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→ The 2009 Foodie In and Out List
→ 100 Best Photo Slideshow
This year’s list of 100 best restaurants arrives at a precarious time: The stock market is down, the real-estate market is soft, and many consumers are more likely to chew their nails than to chew a $46 porterhouse. A year ago, the area’s top dining destinations were jammed midweek; now you can count empty tables, and restaurants are handing out promotions like supermarket specials. For many people, going out feels more like a splurge than it did last year.
You could say that an issue devoted to great dining is out of step with the cautious times. Or you could say that dining advice matters more than ever. After all, if you’re going to spend good money, you want to know which restaurants are worth it.
As we have for the past two years, we’ve awarded stars, and we’ve also ranked restaurants from 1 to 100. Identifying the top 100 takes the better part of a year and requires countless visits to restaurants across the region. The places that earned a spot on this list did so with memorable cooking. If the food didn’t move us, we moved on—despite whatever else a restaurant had going for it. Atmosphere, whether lively or soothing, can enhance an experience but almost never makes up for dull cooking.
Beyond the plate, we looked for warmth and generosity of spirit, an attentiveness that makes a diner feel not just served but also cared for.
Because of the times, we put a higher premium than usual on value, bearing in mind that an inexpensive restaurant isn’t necessarily a great value, just as an expensive one isn’t necessarily a poor value.
The questions we asked—does a place deliver what it promises, and does it attain all it reaches for?—are the same ones many of you ask when you contact us looking for help with a big date, anniversary celebration, or other special occasion. These 100 restaurants all answer in the affirmative.
>> See our photo slideshow of dishes from this year's 100 Best Restaurants
Want to write your own reviews for area restaurants? Check out our new reader restaurant review tool.
100 Marvin ★★
2007 14th St., NW | 202-797-7171
Cuisine: DC legend Marvin Gaye is the inspiration for a menu that veers from Belgium (he lived there for two years) to the American South. The big plates of fried chicken and waffles that seem to sail endlessly out of the kitchen’s window every night are well worth ordering; otherwise we’ve had better luck with the Euro side of the menu.
Mood: Owned by the guys behind Local 16 and 18th Street Lounge, this hangout stays jammed on weekends, in both the rooftop bar and the downstairs bistro. The dining room exudes a smoky brand of cool with raw light bulbs and a reggae soundtrack that competes with the laughter and conversation.
Best for: Dinner with friends who value scene as much as food; a meal before hitting the bars on U Street; Belgian-beer aficionados.
Best dishes: Frisée-and-watercress salad with apples, Roquefort, and lardons; seared foie gras over caramelized onions; French fries with three dipping sauces; chicken and waffles, that Harlem Renaissance–era classic; seared halibut in beurre blanc; bacon-topped burger on a brioche bun.
Insider tips: Appetizers are sized for sharing, as are desserts, although the sweets we tried—pumpkin cheesecake, profiteroles—were skippable. After dinner, head to the roof, where heat lamps and bottles of Delirium Tremens keep revelers toasty in winter.
Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Moderate.
99 Jackson’s Mighty Fine Food ★★
11927 Democracy Dr., Reston | 703-437-0800
Cuisine: Nostalgic comfort food from the Great American Restaurants group. The kitchen puts out original dishes—deviled eggs with sugared bacon, lemon “marshmallow meringue” pie—but there are plenty of the chain’s classics, such as the flourless chocolate waffle.
Mood: The restaurant pays homage to the memory of the late chef Bill Jackson, with both a Norman Rockwell–style painting and a letter board listing all his nicknames (“Charmer”) and favorite things (wasabi). All-booth seating and cheery service keep diners happy.
Best for: A relaxed, not-too-expensive date; dinner with a picky eater; a kid-friendly meal.
Best dishes: Deviled eggs with sugared bacon and pecans; pimiento-cheesy red-pepper dip and guacamole; lobster mac and cheese; field greens with warm goat cheese and spiced pecans; crab cakes; sea bass with a gingery soy broth; lemon meringue pie with a graham-cracker crust; flourless chocolate waffle.
Insider tips: The restaurant looks big, but it fills up quickly—call ahead to put your name on the waiting list. Portions are generous and easy to share.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Moderate.
98 Acadiana ★★
901 New York Ave., NW | 202-408-8848
Cuisine: Butter, cream, cheese, and bacon super-charge nearly every dish—even the salads—at Jeff Tunks’s homage to Louisiana cooking.
Mood: With drab carpeting and embroidered rose-colored banquettes, the subdued dining room feels more DC buttoned down than New Orleans jazzed up. That’s okay by the lobbyists and lawyers who have turned it into a second office.
Best for: Dealmaking; cholesterol-be-damned indulgence; Sazeracs and gin fizzes at the bar.
Best dishes: Fried green tomatoes in tangy shrimp rémoulade; a beef-filled turnover with black-pepper-ranch dipping sauce; deviled eggs topped with pickled shrimp, crab, and ham; charbroiled oysters in garlicky butter; seafood gumbo; pepper-jelly-glazed half duck; barbecue shrimp; lunchtime oyster and shrimp po’ boys; chocolate doberge cake with orange-blossom ice cream; Pimm’s-cup cocktail.
Insider tips: During weekday happy hour, many cocktails are discounted to $5. Ask the bartender for a bread basket—excellent buttermilk biscuits with pepper jelly and cream cheese—to nibble on. Many dishes, especially charbroiled oysters, the trio of pies, and barbecue shrimp, are big enough to share.
Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch. Expensive.
97 Surfside ★★
2444 Wisconsin Ave., NW | 202-337-0004
Cuisine: Fajitas, quesadillas, and some of the best tacos in town are done with freshness and flair. Limes and pineapples sizzle on the grill, the guacamole is made with extra-virgin olive oil, and the ginger beer is imported from Bermuda. David Scribner, who presides behind the “open line” in a spotless chef’s coat, prepares much of the fare himself. Check the specials board for his more ambitious dishes.
Mood: A come-as-you-are hangout crammed with prepsters downing margaritas. Whirring ceiling fans and a beachy mural make it feel like summer year-round. When the weather does warm up, the upstairs deck is a nice hideaway.
Best for: Fast, healthy dinners (the craft-your-own salad selection is excellent); fast, indulgent dinners (the lime sour cream is deliriously good); takeout.
Best dishes: Guacamole; tacos overstuffed with shrimp and pineapple or grilled fish and corn salsa; vegetable quesadilla filled with mushrooms and spinach; steak quesadilla to be dunked in lime sour cream; salads with green-goddess or honey-peanut dressing; grilled fish of the day with gingery green curry; scallops with cider brown-butter, a Scribner signature that occasionally shows up as a special.
Insider tips: Burritos are skippable—they’re more starchy than spicy. The cheap fare makes for great takeout, and the restaurant now offers curbside pickup service.
Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch and dinner. Inexpensive.
96 Founding Farmers ★★
1924 Pennsylvania Ave., NW | 202-822-8783
Cuisine: Bob’s Big Boy meets trendy bistro. Produce is trucked in daily from a nationwide collective of farmers, and the menu covers more ground than a roadhouse diner—soups, salads, fish, steaks and chops, cheese plates, cocktails, and a slate of wines. Portions are big, and prices make you think you’re dining in the country, not three blocks from the White House.
Mood: The two-level space can best be described as barnyard chic—urban industrial touches are leavened most memorably by a collection of pickled produce. Young professionals at the bar give the front of the house a party air.
Best for: A comfort-food pick-me-up.
Best dishes: Skillet cornbread; fried chicken with waffles and a side of mac and cheese; rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes; “fisherman’s pasta” in broth for two; the 17-vegetable salad (big enough for three); buttermilk pancakes and eggs.
Insider tips: The big, home-style breakfasts are of the sort you wouldn’t expect to find in the city. Forgo an order of pancakes and get them on the side—you’ll still get three.
Open Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Saturday for dinner, Sunday for brunch, lunch, and dinner. Moderate.
95 Faryab ★★
4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda | 301-951-3484
Cuisine: The area’s best Afghan cooking—terrific renditions of steamed leek- and beef-filled dumplings, sweet and subtly spiced rice pallows, and stellar vegetarian stews.
Mood: The hushed dining room feels like the anti-Bethesda restaurant—no banquettes, no trendy light fixtures. Still, reservations are usually a must on weekends.
Best for: Groups; vegetarians; anyone in need of sustenance and sanctuary.
Best dishes: Steamed dumplings known as aushak (with leeks) and mantu (with beef), served with yogurt and mint; bulanee kachalu, lightly fried dumplings filled with ground beef and potatoes; qualibi pallow, raisin-studded rice with tender hunks of lamb; chalow kadu, stewed pumpkin smothered with yogurt; chalow bademjan, a flavorful eggplant stew.
Insider tips: It’s hard to think of an Afghan meal without kebabs, but you can skip them here. They tend to be dry and don’t match the excitement of the vegetarian stews.
Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. Inexpensive.