Jammet, an owner. “They’re conscious of how food is grown and raised, but they don’t want to cook.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 25, 2013