Best Restaurant

The Red Hen
1822 1st St. NW, (202) 525-3021
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

On a recent Friday night, a line a dozen deep formed in front of the Red Hen before the Bloomingdale restaurant opened at 5:30. What is this, Little Serow? It seems the Italian-ish Bloomingdale restaurant from chef Michael Friedman, Michael O’Malley, and Sebastian Zutant has reached that status—even with reservations.

The reason I and others get there early like senior citizens to secure a walk-in spot at the horseshoe-shaped bar is not some fancy tasting menu or clever cuisine—the predictable trappings of a “best” restaurant. The Red Hen specializes in relatively simple food, but it does it extraordinarily well.

A custom-made grill fueled by Virginia oak is one of the restaurant’s greatest assets. A touch of smoke graces whipped ricotta crostini with balsamic brown butter and truffle honey, which should be required eating for any first-timer. The same goes for grilled octopus that likewise absorbs a bit of that campfire quality. It’s served over white beans “alla romesco” and a creamy anchovy- and tuna-based tonnato sauce then topped with a salad of shaved fennel and frisée. While octopus is as cliché as tuna tartare on D.C. menus these days, this one stands out. “Large plates” like a spicy-lemony wood-grilled chicken “fra diavolo” and pan-roasted veal sweetbreads are cooked to moist perfection.

But at the heart of the Red Hen’s menu are its pastas. Made in-house to textural perfection, they are the best in the city. The rigatoni with fennel sausage ragu and pecorino romano cheese is a menu staple for good reason. Beyond that, the offerings change with the seasons. Recently, I wavered from my standard order for spinach paccheri (wide pasta tubes) smothered in a lamb shank sauce with sweet potato. The dish looks and sounds deceptively heavy, but the flavor is light thanks to preserved lemon, saffron, and mint. Meanwhile, a saffron pumpkin-shaped pasta with butternut squash puree, wild mushrooms, sage, and toasted almonds provides the same decadent pleasure you get from a chocolate sundae.

Simplicity rules the drink menu, too, where cocktails lean bitter with a negroni or “Mr. Nick’s 5th Soul” (Old Overholt rye whiskey, Fernet, mint, Aperol). The restaurant has also become known for its wine thanks to Zutant. The former wine director at Proof began serving orange wine on the Red Hen’s menu long before it was trendy. More recently, Zutant, who aims to one day have his own wine label, produced a rosé exclusive to the restaurant. It’s one example of how the Red Hen takes making things from scratch seriously.

But ultimately, something worthy of the title of “best” is not just about the food or drinks. It’s about how the whole experience makes you feel. In that regard, the Red Hen is cozy and warm like a (not-kitschy) cabin in the woods with a fireplace in the background. It feels like a neighborhood spot in a genuine way, not the way that countless other places now try to manufacture. At the same time, the Red Hen has reached far beyond its neighbors. It’s turned a residential area that was once more commonly described as “near Big Bear Cafe” into a mini dining hub. If you don’t have a reservation, get in line.

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