Where to Eat Before the Show: A Guide to Pre-Theater Dining in Washington

When you’ve got an 8-o’clock curtain, there are lots of good restaurants and cafes for a pretheater dinner or a post-performance dessert.

Ceiba, in the DC theater district, has a $29 three-course theater menu weekdays until 6:30. Photograph courtesy of SimoneSez.

Looking for dinner before—or after—a show? We’ve got the ticket. Here’s a guide to restaurants and cafes in and around area theaters and concert halls.

Kennedy Center

You can’t get any closer to the stages of the Kennedy Center than the Roof Terrace Restaurant, located at the top of the performing-arts center. The white-linen dining room, with its ’60s-swank bar, overlooks the Potomac River and serves classic American fare with an eye on culinary trends (the lobster salad is drizzled with lemongrass emulsion). Portions are small enough to eat quickly, and the servers make sure you’re out about 15 minutes before showtime.

The drawback? The short menu is priced like a four-star restaurant’s, with appetizers ranging from $9 to $14 and entrées from $22 to $34. The chef sometimes creates a more affordable three-course prix-fixe menu around the current show’s theme. Who knows what he might do when the musical Legally Blonde rolls into town in December? Zero-calorie salads and bubble-gum ice cream?

There are only a few walking-distance options. The quaintly Italian Notti Bianche (824 New Hampshire Ave., NW) offers a $35 three-course pretheater menu and lets you leave your car with the $10 valet until after the show. Slightly farther away, its sister restaurant, Circle Bistro (1 Washington Cir., NW), offers a $35 three-course menu plus free parking.

Many other good restaurants are a quick drive away. The comfortable bar at the seafood dining room Kinkead’s (2000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW) is a terrific spot for anything from a round of Malpeque oysters to a pot of Thai-style mussels. But perhaps the best option is at Marcel’s (2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW), where you can get three courses of Robert Wiedmaier’s rich French/Flemish cooking for $52 plus car service to and from the Kennedy Center.

National Theatre and Warner Theatre

A wealth of choices is within walking distance of these two stages. You can hit the bar at the upscale saloon Chef Geoff’s (1301 Pennsylvania Ave., NW) for terrific—and terrifically cheap—happy-hour burgers and beer (hours vary). There are more happy-hour specials—free nibbles and $5 cocktails—in the palm-fronded lounge at the Nuevo Latino restaurant Ceiba (701 14th St., NW), which also serves a $29 three-course theater menu weekdays until 6:30. If you’re hungry after the show, the happy-hour specials start again at 9:30 and run until 11:30.

Many of the excellent pastas at Ristorante Tosca (1112 F St., NW) are given the spotlight on the Italian restaurant’s $35 three-course menu, available daily until 7. And it might not have a theater deal, but at Central (1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW), you can nosh on comfort food Michel Richard style—four kinds of burgers, airily crisp fried chicken, short ribs that have been braised for three days. It’s worth the few-block walk. Just make sure to get a reservation.

ACKC’s hot cocoas make an especially sweet finale to evenings at the Studio Theatre. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Studio Theatre

The restaurant scene around the 14th Street theater-and-arts district is thriving. You’ll have to get to Cork (1720 14th St., NW) on the early side to avoid the rush, but the wine bar has some of the best food and cocktails in the neighborhood. Chef Ron Tanaka, formerly of CityZen, puts out cheeses, charcuterie, and sharable dishes such as toasts slathered with ultrarich chicken-liver mousse, fries tossed in gremolata, and citrusy house-cured trout salad.

More seasonally minded small plates can be found at Bar Pilar (1833 14th St., NW), a darkly lit haunt with a Hemingway fixation (don’t miss the stellar drinks). On P Street are faster eats: Izakaya (1440 P St., NW), Whole Foods’ in-house sushi restaurant, and Stoney’s (1433 P St., NW), an old-school hangout for grilled cheeses, burgers, and pizza. For dessert after the show, stop in at ACKC (1529-C 14th St., NW), an open-late chocolate-themed cafe with truffles galore and whimsical hot cocoas.

Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall and Lansburgh Theatre

The question for Twelfth Night fans isn’t “Where can you eat?” It’s “Where will you choose to eat?” Practically every Penn Quarter block has a worthy restaurant. Celeb chef José Andrés has scattered many of his places around the Lansburgh: Jaleo (480 Seventh St., NW), his Spanish tapas house, is right next door; Oyamel (401 Seventh St., NW), his color-splashed Mexican small-plates destination, is across the street; and Café Atlántico (405 Eighth St., NW), which has a terrific $35.08 pretheater menu, is around the corner.

Also nearby is the Modern Indian Rasika (633 D St., NW), which has a $30 theater menu, although you’ll miss two of the star dishes—flash-fried spinach and black cod with honey and dill. Closer to the Harman are the playful American spot PS 7’s (777 I St., NW), the creative brasserie Poste (555 Eighth St., NW), and the wine bar Proof (775 G St., NW)—if you’re hungry after the show, check out the Wagyu cheesesteak on Proof’s late-night bar menu. For something quick, a bento box at Teaism (400 Eighth St., NW) or a half bird at the new outpost of the South African chicken chain Nando’s Peri-Peri (819 Seventh St., NW) fits the bill.


Arena Stage’s Temporary Homes

With its Southwest DC location under renovation, Arena Stage is running some of its shows in Arlington’s Crystal City and the rest at Lincoln Theatre on DC’s U Street. If you’re headed to Virginia, try the excellent pizza at Café Pizzaiolo (507 23rd St. S., Arlington), the good—sometimes great—rustic Italian at Roberto Donna’s Bebo Trattoria (2250-B Crystal Dr., Arlington), or a smattering of chains, such as Morton’s steakhouse (1631 Crystal Square Arcade, Arlington) and McCormick & Schmick’s (2010 Crystal Dr., Arlington). José Andrés’s across-the-river branch of his Penn Quarter tapas house Jaleo (2250-A Crystal Dr., Arlington) is another solid bet, and it offers theatergoers a free dessert.

Near the Lincoln Theatre, you’ll find some of the city’s best Ethiopian cooking at Etete (1942 Ninth St. NW). At Creme (1322 U St., NW), where Arena patrons get 10 percent off the check, there’s rich shrimp ’n’ grits, vinegary pork-and-beans, and other upscale Southern eats.

Signature Theatre

This theater’s new, bigger digs are in the middle of the Village at Shirlington, a recently expanded maze of shops, restaurants, and cafes. And despite the influx of fresh places to eat, the stylishly comfortable Carlyle (4000 Campbell Ave., Arlington), which has been in the complex for 22 years, is still the best place for dinner. It takes limited reservations and is usually crowded—the oversize cocktails, creative salads, and chocolate waffle have a devoted following—but you can call ahead to put your name on the waiting list. The nearby outpost of Busboys and Poets (4251 S. Campbell Ave., Arlington), the arty-cool, progressive-minded cafe, offers good burgers and vegetarian sandwiches. For dessert, there’s Best Buns Bread Co. (4010 Campbell Ave., Arlington) for chewy cookies and CakeLove (4150 Campbell Ave.), which is known for its cupcakes (although we like the caramel brownies better).

Music Center at Strathmore

This North Bethesda concert hall offers a reliable selection of salads and entrées (think roast chicken and flank steak) in its pretty Prelude Café. Beyond that, everything’s a short car ride away. Among the closest eateries are Addie’s (11120 Rockville Pike, Rockville), a creative American spot and, from the same owners, Black Market (4600 Waverly Ave., Garrett Park), a farmhouse-chic bistro known for its burgers, shrimp ’n’ grits, and steak with chimichurri.

In downtown Bethesda, we like the lobster and Cuban burgers, sweet-potato fries, and onion rings at the new BGR Burger Joint (4827 Fairmont Ave.), and the artisanal pies at Mia’s Pizzas (4926 Cordell Ave.).

This article appeared in the October, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.  


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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.