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Best of Bethesda 2013: Where to Eat

Bethesda has so many restaurants—here are our favorites.

A sampling of excellent vegetarian fare at Passage to India. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Happy hour: Drink and snack deals aren’t just for office refugees at Food Wine & Co. (7272 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-652-8008), which in addition to its regular happy hour (4 to 6 daily) serves the same specials all day Tuesday and Thursday and from 9 to 11:30 Friday and Saturday. Draft beers are $4, cocktails are $6 to $7, and some of the menu’s best shares—Gruyère tater tots, fried calamari with pickled peppers—are discounted, too.

Place to down a dozen oysters: Jeff and Barbara Black, the restaurateurs behind the sleek, warmly lit Black’s Bar & Kitchen (7750 Woodmont Ave.; 301-652-5525), are passionate about their oysters—so much so that they teamed up with Virginia’s Rappahannock Oyster Co. to create their own varieties: Black Pearls and our favorite, the briny, mineraly Old Black Salts. Round those out with a selection from a rotating roster of carefully shucked Chesapeake Bay and Pacific Northwest bivalves.

Barbecue fix: Okay, it might be the only place in Bethesda for a barbecue fix. Still, the tiny new Smoke BBQ (4858 Cordell Ave.; 301-656-2011) is a good spot for thick-cut baby back ribs (get them slathered in the tomatoey “regular” barbecue sauce) or North Carolina-style pulled-pork sandwiches, which are best doused in vinegar. Both are better bets than the smoked-brisket sandwich, which was dry when we tried it.

Bar for wine-sipping: More than 80 reds, whites, sparklers, and rosés are available by the glass or 2½-ounce taste at the eclectic bistro Grapeseed (4865 Cordell Ave.; 301-986-9592). Settle in at the bar and enlist the bartenders’ guidance in navigating the list. Tuesdays are an especially good night—bottles $100 and less are half price.

Sandwich stop: The baguette sandwiches at the gourmet shop/cafe Cornucopia (8102 Norfolk Ave.; 301-652-1625) are more dressed down and delicate than most Italian subs—they’re accessorized with only a slick of balsamic vinegar and some green-leaf lettuce. That’s fine with us, though. The bread and main ingredients—provolone and shavings of hot soppresatta or prosciutto are our favorites—are high-quality enough to shine on their own.

Quick slice: The Italian deli institution Vace (4705 Miller Ave.; 301-654-6367) has been making takeout pies and slices its own way—with mozzarella baked onto the crust and zesty sauce swirled on top—for nearly 35 years. We’re hooked on the plain and pepperoni, but the white pizza with sweet onions is also worthy.

Boutique pizza: You can’t have a New Haven-style pizzeria without a white-clam pie, and Haven Pizzeria Napoletana (7137 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-664-9412) doesn’t disappoint. The coal ovens produce an enviable version, with a strong garlic kick and loads of freshly shucked littlenecks. In the mood for something more mellow? The ultra-simple pecorino-sprinkled tomato pie is nice, too.

Vegetarian pleasures: The elegantly gilded Passage to India (4931 Cordell Ave.; 301-656-3373) serves plenty of meat, but vegetarians have ample run of the menu in this quiet dining room. The kitchen turns out veggie-friendly samosas, fritters, curries, and salads—we often turn to the tamarind-streaked puffed-rice salad known as sev-murmura chaat, the excellent bainghan bartha (roasted eggplant in a rich gravy), and the vibrant pickle platter.

Carnivorous cravings: The high-gloss interior at Bethesda Row’s Redwood (7121 Bethesda La.; 301-656-5515)—sleek slate, gleaming wood, and Carrera marble—might conjure dainty beet salads more than hunks of beef, but no matter. You’re here to indulge in the meatier side of the menu: goat-cheese-stuffed lamb burgers, the classic cheeseburger, a wood-grilled hanger steak, or a sharable tray of charcuterie.

Special-occasion dinner: Yannick Cam is the chef behind some of the starriest restaurants of Washington’s past, from Le Pavillon to Provence. Here, at his three-year-old Bistro Provence (4933 Fairmont Ave.; 301-656-7373), Cam’s cooking is more casual but no less carefully thought through, from a round of walnut-and-spinach-stuffed clams to a lovely bouillabaisse to a decadent molten chocolate cake with milk-chocolate jam. All befit a celebration, and the cozy, Parisian-style front dining room is as nice a place to clink glasses as the enclosed back patio.

Taste of New England: The tiny Bethesda Row outpost of the New York chain Luke’s Lobster (7129 Bethesda La.; 301-718-1005) arrived late to Washington’s lobster-roll-crazy scene. But its top-split hot-dog buns filled with claw meat slicked with both mayo and butter have quickly risen to the top. Happily, Luke’s gets creamy clam chowder right, too. The place is mostly carryout, but in the summer it sets up a few picnic tables outside.

High-end comfort food: The latest effort from chef/restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier—also behind downtown Bethesda’s Mussel Bar—Wildwood Kitchen (10223 Old Georgetown Rd.; 301-571-1700) excels at straightforward cooking without relying on massive amounts of butter and cream. With such robustly flavored creations as lamb meatballs with harissa or osso buco with orange-chili glaze and polenta, you’re unlikely to miss those culinary crutches.

Comfort food on the cheap: When it comes to Salvadoran cooking, few dishes are as simple—or satisfying—as pupusas, the thick, warm masa cakes oozy with mozzarella, pork, or both, then done up with slaw. They’re among our favorite reasons to visit Guardado’s (4918 Del Ray Ave.; 301-986-4920), a welcoming dining room that marries Spanish tapas (melted Manchego with chorizo) with pan-Latin entrées such as fajitas and lomo saltado. Best of all? They ring in at $2.25 apiece.

Quiet catch-ups: Looking to avoid Bethesda’s scene-seeking droves and have an evening of relaxed, no-need-to-shout conversation? Head for the low-key Newton’s Table (4917 Elm St.; 301-718-0550), where you can explore a jet-setting array of snacks, from wonderful Gruyère gougères to nori-wrapped tuna, and linger over such smartly conceived cocktails as Bees in a Storm—a Dark and Stormy enhanced with honey liqueur.

Elegant bakeshop: Step away from the cupcakes that are all over downtown Bethesda and check out Tout de Sweet (7831 Woodmont Ave.; 301-951-0474), a jewel box of a bakery that turns out flaky croissants and pains aux raisins with as much skill as it does its fancier charlottes and opera cakes, which look like miniature works of art. And if you just can’t quit those cupcakes, you’ll find nice ones here, too.

Cheap lunch: Hot dogs both traditional (a Chicago dog with all the trimmings in a steamed poppyseed bun) and offbeat (the Bold, crunchy with onions, cabbage, and potato sticks and swiped with ketchup, mustard, and mayo) share space on the menu at Bold Bite (4901-B Fairmont Ave.; 301-951-2653). Whatever you decide, don’t miss the Belgian-style fries and spring for a few sauces—cilantro-lime, Cajun ketchup, aïoli—for dipping.

Bar snacks: Twenty draft beers and looming big-screen TVs are what attract many folks to the bar at American Tap Room (7278 Woodmont Ave.; 301-656-1366). We head there for oversize pretzels with cheddar-ale spread; a terrific burger with caramelized onions, shredded lettuce, and thick-cut pickles; and a tasty riff on wings—here, hot sauce, blue cheese, and chicken are turned into a creamy dip and served with sliced baguette.

Best of Bethesda ››

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