A Culinary Tour of Washington DC’s U Street Neighborhood

washington dc food tour
Since February is Black History Month, I thought it most appropriate to start off our Food Tours Around the World series with a Washington DC food tour – the nation’s capital is an area rich in history and African American culture.
 
A lot of Lou Lou and Jaf’s homeschooling curriculum for the month focused on African American history. It’s important to me, now more than ever, that my children learn about the courageous men and women that worked hard to bring about change. I love that there are food tours available, like the Washington DC food tour featured today, that combine the history of a city with food – it fits right in with our worldschooling curriculum.
       

Food Tours Around the World Series

As parents to two burgeoning foodies, we often find ourselves seeking out the best restaurants and street foods of places we’re traveling to. If you’ve ever done this before, you know just how time consuming reading blogs, top 10 lists, or checking yelp and trip advisor can be…which is why we’re so thankful to have discovered food tours!
    
Food tours are a great, kid-friendly way of getting to know the history and culture of a city with the added bonus of eating along the way. I’ll be hosting our first-ever on-going series on the blog called “Food Tours Around the World” where myself, along with guest bloggers, share our experiences of food tours we’ve taken around the world. You can keep up with the list of food tour reviews here. First up is Christabel Lobo from Where’s Bel sharing her Washington DC Food Tour experience of the U Street & Shaw neighborhoods with Carpe DC Food Tours.
 washington dc food tour

CARPE DC U STREET AND SHAW NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR

Carpe DC Food Tours was founded by Mary Collins and Stefan Woehlke after realizing many of their favorite travel memories ended up being about food. Upon returning, they wanted fellow travelers to experience Washington DC outside of the National Mall and its monuments by showcasing the District’s distinct neighborhoods and cuisines…and so Carpe DC was established in 2014!
     
With DC emerging as the country’s diverse restaurant and dining scene, I was eager to hop on a food tour and explore the city using my favorite sense…taste!

FOOD AND HISTORY ENTWINED

Washington DC’s U Street corridor neighborhood is iconic and steeped in history, architecture, food and culture which makes Carpe DC’s U Street Tour great for foodies and history buffs alike – you get a taste of both!
    
The tour started off on U street, which is accessible by taking either the green or yellow DC metro line. The U Street corridor has always had a burgeoning arts and music scene, attracting musicians from all over. It also happens to be the birthplace of Duke Ellington, DC’s local and famed jazz musician.
    
Having previously lived in DC for two years, I spent a lot of time exploring U Street’s nightlife scene, but the restaurants…not so much. I was excited to get a chance to get to see (and eat!) another side of one of my favorite neighborhoods.
     

Ben’s Next Door

Our guide for the afternoon, Imani, a DC native, and current Howard University student, was extremely knowledgable in all things DC.  She started our tour off at Ben’s Next Door, which as the name suggests, is right next to the iconic U street establishment, Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Washington DC food tour
Ben’s has seen it all – during the race riots of 68, the restaurant served activists, police and firefighters; during the economic decline of the 70’s and 80’s, when most residents moved to the suburbs, Ben’s remained open like a beacon of hope, and continued to do so in the 90’s with the development of the metro. No visit to DC is complete without a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl. They’re a local, family owned, iconic DC landmark serving up their famous chili, chili cheese fries, chili Dogs, chili cheeseburgers and chili cheese fries.
Washington DC food tourBen’s famous chili (veggie version) with a side cheese fries
And, vegetarians (like myself) need not worry, because they got you covered with their delicious veggie dogs and veggie chili! (Note, their veggie burger and homemade chili are vegan, while the veggie dogs are not).
 
As we walked to the next restaurant on the list, Imani stopped along the way to tell us about the neighborhood’s rich history.
Washington DC food tour
Did you know that the True Reformer Building was the first building to be designed by an African American, John Langford? Duke Ellington’s first paid performance happened inside that building.
Washington DC food tour
One of my favorite stops was the Paul Robeson memorial art mural wall. He was the first African American to play Othello on Broadway.

Matchbox 

The building in which the restaurant is located is historic in itself – built in 1907, it started out as a pool hall and bowling alley. In the 20’s, it was turned into a used car dealership and by the 40’s, it was Club Bali and despite what the name might suggest, served Korean food and was one of the first clubs in the district to have a cover charge.
Washington DC food tour
We got to taste taste their popular appetizer, arancini balls in tomato sauce and a veggie-blackened bahn mi burger with honey, cilantro, and some sriracha…which left me wanting another slider!
    

Fast Gourmet 

The highlight of the Carpe DC’s U Street and Shaw Neighborhood Tour for me had to be our stop at Fast Gourmet. Why? Because it’s a restaurant in a gas station. Yes, you read that right…in. a. gas. station. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked/driven by and not known of its existence!
Washington DC food tour
Started by two South American brothers, Fast Gourmet features a diverse menu, with a lot of Latin America flavors – they had seen gas stations back home serving up really delicious food, and wanted to test it out in DC. Almost seven years later, the consensus is it’s a success! Known for their Latin American specialities and hearty sandwiches, we got to sample their freshly made empanadas, which were filling and flavorful.
Washington DC food tour
With our empanadas in hand, we made the walk down Florida Ave, past colorful row-houses, toward the lower half of U street where we stopped by Industrial Bank, the first black owned bank in Washington, DC, and the African American Civil War Monument located right by the DC metro entrance.
Washington DC food tour

I love this DC street!

Washington DC food tour
Washington DC food tour

The memorial is a sculpture commemorating the more than 209,145 Soldiers who served in the United States Color Troupes during the Civil War.

Hebesha Market

Our next stop along the foodie trail was to try a cuisine I had first tasted in DC…Ethiopian. DC has more Ethiopian restaurants than any city outside of well, Ethiopia itself, and you’ll find them around the lower half of U Street. My favorite, Etete, which is normally a stop on the tour, was closed for renovations, so we went to Hebesha Market instead.
Washington DC food tour
You know a place is authentic when your group happens to be the only non-Ethiopians eating there! In addition to serving food, Hebesha Market sells Ethiopian goodies – spices, desserts, and injera – Ethiopian bread.
Washington DC food tour
As Ethiopian food is a communal activity, be prepared to use your hands! Everyone at your table digs in to the same plate, expect to use injera as your spoon for dipping in to the curries. If you’ve eaten Ethiopian food before and try it in DC, you’ll notice that the injera that’s served here is lighter. The reason for this is because DC has such a humid climate, they have to add yeast to the dough, resulting in injera of a lighter consistency.

    

Glen’s Garden Market

If you were wondering whether the food tour is worth the money, let me tell you that it definitely is. Even though you’re mainly given samples at each location (except for Hebesha Market, we split an entire plate of Ethiopian food…which our group of approximately 9 struggled to finish), the amount of samples is equivalent to a filling lunch.
Washington DC food tour
If it weren’t for walking through the U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, I would not have been able to eat the samples at our second last stop, Glen’s Garden Market. Known for being organic, eco-friendly, and most importantly, locally sourced, Glen’s Garden Market places an emphasis on fighting climate change by encouraging shoppers to buy local. In addition to being a market, they also serve a locally sourced and seasonal brunch on the weekends, which I highly recommend.
    

Calabash Teahouse

Our final stop on the three hour tour was for tea and an energizing, vegan dessert, at the Shaw neighborhood favorite, Calabash. When you walk in, you feel a sense of calm and immediately forget that you’re in a big, busy city. The owner is an herbalist, and can recommend a tea based on its medicinal benefits – so if you need something for your body, mind, or soul, Calabash has you covered.
Washington DC food tour
This was the perfect end to a long and filling food & history tour – the decor, calming aroma, artwork and people, leave you relaxed and ready to take on the rest of your day.
    

Carpe DC Food Tours Bottom Line

There’s a lot to see, do, and eat in Washington, DC, so if you’re looking for a tour that combines food & history, Carpe DC has you covered! I also highly recommend the tour to those that call the District home…it was a great way for me to get to know the history of a neighborhood I enjoy frequenting, and opened me up to new dining spots, some of which I can’t wait to go back to!
     
Important Details
Cost: $68 for food-only tickets and $89 for food and drink tickets.
Duration: 3 hours
Kid-Friendly? Y E S. There’s plenty of walking, so be prepared with comfy walking shoes, and water.
     
Have you taken a food tour in DC before? Where were your favorite restaurants? Let us know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: Thanks to Carpe DC Food Tours for offering a complimentary tour. However, as always, all opinions expressed on the blog are our own. 

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