Every few years, a new “restaurant row” grabs D.C.’s attention: Upshur Street NW, after national critics discovered Himitsu and Timber Pizza; Ninth Street NW near the Convention Center, home to Espita, All-Purpose and the Dabney Wine Cellar; or Barracks Row, thanks to award-winning sister restaurants Rose’s Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls.
Right now, though, the block with the claim to be the best dining destination isn’t filled with Michelin-starred dining options, but a quintet of locally owned bars and restaurants offering some of the area’s best tacos, delicious Cuban cuisine and reasonably priced (if not downright cheap) drinks, right on the border between Petworth and Columbia Heights.
What’s especially interesting is that this block came together organically over a decade — not from a developer’s vision.
When the Red Derby opened on the 3700 block of 14th Street NW in late 2007, “it was not a pretty picture,” says co-owner Sasha Carter, recounting “weekly” stabbings at the now-closed Carolina restaurant on the corner, and how police would set up floodlights across the street to drive off prostitutes and drug dealers. For years, as nearby stretches welcomed new restaurants and shops, the Derby’s little strip remained relatively untouched. The pinball-focused Lyman’s Tavern moved in next door to the Derby in 2014, followed a few months later by Taqueria Habanero, which brought the food of Mexico’s Puebla to a former nail salon.
The final pieces of the puzzle came from Alfredo and Jessica Solis, the siblings who own the popular El Sol downtown. Their second taqueria-and-tequila restaurant, Mezcalero, opened in 2017 before the Solises doubled down with the Cuban-flavored Little Havana in August. “It makes me so happy for D.C.,” Carter says. “All of the businesses are independently owned, and none of this is cookie-cutter.”
In an ideal world, it would be easy to make this a movable feast, starting with camarones al ajillo at Little Havana, moving on to Taqueria Habanero for (what else?) tacos, and finishing with platanos fritos at Mezcalero before heading to the Derby for a nightcap or Lyman’s for a few games of pinball. However, the restaurants’ burgeoning popularity means that one, if not all, are full on weekend nights. Still, having this many options on one block means that, if the restaurant you had your eye on is full, it’s easy to see if a table is available at another one a few steps away.
Little Havana: The fun and playful vibe begins even before you walk in the front door, thanks to the brightly striped storefront and patio surrounded by palm fronds. On the walls inside, murals depict the streets of old Havana and salsa star Celia Cruz. Chef Joseph Osorio sends out classics, including a rich seafood stew swimming with lobster, shrimp and fish, as well as novelties, such as cubano sandwich fillings stuffed into a spring roll wrapper. Heriberto Casasanero, recently of Copycat, is responsible for the outstanding drinks — and you can smile when your piña colada arrives in half of a pineapple. 3704 14th St. NW.
Taqueria Habanero: After years of working in other people’s restaurants, Dio and Mirna Montero opened their own, specializing in the food of their native Puebla, Mexico. Critics drool over the housemade tortillas as much as the delicious fillings, and the huaraches, which find masa rounds slathered with black beans, avocado, cheese, peppers and a choice of meat. 3710 14th St. NW.
Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana: Alfredo and Jessica Solis struck gold with El Sol, a modest downtown restaurant that Post critic Tim Carman has called “the best taqueria in Washington by a long shot.” Their cooler, edgier follow-up offers dozens of mezcals, served the traditional way with worm salt and orange slices, and a bar that serves a margarita with surprising depth. Tacos are again the highlight, especially the Mexico City-style steamed basket tacos, but don’t overlook the non-taco options, including the gooey queso fundido and the filling chile relano. 3714 14th St. NW.
Red Derby: The Red Derby has grown up a lot since 2007. There’s now a rooftop deck, a lovely and breezy place to hang out on summer and fall afternoons, and, as of last year, the bar began accepting credit cards in addition to cash. But all beer and wine comes in cans (including Natty Boh and Stroh’s, which are just $1.50 at happy hour); menu staples include tots, fried mac-and-cheese wedges and Taco Tuesday; and the bartenders treat everyone like a regular. No wonder you’ll find people hanging out, chatting and playing Trivial Pursuit and Connect Four until the wee hours. 3718 14th St. NW.
Lyman’s Tavern: “A Friendly Place” is the apt motto at Lyman’s, beloved for its ever-changing collection of 10 pinball machines, cool jukebox, free popcorn and whiskey-and-beer vibe. Run by veteran bartender Kevin Perrone and Jess Kleinmann, Lyman’s has a naturally comfortable vibe, which makes the deep food and drink menus a pleasant surprise: The traditional Salvadoran pupusas and vegetarian tacos are stars, and the dozens of bourbons behind the bar merit exploration — before sinking a few dollars into the “Star Wars” and Judge Dredd pinball machines. 3720 14th St. NW.