Many years ago, when Washington City Paper first added food coverage, it was a divisive move. To naysayers, dining was a superficial bourgeois pastime, and writing up restaurants was not so different than, say, reviewing golf pros at some snooty country club. That was then. By now, it’s pretty clear that when you pay attention to what kind of food a city is eating, you wind up catching the major currents of the contemporary moment: The restaurants that open can tell you a lot about the demographic change sweeping Washington; the dishes they serve say a lot about the immigration patterns, health crazes, and cultural habits shaping the city.
And that’s not just geeky food-journalist stuff. For you, dear reader, dining out is not just about food, either. Your own choices on a given night involve such subjective matters as comfort (just how do you define relaxation after a day of work?), adventure (a trip to that obscure suburban ethnic joint can feel like a red-eye to Bangkok) or just how to stay culturally relevant (“Have you tried Little Serow yet?”). All these—and more—represent reasons an eater might consider a restaurant valuable.
In assigning this year’s Most Valuable Restaurants issue, we tasked writers with coming up with their own answers to the question of what makes an eatery valuable. The goal wasn’t to come up with a “best restaurants” list, but rather a survey of places where you’ll feel your money and time are well spent. For some, that meant a good deal. For others, a perfect meal. For others still, the value lived in the very fact that they were willing to trek out to Wheaton or endure an hour-long wait for a table. The point is: In eating, as in life, value is what you decide it is. Here’s our set of answers—visit us online to share your own.
1319 Rockville Pike, Ste. C, Rockville; (301) 251-7878
VALUABLE FOR: Delicious Chinese small plates with no attitude (and it’s cheap)
This cash-only strip-mall gem is a pleasant reminder to look past Rockville’s boring chain restaurants. An ideal Sunday-morning destination for a full-on Northern Chinese-style brunch, A&J is best arrived at with an empty stomach and no prissy attitudes about ordering only for yourself, since everything comes family-style. Kick off with a bowl of piping hot dan dan mien—thick noodles dressed with a spicy sesame sauce. The steamed pork buns are fluffy clouds with a satisfying umami bomb of swine at the center. For more of the other white meat, order the tubular pot stickers. Griddled golden on each side, they crackle when you bite into them to reveal a core of juicy ground pork. Dip them in soy sauce if you prefer, but like most dishes here, they pack enough flavor to stand alone. —Nevin Martell
5510 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 966-7600; parthenon-restaurant.com
VALUABLE FOR: Making everyone feel like a longtime regular
In a city of transplants, visiting this Upper Northwest Greek restaurant makes me feel like I’ve lived here for ages. A sign hanging from the Parthenon’s blue awning declares, “Celebrating our 22nd year of Serving You,” and the restaurant is as much of a fixture on its strip as the Avalon Theater. Regulars and staff greet each other with familiar warmth and make newcomers feel like routine visitors, too. It’s a place where the waiters not only dote on your kid, they show you pictures of their own. The food is the fare you’d see at Greek restaurants in any city, but it’s executed well. The Greek salad is elevated to a standout item thanks to its zingy dressing with fresh-snipped dill. A topping of spiced gyro meat and a side of creamy tzatziki sauce were enough to make me a regular. —Kathryn Masterson
3715 Macomb St. NW; (202) 885-5700; 2amyspizza.com
VALUABLE FOR: Cured pork, great pizza, good beers, local chefs
Forget for a moment that 2Amys serves the best pizzas in Washington. Ignore the main dining room, often swarmed with clans of children and imbibing undergrads. Ponder instead the space in the back largely used for standing, sipping, and waiting: the wine bar. That area has a magic all its own. Charred eggplant is painted with a grassy ramp and pine nut sauce; tender asparagus with mustard vinaigrette are shingled with Pecorino Gran Cru and purple chive blossoms; chewy bread, soft butter, and “sexy salt” (really just fleur de sel) temper an assortment of spicy spring radishes. All come buoyed in shallow pools of fruity olive oil.
Cured pork parts—legs, shoulders, and loins—hang against a white tile wall before being sliced to order. Some, like the lomo and capocollo, are cured in a small vault downstairs. Below the dangling meats, cheesecloth drapes the buffalo, sheep, and goat cheeses from all across the Italian peninsula. Drinks exceed pizzeria expectations. An eccentric lineup of beers includes some obscure gems from American and Italian microbreweries (pink pepper pale ale, anyone?), many available in economically priced five-ounce pours. Rotating selections of tap wine arrive from chef and co-owner Peter Pastan’s California winery. (A recent favorite was Hipster Cuvee 3.0, a fizzy, lip-smacking Barbera.) Other wines—all Italian—are available by the glass, quartino, or bottle. Don’t be surprised to spot your favorite Washington chefs at the wine bar on their days off. —Justin Kennedy
3435 Connecticut Ave., NW; (202) 686-2966; dino-dc.com
VALUABLE FOR: A neighborhood joint that really is
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Claiming to be a “neighborhood restaurant” these days is nearly as trendy and trite as bragging about hand-crafted cocktails or reclaimed-wood communal tables. But Dino actually fits that description. The nearly seven-year-old Cleveland Park eatery isn’t swanky or hip like so many of the new self-proclaimed “neighborhood” joints, but rather a solid, comfortable place with well-priced food and true regulars. The rustic Italian menu includes an array of anitpasti and house-made pastas (of which the free-form “lasagnette” lasagna and wild boar pappardelle are favorites) as well as secondi. (I enjoyed the seared scallop with aperol orange butter and sauteed pea shoots on a recent visit.) Don’t skip the tiramisu for dessert. Also noteworthy is the lengthy wine list and regular wine deals. Other specials include a burger and brew for $15 all night at the bar and a three course dinner with small glass of moscato or other house-made liqueur for $39. Kids under 11 pay their age for a three-course kids’ menu. Owner Dean Gold floats around the dining room in his signature colorful patterned shirts, greeting diners and asking about their meals—to which they nearly always say, “Very good.” —Jessica Sidman
Great Wall Szechuan House
1527 14th St. NW; (202) 797-8888; greatwallszechuanhouse.com
VALUABLE FOR: Real ma la heat
Great Wall Szechuan House offers two very different culinary experiences. One is by way of the “Ma-La Special” menu, where dishes come out spitting fire and leaking oil. Another is via the calmer, sweeter Chinese-American route. Either way, portions are ample and rewards come easy. Along the ma la line, twice-cooked pork marries thin, salty slices of wok-fried belly to well-charred scallions and fermented black beans. Ma po tofu packs chili heat and Sichuan peppercorn buzz. On the Americanized channel, General Tso’s Chicken is a heavenly incarnation with no cloying sugariness. But orange beef is rightfully as sweet as honey and shiny like shellac. Kung Pao chicken is heaped with black and red wok-toasted chiles, scorched peanuts, and big pieces of mild green peppers. (A ma la version ratchets up the heat to wildfire intensity.) After some much-needed renovations last winter, the Great Wall dining room sports exposed brick walls and faux-stone floors, but the cooking is as reliable as ever. —JK
Stachowski Market and Deli
1425 28th St. NW; stachowskibrand.com
VALUABLE FOR: Meat, meat, and more meat
The pastrami sandwich at Stachowski Market and Deli is a sight to behold. Thick slices of purplish meat are layered across mustard-brushed dark brown pumpernickel. The meat is capped in thin membranes of fat and blackened spice, and the whole sandwich ($12) gets crested with three half-sours from Guss’ Pickles in New York. Weighing in at almost two pounds, it could easily feed a family of four. The house-cured and -smoked pastrami is proof that chef and owner Jamie Stachowski knows his way around a meat locker. After stints at Restaurant Kolumbia and Thirsty Bernie, a sports bar in Arlington where he handmade practically everything on the menu, Stachowski began hawking his sausage and charcuterie at local farmers markets. In May, he moved into a brick-and-mortar corner space in Georgetown. The sandwich menu is listed on a pig-shaped blackboard above the meat counter. One of the best bargains is the 4 Meat Grinder. Sheets of salami, house-made coppa, veal mortadella, and sopressata bulge below a mix of iceberg, tomato, and red onion. The colossal sandwich is best shared; my wife and I picked at one for days. The turkey club is a 4-inch-high, two-sandwiches-in-one deal. Come evening, Stachowski offers prepared meals to go; recent specials included roasted leg of lamb with potatoes dauphinoise and farro spaghetti with mortadella and smoked chicken. For most of us, though, the sandwiches are more than enough. —JK
1833 14th St. NW; (202) 265-1751; barpilar.com
VALUABLE FOR: Small plates, now on two levels
When Bar Pilar closed for renovations last November, its fans were understandably distraught. For years the restaurant had charmed neighbors and food critics alike with understated small plates that surpassed expectations. Now, a bi-level build-out is complete and Bar Pilar’s menu has expanded, but much of the underdog appeal is gone. A hostess has replaced the old door guy, and there’s a $60 porterhouse entrée for two. Mercifully, the small-plates menu is intact. The lard-fried chicken is some of the best in the city. Roasted enoki and oyster mushrooms with braised leeks are simple and satisfying. Even better are artichoke halves sautéed with shreds of pungent country ham and drizzled with lemon juice. The downstairs bar remains a sure place to drink before or after a stop at Black Cat. The craft beer list is reliable, and its classic cocktails, like the Moscow Mule (served in a customary copper cup), are expertly cast. Bar Pilar may have grown up, but it’s retained its charm. —JK
Multiple locations; negrileats.com
VALUABLE FOR: Jamaican standbys for less than $10
Beef patties are a go-to for the budget-conscious traveler wandering through the Caribbean. That’s because they’re the perfect handheld snack to scarf down between sunning, snorkeling, and hitting up a cab driver for weed. This unassuming Jamaican eatery produces a refreshingly straightforward version that fills flakey, yellowed crust with a thin layer of spicy ground chuck. Feel free to splash on a little hot sauce to crank up the capsaicin. The jerk chicken sandwich is another island favorite-turned-stateside success. Served on a slightly sweet roll, it’s gussied up with poppyseed dressing and a few iceberg lettuce leaves. Both dishes are well complemented by the cooling housemade tropical punch, made with pineapple, banana, and orange. Since it’s easy to enjoy a full meal at Negril for less than $10, you can save your money for a ticket to Anguilla. But you’ll have to find your own weed. —NM
Multiple locations; petesapizza.com
VALUABLE FOR: Pizza that’s a uniter, not a divider
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
I eat at Pete’s Apizza way more than I’d like to admit.
It’s not just that it’s a block and a half from my house. Pete’s is our go-to place for a quick lunch, carryout when we’re too tired to cook (it delivers, unlike most of the city’s other higher-end pizza joints), or a crowd-pleasing thin-crust pizza and antipasti plate when friends or family are coming over. We’re not alone: No matter what time I walk by its big glass windows, Pete’s is busy. Parents with small children, tables of teenagers, and groups of kid-free adults seem to coexist happily here, while the carryout window does a brisk business. I’ve eaten my way through much of the menu (though it’s tempting to stop at the artichoke-heart-and-spinach or ricotta-and-fried-eggplant topped pies), and the pastas and appetizers are as good as the namesake dish. I recently got around to trying the desserts, and it turns out that Pete’s cookies and mini tiramisu cups are yet another reason to frequent this neighborhood cornerstone. —KM
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Multiple locations; taylorgourmet.com
VALUABLE FOR: Hoagies that make you forget where the bread’s from
OK, the bread doesn’t come from Sarcone’s anymore. So what? The Philadelphia-gone-D.C. sandwiches have become so ubiquitous that even President Barack Obama eats ’em.
3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 537-9250; palenarestaurant.com
VALUABLE FOR: The burger, yes, but also the rest
Over the last five years, the cheeseburger chef Frank Ruta serves at Palena Café has become something of a cult favorite. It’s a simple thing: a fatty seven-ounce patty of mostly Angus chuck grilled over a wood fire, topped with a slice of truffled ash-rind Italian cheese, and placed on a house-made brioche bun with mayonnaise. Instead of fries, Ruta serves pickled vegetables on the side. The burger has earned spots on those ridiculous “Best Burgers in America” lists, and last winter beat out a much-loved version from Brooklyn’s Prime Meats in a New York vs. D.C. cheap-eats smackdown between the Washington Post’s Tim Carman and Serious Eats’ Ed Levine. The burger is available for dinner and on weekends, topped with a fried egg, for brunch.
But you can’t get the burger on Sunday nights, when Ruta extinguishes the wood-fired grill and directs Palena’s patrons to chow on pizzas, pastas, and salads instead. Which is why Sundays might actually be the best time to go: There’s no burger to tempt you away from the rest of the menu. The Caesar salad is half a head of Romaine served “Palena’s way,” with fried capers, an eggy dressing, and shaved parmigiano reggiano. Pastas run from hearty rigatone with sausage to delicate farro spaghetti with ramps and lightly smoked salmon. Expertly charred pizzas feature seasonal vegetables like asparagus and spinach. The burger will be there the rest of the week.
1801 14th St. NW; standarddc.com
VALUABLE FOR: Afternoon (porky) delight
Here’s a plan for a great afternoon: Gather some friends, stroll to Standard’s patio at 14th and S streets NW, and saddle up at one of the outdoor picnic tables. Arrive early and order a few liters of German lager. Start with fried pickles, followed by a few ears of Mexican-style grilled corn that arrive slathered with mayo, parmesan cheese, and hot pepper; pair those with a perfectly medium-rare burger and a pulled pork sandwich topped with crunchy coleslaw. Get a bottle of funky French cider or some German party wine, which play well with a Flintstones-sized, bone-in beef short rib. Vegetarians can make friends with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich and an order of onion rings (ask for some Standard burger sauce on the side). Save room for cinnamon-sugar donuts, pulled hot from the street-side Donut Robot fryer. Share everything with your pals and offer samples to the strangers crammed into the long, communal bench seats. At sunset, you’ll be ready for the night. —JK
Blind Dog Café
944 Florida Ave. NW; (202) 573-8272; blinddogcafe.com
VALUABLE FOR: Real food at coffee-shop prices
Coffee shops can be precious little hipster havens where the music is obscure and seats are hard to come by. Food is often an afterthought, involving only stale pastries and muffins and dry premade sandwiches. Blind Dog Café, named for one of its owners’ blind Jack Russell terrier, Baxter, bucks this trend. The space is crammed with comfy couches and ottomans, but the no-attitude service and outstanding food and coffee are what makes patrons really want to hang out. One owner is a former Ardeo + Bardeo cook, so sandwiches sport special touches like house-roasted meats and house-pickled shallots. They aren’t cheap at $10 apiece, but come with a side salad or a house-made soda in flavors like blood orange or lime. Try the roasted turkey sandwich with bacon, avocado, Sriracha aioli, and peppercorn salt, or the tomato-mozzarella with walnut-pesto aioli. Breakfast offerings include frittata sandwiches on croissants and pastries baked by Black Strap Bakery, which makes a completely addictive chocolate chip cookie.
3417 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 244-7995; rippledc.com
VALUABLE FOR: Ice cream sandwiches that say, “Move over, cupcake”
Let’s all say a heartfelt goodbye to the ubiquity of cupcakes and upscale pies. Thanks to Sugar Magnolia, a new era of cutesy is emerging. Pastry chef Alison Reed’s ice-cream sandwiches are more daring than chocolate and vanilla. She does traditional—chocolate-chip cookies with vanilla ice cream inside—and incorporates seasonal goods with combos like strawberry ice cream squished between lavender sponge cake. There’s the more grown-up salted caramel between chocolate cookies, and—because restaurants can barely get a business license without offering bacon these days—a stellar maple bacon between two waffles.
Adjacent to its big-sister restaurant, Ripple, Sugar Magnolia is a smart-looking, simple storefront with little more than a bakery case and sandwich fridge. Those savory sandwiches, dreamed up by Ripple chef Logan Cox, are every bit as compelling as their sweet counterparts. There’s smoked fish on ciabatta with caper mayo, kale, and thinly sliced pickled potatoes and the innovative black-eyed-pea hummus with aged Gouda and asparagus slaw. Grab-and-go doesn’t get much better. —RR
1314 9th St. NW; (202) 319-1086; sundevich.com
VALUABLE FOR: Vegetarian sandwiches to please even meat-lovers
Vegetarian sandwiches are usually a bullshit proposition. Jammed with space-fillers like sprouts and lettuce, meatless options too often rely on overused portabella mushrooms or blandly prepared tofu to stand in for the animal-based protein they wish they had. Sundevich, an alley hideaway, offers a produce-packed sandwich that’s worthy of a carnivore’s affection. The Cairo comes on a golden baguette that crackles when you bite into it. Smeared with a layer of hummus, it’s pimped out with fresh herbs, a handful of meaty walnuts, cucumber rounds, and house-pickled carrots, celery, and cauliflower. If you’re craving meat, there are plenty of options, too. The Kingston is a standout, stuffed with fiery jerk chicken dressed with zingy pineapple salsa, spicy slaw, and creamy garlic mayo. But meat or no meat, start off with the tzatziki. The thick Greek yogurt is dotted with cucumber for a crunchy counterpoint, then spiced with dill and garlic. It’s best when scooped onto the chewy baguette ends that accompany it. The spread is another veg-friendly standout that will please just about anyone. —NM
Fish in the Neighborhood
3601 Georgia Ave., NW; (202) 545-6974; fishintheneighborhood.blogspot.com
VALUABLE FOR: A trip to the shore, by way of Georgia Avenue
If your trip to the beach has been stymied by a hectic schedule or an empty wallet, try the next best thing. Fish in the Neighborhood is an in-town fish shack with the distinctive scent of ocean fare that’s been kicking in Petworth for almost 15 years (it recently added the “neighbor” to its name to better fit the area’s up-and-coming stereotype). Owner Bill White follows the recipes of his North Carolina-raised mother—and makes just about every one of his guests smile while they wait. Get the bone-in fish, like red snapper and black bass, broiled; customize your chosen dish with White’s doctored-up Cajun or lemon-pepper seasonings. Order shellfish and fish filets fried in a seasoned cornmeal-flour crust. Also on the main-dish menu: shrimp, clams fried in their shells, catfish, a batter-fried pork chop, and a nearly 6-inch-in-diameter crab cake. If you aren’t yet racing to the gym to get your beach body back, you may as well plunge into the candied yams, mac and cheese, potato salad, and collards. Forego the squares of cake for White’s sweet potato pie. —RR
Paila Chilean Grill and Cafe
1424 Park Rd. NW; (202) 391-0792; pailagrill.com
VALUABLE FOR: Sunday dinner on a bun
Despite providing easy access to doro wat, pho, or pupusas, D.C. isn’t home to too many Chilean restaurants. But family-owned Paila is an excellent introduction to the cuisine. Both the appetizer-like empanadas de queso and the larger meat empanada, made daily by owner Richard Bopp’s wife, Daniela, are satisfying. But the chacarero sandwich eclipses Paila’s other offerings. Bopp piles marinated beef sirloin tips, tomato, diced jalapeño, avocado, mayo, and cooked green beans on a soft, toasted bun: It’s like Sunday dinner on a sandwich. Under Bopp, this Chilean speciality is a marvel of tender meat, fresh spice, and creaminess. The chacarero comes with a side of pebre (much like pico de gallo) and chips. Those of us who haven’t visited the motherland can’t vouch for the chacarero’s authenticity, but as good as it is, accuracy might be an afterthought. —RR
6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; (703) 538-3888; ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com
VALUABLE FOR: Snails—your new Eden Center favorite
Regular visitors to Eden Center, that 120 retail store-deep Vietnamese strip mall, have standby joints and go-to dishes. But Rice Paper, a months-old addition to the fray, has the potential to upend the equilibrium of connoisseurs of Viet cuisine with its snails in coconut cream sauce. Bathed in green curry and coconut milk, the mollusks do require some work. For the uninitiated: Pick one up, put your lips around an opening, and inhale. You’ll be rewarded with the beast’s squidgy little soul, drenched in buttery coconut sauce. It’s a slurpy and luxurious experience. —Helin Jung
1721 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, 703-525-7355
VALUABLE FOR: That broth!
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
You don’t go to Pho 75 for the atmosphere, unless you’re into cafeteria seating and Formica floors. You don’t go to be charmed by the servers. And you definitely don’t go for a rotating selection of specials based on the chef’s whims at the farmer’s market. You go to Pho 75 for the only thing on the menu: big bowls of beefy (or chicken-based) Vietnamese noodle soup that tastes like it’s been cooking all day.
Yes, the concept is the same as any pho joint: Choose your cut of beef, then play with the combo of spicy, salty, sweet, and sour by adding jalapeños, fresh herbs, bean sprouts, and lime wedges from a plate of toppings. Finish with chili or plum sauce and dive in. But more than once, I’ve ordered pho elsewhere and been disappointed when it doesn’t compare to Pho 75. I’ve learned my lesson: When a craving hits, hold out for the real thing. —KM
Middle Eastern Cuisine
7006 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park; (301) 270-5154; middleasterncuisine.com
VALUABLE FOR: A Takoma Park oasis, boring name and all
Forgive Middle Eastern Cuisine’s literal name. The food at this friendly, family-run, casual restaurant is much more artfully executed. Almost everything on the menu is made from scratch and forgoes shortcuts, and dishes boast deep flavors. Mediterranean dip—a briny, smoky mix of Kalamata olives, chickpeas, and roasted eggplant—is a good starter, especially when slathered on warm pita bread. As for entrées, a good bet is the chicken shawarma sandwich dressed up with ribbons of caramelized onions, a drizzle of soothing yogurt sauce, lettuce, and tomato. (It’s best eaten out of its white paper wrapping, lest you enjoy splattering yourself with suspicious-looking dairy stains.). Finish with a flakey triangle of housemade baklava soaked with floral honey. And order a glass of the housemade, free-refill spiced ice tea, which has hints of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. It’s the perfect beverage to enjoy at an oasis—which, in quiet, restaurant-light Takoma Park, Middle Eastern Cuisine is. —NM
1660 Lamont St. NW; (202) 667-0010
VALUABLE FOR: The Coronarita
The outdoor patio at Don Juan’s is a rarity in Mount Pleasant, where most dining happens indoors and without the benefit of parking your dog near your table. The Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant is known for, increasingly, its Coronarita, a margarita with an upside-down Coronita garnish. The drink, which raises questions about both physics and good taste, is a novel and tasty way to enjoy a margarita, a beer, or both, depending on how the spirit moves you. And at $10, it’s valuable enough to be a repeat offender in your summer’s bad decision-making.
Both food and drink, though, take a back seat to the chance to sit outside when the weather’s nice. This season Don Juan’s has added a handful of new patio tables. Yes, the seating is right next to the 42 bus terminus, which can make for a noisy nosh. But you’re still outside, drinking on the cheap. Isn’t that what summer’s all about? —Brooke Hatfield
1208 Maple View Pl. SE; (202) 678-6262
VALUABLE FOR: Squishy pizza that feeds a whole neighborhood
It seems counterintuitive to our preconceived notions of gentrification that a neighborhood home to a warehouse art-party popup would lose retail. Sure, Uniontown Bar & Grill opened and Big Chair Coffee got a managerial facelift, but Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue’s already tiny roster of restaurants has nonetheless taken big hits in the past year: Morgan Family Fish Fry, Fireside Caribbean, and Maple View Deli have all shuttered. Counting Mama’s Kitchen, which opened in the former Maple View Deli space, Anacostia is breaking even on dining options. Mama’s menu is only a few degrees removed from that of the standard chicken-Chinese-subs-rib joint: Though there’s a general Italian theme—and there are salads!—burgers, subs, cheesesteaks, calzones, and pizza dominate. Pleasantly, the food’s way fresher and much more flavorful; the doughy, squishy pizza bread is a standout. But more than anything, Mama’s Kitchen’s major contribution to Anacostia is its mere existence in what’s otherwise a mealtime wasteland. —Alex Baca
Central Michel Richard
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; (202) 626-0015; centralmichelrichard.com
VALUABLE FOR: All-American burger and beer, by a Frenchman
There are plenty of places to get a burger and a beer in D.C., but my favorite place to indulge in that all-American combo is Central Michel Richard. The juicy burgers are served on fluffy brioche rolls with homemade mayonnaise, tomato confit, and crispy potato wafers. They come in lobster, lamb, or chicken and lemon versions, too, but you can’t go wrong with the classic beef. The taste is better than the price: While a $17 burger is a splurge, at $30, the lobster sandwich seems outrageous for a patty-sized serving. But they all pair well with a drought of Blusser, a tasty Belgian lager served exclusively here (and a relative bargain at $5 for an 8 oz. glass). You can go full-on fancy here (Central won a RAMMY several years back for best power spot), but I prefer to watch the scene from one of the high-top tables at the bar. Central’s bar has a more casual feel than the main dining room, making it an inviting place for an impromptu stop after a movie—and a better fit for enjoying Richard’s upscale take on humble fare.
624 E St. NW; (202) 347-3355; lukeslobster.com
VALUABLE FOR: The real Maine deal
Before Luke’s Lobster arrived in D.C., the best you could say about this city’s crustacean-roll offerings were that they made you start planning your next trip to Maine. Merely decent approximations, all fell short of the just-steamed-and-stuffed-in-a-buttered-bun goodness of a lobster roll devoured on summer vacation. Enter Luke’s. The Penn Quarter storefront opened last year, following a string of locations in New York, where Mainer Luke Holden worked in finance before partnering with his father back home to ship fresh lobster to hungry city dwellers. Luke’s lets the lobster shine in these rolls, lightly dressing the meat without overpowering it, then stuffing it in a buttered bun that doesn’t tip the lobster-to-bread ratio in the wrong direction. The crab and shrimp rolls are sweet and just as addictive. Can’t decide? Order the Taste of Maine, a trio of half rolls, chips, and a Maine Root soda. The worst thing about eating at Luke’s is that, like your summer vacation, the rolls are gone way too soon. —KM
490 L St. NW; (202) 719-2435; safeway.com
VALUABLE FOR: Those late-night waffle cravings
Have you ever really, really, really wanted waffles at 2 a.m.? Don’t front. You’ve wanted waffles at 2 a.m., and you’ve been delusional enough to think that homemade waffles will be more gratifying than those served at IHOP or The Diner. But you probably don’t have the ingredients that you need. Until last August, dusk-till-dawn grocery-shopping options were severely limited: You’d have scrounged for vanilla extract and an acceptable bag of flour at the Dupont Circle CVS, or gotten yourself to the Georgetown Safeway for a full-service selection. Luckily, the Safeway in City Vista bridged the five-hour gap to accommodate central city-dwelling waffle—or rotisserie chicken, or ice cream, or whatever else you stumble across while blearily browsing the aisles—fiends too lazy to hike it to the western reaches. —AB
1511 17th St., NW; littleserow.com
VALUABLE FOR: Those ribs!
A line typically starts forming at least a half hour before Little Serow opens at 5:30 p.m., and tables book up for the entire night shortly after. But if you’ve ever tried those tangy Thai pork ribs, it’s no wonder. Forget what you think you know about Thai food based on any one of D.C.’s punnily named restaurants. Komi chef Johnny Monis’ six-month-old spot, located just below his four-star Greek-inspired restaurant, serves a spicier, more sour version of Thai food, inspired by the northeastern part of the country. The 30-seat space with sea green walls is halfway between a hipster Brooklyn speakeasy and grandma’s kitchen.
The $45 prix-fixe menu is served family-style with a parade of seven dishes, plus a dessert bite. Substitutions are not allowed. The offerings change weekly, but highlights on recent visits included a smoky eggplant dish with salted duck egg, and pickled garlic and lettuce cups filled with shrimp, fermented cabbage, and ginger. Perhaps best of all is the final dish: a stack of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs with a tangy sweet, spicy gloss containing Mekhong whiskey and topped with dill. The meal is accompanied by several staples—warm sticky rice in a woven pod and a plastic basket stuffed with cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, eggplant, and other seasonal greens. You’ll need those to cool your tongue. While so many restaurants seem to fear heat, Little Serow amps it up. And compared to Komi, with its $135-per-person price tag and reservations required a month in advance, the place is an economical way to experience Monis’ exceptional cooking.—JS
11403 Amherst Ave., Wheaton; (301) 693-0806; rens-ramen.com
VALUABLE FOR: Slurping, not spending
It’s worth the journey to Wheaton to try this Sapporo-style Japanese ramen joint. Located in a strip mall, the no-frills 25-seat spot is a mecca for noodle-soup lovers. The slim menu includes three pork-based broth flavors—salt, miso, and soy—that are traditional in the Sapporo region. There’s also a vegetarian option made with seaweed broth, and occasional specials. The bowls come topped with slices of roast pork, ground pork, bamboo shoots, scallions, and onions, but you can add other toppings like stewed fatty pork or seasoned boiled eggs. The curly yellow noodles, imported from Japan, have just the right amount of bite. Meanwhile, the flavor of the broth is as deep as the giant bowl it’s served in. You’ll leave not just with a full stomach, but with a full wallet: The signature ramen bowls go for $10, and it’s more than worth sharing some $5.50 house-made gyoza too. Just remember it’s cash-only. —JS
1503 17th St., NW; (202) 462-8999; sushitaro.com
VALUABLE FOR: Premium fish and D.C.’s best lunchtime secret
Quality sushi is not easy to come by in D.C. The exception is Sushi Taro. There’s no crazy five-eyed spotted dragon rolls here, just super-fresh fish and well-made traditional Japanese fare served in a zen dining room. (Some of the seafood even arrives via overnight flight from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo.) If you’re in for a splurge, nothing compares to the Kaiseki tastings, which start at $75, and include a series of seasonal and premium ingredients. On the other end of the price spectrum is one of the city’s best dining secrets, Sushi Taro’s weekday lunch menu. For $13, you get a bento box with choice of sushi, fried chicken, salmon, and other proteins, plus prawn and veggie tempura, a small sampling of sashimi, miso soup, rice, and pickles. Happy hour isn’t too shabby, either. On weekdays from 5:30 to 7 p.m., regular sushi and drinks are half price at the bar. —JS
1101 K St. NW; (202) 408-1717; beckdc.com
VALUABLE FOR: The patio and the beer (and the food)
Squint your eyes toward K Street and Brasserie Beck’s roomy patio could almost be Europe.
The woven chairs, Delirium Tremens umbrellas, flower pots, and people leisurely sipping goblets of Belgian brews all contribute to the vibe of one of D.C.’s most pleasant outdoor spaces. The number of District restaurants with great beer lists has exploded in the five years since Brasserie Beck opened, but Robert Wiedmaier’s combination of hops and al fresco dining is still tough to beat. The entrées are solid and substantial—on a recent visit, I had a delicious whole roasted trout with skin crisped by sage brown butter, and my husband had perfectly cooked duck with red cabbage—but I’m just as happy to sit with a beer, an endive salad, and some sunshine. —KM
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
Multiple locations; jaleo.com
VALUABLE FOR: New look, same sabor
D.C.’s original downtown small plates have been relaunched with entirely new decor, iPads with which to order cocktails, and the same delicious food as ever.
Smoke & Barrel
2471 18th St. NW; (202) 319-9353; smokeandbarreldc.com
VALUABLE FOR: Brunch done right, for everyone
Brunch is a bitch. There are lines. The food is mostly mediocre and almost always overpriced. If it’s a buffet, things get gross; if there’s a menu, the portions are wrongly sized. Most places stop serving around 3 p.m. (problematic for the late, hungover risers among us). And finding a menu to satisfy the picky eater, the vegan, the meat aficionado, and a sweet tooth is well nigh impossible. Smoke & Barrel manages to alleviate a few of those gripes with its buffet brunch. Eleven bucks gets you a plate, and the multistory restaurant is large enough to accommodate a steady stream of diners. Trays are refreshed with a variety of dishes suitable for all dietary concerns. The tofu hash and its meatier, brisket-based twin are smoked barbecue-flavored, but what could be a sickly sweet dish is nuanced by the addition of sweet potatoes, jalapeños, onions, and a spicy housemade seasoning. The vegan French toast tastes identical to its dairy-loaded counterpart, but most impressive are the roasted jalapeño grits: They utterly erase any cravings for the kind doused in cheddar. —AB
Bon Chon Chicken
Multiple locations; bonchon.com
VALUABLE FOR: Fried chicken to make you forget Col. Sanders’ name
Pro tip for anyone contemplating a trip to Bon Chon Chicken: Call ahead.
The 35-minute lead time for the Korean chain’s main offering is sufficiently long that a District resident can get off the phone, drive all the way out I-66 to Bon Chon’s Centreville outpost, and get there just in time to have their Popeye’s-influenced notions of fried chicken blown away. It’s a shorter trip, at any rate, than the fried chicken recipe has taken: The dish was introduced to Korea by American GIs and was eventually adopted by locals who turned it into a Seoul happy hour favorite, eaten like Buffalo wings, but with pickled radish in place of blue cheese sauce. Bon Chon and several other eateries have followed the Korean diaspora back across the Pacific. But the dish’s stay in Asia shows in the cooking time: In Korean fashion, Bon Chon’s drumsticks and wings are only lightly floured, then fried twice, leading to an exquisitely crisp exterior without the occasional gloppiness that plagues stateside fried fowl. Call ahead to Bon Chon’s closer-to-town Annandale store and you’ll have a little more time to ponder the appetizers, which demonstrate that Korean frycraft works magic on American favorites like onion rings, too. One thing you don’t need time for is perusing the menu. The fried chicken options are either wings or drumsticks, in either a sweet garlic-soy flavor or an (immensely) hot coating known as “hot.” It’s worth the trip.
1120 19th St. NW; (202) (202) 296-2111; greekdelidc.com
VALUABLE FOR: Reliability near K Street
For people who have come of age professionally on and along K Street since 1990, life has had three truths: death, taxes, and the lunchtime line at Greek Deli & Catering. The tiny establishment, little more than a hot food counter with shelves of Greek goods on either side, is a temple of values and value. Owner Kostas Fostieris and a few longtime employees make the food by hand every morning, turning out traditional dishes like gyro sandwiches, spanakopita, baked pastitsio, and moussaka that always consistently delectable. Nothing costs much more than $10. For my money, the favorites are still Kostas’ avgolemeno and his best-in-the-city tuna salad on a pita with salty feta, cucumbers, and tomato. I’m prone to zoning out on the tight array of pans brimming with steamy, delicious treats when I finally make it up to the counter to order. Then I’m reminded of the fourth unavoidable truth: Fostieris will bark at you mercilessly if you hold up his line. Bank on it. —Sam Hiersteiner
Banh Mi D.C. Sandwich
3103 Graham Road, Falls Church; (703) 205-9300
VALUABLE FOR: Protein as condiment
The menu at Banh Mi D.C. Sandwich is overwhelming: The place offers nearly 25 options. Fortunately, all the sandwiches are simple assemblies of vegetables and a protein of your choice. The backbone of bánh mì is aromatic pickled vegetables (carrots, radish, cilantro cucumber, and one or two carefully placed slice of jalapeño); the protein merely serves the role of condiment, so resist the urge to order double portions of meat or the barely there fried tofu. That said, the meatballs are nicely flavored with soy and sesame, you can’t go wrong with any of the pork choices and the tuna, though canned, is transcendental—as good as any expensive Italian import. Nearly as confusing as BMDC’s menu is figuring out where to eat around Route 50: The restaurant offers no seating inside or out. In warmer weather, my wife and I picnic under the trees next to a fire department across from the charmless strip mall where the shop is located (the crew is used to it) or in a not-too-far-away park. The bread is crispy and the vegetables not excessively damp, so the food travels well. Still, who wants to wait? —Jandos Rothstein
1961 Chain Bridge Road, Tysons Corner; (703) 918-9559
VALUABLE FOR: Afghan delicacies, hidden in plain sight in a mall food court
Restaurants in Tysons Corner Center are predictably boilerplate: There’s the “al fresco” patio at chain-y Gordon Biersch and Wasabi’s cheesy conveyor-belt sushi. Grill Kabob, on the upper-level food court, is an outpost of the local Afghan chain that advertises its menu with bright yellow signage and poor photography. But its namesake dish warrants a visit—even if that means standing in the proximity of a choo-choo train full of waving toddlers that rolls by every few minutes. Generously portioned meat—beef, chicken, lamb, or kobeeda—is enough for two and cooked to perfect juiciness over a fire. Kabobs are served over rice so buttery and soft that it transcends its usual role as filler. Ask for the spicy sauce: Its vinegary sharpness and cilantro funk harmonizes with the kabobs’ richness. —HJ
1520 14th St. NW; (202) 319-1404; estadio-dc.com
VALUABLE FOR: Cocktails that dull the pain of waiting for them
First, the bad news. Estadio doesn’t really take reservations, and the entire Orange Line is there trying to get a table. Drinks are $10 a pop. But then there’s the good news: Cocktail director Adam Bernbach knows what he’s doing. We endure the wait and the prices for tastes of Bernbach’s cava cocktail mixed with tequila, rosemary and grapefruit juice; his gin and orange-thyme tonic (house-made, naturally); and the grown-up slushees, which they call “slushitos,” he’s got mixing in the machines behind the bar. A far cry from a gas-station concoction that’ll tint your tongue blue, his come in flavors like grapefruit, bourbon and chamomile or coconut, rum, lemongrass and lime. Worth the brain freeze every time. —RR
2029 P St. NW; (202) 872-1180
VALUABLE FOR: A tasting menu that’s light on foam, heavy on courses
Unlike most prix-fixe restaurants in town, Obelisk doesn’t dazzle with aerated foams or serve its “courses” on precious single-bite tasting spoons. Instead, owner Peter Pastan and chef Esther Lee rely on daily produce deliveries and classic Italian technique to guide the menu. Antipasti begin with luscious buffalo milk burrata gilded with delicate Ligurian olive oil and sprinkled with fleur de sel. More dishes follow: fried sardines with lemon, a slice of rabbit liver terrine with jam, and fava bean crostini with pecorino. One could make a light meal from this course alone.
But be prepared for more. House-made pastas get dressed or stuffed with whatever’s in season: tagliatelle with crab and chives, or quail agnolotti with pea shoots and spring onion, recently. Secondi follow a similar lead. Squab nestles with spinach and ramps and grouper glides with artichokes and fava beans.
Full yet? Too bad; three more courses await. —JK
1509 17th St. NW; (202) 332-9200; komirestaurant.com
VALUABLE FOR: A meal that‚s worth the (high) price
We’re not going to lie: Komi is expensive. A recent meal (with plenty of wine) here hit nearly $500 with tax and tip. There is no menu, just 14 or so seasonally inspired courses coming out of the kitchen over a two-and-a-half-hour dining marathon.
Chef-owner Johnny Monis makes this splurge worthwhile by offering gorgeously plated bites that start small and culminate in a hearty portion of luscious roast suckling pig or baby goat served with house-made pita and condiments like tzatziki, oregano salt, and pickled baby carrots or red rings of sweet pepper. Other dishes could include a bright, clean Kampachi crudo with sea urchin atop a green smear of fresh chick pea and ginger puree; airy gnocchi with lamb bacon, peas, and butter; and a tongue gyro draped with a slice of foie gras.
Servers walk the line between relaxed and professional, instructing diners to go ahead and use their hands when appropriate and thankfully dismissing the starch from fine-dining. And if that price tag still makes you balk, do it D.C. style: Get someone else to pay for it. —RR