Photo: Kait Ebbinger

DC Eats: Top 20 Spots of 2018

All year long, On Tap keeps locals in the know about the hottest new food and drink spots around town in our New & Notable column. Now, we’re looking back at the year in dining, which brought buzzy new restaurants each and every month. Global influences continued to land in DC, two hip hotels championed local talent, addictive favorites like hummus and bagels won hearts and stomachs, and beloved chefs expanded their empires. Amid dozens of openings in 2017, these 20 are the ones that cut through the noise and should continue to impress in 2019.

Elle

Ellē only has four letters in common with its 80-year-old predecessor, Heller’s Bakery. The new Mount Pleasant café and restaurant from the minds behind Paisley Fig and Room 11 has reimagined the bakery concept for the modern day. From morning until afternoon, linger over coffee, unusual pastries and hearty sandwiches. Don’t forget to grab a fresh baguette or a loaf of country sourdough to take home. The real magic begins during dinner, when Chef Brad Deboy turns out forward-thinking plates like grilled kimchi toast and charred sweet potato curry, showcasing fermentation, meticulous technique and one-of-a-kind ingredients. 3221 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; www.eatatelle.com

A Rake’s Progress

The LINE Hotel might just be the most Instagrammed spot of the year. What used to be a neoclassical church has been beautifully renovated into a hotel with five distinct food and beverage options. Head up the stairs and you’ll find Spike Gjerde’s hyperlocal A Rake’s Progress. A wood-burning hearth is the focus, and the flames add flavor to small game like rabbit, quail and duck, as well as pork, squash and more. Many dishes are presented tableside and then carved or finished off at the centrally located carving station to give diners a show. 1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues

Sababa

After a quick set change, Ashok Bajaj opened SABABA in the space formerly occupied by Ardeo. The new restaurant’s menu focuses on modern Israeli cuisine, which has roots in both Jewish and Arab traditions. Dishes display influences from the Middle East, Turkey and Greece. Meals often start with salatim – small portions of salads and spreads to share – and then progress into hummus and small plates. The vegetarian dishes shine, from charred eggplant and roasted halloumi to fried cauliflower and Israeli salad. Kebabs and large plates are also available, like sumac- and onion-marinated steak and braised lamb shank. 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.sababauptown.com

Fancy Radish

Vegans and omnivores alike rejoiced when Vedge Restaurant Group out of Philadelphia planted their first restaurant in DC. While everything on the menu is completely vegan, owners Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby aren’t trying to push an agenda. They’re just serving vegetables. It’s the way they serve them that makes a splash. Each dish takes a humble piece of produce – like a radish – and elevates it with artful techniques and vibrant flavors. The menu strikes a balance between the refined cuisine at their flagship Vedge and the edgy street food at V Street, with small plates like trumpet mushroom “fazzoletti” and spicy dan dan noodles. 600 H St. NE, DC; www.fancyradishdc.com

Kaliwa

Restaurateur power couple Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong, known for Alexandria hot spots Society Fair, Hummingbird and more, opened their latest restaurant at The Wharf last spring. Kaliwa offers three Asian cuisines that are near and dear to the duo’s hearts: Filipino, honoring Meshelle’s heritage; Korean, as an ode to Chef Cathal’s Taekwondo training; and Thai, because it’s their family’s food of choice. The menu is divided into sections for each country, with milder flavors in Filipino dishes like Kalderetang Cordero, slightly spicier funky notes in Korean Jae Yuk Gui and super hot spice levels in Thai Nuer Pad Prik. 751 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kaliwadc.com

Spoken English

Erik Bruner-Yang’s second project within the LINE Hotel is unlike any restaurant you’ve visited in DC. Spoken English is modeled after the Japanese Tachinomiya – a standing-room only restaurant where people stop by for snacks and drinks after work. The casual, communal concept is situated in the kitchen with two counters facing a wood-fired Grillworks oven, only accommodating between 12 to 16 diners at a time. The menu provides a choice between having a few bites, like skewers and small plates, or enjoying a full meal of whole roast duck and chicken yakitori. 1770 Euclid St. NW; www.thelinehotel.com/dc/venues

Mikko

The former chef to the Finnish ambassador opened his own café serving the food of his homeland. Mikko Kosonen got his start at his family’s restaurant in Stockholm and attended culinary school in Helsinki. In the U.S., he’s been cooking for diplomats, heads of state and royalty, but now he’s expanding his audience to include average Washingtonians. Nordic cuisine relies on simple preparations of ingredients like seafood, rye, mushrooms, berries and roots. The menu at Mikko is succinct but true to form, with specialties like house-smoked salmon, Finnish soups, Nordic pastries and Danish-style, open-faced sandwiches. 1636 R St. NW, DC; www.chefmikko.com

Pappe

Vipul Kapila never ordered lamb vindaloo in Indian restaurants in the DC area because he couldn’t find a version that lived up to the fiery dish he remembers eating growing up in Delhi. When he found a truly authentic rendition at a restaurant in Falls Church, he decided to team up with the chefs behind the dish to open Pappe and finally bring a neighborhood Indian restaurant to 14th Street. That vindaloo is a star curry on the menu, which also features popular dishes like butter chicken, vegetable samosas, fish chittnad and fire-grilled baingan bartha. 1317 14th St. NW, DC; www.pappedc.com

Poca Madre

To say Poca Madre is Victor Albisu’s passion project would be an understatement. The restaurant is a sincere homage to Mexico, celebrating the country’s history, culture, agriculture and cuisine. The menu is, simply put, an exploration of contemporary Mexican dining. But every aspect, from the sourcing to the recipes, tells a deeper story. Many ingredients are imported from Mexico to support local farmers, including sea salt, grasshoppers, cocoa nibs and dry maíz. The small plates and entrées put creative twists on traditions, like a corn risotto that conjures the flavors of elote and a shrimp and cuttlefish ceviche with flat noodles made from the two types of seafood. 777 I St. NW, DC; www.pocamadredc.com

San Lorenzo

Chef Massimo Fabbri, known and loved for his cooking at Tosca and Posto, opened his own restaurant in Shaw paying homage to his family and the cuisine of his home in Tuscany. The menu is succinct and simple, with classic Tuscan recipes and a few salutes to his time at Tosca. Start with antipasti like roasted calamari or fried squash blossoms, and be sure to sample the fresh pastas like tortelli stuffed with robiolina and black truffle complemented by a porcini mushroom sauce. Entrées range from a fish of the day to a New York strip. To finish, there’s a selection of traditional desserts like tiramisu infused with truffles and budino. 1316 9th St. NW, DC; www.sanlorenzodc.com

Gravitas

Matt Baker’s sophisticated restaurant is planted in the former Pappas Tomato Factory, which has been transformed into an urban oasis where minimalist fixtures, mossy accents and hanging terrariums are juxtaposed with original 1940s brick, windows and steel beams. Gravitas is the first tasting menu spot to hit the neighborhood with a selection of 15 dishes – half of which are vegetarian – that can be mixed and matched to create a custom experience. Baker focuses as much on sourcing as he does on experimentation, pulling ingredients almost exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. 1401 Okie St. NE, DC; www.gravitasdc.com

The Green Zone

After four years of popping up around town, this Middle Eastern cocktail bar found a permanent home in the diverse Adams Morgan neighborhood. The spices and ingredients showcased in the drinks are ones that are commonly found in the region’s cuisine but haven’t often been translated to cocktails. Some recipes are riffs on classic nonalcoholic beverages like the seasonal frozen mint lemonade spiked with vodka or gin. The signature creation is the Janissary Corps, made with Green Hat gin, pistachio, lemon and “silky magic.” The food menu consists of Lebanese and Levantine street food like falafel, hummus, spicy wings and mana’ish. 2226 18th St. NW, DC;
www.facebook.com/thegreenzonedc

Little Havana

Restaurateur Alfredo Solis expanded his portfolio to include more than Mexican (El Sol and Mezcalero). He teamed up with Chef Joseph Osorio to bring a splash of Cuba to Columbia Heights. A painted “neon” sign emulating the Miami Vice logo ties together the murals covering the walls at Little Havana, featuring Cuba’s colorful streets as well as some of the country’s cultural icons. Classic dishes like ropa vieja, vaca frita and empanadas are offered alongside modern interpretations like Cuban rolls – essentially a Cubano sandwich crossed with a spring roll. Of course, Osorio also makes a traditional Cubano, which he says is perfect thanks to his godmother’s lechon recipe. 3704 14th St. NW, DC; www.littlehavanadc.com

Little Sesame

The original iteration of Little Sesame was an instant hit, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first standalone location opened with a line out the door that has continued to form each day during the lunch rush. Ronen Tenne, Nick Wiseman and David Wiseman are behind this wildly popular fast-casual hummus shop that serves up hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and seasonal salatim (vegetable sides). The hummus quite literally holds it all together, so its recipe was tweaked unto perfection. It’s enhanced by additions ranging from whole roasted vegetables and fresh produce to herbs and spices. 1828 L St. NW, DC; www.eatlittlesesame.com

St. Anselm

Joe Carroll, the man behind St. Anselm in Brooklyn, teamed up with restaurateur Stephen Starr and Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley to bring the grill-centric restaurant to the Union Market neighborhood. While it’s often hailed as a steakhouse, St. Anselm is about more than beef. The cooking relies heavily on fire, with everything from Spanish octopus and Romano beans to a rack of lamb and a pork porterhouse hitting the grill that sits in the center of the open kitchen. When it comes to beef, the cuts are on the unusual side – like hanger steak and flat iron. 1250 5th St. NE, DC; www.stanselmdc.com

Reverie

Your Uber driver might have a hard time finding Chef Johnny Spero’s Georgetown restaurant. Reverie is tucked down a cobblestone alley in a historic building near the canal. Though the exterior is timeworn, the interior is minimalist and modern, taking after Nordic design. The cuisine follows suit, with dishes that skip overwrought techniques in favor of letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Spero refines his burger with misozuke and reimagines lovage as a granita accented with elderflower. Large-format dishes like crispy roast duck with licorice and fennel are meant to be shared. 3201 Cherry Hill Ln. NW, DC; www.reveriedc.com

Call Your Mother Deli

When Andrew Dana and the Timber Pizza team were trying to come up with a name for their new deli, they tossed around phrases that a Jewish grandmother might yell. Someone shouted, “Call your mother!” and thus the deli was born. The Boca-meets-Brooklyn shop is branded as “Jew-ish” rather than Jewish because while they are traditional in some ways by serving deli classics, they strive to put modern twists on expected dishes. Their bagels are the main event, with the production line and custom, wood-fired Marra Forni bagel oven front and center in the open kitchen. 3301 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.callyourmotherdeli.com

Officina

Chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s latest project is three stories of Italian culinary exploration, starting on the first floor with a market and café, continuing upstairs with a neighborhood restaurant and amaro library, and culminating on the roof with an al fresco terrace and private dining room. Stefanelli intended each concept to have its own personality and purpose, and to be visited at different times of day for different moods. The expansive space lives up to its name – Officina means workshop in Italian – as an epicurean hub where everything from pasta-making to butchery is done in-house. 1120 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.officinadc.com

American Son

Global brand Eaton Workshop opened their hotel on K Street last fall, with all four food and beverage concepts led by Chef Tim Ma. The main attraction on the first floor is the street-facing American Son, where Ma presents American food through the lens of immigrants. The name is a reflection of Ma’s childhood, growing up in the 70s and facing discrimination as one of the only Asian families in Arkansas. His parents tried to help Ma assimilate throughout his upbringing, even introducing him as “my American son.” Some dishes pull flavors from Ma’s Chinese heritage, while others are influenced by international cuisines like French and Middle Eastern. 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.eatonworkshop.com/hotel/dc/food-and-drink

Philly Wing Fry

Philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries. The combination is a curious one, but for Chef Kwame Onwuachi, it’s simple: three of his favorite things in one meal. After opening Kith and Kin to critical acclaim, Onwuachi decided to revive his fast-casual concept Philly Wing Fry with locations in the new South Capitol Hill Whole Foods and Union Market. The menu is succinct, with sandwiches, tamarind-glazed confit chicken wings, waffle fries dusted with Ethiopian berbere spice and combo options. The crown jewel is the dry-aged Philly cheesesteak, but there’s also a vegetarian interpretation with crispy mushrooms. Whole Foods Market: 101 H St. SE, DC; www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/southcapitolhill // Union Market: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.unionmarketdc.com

Lani Furbank

Lani Furbank is a freelance food, drinks, and lifestyle writer based in the D.C. area. She was born and raised in Northern Virginia, but stays true to her Welsh-Taiwanese heritage by exploring new places and experimenting with recipes from around the world. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.