The crowded Hill bistro Montmartre (pictured above) feels as if it could have been plucked from a Parisian street corner.
COZY AND CASUAL
Washington could use more places like Zest (735 Eighth St., SE; 202-544-7171), a neighborhood restaurant that puts out satisfying food at reasonable prices. Dishes are both nostalgic (root-beer float) and familiar (penne Bolognese) but often have a creative touch. There’s a good muffuletta sandwich with smoked turkey instead of ham, and hanger steak comes with great creamed spinach and yuca in place of potatoes.
Although Bistro Cacao (320 Massachusetts Ave., NE; 202-546-4737) opened in the last year, it feels decades older—in a comforting way. Chef Kemal Deger concentrates on solid renditions of classic but modest French food. At the old-school place—on our list of the 25 best new restaurants—you’ll find pistachio-studded pheasant pâté and garlic-showered frogs’ legs as well as simple entrées such as mustard-coated rack of lamb and well-cooked hanger steak with crisp, thin fries.
With its packed-tight tables and affordable prices, Montmartre recreates the French bistro experience. It’s best to stick to the classics—steamed mussels, endive salad with blue cheese, terrines and pâtés, and an excellent hanger steak with fingerling potatoes. Dessert brings another winning throwback: a lovely Floating Island of meringue over crème anglaise.
There are similarly tight quarters at Granville Moore’s, a cornerstone of H Street’s food scene and an early player in the mussels-and-fries genre. The creaky two-story beer den is best known for its blue-cheese mussels, which won chef Teddy Folkman a blue ribbon in the Food Network’s Throwdown With Bobby Flay. Other good bets include a simple but well-done wedge salad, a steak-and-cheese dressed up with braised bison and horseradish cream, and a rotating lineup of desserts—look out for cheesecake.
A couple of blocks west is Scott Hamilton and Graig Glufling’s bistro, Liberty Tree, which channels the owners’ ties to New England. Clams make lots of appearances: In a smoky chowder, a satisfying bowl of linguine, and on a garlicky New Haven–inspired pizza (Glufling was the opening chef at Matchbox). Beyond that, stick with guilty pleasures such as fried calamari with a cherry-pepper dip—a nod to Rhode Island’s version with banana peppers—as well as hand-cut fries and a spicy meatball grinder. Fancier plates often miss the mark.
There’s more pizza at Matchbox, which turns out good, slightly crisp rounds. We like the Fire and Smoke with Gouda, chipotle tomato sauce, and garlic as well as the classic pepperoni versions. The sliders here predate the burger craze of the past few years, but the mini-patties, perfectly seasoned and set on buttery brioches, withstand the competition.
The Capitol Hill spinoff of Rockville’s Cava pulses with urban energy. Wine bottles line the exposed-brick walls, and servers are dressed in black shirts and jeans. The menu’s small-plates format means you can try lots of dishes. That’s a good thing, because it’s hard to choose between “crazy” feta with jalapeños and thick taramasalata, both dips for pita, or lamb in the form of souvlaki or sliders. Finishing with Greek doughnuts—called loukoumades—ensures a sweet ending.
Another grazing-friendly option is Sonoma, where an impressive 44 wines by the glass are matched with charcuterie boards, American-made cheeses, and nicely turned-out pastas. For those craving something more substantial, there’s a satisfying burger and rustic roast chicken.
A few blocks from Union Station, Toscana Café & Catering (601 Second St., NE; 202-525-2693) serves as both a takeout spot and a sit-down restaurant. Pastas are made daily, and the quality shows in such dishes as pappardelle with a rich lamb ragu and soft gnocchi with pesto and shrimp. The daily risotto has included a winning combination of salmon and asparagus shot through with truffle. Don’t miss the gooey fried risotto balls to start and the light-as-air tiramisu.
Washington has lots of Ethiopian restaurants, but the newcomer Ethiopic should be at the top of your list. Husband-and-wife owners Samuel Ergete and Meseret Bekele, who had no prior restaurant experience, put out bold dishes, including buticha—fluffy chickpea puree studded with jalapeños—and great renditions of the chicken stew known as doro wat and kitfo, beef tartare with house-made cheese.
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