For those of you new to Silver Spring, this historic suburb of Washington, D.C. has seen an astonishing revival in the last decade. We now have a bazillion new restaurants with cuisines ranging from Burmese to Cuban to Ethiopian and classic American (like Mrs. K’s Tollhouse where Eleanor Roosevelt often dined). And we have tons of entertainment: there’s the beautifully revived AFI theater that often plays retrospectives of classic movies– going to a movie here is an event in itself. The Round House Theater features theater, music and dance performances. And then there are the Majestic Theaters with 20 humongous screens perfect for watching those epic movies. Downtown Silver Spring also plays host to a farmer’s market in summer.
So what’s stopping you? Come by for a dinner and a movie, all!
Jackie’s: This is one of those cutting-edge-cuisine restaurants that makes Silver Spring such a happening place. The atmosphere is lively and incredibly energizing, the decor is ultra-hip, and the food is both organic and local. Desi wanted to go to this restaurant for his birthday and I saw at least one item on the menu that looked like I could ask for a vegan version of: Orecchiette with wild mushrooms and kale, and they could hold the Manchiego cheese. Unfortunately the orecchiette was not on the menu the night we went there, and the only vegetarian entree available was a cheesy manicotti. But they did have some great sides for a vegan meal, including a simply delicious hummus-tabbouleh dip with wafer-thin crackers and veggie sambusas (Ethiopian adaptation of samosas). Desi, the omnivore, loved what he ordered. I’d recommend it for the atmosphere and the great wine, but if you’re a ravenously hungry vegan you’d be better off someplace more vegan-friendly.
Woodside Deli: This old-world deli/diner with its wood-paneled walls lined chock-a-block with historic photographs is an institution in Silver Spring and a dizzyingly popular haunt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The furniture is plain and utilitarian, the waiters are matter-of-fact, and the food is hearty. It is not an obviously vegan choice, but I like going here with Desi who loves the place, and for the great ambience– there’s nothing quite like strolling down here on a lazy Saturday morning and eating with dozens of families in a noisy setting where you have to sometimes yell to get your voice heard. There are many vegetarian choices that you can order without cheese, like a veggie burger, and a veggie sub. Some seemingly out-of-place but welcome vegan Mediterranean options do pop up on the menu– like a felafel in pita, a felafel platter, and a hummus plate.
Founding Farmers: This restaurant is located not far from the White House, on DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue, and a lot of vegans seem to like it. It has two huge floors of seating, but be warned that it’s always buzzing and it’s a good idea to reserve a table beforehand. The food is advertised as environmentally friendly and there are many vegetarian choices on the menu and a separate vegan section with six dishes. I had the vegan Bacon Burger, which was not great but just about okay. There really was no “bite” to the burger– texture is always nice to have in a vegan burger– and the overall taste was just so-so. My friend had the Gardener’s Pie, also vegan, which, again, was just okay. There are four other vegan choices with evocative names like Farmer’s Artichoke and Chickpea Gunny Sack and Tomato Cider Glazed Meatloaf, and maybe some of these taste better? Who knows. The prices are a little high for lunch– $12 for my burger and $14 for my friend’s pie– so I am not sure I’ll be rushing back here to experiment with my dollars any time soon.
Fire Station 1: When Desi and I first moved to Silver Spring, we’d watch sometimes as the fire trucks pulling out, lights blazing, from the historic fire station at the junction of Georgia and Silver Spring avenues. The renovation of downtown Silver Spring a few years back shut down the fire station for good, but then the historic space reopened as a bar and restaurant called Fire Station 1.
One of the great things about Fire Station 1 is its artisan beers that are brewed in-house. I am not a huge beer drinker but Desi, who is, loved the craft beers he tried. The food is pretty good too and has a few vegetarian options that can be veganized, like a delicious Portabella Powerhouse burger I tried which was two grilled portabella mushroom caps sandwiched in a bun along with guacamole, tomato and cucumber. There’s also a Pan-Seared Polenta that sounded vegan or might be easily veganized, and an Asparagus Risotto that would suit a vegetarian but might be difficult to adjust to a vegan palate. Also on the menu are a few vegetarian salads and soups and yummy sides like their ranch fries.
But the best thing about Fire Station 1 has got to be the atmosphere. You can sit outside on a warm night, beer in hand, and watch the traffic making its way along Georgia Avenue. Occasionally, a fire truck will pull out, lights blazing, from the new fire station across the street. Or you can sit indoors at the long, well-lit bar and feel part of history in what used to be the first firehouse in Silver Spring.
Great Sage: This is perhaps the most upscale of the vegan-only restaurants in the DC area, but it does need a bit of a drive into Clarkesville, Maryland (about 30 minutes from Silver Spring). Great Sage has a great atmosphere and it is almost always packed with enthusiastic eaters eager to try some of the unique, organic, completely vegan offerings here. The lunch menu includes sandwiches, wraps, salads, and enchiladas, among other treats.
The last time I was there for dinner, I ordered the Adult Mac ‘n’ Cheese which was rigatoni in a creamy vegan Mornay sauce along with sundried tomatoes, brussells sprouts, and cannelini beans. It was pretty good. Desi had the pistachio-crusted tempeh which was so-so (I personally can’t understand why anyone would want to eat blocks of tempeh, no matter how well-flavored). Our friends had the Coconut Cashew Curry (good) and the Paella de Valencia (also good).
For dessert I ordered the Tiramisu and it was a little disappointing, because the creamy layer had a strong aftertaste of tofu. But my friend ordered the Chocolate Lava Cake with coconut ice cream which was delicious. The restaurant also has some lovely cocktails– thumbs-up on the Pomegranate Martini– and organic beers. This is a good place to take both vegan and omnivore friends, although do keep in mind that prices are on the higher side with entrees running between $14 and 17, and starters climbing from $4.50 for a soup to $12 for a hummus plate.
Teaism: I am not sure what cuisine this restaurant fits under because their menu is quite eclectic, so I’ll just add it here. At Teaism there are bento boxes to be had along with curries, and soups and salads. There are four Teaism restaurants in Washington, but the one I’ve been to is, I think, the oldest one in Dupont Circle. I first found Teaism through the Indian writer Vikram Chandra. I was meeting him for an interview for Rediff, an Indian news website I was freelancing for in my days as a student, and he suggested this place because it reminded him of his hometown, Bombay (my hometown too). You can read that interview here.
As the name suggests, Teaism is really a place for tea lovers and you can find varieties here that you might have never heard of before unless you are a die-hard fan of exotic teas. I am not– I love tea, but usually only the black kind that comes out of a box from the supermarket. But this is a great place to meet with friends for a cuppa, and there are all kinds of great foods on their menu, including a handful of plant-based choices like the Lemon Maple Grilled Organic Tempeh Burger, the Seitan Stir-Fry, and a Vegetarian Bento Box.
Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe: Although I was born and raised in India, I am a little embarrassed to say that the cuisine of Burma, the tiny country neighboring India, was unknown to me until a friend I met through Holy Cow! took me to Mandalay, a fairly unglamorous restaurant tucked away on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring, a few streets from the more jazzed-up Ellsworth Avenue. I fell in love. Burmese cuisine has strong echoes of Indian and Chinese cuisine, which is only to be expected given its geographical proximity to these two huge countries with their very distinctive and rich cuisines. But the dishes served at Mandalay are quite unique and delicious.
Mandalay has a huge menu, including a vegetarian one, and as they helpfully point out, all vegetarian entrees are vegan. The last time I was there I had PePyoke Hmyit Gyaw, which are yellow beans, onion and bamboo strips stir-fried in curry powder. I bravely ordered the spicy version, and it was absolutely, fierily delicious.
I am also a huge fan of their vegetarian salads, again the spicy versions, and my favorites are the Mango Salad, ThaYatThee Thoke, and the Gram Fritter Salad, Baya Gyaw Thoke. Be sure to ask for the vegetarian dressing.
A couple of things to watch out for– I am not a huge fan of the “brown sauce” dishes which tend to remind me too much of your run-of-the-mill Chinese takeout dishes. Also, if you’re really trying to impress someone, the place is a little tacky-looking with cheap decor and paper napkins.
Teddy’s Roti Shop: This is one of those tiny, hole-in-the-wall eateries on Georgia Avenue in Washington that you might never think of going to, but once you’ve been you’ll wonder how you lived without it all this time. The food at Teddy’s is Trinidadian and there are plenty of vegan choices. I especially love the dhalpourie which is a huge, thin bread stuffed with all kinds of vegetable goodies, among many vegetarian options. Teddy’s also has some really interesting fruity drinks, like ginger-pineapple and sorrel. Ask the owner, who’s usually behind the counter in this waiterless joint, for advice on what tastes best and you won’t go wrong.
Abol: Downtown Silver Spring has a number of Ethiopian restaurants, reflecting perhaps the large Ethiopian community that now lives here. Our favorite among many good ones is Abol, which sits right off Colesville Road, across the street from the AFI theater. The restaurant has a warm, homely atmosphere, great service and lots of vegan options..
Bete Ethiopian Cuisine and Cafe: Hidden away on a small sidestreet in downtown Silver Spring, this tiny restaurant is quite a find. What attracted us were the wonderful smells wafting out of the restaurant each time we parked next-door to visit another store. Although we went there on a weekday, the tables filled up pretty fast, which is always a good sign. The service was very pleasant and efficient and the food was incredible. Vegetarian dishes are listed separately under the menu, which is great (although some fish dishes are listed in the “vegetarian” section, so watch out for that). Most entrees are under 10 bucks. I ordered the Veggie Special Combo, because it sounded so darn good, and it cost about $15 but could have easily fed two of us. All in all, a great experience.
Amma’s Vegetarian Kitchen: Desi and I drove down to Vienna, Virginia, to eat lunch at this tiny eatery because we’d heard so much about it, but the experience was in every way disappointing. The batata wadas we ordered for starters were sour– not intentionally, but because the potatoes (or something else in the wadas) seemed to be going bad. Still hopeful, I ordered the onion-chilli masala dosa because it sounded a little off the beaten track, but all it was was a regular masala dosa with a lot of onion and chopped-up green chillies scattered on top of the potato subzi. Again, nothing special and unpleasantly spicy, even for my Indian tastebuds.
Desi had the Amma’s Feast, usually called a thali in most Indian restaurants because it includes a mix of vegetables, curries, rice and chapatis. The menu described it as a “heartful delight,” but it was more ho-hum. Finally, the coffee Desi ordered came in a styrofoam cup heated up in the microwave behind the counter and was just about lukewarm. Need I say more? This is definitely not a restaurant I’ll be going back to.
Bombay Gaylord: This restaurant on Georgia Avenue is the oldest Indian restaurant in downtown Silver Spring, and after a wider choice became available in the last couple of years I stopped going there, just because I wanted to try the other restaurants. But when I revisited recently, I was pleasantly surprised by how amazing the food is. The menu is typically north Indian, as it is at most Indian restaurants here. I had the vegetable biryani which was delicious and flavorful, although a bit heavy on the potatoes and light on other veggies. Since I like potatoes, I am not complaining. The Bhindi Masala and Chana Masala are wonderful. Most vegetarian entrees are under $10 which is very reasonable, and they are served with rice.
Bombay Indian Restaurant: This restaurant has by far some of the best Indian food I’ve eaten in the Washington area, and it is a rather unpretentious-looking place located in the White Oak strip mall on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring. The food offerings are what you expect to find in Indian restaurants in the United States– biryanis, naans, parathas, bhujias, etc.– but the food is definitely very tastily cooked.
The waiters tend not to write down orders– something I’ve experienced in a few other Indian restaurants too– and that means they have often in the past mixed up our orders. It can be particularly aggravating when you order takeout, because you get home before you find out you didn’t get what you want, so watch out for that.
Delhi Dhaba: This restaurant on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda was rather close to my workplace for a pretty long period of time, and I often ended up here at lunch with colleagues. We usually had the lunch buffet which always had lots of vegan choices and was delicious. The menu also has plenty of vegan dishes to offer, and everything’s really reasonably priced. All in all, a can’t miss.
Ghar-e-Kabab: I’ve been to this Nepalese-Indian restaurant in Silver Spring twice, and while the first time was okay, although not memorable, I was really put off the second time by the lackluster food and unusually small portion sizes. It’s been over a year since I went there, and looking through the menu as I write this I notice they are now focusing more on Indian food rather than Nepalese– a mistake, I think, given the proliferation of Indian restaurants in downtown Silver Spring. There are still a few Nepalese dishes on the menu, though.
Indique Heights: My office is quite close to DC’s Friendship Heights Metro stop and this restaurant (a spinoff of Indique on Connecticut Avenue) sits right in the Metro building. You climb up an inconspicuous elevator from the dark basement where the buses stop and suddenly you’re in a beautiful space with gorgeous decor. I’ve been here for the lunch buffet with coworkers and there are always about 4-5 vegan dishes.
But I must say that I was not as thrilled with the food which was rather bland. It seems to be a recurring issue with high-end Indian restaurants that seem to cater more to American tastes than Indian, but I think it’s a mistake: if people want to eat bland food, they wouldn’t be going to an Indian restaurant in the first place.
I’ll be going back here soon for dinner with Desi and I’ll report back if I have a different food experience.
Update: I did go back with Desi for dinner, and the experience, to put it mildly, was unsavory. The food, again, was nothing to write home about, but what really took the cake was the waiter who was rude and obnoxious. It was around 9 pm as we were finishing up on a Saturday, and the restaurant was supposed to remain open for another hour. But our section had emptied out (there still were people in the next room and at the bar), and the waiter stood glaring at us from across the next table, as if willing for us to get up and leave. He didn’t even offer us the dessert menu or ask if we were done before bringing us the bill. I don’t think I will be wasting my money here anymore, especially with all the other Indian options in the area.
Kadhai: I’ve only had the lunch buffet here and it’s quite reasonably priced and quite good with a number of vegan options. This restaurant is tucked away on Norfolk Avenue in the Woodmont Triangle area of Bethesda and the only downside so far as I could see during my visit is that the tables are too close together. So close in fact that when my companion got up for second helpings at the buffet, the waiters tried to use the space between his chair and table to get around.
Masala Art: Located in D.C.’s Tenleytown, this restaurant looks rather inconspicuous from the outside, but go inside for a pretty great Indian food experience. Masala Art has your usual, run-of-the-mill north Indian restaurant offerings like Samosas and Chana Masala and Palak Paneer, but it also has some more unusual dishes on the menu, like Sarson Wali Gobi (cauliflower with mustard seeds), Karwari Mushroom (mushrooms cooked south-Indian style), and Lassooni Corn Palak (garlicky corn and spinach).
The food is delicious, although the breads (we ordered the Tandoori Roti and the Khasta Roti) were only so-so. The prices are reasonable, and the service is pleasant and accommodating, although the waiters look a little harried, maybe because the place is so crowded. Be sure to make a reservation — we went on a Saturday and by the time we had checked in there were 10 people in line behind us.
One downside is that the place is extremely noisy– you can barely hear the person across the table from you, and the table next to ours was so close, the couple at it could very well have been dining out with us.
Passage to India: Call me picky, but this critically acclaimed Bethesda restaurant on Cordell Avenue was definitely not worth the money to me. The ambience is a little classier than your average Indian restaurant, but the trade off is a higher priced menu. The only thing that stands out to me about Passage to India is the fact that it makes an attempt to introduce cuisines from India’s four corners– a refreshing change from restaurants that usually glom just north Indian fare under the “Indian” label. There are vegetarian/vegan choices, but all in all I’d rather take my business to the more reasonably priced and tastier Delhi Dhaba.
Woodlands: If you ever are in the Langley Park area of Maryland in suburban Washington, not far from the University of Maryland, this is a great place to grab a hearty vegan meal without draining your wallet. It’s also a great place to go to if you are an Indian who misses the bustle and food of an Udupi restaurant. Woodlands has an all-vegetarian menu and it features south Indian classics like dosas, idlis, uttapams, Bombay street food fare like pav bhaji, bhel puri and pani puri, and Indo-Chinese items like Gobi Manchurian and Vegetable Fried Rice. This is not a glamorous-looking restaurant and it’s rather busy, but the food is consistently good, the service is quick, and you can’t do better if you want a great Indian vegetarian meal on the fly.
Rice Bar: This bustling restaurant was a happy find when I started working in downtown Washington, D.C. They have many vegan options, but the easiest– and most delicious– choice for a hearty lunch is their Tofu Bibimbap Bowl which you can order with white, brown, or purple rice. It’s fresh, delicious, more than filling, and really reasonably priced at $8.75.
Bistro Lazeez: Just off Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle area, this restaurant is tucked away on the quieter Norfolk Avenue. It’s small but has a great menu with some delicious vegan choices. I love their Felafel Salad which is four or five felafel patties served on a bed of lettuce, tomatoes and onions with a delicious fettoush dressing. They also serve a great Felafel Sandwich and have tons of interesting vegan sides, like a Lentil Pilaf, Mediterranean Potatoes, Fava Bean Saute, and Fettoush. Prices are very reasonable, and the food is amazing.
Levante’s: This restaurant in downtown D.C.’s eclectic Dupont Circle (there is also one in Bethesda, Maryland) serves one of my favorite breads, Turkish Pides. These are flatbreads that look like soft, pillowy, bumpy naans. Their hummus (or hommos, as they spell it on their menu) is good, although a touch too lemony. They have some vegetarian options, and the last time I was here I asked for the Eggplant Pide, which looks like like a flat, boat-shaped pizza with a topping of pureed eggplant, parsley, olives and garlic. I asked them to hold off the Kaser cheese, which they did, and the pide was pretty good, although again a little sharp-tasting because the cheese was out of the equation (I wish people offered vegan cheese more readily, especially at upscale restaurants). There’s also a Spinach Pide and some other vegetarian options like Vegetable Pasticcio, although you will have to quiz whoever’s waiting on you about any non-vegan ingredients in there, like cheese. Which should not be a problem because the service is really great with smiling, friendly servers.
Lebanese Taverna: There are Lebanese Taverna outlets all around DC, Maryland and Virginia, but the one in Silver Spring is one of my favorites because you have more space to sit down and enjoy your meal, than at some of the others. The food is cheap, delicious, and you can get lots of delicious vegan options like your usual staples of hummus and felafel and tabbouleh.
Jaleo: The tapas restaurant of acclaimed Spanish chef Jose Andres (I am a huge fan of his PBS show Made in Spain), is not an obviously vegan choice, but it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. The restaurant has three area locations, one in downtown DC, another in Crystal City, Virginia, and the one I go to is on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland. Most of the choices have meat or fish or cheese in them, but if you’re an adventurous and patient vegan you can find enough here to create a meal to remember. The gazpacho is amazing, and there are incredibly flavorful offerings like Berenjenas con miel (lightly battered eggplant), Escalivada Catalana (roasted bell peppers and eggplant), and Garbanzos con espinacas ‘que bien cocinas Tichi’(a Moorish stew of chickpeas and spinach), among many vegan or easily veganized choices on the menu. You can even order a vegetarian paella made with porcini mushrooms, green and black olives and vegetables. The food is expensive with the paella priced at $36 and the tapas priced in the range of $6.50 to $13 (you will need at least three per person for a satisfying meal). But, I guess, that is to be expected given the cache of a celebrity chef. The wait staff is super-helpful and super-friendly, so don’t hesitate to quiz them about veganizing your meal. The restaurant also offers some great Spanish wines, beers, and a couple of delicious Sangrias.
Guardado’s: This is a fairly unpretentious restaurant on Bethesda’s Del Ray Avenue but the food is certainly tasty and well priced. There are tons of tapas, some vegan, many vegetarian, and they even make a paella that appears vegan (I didn’t have it so I don’t know for sure). I love their salads. The one I had– which I don’t see on their menu online (maybe it was a special) was vegan and had some leafy greens with avocados, oranges, and a lovely vinaigrette. My friend had a mango salad which she loved. Prices were really reasonable– for the both of us we paid less than $20, including a more-than-20-percent tip, for a healthy and filling lunch.
Thai: This restaurant sits right on the buzzing Ellsworth Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, and is one of those restaurants I love going to when I’m in the mood for a great meal. As any vegan knows, Thai food has great vegan choices, and this one has a number of vegetarian entrees, like Spicy Eggplant Jae and Pad Tofu. A can’t-miss choice.
Tara Thai: This is a chain in the DC area, and until not long ago I was a very frequent visitor to the restaurant on Bethesda Avenue in Bethesda for lunch because it was a stone’s throw from where I used to work. This was a great choice because I was often eating out with colleagues and sources who were not vegan, and Tara Thai had something for everyone. The restaurant has an extensive vegetarian menu with nine choices, all very reasonably priced. My favorite is the Spicy Eggplant, and then there is of course Pad Thai Jae, and Gaeng Jae, which is a spicy vegetable-tofu preparation in a green sauce. You cannot go wrong with just about anything on this menu.