4. J&G Steakhouse ★★★½
W Hotel, 515 15th St., NW; 202-661-2440
Cuisine: The name is a hedging of bets from one of the world’s culinary superstars; this is no more a steakhouse than Citronelle is a diner. That’s not to say you can’t get a porterhouse—just that you’d do well to forgo the slabs of beef; the pleasures of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s 27th restaurant are to be found in the casual brilliance of the soups and salads, in the note-perfect preparations of fish and seafood, and in the kitchen’s mastery of detail, which transforms otherwise familiar-sounding dishes into quiet masterpieces.
Mood: The soaring, white-walled space summons a classic old European hotel, minus the formality—a sophisticated and relaxed setting for meals attended by some of the best, most professional servers in DC.
Best for: A meal of elegance and refinement that, unlike many big-ticket restaurants working at a similarly high level, won’t soak you.
Best dishes: Perfectly shucked chilled oysters on the half shell; delicate corn ravioli with an iridescent basil purée; seared tilefish; one of the most gorgeously fried calamari dishes we’ve ever tried; rewarding renditions of crabcake and burger; poached peach with pistachio ice cream and Champagne sabayon; molten chocolate cake, as designed by the man who invented the dish.
Insider tips: Downstairs is the Cellar, a low-ceilinged bar and cafe where you can sample the restaurant’s excellent wine list and enjoy a number of the same dishes served upstairs.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Expensive.
3. The Source ★★★½
575 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-637-6100
Cuisine: “Pan-Asian” has become so ubiquitous a term that it conjures trepidation on the part of many food lovers, whose stomachs tighten at the thought of another ill-begotten mishmash of Western proteins and Eastern spices and sauces. No such worries at this confident outpost of Wolfgang Puck’s culinary empire. Puck didn’t invent the genre, but he knows what works and what doesn’t, and he also knows the key is to achieve a synthesis, to produce a kind of exotic neither/nor. His protégé, Scott Drewno, executes the master’s vision with a light touch and oversees a remarkably consistent operation.
Mood: Hollywood by way of the Potomac: cocktail waitresses in short black dresses, a moodily lit lounge-style space, classic rock from the sound system, and swarms of beautiful people congregating at the downstairs bar. Upstairs is a little less electric—and a little less exciting.
Best for: A stylish night out with friends; a blowout meal full of moan-inducing moments.
Best dishes: The best dumplings in the area, delicately fashioned and stuffed with chopped pork belly; perfect mini-burgers; a magnificent crispy fried bass, fileted tableside; Arctic char accented with Indian spices and a cool, vivid raita; plump prawns in a zesty Indian curry; glazed lamb chops with a mint-coriander sauce, the best lamb dish in town; blueberry crumble.
Insider tips: You can order anything from the regular menu in the downstairs lounge. Alternatively, you can mix and match from the two menus, cobbling together a high/low meal of, for instance, sliders and whole fried fish.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner. Very expensive.
2. Minibar ★★★★
405 Eighth St., NW (inside Café Atlántico); 202-393-0812
Cuisine: Thirty miniature courses—some a spoonful or a spritz—of celebrity chef José Andrés’s gastronomic alchemy. Olive oil is transformed into a bonbon; a beet is spun into tumbleweeds. Andrés turns familiar dishes inside out and upside down—you’ll never look at chicken wings or cheesesteaks the same way again.
Mood: There are only six seats at this counter on the second floor of Café Atlántico, and diners are served by two or three chefs. You’ll likely have questions—what’s the secret behind those edible gumdrop wrappers?—and the chefs encourage a spirited back-and-forth. Imagine two hours of culinary thrills mixed with the coolest science class around.
Best for: Curious eaters, lovers of theater, foodies in search of something new. Note: This isn’t volume eating, although we’ve always left sated.
Best dishes: The menu is set each night (tell the restaurant about allergies in advance), but a core of hit dishes, including foie gras swabbed in cotton candy and the fabulously drippy “cheesesteak,” often appear.
Insider tips: This may be Washington’s toughest seat to come by. Reservations for the two nightly seatings are taken one month to the day in advance beginning at 10 am. If you have your heart set on a certain date, treat it like getting Springsteen tickets and have several friends try to get through at once. Sometimes reservations are gone in minutes.
Two dinner seatings Tuesday through Saturday. Very expensive.