16. Zaytinya ★★★
701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800
Cuisine: Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese classics get the José Andrés treatment at this Penn Quarter mezzeteria: The peripatetic chef amps up the flavors so they’re bolder and brighter, while downsizing the portions so they fit his small-plates format. His protégé, Mike Isabella, recently flamed out on Bravo’s Top Chef. No such problems here—his kitchen is a model of consistency and high quality.
Mood: Soaring ceilings, sharp angles, and sculptural jars of olive oil—for which the restaurant is named—set a downtown vibe, as does the near-constant roar from the packed bar almost every evening.
Best for: Lunch, when the place is less crowded and loud (even better on the patio in warm months); pre-game and pre-theater diners in search of value; groups, which are handled well here.
Best dishes: Htipiti, a spread of red peppers, feta, and fresh thyme; crispy fried eggplant; taramasalata; zucchini-and-cheese fritters; poached salmon with spicy eggplant; veal cheeks with chanterelle-mushroom purée; prawns with Persian-style charred-tomato sauce; salmon shawarma sandwich (lunch only); Greek-yogurt-and-apricot parfait; chocolate visne, a milk-chocolate cream with cherry sorbet; Eros cocktail featuring dried baby roses and honey dust.
Insider tips: The mezze theme carries through to the desserts, which can be ordered regular size and in a smaller mezze portion.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Moderate.
15. Sushi Taro ★★★
1503 17th St., NW; 202-462-8999
Cuisine: With so many American chefs spouting the mantra of seasonal and local, procuring high-quality ingredients is too often regarded as a certain route to great food. In sushi, however, where the quality of fish is directly proportional to the quality of the restaurant, sourcing isn’t just desirable; it’s eminently preferable. Flying in fish from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market, including a host of varieties never seen in this area, DC’s most ambitious sushi restaurant is turning out fresh (and sometimes shockingly expensive) selections of nigiri and sashimi and setting a new standard.
Mood: A serene, high-toned dining room that channels a spa, right down to the music, and is meant to put the focus on what hits the table.
Best for: Sushi fanatics who know that when it comes to quality and freshness, you have to pay to play.
Best dishes: Marinated whole baby octopus, an excursion in texture and funky depths; a dramatic presentation of rich, fat-striated Kobe beef, sliced thin; nigiri of eel, yellowtail, sweet shrimp, and salmon; sashimi of uni (oceanic, rich, creamy), scallop, and the best o-toro in the area; black-sesame brûlée; house-made mochi.
Insider tips: Raw is the way to go here; the cooked tends to be hit or miss (though the hits are big). But if you order à la carte and forgo the omakase menu—in which a chef will devise a special menu for you—you may have to take charge with your server and self-pace your meal; dishes can pile up at the table.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Very expensive.
14. Bistro Bis ★★★
Hotel George, 15 E St., NW; 202-661-2700
Cuisine: Straightforward Gallic classics—onion soup, pots of moules, beef bourguignon—share space with more elaborately sculpted creations. Fashions come and go, restaurants open and close, but proprietor Jeff Buben’s Capitol Hill restaurant endures.
Mood: You’d never know that this plush, honey-toned hotel dining room—the sister to downtown DC’s Vidalia—was a bistro, save for the ceramic moutarde jars and magnums of Moët that line the hallway like an exhibit. Well-heeled Meursault sippers sit banquette-to-banquette with big-name politicos in the dining room; younger staffers nibble cheese plates at the bar.
Best for: Low-key mussels and wine at the bar; dealmaking dinners; a date that you want to seem special but not too extravagant.
Best dishes: Onion soup, peppery and gooey with Gruyère; creamy duck-liver parfait; beet salad, one of the prettiest around; mussels with cider cream; pan-roasted sirloin with a cone of perfect fries; buttery halibut with lobster; baked-to-order apple tart; fig tart with vanilla custard.
Insider tips: Come dessert time, it pays to remember that Bis rolls one of the best cheese carts in town. And though the parade of big spenders seems content to use the hotel’s valet, there’s free parking in the garage across the street daily after 5:30.
Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for breakfast, brunch, and dinner. Very expensive.