Special Occasion Dining Guide
It’s a big birthday or anniversary, and you’d like to go out for dinner. But where? We sent staffers to area restaurants to celebrate a special occasion. Here’s where they found great food, a lovely atmosphere, and wonderful service—and some places that
Your husband is turning 50. Your wife got a big promotion. You've been married 25 years—or you're about to propose.
Special occasions call for special restaurants. You want great food. But there are other ingredients that go into a celebratory meal.
Is it an elegant or romantic setting fit for the occasion? Or are the tables too close together and the noise level high?
Service matters. You want a warm welcome and waiters who are attentive but not obtrusive and willing to recommend choices that turn out well.
Does the staff make the night feel special? Many top restaurants ask, when you book a table, if it's a special occasion. Does the staff remember?
We put 16 restaurants to the test. Thirteen are on The Washingtonian's list of 100 Very Best Restaurants. We sent reviewers—each of whom would mention a special occasion being celebrated—to judge food, atmosphere, and service.
Some of our diners asked waiters and sommeliers to pick entrées and wine for them. We wanted to see whether a restaurant would take advantage of patrons in a mood to splurge by suggesting the priciest items on the menu.
Our reviews, from best experience to worst, follow. The total tabs include tip, tax, beverages, and alcohol and are for two people.
Keep in mind that at many of these restaurants—including the Inn at Little Washington and L'Auberge Chez François—you should make a reservation a month in advance, as tables book quickly.
Inn at Little Washington: Ultimate Splurge
When I made a dinner reservation at the Inn at Little Washington, the gentleman on the other end of the line asked, "Will you be joining us for a special occasion?"
It's a good guess. At these prices—$168 a person Saturday, $138 on Friday, $128 Sunday through Thursday—most people aren't coming for just any night out.
It was our anniversary. We saw other diners opening menus and smiling at the messages on top (HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO THE APPLETONS). Our dessert plates came with "happy anniversary" banners around the rims. I saw "happy birthday" wishes, too.
When I first saw the dining room, the floral wallpapers and heavy fabrics seemed dark and over the top. But after I was seated under a pink fringed lamp, I was glad to be there.
Neil, our waiter, was expert and funny. As I studied the menu and nibbled on treats from the chef—six bite-size morsels such as an empanada filled with barbecue rabbit and a nickel-size ham sandwich—I couldn't decide on one of the nine main courses. Neil steered me to a choice I never would have made.
Scott, the sommelier, was in demand but eventually arrived to guide us through a 70-page wine list that included eye-popping selections like an $11,000 Lafite '45.
For our first courses, he recommended a very nice $40 half bottle of Vouvray. Subsequent courses called for a red, and Scott pointed to one $335 Burgundy, then a few in the $200s. My husband asked about less-expensive picks, and they agreed on a 1999 Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, still a splurge at $190. It was a delightful wine.
The inn bills the meal as seven courses—if you count the canapés, a tiny cup of soup that follows (in our case, a creamy chilled watermelon soup with a hint of tequila), and a small basket of cookies at the end. You order four courses.
My first was a shellfish trio: lobster salad in a beggar's purse, ceviche of scallop, and a silky crab-and-avocado roll. It was amazingly fresh and perfectly cooked, as were my husband's freshwater prawns with charred onions and mango mint salsa.
Our second courses were a crabcake "sandwich" between fried green tomatoes—like most every dish, almost too beautiful to eat—and a wonderful pecan-crusted soft-shell crab tempura.
The entrée Neil suggested, pan-roasted loin of veal and braised veal cheek, was succulent, in an earthy sauce with ravioli of Virginia ham, forest mushrooms, and the tiniest Brussels sprouts. My husband's pepper-crusted tuna, with seared duck foie gras and a burgundy butter sauce, was the finest piece of seafood he'd ever had.
For dessert, I couldn't resist the Seven Deadly Sins, seven sweets like molten chocolate cake, vanilla panna cotta with passion-fruit sauce, lemon-and-meringue tart, and butter pecan ice cream.
My husband went for the cheese, and a server wheeled up Faira, a cow-shaped cart. From a nutty Taleggio to a soft Stilton, the cheeses were perfectly ripe and very good.
It was the most expensive meal of our lives. And the best.
The inn, 80 minutes away, presents a dilemma: Drive home after dinner or stay the night? For my take on that, see page 82.
Colvin Run Tavern: Delicious and Discreet
My wife and I don't often go to fancy restaurants—Tex-Mex with the kids is our big night out. For birthdays or anniversaries, we'll occasionally dress up and eat at tables covered in white linen. But invariably the meals disappoint.
I thought we were fated for a similar letdown as we made the trek to Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern. It was a weeknight, and both of us were tired. How could a restaurant in Tysons Corner, land of back-to-school shopping trips, be worth the effort?
Colvin Run delivered. Two hours of spectacular food in a warm atmosphere bathed our souls in contentment. The meal rates as one of the best we've had in more than a dozen years of marriage.
We arrived early and settled with drinks into comfortable chairs by the bar, where a pianist knocked out cheerful tunes. The restaurant, a sister to Kinkead's in DC, is decorated with casual elegance, wood mixing with stone and metal.
When making reservations, I had said that we would be celebrating my wife's 40th birthday—a white lie given that she had just turned 39, as she does every year. We didn't mention the event at the restaurant, but after we were seated, our waiter delivered menus inscribed with HAPPY 40TH BIRTHDAY, SALLY. Later, he gave us the menus to take home along with a Colvin Run mug stuffed with small cookies. Delightfully no one sang to my wife or lit candles on her dessert. Each of our servers discreetly wished her many happy returns.
Sally loves seafood, a Colvin Run specialty. She started with a butter-poached lobster in puff pastry; I had seared scallops. We swapped plates to see who had made the smarter choice, but it was a draw—both were wonderful.
For the main course, I ordered flounder wrapped in spring-roll paper and served in a Thai green-curry coconut-milk broth with snow peas, lime, and mushrooms. With every bite, the ingredients announced themselves one by one, and I found myself anticipating each.
Sally went for scallops in a tomato broth with Peppadew sweet peppers, littleneck clams, and saffron rouille. The flavors mingled nicely; each was distinct, and none overwhelmed.
By coffee and dessert—pear crisp for Sally, pecan tart for me—we were feeling renewed. The meal had done what seemed impossible. We headed home with spirits soaring.
Husbands who want to splurge big, take note: Colvin Run is hard by an Elizabeth Arden spa and Hermès and Tiffany stores. You could send your wife for a day of extravagance, then meet her for dinner.
Citronelle: Meal to Remember
So special an occasion is dinner at Michel Richard's Citronelle that when my wife, Florri, called for a reservation, no table was available on a weekend for weeks. So we settled on a Monday night. Having been told that the best tables were those with a view of the open kitchen, we requested one. The reservationist said she could make no guarantees, but the restaurant would do its best.
It did very well.
Citronelle's dining room is casually elegant, with nicely spaced tables and comfortable chairs. We were seated at one of the two tables directly in front of the glass wall separating the dining room from the kitchen and overlooking the chef's table, where Michel Richard was entertaining a small group of diners.
Handsome as the restaurant is, Citronelle is mostly about the food. Michel Richard is celebrated for his California-style French cuisine featuring innovative, often whimsical, creations.
Patrons have two options: a three-course menu with choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $85 a person, or the Promenade Gourmande—a set tasting menu of eight or nine courses (depending on how you count the dessert dishes) for $150. A wine degustation—tasting portions of wines to go with each course—can be had for an additional $80.
We pondered the options over aperitifs of sparkling wine. The tasting menu is available only by the table—if one of us wanted it, we both had to order it. No problem: We both wanted it. I also ordered the wine pairings. Florri instead asked Katarina, the sommelier on duty, to recommend a glass of white and a glass of red that would go well with the progression of courses.
The fun began with a witty and delicious trio of palate teasers—a silky "egg surprise" topped with caviar, a tasty mushroom "cigar," and sensational triangles of vitello tonnato. To accompany these, Katarina brought me a very nice glass of Eric Rodez Champagne.
Thus began a happy parade of plates. A richly subtle white-corn-and-crab soup was followed by delectable slices of foie gras with red-onion pickles. Next came a fish course—roasted dorade royale with fingerling potatoes and leeks in a white-bean sauce—then a medallion of lobster with Japanese eggplant and a lemongrass sauce, followed by succulent squab a l'orange with leg confit and apple risotto. These were capped off with a plate of three deliciously savory cheeses.
Every dish was a delight to the eye and the mouth. For each one, Katarina brought me a generous tasting portion of wine that was the perfect complement, from a splendid sherry with the soup to a heady Chateauneuf du Pape with the cheese. The wines she selected for Florri—the white a Meursault, the red a Burgundy from Chambolle-Musigny ($16 and $19 a glass)—were excellent.
Michel Richard was trained as a pastry chef, and dessert clearly is where his heart is. Our menu concluded with a delectable raspberry vacherin, three chocolate treats—including a witty take on the Kit-Kat bar—and dainty petit fours. Katarina brought each of us a glass of nectarlike Beaumes de Venise Muscat—a divine end to a stunning meal.
Service was professional and courteous throughout, though there were occasional lags between courses. And while the goings-on in the kitchen were interesting, next time we'll request a table farther back in the dining room so we can see the kitchen without having it command our attention. And next time, we'll try the three-course menu.
It was a special occasion indeed—and one we'll remember fondly for a very long time.
L'Auberge Chez François: Old Favorite
When I came to Washington just over 30 years ago, fresh out of the rural Midwest, I took promising dates to a French restaurant near the White House called Chez François. It was a revelation for a greenhorn like me to discover that fromage stood for cheese or that there were people who ate snails and the brains of calves.
Chez François was my first French restaurant, my gateway to a wider world filled with Chateaubriand, foie gras, and coquilles Saint Jacques.
As the years went by we both moved on. Monsieur François Haeringer departed for Great Falls, where he re-created his restaurant as a country establishment in the manner of his native Alsace. I ventured out to try the variety of cuisines that Washington soon had available, saving my old friend, now called L'Auberge Chez François, for special occasions.
To return is like going home. Chez François, now in its 51st year, is as good as ever. No wonder our readers nearly always pick it as their favorite place for special occasions. It's so popular that reservations are taken as early as 28 days in advance.
The dining rooms, with fireplaces and Alsatian decor, exude warmth and romance with an Old World accent. The staff is attentive and unpretentious, putting at ease everyone from the most sophisticated diners to the nervous young man hoping to impress a date. The sommelier was a clever fellow—charming us with his observation that we did not look old enough to have remembered the old location downtown.
The menu reads like a literary classic, with entrées featuring rainbow trout, Alaskan salmon, lobster, Dover sole, rabbit, veal sweetbreads, rack of lamb, and Chateaubriand. My companion began with a medallion of beef tenderloin, and I had sausage and scallops on a bed of lentils. She chose red snapper in puff pastry with crabmeat, lobster, and mushrooms in a lobster Cognac sauce as her entrée. I chose beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms, asparagus, and béarnaise sauce.
The ingredients, the cooking, the portions—all were as flawless as I remembered and reaffirmed the idea that fine dishes become traditional for good reason.
The wine, chosen for us, was a $57 bottle of 1999 Chateau Lalande St.-Juliene, a medium-body Bordeaux.
Also just right was the low-key recognition of my companion's faux birthday, which I'd told them about when I made the reservation. A meringue glacé with chantilly was topped by a single candle. No off-key versions of "Happy Birthday," in either French or English.
—Larry Van Dyne
Ristorante Tosca: Buon Appetito
When I called Ristorante Tosca, I told the woman that a friend and I wanted to celebrate a book project we'd sold. (You can call that either a lie or wishful thinking.)
"Oh, that's nice!" she said.
Tosca has a soft, clean-lined look. While the taupe-and-sage palette is soothing, the large room doesn't exactly feel intimate, and the acoustical-tile ceiling, emphasized by bright lighting, is a bit jarring. The upside is that noise is almost nonexistent.
The service was attentive and polite. Robert and I are vegetarians, and Italian restaurants are usually among the best places for our kind. But Tosca has a bent toward veal, beef, pork, and fish, along with gamier items like wild boar and partridge.
Out of curiosity, we asked if they could make up a special vegetarian plate. The waiter said they could put together an assortment of vegetables and "a starch." Because we've each had unimaginative vegetable plates in some of the best restaurants around, we decided to choose from the few meatless dishes on the menu.
We asked for a red-wine recommendation, and the waiter suggested a $48 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Avignonesi, at about the middle of the price range.
Robert is more of an aficionado than I, so after we took our first sips, I asked for a phrase I might use. He ruminated and then deadpanned: "Yummy."
More seriously, we agreed that the wine offered a smooth complement to the slight bitterness of our salads—for him, arugula with a subtle lemon vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan (a special); for me, chopped radicchio, poached Bartlett pears, a creamy rectangle of Gorgonzola terrine, and toasted walnuts, each element arranged as meticulously as in a still life.
We had both ordered buckwheat tagliatelle with Swiss chard, potatoes, fresh sage, cow cheese, and roasted garlic. The house-made noodles had more body than white pasta but were worlds lighter than store-bought whole-wheat. The $18 dish was sophisticated and comforting—and very filling. (Meat entrées range from $26 to $36.)
For dessert, Robert had mascarpone cheesecake with cranberry jelly and sesame crisp—not as heavy or sweet as its American counterpart, which he declared a good thing. I had rice pudding flavored with lemony limoncello liqueur and covered with a flat layer of meringue. It looked positively Quaker in its plainness but was as rich a dessert as a special occasion deserves.
2941: Enjoying Every Last Bite
My wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary at 2941.
The restaurant, off Route 50 in Falls Church, is in the lobby of a glass-and-steel office building. A picturesque lagoon stocked with Oriental goldfish winds around the outside.
The restaurant was crowded. We had arrived a little early so headed to the bar. The bartender was perplexed when Judy ordered dry sherry. He said no one had ever asked for that before.
Judy took a red wine instead, commented on the lovely angular glass, and went off to find the coat room. No one had offered to take her coat when we came in.
I had mentioned at the time of the reservation that this was a special anniversary, but instead of getting a seat near the two large stone fireplaces, we were put at a corner table between two 30-foot-high glass walls. If they had lit up the garden and goldfish ponds outside, it might have been more romantic.
Service was quick and efficient. The best option seemed the $80 prix fixe menu, where diners select four courses.
I chose a crabmeat au gratin appetizer and two main courses—one pheasant, the other sliced duck breast and ostrich. Judy started with a cold appetizer—kobe beef tartare with a quail egg inside a piece of toast—then had a hot appetizer of quail breast stuffed with porcini. For her main course she ordered venison and got a perfectly rare and tender rack and sliced loin.
The complimentary basket of breads was terrific and came with a guide to the varieties. It was refilled without request.
Chef Jonathan Krinn's dishes were outstanding and the portions hearty. Judy was struggling to finish her venison, and I was determined not to leave a bit of my delicious roast duck or tasty ostrich.
I willed myself to have room for five flavors of ice cream and sorbet, served in a chilled silver bowl. Judy got a medley of chocolates—chocolate-covered cheesecake, chocolate-covered marshmallow, coffee-flavored tiramisu, and more—but ended up taking most of them home. Then the waiter brought another dessert, complimentary to all diners that night: a big puffball of piña-colada cotton candy.
The food was spectacular and with a little tweaking, the night would have been close to perfect.
Maestro: Masterful Performance
My mother, a wonderful cook, is the toughest food critic I know. Nine out of ten times she comes home from dinner at a fancy restaurant and says, "It was fine—but I could have made that at home."
When I made a reservation at Maestro, I told the reservationist we'd be celebrating my mother's birthday.
"Would you like a table in front of the open kitchen?" she asked, "Or something more private?"
I knew my mom would love the open kitchen. The reservationist said Maestro never makes promises for those tables, but the staff would do its best.
We arrived ten minutes early for our 8 PM reservation. The hostess met us stone-faced: "We don't have any tables in front of the kitchen right now. You can wait, but it might be 45 minutes or two hours."
I told her we didn't want to wait but hoped we could be moved if something opened up. She shrugged.
She led us to a table in the hinterlands of the back dining room. It's very pretty—pastoral paintings, soft lighting, cushy chairs. We asked for glasses of Veuve Cliquot.
Five minutes later, a prime table opened up in front of the kitchen. The waiter said he'd ask about it. Emanuele, the maître d', came over with a charming smile and told us our Champagne was on the house. He'd move us as soon as he could.
Forty-five minutes later, we sat at the same table, fiddling with our empty glasses and listening to the rustling of trash bags in the hall. An hour after we sat down, we were led to a new table—not the front-row one we'd noticed but nice nonetheless.
And then, Maestro became a different restaurant.
The elegance of the back room was there, but this room was more lively. Stress fell away as we watched the choreography in the kitchen. Chef Fabio Trabocchi was right up front, scrutinizing each plate about to leave the kitchen.
Trabocchi's Italian-accented cooking has won accolades from local and national critics. At Maestro, he has designed three separate menus: La Tradizione features classic Italian dishes like carpaccio and seafood risotto. L'Evoluzione has a more contemporary feel. I Colori dell'Orto (the Colors of the Garden) is all vegetarian. You can do a five-course tasting for $100 or seven for $125. We each picked out five options from the different menus.
The sommelier suggested beautiful, fairly priced glasses of wine—a Gigondas, a Merlot from Friuli, and a Riesling. My first course, belon oysters and a slice of foie gras bathed in frothy Champagne sabayon, was set in front of me. My mom took a bite of her Maestro Carpaccio, a paper-thin slice of beef wrapped around dense soy-and-honey-marinated tofu, and said, "This is fabulous."
Next, two more knockouts: Yukon gold-potato gnocchi with seared Nantucket scallops and preserved black truffle—one of the best dishes I've ever tasted—and lobster ravioli in a fragrant ginger bisque. The portions were perfect—by the time my mom had finished reveling in the milk-fed veal with aromatic vegetables, we were comfortably full.
Dessert was a decadent affair. It began with a stellar amuse bouche of lychee panna cotta with house-infused basil grappa. We shared a caramel soufflé with orange sorbet, and the pear tiramisu. When I tried a Grand Marnier dessert martini, the maître d' brought my mom an espresso martini on the house. More surprises came: a chocolate cake decorated in gold leaf for the birthday girl, which they happily wrapped to go. And a tiny tray bearing house-made marshmallows and cookies, and a palette holding tuile cones filled with strawberry sorbet.
When we got the check, my mom said, "That was one of the best meals I've ever had in Washington."
Palena: Lively and Inventive
The best thing about Palena, as one would expect at one of Washington's best restaurants, is the food.
My girlfriend and I planned a meal to celebrate six years together, which I mentioned when making the reservation, asking if we could have a nice table.
Palena's small dining room is welcoming and comfortable. The room is lively, well lit, and a little crowded, which makes it nice for celebrating a birthday or new job—less so, we discovered, for romance.
Our waiter, Roger, was the best we've had—friendly and helpful without fawning. He was happy to describe every item on the $69 five-course menu and confide what he liked and didn't like. The way he had us pick courses so they'd complement each other made us feel like we were designing a special experience.
He was fair in suggesting wines. He gave equal weight to a $34 bottle of Di Majo Norante Ramitello and a $63 bottle of Domaine Guillon Gevrey-Chambertin, saying the decision between these two red blends came down to what we preferred. We chose the latter and loved it.
Palena's concoctions are inventive, and nearly every dish tasted wonderful, starting with a salad of lobster and beets that burst with flavor. Raviolini with mussels was savory and perfect, as was a main course of rabbit loin with fried sweetbreads.
The flow of food wasn't smooth. The restaurant ran out of one of my selections as well as another dish that some nearby diners had ordered. Switching orders around threw the kitchen off, and 20 minutes passed between courses.
As fine as they were, the desserts— chocolate cake for my date and a pear tart for me—couldn't compete with the rest of the meal. Palena throws in a plate of house-made cookies and caramels. Roger then brought an extra caramel with a candle, because he had just noticed in the reservation book that we were celebrating an anniversary. It was a nice gesture, but it seemed an afterthought.
It was after we left that we realized another reason the night hadn't felt intimate: The tight corner table we were seated at forced us, unless we turned uncomfortably, to spend more time looking out at our neighboring diners than gazing into each other's eyes.
This still was an extraordinary meal. Palena isn't the perfect place for romance but would be great for almost any other occasion.
Persimmon: No Sour Grapes
What does a "special occasion" restaurant look like?
Persimmon has been celebrated by The Washingtonian's restaurant critics for its great food. But it bills itself as an American bistro, and the smallish dining room right on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Bethesda looks more homey than high-life. We wondered whether dinner would feel special in this setting.
When I called for a reservation, I said that my husband and I were coming to celebrate my book contract—a semi-truth because we celebrated that a year ago.
As soon as we sat down at our table in the window, we told the server that we were celebrating and wanted a wonderful bottle of wine. She admitted that she didn't know enough about wine and went to get the manager, Suzanne Matteson.
Matteson asked a lot of questions about our preferences—sweet or dry, single grape or blends, red or white—and what we were likely to eat. She suggested a 1995 French white bordeaux for $90. She said that it was supposed to be excellent, but she would taste it with us to be sure.
The three of us tasted. When Matteson asked us if we liked it, we said we weren't sure. She left us alone to decide if we wanted to keep the wine or order something else. The fact is, we have never felt confident enough to send back wine.
When Matteson returned, we told her that we didn't love it. Neither did she, it turned out. The wine may have been past its time. She whisked away the bottle—at no charge to us—and we ordered a California white, a Newton Viognier 2000 ($88), which was wonderful.
After a glass of that, we gave up any pretense of adhering to our low-carb South Beach diet. We dove into the breadbasket, which arrived with a crock of pâté.
To start, Benjamin ordered a salad of heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese. I chose smoked-trout spring rolls. For an entrée, Benjamin chose beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and onion rings. I ordered crabcakes on bacon-studded potatoes. The server applauded my choice.
The spring rolls were crisp, not greasy, and the crabcakes were moist and delicate. Benjamin didn't love everything he ordered, but he was ready to compose an ode to the onion rings.
We saved room for dessert. Benjamin went straight for the chocolate—two dense fudgy pyramids surrounded by crème anglaise. I selected a nectarine linzertorte with plum honey ice cream. Once again, the server complimented my choice. Even Benjamin conceded that my dessert was divine—a perfect blend of sweet pastry and tangy ice cream.
As we left, Matteson thanked us for picking Persimmon for our celebration. It was just the right grace note for an enjoyable evening.
Marcel's: Sparkling Treat
When I called Marcel's to make a reservation, the man who answered the phone asked if I'd be celebrating a special occasion. I told him it was my two-year anniversary.
"Good to know," he said, enthusiastically. "Happy anniversary, madam!"
Our waiter escorted us to the dimly lit dining room, with decorative wall hangings, chandeliers, and an open kitchen. He greeted us politely, but he barely cracked a smile. He seemed distracted.
I'm not a wine drinker, so I went with our waiter's recommendation for an apple martini, which was perfect. "Cheers," he said, after pouring my husband's glass of Chardonnay.
Before our appetizers arrived, our waiter delivered two tiny blue bowls of what he described as fennel flan with a Champagne sauce and chives. "From the chef," he said.
My husband chose the $16 tuna tartare appetizer, which the waiter suggested. The tuna was served in a light sesame oil atop mango and avocado. He loved it. I ordered the $14 arugula salad, which was tasty for something simple.
We noticed a few glitches: Our table was wobbly, so we almost tipped over our drinks a few times, and our water glasses were empty for about ten minutes. I wish I'd requested a quieter corner table—I found many of the tables too close together.
My husband ordered the $48 pan-seared halibut, served with creamy risotto and chunks of lobster and garnished with a lobster tail. I had the $29 roasted farmhouse chicken with caramelized shallots and a Gruyére-cheese potato cake. It was the tastiest chicken I've ever had. Thick slices of tender, flavorful white meat, with a crisp skin, nearly filled the plate.
After he finished his halibut, my husband said, "I can honestly say I'm glad I ordered that." We laughed. He usually wants what the person next to him has.
For dessert, we shared the chocolate marquise, a rich layered cake, that came with coconut sorbet—I asked for berry instead—and raspberries.
We'd just started on coffee when our waiter arrived with a bottle of sparkling wine. "Happy anniversary," he said. He was finally smiling. "It's on the house."
We thought the meal was well worth every penny. The food was delicious, we never felt rushed, and they didn't forget about our special occasion.
La Ferme: Fun and Festive
"We're celebrating tonight," I told the maître d' giddily. "Ray made partner at Marshall & McPhie!"
"Congratulations, sir!" replied Pino Luise, checking my coat. And at our table: "Again, congratulations."
That was it for noting our special occasion. But the food, surroundings, and solicitous and fun staff made the evening special.
In an old Chevy Chase neighborhood, La Ferme occupies a grand 1920s cottage that once housed a girls' school, then a few restaurants, including Brooke Farm Inn. Billed as French, its menu offers both classic and modern dishes with continental influences.
Dino the waiter took plenty of time to explain the menu and answer questions in a relaxed, conspiratorial manner. He seemed far more interested in our enjoyment than in pushing drinks or dishes.
To start, we ordered warm salmon-and-lobster terrine with lemon ginger sabayon ($8.75)—melt-in-the-mouth delicious—and warm goat-cheese-and-tomato tart with pesto. Even though it was October, the diced tomatoes on both dishes were perfectly ripe, reminiscent of summer.
The Thursday-night service was timely. Though space between tables is ample, the room felt cozy. Chandeliers, rooster ceramics, and show tunes and torch songs from pianist Eddy Glaudin made for a pleasant environment. Ray enjoyed his glass of the house Pinot Grigio.
The 14 entrées ranged from fish to fowl to assorted meats, $22.95 to $31.50. We asked Dino's pick between the vol au vent ($27.95) or the pan-seared sea scallops with warm portobello, asparagus salad, and chive butter sauce ($25.50). Both were very good, he said, but suggested the former as "more interesting." It was excellent: lobster chunks, large shrimp, and scallops in a house-made pastry shell with shiitakes, asparagus, and a lobster-tarragon sauce, ringed by asparagus spears and sliced carrots.
The potato-crusted grouper filet over ratatouille with fresh basil ($24.95) was attractive, too—soft white grouper topped with a light nest of grated potato and basil.
My one disappointment was the raspberry- and white-chocolate-mousse cake—bland and forgettable. The warm French apple tart with crème anglaise was primo: apples with just a touch of crispness, a sweet crust, walnuts, and crème anglaise.
We toasted. We joked with Dino. We walked into the evening chill feeling happy and well taken care of.
Galileo: Best for Foodies
My wife, Jean, is a foodie—lots of cooking classes, magazines, and books—so to celebrate our anniversary we went to Laboratorio, the separate dining room run by chef Roberto Donna at Galileo, his four-star Italian restaurant in downtown DC.
It's serious dining—make a reservation well in advance, sign a form promising that you'll show up at 7:30 PM, gather in the restaurant bar, and about 7:45 you're escorted as a group into the private room. There you're seated at one of seven tables, with a cooking and plating area at the front of the room, and you watch Donna and his staff at work.
You're presented with the menu for the evening—10 to 12 courses. You can order a flight of six or seven wines for $70. We ordered instead by the glass, starting with Champagne at $20 a glass. And the three-hour show—for $125 a person on Friday and Saturday, $110 weekdays—begins.
There is a large mirror over the open kitchen, which gives diners a good view of the chefs at work, though most of what you see is plating. Still, it's fun to watch.
The first course was Oysters Duo—one fried, one raw. I'm not a fan of shellfish, so I let Jean enjoy both dishes. Then came roasted duck liver with cannelloni pancetta and porcini mushrooms. I'm not a fan of liver, either—I offered mine to Jean, who gave me a look that said, "This is a 12-course meal, and you better start eating your share." The reservation e-mails had given me the chance to tell the restaurant if I was allergic to anything—I should have told them what I don't eat.
Then came a chickpea soup, which Jean called wonderful, and a vegetarian dish—mezzelune stuffed with red beets and ricotta in a chives sauce—which we both enjoyed. This was followed by pasta—"split maccheroncini with lamb ragu"—which Jean said she could have eaten all night. Risotto with zucchini, tomato, and shrimp was good but not remarkable.
Then came what looked to be the evening's showstopper: butter-poached lobster with chanterelle mushrooms and black-truffle sauce. Jean loves lobster, but this version tasted mostly of salt. A big letdown.
A roasted squab dish was decent, followed by an interesting cheese trolley, a very good pomegranate coulis, and an unusual dessert: tempura almond-cream prunes with vanilla sauce and honey ice cream. Who would have thought fried prunes would taste that good? The final course was bombolini—fried doughnuts.
Service was the Italian-male version of very professional—a little perfunctory as ingredients were rattled off, and we were surprised at the end of the evening not to be offered coffee.
Jean had heard a lot about Laborotorio and was glad we'd tried it. Despite the surprising number of dishes that were either just okay or disappointing, it's an interesting evening for a foodie. When I asked her if she'd like to go back, she said she'd rather go to Citronelle, Maestro, or Colvin Run Tavern.
1789: Low-Key and Leisurely
Stepping into this charming Federal house in one of Georgetown's quieter enclaves, you feel as if you've been invited to an elegant dinner party.
A bevy of young women in black whisks diners to their tables with a gracious hello. The corner banquette in the John Carroll Room, the largest and the loveliest of the dining rooms, is ours—my husband, Bill, asked for a great table when he made the reservation.
Done up with Currier & Ives prints and antique furniture and silver, the room's crowning touch is an ornate fireplace. One Champagne is available by the glass, and it happens to be a favorite, Taittinger, La Française Brut.
Bill's been eyeing the frosty cocktail shakers at other tables, so he's a bit taken aback when his martini shows up in a glass and not as chilly as it might be. A word to the waiter and a shaker—ensuring an icy cocktail—is ours. Wish the waiter were as accommodating when we ask about the menu. He seems bored filling in the blanks and even a mite condescending.
Maybe if he'd been more forthcoming we would have skipped the lobster, leek, and fontina tart, which sounded heavenly but was a yawn. No complaints about a luxuriant oyster stew with celery root, walnuts, and Smithfield ham—it's a draw to see who'll get the last spoonful. Or perfectly cooked halibut over smoked-tomato vinaigrette with a memorable potato cake bound with artichoke cream. The rack of lamb is another dish we'd order again, one of the restaurant's signatures with rosemary Shiraz sauce and creamy feta potatoes.
Bill has moved on to a 2002 Merlot from Echelon Vineyards—one of nine by-the-glass reds. Noticing I'm sticking with Champagne, the waiter refills my flute on the house.
Most diners on this Friday night are from the generation that enjoys making an evening of dinner, and while the lag between starters and main courses seems overly long, no one else seems to mind except my fortysomething Type-A spouse.
Dessert sets things right: a luscious tart of fromage blanc with black mission figs and port vanilla sauce, and an intense chocolate pot de crème with crunchy espresso crisps.
For a low-key, leisurely celebration—and not a wildly expensive one—1789 is just right.
CityZen: Cool Comfort
Louise and I like to sit side by side at restaurants. One night out early in our romance, I moved across the table, and we have made it a sweet routine.
At CityZen, the hip and hard-edged restaurant at DC's Mandarin Oriental hotel, the hostess seated us near the open kitchen. Louise sat on a long bench against a wall with other diners on either side; I sat in the chair opposite.
"May I move over and sit beside my friend?" I asked.
"I don't think that's allowed," the hostess said. "Let me ask the manager."
I had spoken to the manager a week earlier. I had told him we were celebrating an anniversary. I had mentioned it again to hostesses who had called to make sure we were coming.
"I'm sorry," the hostess said when she returned. "That won't work. If you want we can sit you at a larger table. In two hours."
CityZen is cool and efficient. The Mandarin is perched in an isolated setting on Maine Avenue in a canyon of federal office buildings near L'Enfant Plaza. CityZen, its premier restaurant, is just off the foyer. Inside, the ceilings are high, the surfaces are glass and metal, the kitchen on the far end is bright and bustling.
The waitstaff, dressed in uniforms from gray suits to gray tunics, bustled around like a Japanese military drill team. They had to be efficient to serve the flow of dishes that were soon to come our way.
But first, the menus. They were encased in a metal jacket the color of code yellow. The two thin pages were heavy to hold. One sheet had a five-course tasting menu for $90; the other had a selection of six appetizers, seven entrées, and five desserts.
We asked questions and sought suggestions but were made to feel like rubes. A waiter brought over the wine list, an epic in its own metal jacket. I chose the Fattoria del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which was superb.
I slid over and sat next to Louise until the food came. Servers started to arrive with tiny dishes from the kitchen: sautéed pork belly on a bed of peppers; a sip of cream-of-fish soup; a morsel of fish with truffles. Each was a delight and delicious.
As were the appetizers and main courses. My bouillabaisse, a fish stew originally made by and for peasants, was fit for a king. My dessert was incredible: I sunk my fork into the biscuit au chocolat, and it oozed dark chocolate sauce across the plate. Louise's Sugar Pie Pumpkin Cereal, an ice-cream dessert, had an odd consistency and went back half eaten.
By 10:30, with the restaurant emptying out and all but wine gone from our table, I was happily sitting next to Louise. The manager had not shown up to order me back to my chair.
The total came to $360. It might have been worth it for foodies but not for lovers.
Le Paradou: Haute—and Haughty—Cuisine
Yannick Cam's cooking is legendary around here. So when the star chef—who drew raves at restaurants like Le Pavillon and El Catalan—unveiled Le Paradou, I couldn't wait to try it. My best friend's announcement that she was moving to New York was the perfect excuse.
The restaurant sits on a dark block off Pennsylvania Avenue. Inside, glasses clinked at the bar, and the light glowed golden.
The hostess seated us immediately. We ordered two $17 glasses of very nice house Champagne and took in the dining room, a lovely wash of desert tones set with fresh orchids and topped with a ceiling of tiny, starry lights.
The waiter came by to explain the menu. You can get two courses for $58 a person, three courses (two appetizers and an entrée) for $75, a six-course tasting menu for $100, or a blind tasting menu for $135. "We have white truffles from Alba," the waiter said, explaining that Cam could also craft a menu with truffles in each course. "$170 a person. It's a beautiful bargain." It sounded more like a bank-account buster to us, so we decided on the three courses.
The waiters brought over two amuse bouche—a tuile cone filled with smoked salmon, then a big bowl of cool carrot soup with carrot sorbet. A pleasant start.
Service, though, was haughty all through the meal. When we asked to hear more about the lobster, our waiter said, "It's the best lobster you'll ever have." Ditto the veal. When a man at a neighboring table told the waiter he thought his wine was too cold, the waiter told him he was wrong.
The waiters mixed up who got what course at our table—every time. Often they stood in clumps, arguing in the middle of the dining room. When we asked for glasses of wine to go with our main courses, nobody ever came to take our order. When my friend told the waiter she didn't like her sea-urchin appetizer, he took it away and didn't say anything else about it.
It made it hard to enjoy Cam's often-terrific cooking. Though the sea urchin tasted fishy, other appetizers were delights. My lobster-claw salad with gazpacho and an avocado terrine was refreshing and bright. Pillowy boudin blanc was matched with decadent fennel purée. Salmon tartare with caviar and crème fraîche was another winner. But after two amuse bouche and two courses, entrées—pigeon breast with dates for me and sea bass stuffed with shrimp mousse for my friend—seemed huge and heavy.
By the time dessert rolled around, we were stuffed. A dry fig tart and an oversize rum sponge cake with coconut ice cream didn't wake us from our food comas.
I'll be back to Le Paradou. But next time I'll avoid the waiters by sitting at the bar and avoid overstuffing myself by making a meal from Cam's lovely appetizers.
Ruth's Chris: Nothing Special
Ruth's Chris Steak House on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda would seem to be a good choice for a special dinner. The place has a clubby decor, and the menu is full of old favorites. Part of an upscale chain, Ruth's Chris also has its roots in New Orleans, the city that never stops celebrating. But a good time begins with good service.
My wife had called weeks in advance and requested a quiet, romantic table to celebrate my birthday. Instead, we were led through a 100-decibel bar to the first table past it. Officially, we'd made the dining room, but we had shouting drinkers just behind us.
At our request, our seater did find us a better table, but that left us at the mercy of a waiter from Planet Woo-Woo. Apart from informing us that our entrée would be broiled at 1,800 degrees and served on a plate heated to 500 degrees—doesn't food vaporize at those temperatures?—he didn't have a clue. When I asked for help choosing a Pinot Noir, he said he had been gone for a week and didn't know the new wine list. He didn't offer to find someone who did.
Happily, the food outshone the service. An appetizer of seared tuna in a ginger-and-mustard sauce was cooked just right. Whether choice beef needs to be slathered with butter is questionable, but the rib-eye steak was very good. My wife's broiled scallops fell short, but because our waiter had confused his appetizer and entrée specials, the size was right. No one goes hungry at Ruth's Chris.
Sides—everything is à la carte—included half portions of a nice chopped salad, a superb bowl of garlicky creamed spinach, and a mound of tasteless deep-fried shoestring potatoes. The Pinot Noir I chose without help, a Byron Reserve from the Sierra Madre Vineyard, was excellent, as it should have been at nearly $80.
Desserts are on the house for birthday and anniversary celebrants. Ours, a cheesecake with delicious berries on the side, was big enough to feed the Redskins' front four. Since this was a special event, we split a Grand Marnier.
A final word on ambience: Ruth's Chris welcomes all comers regardless of dress. The twentysomething near us never took off his baseball cap. Not quite the elegance you might expect at Palm-like prices.
INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON
Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800.
SETTING: Over-the-top luxe.
TOTAL SPENT: $667.
BOB KINKEAD'S COLVIN RUN TAVERN
8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-356-9500.
SETTING: Clubby elegance.
TOTAL SPENT: $190.
Latham Hotel; 3000 M St., Georgetown; 202-625-2150.
SETTING: California modern.
TOTAL SPENT: $565.
L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANÇOIS
332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls; 703-759-3800.
SETTING: Old World charm.
TOTAL SPENT: $245.
1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990.
SETTING: Quiet elegance.
TOTAL SPENT: $177.
2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500.
SETTING: Dramatic and airy.
TOTAL SPENT: $226.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel; 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean; 703-821-1515.
SETTING: Pastoral and posh.
TOTAL SPENT: $330.
3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250.
SETTING: Warm and stylish.
TOTAL SPENT: $238.
7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9860.
SETTING: Colorful and cozy.
TOTAL SPENT: $220.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-1166.
SETTING: European country.
TOTAL SPENT: $191.
7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase; 301-986-5255.
SETTING: French country.
TOTAL SPENT: $130.
LABORATORIO DEL GALILEO
1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191.
SETTING: Intimate kitchen.
TOTAL SPENT: $363.
1226 36th St., Georgetown; 202-965-1789.
SETTING: Old Washington.
TOTAL SPENT: $165.
Mandarin Oriental; 1330 Maryland Ave., SW; 202-554-8588.
SETTING: Asian sleek.
TOTAL SPENT: $360.
678 Indiana Ave., NW; 202-347-6780.
SETTING: Sparkling elegance.
TOTAL SPENT: $292.
RUTH'S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
7315 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-7877.
SETTING: Dark-wood steakhouse.
TOTAL SPENT: $242.