76. Black’s Bar and Kitchen ★★½
7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-5525
Cuisine: You never quite know what you’ll find at Jeff and Barbara Black’s Zen-slick suburban dining room. Sure, there will always be the solid raw bar and reliable wood-fired steaks and seafood. But beyond that, the ever-changing menu might skitter from fried chicken and waffles to white-bean-and-prosciutto bruschetta to plantain-crusted shrimp with mango salsa.
Mood: With its twinkling pool out front and mood-lit dining room inside, Black’s stands out among its neighboring chain restaurants. It’s the closest Bethesda gets to a Malibu brand of chicness and, not surprisingly, has become a magnet for expensively groomed thirtysomethings with a taste for $10 Dark and Stormys. But it’s not all see-and-be-seen: Look beneath the arty mural of a vineyard and you’ll see plenty of casual families and empty-nesters.
Best for: An oyster craving; happy hour; a date or catch-up with friends; late-night dessert.
Best dishes: Squares of airy cornbread with honey butter; mussels with tomato, lemon, and shallot; well-shucked oysters on the half shell (we lean toward the West Coast varieties); hanger steak with chimichurri or béarnaise; fried chicken with pecans and sweet-potato waffles; a spicy, saffron-scented stew packed with mussels, prawns, and other seafood and served with aïoli-slathered toasts; salty-caramel trio (with a dreamy caramel tart); Key-lime pie.
Insider tips: The blond-wood bar room is an equally comfortable place to sit, especially in the booths for two. Happy-hour specials abound, with early- and late-night deals. Sunday is half-price wine-bottle night.
Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch and dinner. Expensive.
75. Liberty Tavern ★★½
3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-9360
Cuisine: Robust American comfort cooking with Italian accents. Much is made in-house, from the sweet rolls in the bread basket to the egg noodles on the pasta menu to the marshmallow atop an upscale take on s’mores. Note to the waist-conscious: Nearly every dish celebrates duck fat, bacon, butter, or cheese, and portions are hearty.
Mood: The walk-in-friendly Clarendon restaurant has a split personality. The loud downstairs bar swarms with young people noshing on grilled cheeses and drinking up a storm. The second-floor dining room, with its cozy striped banquettes and open kitchen, feels more civilized.
Best for: A casual date or pizza with friends downstairs, a quieter meal upstairs.
Best dishes: Arctic char, smoked in-house and folded over johnnycakes; apple-and-endive salad, heavy on the blue cheese and bacon; fiery fra diavolo macaroni with fresh lobster; autumnal gnocchi with celery root and blue cheese; Vermont pizza with white cheddar and apples; skirt steak covered in tangy steak sauce; schnitzel-style skate, its richness cut with lingonberry sauce; homey roasted half chicken with lemon marmalade; light but decadent Black Forest cake; s’mores pot de crème; Masonic cocktail, a citrusy take on a mint julep.
Insider tips: Liberty is among the better takeout options in the area, particularly for a fine-dining establishment—a dedicated window in the back of the restaurant makes it convenient.
Open Monday for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.
74. Potenza ★★½
1430 H St., NW; 202-638-4444
Cuisine: DC has no Little Italy, and its best Italian restaurants have long been tasteful spots for expense accounts or luxe destinations for foodies. This newcomer thus represents a bold departure—an unassuming, big-hearted place where you can dunk your bread into your red sauce, a pizza can constitute the basis for a meal, and glasses of wine come in tumblers.
Mood: One part Carnegie Deli, one part Little Italy: a loud, sometimes chaotic space that practically demands you raise your voice to be heard and where flagging down your waiter is sometimes as tough as hailing a cab at rush hour. But there’s warmth, too, and the sight of diners heartily digging in is a welcome sight.
Best for: A come-as-you-are night of pretense-free Italian indulgence.
Best dishes: Rigatoni With Sunday Gravy, the very definition of red-sauce Italian; pappardelle with red Bolognese; a plate of gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cream sauce that steers clear of overrichness and is garnished with toasted walnuts; a lightly fried, almost delicate pork Milanese; the Salame Picante, the best of the surprisingly good, crisp-crusted pizzas; the best cannoli in the area; a perfect-textured lemon panna cotta; gorgeous bombolini (Italian doughnuts) with a side of jelly.
Insider tips: Don’t skimp on bread; the loaves come from the adjoining bakery and are among the highlights of eating here. But also try to back-load your meal, saving room for the simple and generally wonderful desserts.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for brunch and dinner. Moderate.