46. Mourayo ★★½
1732 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-667-2100
Cuisine: It used to be that the flaming cheese known as saganaki—lit tableside—delivered most of the excitement in going out to eat Greek. At this cozy bistro, the drama is quieter but more intriguing. It offers a modern makeover of a traditional, often heavy cuisine—from the liberal use of Greek wines and ouzos in dishes to the focus on native cheeses. Even better, for all of the refinement, the cooking still retains an essential gutsiness.
Mood: A dynamic ceramic sculpture anchors the back wall, while flashes of dark Aegean blue, glossy wood, and servers dressed in captain’s hats and stripes lend the narrow room a nautical feel. With a recent expansion, there’s now a bar area plus a handful of additional tables. The best part about the renovation? A new entrance means no more blasts of frigid air in the main dining room.
Best for: A night of intense flavors and conversation.
Best dishes: Crisp butternut-squash keftedes, a sort of vegetable meatball with sesame seeds and raisin paste; nicely charred octopus with octopus-ink vinaigrette; an elegant moussaka with duck, eggplant, and kefalotyri cheese; grilled whole fish, especially the branzino.
Insider tips: Some platters, such as the symposium edesmata, a lineup of dips, are a mixed bag, with stellar (fava-bean purée; tzatziki; tyrokafteri, a spicy feta-and-hot-pepper spread) and not-so-stellar (hummus, skordalia, taramasalata) items. If you ask nicely, the kitchen has been known to let you order individual items or make substitutions.
Open Monday for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.
45. Cava ★★½
527 Eighth St., SE, 202-543-9090; 9713 Traville Gateway Dr., Rockville, 301-309-9090
Cuisine: If all you know about Greek food comes by way of family-style diners trading on heaping portions of moussaka, these cozy mezzeterias—the creation of three Rockville natives and longtime friends—will be revelatory. They straddle the lines between authenticity and modernity, between lightness and heartiness.
Mood: The slinky hostess in her cocktail dress could have come straight from a hot club; the waitstaff wears jeans and black T-shirts. Those polarities define these brick-walled, bare-tabled restaurants, which have a good deal more heart and soul than a first glance suggests.
Best for: Big groups of friends; a night of dining where you can feel free to roll up your sleeves and get your napkin messy.
Best dishes: Spicy lamb sliders with tzatziki; olive-oil-drenched squares of watermelon with mint and feta; zesty, grandmother-style meatballs in tomato sauce; a tangy, full-bodied avgolemono soup; Disco Fries, a sort of Greek sloppy joe, with cinnamon-spiced braised lamb spilling over crispy French fries; superbly thick Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts; loukoumades, or Greek doughnuts.
Insider tips: Portions are bigger and often heartier than at most small-plates spots, usually falling somewhere between a standard appetizer and an entrée—nearly twice the size of a tapa.
DC location open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch and dinner. Rockville location open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner. Moderate.
44. Johnny’s Half Shell ★★½
400 N. Capitol St., NW; 202-737-0400
Cuisine: Traditional doesn’t have to mean hidebound. Nor does a rarely changing menu have to be synonymous with a kitchen that has grown stale. Happily, neither is the case at Ann Cashion’s culinary tour of the Chesapeake and Gulf Coast, where fish and seafood are front and center and the chef, a James Beard Award winner, recedes into the background. More than a restaurant, Johnny’s is a celebration of values that may seem to have gone out of fashion amid a rapidly changing restaurant scene: rooted cooking, simplicity of design, consistency of execution.
Mood: A classic oyster house, from the tiled floor to the white-jacketed waiters to the rolling laughter at the bar. A magnet for the House and Senate (the Capitol is visible from out front), whose staffers flock to the bar after work, the place manages to remain above the political fray—a tribute, perhaps, to the power of good food and drink to diminish what divides us.
Best for: All those who turn away from the increasingly ambitious ingredient lists of some local restaurants, with their many foams and powders and essences.
Best dishes: A roasted-beet-and-cucumber salad with smoked sturgeon and a delicate caviar parfait; charbroiled Chesapeake oysters; made-to-order oyster stew; the best gumbo in the area; Maryland crabcakes; spicy whole lobster with drawn butter and fresh shell beans; a sigh-inducing coconut cream pie, one of the best desserts around.
Insider tips: On Fridays in summer, the restaurant brings back its remarkable barbecue crabs—good-size hard-shells from Crisfield that are cut in two and dredged in Gulf Coast spices. They’re served on the outdoor patio, where a jazz trio plays.
Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Expensive.