Fast Casual Dining – Choice or Chore?

Are you familiar with the restaurant concept of “Fast Casual”?  It’s the kind of place like Chipotle or Panera –– no table service, but the ingredients are fresher and the menu a little more diverse than a fast food place.  Often, as at Chipotle, the customer gets to assemble a dish cafeteria-style, asking for things to be tailored to their preferences.

We have mixed feelings about this sort of “Fast Casual” restaurant. This is the kind of place that we also think of as an assembly-line or car-wash restaurant. You order the basic structure of your meal from the first person you see, then you follow your food along from person after person at station after station making more decisions and pretty much supervising everything that happens to your meal. At the end, you have exercised extreme creative control over what you’re eating, but you also had to make a pile of quick decisions and interact briefly with four or five different people.

Sometimes we really like this. Eating exactly what we want. Trying out combinations or ingredients we might not previously have thought of. Other times, we just want to order a dish off a menu and get on with our day. How about you — what’s your take on assembly-line cuisine?

We want to know because in every evening in Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC we include a more affordable dining option along with the fancy place. And one thing we REALLY like about these Fast Casual places is that the diversity and quality of the menu usually adds up to great food value for your money. The clientele and staff tend to be young, lively and friendly, giving a really nice vibe for kicking off a great evening.

We’ve included Shophouse, which is Chipotle’s Asian side project, and Merzi, an Indian Fast Casual spot, as dining options in several evenings. Some of our friends and family are crazy about &Pizza which, you’ve probably already figured out, applies this model to personal pizzas. The whole category is growing rapidly; but should we let it grow in our evenings out?

Please share your thoughts either with comments below or by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Eastern Market Neighborhood Story

See how the locals live in this pretty, mixed-use area just a few blocks east of the Capitol building. If you take the short walk along Pennsylvania Ave SE from the Capitol complex, you’ll be amazed how quickly the marble walls and intense hill staffers give way to cute little homes and intriguing businesses prowled by locals and a few savvy visitors like yourself. If the late morning finds you near the big dome, this neighborhood is a great side trip for lunch and a recharge before returning to the mall.

Eastern Market is named for the city’s last operating historic market. The market building proper, at the corner of 7th and C Sts SE is open during the daytime with produce stalls, specialty food shops, and a quaint lunch counter. The grounds just outside have produce stalls during the week and craft goods on the weekends.

The neighborhood is bounded by Pennsylvania Ave SE to the south and North Carolina Ave SE to the north. (Where else but the district can you be simultaneously north of Pennsylvania and south of North Carolina?) 6th St SE and 10th St SE provide the west and east borders. Most of the commerce runs along Pennsylvania and 7th with homes and pocket parks filling up the rest of the space. The best metro station for the area is called Eastern Market as well.

If you’re in Eastern Market for one of our evenings from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC, you’re probably headed to a show at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), a darling little black box theater in the adjoining Barracks Row neighborhood. There isn’t a great deal of nightlife here in Eastern Market, although the local, divey Tunnicliff’s Tavern is a frequent post show drinking spot for artists performing at CHAW.

There are a number of very nice restaurants in the neighborhood. Acqua Al Due is a charming Italian spot with a sister restaurant in Florence. Monmartre is a sleek and tasty French destination. Radici Market or District Taco are good choices for a quick bite, perhaps to take away and eat on a bench in the tiny park at Pennsylvania and D SE.

Beyond the market itself, there are numbers of attractive specialty stores along 7th St SE. Fairy Godmother and Dawn Price Baby testify to the child raising element in the area. Woven History features funky textiles from far away. Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm there’s a big flea market for those who like to poke through random stuff for treasures.

While there is no single giant reason for the visitor to stop in Eastern Market there are enough little ones that you’ll be glad you made time. DC has a lot of grandeur. Eastern Market is one of the best places to learn that it also has a great deal of charm.

Please let us hear about your Eastern Market adventures either in comments here or by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Neighborhood restaurants – do they make the “Great” grade?

Do you know the category “Great Neighborhood Restaurant”? These are the places that rarely act as destinations for people from far away, but they’re faultlessly comfortable and welcoming. The food is always good enough that dinner there sounds like a plan if you live down the block. Maybe they sponsor an adult kickball team or something like that. When you go to yours, you’re likely to see someone you know almost any time. The whole menu looks tempting, but there’s this one dish you’re probably going to get every time. These are, in their own way, great places; and they add a lot to the texture of a neighborhood.

So far, we’ve mostly steered clear of this when pulling together plans for Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. They just struck us as a little mundane for the kind of elevated date night we’re hoping to send you on.

But a few weeks ago, we tried to take ourselves to dinner before a show in Bethesda and learned that Food, Wine, and Co, which had been our preferred dinner place in that area, and we found out that it had closed its doors for good. As we cast around for a replacement (which was critical not just to feed ourselves but because we had recommended Food, Wine, and Co for great evening #9 in the just released edition) friends directed us to Persimmon (7003 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda, MD 20815 301-654-9860 persimmonrestaurant.com) which turned out to be very much a Great Neighborhood Restaurant, with super-tasty seafood and friendly service, and definitely a good locals vibe.

We had a very nice meal, and decided we could use it for the evening in the July – September edition, particularly since it was right around the corner from the play. (Sara has updated the Kindle and PDF versions of that edition, so please update yours if you’ve already pulled it down.)

Our question still is, as a matter of general policy, should Neighborhood Restaurants like this be part of a great evening out? They don’t offer the kind of stand-out qualities we’re usually looking for (and which we’ve written about before). Persimmon, for example, has acoustic tile ceilings and absolutely generic booths and tables.   But the service was great, the food was better than fine, and the atmosphere was so much that of a gathering of friends, it was special in its own way.

So we’re putting this out as a question that I hope you’ll help us answer in the comments to this post below. Why should we or shouldn’t we include comfortable neighborhood restaurants in the book? How do they fit or fail to fit into your concept of a great evening out? If you’d like to send a private answer, you can also send it to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com. Thanks!

Fireworks, onstage and in the sky

This post goes out especially to all of you who will be visiting DC for the upcoming 4th of July weekend. There will be scads of things to do and legions of people here to do them. Popping in to one of these three plays from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC would be a great addition to your DC visit.

The following Great Evenings, described in greater detail in the book, are all available this weekend. Some of the schedules are altered a little for the holiday, so there are details below.

Chalk (We Happy Few at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20003. no box office phone whfchalk.bpt.me) shows you a new take on a classic custody battle on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and has a Saturday matinee at 2 PM if you want to escape the heat.

Another Way Home (Theater J 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20036. 202-777-3210 washingtondcjcc.org) takes you to summer camp with a twist on Thursday and Saturday nights with a 1 PM Sunday matinee for day campers.

Born for this: The Bebe Winans Story (Arena Stage at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org) hits all the right notes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights with a 2 PM matinee on Sunday for the after-church crowd.

Bonus insider tip from Great Evenings Out central: If you’re on the mall Monday night for the fireworks, you’ll have a better time if, after the last sparks fade, you continue lounging wherever you are for a while and let the bulk of the crowd take a head start. Metro stations fill to overflowing in the half hour immediately after the celebration, and where you’re sitting is probably more comfortable than shuffling slowly in a giant line.

Have a great Independence Day weekend in DC, and please share your adventures with us by comment on this post or at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Metro, still better than driving through gridlock, but not as good as usual

Strange things are definitely happening with DC public transit, and unfortunately it’s not fun for visitors or residents. A couple of weeks ago, on our way home from The Who and the What at Round House Theatre, our conductor abruptly announced that all passengers should get out at Woodley Park Station. We emerged and determined this looked like it might be a big delay, so even though it was raining we decided to take our chances on walking home as it only added one mile to our walk. As we went up the stairs from the platform, we saw smoke curling in from the southbound tunnel and the station manager was rushing people out of the station. That was a completely new experience for us, and still rare but more common than it should be.

In Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC we extol the virtues of the Metro system, especially Metro Rail, as a speedy and convenient way to get around the area.DC has some of the worst traffic in the country, and Metro is especially valuable during the otherwise gridlocked after-work hours when you’ll be wanting to get to your neighborhood for a great evening out. To a large extent, Metro still deserves to be your #1 travel choice for speed and reliability.

However, you may have picked up on news coverage that parts of the system have been discovered to need unusually high levels of maintenance. The operators of the system have announced “SafeTrack Surges,” or week-long periods when entire parts of the system will have reduced or no service. There’s one in progress right now that has two stations in SE DC completely closed until July 3rd.

That is clearly a huge inconvenience for thousands of locals.  For visitors, unless you are staying near one of the closed stations or outward from them, these closures shouldn’t have much impact on your enjoyment of the city.

Along with these Surges, some lines trains are running less frequently or “single tracking” at night and on weekends. While this is frustrating, the trains should still be able to get you home, you’ll just be waiting longer.

What can you do?  We suggest, first, doing a little bit of advance research:

  • Metro’s website: this web page has information on scheduled work that may disrupt your travel, through the end of the calendar year
  • Google: type “transit stops near [street address of your hotel or apartment]” into Google’s search field to learn more about public transit nearby
  • Your local hookup: call or email your concierge, Airbnb host, or a friend to ask for some backup transit advice
  • Your smartphone: download and set up Google Maps on your phone, which offers the best up-to-the-minute advice on transit options when you are on the ground in its Directions feature.  These include walking, Metrorail, buses, driving and hailing an Uber; speaking of which, download and set up the Uber app on your phone if you haven’t already.
  • Your wallet:  Of course, Uber and taxis are more expensive than public transit.  You may need to adjust your travel budget upwards for your trip this year — and invest in a decent pair of walking shoes, which will give you much more flexibility in this immensely walkable city.

Once you’re here in DC, you can use Google Maps/Directions, the Uber app, and the kindness of bartenders and theater house  managers to navigate the terrain.  And remember, in most neighborhoods in DC and almost all the neighborhoods we’re sending you to, you can hail a cab on the street or at a hotel as well (Shirlington is the main exception, and hailing an Uber works fine there).

Even with these delays, if you need to get on a weekday night from your just-closed museum on the Mall to a 6 PM dinner reservation in Bethesda, for instance a Metro Rail train is still a WAY better bet than trying to make the drive with thousands of homeward-bound commuters on the road. Hopefully, we’ll pass through SafeTrack Surges by the end of the fall, and get back to the more normal state in DC, which is of having one of the most useful and reliable transit systems in the USA.

We’ll always have that great evening out in DC

One of our big goals in curating evenings for Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC is to put together a series of experiences that will be memorable. At the risk of waxing philosophical, a human being consists fundamentally of a string of memories. Participating in activities that are easy to remember is basically a way to live more or bigger. We think there are three main things that make an experience especially memorable.

First, it is helpful if the experience includes strong and distinct sensory experiences. Visual appeal, texture, flavor, scent, and sound anchor memory. Sometimes, the sensory experience can be so strong it survives the rest of the memory. “Honey, where were we when we had that really incredible key lime pie?” Usually, though, stimulating the senses helps pin the memory to other facets of the experience and keep them fresh. We try to take advantage of this factor by choosing tasty food and drink in elegant surroundings, and leaning towards plays with an element of spectacle.

Second, we remember the exceptional better than we remember the routine. To a very large extent, things we do repeatedly like driving a commute or taking a favorite walk, get averaged together into one mega-memory. Even in those cases though, a sudden break from the script can anchor a memory. Pete has a regular walking route, around our neighborhood and through the National Zoo, that he does a few times a week for exercise. Two weeks ago, the Zoo was suddenly full of sculptures of sea creatures made of beach debris intended to dramatize the problem of ocean pollution (information here). That change to his expectations made that an especially memorable version of that walk. In our evening plans, we hope we’re showing you slivers of the DC area that aren’t already familiar to you, so that surprise can help rev up memory formation.

Finally, experiences you process in conversation lodge in memory. Inside the brain, when you remember something you really are telling yourself a story or putting on an internal play of what happened. Talking about the experience shortly after it happens lets your brain rehearse for later remembering. That’s why we recommend making some time toward the end of your evening to chat about the experience and start drafting the script for what your memory will perform for you in years to come.

So when it comes to crafting an evening out, we’re helping you make memories with sensory stimulation, novelty, and conversation. Please let us know what else makes an evening stand out in your mind at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Open Table App

As we’ve written before, your smartphone can be a key traveling companion, helping you get around and find cheap theatre tickets. Today, we want to share a useful app for assuring your table will be ready at a restaurant from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC.

OpenTable is a phone app with associated website that more and more restaurants use to allow diners to reserve a table without a pile of phone calls.  When you open the app, the first thing you see is the reservation form — expecting you to search for a table for two at 7 PM nearby.  All you have to do is hit the button, and a list of restaurants that are available then, usually sorted by how close they are to you. There are also ratings and reviews from other users of the app.

We like the impulsive, last-minute nature of Open Table’s system and do use it when on vacation.  However, as is true in many places, the best restaurants favored by locals in DC do tend to get busy at dinnertime.*

When used in tandem with our  suggested Great Evening Out, the OpenTable App shines as your own personal secretary, making your restaurant reservation and keeping the details handy for you.

When you open the App, enter a restaurant name, date and time (generally speaking, we recommend 6 pm dinner reservations if you’ve got a 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm showtime), and you’re off.  Even if you’re planning your visit from far away, the App should be able to find the restaurant in DC just from the name, but if not, click on the button that has the name of your location, and type in “Was” — the form will auto-fill to “Washington, DC” so pick that.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to do plan ahead or the restaurant is really one of the hottest spots in town, your first choice might not be available; OpenTable will also give you suggestions for other places nearby with availability, basic price and cuisine info, and diner reviews so you can make a good second choice.

Once you’re happy with the time you’ve chosen, pick Complete Reservation and you know your table will be waiting for you.  The App will keep track of the details, and will include a map and link to Google Maps handy, so you can wait until the day of your reservation to sort yourself out.

You’ll need to set up an account with OpenTable which is free and which only wants your name, phone number, and email, so it isn’t much trouble. If you’re a Facebook user, you can also log in that way. You accrue some kind of points for dining out with the app, but we confess, we’ve never figured out what those points are good for. If you learn, please let us know at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Whether at one of our suggested restaurants or anyplace else, your smartphone can help make sure you don’t go hungry or wait a long time for a table when you’re away from home.


*We’d estimate that about half of the “nice” table-service restaurants we’ve listed require reservations many nights of the year; almost all of them in Penn Quarter/Gallery Place do, as this entertainment hub draws the biggest nightlife crowd in DC.  So if you’re considering making a nice restaurant a part of your Great Evening Out here, our Insider Tip is to get a reservation beforehand if you can’t take advantage of another route to the most in-demand restaurants, like eating very early or fairly late, and/or on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Why Washington, DC is one of the friendlier towns around

There’s no getting around it for visitors:  DC is a large city, sometimes it can be confusing, and it isn’t cheap.  However, as Insiders we want to reassure you with a few tips about the local population, and let you in on one of our best secrets: Washingtonians are actually pretty friendly.

One of the great things about the Washington, DC area as a destination, whether to visit or to live, is that most of the people here like to meet and get to know new people.

Because so many people visit our nation’s capital, or live here for just a few years while being, or working for, an elected official, the whole population is used to new faces.  Many remember the time when they were new themselves, and appreciated the kindness of strangers. Whether you’re at a bar or hanging out in a theater lobby, many people around you will welcome a greeting and some conversation.

It is true that DC can be obsessed about work. “So, what do you do?” is a common conversational opening here. Like most conversational openings, the goal is to establish some common ground. Two government employees or two lawyers exchanging answers to this question can quickly get on to sharing the kinds of stories about parallel experience that so often lay the foundation for friendships.

You can jump right in with how you earn your daily bread, or you can playfully subvert the script by answering with something other than a profession, which is one of the gambits we like to employ. “I coach my daughter’s soccer team.” “Today, I stared at French impressionist paintings for about an hour.” “I sit on this stool and wonder when the bartender will notice me.” An unexpected answer like this will almost certainly amuse the DC native and take the conversation someplace interesting.

An awful lot of Washingtonians are interesting and interested in the world — it’s what brought them here in the first place.  “How long have you lived in the area?” is a typical way to either start a conversation or redirect someone who is maybe going on a little too long about their pet project, so we recommend it, and be sure to share some information about your hometown and reasons for travel in exchange.

Some of us are even natives of the area or the city (an important distinction to some people, for whom being “from DC” means being born and raised within city limits).  Washington-area natives have what we like to think of as an ideal mix of Southern hospitality and Northern forthrightness — we’re friendly and outgoing, and we also like to get to the point.  So if you’re stuck for conversation, you can always ask someone to describe the area’s character, and see if it matches what you’ve gleaned in your time here.

During your vacationing daytime rambles around museums and monuments, you’ll be surrounded mostly by other visitors from around the country and around the world. Asking them what they have particularly enjoyed can start a pleasant conversation, and might even tip you to something you’d like to do.

So while you’re around the nation’s capital, make your way through your personal pilgrimage list, take that photo where your companion seems to be holding up the Washington Monument, have a few great evenings out, and don’t forget to meet some people beyond your fellow travelers and glimpse the place through their eyes as well.

Great Evening Extra: Mischief in Dixie, Gallery Place

We knew that eventually we would discover a great evening opportunity well after our Kindle e-book for the quarter had been published. It just happened, and this blog seems like a great place to make up our oversight.


An Octoroon performs Wed – Sun through June 26. Top ticket price $83.

A meaty meal and a play full of guilty laughs make for a memorable evening in Gallery Place. This is one of Washington’s most varied entertainment districts with theaters, a cinema, a giant sports venue, and dozens of bars and restaurants drawing people here on many different quests. (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial)

Start with dinner at The Partisan. This stylish yet comfortable restaurant is kin to its neighboring butcher and deli Red Apron. As a result, the menu is liberally supplied with mouthwatering meaty dishes. The menu is organized around the type of creature at the center of the dish and further broken down into small, medium, and large. When they say large, they mean it with some of the large dishes sufficient for 4 diners. There is also a good variety of vegetarian dishes that can serve as sides to a mixed meal or as a whole meal for those avoiding meat. We know them mostly as a bar, where they shine whether in cocktails, beer, or wine. Service is friendly and helpful. (709 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. 202-524-5322. thepartisandc.com)

Enjoy the same great ingredients without all the trappings and with significant savings by picking up sandwiches at Red Apron. There’s a little bit of seating inside, but on a nice evening, you’d do well to head across D St NW and step down the pedestrianized section at the end of 8th St NW for pleasant bench seating either north of or on Navy Memorial. Take selfies with the sculpted sailor, find your home on the huge map, or just eat your dinner then pop into Plan B (just outside the northwest curve of the memorial) for a drink before heading to Woolly. (709 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. redapronbutchery.com)

An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth takes on racial issues in a bunch of different ways. We open with a side-splitting monologue from an actor playing playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins about his frustration at only being encouraged to write race plays. He goes on to star in and show us his adaptation of a melodrama from 1859 about a southern plantation in financial difficulty with a love story on the side. The original play went to a lot of trouble to distinguish good slave owners from bad slave owners, a concept that is offensive all on its own in 2016; then Brandon layers on more unsettling elements in the form of people playing characters not their own race by slapping on make-up and two women playing slaves who provide running commentary in contemporary language very different from how other characters speak. Somehow, though, with the wonderful acting and brilliant design, most people are finding they can overlook all that and wrestle with the fascinating question of what made someone want to put this play on stage in just this way. It made us think, and you’ll likely enjoy it too. (641 D Street, NW Washington, DC 20004. 202-393-3939 woollymammoth.net/octoroon/)

You’ll have a lot to discuss just around the corner at the bar of Oyamel. We’ve used this Mexican restaurant for dinner in other Great Evenings. The strongest suit is cocktails made with tequila and mescal. We’re still learning about mescal, and so sometimes order a sampler flight. The bartenders are great and will talk you through any of their offerings. Beer and wine are also good. There are often classic Mexican action movies on the screen. Did the show make you uncomfortable? Was it in a good way? Why does it break so many rules? (401 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. oyamel.com)

Latest Edition, Hot Off the [Virtual] Press!

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We are pleased as punch to announce the release of the Jul – Sep 2016 edition of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC.

This edition is a bit different from our prior offerings.

First, it’s out in plenty of time to read through it and make some plans before any of the shows start up. It’s taken a lot of new discipline to tighten up our schedule. If we didn’t crow about this a little bit, we’d pop.

We’re particularly excited that the Capital Fringe festival will flood July 7th – 31st with scores of thrilling shows.  Rather than trying to select particular shows to suggest, we’ve asked one of our favorite local writers, Trey Graham, to create a special roll-your-own Great Evening Out from the offerings of the festival and restaurants and bars nearby, entitled “How to Fringe Without Losing Your Mind.”  Thanks, Trey!

Unlike many cities where lots of the live performing arts take the summer off, Washington has a real year-round theater scene.  Fortunately, many locals also head out over the summer, so you will likely find it a bit easier to get into the incredibly popular restaurants and bars here in town.  Win-win for the visitor looking for a Great Evening Out!

In another big change for this edition, you can grab a PDF of the book to print out  (it’s just 26 pages) or read on your computer or iPad.  We also continue to make it available through the Kindle store at Amazon if you want the convenience of getting it loaded automatically to your Kindle or the Kindle App on your device. Our passion for this project has always been to enable more people to enjoy the wonderful restaurants, theaters, and bars around DC. Offering more ways to get it out to people advances that cause and makes it even easier for you to share with friends. Please do!

As ever, we’re eager to hear from you. Let us know how you feel about the new edition by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.