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No one needs to tell you to visit Frank Ruta’s precision-cooking operation in Cleveland Park, whether his cafe or the more formal dining room in back, and I hesitated to include it on my list. The obviousness of the choice pains me to a degree. But making room for Palena gave me another chance to praise the chef I admire most in this town. Frank Ruta is to cooking and his culinary team what John Wooden was to college basketball and his ballplayers: disciplined, creative, kind, stern, smart, and always on top of his game. Ruta is a marvel of consistency. Every time I think his roast chicken won’t live up to my memory of it—its skin not crisp, its flesh somehow dry, its flavors lacking their customary depth—I’m happily proved wrong. I also marvel at how Ruta continues to produce such a high-quality tasting menu in his main dining room at a price well below those of some of his more PR-savvy competitors.

3529 Connecticut Ave. NW (202) 537-9250

Photo by Darrow Montgomery