Navigating the Chains
Everything’s bigger in Texas, so supersize portions reign at this rowdy chain. The bars might be packed with margarita drinkers, but the colorful dining rooms—and the shredded-cheese-laden fare—are as kid-friendly as it gets; little ones even eat free on Tuesday nights off a special menu.
What to get: Chili con queso punched up with dark beer; dry-rubbed chicken wings; generously topped Longhorn nachos; fajitas with shrimp or skirt steak; the Cadillac Margarita, a smooth version of the house cocktail.
Six area locations. Inexpensive.
These classy spaces with handsome bars, lots of polished dark wood, and comfortable booths are filled with families and groups often celebrating something. Some locations have become so popular that they’ve started taking reservations.
What to get: Fish is flown in fresh every day, so anything grilled—salmon, sea bass, mahi mahi—is a good bet with the lemony “virgin Mediterranean” sauce. Watch for specials such as fried oysters with tangy rémoulade for dipping.
Multiple Maryland and Virginia locations. Moderate.
The original outpost in DC’s Cleveland Park—which has the best kitchen—attracts a power crowd, McLean pulls in Tysons-area shoppers, and Bethesda is a family scene and a pre- and postmovie stop. White butcher paper on the tables, glossy wood booths, and market umbrellas on the patio give the place a raffish style.
What to get: Fire-roasted-tomato soup; roasted beets with blood-orange vinaigrette; grilled-tilapia BLT; lamb and goat cheese on sourdough; pan-roasted sea bass over grilled corn with beurre blanc; the house hamburger.
3228 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-686-2233; 4910 Elm St., Bethesda, 301-656-3121; 1800 International Dr., McLean, 703-761-0600. Inexpensive to moderate.
Owned by the Great American Restaurants group, this swank Shirlington Village spot fizzes with energy. The deco-cool space is cushy, the service friendly and smart, and the menu a crowd pleaser. The drawback? The popular restaurant doesn’t take dinner reservations, so it’s best to call ahead to put your name on the waiting list.
What to get: Lobster pot stickers with ginger butter; salt-and-pepper fried calamari; a cheesy, peppery Caesar salad; sesame-crusted-tuna salad with sticky rice and soy-lime vinaigrette; plump crab cakes with skinny fries and slaw; Hong-Kong–style sea bass; chicken paillard over angel-hair pasta; chipotle-glazed pork tenderloin; flourless chocolate waffle.
4000 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-931-0777. Moderate.
Conversation is usually at a roar in these all-over-the-culinary-map cafes. The enormous menu has lots of what has come to be known as light fare, which draws a cross section of diners seeking a festive meal at minimal expense.
What to get: Many plates suffer from too much sauce, breading, or seasoning, but signatures such as Roadside Sliders (mini-burgers with grilled onions and pickles), fire-roasted artichoke, fried calamari, house-made soups, made-to-order guacamole, and classic sour-cream-topped cheesecake are reliable.
Seven area locations. Inexpensive to moderate.
Whether it’s retro travel (Chevy Chase) or rustic fishing camp (Alexandria and Rockville), Clyde’s has a different look in each locale. Menus straddle old and new with a nod to farm-fresh and well-priced monthly specials, but beware of anything fusiony.
What to get: Pear-and-frisée salad; hot steak salad with feta; turkey burger; Parmesan-crusted trout; Wagyu pot roast with root vegetables; monthly specials of crab cakes, lobster, rockfish, and filet mignon; seasonal produce specials.
Nine area locations. Inexpensive to moderate.
With chandeliers that look as though they were pulled from a Hemingway estate sale, these dining rooms—part of the Great American Restaurants chain—are full of thoughtful touches: all-booth seating, soda refills before you ask, and a bread basket brimming with savory doughnut holes and fresh cheese bread. The fusiony menu pulls inspiration from the Atlantic shoreline but also from the Yucatán, Hong Kong, and beyond.
What to get: Crab-and-rock-shrimp fritters in ginger butter; goat-cheese salad with pecans and cranberries; fried salt-and-pepper shrimp on a grilled bun; steamed sea bass in soy and sherry; tangy smoked beef ribs; plump crab cakes; banana pudding; chocolate waffle.
Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-356-1440; 11901 Grand Commons Ave., Fairfax, 571-522-6300. Moderate.
Hard Times Cafe
The mythic West is celebrated at these chili parlors where cowboy art papers the walls and tunes run to country crooners. Large quantities of filling fare at rock-bottom prices make these terra-cotta-tiled cafes appealing to the young, and some locations have live music and pool tables.
What to get: Texas chili with coarse chopped beef; Cincinnati chili spiked with cinnamon over spaghetti or not; chili burgers; Coney Island dogs; sliders; Frito chili pie; root-beer floats.
Ten Maryland and Virginia locations (pool tables in Fairfax, Herndon, Springfield, and Woodbridge). Inexpensive.
Legal Sea Foods
These schooner-chic dining rooms—spawned 50 years ago from a Cambridge, Massachusetts, fish market—are still satisfying the cravings of homesick New Englanders with shore classics and a well-priced wine list. A newer addition: full menus for diners with gluten allergies.
What to get: Extra-thick New England clam chowder; steamers; lobster salad with plenty of black pepper on a buttered bun; fried clams; steamed lobsters plain or as part of the lobster-bake dinner.
DC (Penn Quarter), 202-347-0007; Arlington, 703-415-1200; McLean, 703-827-8900; Bethesda, 301-469-5900. Moderate to expensive.
With dark wood, vintage black-and-white photos, Sinatra on the speakers, and Southern Italian cooking, Maggiano’s aims for that Little Italy feel. And when you’re sitting amid the large family groups and clusters of friends who frequent the place, it’s easy to feel a whole lotta love.
What to get: Plates such as whole roast chicken marinated in rosemary and garlic, Italian pot roast over noodles, and crisp Vesuvio potatoes hold the most appeal. Pasta tends to be overcooked, and the red sauces don’t have the sweet tanginess you’d expect in a place that wants it to seem as though Mama cooked it all.
5333 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-966-5500; Tysons Galleria, 703-356-9000. Inexpensive to expensive.
McCormick & Schmick’s
The menus at these seafood dining rooms tout their “fresh list,” a daily roster of 30 or so varieties of fresh catches. Decor varies—the Bethesda outpost is wood-paneled and clubby, the one in DC’s Penn Quarter more modern—but the corporate polish remains the same.
What to get: The menu changes often, but you’ll have the best luck with simple preparations—iced Beausoleil and Kumamoto oysters; steamed lobster; crunchy fried shrimp with cocktail sauce; fried oysters with slaw; just-tart-enough Key-lime pie.
Eight area locations. Moderate to expensive.
Cal-Italian trailblazer Wolfgang Puck may have just opened a restaurant in Washington, but this airy trattoria chain has been pushing feta-topped pizzas here since the 1980s. The late-night hours and fruity cocktails attract a Euro crowd, especially at the original Georgetown location. Our favorite part? The free bowl of green-olive tapenade that kicks off every meal.
What to get: Tortellini Rose, Gorgonzola-stuffed pasta in a prosciutto-flecked tomato-cream sauce; bruschetta with tomatoes and goat cheese; watermelon-and-feta salad; grilled espresso-rubbed steak salad with Gorgonzola and crunchy haricots verts; frozen peach Bellini with fresh mint.
1303 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 202-333-7353; 11898 Market St., Reston, 703-318-8920. Moderate.
Oversize statues of emperors are meant to evoke 11th-century China in these spaces that would feel like museums if you turned the sound off. But the sound is never off. Classic rock and conversational din bounce off the hard surfaces and make for a loud, buzzy scene.
What to get: Spiced-chicken lettuce wraps; steamed shrimp dumplings; wok-seared ribs Chang’s style or Northern style with five-spice salt; lemon-pepper shrimp with chives; Chengdu spiced lamb with cumin and mint; stir-fried eggplant with scallions and chilis.
Arlington, 703-527-0955; McLean, 703-734-8996; Fairfax, 703-266-2414; North Bethesda, 301-230-6933; Columbia, 410-730-5344. Inexpensive to moderate.
Red Rock Canyon Grill
Local branches of this Oklahoma-based chain are filled with Southwestern accents. Some dishes nod in that direction; others are more standard chain fare—spinach-and-artichoke dip, crab cakes.
What to get: The rotisserie chicken is flavorful and juicy, and meat on the barbecue ribs falls off the bone, so try the Cluck-n-Oink platter. Don’t miss the jalapeño-studded cornbread, baked and served in a skillet. The short-smoked salmon and desserts are less rewarding.
928 Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring, 301-589-1330; 100 Boardwalk Pl. (in the Washingtonian Center), Gaithersburg, 240-631-0003; 5815 Trinity Pkwy., Centreville, 703-830-6600. Moderate.
Rio Grande Cafe
The newer of these Tex-Mex eateries are done in bold fiesta colors and have the look of haciendas complete with patios. That patio may feel like a refuge because noise levels indoors—where twentysomethings crowd the bar and families fill the dining room—can get deafening.
What to get: Little here duplicates what you’d find in the West or Southwest, but the classic margarita is nicely made, and the most satisfying plates are guacamole and chips, smoky pork ribs grilled over mesquite, chicken and beef fajitas, and Friday’s Mexican-style shrimp-and-lobster soup.
Arlington, 703-528-3131; Fairfax, 703-266-7760; Reston, 703-904-0703; Bethesda, 301-656-2981; Gaithersburg, 240-632-2150. Inexpensive to moderate.
Wood beams and Native American folk art give these large dining rooms—part of the local Great American chain—a rustic feel. Beers are handcrafted, and the food is American comfort cooking in lumberjack-size portions. Besides regulation drafts of beer, flights with five tiny glasses of different brews for sampling are also available.
What to get: creamy corn-and-crab chowder; crunchy chophouse salad with buttermilk dressing; hickory burger; roast chicken with brown-butter sauce; prime rib with house-made horseradish (you have to ask for it); rib eye marinated in pale ale; loaded baked potato; mashed Red Bliss potatoes; sweet-potato fries; deep-dish apple pie.
3066 Gatehouse Plaza, Falls Church, 703-645-8100; 14250 Sweetwater La., Centreville, 703-449-1100; 45980 Waterview Plaza, Sterling, 571-434-6500. Inexpensive to moderate.
Ted’s Montana Grill
With mahogany paneling, leather booths, and elegant bars, these restaurants—owned by mogul Ted Turner—have the feel of pricier steakhouses.
What to get: Choose between free-range beef and leaner, heart-healthier bison for steaks and burgers. On the roster of sides, zone in on crisp salt-and-pepper onion rings with a creamy horseradish dipping sauce. Ask about the dessert of the day—it might be the “nutty apple crisp,” a wide bowl of fresh sliced apples, streusel, and pecans baked to order.
Alexandria, 703-960-0500; Crystal City, 703-416-8337; Ballston, 703-741-0661; Sterling, 703-444-8611. Moderate.
The banquettes stay crowded at this three-month-old supper-clubby steakhouse, but it’s more about the jazzy scene than the food. A porterhouse looks wonderfully crusty but lacks meaty flavor; ditto the filet mignon. You have a choice of six thick crusts—such as bleu cheese or horseradish—but they’re bland, too.
What to get: A deep bowl of onion soup; goat cheese baked with tomatoes and basil; a thick slab of prime rib; Key-lime pie.
Tysons Galleria, McLean; 703-442-9110. Expensive.
Not much has changed at the “new” Houston’s in Bethesda, recently rechristened the Woodmont Grill but still owned by the parent company. There’s a glitzy new sign and a sleek granite bar, but regulars who wait for tables even on weeknights can rest easy—the fare is much the same.
What to get: Classics such as the grilled artichoke, spinach dip, grilled-chicken salad with peanut dressing, and hearty veggie burger are still reliable. New picks include a salad of pan-seared scallops with beets, a 22-ounce bone-in rib eye, and grilled loup de mer.