As the pandemic fades to gray if not black, a new but familiar concern dominates our thoughts: money.
If last year was a time of reckoning and reflection in the restaurant world, 2022 is shaping up to be a moment when inflation and soaring costs for just about everything have a lot of us rethinking our priorities.
Money determines where diners go, how often, what dishes they order — if they even eat away from home.
In ways great and small, the past three years have changed a lot of us. Like some of you, I’ve shed suits for jeans, five days in the office for fewer, elevator-depth conversation for richer relationships.
My appetite remains strong. I’m eager as ever to pull up to a table and taste the latest fashions, check back with an institution or investigate a restaurant tip. But during the past year in particular, I’ve been less interested in spending three hours in a dining room or deciphering dishes that tasted like a dozen people touched or tweezered them before they landed on the table.
Worry not. I haven’t sworn off any genre. My job requires me to explore a range of restaurants, as if the scene were a big buffet and I’m obliged to taste a bit of everything, from humble to haute. However, on any given night these days, you’re more likely likelier to find me at a mom-and-pop, someplace relaxed, places where the drinks aren’t $20.
You could say I sought out more fried chicken and pizza slices — affordable comfort — than truffles and flourishes in 2022.
This season, my dining guide focuses on restaurants I like that offer distinctive value. Typically, the fall guide is a selection of favorites, but another challenging year calls for a different approach.
Value is typically associated with price. Plenty of choices in this year’s collection are restaurants you might see yourself visiting because they’re easy on the wallet.
Cost is but one measure of value. The thinking also considers usefulness. The tasting menu at Tail Up Goat in Washington is $98, but dinner in the role model for upscale restaurants comprises snacks, four memorable courses and hospitality reminiscent of an evening in the home of great friends — a lot of bang for your Franklin. Himalayan Wild Yak in Ashburn offers an uncommon taste of Nepalese food that you can wash back with serious cocktails. Another of my Top 5 restaurants right now, Dylan’s Oyster Cellar in Baltimore, sweats the small stuff. You might expect well-shucked oysters from the convivial watering hole, but french fries boiled in vinegar, poached and flash-fried just before they’re piled on the plate? The kitchen has you covered, hon.
And so on. Value is my favorite flavor right now, and I’m pleased to share some of the best sources herein.
This year’s fall dining guide marks another significant change.
Since spring 2020, I’ve omitted star ratings from my reviews. It seemed only fair, initially because restaurants were struggling just to get food out in boxes, and later, because service, a major part of the dining experience, seemed to be in a free fall. My 2022 roundup marks the official end to a grading system I introduced two decades ago. Read more about my decision here.
Going forward, you’ll have to read the review to see how I feel about a restaurant.
My sentiments about the following 40 places in and around Washington are pretty clear. Each represents some definition of value. Varied as they are, they’re linked by my affection for them.
1 Hitching Post
Mains $12 to $33
“You get two sides with the fried chicken,” says my server at my happy spot in Petworth.
“Collards,” I start to respond before I’m cut off by an eavesdropper at the bar. “And the great, REAL mashed potatoes,” she practically demands.
And so began yet another meal at one of my favorite Washington monuments, opened in 1967 by Al and Adrienne Carter and sold 10 years ago to Barry Dindyal, a native of Guyana who grew up eating Indian food. Wisely, he kept most of the soul food script he inherited; cleverly, the chef added a few dishes of his own, including a dusky gold shrimp curry that’s the taste equivalent of a quilt in winter, warmth in the form of hot coconut milk, fresh ginger and garlic bathing steamed shrimp.
The fried chicken is superb in its simplicity, moist of flesh and crisp in a jacket that gets its lift from paprika and garlic and onion powder. If the collards could have used a shake of vinegar last time, I appreciate that they rely on onions and garlic instead of meat for their savor. The woman at the bar was right: The potatoes mashed with generous amounts of butter and cream (and roasted garlic for oomph) are bodacious.
Dish after dish reminds me why I keep returning to this Southern outpost that could be confused for a house if it weren’t for a banner outside. Lamb chops, cooked the color you ask and paired with a salad, can be enjoyed as a starter for $16.50. If I’m not eating chicken, I’m probably inhaling fried whiting, punched up with pepper, and creamy-fresh coleslaw. Meanwhile, the bountiful fried spinach salad, dappled with sweet yogurt and tamarind chutney, pays homage to the palak chaat made famous by Rasika.
The coin-operated jukebox of yore has been replaced by one that’s connected to the internet. “We’re in the future now,” jokes a server.
The delicious predictability of the modest dining room extends to the community. I rarely go that I don’t see — or hear — radio legend Kojo Nnamdi in the mix. He’s the guy chasing back dinner with 15-year-old El Dorado rum from his native Guyana.
2 Queen’s English
Mains $16 to $45.
There’s no cozier facade in Columbia Heights than the jade-colored front of Queen’s English, dressed with gliders and watched over by a canine-loving staff. “I think I spend more money on dog treats than anything,” says chef Henji Cheung, a native of Hong Kong.
Two-legged visitors are plenty spoiled, too, in what looks like a faraway teahouse. Fat shrimp, poached in tingly mala broth and served with a charred scallion aioli, create an exceptional shrimp cocktail. The reason you make short work of a plate of pig ears is because they’re braised in a stock of Chinese wines, tossed in cornstarch, fried to a crunch and completed with strawberries macerated in chiles and lime juice. Cheung says sauteed ramen noodles are a thing in cafes in Hong Kong. Queen’s English, which tosses its stir-fried noodles with fresh tofu, sour cabbage and chicken liver, whets Washington appetites for the trend. Try to leave without ordering dessert and the staff zings you — with a restorative shot of ginger-and-lime juice.
Sarah Thompson, the chef’s wife, is the smile in the dining room, the cheerleader behind the restaurant’s daily “natty hour” featuring natural wines and the other half of what makes Queen’s English such a personal, pleasurable experience. Mom plus pop equals awesome.
3 Tail Up Goat
Mains on the bar menu $14 to $36, four-course dinner menu $98.
The Adams Morgan beacon, from a trio of hospitality aces, endears itself to diners starting online. In one place on the restaurant’s website, patrons can get answers to a slew of questions, from the patio setup and highchair situation to why a 22 percent service fee is added to the bill.
What used to be an a la carte experience is now a tasting menu: snacks and four courses for $98 from executive chef Jon Sybert. A seasonal shrub and some small bites feel like a celebration. A shot of basil-infused watermelon trailed by a smoked oyster on a lick of gazpacho, a stamp of einkorn focaccia striped with sungold tomato butter and a tiny tart piped with Appalachian cheese have everyone swooning and wondering what’s next.
Some tasting menus are synonymous with a chef’s ego and endurance contests. Tail Up Goat gives diners three choices per course and doesn’t hold you hostage. The plates are small but swell. Firsts among equals have included an earthy pork croquette glammed up with fleshy chanterelles and peach jam and a lacy zucchini rosti paired with charred squash brightened with diced red peppers, tomato and garlic.
Optional his-or-hers wine pairings, from co-owner Bill Jensen and beverage director Audrey Dowling, let you sip from among the classics or on the funkier side, respectively.
If $100 a head just for food sounds too rich, consider a seat in the bar, which highlights dishes from the tasting menu priced individually. Seared scallops are a little splurge at $23, but they’re some of the sweetest around, nestled on their plate with a foil of chowchow atop a puree of black-eyed peas. Bluegrass plays. Co-owner Jill Tyler checks in with her signature charm. This is fine dining sans pomp but full of delights.
4 Dylan’s Oyster Cellar
Mains $15 to $35.
I’d love to get my hands on what’s known as “the playbook” at one of my favorite watering holes anywhere. Dylan Salmon, who co-owns the Baltimore tavern with his wife, Irene, says it’s a mess of paper scraps and legal pads. But within the disorganization are recipes for some of the restaurant’s greatest hits, including coleslaw, tartar sauce and beer batter that make for one of the best fish and chips in memory.
“No grit, no pearl,” reads a poster on the wall of the low-ceilinged hangout in Hampden, 70 seats big if you include the patio and bar, one end of which gathers bistro seats and a chance to watch the shuckers do their thing. An icy platter of briny Wellfleets from Massachusetts revels in attention. “Oysters are like water balloons,” says Salmon, a former line cook at the farm-to-table Woodberry Kitchen. “Pop them and they lose their body.” The oysters here are free of drill marks (shell bits, too).
The hot seats are the stools at the crowded bar, staffed by people who treat you like a regular even if it’s your first visit. Of course you want some oysters — there are typically eight kinds from which to choose — and, this being Baltimore, traditional coddies, sometimes called the poor man’s crab cakes: deep-fried balls of mashed cod and potatoes eaten on saltines with a slick of mustard. Every pauper should be so fortunate.
Salmon is the dude in the ball cap and T-shirt, roaming the room and asking, “You guys doing good?” Some diners mistake the owner for one of their own. Don’t be fooled by Salmon’s laid-back demeanor. Everything on the menu speaks to mindfulness. Salads, interesting ones, taste as if they were plucked from the garden. The beefy smash burger is terrific, but a lot of places do good burgers. Dylan’s is where you want to focus on rarer pleasures, like one night’s fluffy scallop cake served with lemon-basil sauce and green beans laced with fresh tarragon. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” says the restaurateur, whose french fries are boiled in vinegar, poached and flash-fried just before they’re piled on the plate.
It’s loud as a racetrack here, but that’s less a drawback than the distance between Washington and Baltimore. I want to be able to walk, not drive, to Dylan’s.
5 Himalayan Wild Yak
Mains $12 to $23
The Nepalese newcomer west of Dulles Airport makes itself hard to forget. I mean, there’s a stuffed yak near the entrance, and he even has a name: Rocky. The beast shares its stage with a beauty — the cooking — and a menu that shrugs off supply issues with more than 30 dishes.
Every other table seems to be dressed with momos. Make sure you ask for some of the steamed dumplings, too. They show up as eight supple, see-through bites on the rim of a bowl containing roasted tomato sauce. The restaurant’s theme has me springing for the momos stuffed with ground yak, deftly seasoned with coriander, cumin and garam masala so you can still appreciate the delicate beefy flavor of the mountain cow. The chow mein is also required eating. A reminder that China is Nepal’s neighbor to the north, the street food staple is a tangle of thin yellow wheat noodles with a confetti of scallions, red cabbage, carrots and more, each bite smoky from the wok and splashed with sweet-salty oyster sauce.
You can pretty much point anywhere on the list and come up with a success story. Luscious chunks of pork, crisp from their time in a clay oven, resonate with mustard oil, ginger and garlic. Chicken stir-fried with onion and bell peppers is finished with a chile sauce that leaves a thrilling wake of heat. New to the menu are vegetable fritters formed from ground cabbage, cauliflower and carrots and draped with what tastes like barbecue sauce: ketchup, chile flakes and soy sauce. The orbs are meatless and marvelous. Appetizers are apportioned like main courses, and crowds of Indian customers prompted the owners to add to their menu such prizes as lamb korma, soft bites of meat in a dark golden gravy thickened with yogurt and cashew paste — as light and luscious as I’ve had anywhere.
The restaurant puts its customers first. Floating near the Himalaya-high ceiling are fabric panels to sponge noise, the drinks list is as interesting as in a D.C. hot spot, and the person ferrying food from kitchen to table might be one of the two chef-owners.
Mains $12.75 to $19.75 (specials may be higher)
A look around 2 Amys helps explain the long run of the pioneering pizzeria opened by chef-owner Peter Pastan after 9/11.
The genial guy slicing the mortadella behind the wine bar lets you know that he made the pork sausage, shot through with coriander seed and circles of fat, and that the crusty brown bread accompanying it is from flour milled on-site.
Some of the many “little things” — deviled eggs with brassy green sauce, salt cod fritters served with garlic aioli — have been around forever and continue to delight with their quality and consistency. Pizza might be the shiny bauble in the window, but a handful of dishes would look at home at a proper Italian ristorante. Picture vitello tonnato and even steak, as in super-beefy, well-marbled dairy cow, butchered by hand and dry-aged for up to 100 days. (“Tuscan Steak Night” is typically weeknights only.)
Tile floors, pressed-tin ceilings and naked tables do nothing to absorb the clamor of a busy lunch or dinner, but come on, no one goes to a pizzeria to meditate. Besides, you’re eating in a Washington standard-bearer, brimming with thoughtful details: wines priced to suit every budget and palate, desserts every bit as good as what comes before them, and hospitality included in the price of a meal.
As for the Neapolitan-style pizza, 2 Amys puts out a pie that seduces me with char marks reminiscent of leopard spots, titanic lips, pleasant chewiness and a lovely yeasty flavor. Go for the Pozzuoli — zesty housemade sausage, velvety red peppers, nutty fontina and more on a 10-inch canvas. If you want to eat it like the owner, ask to have the pizza served uncut.
Mains $16 to $36.
Returning to a favorite restaurant after a long spell is like encountering an old flame: Will there still be sparks?
Let’s just say there were some fireworks when the food started coming out of the kitchen at Afghan Bistro recently. The smoky, sumac-spiced beef kebabs paired with tomato-sauced chickpeas, and shredded chicken tossed with slow-cooked greens and garlicky yogurt represent love at first bite (again). The epic menu forces tough decisions; this family-run storefront in Springfield helps out with a sampler plate that brings together four choice appetizers, including minced beef dumplings dusted with cayenne and crushed mint, and soft roasted eggplant flavored with tomato sauce and striped with yogurt sauce.
After introducing Afghan Bistro in 2015, husband and wife Omar and Sofia Masroor went on to open two more restaurants, Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades and Aracosia McLean in Northern Virginia. A fourth establishment is on its way, across from the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Omar Masroor says he hopes to open Afghania, serving “frontier food” from eastern Afghanistan, yet this year.
What the current restaurants share are recipes from Sofia and her mother-in-law that make you feel as if you’ve been invited into their homes. Better yet, the meals are sized so that tonight’s dinner can be tomorrow’s lunch.
Agni South Indian Cuisine
Mains $14 to $19.
Some like it hot, and for them, there are fried battered jalapeños, a popular South Indian street snack whose puffy golden jackets, made with gram flour, cushion the heat of the filling, jazzy with minced onions tossed with cilantro and lime and (optional) roasted peanuts.
The assertive heat in some of my favorite dishes is foretold in the restaurant’s name. Agni means “fire” in Hindi. But the kitchen, under the watch of Arivazhagan “Ari” Periyasamy, torches judiciously. Ask for the Apollo fish and you can taste the fried tilapia and bell peppers after they’re mixed in yogurt ignited with red chiles. Cumin, fenugreek and other bold spices provide the pulse in the heady shrimp ulli theeyal.
Service in the arty dining room is relaxed. Focusing on the cooking helps. Any visit is better when it starts with a cone of wispy onion strings whose chickpea flour coat is lit with green chiles, curry leaf and ginger. Agni also makes a lovely chicken biryani, imbued with warm spices and mixed with soft fried onions.
“I’m very picky about my food,” says owner Mahreen Aujla, who bought the storefront just ahead of the pandemic, hoping to elevate the Indian dining scene in Northern Virginia. Periyasamy, a veteran of the esteemed Leela Palace chain in India, is helping her do just that.
Mains $22 to $32 (whole pizzas).
I might never have blissed out on Andy’s Pizza if it hadn’t been for my friend Todd, whom I invited over for a last-minute, socially distanced dinner early in the pandemic. It was cold outside and the Chinese takeout was delayed by nearly an hour. Stomachs rumbled. “Hey, I’ve got pizza in my car,” Todd revealed. “Should I get it?” It turns out Todd was at Andy’s in Shaw when he got my dinner invite, and who turns down Chinese from Peter Chang? Todd figured the pizza could chill out in his trunk.
Except, a trio of us devoured most of the 18-inch round, still warm from the shop, crisp on the bottom, soft in the center and decked out with dimes of crisp pepperoni cupping a drop of oil. “Washington is saturated with Neapolitan pizza,” says founder Andy Brown, 32, whose interest in bread baking at home in his early 20s led to pizza experimentation, eventually culminating in six shops serving New York-style pies in Northern Virginia and the District. The simple pleasure, sprung from dough that ferments for 72 hours, follows good shopping. Brown relies on tomatoes from Modesto, Calif., that go from field to can in six hours and aged White Gold Parmigiano-Reggiano for some of his pizzas, slices of which fill a nine-inch paper plate.
Since that memorable introduction, I’ve tried other flavors and branches of Andy’s. My heart belongs to the “cup and char” pepperoni, but I’m almost as happy to fold a wedge of cheese-and-mushroom pie. Most recently, a stranger at the bar at Atlas Brew Works, which rents out space to the pizzeria near Nationals Park, blurted out why she was there. “Best deal in D.C.!” she announced to her neighbors. “Two slices and a beer for $10.” Cheers for sure.
Locations in Shaw, Adams Morgan, NoMa, Navy Yard and Tysons Galleria (coming soon to Alexandria).
Lunch and dinner daily (dinner only at Shaw and Adams Morgan).
Takeout and delivery.
Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse
Mains $16 to $40.
Quick, name another restaurant where you can get pot roast, Greek chicken soup and coconut cream pie throughout the day, seven days a week.
All-American comfort food — in heaping helpings and priced to encourage regular pit stops — is the drill in this convivial Dupont Circle gathering place. So are drinks sized like Big Gulps and (careful when you toast!) filled to the brim. The best entree on the menu combines sirloin tips, cooked the way you ask, crisped onions and green bell peppers, accompanied by a choice of side dishes. (Best bets are the lightly dressed coleslaw and homey, as in lumpy, mashed potatoes.) Looking for bookends? Start with the shrimp cocktail and finish with carrot cake.
As with the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl, Annie’s is less about cooking you can’t wait to repeat than the restaurant’s place in the community. For more than seven decades, it’s been a safe place for gay people to come together and be themselves without fear of judgment. Annie’s gives predictability a good name.
Art and Soul
Mains $24 to $46.
The name captures the joy of the cooking. Chef Danny Chavez serves food that’s familiar but never, ever boring. Blushing slices of beef carpaccio are dotted with saffron aioli and ringed in brilliant chive oil. Hamachi crudo translates to a pentagon of pink fish around a shimmering green pool of horseradish buttermilk. Even a bowl of spaghetti is ready for its close-up, thanks to wisps of arugula and Aleppo peppers poking through a powdery blanket of aged goat cheese.
“Plating — combining colors and textures — is my favorite thing,” says the native of El Salvador. Happily, Chavez marries style with substance. I love the punch of mustard seeds and the crackle of parmesan crisps on his carpaccio, and the crudo comes with a shower of fried shallots and creamy dollops of avocado mousse. The pasta, meanwhile, is so delicious you forget there’s no meat in the ragu, biting with minced Fresno chiles.
The hotel dining room near Union Station is as generic as they come, although live music on Thursdays and a power lunch for $22 at the bar — beer or wine included — balance things out. The constants at Art and Soul are oohs and aahs every time a plate shows up.
Dinner Wednesday through Saturday, breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.
Takeout and delivery. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.
Mains $14 to $54.
Part of the local Great American Restaurant collection, Artie’s has me at the door, where diners are met with a chorus of friendly hellos, and again at the table, where the menu considers all sorts of wishes. Looking for something gluten-free? Artie’s offers a list of possibilities. Prefer a touch more wine? You can ask for 9 ounces as well as 6. There’s even a meat explainer, detailing what your cooking request will look like.
The menu at this Northern Virginia draw doesn’t change much, but that’s fine by me. I never tire of the spiky seafood fritters arranged around corn salsa or sauteed trout strewn with pecans in a raftered dining room that’s a ringer for Clyde’s. Picture green booths, knotty walls and a mural of a boat dock that places you on the waterfront — somewhere calming. Thursday through Saturday, Artie’s offers a strapping blackened prime rib and a loaded baked potato. Anytime, there is a bountiful roasted chicken salad — a bird of a different feather with cranberries, goat cheese, pine nuts and corn off the cob — and crowd-pleasers including crab cakes and baby back ribs.
The kitchen can be a little too generous with the salt, but the servers are thoroughly charming and efficient. Before she removes my plate, a server asks, “All done? Some people lick the plate.” I believe her.
Mains $16 to $100.
Have you heard? Trinidad native Peter Prime, late of the delicious Cane, recently joined the Caribbean outpost introduced in Navy Yard two years ago by former Maydan chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison. The incoming kitchen pilot wasted no time injecting his style into the menu. Try the escovitch, whole scored red snapper or branzino in a vivid, near-electric garland of okra, bell peppers, onions and carrots. The rethought combination of steaming fish, crisp skin and pickled vegetables finds you leaving nothing but the fish skeleton behind. Jerk chicken has been joined on the list by zesty jerk shrimp, head-on specimens splayed over butter-glossed, collard-tinted cou cou, its texture reminiscent of grits.
The secret to some dishes, including the new duck curry, is the chef’s green seasoning, a weave of culantro, cilantro, fragrant broadleaf thyme, garlic and pimento (seasoning) peppers. “You get the spicy flavor but not the heat” from the peppers, says Prime, whose fine dining background reveals itself in both technique and plating.
A couple of caveats: The reggae is played indoors as if the restaurant’s waterfront audience needs to hear the music too, and it may take forever to get your (searing) Scotch bonnet margarita.
Ultimately, Bammy’s brings you close to the islands. Pigeon peas braised in coconut milk and subtly sweet with brown sugar is pretty much a welcome mat from Trinidad.
Mains $15 to $18.
Every bar should stock a Jacob Simpson. Busy as he was on a recent Saturday night, juggling customers in front of him and parties beyond, the tall drink of water managed to turn a couple of strangers — okay, my brother and me — into fans from the moment he introduced himself to us with a smile as broad as Dwayne Johnson’s and a handshake that put the pandemic in a rearview mirror. “Our cocktails are half-price and dumplings are a dollar” until 7, he volunteered. Happy hour on a Saturday? I’ll take it. While he managed multiple conversations with friends and colleagues, Simpson, also a co-owner, whipped up a cocktail I can’t get out of my mind, calvados daiquiri. “It’s like biting into a green apple,” he said as he watched me take a sip and nod in affirmation.
The industrial setting in Mount Vernon Triangle is warmed up with red lights and splashes of teal in the bar, but also Chinese finger food, enlightened riffs on orange chicken, embedded in a nest of spiky greens; crisp pork belly jolted with hot mustard and nestled in tender bao; and wontons slicked with red chile oil. The snack-y menu seems to suit the pre-dinner, post-club crowds that routinely gather in what feels like a hub for the cool kids.
My brother leaves with some unfinished five-spiced pork, rice and arugula and a hot tip from Simpson: “Put an egg on it.” Which my sibling does the next day, texting me proof. Saturday night, part two!
Mains $12.50 to $18.
It’s one-stop eating for fans of Central American and Mexican cooking at this family-run storefront near Logan Circle. “We try to have a cook from every nationality” represented on the menu, says Ennry Castro, the son of owners Maynor and Telma Majano, from Honduras and Guatemala, respectively.
Sure enough, there are griddled pupusas paying homage to El Salvador (spring for the saucer oozing cheese and earthy loroco) and chicken mole doing a swell impersonation of the classic I’ve encountered in Oaxaca, the sauce an inky amalgam of sweet, heat — layers upon layers of flavor. The next cold snap is sending me back for short ribs, squash, carrots and corn — on the cob — packing a steaming bowl of soup that’s found throughout Central America and Mexico but open to interpretation by home cooks. Honduras has a great ambassador in the crisp fried chicken shored up with a mound of jalapeño-lit cabbage embedded with finger-length green banana chips that really ought to be sold by the bag. Striped with tomato sauce and a creamy white dressing, the crowd-pleaser feels like a feast.
Referring to his Spanish-speaking clientele, Castro likes to think “we have a good take on what people want.” Every restaurateur should read the room as well. Benito’s Place is my kind of place.
Lunch and dinner daily. Indoor seating.
Takeout and delivery. Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; restroom is too small to accommodate a wheelchair.
Bindaas Bowls and Rolls
Mains $11 to $14.
The owner of Annabelle, La Bise and some of the best Indian restaurants on the East Coast acknowledges that his latest production is something of an aberration. “Fine dining is what I enjoy,” says Ashok Bajaj, who entered the fast-casual realm this spring when he opened this 30-seater in Penn Quarter. The storefront space became available early in the pandemic, when everyone was doing takeout, and Bajaj saw it as an opportunity to explore a different style of hospitality.
His notion of fast-casual brims with style. Arrivals sense they’re in for something special when they see tile floors, turquoise banquettes and brown leather chairs in the dining area and handsome Le Creuset cookware at the counter where meals are ordered. Then there’s the star behind the Indian flavors on the menu: chef Vikram Sunderam of Rasika renown.
For the first time, he’s letting customers mix and match ingredients to create their own bowls. I’m content to choose from among the “classic” compositions, including the stellar salmon moilee. The block of fish blazes with roasted Kashmiri chiles. Propped on lemony rice noodles that are flecked with curry leaves and finished with a ginger-sharpened coconut sauce, the heady salmon makes you believe you’re eating in one of Sunderam’s sophisticated dining rooms. So much finesse for just under $14! There’s also lamb vindaloo, served as meatballs zapped with ginger, garlic and garam masala and arranged on fluffy brown rice.
Wouldn’t you love some beer or wine with this food? The grab-and-go serves both, plus cocktails.
Mains $19 to $46.
Yes, the bronzed roast chicken with a vinegar-sharpened, tarragon-brightened sauce is delicious, and, oui, the cassoulet is a strapping feast of garlicky sausage and duck confit amid a field of Tarbais beans. But the last course here in Shaw merits plenty of love, too. At a time when the typical dessert list is just three sweets long, Convivial pulls out the stops with nearly a dozen creations, including baked Alaska, profiteroles and chocolate souffle. Behind the glories is Mark Courseille, a former pastry chef at the French Embassy.
Chef-owner Cedric Maupillier knows exactly what he’s doing. “I want people to talk about Convivial,” says the son of Provence, explaining the crowd of desserts and the presence on the menu of such old-guard dishes as crayfish quenelles. “What can we do to make people excited?”
Reading the menu, you’d never guess how sumptuous a salad or sandwich could be. Eyes pop at the sight of a vivid carpet of fried chickpeas, yellow bell peppers, breezy green mint and purple olives atop what tastes like the lightest hummus ever. Mouths water upon tasting a slender bar of crisp bread holding grilled ham, molten sheep cheese and (oh la la!) chicken mousse, an artful Basque sandwich served on a rustic tomato-bell-pepper sauce. Calls for baked Alaska increase once one of the beehive-shaped beauties is ignited with chartreuse at a table.
Since the pandemic, Maupillier has sunk $100,000 into the dining room. Leather place mats and red upholstery are nice enhancements to a restaurant that more than fulfills the promise of its name.
Mains $13 to $28.
Chef Suresh Sundas refers to his style of cooking as “Indian-ish.” Sure enough, he slips burrata into his lentils, stuffs poblano peppers with roasted sweet potatoes and adds a comet tail of turmeric-sparked chimichurri to a plate of grilled lamb chops. Momo on an Indian script? The inclusion of dumplings, juicy with ground bison and vegetables, speaks to his native Nepal.
Sundas seasons his food like Jorginho passes soccer balls: deftly. Taste those sweet potatoes — every bite jumping with mustard seeds, fresh ginger and curry leaves — and tell me otherwise. This is a kitchen that treats vegetables like the stars they are. Cue the stir-fried chopped cabbage, warm with cloves and positively numbing with Sichuan peppercorns.
The chef has the perfect partner in co-owner Dante Datta, who met Sundas when both worked at the esteemed Rasika West End and counts time at the bars at Elle and the late, great Columbia Room. You’ll drink as well as you dine here on H Street NE. The shake-shaking you hear from the bar might result in an Indian-ish twist on an espresso martini, starring housemade masala chai and rum from Bangalore.
A server pushes the scallops. “Legit, you are going to want to lick your plate,” she says. The surface of the scallops is orange and wonderful with chili powder, cumin and roasted garlic; a pool of coconut milk pulses with ginger, curry leaves, Thai green chiles. Legit, you are going to want to lick your plate. But then, that’s true of almost every dish here.
Mains $16 to $41.
Chef Harrison Dickow says he aims for food that’s “crave-able and surprising.” Those words sum up my feelings about his cucumber salad, chunks of vegetables that have been grilled or pickled and taste alive with lemon and lime, and a bowl of spinach pasta and smoky broccolini whose nuggets of fried tempeh are seasoned to mimic sausage. Dickow also has a thing for texture. The pleasant crunch on the pasta comes courtesy of shaved fried shallots.
Fermentation and preservation remain the focus at this homey bar, bakery and restaurant in Mount Pleasant. Dickow says part of the thrill is thinking up delicious ways to use byproducts or ingredients that might otherwise go to waste in the kitchen. Go for happy hour and the chance to try the signature kimchi toast for $8. The reward is fiery cabbage mixed (in summer) with sweet white peaches and heaped on a raft of bread slathered with labneh — my kind of salad. Dishes may be light — sliced grilled tuna arranged with radishes comes to mind — but they’re never dull. The roseate fish, for instance, arrives as a fan sprinkled with crushed peanuts and jolted with XO sauce, with fruity notes coming from preserved watermelon.
Dickow previously cooked at the admired Tail Up Goat in Washington and Flour + Water in San Francisco. The experience shows in the bold flavors in his food at Elle, whose angled green bar is the source of swell drinks and whose rear dining room looks like a grandmother with good taste had a say in the flowery wallpaper. Note to event planners: Elle’s owners acquired the neighboring hardware store and hope to add 40 seats to the storefront by year’s end.
Come dessert, we eye the pastry case up front. “Get the goat cheese tart,” says an attendant. We bite, and remember why life would be less without Elle.
Mains $9 to $49 (shared plates).
From the looks of it, the food faces stiff competition from the scenery at Gypsy Kitchen, the pan-Mediterranean restaurant whose main dining room unfolds beneath dozens of baskets on the ceiling and whose second floor is so green and light-filled, you swear you’re eating in the great outdoors. Two handsome bars, one per floor, are animated with what people seem to be swiping for on Tinder and company.
Then you see chef Eric Milton’s handiwork land at nearby tables and start rethinking your order. How could we leave out the baked-to-order, Astrodome-shaped pita, anointed with garlic oil and sprinkled with za’atar? The mere sight of the spectacle finds neighbors asking for a balloon of their own. The chicken, brushed with a combination of pomegranate molasses and honey and served with a bevy of accents — warm-spiced basmati rice in a bowl swiped with creamy hummus is almost a meal in itself — catches a lot of attention, too. (Toum, let me count the ways I love you.) Milton previously cooked for ThinkFoodGroup, the brand that includes Zaytinya, a detail made evident in much of what leaves the open kitchen.
Shame on me for waiting two years to try this fashion statement on 14th Street NW. And shame on me for breaking a promise to a friend who joined me last-minute last visit, lured in part by my invitation to take all the leftovers home. “Dude, I’ve never seen you eat this much before.”
If you’ve tried Gypsy Kitchen’s lovely herbed falafel or tuna crudo — a shout-out to summer with chopped tomatoes, grilled corn, cucumber, plus shoyu vinaigrette — you’ll understand the plates I cleaned.
Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Mains $17 to $90.
Welcome to 1952, 1992 or the present. The capacious main dining room in downtown Washington exudes a timelessness shared by few other restaurants. The lighting shaves years off your face, the servers sport tuxes and the bountiful bread basket could fill you up if you let it.
Go easy on the cornbread and onion rolls. You want to save space for one of the best (and busiest) chopped salads in town, golden fried chicken or maybe a New York strip, cooked just the way you ask — “warm red center,” a waiter describes medium-rare — and accompanied by a house seasoning that crackles with coriander, pepper, garlic and shallots. The signature stone crab claws are a pretty splurge; tuna tartare staged on ice and flanked with sails of rice crackers is about as trendy as Joe’s gets.
There’s not a bad table in the house, although I’m happiest to land a big velvet booth overlooking the show. (The high-ceilinged front bar, home to a nice happy hour and folks without reservations, used to be a bank and retains an air of luxe.)
At a time when even the best places struggle with service, Joe’s pays attention to the fine points, like brushing crumbs from the table between courses and boxing up leftovers with the same care paid to serving dishes. (My waiter wrote the name of each dish on its carton. No slowing down a refrigerator raid at midnight!) And who doesn’t love a place that serves nearly a dozen pies, by either the slice or the half slice? From start to banana cream pie, Joe’s is a gem.
Mains $8 to $26.
To understand how pierogi, pizza and skate landed on the same menu in Baltimore, it helps to know that chef Robbie Tutlewski grew up in Indiana, comes from Polish stock, had a grandmother from Yugoslavia (Little Donna is named after her) and has worked for a pizza maestro in Arizona and the beloved Tail Up Goat in Washington. His dad instilled a love of food in him and coached Tutlewski to “sell the food you grew up on.”
Lucky diners at Little Donna’s, which follows the long-running Henninger’s Tavern in a corner storefront in Upper Fells Point. Working in part from recipes written in his late grandmother’s hand, Tutlewski personalizes some of his greatest hits.
Take the pierogies, four half-moons dolloped with sour cream and … chili crisp? The popular condiment adds texture and sass to a tradition made lighter and more elastic than usual with olive oil and sour cream in the dough. I love the filling, buttery pureed potatoes lit with horseradish. “Sausage & Sauerkraut” teams smoked kielbasa from the neighboring Ostrowski’s with tangy cabbage and a hot mustard dressing, sepia tones enlivened with lemon and scallions on the plate — strapping satisfaction (and possibly the Polish equivalent of menudo for hangovers). The sauteed skate, topped over summer with a refreshing stone-fruit salad, salutes the pan-fried fish the chef recalls from his youth in the Midwest, where pike and walleye got top billing.
The lone disappointment on the list are the tavern pizzas, a surprise given Tutlewski’s association with the acclaimed chef Chris Bianco in Phoenix. The bar pies at Little Donna’s are square-cut, per custom, but puffy and chewy when the ideal texture is cracker-y. Glass half-full: That just leaves more space for the rest of the menu, maybe some pork schnitzel or a slice of egg custard pie, whispering of bay leaf.
The restaurant, dressed with half-curtains in the windows and a pressed-tin ceiling, looks like it’s been around forever. The piece de resistance is the inherited wood bar, one side of which is decorated with a peeling military poster and sign framed in bottle caps: “Be nice or leave,” it reads. Be good and sup well.
Mattie & Eddie’s
Mains $18 to $36.
The owner of my favorite Irish pub sweats the small stuff. The reason you don’t leave a fry on a plate of fish and chips is because Cathal Armstrong insists on aging his potatoes at least a week to convert sugar to starch and slow browning. Spuds destined to become fries are then peeled, cut, washed, soaked overnight at room temperature and drained and rinsed again before they’re cooked first at a low temperature and then chilled. Before they leave the kitchen, the potatoes are cooked again at a higher temperature. Armstrong says that’s the way he’s going to offer fries “until my deathbed.”
Here’s wishing the chef a long life and Mattie & Eddie’s a long run. A love letter to Armstrong’s paternal grandparents, whose wee home back in Ireland was the stage for Sunday family meals, the Arlington tavern can host 200 revelers inside and 100 on the front patio. The most private tables are tucked into booths the size of a roomette on a train, where you can still hear whatever band happens to be playing Thursday through Saturday nights.
Stories come with some dishes. A jar of braised sardines mashed with tomatoes and onions, spiked with cayenne and lemon juice and served alongside fingers of toasted bread is a nod to a snack Armstrong’s father whipped up while watching rugby with his chef-to-be teenager. Any meal is better when it starts with a bowl crammed with smoked haddock, mussels, potatoes and cream, lightened (a bit) with fresh dill, and concludes with a slice of orange pound cake served with a seasonal accent. Chef Casey Bauer oversees the consistent kitchen. A recent deep dive in the shepherd’s pie was like my first: radiator hot, with handsome rippled mashed potatoes topping juicy braised lamb and peas.
Mains $19 to $56.
Soft jazz is playing when an icy gimlet arrives. “All right now!” says a bow-tied, vest-wrapped server.
He’s referring to my drink, but he could just as well be talking about the brass-railed, red-bricked restaurant on Capitol Hill whose walls frame the smiles of scores of politicians, past and present, and whose borders are inscribed with words of wisdom. “Washington is the only city where sound travels faster than light,” declares one string of pearls. I look up from my booth to see that Bill Clinton and Trent Lott, or at least their likenesses, will be joining us for dinner.
A few friends laughed when I suggested the long-lived Monocle for dinner. Surprise, surprise, then, for them to stroll into a dining room inhabited by youthful Pete Buttigieg-types and to find (some) dishes good enough to polish off. I’m talking lacy onion rings, thick pork chops paired with cheesy mashed potatoes, garlic-fragrant clam pasta and cheesecake lightened with pineapple compote.
The crab cake is too bready, and the rib-eye needs its chile butter for flavor. The Monocle reminds me that food isn’t everything. The dapper gent at the door treats us like we’re beloved senators as he ushers us to our choice of tables, “anywhere you’re comfortable,” he offers. Servers swoop in with smiles, bread, water, recommendations. This is the uncommon quiet restaurant that doesn’t feel like a mausoleum — thus the perfect place to take people who want a taste of Washington, but nothing too challenging, please.
Mains $95 (tasting menu only).
The best seats in the house are the handful of stools in front of the open kitchen, where chef-owner Yuh Shimomura, a veteran of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, whips up the same seven courses for everyone in his slip of a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria.
He’s not a big talker — Shimomura is cooking solo, after all — but watching his knife skills or the reverence with which he handles ingredients is dinner theater on mute. Engage him, though, and he might share that the seared Japanese wagyu short rib gets some of its umami from a wrap of seaweed, and the dark nugget in the sashimi course, arranged like a bouquet, is seared marinated bonito.
The menu, for which the Tokyo native shops near daily, changes; mine in late summer included a refreshing puree of edamame, tofu and dashi and roseate duck slices dappled with a “chimichurri” pungent with shiso and mitsuba, or Japanese wild parsley. The value: good ingredients, creatively addressed. Know before you go: The lone server guards the curtained entrance like a cop. Parties have to be complete to be seated. Soft jazz and a quietly talented chef smooth any curt first impression.
Mains $18 to $42.
New Heights is an apt name for this long-running restaurant in Woodley Park, acquired this year by three immigrants from Iran, Ukraine and Bolivia: Mark Namdar, Olena Fedorenko and her husband, chef Jose Molina, respectively. Veterans of the hospitality industry, the trio share a lofty mission. “Our goal,” says Namdar, “is to make it a destination again.”
The setting will be familiar to anyone who visited the modern American restaurant when it was owned by Umbi Singh, who opened the place in 1986 and guided it up to the pandemic. Guests encounter an airy bar, specializing in gin, before ascending to a dining room set off with photos and maps of D.C. and windows looking onto treetops.
No sooner do the plates start arriving than you pause to admire a fresh take here, a luscious twist there — a new restaurant for your rotation. The Caesar salad is built from grilled broccolini and a creamy dressing, bold with black garlic. Instead of french fries, there are beech mushrooms dipped in tempura and seasoned with warm spices. Juicy chicken is staged with velvety roast peppers and buttery potatoes whipped with rosemary and lemon juice. The Bolivian touches — a tart and elegant ceviche, flanked with light-as-air yuca chips, and a creamy peanut soup that fits in pasta and shredded chicken — honor the chef’s heritage and raises the question: More where that comes from, please?
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.
Takeout and delivery. Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Patio and bar on first floor are accessible; dining room and restroom on second floor are not.
Falls Church, Va.
Mains $17 to $27.
It opened as Bangkok Golden in 2010 and became known as a Thai restaurant with a secret Laotian menu. So many people gravitated to the latter, owner Seng Luangrath combined the cuisines on one list and rebranded the place Padaek, a nod to the fermented fish sauce used in Laotian cooking, several years later.
A taste of shredded papaya salad lets you experience the differences between Thai and Laotian kitchens. While they look much the same, the Thai salad is sweeter, the Laotian version more savory, thanks to salt and the funk of shrimp and crab paste in the seasoning. A request for “medium” heat in either delivers a serious punch.
Crispy rice, roasted peanuts, scallions and pink folds of fermented pork make up my favorite dish here, the aromatic naem khao thadaeu, eaten with the help of cool lettuce leaves. An even more interactive dish is golden fried catfish presented with a platter of goodies — matchsticks of fresh ginger, lemongrass, tiny green eggplants, fine rice noodles — for packing in folds of sturdy collard leaves, atypical in Laos but preferred by Luangrath for their sturdiness and pleasant bitterness. The combination of hot fish, tropical accents and cool packaging goes down like a three-ring circus in your mouth, and it’s all the better for the pineapple sauce you can add to your wraps.
The tidy storefront in Falls Church looks the same as it always has, with sunny yellow walls, swatches of fabric displayed on glass-topped tables and friendly servers animating the room. The fancy bottle of wine on your neighbor’s table isn’t from the restaurant’s stock but the result of Padaek’s gentle corkage fee: $15 to bring your own grape juice.
Parkway Deli & Restaurant
Silver Spring, Md.
Mains $7 to $20.
Good news first: The pickle bar is back at one of my favorite blasts from the past.
The menu at Parkway brings together wants spanning breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you go for just one dish, make it chicken soup. Tender chunks of chicken pack the golden broth, gently herby and crammed with a fistful of carrots, celery, onion and egg noodles. Every spoonful has the power of a hug. As for sandwiches, the Reuben hits all the right spots with tangy sauerkraut, sweet Russian dressing and half a pound of thinly shaved corned beef. The best of the pastry case is a warm-spiced slab of carrot cake that can easily satisfy three forks.
Dinners are served starting at 4 p.m. — my kind of happy hour — and include such comforts as cabbage stuffed with ground beef, fried chicken, and sliced turkey with cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce. Diners select a side; lightly dressed coleslaw or creamy mac and cheese tend to round out my plates.
Introduced in 1963, the front of the Silver Spring operation is a small food store and deli, where you can buy wine or beer to drink with your meal and which you pass through to reach the dining room. Painted in purple and aqua, the restaurant is otherwise plain and practical. A band of mirrors lets you play voyeur from just about every table, and how thoughtful that the condiments extend to two kinds of hot sauce and three kinds of sweetener. Comfort and abundance explain what owner Danny Gurewitz, grandson of the founder, calls “a cornucopia” of diners here.
Can we talk? The blueberry pancakes are tough and the hash browns inside the omelets are underdone. Your mileage depends on knowing the kitchen’s strengths. (See above.) But there’s something to be said for a place that has outlived so many other area attempts at “deli.”
Mains $28 to $45.
The name is a joke; Piquette alludes to second-rate wine. Otherwise, this is a serious bistro that knows how to make customers happy. Warm bread lands on the table as soon as you’re seated, in a room whose black-and-white photos, pressed-tin ceiling and antique mirrors suggest a place that’s been around forever. A seat at a tall table in the raised bar is my preferred perch for the floor show near Washington National Cathedral.
Here’s what else to expect: breezy service, icy oysters, crisp cod perched on ratatouille and sweetbreads that cut like custard and arrive with a forest of mushrooms. The kitchen offers the usual French suspects — duck confit, coq au vin — but knows some of us can also get around, say, creamy linguine scattered with braised rabbit and olives.
Want to impress your dining companions? Drop the chef’s name, Francis Layrle, and let them know the Gascon native came to La Piquette after having cooked at the French Embassy for seven ambassadors.
Dinner daily, lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.
Takeout and delivery. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; bar seating involves stairs; ADA-compliant restroom.
Mains $16 to $39.
Since it set sail in Annapolis seven years ago, this mom-and-pop from Michelle and Jeremy Hoffman has featured dishes reflective of Jeremy’s origins in Pennsylvania Dutch country and his interest in all things fermented. Expect pierogies as appetizers, tang throughout the menu and … duck tongues, anyone?
“We’re a family-friendly restaurant,” says Brian Cieslak, Preserve’s chef de cuisine. “But we don’t think parents should miss out on flavor.” Hence the fried duck tongues, offered with rice vinegar aioli and chili crunch oil. Preserve sells “a lot,” says the Maryland native.
Things that sound familiar never taste that way. What read over summer like pasta with clams turned out to be buckwheat bucatini flavored with bacon, black garlic and diced asparagus, all of which slide across the tongue with the help of a cream reduction. Scallops, striped from the grill, got a lovely charge from a relish of fermented fish pepper, cilantro, lime juice and celery, an idea Cieslak picked up at his wedding in St. Lucia.
Similar to his boss, Cieslak works with his wife, Sommer Walker, a former ballerina who’s now bar manager at Preserve. “It’s a dream team,” the chef says of the time with his colleagues, a detail anyone can fact-check by observing the tiny open kitchen crammed with people who look like they’re having as much fun as diners. It doesn’t hurt that kids’ meals are served aloft toy dinosaurs. The sight of a child’s hamburger being ferried through the snug dining room is as happy-making as Preserve’s tall slab of many-layered crepe cake, flavored as if it were tiramisu.
Mains $11 to $42.
Sometimes a critic has to throw his beau a bone and pretend like he has a choice for dinner. Whenever Ruthie’s is in the realm of possibilities, the Arlington hot spot gets the green light from my significant other. Part of that has to do with Todd Salvadore, who watches over diners as if they’re friends over for a barbecue. And part of that has to do with his business partner, chef Matt Hill, who cooks as if he’s competing for blue ribbons at some state fair.
This is food with mass appeal — smoked brisket with milk bread and pickles, fried chicken sandwiches bulked up with coleslaw and saucy with avocado ranch dressing — served in a light-filled (and admittedly clattery) dining room named for the chef’s late grandmother and as good for a date as a family reunion. The owners’ fine dining backgrounds are revealed in details such as a European-focused wine list and a sparkling tuna tartare presented with housemade waffle chips.
Did I mention the drinks are good, parking is easy, pets are welcome on the patio, and the shrimp-flavored hush puppies rock? I could do All-Day every week.
Dinner daily, breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.
Takeout and delivery. Sound check: 75 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.
Shalla Restaurant & Bar
Silver Spring, Md.
Mains $11 to $31.
They take meat seriously at this year-old Ethiopian restaurant in Silver Spring, a corner of which is devoted to butchering beef — “four to five cows a week” when customers aren’t fasting during religious holidays, says co-owner Temesgen Gebeyehu. When I enlist him for a recommendation, he steers me to shint tibs. A mound of juicy cubed rib-eye, sweet with onions and sharp with jalapeños, eventually makes its way to the table, where I tackle the entree with the help of pieces of injera, the tangy crepe-like bread that doubles as a utensil.
Clouds of incense, part of Shalla’s coffee ceremony, greeted me on my first visit to the restaurant that once housed the groovy Jackie’s and where I splurged on an upgraded version of kitfo, Ethiopia’s steak tartare. The surface of the minced raw beef, glossed with butter infused with cardamom, mitmita and other spices, was sculpted into little red ripples. Similarly wavy scoops of housemade cottage cheese — one green with collards, another orange with cayenne — helped fill out the platter.
Beef isn’t the sole attraction. Ground tilapia jump-started with jalapeños and the eight-item vegetable combination platter also draw me back. The latter is a kaleidoscope of colors: dark green garlicky collards, sunny yellow cabbage and carrots, and red lentils whose hidden serrano pepper creates a slow burn in your mouth. Chef Tsega Amera comes to the kitchen from the late Addis Ababa, also in Silver Spring.
Shalla takes its name from Lake Shala in south-central Ethiopia, a place Gebeyehu knows well, having worked there as a surveyor. Indeed, all three owners come from construction backgrounds.
Shilling Canning Company
Mains $32 to $49, $65 three-course tasting menu.
Everywhere I look in this ode to the Mid-Atlantic, there’s something to suggest chef Reid Shilling cares about the fine points. Hugging the airy restaurant in Navy Yard are planters stocked with a little encyclopedia of herbs and greens, and a window in the back of the dining room captures hams hung for aging. We sit down and a little snack appears. What’s not to like about a deviled egg whose yolk, swirled with housemade pickles, appears to have been sculpted in place?
My last visit was during summer’s Restaurant Week, a promotion that smart chefs use not just to fill seats in mid-August but to entice customers back. Wisely, Shilling offered dishes from the regular menu, and selections for vegetarians as well as meat fanciers. Tucking into charred squash-and-corn fritters scattered with Maryland crab and moving on to crisp Cape May fluke splayed over a rich corn bisque, larded with bacon and peppers, I got the sense the chef was interested in sharing his range with participants.
Really, though, every week feels like Restaurant Week at this handsome shout-out to the chef’s onetime family business in Maryland, thanks to the option of a three-course menu for $65. One of these date nights, I’m going to splurge on Shilling’s seven-course, $125 tasting menu, staged in front of the gleaming open kitchen, and watch him cook in front of me. But the siren call of three courses for a fixed price in a light-filled room watched over by gracious servers is hard to resist.
El Sol Restaurante & Tequileria
Mains $9 to $25.
The place sneaks up on you. One minute you’re quietly walking up the stairs to the second-floor dining room in Shaw, the next you’re inside a piñata that’s just been whacked. Behold the Virgin Mary and Aztec pyramids, depicted on a mural that screams “Mexico!” The place is so loud, you resort to reading lips, and the tables are constantly reconfigured to accommodate the party of four here, the group of six there. Servers walk around auctioning off dishes and avoiding eye contact in barely controlled chaos.
So why bother? Because Alfredo Solis, the co-chef behind my No. 1 favorite restaurant from spring, Mariscos 1133, owns the place with his sister, and the pozole and chilaquiles at the oldest of his five establishments are dynamite. The soup, centered on pork braised for half a day with chiles, cumin and other brassy notes, is “good for a hangover,” says Solis. Duly noted, sir, but I’m content dispatching the liquid gold sober, the better to inhale its nuances, like clove in the seasoning. El Sol’s chilaquiles may be the best in town, thanks to a green salsa made in small batches with lots of cilantro, tomatillo and epazote. Say sí to the bright guacamole, zapped with garlic and serrano and made to order.
Concerned that customers were only ordering dishes they were familiar with after El Sol opened in 2014, Solis added photographs of everything to the menu. “It’s kind of cheesy,” says the chef, but it got people ordering more than, say, tacos, good as they are. Misses like the arid chicken mole are rare. Hits including smoky shrimp atop a cream sauce fired up with dried peppers are the happy norm.
Small plates $8 to $18.
The family behind this fresh face in Dupont Circle aspired to channel a Bangkok Chinatown. Mission accomplished, thanks to steep stairs lined with Thai and Chinese newspapers and an underground bar and dining room that glow red and green, respectively.
Yes, it’s loud and dark. But Sura is also lip-smacking. Billy Thammasathiti, who last worked in a Japanese restaurant, heads up the kitchen; his brother Andy covers the small bar. (Sura translates to “spirits” in Thai.) Together they are doing atypical Thai food and drink in a space with a nice past: The brothers’ grandmother cooked here when she left Bangkok and the restaurant was known as Sala Thai.
Don’t come looking for fish cakes or tom yum soup. An order of skewered beef shows how the chef makes some Thai basics his own. A riff on crying tiger beef, the ropy meat is marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar and salt and sprinkled with what Billy calls “rice spice” — roasted sticky rice, lemongrass, lime leaves — before hitting the grill. The textures and aromatics are riveting. The chef likes to play with fire, evinced by pork belly finished with a chile sauce that races from hot to tangy and back, a sensation (somewhat) tamed by Thai basil in the jumble.
Other dishes seem designed to go with Andy’s libations. “Chips & dip,” for instance, find garlic-scented rice crackers and a little dish of ground pork and roasted peanuts souped up with coconut milk. Munch, munch, gone.
The drinks, affixed with Asian accents, are as spirited as the cooking. The pause that refreshes most is a daiquiri swirled with passion fruit liqueur and fancied up with an orchid.
Falls Church, Va.
Mains $13 to $40.
The only difference between the calamari “pasta” I recall from Takumi earlier in the pandemic and recently is the mode of delivery. Take it from this fan: The most popular dish at the Japanese retreat in Falls Church looks better on a plate than inside plastic — and is better experienced in view of the open kitchen than as takeout. Otherwise, the poached calamari (sliced into ribbons, formed into a turban and topped with seaweed matchsticks and a quail egg) is as compelling as ever. The appetizer comes with instructions to break the yolk to create a sauce and combine it with the other ingredients, which include custardy sea urchin tucked within the “pasta.”
Spotting tuna napoleon on the menu, I’m reminded that chef-owner Jie (“Jay”) Yu borrowed the idea from his former employer, Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington. The beet-red minced fish, which gets its kick from a spicy miso sauce and its slick from sesame oil, arrives atop little rounds of corn chips. One is never enough.
Maybe you’re in a snug booth or on one of only six counter stools for something more traditional. Let a server steer you to what fish you should order as sushi. A recent request included yellowtail belly with a pinch of lime zest and pale pink o-toro, unadorned to let its buttery flavor shine. Yu fries as well as he slices and dices, a cue to order calamari in a sheath of tempura.
There’s no set price for omakase, just a base price of about $80; Yu lets you decide how much you want to eat and works within your budget. At a minimum, you’ll get two small plates and about 10 pieces of sushi — a meal to remember that underscores the name of the place. Takumi is Japanese for “artisan.”
Mains $16 to $28.
Think of it as a time capsule with familiar food: chicken tenders, mac & cheese bites, a hamburger. But keep in mind, the pub below the stately 1789 Restaurant in the shadow of Georgetown University is part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, known for its attention to detail. The chicken bursts with juices because it’s been brined, and the macaroni cubes pick up flavor from cayenne, bacon and red pepper.
The menu is designed with students in mind, but also professors, parents and tourists. Hence the interesting salads (I love the antipasto-inspired combination of salami, provolone, chickpeas and tiny pasta), the Charleston-worthy shrimp and grits at brunch and salmon served with tzatziki sauce and Israeli couscous perked up with pesto. The last looks and tastes as if it were whipped up in the formal 1789 but in fact originates from the open kitchen beneath it, headed by chef Chris Benitez.
The underground tavern, reached by steps as steep as “The Exorcist” stairs nearby and the model for the bar in 1985’s “St. Elmo’s Fire,” hasn’t changed much in its six decades. The rowing references are everywhere, the booths are semi-enclosed with lead-glass dividers and, truth be told, your first whiff of the place remains the amalgam of cleaning solution and spilled beer. Hoya Saxa!
Mains $17 to $31.
We’re listening to Italian opera and eating inari sushi. Strange bedfellows? Not at Tonari, the city’s single example of wafu Italian. “The Japanese are good at borrowing from others and making it their own,” says chef Katsuya Fukushima, who’s good at a lot of things, including inari sushi, little boats of fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice and a dish his mother tucked into his lunch box as a child. A pickled anchovy atop his version balances the subtle sweetness of the original.
Pasta and pizza make up most of the small menu in this two-story Chinatown retreat. “Marcella Hazan” pays tribute to the acclaimed Italian cookbook author with a spaghetti sauce coaxed from Jersey tomatoes, onions and butter. Mmm mmm buono! The pizzas are a cross between focaccia and Detroit-style, with crusts that are pillowy in the center and crisp along the edges. I have an ongoing affection for clams, brick cheese, oregano and — this being wafu Italian fare — pickled seaweed and red miso oil. The pies can be ordered whole or half, encouraging exploration.
Chocolate budino garnished with litchis? The rich pudding and the juicy fruit are bliss in every bite.
Mains $20 to $36.
Looking for a stable relationship? This charming, two-room Italian outpost delivers in spades. It might be years between visits, but whenever I go back, I can always count on linen-dressed tables, beautiful salads, braised lamb ravioli in a wash of red wine sauce and a list of specials so long it could be mistaken for a filibuster.
Nope, just another typical night at Tortino, where chef-owner Noé Canales, a veteran of Tosca, Al Tiramisu and Cafe Milano, sends out big servings of Italian standards. Go for the big rings of soft calamari arranged with chickpeas and potatoes against a roasted bell pepper sauce, a trio of lamb chops lapped in summer with blueberry sauce, maybe a treasure of seafood, lobster included, heaped on linguine.
When he opened in Shaw in 2011, Canales says, “nobody wanted to be there.” Loyal neighbors sustained his business, which explains Tortino’s generous spirit. “You pay back your customers.”
They might not know your name here, but the vested staff sure act as though they do, at what feels like a diner’s wish list come true. Entrees hover around $28, the dessert list is eight choices strong, and you can hear yourself think. Tortino is the model neighbor.
Mains $28 to $65 (mixed grill for two).
This Mediterranean restaurant with a Lebanese lilt brims with surprises. For starters, it’s unexpectedly posh given its placement in a shopping center. And nowhere else but here in Vienna has a server invited me to “order a few dishes at a time if you want. No rush.”
Then there’s the cooking: Ten herbs and tomatoes dressing up the colorful fattoush and skin-on roasted branzino presented with saffron-colored potatoes and tahini sauce on a plate that looks as if it were custom-tailored for the fish. “I like the best,” says chef-owner Samer Zeitoun, whose sweat went into creating a dining room furnished with beautiful blue chairs and mirrors shaped like portholes and whose “picky taste” means cooking most dishes to order.
Wherever on the list you see eggplant or lamb, think of it as a green light. Among the spreads, roasted eggplant stands out for being so much more than the mashed vegetable, served with Marcona almonds for crunch, dates for unexpected sweetness and feta cheese for tang. Ground lamb finds its way, along with rice and parsley, into a small boat of zucchini that sails to the table on a tomato sauce enlightened with lemon juice and strained before serving, leading to a thin but bright elixir. Best in class, though, is the glistening kibbeh nayyeh, minced raw lamb and cracked wheat colored by red peppers, seasoned with mint and basil, and staged as a round with hot pita bread and white rosettes of whipped garlic.
The chef, who can observe his domain from a window in the kitchen, gets help from family. A daughter serves as mistress of ceremonies in the dining room, and his wife lavishes attention on the salads and sweets, including a divine cheesecake whose crust fuses dates and ground pistachios.
Zeitoun says he could still use another set of hands in the kitchen. Yes, that’s a plug, with a carrot attached: “We pay the good people well,” promises the chef.