When I first moved to Washington seven years ago, I was an unpaid intern on a strict budget. Even though I prepped a lot of my meals at home, I still managed to eat out thanks in part because I found a ton of incredibly delicious places to eat in DC on a budget from the city’s diverse population.
Being one of the top three racially diverse cities in the United States, some of the best places to eat in DC on a budget are immigrant-owned restaurants. Better yet, budget eats in DC does not automatically equate to unhealthy fast-food options.
Instead, you can expect to dine on Ethiopian meals that are communal in nature, Cuban sandwiches coupled with refreshing glasses of $5 mojitos during happy hour, or iconic bowls of chili and half-smokes after a night out in the historic U Street Corridor.
The District of Columbia is filled with homegrown restaurants and fast-casual options that represent the variety of expat and immigrant communities that make up its resident population. And, best of all, a lot of them are incredibly cost-friendly — here are eight of the best places to eat in DC on a budget.
8 of the Best Places to Eat in DC on a Budget
Ben’s Chili Bowl
From the race riots to 1968 to the economic decline of the historic U street corridor, there has been only one business to witness it all, and come out better: Ben’s Chili Bowl. Founded by Trinidadian-born immigrant, Ben Ali, and his wife Virginia, Ben’s has been a staple in the DC community since it opened back in 1958.
With $6.99 half-smokes and $5.99 bowls of Ben’s famed homemade chili con carne, I find Ben’s to be one of the best places to eat in DC on a budget, especially after a night out.
Home to the largest Ethiopian diaspora, no visit to DC is complete without having an Ethiopian meal. Located in a cozy DC rowhouse in Shaw (there’s also a second location in Bethesda), a meal at Chercher to me feels like dining in your grandma’s home…if she were Ethiopian!
Everything is served on large communal plates and eaten with your hands using injera, a light, spongy flatbread made of teff hay. Dining here is a vegetarian delight — the wats are spiced stews and include my favorite, shiro wat, made from a savory chickpea flour sauce, along with with gomen, really well-seasoned collard greens.
I first remember stumbling into this local falafel chain after a late night out in Adams Morgan. Inspired by the falafel culture in Amsterdam, Amsterdam Falafelshop has grown since then with two more DC locations.
You get to choose from a falafel sandwich or bowl as your base and then add as many sauces, pickles, and add-ons from the toppings counter as you desire. Add a side of french fries (they’re double-fried and extra crispy!), and your meal will run you less than $15.
When owners, Gabriela and Ali, immigrants from Venezuela, introduced Washingtonians to Venezuelan cuisine in 2014, it was out of a modest food truck. Since then, they began to serve arepas — savory ground corn patties filled with a mixture of meat, cheese, or veggies — at food festivals before opening up a stall inside DC’s popular food hall, Union Market, and then a bustling downtown 14th street restaurant.
All menu items run under $15, including my favorite carb-heavy option, tequeños, which are deep-fried cheese sticks served with a garlic-cilantro dipping sauce.
This small, vibrant space off DC’s popular 14th street corridor comes to life in the spring and summer with its chill, outdoor rooftop space. Colada Shop also offers one of my favorite happy hours in the city — think $6 mojitos, Cuba libres, house beers and wines, and $2 empanadas!
If you’re visiting any other time of day, the croquetas and Cuban sandwiches (including a delicious veggie Cuban) are all under $10, making it one of the best places to eat in DC on a budget.
Hatoba, which means dock in Japanese, was designed with its Navy Yard location mind and focuses entirely on Sapporo-style ramen. Housed inside an over 100-year old boilermaker building, the interior features touches of shipping containers and nods to Japanese baseball memorabilia (Nationals Park is just a couple of blocks away).
This is my neighborhood ramen spot, and I always order the tomato curry ramen when I visit. It comes with a whole confit beefsteak tomato and is a hearty vegan-friendly option that I can honestly eat for two meals — it will run you $13.75.
At a time when the country seems more divided than ever, Immigrant Food aims to change that through food. Set just a block away from the White House, the fusion menu shows diners the diversity that exists in the nation’s capital.
You can choose from nine colorful bowls, all under $15, with an interesting mix of flavor profiles from all around the world. The “Columbia Road” bowl, named after the main drag in Adams Morgan, combines ingredients like pickled loroco flower buds and Ethiopian lentils, from Ethiopia and El Salvador, two of DC’s largest immigrant populations.
The first to bring Asian-style tacos to the district as a food truck, Takorean, now offers multiple brick-and-mortar locations in the city. Three tacos set you back $10 and come with a choice of slaw — pickled kimchi and the spiced kale slaw with soy and a gochugaru dressing are especially popular.
I always order both vegetarian taco options, the seasonal chili-lime vegetables, or glazed tofu with the kimchi slaw. But if you want meat, the chili chicken, bulgogi steak, and bo ssam pork are also on offer.
Food Tours in DC
For even more foodie adventures, check out these food tours around DC:
H Street Food Tour
Learn more about the H Street neighborhood, which was once where the builders and artists of DC called home. The tour combines famous foodie stops as well as visits to historical sites. Check here for rates & availability
U Street Food Tour
This 3-hour walking tour includes both food, including the previously mentioned Ben’s Chili Bowl, and history as you walk 2 miles round the U street neighborhood. Part of your ticket also benefits Bread for Charity, which provides multiple services to locals. Check here for rates & availability
The “New York Times Journeys” Food Tour
For those of you interested in DC’s political culture, this food tour takes you through some the city’s most famous government buildings as well as the very bars and restaurants politicians go for a drink or a bite. Check here for rates & availability
Italian Food Tour
Walk all around Dupont & Logan Circle and taste some of the best of DC’s Italian offerings. While you taste different dishes, learn more about DC’s Italian immigrant history, which goes back to the 1800s. Check here for rates & availability
Original Brew Tour
If you just want to get a drink, then you might like the original brew tour. Learn a bit about DC’s boozy history and taste some craft beers at 4 different breweries. Check here for rates & availability
Georgetown Food Tour
Head all around the popular Georgetown neighborhood. Sample its surprisingly diverse restaurant scene while learning more about its interesting history. Part of your ticket for this tour is also donated to Bread for Charity. Check here for rates & availability
Have you been to any of these eight best places to eat in DC on a budget? Or is there one that we missed that’s an absolute must-visit? Let us know in the comments below!
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