No. 24 Taberna del Alabardero ★★★
1776 I St., NW (entrance on 18th St.) | 202-429-2200
Cuisine: A tour of Spain’s regional cuisines, with rustic, crowd-pleasing tapas and magnificent paellas commanding most of the attention.
Mood: The oxblood-red walls, formal fixtures, and portraits of dons put you in mind of a classic hotel in Madrid. Those suavely accented suits at the next table are likely to be financiers from the nearby World Bank or International Monetary Fund.
Best for: Noshing at the tapas bar weekdays from 3 to 7, when tapas are half price, and special-occasion dining.
Best dishes: From the tapas bar, salpicón de marisco, a ceviche of octopus, scallops, mussels, and shrimp with peppers and onions; chorizo; Serrano-ham croquettes; quail cured in sherry vinegar. From the menu, paella (traditional seafood or with chorizo and chicken); veal sweetbreads with spinach, capers, and potatoes; rabbit with carrots. An all-seafood menu in November featured humble grouper gratinéed to a new level and a pristine sea bream baked in rock salt.
Insider tips: While the happy hour makes the tapas bar one of the city’s best dining deals, seats are few, so arrive early or be prepared to stand. Spain is producing exciting wines, and Taberna remains the best place in town to explore them. The list ranges in style from classic Riojas and sherries to the trendy wines of Priorat, and in price from prestige wines to an impressive array under $50.
No. 25: Cynthia’s ★★★
552-I Governor Ritchie Hwy., Severna Park | 410-315-8088
Cuisine: Generously portioned Modern American cooking from a husband-and-wife team (Brian Bennington handles savories, Cindy Bennington sweets) that sometimes bends toward the straightforward and comforting (a steak dinner) but is almost always served with flair and wit—a pork chop, the menu notes, is napped with “yummy sauce.” The many thoughtful touches—from Guggenheim rolls at the start to simple but sublime desserts and fresh-baked muffins the staff sends you home with—linger in memory long after you’ve left.
Mood: Neither the exterior—a strip mall in Severna Park—nor the open, off-white interior has much to recommend it, but the dining room at night has a buzz, animated as it is by smiling, toasting, laughing Baltimoreans and suburban Washingtonians who know they’ve turned up a gem in the unlikeliest of settings.
Best for: Diners who prize value and comfort over trendiness, foodies tired of going into DC for an adventurous meal.
Best dishes: A luscious slab of foie gras atop a ripe, caramelized peach; a fan of rosy-hued duck breast with baked root-vegetable terrine and caramelized apple; a rectangular filet of salmon painted with Cabernet sauce to resemble a barbecue spare rib, with bacon-fortified purée of potatoes and leeks; a pearlescent halibut with fried coins of potato in a sweet, creamy corn sauce; “breakfast” at Cynthia’s, its Prosecco sabayon drenched hollandaise-style over a fresh sponge cake topped with peaches; lemon “cannoli” with sour-cream ice cream and fresh fruit.
Insider tips: The Benningtons don’t practice portion control—appetizers are the size of entrées, and entrées are almost certain to yield leftovers. Consider splitting a first course and saving some calories for the end of the meal: It’s at dessert that the restaurant really soars—every one of Cindy Bennington’s desserts hits the mark. And look to the weekly wine special, a bottle priced much lower than the usual restaurant markup of three times the retail cost.
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