Review | 5 great affordable restaurants in the D.C. area (2024)

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My response to restaurant prices going up, up and away is not to eat out less, but to vary my diet with bargains. They still exist; you just have to keep your eyes open. Some recent sleuthing netted a multicourse steak dinner for less than $40 — in Washington, no less; a Nicaraguan spread that could have been two meals for $20; and a jaunt to Vietnam via a filling bowl of pho for about the cost of a movie ticket.

Think of those and other deals on meals as a different kind of fine dining — the kind that’s big on flavor but easy on the wallet.

Steak Frites DC

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The downside to being a Swiss restaurant in Washington is summer in the city. So says Silvan Kraemer, co-owner of Stable, popular for its fondue, raclette and other warming comfort foods. Throughout its seven-year run, he says, the Swiss restaurant was known as “a cold-weather destination.” Most recently, it didn’t help that competitors on H Street NE were closing, foot traffic was down, and chef and co-owner David Fritsche was facing major surgery for an ankle damaged when a car hit him on his bike during the pandemic.

“We had to make a drastic change,” says Kraemer.

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Enter Steak Frites DC, a pop-up created in April by the business partners to replace Stable during the warm months and attract a wider audience. The lure: a steak dinner for $37. Inspired by the historic Cafe de Paris in Geneva, the deal starts with a sleeve of warm sourdough bread and is followed by a sprightly salad. The centerpiece — 10 ounces of sliced entrecôte — arrives in a butter bath on a stand with a burner along with shoestring fries. The cozy little chalets in the rear remain, but their original red accents have been replaced with fresh wallpaper and local art.

As with Stable, the glory is in the details. The bread is baked on-site, the salad comes with green beans and a sunny lemon dressing, and the rich sauce puddled under the beef features the 94-year-old recipe from Cafe de Paris. Almost 30 ingredients go into the butter, says the chef, including capers, anchovies, fresh herbs and orange. The current vegetarian option is a risotto with asparagus and peas; toppings will change with the season, says Fritsche.

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The best new restaurants in the D.C. area

Review | 5 great affordable restaurants in the D.C. area (1)Review | 5 great affordable restaurants in the D.C. area (2)

Explore Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s 26 favorite new restaurants in the D.C. area, featuring a new pizza place from a familiar name, vegetarian Vietnamese, Afro-fusion and a triple helping of standout Mexican options.

View the full 2024 spring dining guide.

And read about the new dining reality, where restaurateurs are saying no to large parties and are closing during the midweek.

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Does the drill sound like Medium Rare, the District’s steak frites forebear? The pop-up embraces more variety. Diners can order dishes a la carte, including chicken liver pate, local oysters, a burger made with trimmings from the signature dish, and desserts including house-churned strawberry and vanilla ice cream gilded with fresh strawberries and whipped cream — the most revivifying end to a meal of meat.

Remember, this is temporary. Swiss comfort food will return once the weather cools. The Swiss flag out front all but promises that.

1324 H St. NE. 202-733-4604. steakfritesdc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining. Entrees $22 to $28. Fixed-price dinner $37.

Feru Bar and Restaurant

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My server seems disappointed I don’t want to take home my unfinished lunch. “Seriously?” she asks. I look at the spread of awaze tibs and kitfo and reconsider. The meal at the year-old Ethiopian outpost was very good, after all, and if I don’t dispatch it, I know eager takers at home. My guide deftly wraps the lot to go and sends me out the door with thanks and a command: “Make sure you eat it!”

Only later, when I call owner Firehiwot Bireka, do I learn that she not only cooks the food at her maiden restaurant, she serves it. Bireka was my attendant! No wonder she didn’t want to see her handiwork go to waste. A native of Addis Ababa, the 35-year-old uses her mother’s recipes and her late father’s nickname for her on the door.

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The dining room is fragrant with incense and easy on the eyes. Banquettes are gold and green, a symbol of prosperity, says Bireka, and a handsome bar with six stools draws attention to the rear. Frosted glass sets off a private area that can seat up to a dozen people. A small stage is a platform for Ethiopian tea ceremonies (and, sometimes, musical performances). Before opening Feru, Bireka worked at Enjera and Dama restaurants, both in Arlington, and danced professionally in her homeland.

Feru’s vegetable combination platter includes batons of beets, golden lentils sharpened with fresh ginger and red lentils sweetened with tomatoes. (Collards could use more seasoning.) The prize among the meat dishes is awaze tibs, a stew of tender cubes of beef, onion, tomato and fresh rosemary in a cloak of sauce whose heat comes from berbere, the peppery and aggressive Ethiopian spice blend.

I swoon over the kitfo here. Not the traditional version, made with raw minced meat, but a superior vegetarian dish using diced mushrooms, jalapeños and mitmita, an orange-red spice blend that includes bird’s eye chile peppers and cardamom for bold effect. “Do you need a fork, or do you eat with your hands?” the chef asked this anonymous patron on a first visit. I answered by picking up a scroll of injera, ripping off a piece of the tangy pancake and plucking a morsel of doro wat, or chicken stew, from the platter.

Feru’s acoustics allow for easy conversation, and knowing the owner’s background can result in an impromptu dance lesson. Ask Bireka to demonstrate eskista, perhaps the most vigorous way to work off a meal. My shoulders ache just watching the performance.

512 S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria. 703-566-0843. discoverferu.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees $18 to $60 (for a shareable meat combination).

Peter Chang Gaithersburg

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The best compliment a restaurant can get is a customer who comes to eat three times a week. A regular known to the staff as “Mr. Jack” does just that at this recent addition to the Peter Chang dining empire. Patronage has its privileges: The guy is getting a drink named after him.

Surely one of the reasons he drops by so often is the gentle prices. The small plates hover around $8 on average. Equally enticing, the list runs nearly 70 choices long.

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Bring a gang to help mine the lot. The gems include tingling, “Chengdu spicy” sliced steamed chicken scattered with peanuts and scallions; “Mama’s” handmade wheat noodles, slick with chili oil and a reminder of the women in chef Chang’s life; walnut shrimp tossed with mayonnaise and just the right amount of lemon and honey; and several larger platters. One is a big bowl of chicken broth, thick with fermented cabbage and dressed with tender fish balls and yellow-edged fish cakes. The electric current running through each spoonful is jalapeños.

Every branch of the brand looks a little different from the pack. The Gaithersburg location stands out for its broad windows, red walls painted with birds and clouds, and what serves as a family photo album in the entry: framed pictures of Chang and kin through the years.

637 N. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg. 240-912-4962. peterchanggaithersburg.com. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout. Small plates $3 to $18.

Pho 75

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This might be the only restaurant of my acquaintance where I’ve spent the same amount of time waiting to get in as I have consuming the main attraction.

Vietnamese noodle soup has that kind of pull.

Is there a better, more versatile soup? Long-simmered beef broth, fragrant with star anise and cinnamon, crammed with thin rice noodles and scattered with cilantro and scallions, can be customized nearly 20 ways with various cuts and assortments of meat. My most recent order was No. 7, thick with thinly shaved eye-round steak, well-done flank and softly crunchy beef tripe. The only other thing you have to think about is what size you want, “regular” — almost enough for two diners — or large. Whatever your choice, the bowl becomes a feast when it’s trailed by a plate of Thai basil, crisp bean sprouts, jalapeño slices and lime wedges, plus sweet-spicy bean sauce and hot red chili sauce parked on the table: a party of garnishes.

The sleeper on the menu is some of the headiest chicken soup in memory washed back with young coconut juice, served in a tall glass with a slender spoon for retrieving soft, slippery pieces of coconut. The broth is coaxed from whole chickens, breast meat and bones — serious fortification.

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“Cash only,” announces a sign in the window of the foyer. An ATM in the rear of the dining room — named in part for the year Saigon fell to communism, and the oldest in a chain of eight regional storefronts — comes to the rescue of those who live by credit cards. The walls of what looks like a cafeteria are alternately dressed with snapshots of Vietnam or (well-deserved) awards from local publications. The music is by way of clicking chopsticks and murmurs of appreciation.

No one seems to linger here, not with so many eyes on them, but neither do soup slurpers feel rushed. Manager Chi Ngo says an average of 500 bowls leave the kitchen a day, and the least busy times are 10 a.m., when the doors open, and between 3 and 6 p.m.

Like wine in the glass, pho changes flavor in the bowl over time. The last spoonfuls of soup are always more complex than the first. Which reminds me to remind you: It’s okay to tilt the bowl back to catch every last drop.

1721 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-525-7355. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Pho $9 to $11.45.

El Chante Comedor y Fritanga Nica

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I came for lunch but wind up with dinner, too.

When it comes to quantity, this Nicaraguan outpost, sibling to the nearby Frank’s Burger Place and District Bistro, delivers. My eyes pop when my carne asada is dropped off. Flanking the grill-crisped beef are nubby rafts of warm fried cheese, tangy slaw, rice and beans, and curvy fingers of fried plantains. The only thing missing at my table is someone with whom to tackle the bounty. In a subsequent phone conversation with the owner, Pedro Matamoros tells me his portions are on the modest side compared with what you’d receive in his native Nicaragua.

My strapping, $20 entree is the most expensive item on the menu and tastes of care as much as bitter oranges, garlic, oregano and mildly nutty annatto in the marinated flap steak. The rice is unusually delicious, too; the red beans in the mix are cooked a day ahead, then refried before serving, intensifying their flavor. The spread is prettier for its banana leaf backdrop.

If I’m not eating beef, I’m eating chicken, striped from the grill and accessorized with saucer-size tostones and the aforementioned bright slaw along with a drape of velvety garlic cream sauce strewn with soft green peppers and jalapeños. Sebastian Toledo Perez, a native of Colombia, is the chef here. Also among his attractions are fat, crescent-shaped enchiladas de carne, made by stuffing raw corn tortillas with shredded brisket and rice, then frying the hot pocket to a golden wisp. The finished product is staged on stinging shredded cabbage.

Flags from the United States and Nicaragua frame the window of the tidy, 28-seat storefront, where diners order from a counter in front of the open kitchen. When the server notices I’ve just purchased water to drink, she brings out gratis samples of something more compelling: purple dragon fruit lemonade and mocha-colored cacao, made from rice, milk and cocoa beans. Her little act of kindness is what turns the curious into fans, strangers into repeat visitors.

11265 Triangle Lane, Wheaton. 301-686-3091. elchantecomedor.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout. Entrees $14 to $20.

Review | 5 great affordable restaurants in the D.C. area (2024)
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