6 Inn at Little Washington ★★★½
309 Middle St., Washington, Va. | 540-675-3800
Cuisine: Country ham and caviar share pride of place on chef Patrick O’Connell’s Modern American menu, which mixes his classic signatures—foie gras two ways, tuna pretending to be filet mignon—with newer delights, such as a deconstructed veal Parmesan. The fireworks begin with the amuse-bouche, a parade of 12 porcelain spoons bearing miniature masterpieces of flavor.
Mood: Despite a year that started with some strife—the personal and professional split of O’Connell and former co-owner Reinhardt Lynch—the show goes on at the inn, still a paragon of baroque-meets-bucolic grandeur. The dining rooms are ornate, with striped-silk wall coverings and tapestries. Servers, thanks to pop quizzes, know the menu and the place’s history in and out. It’s a lavish but tightly controlled experience: You’ll be in and out in 2½ hours.
Best for: Special-occasion celebrants who want to go all out; toasting a really big promotion.
Best dishes: Stellar crab cakes with puréed sorrel and red pepper; kingly macaroni and cheese gilded with black truffles; a tender, prosciutto-wrapped veal loin in an intense Parmesan broth; peppered bluefin tuna with foie gras, an O’Connell signature; creamy port-braised sweetbreads with huckleberries and house-made pappardelle; cappelletti filled with a silken purée of artichoke; apricot tart with sharp Taleggio cheese.
Insider tips: The loveliest tables are the tucked-away banquettes overlooking the garden. And ask for a peek inside the state-of-the-art kitchen—it’s a marvel to watch the brigade of cooks, clad in dalmatian-spotted pants, quietly moving around the induction cooktops. But not everything is fabulous: The mostly ice-cream-based desserts feel simple compared with what precedes them, and flaws such as tepid entrées become glaring when you’re tallying up the dollar signs.
7 Palena ★★★½
3529 Connecticut Ave., NW | 202-537-9250
Cuisine: Chef/owner Frank Ruta combines the soul of an Italian peasant with the perfectionism of a French culinary master at his Cleveland Park restaurant. The result? Dishes that shimmer but never cross into egotism or lose their rootedness.
Mood: Refined touches abound in both the sconce-and-chandelier-accented dining room—which offers three-, four-, and five-course tasting menus—and the no-reservations cafe up front.
Best for: Revelatory soups and stews at the bar, thrillingly original multicourse feasts.
Best dishes: In the cafe, the house-made hamburger topped with truffled cheese on a freshly baked bun; roasted chicken; minestrone; a fry plate of frizzled lemons, onion rings, and potatoes dauphinoise; charcuterie plate; foie-gras terrine; an inspired take on bollito made with veal tongue, Ruta’s own corned beef, and a coddled duck egg. In the dining room, sardine galette; kabocha-squash-filled raviolini with shavings of aged goat cheese; gnocchi with bleu-cheese fonduta; sturgeon over braised cabbage; German-style apple cake; orange-poppyseed gelato with citrus salad.
Insider tips: Up front in the cafe, you can order from either the lower-priced menu, which changes daily, or the more intricate tasting menus, and you won’t worry about being underdressed. But you can’t reserve a table, so if you don’t want a wait, show up early or late.
8 Vidalia ★★★½
1990 M St., NW | 202-659-1990
Cuisine: Surpassingly rich Southern comfort. Its refinement bespeaks a classically minded French kitchen, but its generosity of spirit could come only from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Mood: The clean-lined dining room mirrors the lightness and simple elegance that chef R.J. Cooper’s food strives for.
Best for: Persnickety diners, traditionalists who turn up their noses at small plates, lovers of cream, butter, and bacon fat.
Best dishes: A plate of molasses-marinated yellowtail hamachi as bracing and fresh as any sushi bar’s; hand-rolled pumpkin cavatelli with crispy sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms; definitive shrimp ’n’ grits; saddle of rabbit stuffed with sweetbreads; roasted breast of partridge with applewood bacon, squash agnolotti, and braised onions; lemon chess pie and pecan pie, each so perfectly rendered that you’d swear you were in the deepest South.
Insider tips: The wine list, under the direction of Doug Mohr, might be the most interesting in the city. If you can afford it, get a wine pairing with each course. If not, there are good wines by the glass and even half glass. Regulars swear by Mohr’s happy hours, featuring a changing lineup of wines and free canapés.