Best of Penn Quarter: Dining Guide

Creative cocktails, good wings, and sandwiches to write home about

By: Kate Nerenberg

At Proof, Adam Bernbach serves a stiff drink called the Blood and Sand. Photograph by Chris Leaman

>> See the full best of Penn Quarter guide here.

Best Cocktails

Café Atlántico (405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812). Jill Zimorski’s Salt and Lime Air Margarita ($11) bubbles with a lime-sprinkled crown that transforms a commonplace drink into a lovely libation.

Ceiba (701 14th St., NW; 202-393-3983). At this pan-Latin place, we go for the Pisco Sour ($5 small, $9.95 large), a tart Peruvian drink made with a grape-based alcohol and topped with frothed egg whites and a sprinkle of angostura bitters.

Central (1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-625-0015). The Velvet Mojito ($11) at Michel Richard’s bistro gets its pucker and spice from Velvet Falernum, a liqueur laced with lime and citrus peel, and Flor de Cana rum.

Co Co. Sala (929 F St., NW; 202-347-4265). There’s no shortage of chocolate at this restaurant/lounge. To cut through all the sweet stuff, we like the chocolate-free Alisar ($13). Thin slices of cucumber soak up a refreshing mix of Ketel One Citron and fresh lime juice.

Proof (775 G St., NW; 202-737-7663). Adam Bernbach, the new barman at this wine-focused restaurant, is partial to old-school drinks. Try the punch-packing Blood and Sand ($12)—Johnnie Walker Black Label mixed with Cherry Heering liqueur, orange juice, and sweet vermouth.

PS 7’s (777 I St., NW; 202-742-8550). Some of the most creative drinks in Washington come from Gina Chersevani. Case in point: the S’more Scotch ($12), made with dark-chocolate-infused Balvenie 12-year Scotch and a toasted marshmallow.

Rasika (633 D St., NW; 202-637-1222). The Warm Scotch Punch ($12)—honey-sweet Glenmoragie swilled with spiced apple cider and black tea—at this Indian hot spot might be the best way to beat the cold in Penn Quarter.

Best Wings

Combine an haute-comfort-food trend with a neighborhood that’s home to three pro sports teams and you get wings cooked, glazed, and garnished in endless ways.

Those who believe wings should be slathered only in Buffalo sauce should try Clyde’s (707 Seventh St., NW; 202-349-3700). The 12-piece appetizer is exactly as any purist would want it: crisp but not overly fried, with a burning heat that lingers. It comes with celery sticks and a smooth blue-cheese dipping sauce. There’s enough meat to make a full meal—for $9.25.

What do wings from a celebrity chef look like? In the case of Wolfgang Puck, who offers them in the lounge at the Source (575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-637-6100), they’re lollipop-shaped, tossed in a vinegary General Tso’s sauce, and finished with fresh cilantro. You’ll want to lick your fingers when you’re done—if only to take in every bit of the $15 plate of five.

Best Sandwiches

Acadiana (901 New York Ave., NW; 202-408-8848). It’s not New Orleans’s Central Grocery, but the muffuletta ($12) at this airy Southern restaurant is a good imitation. Layers of salami, provolone, and an olive salad are pressed tightly between two pieces of crusty sesame-studded bread.

Central (1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-625-0015). The most decadent of Michel Richard’s guilty pleasures might be the grilled mushroom-and-cheese sandwich ($15). The accompanying dipping sauce—made with Gruyère, Parmesan, two types of cheddar, and sour cream—ratchets up the indulgence factor.

Legal Sea Foods (704 Seventh St., NW; 202-347-0007). Too often lobster rolls are skimpy on meat and heavy on mayonnaise. But the ones here ($22.95) burst with chunks of lobster held together with a touch of binder and seasoned with just enough black pepper. 

At the Source, wings get a gourmet makeover with General Tso’s sauce and fresh cilantro. Photograph by Chris Leaman

Potenza (1430 H St., NW; 202-638-4444). For a smaller taste of Potenza’s oversize restaurant portions, try the adjoining bakery, where sandwiches are layered with simple, refined ingredients. A good choice is the rare-roast-beef sandwich ($7.70), which comes with slices of sharp fennel and a sweet blood-orange aïoli.

Taylor Gourmet (485 K St., NW; 202-289-8001). It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the more than 20 varieties of Philadelphia-style hoagies at this industrial-cool spot. Start with the signature 9th Street Italian ($6.90 small, $8.90 large)—stacked with three kinds of meat and 18-month provolone—or the Callowhill Street ($7.10 and $9.10), stuffed full of peppery meatballs and an oregano-heavy tomato sauce.

Urfa Tomato Kabob (740 Sixth St., NW; 202-347-1178). Tucked behind the Verizon Center, this hole in the wall turns out $5.99 doner sandwiches in fluffy pockets of house-made bread. We like the Athens version, spilling with lamb and beef shavings, lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, onion, and feta. The falafel is good, too.

Best Pre-Theater Menus

Bistro d’Oc (518 Tenth St., NW; 202-393-5444). Visit this cozy French spot for three-course pre- and post-theater menus, daily 5:30 to 7 and after Ford’s Theatre lets out. The $23.95 deal, which includes a glass of house wine, recently featured rustic dishes such as country pâté, pork chops over mashed potatoes, and chicken fricassee.

Poste (555 Eighth St., NW; 202-783-6060). Unlike many restaurants with pre-theater menus, chef Rob Weland sends out full servings of interesting dishes such as lamb’s neck and pig trotter. Even his salad is a hearty portion of fresh figs, mint, arugula, and Parmesan. Better yet, pre-theater customers—who can get a three-course, $35.09 menu daily from 5 to 6:30—don’t have to settle for a boring dessert: Five choices include a four-part tasting of salted caramel.

Teaism (400 Eighth St., NW; 202-638-6010). There’s no official pre-theater menu at this Zen teahouse, but the Asian-inflected dishes are quick, and most entrées are less than $10. Highlights include ochazuke, a green-tea soup with rice and meat or seafood, and a tuna bento box with broccoli and miso-glazed sweet potatoes. Don’t leave without a chocolate salty oat cookie.

Tosca (1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990). At this Italian dining room, pasta is sublime—try the signature carrot pappardelle with rabbit ragu—but nearly every one of chef Massimo Fabbri’s modern yet restrained dishes is excellent. The $35 pre-theater menu, available daily 5:30 to 7, is a steal considering the three courses would cost at least twice that any other time.

Best for Groups

Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949). Small plates and pitchers of sangría make this Spanish menu a good choice for bigger parties. The atmosphere is as lively as the dishes—José Andrés’s whimsical twists on traditional tapas include caviar-topped fried eggs, chorizo encased in crispy potato, and bacon-wrapped dates.

Matchbox (713 H St., NW; 202-289-4441). The only way to bypass the first-come, first-served policy—and long waits—at this popular restaurant is to arrive with a large party. Sunday through Thursday, groups of 6 to 12 can make reservations. Thin-crust pizzas with toppings such as house-made meatballs, balsamic reduction, and smoked Gouda are ideal for sharing.

Oceanaire (1201 F St., NW; 202-347-2277). This temple of seafood has a boisterous conviviality and lots of large tables. The raw bar, which includes 12 types of oysters, holds some of the restaurant’s best selections. Of the entrées, try the warming cioppino stew and the day’s fish, simply grilled with lemon. Steakhouse devotees will be satisfied with a selection of hefty steaks and sides.

Zaytinya (701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800). Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon collide in a lineup of mezze at this whitewashed restaurant that’s usually packed. Only a few reservations are available each night, but you’re guaranteed one if you book the family-style table that seats up to 22 or the 11-person round table. Crowd-friendly bites include zucchini-and-cheese fritters, Turkish flatbreads, and a spit-roasted lamb shoulder.

What’s your favorite cocktail spot?

Michael Kahn, artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company: “Rosa Mexicano (575 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-5522). Their Pepino Picante is the best drink around.”

Caron Butler, forward for the Washington Wizards: “The Greene Turtle (601 F St., NW; 202-637-8889). They have a lot of sports memorabilia, and there’s always a nice crowd. My favorite drink there is a Tuff Juice—it’s a sweet cocktail.”

Irene Barbieri, owner of the jewelry store Mia Gemma: “Co Co. Sala (929 F St., NW; 202-347-4265) has delicious alcoholic chocolate drinks and terrific hot chocolates and cappuccinos.”

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.