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The Best Places to Eat in Columbia Heights
Where to grab a bite, beer and late-night snack from 11th Street to Mount Pleasant and everywhere in between.
Historic row houses, modern apartments, major retail shops and some of the city’s most distinct dining enclaves put Columbia Heights on the map. With its everyone-is-welcome Sunday drum circle in Meridian Hill Park, as well as the city’s GALA Hispanic Theatre at the Tivoli Theatre, cultural diversity is a major calling card for the Northwest DC neighborhood.
Luckily for diners, that characteristic spills over into its dining options, which span countless ethnic cuisines, including Filipino fare at Bad Saint, named the second “best new restaurant in America” by Bon Appétit in its inaugural year. Venture away from the neighborhood’s namesake Metro stop to uncover more 11th Street treasures or Mount Pleasant’s mix of Salvadoran bodegas and sit-down spots. Or you can always just stick to the slate of bustling bars, bistros and family-owned eateries on and around 14th Street.
11th Street Eats
If you’re partial to low-key neighborhood hangouts, you’ll fall for any number of 11th Street hot spots. The thoroughfare’s resident bar-taqueria combo, El Chucho, delights the masses with Mexican-style street corn on the cob and lime- and chili-flavored steak tacos. What happens when you put a James Beard award-winning chef in a space that only seats 24? You get Bad Saint, a revelation in Pinoy cooking with a frequently changing menu.
Settle into a casual vibe as you dig in to some wood-fired pizza at RedRocks or scarf down the slaw-covered fried chicken sandwich at The Coupe cafe – both spots are open until 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Want more? Check out our ultimate 11th Street dining guide.
On and Around 14th
As you’d expect from the main strip that cuts through the neighborhood, you could eat every meal of the day along 14th Street. Vegans (and converts) the city over trek to Sticky Fingers Bakery because its baked goods are so delicious that eaters won’t miss dairy at all. Just try the unmatched cinnamon bun or pancakes – remember, no butter?! – to find out why. You can also sink your teeth into sweet and savory crepes at Coffy Café or plan for weekend brunch at The Heights Taproom, where Mid-Atlantic-inspired fried chicken and waffles and crab cake benedicts are served with bottomless bellinis and sangria.
When it comes to ethnic food, DC diners have voiced their desire to do away with weak Western versions of dishes in favor of ordering the real deal, previously reserved for expats and the in-the-know crowd. Take Thip Khao, for instance. The restaurant, which serves authentic Lao cuisine, hums in evenings with diners ordering up spicy and pungent dishes like kua khao jaew bong, fried rice with fermented chilis, radishes and zucchini, and naem khao thadeau, spicy crispy catfish made with lemongrass and fresh herbs. Continue along a Southeast Asian quest for comfort with Vietnam’s signature take on soup at family-run operations Pho Viet or Pho 14.
Not far from what was locally known as “Little Ethiopia” – whose heyday reigned over nearby U and 9th Streets NW – you’ll find Letena, where you order at the counter for quick delivery of all the tenderloin tibs and vegetarian-friendly wats (think curry) you could desire. In true Ethiopian fashion, the food is best-consumed when folded up within small shreds of spongy injera bread and the coffee service is taken very seriously – as evidenced from the Counter Culture beans.
You can also dig in to the sights, smells and (most importantly) the tastes of Cuba at Little Havana, where you’ll be greeted by a blast of color with murals of classic cars, tropical fruits that double as cocktail vessels and fall-off-the-bone spicy guava ribs.
When you need to grab a quick bite late at night, fill up on a delicacy native to El Salvador, affordable and must-try pork pupusas from Gloria’s Pupuseria, or go with a conveyer belt-cooked &pizza, which stays open until 1 a.m. on weekends.
Starting during a civil war in the 1970s and continuing through the 2000s, a large population from El Salvador emigrated the U.S., with many of them relocating to DC, in Mount Pleasant to be specific. As a result, today its eponymous street's corner markets, like Bodega Los-Primo, El Progreso Market and Best World Supermarket, stock the neighborhood with imported Mexican sodas, fresh tortillas, plantains, jicama and other Latin American staples. When you’re itchin’ for authentic pupusas, tacos and sopes, Mount Pleasant has got you covered.
Feast on everything from tortas to tamales to tacos at Taqueria Los Compadres or take down the substantial Daily Special #2 – an enchilada, pupusa and burrito for $9 – at Don Juan, a 30-year-old family business that changed hands to a long-time employee. Want to make a night of it? Then head over to Haydee’s, founded in 1990 by Salvadoran husband-wife duo, bartender Haydee and chef Mario. The restaurant is famed for its signature sounds, from the deafening platters of sizzling fajitas to the live jazz, rock and karaoke acts that play on a nightly basis.
New on the scene in Mount Pleasant is Elle, a hybrid cafe-bakery-restaurant that’s bound to find itself on DC’s “best of” lists in no time. The neighborhood hub serves Stumptown coffee and offers up an array of baked meat pies, muffins and scones during the day – and it comes equipped with a take-out window for quick service. But diners have really taken to the evening experience there thanks to the space’s transformation into a full-service New American restaurant driven by in-season fare. Note that restaurant service is available every night except for Tuesdays, when Elle closes at 2 p.m.
For a fantastic tapas-fueled happy hour and vermouth on tap (you read that right), be sure to visit Spanish-themed Mola. While you're in the neighborhood, don't forget to check out even more to see and do in Mount Pleasant.
Late-Night Hot Spots
Columbia Heights’ microneighborhoods have got your back when you’re looking for a night cap. Room 11 is one of the city’s finest neighborhood cocktail bars, offering up light bites and strong drinks skillfully mixed by knowledgeable bartenders.
You don’t have to be a Bolshevik to have a good night at Marx Café Revolutionary Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, a neighborhood hangout where the bartender is quick to mingle with locals and newbies alike. The restaurant-bar is known for airing soccer matches from across the globe in the daytime, but you can also catch most major sports on its flat-screen TVs by night, too. For the cyclist set, Bar Roubaix brings Belgian beer garden culture and tasty kebabs to the heart of Columbia Heights. Sip on everything from local draft beers and a house pils to authentic Trappist ales like Chimay.
The Ultimate Dive Bar Pub Crawl
When you want to see where the night will take you, the Wonderland Ballroom on 11th Street is your ticket. The no-frills bar is famed for its annual Sundress Fest the first Sunday in May, when men and women don their flowiest frocks to enjoy all-day happy hour. But it also delivers upon every visit, from the eclectic bric-a-brac adorning the walls to the PBR ordered by the double-fistful. By nightfall, the upstairs thumps to live DJ sets, while the beer garden below pulses with conversation and heavy foot traffic.
Get more dive-bar kicks on 14th Street at Red Derby, where all the beer – from sours and porters to hoppy IPAs and lagers – is served out of a can. If you need to catch a second wind, the kitchen stays open late and is known for its sweet potato fries that go well with just about everything, especially the Derby Burger. You’ll know you’ve unlocked Red Derby at its full potential if you’re lucky enough to land a spot on the righteous rooftop.
The be all end all of dive bars in DC and beyond is none other than the Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant. Drop by the ATM before you visit because cash is the only way you’re getting served at the Raven, where “Natty Bo” tallboys go down smooth, fast and cheap. Tip: If you want to fit in like a local, leave the suit at home, don’t order food (there actually is no grill, but you can get a bag of Utz potato chips) and slunk into a booth beside towering pictures of icons like Elvis, Marlene Dietrich and John Lennon. And even if (read: when) you do stick out like a sore thumb, savor the fact that you’ve landed in one of the city’s most historic bars, oozing with personality and character.
Columbia Heights Dining Map
Explore the best places to eat in this diverse DC neighborhood