One of several dining areas at El Presidente. Photos by Rey Lopez and Birch Thomas, courtesy of El Presidente

The RundownWashington D.C.

All About El Presidente, Stephen Starr’s D.C. Ode to Mexico


In Washington, D.C. it’s the question everyone is asking: Is Stephen Starr running? No, he’s not campaigning for commander-in-chief, but discerning diners have been asking for months when his new touchstone restaurant, El Presidente, will be up and running.

Wait no more — we finally have an answer. The restaurant, which began taking reservations last week, swings open its doors Sept. 6. Already, bookings are filling up. But we have tips on how to snag a seat regardless.

And this is just one piece of Starr’s D.C. expansion. Diners are also patiently licking their lips for Pastis, a New York original coming soon to Northeast, as well as an expansive Italian marketplace still to come in Georgetown — Osteria Mozza — in partnership with Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton.

For now, though, El Presidente is here — and remains the easiest way to reach Mexico City without a passport. Like Starr’s Le Diplomate and St. Anselm, expect an-all-day menu, plus a buzzy dining room and patio for people watching. And we’ve got all the details.

The dips and salsas at El Presidente.
The dips and salsas at El Presidente.

1. El Presidente is way more than tacos.

Enter the colorful dining room, and find a robust and creative menu with a raw bar, shareable plates like a tomahawk ribeye and whole grilled fish, and, yes, à la carte tacos. But at its heart, El Presidente is about the theatrics — not of D.C. politics but of flavorful Mexican food.

And it ventures beyond the scope of many typical Mexican restaurants, drawing flavors, ingredients, and techniques from across Mexico. This might be why Starr himself said that El Prez is “truly unlike any concept we’ve created before.”

To wit: Find Baja-style coastal oysters garnished with savory salsa negra and citrus miñoneta, and red chile-marinated al pastor tacos with roasted cauliflower and ancho-pecan pipián (a red mole).

Indeed, time-honored dishes from across the diverse regions are given a platform, like tlayudas, drawn from Oaxaca’s native antojitos, and seafood dishes, including that whole fish, reminiscent of Veracruz’s tropical coastline.

El Presidente’s take on the seafood tower.
Seating in the back dining area.

2. Expect extravagant seafood towers, and an in-house masa program.

The one dish everyone is already talking about — probably because we have fond memories of Le Dip’s grand seafood tower — is the “Gran Torre de Mariscos,” an indulgent take on the classic presentation, with ceviche, hamachi aguachile, and king crab, made to order at the elaborate raw bar.

It’s part of a menu from chef David LaForce, previously at Starr’s in Philadelphia and New York. He worked alongside Starr Restaurants corporate chef Andres Padilla to build the menu, which indeed takes cues from El Vez.

Traditional Mexican culinary techniques are the cornerstone, including an in-house masa program that transforms fresh corn into hand-pressed tortillas.

3. Walk-ins can snag a seat and an agave cocktail at the bar.

If you can’t immediately snag a reservation, El Presidente does accept walk-ins. Be sure to arrive early, put your name on the waitlist, and snag a stool at the bar to sip a few margaritas while you wait.

This will be a pleasure of its own. The bar room harkens back to the heyday of Mexican social clubs, and embodies the epitome of old-school charm and allure. Comfy, fringed bar stools invite patrons to relax against a backdrop of vintage pistachio green hues with bright red accents. And from the bar area, you can see both dining rooms and outdoor seating, and pick up on all the energies.

When it comes to cocktails, expect an agave-forward menu with more than 200 producers of mezcal and Tequilas. Bar operations director Mark Murphy has put together a full range of drinks, including his spin on Mexico’s margarita. His version, called the “charred pineapple slushy stuff,” features blanco Tequila, roasted pineapple, ancho chili, and lime. Expect other spiced cocktails like Sgt. Pepper, built around mezcal, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and red bell pepper juice; and the Air Force Uno, made with Mexican rum, salted grapefruit, guajillo pepper, mint, and Topo Chico. 

The surrealist-tinged bar area.
The surrealist-tinged bar area.

4. The theatrics of El Presidente are in the details.

This being a Starr venue, the space itself comes with the best kind of drama. There’s an avant-garde glamour at work here, accented by neo-retro design that radiates throughout the multi-room concept, evocative of the eclectic energy of Mexico City. Prepare to be wowed by the rich tapestry of colors that play out in a multi-tiered space filled with art.

This includes a grand under-the-sea and land diorama, created by Silver Hill Arts, which hangs above the bar and features an array of taxidermy and sculptured installations of scenes from Mexico’s land and seas. It’s a massive, surrealist installation that leads you into the scarlet-hued “theater room.”

5. And those rooms are buzzing with energy, from happy hour to the last call.

This too is part of the Starr formula. First and foremost, the space delivers for date-night romance with plush velvet seating, warm wood accents, curved banquettes, and a custom mountain-scape mural by artist Annelisa Leinbach.

But the airy, leafy dining room also offers a view of El Presidente’s raw bar, with nods to the serene aesthetic of modern Mexican cevicherias and cafes and a blend of mellow blues, greens, and rhythmic striped patterns. (And of course, a view of cooks composing that epic seafood tower.)

The dining room extends outside with a year-round, 60-seat patio under a shaded pergola, it summons the energy of Mexico City’s bustling food markets and street vendors, crafting a casual setting ideal for sharing plates and sipping drinks al fresco from happy hour well into the night.

Striped bass a la talla.
El Presidente’s take on a classic margarita.

6. Lunch and brunch service are still to come. But when they do, two words: michelada service.

Daytime service is still to come later this month, but expect huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and other Mexican breakfast staples, paired with michelada service suited to a group of friends. This is perfect for when you’ve had a few too many from the night before — or, since it’s also available at dinner, a way to ease into the evening.

Micheladas are a known hangover elixir, and at El Presidente it is served with a 32-ounce beer bottle, spicy-savory mix, salt, and lime — with four glasses for the table to mix and enjoy together. If you’re going down this path for weekend brunch, consider it not only an effective hair of the dog but also a continuation of weekend fun.

Tim Ebner is an award-winning food and travel writer. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Eater, Thrillist, Travel & Leisure, and Edible DC. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.