Opening night at the U-Bistro is not what you would call a gala event; there are twice as many people in the restaurant’s paintings as there are eating, serving, and cooking combined. It’s midweek, but it’s July 3—a de facto weekend night. Our group of four ends up eating at the Bistro not because we’d caught wind of a potentially bold new culinary mecca, but because unlike in the restaurants U-Bistro sits next to—Coppi’s and Utopia—there are tables available. Lots of them. “You should try us,” says the host, who’s attempting to drum up business by doing PR out on the street.

U-Bistro is run by the same folks who brought us Utopia, and there are similarities between the two that go beyond ownership and clever names. Both restaurants offer more than mere night life and help to establish U Street’s claim to being the next Adams Morgan. I’m not surprised when U-Bistro’s host tells us, on a more recent visit, that the restaurant copped its concept from an establishment in New York: With a commissioned mural painted on the ceiling, stacks of wine bottles that reach halfway up the exposed brick walls, a menu of tapas, and soft lighting and background music, the place reeks of programmed bohemia. But unlike Utopia—Urban Outfitters disguised as a wine bar—U-Bistro is a great place to eat, pure and simple. It speaks volumes about the restaurant that when we ask the mural artist about his handiwork, halfway expecting him to go off on some tangent about unrequited love, he says he just wanted to conjure the lusty ritual of eating and drinking.

Given my existing perception of tapas as a bogus theme, just another cute way to get people to pay more for less, I’ll admit I was ready to hate it. But even on opening night, when we expect the kitchen to cough up the occasional botch job or the wait staff to bring out someone else’s order, U-Bistro is stellar.

U-Bistro’s tapas average around six dollars each and come in reasonable portions—about half the food you’d expect from a regular entree. Order at the clip of two or three per person, using the free bread to pad larger appetites and absorb all the rich marinades and sauces, and U-Bistro’s tapas work not just as samplers but as meals.

I avoid trying the sardines à la marocaine on my early visits mainly because they’re sardines. But cloaked with a blend of cilantro, saffron, parsley, and olive oil, the fish redeem themselves, tasting surprisingly delicate. Both mushroom dishes—one a wild collection of shiitaki, oyster, and enoki ’shrooms sauteed in garlic butter, the other a meaty portobello topped with tomato concassée and garlic croutons—work well as the backbone of a vegetarian meal that begins with a bowl of thinly pureed carrot, ginger, and curry soup and a salad of arugula, goat cheese, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. The zucchini carpaccio is less a beef substitute for vegetarians craving raw meat than a hearty salad fleshed out with arugula and shaved parmesan.

U-Bistro has a list of four meat dishes that are served as entrees, which is reflected in both their prices and, we quickly notice, their size. We never try them. The seafood is too good. We would have preferred that the freaky chewy mussels marinière had been cooked longer, but it isn’t until he’s clearing our plates that the waiter informs us that U-Bistro prepares all fish medium-rare. It’s the only disappointment, and it’s minor. Both the cold peppered tuna tapas and the grilled tuna niçoise entree, served with a rich variety of kalamata olives, capers, and anchovies, are picture-perfect—pink, soft, and fleshy in the center. Red chiles spark fire in the soft-shell crab entree, rendering the soothing side of lime salsa an absolute necessity. The rock shrimp that mingles with corn and Pernod and the scampi both do what shrimp do best: serve as vehicles for consuming garlic.

U-Bistro’s wine list is extensive and indicative of the kitchen’s sensibility, offering a range of vintages and plenty of better-than-drinkable stuff for between eight and 15 bucks. And despite the pretentious trappings, U-Bistro is that rare wine-bar/restaurant that manages a low-key, neighborhood feel. One night I even ditch my initial plan to get a Taco Bell burrito on the way to the Black Cat and instead stop in U-Bistro for a glass of wine and a plate of grilled leeks. It could become a habit.

U-Bistro, 1416 U St. NW. (202) 588-7311.

Hot Plate:

Most campuses have one, a greasy grill where you can get a thick sandwich in under five minutes and for less than five bucks to eat on the way to class. Lindy’s Bon Apetit (yeah, I know it looks like a gorilla’s breast, but that’s the way Lindy spells it), located under Lindy’s Lion Pub near GWU, is just such a place, one that recalls the “hamburger, hamburger, chips,” joint of Saturday Night Live fame. The burgers have bold titles like au poivre (bacon and black pepper) and Burl Ives (double burger and grilled hot dog topped with BBQ sauce and pickle chips) to give an identity to the types of weird creations moms come up with hoping to keep the kids from whining about wanting McDonald’s instead. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to burgers, so I recommend the Robert—patty, onions, mushrooms, A-1, and bun. I also hear that the vegetable casserole is excellent.

Lindy’s Bon Apetit, 2024 I St. NW. (202) 452-0055. —Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.