13. Central Michel Richard ★★★
1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-626-0015
Cuisine: Celebrated French chef Michel Richard—the genius behind the whimsically haute Citronelle—puts his spin on American and French comfort food. Where else can you find divine gougères alongside a killer corned-beef sandwich? Or Budweiser and Chassagne-Montrachet?
Mood: The loud, blond-wood dining room, complete with a Warholian portrait of Richard, is as fizzy as a bottle of Veuve. It’s the antithesis of a stuffy power spot, but the Hill crowd likes it anyway.
Best for: Celebrating anything; fans of burgers (there are five kinds on the menu); taking out-of-towners.
Best dishes: Perfectly shucked oysters; mussel chowder; “faux gras” terrine; Gruyère gougères; corned-beef sandwich; an ultra-rich, duxelles-slathered grilled-cheese with a three-cheese béchamel for dipping; light and crisp fried chicken; cheeseburger with cheddar and bacon; macaroni and cheese; a messy but wonderful coconut Pavlova; Richard’s famed, hazelnut-backed riff on a Kit Kat bar.
Insider tips: Just because the fried chicken is inspired by KFC doesn’t mean you can stroll right in—this is one of the town’s toughest reservations.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner (closed Sunday in summer). Expensive.
12. Vidalia ★★★½
1990 M St., NW; 202-659-1990
Cuisine: The shrimp ’n’ grits remains a signature, as does the butter-drenched cornbread, the lemon chess pie, and the superlative mint julep (served ice cold in a derby cup). And yes, the kitchen still shops for its ham and bacon from the Shenandoah and scours the waters of the Carolinas for fresh fish and seafood. But to think of proprietor Jeffrey Buben’s steady veteran as a purely Southern restaurant is to miss the message. The South is a starting point for creative chef R.J. Cooper III and his crew, who love nothing more than to put down-home ingredients in the service of bold, boundary-pushing experiments with form and expectation. For all his explorations, Cooper never forgets the crucial lesson that every Southern grandma knows not to violate: Make it delicious.
Mood: Nobody descends into this low-lit, glass-walled dining room looking for charm—it’s as featureless as the food is intricate. But by the time they settle in and enjoy Cooper’s countrified modernism, even the lawyers and lobbyists stop talking about work.
Best for: Gastronomes who can look past the restaurant’s former reputation as a bastion of Southern comfort and appreciate the singular thing it has become.
Best dishes: The menu changes often, but beyond the shrimp ’n’ grits and lemon chess pie, you can expect loving and lusty twists on the Reuben (with pork belly) and burger, both available at lunch or at the bar; imaginative, full-bodied takes on game (and, of late, goat); and unusually elaborated preparations of fish, including sweet wreckfish and that classic, Dover sole.
Insider tips: The bar menu, though brief, is a good deal—a chance to sample the work of one of the area’s best chefs. And the weeknight happy hour, from 5 to 7—with small snacks and, on Tuesday, free flights from one of the best wine lists in DC—remains a local treasure.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner. Very expensive.
11. Inn at Little Washington ★★★½
309 Middle St., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800
Cuisine: Perhaps no restaurant in the region is more beholden to its reputation than this culinary legend, whose three-plus decades lead you to expect dazzling feats of culinary brilliance. Dinners are not, alas, perfect, and epiphanies are rare. But chef Patrick O’Connell’s obsession with the best ingredients money can buy—witness his liberal use of lobster, caviar, and foie gras—and the playfulness of his kitchen staff make for a night of grand indulgence.
Mood: Tapestries and tassels signal a grown-up experience, a place of hushed tones and earnest servers. But in some rooms, the tables are packed in so tightly that your neighbors are practically your dining partners.
Best for: Foodies looking for another notch on their notable-eats belts; couples celebrating a special occasion.
Best dishes: Tin of Sin, an over-the-top concoction of caviar, crab, and cucumber served in a caviar container; sorrel soup with a duo of custards; a selection of sashimi made up of four distinct presentations of raw fish; a duo of hot and cold foie gras; macaroni and cheese with ham and black truffle; veal sweetbreads; artichoke-filled pasta with braised artichokes; limoncello soufflé with Meyer-lemon ice cream.
Insider tips: Wine lovers might consider arriving early and having a glass on the gorgeous patio while looking over the 94-page wine list. And if you can’t get one of the chef’s tables, ask a server for a tour of the kitchen.
Open daily for dinner; closed some Tuesdays. Very expensive.