9 Decadent DC Dishes (and Their Healthier Alternatives)

By Rina Rapuano  |  January 12, 2015

Despite our best intentions at the beginning of each year, there are some food cravings that must be satisfied no matter how many penance lunges you'll have to do later. Maybe your weakness is a burger, a grilled cheese or perhaps a rich plate of meatballs. Here are nine of our favorite calorie-splurge dishes, each listed with their dining doppelgänger — a lighter version of that dish. That way you'll be satisfied at every meal — no matter whether you've got a dining angel or devil sitting on your shoulder. 

  • Meatballs

    Decadent: Del Campo’s albondigas, or Argentinean-style meatballs ($24), are a blend of lamb, veal and pancetta that’s rolled, grilled and served over smoked ricotta and topped with a salsa verde. The nearly tennis-ball-size monsters come three to an order.

    Healthy: At Cava Grill, you can customize a salad, pita or rice bowl with spicy lamb meatballs (or falafel or beef meatballs, if you prefer) and your favorite toppings. Or you can order up the Spicy Lamb Meatball Greens & Grains Bowl of brown basmati rice, a mix of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and chicory, the meatballs and a choice of housemade dips ($8.50).

  • Credit: Four Seasons Hotel


    Decadent: Bourbon Steak is the burger we dream about, the ultimate in flavor, size — and, yes, price ($19 not including fries). But it's a price we would gladly pay, both in calories and pennies, to eat it again and again. (P.S. We hear they also have a great veggie burger.)

    Healthy: Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley is kind of a magician with meat, but we know she’s not going to give us some pathetic, unsatisfying veggie burger. At Roofers Union, she offers a quinoa black bean burger ($12) spiced with cumin, coriander and allspice topped with aged cheddar and avocado.

  • Credit: Emily Clack

    Grilled Cheese

    Decadent: Chef John Mooney dresses up his grilled cheese ($12) at Bidwell in Union Market by filling sourdough bread with Raclette cheese enhanced with white truffle. If that’s not decadent enough for you, did we mention the slow-poached egg?

    Healthy: There may not ever be a truly healthy grilled cheese sandwich — but by grilled cheese standards, it probably doesn’t get much healthier than the vegan version ($4.99) at Sticky Fingers in Columbia Heights. Add tomato, onion or tempeh bacon for more layers of flavor.

  • Tacos

    Decadent: At Fish Taco in Cabin John, both the size and the batter-fried batons of fish make these tacos ($9.95 for two) the calorie splurge — but one that's well worth it. Flour tortillas are filled with local fish, cabbage, radishes and a signature sauce that's not too spicy thanks to customer requests for the kitchen to turn down the heat. 

    Healthy: Vegetarians who visit  TaKorean in Union Market or at the new Navy Yard storefront know something that many meatheads don't: the tofu tacos ($3.50 apiece; three for $9) here are outstanding. The organic, firm tofu is sautéed with housemade hoisin sauce and can be added to tacos along with a choice of slaw and condiments. 

  • Bolognese

    Decadent: Bar Pilar chef Jesse Miller makes an unforgettable lamb belly Bolognese served over gnocchi that no doubt gains some of its allure from the belly fat, a stock made of ribs and aged Pecorino. As if that wasn't enough, you can add shaved foie gras to any dish for $5.

    Healthy: At DC Harvest, turning decadent dishes into healthy spins is kind of their thing. So it’s no surprise that they’ve lightened up Bolognese ($19) by serving it over fresh spelt pappardelle and adding kale. You can also save calories by ordering a half portion ($11).

  • Fried Fish

    Decadent: If you’re in the mood to go all out, The District Fishwife at Union Market offers up beer-battered, twice-fried fish served with chips — the British kind, of course — and a tartar sauce of housemade mayo spiked with dill pickles, capers and fresh dill.

    Healthy: Macon Bistro & Larder in Chevy Chase lightens up the Southern classic of fried catfish ($23) by giving it a delicate cornmeal crust and pairing it with a black-eyed-pea chow-chow. A few dabs of smoked aïoli impart richness in a restrained way.

  • Credit: Michael J. Colella


    Decadent: Remember spinach? It’s that leafy green thing people used to eat before kale. For Vikram Sunderam’s palak chaat ($11) at Rasika, spinach is fried and topped with sweet yogurt, tamarind and date chutney. It’s one of those dishes that is so mind-blowing, you have to ask yourself why everyone doesn’t fry spinach.

    Healthy: Equally iconic is this longtime favorite served at Jaleo, where spinach is simply sautéed with pine nuts, raisins, apples and olive oil ($7.50). Each element adds a wonderful new burst of flavor or texture.

  • Spaghetti

    Decadent: Chef Benjamin Lambert at 701 Restaurant adds the first layer of richness to his spaghetti ($20) by adding cocoa powder to the pasta. He then tops it with a warming duck ragout, a goat cheese dollop and a liberal crumble of duck-skin cracklings.

    Healthy: True Food Kitchen in Virginia's Mosaic District offers a time-honored way to offer vegetarians, gluten-frees and health nuts a way to enjoy spaghetti by using spaghetti squash in its place. A gourd casserole ($13) can be found here enriched with fresh mozzarella plus tomato and zucchini.

  • Jambalaya

    Decadent: Since Bayou Bakery chef-owner David Guas hails from New Orleans, you can expect a more traditional version coming out of his kitchen — except that he blends both Gulf shrimp smoked sausage to flavor the rice. It can be ordered as a side ($7), a lunch entree ($10) or for dinner ($12). 

    Healthy: Equinox added a root-vegetable jambalaya (pictured) to its vegan brunch menu last Sunday. Instead of meat and seafood, this dish gains flavor from rutabaga, turnips, oyster root and riso nero. It’s part of the restaurant’s vegan brunch buffet, which costs $30 per person.