The Best, Worst, and Weirdest of DC Dining in 2016

Tuna nigiri at Sushi Ogawa. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Weirdest server interaction

Jessica: At Sushi Ogawa earlier this year, our server quit in the middle of our dinner. There was a bit of a lag between courses in the omakase meal (we were seated in the dining room, not the sushi bar), but I didn’t think much of it. I honestly might not have noticed at all if the owner hadn’t come over and told us our server had just walked out on the job. I’m still not sure what it was all about!

Anna: We had a very exuberant server at the Red Hen who gave a very lengthy introductory spiel about the restaurant and menu, and then moved on to the beverage menu. He was so overcome that he couldn’t find the words and just near-shouted “I just love all the liquids!!” A+ for enthusiasm!

Weirdest dining room observation

Jessica: I saw a woman knitting a scarf at Kaz Sushi on a 90-degree evening this summer.

Anna: I was seated at a table where someone had recently vomited under the table. I mentioned it to the server, who was like “Yeah, there was a large birthday party before you.” We moved.

Pet peeve of the year

Jessica: When you dine out, everyone gets their own food menu, but you almost always have to share a drink menu. This might make sense if it’s a big bulky wine book, but more often than not, it applies to single-sheet cocktail lists too. I never used to notice this until a friend pointed it out, and now I see it everywhere. The worst is when you get one drink menu among a group of four, then the server quickly comes to take your order, but only one person has had time to sort through it. Seriously, can we get four drink menus please!

Anna: Plates that “come as they’re ready” from the kitchen. I understand that coursing has gone by the wayside in this share plate-friendly world. But a meal can still be paced! I’ve sat at so many tables where large hot plates come out before smaller cold ones, or we’re flooded with ten tapas at once. Kudos to servers who put some thought into staggering, or ask how you’d like dishes to arrive.

Most underrated restaurant

Jessica: Green Pig Bistro doesn’t seem to get much chatter anymore, but it’s a neighborhood restaurant worth getting out of your own neighborhood for. I’m still dreaming about slabs of toast smothered in a gravy of mushrooms and snails, and the smoky mac-and-cheese and bacon cheeseburger (the bacon is built into the patty) are among the better versions around. On my last visit, I ordered salmon with green curry broth and bok choy, which looked beige and boring when it landed in front of me. Then I tried it: the curry was packed with ginger and spices, and the fish was perfectly cooked. It was a very pleasant surprise.

Anna: I love Tachibana in McLean, Virginia. It’s a very traditional, but still not “fancy” Japanese restaurant—the kind I wish we had more of in the District. There are so many mediocre sushi spots in DC that also “specialize” in other Asian cuisines, and then there are expensive heavy-hitters like Sushi Taro. You can go to Tachibana on a weeknight dinner and order beautiful platters of sushi and sashimi, perfectly crunchy tempura, and classic dishes like oden soup with fish cakes and vegetables. It’s packed for a very good reason.

Most overrated restaurant

Jessica: I still don’t get Momofuku Milk Bar. The sickly sweet treats are the kind of thing a six-year-old would love, but they lack any kind of nuance to make them interesting. The cereal soft-serve is disgusting.

Anna: I guess we’re two bitter food people hating on sweets, but I don’t understand Georgetown Cupcake’s everlasting lines. I give them full credit for being a savvy business (and making tasty treats). But there are at least three other cupcake options nearby! Not to mention macarons, doughnuts, pie…

Best trend of the year

Jessica: Delivery options have gotten so much better. Between Ghibellina, Panda Gourmet, and Donburi on UberEats and Pizzeria Paradiso and Central on Caviar, I feel like I could never leave home and eat very well. Sure, the food’s not always as good as it is in a restaurant’s dining room, but sometimes you just want to stay in with something better than pad thai.

Anna: I grew up spending weekends on the Chesapeake Bay, so it’s great to see chefs promoting—and prizing—catches beyond rockfish, oysters, and crabs (though all are amazing). I’ve recently had delicious “sugar toads,” a kind of native pufferfish, at the Dabney and Minibar. Fingers crossed the Rappahannock guys deliver scallops this year.

Worst trend of the year

Jessica: The normalization of $14 cocktails. In early 2015, I started an Instagram account called @14dollarcocktails where I documented just that. Cocktails that pricey still seemed relatively rare and reserved for the very best restaurants and bars. Now, they’re ubiquitous. Don’t get me wrong, I will gladly throw down the money at certain bars whose reputations I trust. But now everyone seems to think it’s a good idea to create a cocktail menu that’s pricier than an appetizer menu—or more. (Watch out for the $15 cocktails!) I’ve discontinued that Instagram account.

Anna: Tasting menus for the sake of tasting menus. There are so many pricey prix-fixes now—including pop-ups—and only a fraction of them are worth the expense. A successful tasting menu is similar to a good story: the pace, portioning, creativity, and narrative flow have to all cohere. It’s a tough thing to pull off, even for seasoned chefs. Asking diners to shell out $150-plus a head on prix-fixe from a chef who isn’t practiced in the art is kind of like asking for sex on the first date: a bold move, potentially fun for all parties involved, but chances are you’re going to regret it.

Best new bar or drink of 2016

Jessica: I’ve been digging Anxo for funky, sour ciders and Espita Mezcaleria for cocktails that will turn you into a mezcal fan.

Anna: I’ve had some of the best cocktails of the year at the Columbia Room, though you don’t need to splurge on the tasting—the spirits library and punch garden in season are both a treat.

Best new happy hour

Jessica: Union Drinkery’s regular prices are cheaper than a lot of bars’ happy hour prices, and its happy hour prices are just a steal. The Park View bar, from the owner of A&D, drops cocktails from $9 to $7 daily from 5 to 8 pm. You have to appreciate a place that offers happy hour on weekends and past 6 pm.

Anna: Archipelago’s happy hour (daily, 5 to 7 pm) is just a happy place. Summer or winter, you can sip a boozy $7 pina colada with a colorful straw and snack on $4 ham-and-cheese sliders. It’s hard not to feel better after that—even on the worst days.

The thing we wish existed in DC’s dining world (fingers crossed, 2017)

Jessica: I’d love to see an udon shop. In the meantime, I’ll be getting my udon fix at Sushi Taro.

Anna: I really good, fine-tuned Tex-Mex spot like Austin Grill circa the Ann Cashion days (and several years thereafter).

Best new restaurant bathroom

Jessica: I feel like the crazy restroom decor trend has died off a little bit this year. I like one little detail in Tail Up Goat’s restroom that I think a lot of people might miss. Artist/bartender Patrick Owens painted the outlines of different lighthouse floors on the wall—but he also snuck in the the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star.

Anna: The bathrooms at the Trump Hotel for BLT Prime are very swanky. There’s so much white marble and gold, it’s like peeing in a presidential monument.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.