There are many ways to get to the nation’s capital, and no matter your entry point, The Daily Meal has mapped out your meal plan. Whether you're traveling by plane or train, here are The Daily Meal’s top picks for avoiding tourist traps if you only have a few hours to kill in the transit hub of your choice.
Dulles International Airport
Five Guys: While travelers await revamped concourses here, Dulles International Airport does have some dining options. If it’s good enough for President Barak Obama, it’s good enough for us, especially if you don’t have enough time to leave the terminal. Five Guys, located in Concourse A and Concourse B, isn’t just another burger chain. Made-to-order hamburgers and cheeseburgers served with copious amounts of fresh-cut french fries are the special here. Add on as many toppings as you want, including barbecue sauce, jalapeños, hot sauce, onions, mushrooms, and more. President Obama orders his cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, jalapeños, and mustard, according to producers at the Travel Channel.
Thai Basil: Sample chef Nongkran Daks’ pad thai at Thai Basil in Chantilly, Va. Near the airport (The Food Network’s Bobby Flay did) to see what the fuss is all about. The restaurant also doles out curries like gang matsaman nua, cooked beef simmered in 17 herbs and spices, along with salads, appetizers, and desserts. Vegetarian options are also available.
Coastal Flats: It’s part of a corporate chain of restaurants, but shopaholics looking to avoid the usual food court options can find Gulf Coast Florida-inspired seafood dishes at Coastal Flats at retail mecca Tysons Corner Center — the sixth largest shopping center in the country. With more than 300 shops, a kid’s play area, a 16-screen movie theater, and more than 10 restaurants, it offers plenty of amusement. Shoppers beware: the area is known for its terrible traffic. It’s only 14 miles from the airport, but be sure to leave plenty of time to avoid spending even more time in transit.
Reagan National Airport
Old Town Alexandria: Stroll through an area with small town charm but with a big city vibe. Old Town Alexandria was founded by Scottish merchants in 1749 and has retained much of its charm. As this area can get congested, it’s wise to pick restaurants that are closer to the metro stop on King Street if you are pressed for time. For a casual yet tasty meal, sample some of the Neapolitan-inspired, thin crust, wood-fired brick-oven pizza at RedRocks. You can order traditional pies like marinara and margherita or build your own pizza. For a more upscale meal, head to Vermilion for its modern, inventive farm-to-table American fare by chef Tony Chittum like bacon-wrapped turkey roulade and fresh garlic-crusted grouper.
Del Ray: Although much smaller than Old Town Alexandria, Del Ray is charming enough on its own to warrant a visit. Head to Mount Vernon Avenue, the area's main street, and stop for a quick bite at Cheesetique, a cheese boutique and restaurant. As its name suggests, the highlight of the menu is cheese. Order a cheese board (choose boards with three, five, or six varieties that rotate weekly from the shop’s globetrotting lineup that includes hard and soft cheeses from the U.S., England, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland). Each cheese board comes with bread, crackers, and other accompaniments for purchase like glazed figs and tomato bruschetta. The menu is also filled with other cheesy items like mac and cheese and a range of grilled cheese sandwiches. Although Cheesetique provides diners with a small cup of dark chocolate chips at the conclusion of every meal, cross the street for some fresh, frozen custard from The Dairy Godmother. Although it's closed from mid-January to mid-February each year, the rest of the year The Dairy Godmother serves dense, creamy Wisconsin-style frozen custard. Each day the shop offers one flavor of custard, one sorbet, and one traditional vanilla custard hand-mixed with the day’s special ingredient.
Dama Pastry and Restaurant: About a 10-minute drive to the airport, Arlington’s Dama Pastry and Restaurant dishes out reasonably priced traditional Ethiopian food served on injera, a slightly sour Ethiopian flatbread with a spongy texture that is eaten by hand. The only-in-D.C. appeal of this place is undeniable; Almaz Dama, a pastry chef who worked in the White House during former President Bill Clinton’s administration runs the bakery here.
The area’s train-travel hub, Union Station, is home to its fair share of familiar chain eateries housed amid the station’s stunning architecture, but it’s best to leave the station to get a flavor of D.C.
Work up an appetite by visiting some of D.C.’s most iconic sights. The Capitol Building and National Mall are walking distance from Union Station and are iconic sights that make for great pictures. A lesser known, but interesting destination is the National Postal Museum. Just steps from Union Station, expect to see stamps and quirky collection items like John Lennon’s 145-page stamp album and keys that once belonged to a sea post clerk on the Titanic. Like many of D.C.’s museums, admission is free.
Bistro Bis: For fine French cuisine walk to Bistro Bis. Chef Jeffrey Buben’s Capitol Hill eatery serves up contemporary French fare like Onion Soup Les Halles (a rich beef broth with caramelized onions, sourdough croutons, and Gruyère cheese), ricotta-butternut squash filled crepes with caramelized onions, walnuts, parsnips and sage soubise, and steak frites (a seared 12-ounce sirloin with french fries and mesclun salad).
Ben’s Chili Bowl: It’s two-and-a-half miles from Union Station but hopping in a taxi is worth it. The celebrity (and presidential) photos on the wall are clear indications of Ben's Chili Bowl's city landmark status, but the continuous lines out the door are evidence that the restaurant's chili cheese dogs are some of the best in the country (it ranked number 83 on The Daily Meal’s 101 Best Restaurants in America). But those in the know don’t just order "dogs," they get the half-smokes, a half-pork, half-beef smoked sausage, which is a native D.C. specialty supposedly invented by Ben Ali, the original proprietor of Ben's Chili Bowl, whose sons took over the restaurant after his death. As the U Street Corridor/Shaw neighborhood around it has gentrified and become trendy, it's a more than 50-year-old bastion of down-home D.C. where college kids, old-timers, and celebrities are all welcome as long as they're willing to stand in line like everybody else though the president eats for free.