Robert and I just returned from a fantastic vacation to Washington, DC and New York City. I had never been to either place before so I was determined to soak up as much city life as possible. Naturally, my biggest priority would be to check out the local food & drink scene. Our first stop on the agenda was Washington, DC. We stayed at a small B&B in Dupont Circle where many of the city’s great bars and restaurants are located. Here is a roundup of where we ate and drank.

Rainy weather and a late arrival kept us from wanting to stray too far from the B&B our first night in town. Lucky for us, St. Arnold’s was just a few short blocks away. This bustling, old-world style pub specializes in mussels and Belgian beer. We couldn’t pass up an order of their signature mussels which are steamed with beer, caramelized shallots, thyme and duck fat. Yep, duck fat. They were rich and delicious–a comforting treat for two weary travelers. Note: if you come during happy hour, mussels are half off!

The National Mall is huge so a morning of museum and monument hopping is guaranteed to leave you famished. Unfortunately, good lunch options are limited in this area. If you happen to be near the Capitol Building, I recommend trekking down to Market Lunch located inside the Eastern Market. Market Lunch is something of an institution in DC. They are known for their crab cakes and blueberry pancakes. We opted for the crab cake & soft shell crab combo which comes with two sides (Market Lunch owner, Tom Glasgow, steered us toward the coleslaw and fried green tomatoes). Comprised of little more than solid chunks of sweet, flavorful crab meat, the crab cake lived up to its reputation. I enjoyed the fried green tomatoes most–they were perfectly fried and had a pleasant lemony flavor. Market Lunch is cash only. Lines can be long so be prepared to wait if you come during the lunch rush.

For dinner on our second night, we headed to Churchkey, a beer bar located in the Logan Circle area. The place was packed when we arrived, but we somehow managed to snag a table. I was overwhelmed by the monstrous beer list but finally settled on the DC Brau “Public” Pale Ale–when in doubt, might as well go with something local. The dinner menu at Churchkey surprised me–you don’t see ramps and house-made kimchi on the menu at many beer bars. We split a prosciutto and fig flat bread which was tasty, if a bit too sweet. I loved the grilled Caesar salad I ordered. Smoky grilled romaine hearts topped with white anchovies and crispy garlic twists–yum! I’m a sucker for grilled salads.

In search of a good spot for an after-dinner drink, we decided to check out Black Jack in Logan Circle. This dark cocktail lounge is known for their intriguing specialty cocktails (mezcal with smoked peach ice and charcuterie anyone?). Their spirits list is equally impressive. I went with a classic Sazerac and Robert sampled High West’s Silver Oat, one of the many new unaged “white dog” whiskeys currently on the market (unlike most, this one is actually good!). Black Jack is a great spot for anyone who likes unusual cocktails or is looking for a little something to sip neat. If drinking at a bar isn’t entertaining enough for you, Black Jack has two bocce courts (with stadium seating!) in the back room.

One night, we were looking for a quick meal on the go so we headed to Julia’s Empanadas. Julia’s Empanadas are cheap, filling and tasty. This place is very popular with the late night drinking crowd. The empanadas we tried were delicious while sober so I imagine they must taste phenomenal after a night of drinking. We sampled the Jamaican, Chorizo & Black Bean, and the Salteña which is filled with chicken, potato, peas, raisins, and green olives. The Salteña was our favorite. It reminded me of a cross between chicken pot pie and a samosa–very spicy and very comforting.

Hotel bars might not be your top choice when looking for places to drink, but the bar at Tabard Inn is worth a visit. Located inside of a small Victorian hotel, the Tabard Inn bar is a charming spot for a nightcap. We didn’t sit in the bar itself, opting instead for a cozy fireside couch in the lounge area just off the lobby. Tabard Inn mixologist, Chantal Tseng, has designed a lovely cocktail menu. Cocktails veer toward the classic but with some unique twists. Her Franco-Amero Digestif, made with rye whiskey, bitters and a brandied apricot, proved to be a perfect post-dinner treat.

Feeling adventurous, we decided to take the metro up to Fast Gourmet in the U Street/Shaw area. Fast Gourmet offers delicious sandwiches and salads in an unexpected location: a gas station. The food is eclectic with a strong Latin American bent. We split the Chivito, a Uruguayan sandwich filled with–bear with me now–beef tenderloin, black forest ham, bacon, mozzarella, hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, green olives and pepper and mushroom escabeche. Oh, and it comes with a side of fries too. At $13, the Chivito is a pricey sandwich, but you really shouldn’t eat a whole one by yourself. We split it and were full for the next day and a half. It was worth it! This is one seriously good sandwich (the best bites are the ones with green olives). Don’t let the location scare you off. The food at Fast Gourmet is great, and eating in a gas station can be entertaining–we ate our Chivito while watching a guy replace someone’s busted windshield!

For dinner our last night, we headed to another Dupont Circle favorite: Hank’s Oyster Bar. Here, we selected a light meal of oysters on the half shell (we stuck with East Coast varieties only to keep things local) and a spring vegetable salad featuring thinly sliced asparagus, haricot verts and radishes over watercress and arugula. It was a very refreshing meal–much needed after the Chivito we had gobbled earlier in the day. My crisp, slightly smoky vodka & Ardbeg cocktail was an ideal pairing for the briny oysters.

Our favorite of the bars we visited was The Passenger which is located in a slightly off the beaten path area near the convention center. With Fernet Branca on tap and cocktail specials all named after Billy Idol songs, The Passenger may seem gimmicky at first glance. Still, owner Tom Brown knows his stuff and is happy to fix you a custom cocktail tailored to your specific flavor preferences. Tom saw us eyeballing a bottle of Corsair Triple Smoke Whiskey on the shelf and graciously poured free shots for us to try. Excellent service! The Passenger is casual, often crowded and might play too much 80’s music for some. If you prefer a quieter cocktail experience, head to the back room where you will find Tom’s brother, Derek, whipping up fancy cocktails in a more intimate setting (reservations recommended).

DC isn’t really known as a food city so I wasn’t expecting to eat as well as I did, especially on our budget. I would have loved to try DC hotspots Rasika, Komi, and Little Serow, but they are a little outside of my price range. Nothing that I ate was particularly unusual or mind-blowing, other than perhaps the Chivito, which I had never heard of before and am now on a mission to recreate at home. Still, DC’s food scene greatly exceeded my expectations. Stay tuned for my New York restaurant report.

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