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For the past five years, many of the area’s top chefs have been trying to attract a new generation of diners by introducing affordable bar menus and sectioning off parts of their restaurants into casual, no-reservations cafes.
This year two of the area’s most celebrated chefs took the idea a step further by opening lower-priced restaurants separate from their more extravagant flagships. In DC’s Penn Quarter there’s the always-buzzing Central, the brainchild of Citronelle’s Michel Richard. In downtown DC, there’s Brasserie Beck, a bustling, Flemish-style hangout from Marcel’s proprietor Robert Wiedmaier. This year readers voted them their favorite new restaurants and favorite bistros.
Besting the national chains and downtown power stalwarts, Ray’s the Steaks took top-steakhouse honors. Michael Landrum’s stripped-down Arlington dining room—where the most striking decorative element is a pirate’s flag—offers generously cut, excellent-quality meats for well below what you’d pay at most high-end steak restaurants, and sides such as creamed spinach and mashed potatoes are gratis.
This year we asked readers to name their favorite food deal in the area. Answers ranged from pupusas at Samantha’s in Silver Spring to the prix-fixe lunch menus at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill and 2941 in Falls Church to the $24 early-bird special at Dino in DC’s Cleveland Park.
The biggest surprise? Many readers cited L’Auberge Chez François as their favorite food bargain. For the 22nd year, the family-run Alsatian-style cottage in Great Falls is the readers’ choice for best restaurant. It’s also the favorite in the special-occasion, best-service, and most-romantic categories. If a place where entrées start at $59 doesn’t seem like such a deal, consider that the price includes appetizer, salad, entrée, coffee, and dessert—and for the patrons who return year after year to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, plenty of memories.
1. L’Auberge Chez François, Great Falls. The Haeringer family’s welcoming Alsatian dining room wins for the 22nd time.
2. Central Michel Richard, Penn Quarter. French chef Michel Richard’s bustling, for-the-people bistro has lots of fans.
3. Citronelle, Georgetown. And so does the exquisite French cooking at Richard’s Georgetown flagship.
1. Central Michel Richard, Penn Quarter. Where gougères and duck rillettes meet corned-beef sandwiches and fried chicken.
2. Brasserie Beck, downtown DC. There’s much more than moules frites at Robert Wiedmaier’s robust Belgian eatery.
3. Proof, Penn Quarter. Flatbreads and charcuterie complement 40 by-the-glass wines and a rolling cart of Champagnes and other sparklers.
1. L’Auberge Chez François, Great Falls. At 88, owner François Haeringer often still greets patrons at the door, and the rest of the staff is just as gracious.
2. Restaurant Eve, Old Town Alexandria. Crisp, knowledgeable service with a sense of fun.
3. Komi, Dupont Circle. The young waitstaff is as smart and precise as they come.
1. L’Auberge Chez François, Great Falls. Meals made special, whether in the summer garden or amid the Christmas finery.
2. Citronelle, Georgetown. The tasting menu is a grand tour de force.
3. Restaurant Eve, Old Town Alexandria. You’ll feel pampered in both the tasting room and the convivial bistro.
1. L’Auberge Chez François, Great Falls. Clink those Kir Royales amid relaxed Gallic elegance.
2. Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia. An anniversary favorite that doesn’t stint on luxury—or caviar.
3. 1789 Restaurant, Georgetown. A cozy banquette near the fireplace sets a perfect mood.
1. Ray’s the Steaks, Arlington. There’s a line outside this bare-bones dining room for a reason. Two words: hanger steak.
2. Tie: Ruth’s Chris Steak House (three area locations) and Morton’s (six). Both chains offer manly portions and professional service.
3. Charlie Palmer Steak, Capitol Hill. A lobbyist favorite that’s popular for more than just Angus and Wagyu.
1. Five Guys, 42 area locations. It’s everywhere from Florida to New York, but locals still love this homegrown burger spot.
2. Central Michel Richard, Penn Quarter. Not in the mood for beef? This Franco-American bistro also offers lobster, tuna, and shrimp patties.
3. Palena Cafe, Cleveland Park. Frank Ruta’s hand-ground beef burger with truffled cheese is $10 worth of pure bliss.
1. Kinkead’s, Foggy Bottom. Signature dishes range from lunchtime lobster rolls to pepita-crusted salmon.
2. Oceanaire Seafood Room, downtown DC. Everything, from the plates of fresh fish to the baked Alaska, is supersized.
3. McCormick & Schmick’s, eight area locations. This Portland-based chain offers 30-plus varieties of seafood daily.
1. Clyde’s, nine locations. Each of these saloons has a distinct feel, from the brass-laden Georgetown original to a newly opened Loudoun County farmhouse.
2. Tie: Blue Duck Tavern, West End. Hearty, wood-fired meats with pairings such as bourbon-soaked peaches and roasted tomatoes. Carlyle, Shirlington. Winning service and approachable, satisfying comfort food.
3. Artie’s, Fairfax. A comfy family favorite with everything from Tex-Mex egg rolls to Creole pasta.
1. Central Michel Richard, Penn Quarter. Charcuterie, ratatouille, and . . . a banana split? Richard’s bistro is full of surprises.
2. Brasserie Beck, downtown DC. The best seats at this Belgian spot are in front of the action-packed open kitchen.
3. Bistrot du Coin, Dupont Circle. Loud and crowded, with good, cheap steak frites.
1. Ristorante Tosca, Penn Quarter. This expense-account favorite offers ethereal pastas.
2. Filomena, Georgetown. A long list of towering cakes caps off an Italian-American menu.
3. Zeffirelli Ristorante, Herndon. Hearty, Tuscany-inspired cooking.
1. Zaytinya, Penn Quarter. José Andrés’s hip mezzeteria modernizes Greek, Lebanese, and Turkish classics.
2. Lebanese Taverna, five area locations. Fantastic hummus and layered fattehs.
3. Komi, Dupont Circle. Twentysomething chef/owner Johnny Monis is one of the hottest talents in town.
1. Huong Que (Four Sisters), Falls Church. A gracious, orchid-strewn Eden Center dining room.
2. Pho 75, five area locations. Local chefs love to fuel up at these soup spots.
3. Taste of Saigon, Rockville and McLean. Go for lime-marinated steak, lobster salad, and anything with black-pepper sauce.
1. Rasika, Penn Quarter. A gorgeous, amber-lit dining room showcases chef Vikram Sunderam’s creations.
2. Heritage India, Glover Park. Lovely stews and curries, vegetarian and not.
3. Indique, Cleveland Park. A pretty setting for tandoori specialties and tamarind margaritas.
1. Ceiba, downtown DC. Jeff Tunks’s chic Nuevo Latino spot for ceviches and mojitos.
2. Café Atlántico, Penn Quarter. Killer margaritas, guacamole made tableside, and one of the most interesting brunches.
3.Tie: El Pollo Rico, Arlington and Wheaton. The Peruvian-style charbroiled chicken has legions of loyal followers. Fogo de Chao, Penn Quarter. All-you-can-eat gaucho-style beef in an Adamstein & Demetriou–designed dining room.
1. The Diner, Adams Morgan. French toast, bacon, and seven kinds of grilled cheese served around the clock.
2. Ben’s Chili Bowl, U Street. Half-smokes with a side of DC history.
3. Tie: Bistro Français, Georgetown. A three-course late-night special with a glass of wine is $21.95. Amsterdam Falafelshop, Adams Morgan. The fixings bar brims with creative pita toppings.
1. Georgia Brown’s, downtown DC. An all-you-can-eat Southern buffet so generous that most people take their entrées home.
2. Carlyle, Shirlington. Bountiful salads and a winning flourless chocolate waffle.
3. Tabard Inn, Dupont Circle. Sugared yeast doughnuts arrive warm from the fryer.
1. Oya, Penn Quarter. Sultry and sleek, from the crocodile-skin bar to the white-marble walls inlaid with a strip of fire.
2. Mie N Yu, Georgetown. Where else can you sip lychee cocktails while seated in an oversize birdcage?
3. Zaytinya, Penn Quarter. A memorable, dramatic space where cathedral candles twinkle next to walls of glass.
1. CakeLove, U Street, Shirlington, Silver Spring. Warren Brown’s cupcakes are cute, but his caramel brownies are better.
2. Firehook Bakery & Coffeehouse, 11 locations. The layer cakes are office-party staples.
3. Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe, Arlington. German-style breads, breakfast treats, and Black Forest cake.
1. PX, Old Town Alexandria. Restaurant Eve’s Todd Thrasher helms this reservations-only speakeasy, where the fantastic drinks go down dangerously easy.
2. Tie: IndeBleu, Penn Quarter. The downstairs Tantra Lounge is the place for sexy, fruity sips. Clyde’s, nine locations. The bartenders mix a mean martini.
3. Restaurant Eve, Old Town. Boutique liquors are stirred with freshly pressed juices, even house-made tonic.
1. Jaleo, Penn Quarter, Bethesda, Crystal City. José Andrés’s tapas—and carafes of Cava sangría—are perfect for sharing.
2. Zaytinya, Penn Quarter. A meal of mezze can be as quick—or as leisurely—as you want it to be.
3. Sonoma, Capitol Hill. A smartly chosen array of 35 wines is available in tasting portions or full glasses. If that doesn’t break the ice . . . .
1. Bebo Trattoria, Crystal City. The waitstaff, by turns arrogant and spacy, still hasn’t worked out the kinks.
2. Sequoia, Georgetown. You can’t rely just on a postcard view of the Potomac River to get diners. Or can you?
3. San Vito Ristorante Italiano, Ashburn, Herndon, South Riding, Springfield. Service at this family-owned chain has rubbed some diners the wrong way.
1. Citronelle, Georgetown. An off night in the kitchen and sometimes-brusque service can be deflating, especially when the price tag is high.
2. Cafe Milano, Georgetown. Boldface-named regulars get coddled. Everyday folks? Not always.
3. Bebo Trattoria, Crystal City. Roberto Donna’s cooking can be stellar. But inconsistent execution and service problems still mar the experience.
1. Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia. A dinner for two with wine can easily hit the $1,000 mark.
2. BLT Steak, downtown DC. You can fill up on the free popovers and chicken pâté, but this is the home of the $150 Kobe steak.
3. Citronelle, Georgetown. In the mood for a $225 tasting menu?
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This article appeared in the December, 2007 issue of The Washingtonian.