12 Blue Duck Tavern ★★★
1201 24th St., NW | 202-419-6755
Cuisine: Trendily traditional American cooking bolstered by chef Brian McBride’s sourcing—purveyors are exhaustively listed on the menu—and ability to coax the utmost flavor out of whatever’s in his sauté pan.
Mood: Glass walls, wide-plank wood floors, and handcrafted furnishings make a spare backdrop for the theatrics of the open kitchen, where sous chefs churn the ice cream of the day and fuss over burnished pies from the oven.
Best for: Aesthetes who want it all: austere yet beautiful surroundings and stellar cuisine. It’s close enough to the Kennedy Center to make it a pre- or postshow contender. And the outdoor patio is ideal for one of the best brunches in town in summertime.
Best dishes: Rave-worthy smoked-trout-and-potato rillette with Riesling-mustard gelée; pickled baby beets with a hit of curry; tender long bone of beef; thrice-cooked finger-thick French fries (dip them in the house-made steak sauce that comes with the beef bone); roasted scallops perfumed with lemon and thyme; caramel cheesecake with roasted pears and tart cranberry compote; house-made ice creams.
Insider tips: There are some truly great—and expensive—wines by the glass, so check the price before going with sommelier recommendations or you could end up with a $55 glass of Meritage “Opus One” 2003. The blossoming teas, served in clear glass pots, are another high point—you can see the leaves morph into a flower before your eyes.
13 Oval Room ★★★
800 Connecticut Ave., NW | 202-463-8700
Cuisine: With its puréed fruits and vegetables, herb-infused oils, and delicately applied microgreens, chef Tony Conte’s brightly flavored food tastes straight out of revered chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s handbook. Which makes sense: Conte spent three years as executive sous chef of Vongerichten’s Manhattan flagship, Jean Georges.
Mood: By day, this airy dining room, with its colorful abstract canvases, is a favorite lunch spot for boldface names such as Condi Rice and George Stephanopoulos. By night, it feels more like a serious restaurant than a place to schmooze.
Best for: Power lunchers and anyone tired of cream- and butter-laden restaurant dishes.
Best dishes: Beet salad, a Conte signature of roasted beets with passion-fruit gelée and a mignonette made with ice wine; creamy burrata cheese with dried papaya, basil, and salt; an artful tuna tartare made with ribbons of raw fish, avocado, and crisped tapioca; burrata-filled ravioli with corn; New Zealand pink snapper accented with licorice and anise; seared venison with a quenelle of chopped dates and hazelnuts; butter-poached lobster with wasabi, peaches, and young coconut; PB&J vacherin, a layering of Concord-grape sorbet and peanut-butter ice cream with salted peanuts; apple-confit tart with a shot glass of mulled cider.
Insider tips: Ignore the Cobb salads and turkey club sandwiches. Here you can feel comfortable ordering adventurously.
14 The Source ★★★
575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW| 202-637-6100
Cuisine: High-concept Asian fusion devised by Wolfgang Puck and executed by Scott Drewno, resulting in a synthesis of Western proteins and portion sizes with Pacific Rim accents, sauces, and preparations.
Mood: Want to see Wolfgang? Get a doggy bag—the sepia-toned picture of the Austrian celebrity chef on it is as close as you’ll come. But the place still conveys a sense of excitement thanks to the elegant dining room, with its elevated perch looking onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and the swiveling heads of patrons on the lookout for the rich and famous.
Best for: Taking out-of-towners skeptical of DC’s star power.
Best dishes: Delicately fashioned crab-and-shrimp shu mai; a small terrine of roast suckling pig with plum-fig chutney; prawns in a mustard-yogurt curry full of fresh curry leaves; crispy sea bass, carved tableside, in a subtle Thai chili sauce; Indian-spiced short ribs with dal and raita; Szechuan steak au poivre; Cherry Blossom, a dessert of cheese dumplings drenched with sour cherries that’s as light as it is rich.
Insider tips: The price of Puck’s star power is evident from the start. Glasses of wine are priced like appetizers, many appetizers are priced like entrées, and some entrées edge toward the $40 mark. The downstairs lounge is slightly less prohibitive.