There's no daylight between dining well and dining on a budget when you're in Washington, D.C. While the capital city's restaurant scene has been booming in recent years--bringing with it a slew of slick dining rooms--there's also a thriving scene for cheap eats. Beyond the influx of locally owned fast-casual chains like Good Stuff Eatery, Taylor Gourmet, Sweetgreen, Cava Grill, and Beefsteak, D.C. is home to the likes of a Sichuan restaurant in an unassuming budget hotel, a small pupuseria serving Salvadoran favorites, and a smokehouse stacked with gut-busting (and affordable) sandwiches. Read on:
Ethiopian cuisine is a must-try experience in DC--restaurants in the city and its outskirts offer some of the finest versions of classic Ethiopian dishes that you'll find anywhere in this country. Zenebech is one of the best, serving injera bread-covered platters of tender beef tibs, kitfo, lentils, and stews at less than $15 for a (very) filling entree. And Ethiopian food is the ultimate shareable meal, making that tab even lighter when shared among friends.
Whether it's brisket, chopped pork or sausages you're after, get your smoked meats at DCity Smokehouse. Everything on the sandwich menu--which includes a stacked Meaty Palmer stuffed with smoked turkey, pork belly, smashed avocado, chipotle aioli, and cilantro ranch on Texas Toast--runs for less than $10. DCity's also got great ribs, wings, and sides like fried onions and collard greens.
You might not expect much from a restaurant set in a Days Inn on the road into town. But you would be wrong. Panda Gourmet serves a menu full of Sichuan specialties that are worth the trip out. Almost everything on the menu costs $15 or less so go wild--dan dan noodles with minced pork, mapo tofu, cumin beef Chinese burgers, and eggplant in garlic sauce are all solid bets.
Wiseguy NY Pizza
Grab a few slices of cheese pizza at Wiseguy's and call it a meal--and an affordable one, at that, with $3 slices. Though DC has mostly been known for its Neapolitan pizzerias, Wiseguy serves up an excellent rendition of the New York-style pie out of a stone-deck oven. They've also got a mean Grandma square pie.
El Rinconcito Cafe
You can find great, cheap Salvadoran food all around DC and its suburbs, thanks to a sizable immigrant population. Right in the center of it all is El Rinconcito Café in Mount Vernon Square. Here you can order pupusas with whatever your preferred topping may be--pork, cheese, beans, loroco--for $2.15 apiece, plus dishes like carne asada, tamales, camarones a la crema for between $10 and $15. There's no website, but you can find the place at 1129 11th St NW.
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Florida Avenue Grill
Open since 1944, the Florida Avenue Grill is both a local treasure and a fine spot for a filling, delicious, and penny-pinching meal. This diner serves up all your traditional egg dishes, including a breakfast special that combines hot cakes or french toast with two eggs any style, your choice of breakfast meat, and your choice of side--all for $11.95. Later in the day, they serve meat dinners like smothered fried pork chops with a corn muffin and two sides for $15.
If you're headed to the Greek Deli at lunchtime, be ready to stand in line. Washingtonians have loved this little downtown lunch destination since it opened in 1990 and the line often runs out the door. People especially love the avgolemono soup ($4.50) and other Greek specialties like baked moussaka, gyros, lamb souvlaki, dolmades, and spanakopita.
Thanks to Thip Khao, Laotian cuisine is having its day in DC. This Columbia Heights restaurant serves up a menu of classic dishes like curry puffs, crispy coconut rice with sour pork, khao soi soup, and various meats grilled in banana leaves. You can choose your protein for most of the mains--with options like tofu, chicken, salmon, Chinese sausage, and Chilean sea bass--mostly within the $15 range. There's also a "jungle" menu with more exotic meats.
Red Apron Butcher
If you're out for lunch in Penn Quarter, snag your sandwich straight from the butcher shop--Red Apron is a meat paradise. Led by Nathan Anda of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, this shop is not only where you can buy nice cuts of meat and charcuterie, but it also serves a small menu for breakfast and lunch. Try the "porkstrami" sandwich ($9) or their version of a classic cheeseburger ($10.50).
When in Chinatown, hang out on the ground floor of Daikaya for some of the best ramen in town. Once you take a seat on one of the stools in the small ramen shop, you can choose between a few varieties of Sapporo-style ramen (including a vegan option), all between $10 and $15. These bowls are pretty filling, but if you want to hang out a little longer, head upstairs to Daikaya's izakaya for drinks or snacks.
G by Mike Isabella
Sandwich shop by day and tasting menu restaurant by night, G is an excellent stop on during an afternoon of shopping and strolling 14th Street. Former Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella has developed a killer lineup of sandwiches from Italian classics like the chicken parm ($12), healthier options like the roasted cauliflower ($9), and wood-roasted options like the spring lamb with tzatziki ($12). G also serves breakfast sandwiches and a variety of sides.
By Amy McKeever