One of our friends recently posed the following: “We have a rare chance to dine sans kids. Where around DC do you recommend for our dining date?” This rather open query was geared to my foodie husband, who I should have known would respond with interest. When I chanced a glance at his “casual” response, I thought, “move over Tom Sietsema, this beats most dining guides I’ve read!”
Propitiously, DC Restaurant Week, an annual multi-course gourmet event, just happens to be next week, Aug 16th-22nd (more on that later). Whether you’re an enthusiast or a food newb, here are a few recommendations for the other 51 weeks of the year (freshly borrowed from my husband’s inbox):
With regards to your culinary quandary… of course, I have many recommendations for dining. Probably a whole lot more than you’d care to sift through. Zagat has nothing on me. Not knowing exactly what you’re looking for, though, I shall proceed to enumerate a few (in no particular order) in hopes that something strikes your fancy. There are, of course, no chain restaurants! Here’s my legend:
$ – $30ish for the meal (including tax & tip)
$$ -$60ish for the meal (including tax & tip)
$$$ – $90ish for the meal (including tax & tip)
I’ve included websites so you can look at menus. Of course, I’ve got a lot more… I’ve just pared the list down cuz it’s late, and I’m tired. But if you’re looking for something in particular, let me know and I’ll see if I can make a recommendation that fits the bill.
1. Cava – (DC SE 8th St – $$)
This is right over in my neck of the woods (just up from the Navy Yard, by the Marine Barracks at 8th and I st. SE). They specialize in ‘mezze,’ or Mediterranean small plates. This lets you sample a myriad of dishes (choosing just one is always such an agonizing process for me!) while deciding for yourself when you’ve had enough. Turophiliacs will appreciate the fact that there’s an entire MENU heading for CHEESE MEZZE!! (Saganaki, anyone?) Dining is al fresco (which I always prefer), both indoors and out as the entire front of the dining room opens out to the patio. After dinner enjoy a stroll through the beautiful, quiet neighborhoods of Capitol Hill and appreciate the residential urban beauty just a stone’s throw from our nation’s Capitol.
2. Pupatella (Intersection of Wilson Blvd and George Mason Dr. in Arlington / $)
These folks started out with a little cart in Ballston. After a few years, they’d gotten successful enough to open this small restaurant a few blocks further up Wilson Blvd. This is, bar none, the best, most authentic Vera Pizza Napolitana you’re going to find in the DC area. Easily on par with 2 Amy’s or Pizzeria Orso at considerably lower prices. We are Pupatellaholics. Go there and you will be, too. Fantastically authentic pizza cooked in a 1000 degree wood-fired oven, fresh ingredients, and an enticing selection of outstanding Gelato flavors make this place something of a hidden gem. Now… it’s not long on ambience. It’s a real Neapolitan experience. Usually busy, often un-air-conditioned, and founded on the “God helps those who help themselves” ethic (you can expect to bus your own table and get your own water), it’s NOT a place for a quiet, romantic dinner. If, however, the thought of beautiful slap-method crust, lightly salted and brushed with olive oil, and topped with basil, fresh mozzarella, arugula, and San Marzano tomatoes makes your heart go pitter patter, this is the place for you.
3. Haandi (Falls Church – $$)
Hey Folks, Gather round. Have a look at these plates I’m puttin’ down. Hey, People, I’m your Haandi man. O.k. – so maybe that’s not the way JT sang it, but then he probably never had Indian food like this. The menu is huge, but, to borrow from the vernacular: “It’s all good.” Short on ambience but long on flavor, this festival of South Asian culinary finery is one of the best the area has to offer, without pretense or the inflated prices of some of the hautier establishments.
4. Taste of Morocco (Almost Clarendon – $$)
North African cooking provides some of the richest and most interesting flavors I’ve had, and ToM serves them all up with flair. The way to go here is with one of the Moroccan Feasts, which include multiple courses and are meant for sharing. From tandoor to tangine, the spices are the star here… except, of course, on Thursday nights, when there’s belly dancing!
5. Firefly (DuPont Circle – $$$)
Firefly, adjacent to (and owned by) the Kimpton-owned boutique Hotel Madera, has the sort of attention paid to the interior design and ambience I’ve come to expect from the Kimpton group. It’s intimate, unexpected, and fresh. You might say the same about the food. Chef Daniel Bortnick (a local, from Rockville, MD) consistently programs a wonderful, seasonal menu. It was here that J and I first experienced fiddle-head ferns, despite J’s having grown up in Washington state. It was also he who introduced me to Rogue River creamery, creators of my all-time favorite fromage, Rogue River Smoky Blue. An after-dinner stroll through Dupont Circle and up Connecticut Avenue brings the feel of the city even closer. Stop in at the Claude Taylor photography gallery (http://www.travelphotography.net/) and enjoy the colors, sights, and auras of locales the world over, all in a single shop.
6. Willow (Ballston – $$$)
Willow is a diner’s delight. This is haute cuisine at its hautiest. The freshest and most exotic ingredients, the most traditional and intricate of techniques, Willow never fails to impress… whether you’re a culinary neophyte or a seasoned connoisseur. Oh, and being that they’re in Arlington, taxes are lower and parking is easier (and cheaper!) to come by. Looking for an unforgettable meal? Chef O’Grady is the Natalie Cole of the poêle. Did I mention they have a fabulous cheese menu?!
7. The Italian Store (Arlington – Lyon Village / $)
Has fantastic sandwiches using real Italian products (i.e., imported prosciutto, provolone, capicola, etc.). Looking for a cheap-yet-culinarily-exquisite-while-feeling-euro-cool date? Stop by and grab a couple of subs, a container of beautiful huge red Baresi olives, 2 cans of Aranciata (or Limonata, if you prefer), and a package of Berger cookies (They’re baked semi-locally in Baltimore and absurdly good. Plus, you’ll have a few extras to take home to the kiddos). After procuring your comestibles, proceed a short drive to Fort C. F. Smith Park ( http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/ParksRecreation/fortcfsmith/ParksRecreationFortcfsmithFtCFSmith.aspx ). Bring a book of Shakespearean love sonnets or serenade each other with Puccini while you enjoy your narfifulent fare in the beautiful setting of the Peace Garden and/or wildlife preserve. When you’ve finished dining, you’re just a hop, skip, and a jump from Spout Run, which will give you easy access to downtown should you decide to cross the river to enjoy strolling through the monuments.
Oh.. and don’t forget DESSERT!!
Sometimes, we like to hit one restaurant for our meal, and another for dessert… oftentimes with an activity in between. Having a little break in between meal and dessert sometimes gives the food a chance to settle; it gives you an opportunity to experience a different setting and/or different chefatorial ideas, and it’s sometimes nice to have a little time to sit down together and wrap up the evening. Here are a few sweet spots:
1. CoCo Sala (DC – Penn Quarter / $$)
This is kind of a hip lounge-style restaurant… and while they have great small plates for dinner, their real forte is chocolate (as one might imagine from the title). The 3 course chocolate desserts are exquisite, as are the confections from their chocolate shop. Hip, swank, and luscious.
2. Giffords (Dc – Penn Quarter / $)
Remember Giffords Ice Cream back when it used to be where Joe’s Place is now on Lee Highway? Yes, they DID go out of business in the 80’s, but a few years back someone bought the whole shootin’ match from the original family and has now opened a few small Gifford’s shops with the original-recipe Gifford’s flavors, made just they way it used to be made. This ice cream just rocks. And, at least for me, there’s some nostalgia, too.
3. Boccato Gelato (Clarendon / $)
Makers and purveyors of really, really good gelato. We love gelato. MMMMMM. GELATO. Did I mention it’s really good? Cuz it is…!! Across Wilson Blvd. from Whole Foods in Clarendon.
4. The Source (Downtown, in the Newseum / $$$)
This is Wolfgang Puck’s signature restaurant in DC. Of course, it’s hard to get a reservation, and expensive. BUT… if you go there for dessert, you can sit at the bar or in the lounge seating and still enjoy your selection from their perfectly Pucky patisserie. The 15 layer carrot cake is an experience to be had, and I still haven’t forgiven them for taking the filo-wrapped chocolate lava cake off the menu.
5. Metro 29 Diner (Lee Highway and Glebe Rd. / $$)
Of course, you know this one. It’s big, silver, and ugly. But the desserts are incredible. Pies as big as your head. Cakes as big as a house. This is comfort food at it’s best… and they’re open late. Hey, they were even featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” show. If Guy Fieri likes it, it’s gotta be good, right?
6. Buzz (Alexandria, $)
Buzz is so much more than a cupcakery… but truthfully it’s the bacon cupcakes that keep me coming back. Yes, you heard right. Bacon cupcakes. And they’ve got good drinks for non-coffee-drinkers as well. My personal favorite is the hot frothed milk. It’s the perfect complement to a chocolate bite of bacony goodness. Open ’til midnight, and conveniently located just south of Potomac Yards.
One final note – Restaurant week in DC is August 16-22.
All the participating restaurants offer a 3 course dinner for $35.10 (before tax and tip). This is often a good deal, although some places will cut down on portion sizes. Even so, it gives you a great opportunity to try out places that otherwise might be kinda pricey. Here’s my “hitlist” of rockin’ places that are participating in Restaurant Week. I’ll give you the locale and the cuisine and/or chef… they’re all the same price. I’ve tried to stay mainly in Penn Quarter, because it’s the closest to the Mall for post-dinner monument meanderings.
1789 (Georgetown, Continental)
2491 (Falls Church, Continental)
701 (Penn Quarter, Continental… REALLY easy Metro access)
Adour (at the St. Regis Hotel, 16th & K st. Downtown, it’s an Alain Ducasse export from NYC… absolutely top notch.)
Bistro D’Oc (Penn Quarter, Langued’oc [i.e. French])
Cafe’ Atlantico (Penn Quarter, Spanish-influenced Fresh. One of the 4 Jose Andres’ restaurants on the same block.)
CoCo Sala (Penn Quarter, see entry above)
Firefly (Dupont Circle, See entry above)
Jaleo (Penn Quarter, Tapas / Jose Andres)
Oyamel (Penn Quarter, Mexican – it’s a Jose Andres ‘small plate’ joint… the goat taco is OUTSTANDING!!)
Potenza (Penn Quarter, Italian)
Sette Bello (Clarendon, Italian)
Willow (Ballston, see entry above)
Zatinya (Penn Quarter, it’s Jose Andres’ Mediterranean place. Chef Andres just rocks!)