I lived in DC for six years before starting this Foreign Service life. I had some of my most fun, formative, lonely, educational, frustrating, exciting, lovely times of my life here and coming back, not surprisingly, makes me so darn nostalgic. I just stroll around and picture 22-, 24-, and 26-year-old Emily walking home after a night at the Big Hunt or Local 16, or lugging her camera equipment around Capitol Hill, or having a pre drum circle picnic in Meridian Hill Park. I see her all over, in all the other people in their young twenties here, doing the same stuff I did and it makes me warm inside. This was a great place to spend my twenties, and it’s a fab place to return to in my thirties, because there are better restaurants and shopping than ever, but still the same great museums, beautiful old row houses, and walkable streets.
So while there are all these new great places, I find myself going back to my old favorites every time I visit DC. My love for the below restaurants and places is partly nostalgic, but I think they all hold up well even if you take my sentimentality out of it.
How many time did I order a big bowl of slurpy Thai noodle soup when I lived just a few blocks away from DC Noodles? The comforting, tangy soups – a little spicy, a little sour, a little sweet, a lot savory – always hit the spot. I get either spicy noodle soup with egg noodles and fried tofu, or the red curry soup with spinach linguine and tofu. I knew I loved DC Noodles when I lived in DC, but even I was a little surprised with just how much I dream of DC Noodles since living abroad. I’ve tried to recreate their spicy noodle soup broth many times, and it’s never as good. Basically my plane touches down in DC, and I make a beeline here and slurp away. (1412 U Street NW).
This Dupont Circle institution can’t really compete with all the new fancy restaurants, including a slew of Mexican-inspired ones, but it’s always packed and continues to churn out satisfying plates of Mexican standards. Especially beloved are the meat and seafood dishes and frozen swirl margaritas. As a vegetarian who’s meh about frozen drinks, I prefer an ice cold Corona with lime, a plate of spinach quesadillas and the zesty, peanut-y Sunshine Salad. For District residents, Lauriol Plaza is a stalwart for large birthday celebrations, for hungover brunches, for a post-workout treat. I’ll be honest, when I first moved to the District, I referred to Lauriol Plaza as a factory and looked down my nose at its massive operation (the three-story building takes up like half a city block) and massive portions. But then one time Mr. Em in Jerusalem showed up at my apartment, (not so) fresh from a 36-hour trip from Yemen, and I’m like “Where do you want to eat? We can go anywhere! You must be starving!” And guess where he picked? Yep, boy missed Mexican food and the so-DC/so-America vibe that is Lauriol Plaza. I scoffed a bit, but minutes later when I was guzzling margs (on the rocks with salt) and noshing on those perfectly thin tortilla chips and slightly warm and smoky salsa, reunited with my boo, I was filled with such love both for him and for Lauriol Plaza. Years later, I too make a beeline for Lauriol Plaza on visits to DC. (1835 18th Street NW).
Thai X-ing was one of those places that foodies always talked about – a tiny blow-your-mind good place with no menu operated out of an old row house. Somehow I’d never been until my time in DC was winding down in summer of 2012. I remember my first visit there vividly: I had just completed “Crash/Bang” training out in the woods of West Virginia. This is the anti-terrorism training that the government required me to take before moving to Yemen. After a crazy week of crashing cars, shooting guns, and watching things blow up, I had a few days in DC before getting married in Michigan and then, gulp, moving to Yemen. I decided it was time to finally try Thai X-ing. Two good friends and I brought our own bottle of bubbly and it tasted so, so good with the heavenly pumpkin in coconut curry. Soon we were crunching on papaya salad, spring rolls, Pad Thai and cracking up over stories of me straddling a robot dummy and trying to staunch a fountain of blood spurting from its severed leg. It was a ridiculous and overwhelming moment in my life and a ridiculously delicious meal with best friends who I wouldn’t see for a while.
Thai X-ing has since opened a second larger location that is much less charming and the food comes out so quickly, you can pretty much scarf down its multi-course set menu in less than thirty minutes, which is no fun. But still, it’s delicious. (515 Florida Ave. NW and 2020 9th Street NW).
Rasika is the only fine-dining, legit lauded restaurant on this list – Chef Vikram Sunderan won the James Beard award in 2014. This was my preferred fancy night out place, my drop-in and sit at the bar before seeing a play next door at Woolly Mammoth theatre, and is a must-go for me when I’m in DC. Rasika has one of my favorite cocktails on the planet, the West Islayer, a smokey strong blend of Laphroig Scotch, allspice dram, and spiced honey. And everyone who tries their flash fried spinach appetizer, palak chaat, is hooked for life, as its such a perfect balance of crispy, oily, salty, sour, and sweet. (633 D Street NW and 1190 New Hampshire Avenue NW).
Meridian Hill Park
I’ll refrain from vomiting nostalgia all over this one, but oh my goodness, the memories from this 12-acre urban park, located right next to the apartment in which I lived for six years. Lots of runs in here, lots of picnics, lots of sunbathing, lots of dates and walks with various guys who are no longer in my life. The face of my visiting 4-year-old niece when it started pouring in the middle of her rocking out to the music from the joyous drum circle (which happens every single Sunday evening) when we all stayed and danced in the rain. This park is the best. And it’s got a gorgeous English-style tiered waterfall fountain to boot. (16th Street NW between W Street NW and Euclid Street NW).
There are a lot of museums in DC from which to choose, but I find the modern/contemporary Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden always has something interesting. From its permanent collection (a personal fave is the Ron Mueck’s “Big Man,” a giant naked man sculpture), to its sometimes mind-bending rotating collection, to crazy art videos they play in rooms on the lower level, the collections at this museum always stay with me after I leave. The current exhibit, Ai WeiWei’s floor murals of political prisoners crafted from Legos, is bold and thought-provoking. (Independence Ave. SW).
Like I said, this isn’t a list of DC must-dos, just the things I love the most. If you’re visiting DC and you’ve never been, I’d also have to recommend a shopping day in Georgetown (especially Violet Boutique, and Suit Supply for guys) with a cupcake treat at Baked and Wired; shopping at the great home stores around 14th Street, including Miss Pixies Furnishings and Whatnot and Goodwood; stand-up paddleboards or kayaks on the Potomac; a show at one of DC’s theaters – The Kennedy Center, Studio Theater, and Shakespeare Theatre Company, to name a few; the Monuments by Moonlight trolly tour, or at least a visit to the Lincoln Memorial and the FDR Memorial; A White House or Congress tour; a drink at the iconic Round Robin bar in the Willard Hotel; taking in a spattering of iconic Smithsonian Museum exhibits, like Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History, the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History, the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Collection (not a Smithsonian museum); and a great meal at Le Diplomate or Rose’s Luxury.
If you can’t tell, I love Washington DC. We will no doubt live here someday again. Until then, these short stretches with all my favorite things (and some of my favorite people) will have to sustain me.
To Washington DC,
Em in Jerusalem