Let’s face it: Going out to eat on Valentine’s Day can be a hassle, and an expensive one at that. Plus, what says “I love you” in Washingtonian-ese like eating a delicious meal in front of the season premiere of House of Cards? Thankfully, you don’t have to be a master chef to whip up a Valentine’s-worthy spread. Skip elaborate recipes and focus on ingredients—steamed lobsters, buttery steaks—whip up a one-pot dinner, or let chefs and shops lend a hand with prepared ingredients. Here’s where to start.
Lobster, live or steamed
Lobster appears on most high-end restaurants’ menus on Valentine’s Day, but it’s easy—and often cheaper—to crack claws at home. BlackSalt Fish Market is a longtime go-to, and will sell the crustaceans live or freshly steamed for no extra charge. If you really want to impress, pick up an order of caviar or freshly shucked oysters, as well; a simple green salad and melted butter for dunking are just as pleasing (try this herb butter for a little twist). Luke’s Lobster in Georgetown ships live crustaceans from Maine (orders must be placed by Wednesday for Friday pick-up), and also sells the meat for homemade lobster rolls. Looking for delivery? Legal Sea Foods ships V-Day lobster packages for two overnight with live or pre-cooked crustaceans, bisque, desserts, and more. The Boston-based company may be a chain, but the freshness of its seafood is typically top-notch.
Chefs always talk about letting simple ingredients shine, and there’s no reason home cooks can’t do the same. Quality is key for a centerpiece-worthy hunk of meat. Stellar options that come to mind: “tomahawk” steaks (bone-in rib eyes) from Red Apron Butchery at Union Market and the Mosaic District, the Organic Butcher of McLean’s standing rib roast, and dry-aged New York strips from Whole Foods (seriously, like butter). Need a hand with cooking? Society Fair in Alexandria carries wonderful raw meats, but also prepares Valentine’s packages. The same is true with the Butcher’s Block nearby—think marinated rack of lamb and chocolate mousse cake—and Stachowski’s Market in Georgetown, which makes meals like slow-cooked prime rib with baked potatoes and Caesar salad.
Fondue for two—or, even better, raclette
Fondue is a little cheesy—in a couple of ways—but always fun and incredibly satisfying on these freezing nights. If you don’t feel like grating, try picking up the pre-shredded packages from the Swiss Bakery shops in Springfield and Burke, Virginia. The house blend of cheeses such as Appenzeller and Gruyère is as good as any you could make, and you can also pick up fresh breads and sausages for dunking, as well as a selection of Swiss and French wines. I also love raclette, a Swiss delicacy where diners melt raclette cheese at the table and scrape the bubbly fromage over steamed potatoes, cured meats, and pickled onions. The Swiss Bakery, Righteous Cheese, and Cheesetique all sell (or in some cases, rent) the equipment and many of the key ingredients.
You can also think outside the fondue pot when it comes to single-dish delicacies. Want to sip bubbly with your date instead of cooking? Go with a recipe that can sit on the stove—or can be cooked the day before—such as chef Scott Drewno’s red-curry chicken from the Source, Bastille’s red-wine-braised beef, or a vegetarian eggplant-and-sweet-potato lasagna. If you’re more of a last-minute cooker, it’s hard to go wrong with super-fresh mussels and Jeff Black’s signature Addie’s recipe, which stays on the menu at all eight of his eateries.
French President François Hollande’s state visit this week brings a large convoy of diplomats to the nation’s capital. Besides political agendas—and plenty of personal drama—where to eat might be on our French visitors’ minds during the trip.
Tuesday marks the first state dinner of President Obama’s second term, and promises to be an extravagant black-tie affair. A light lunch is in order for those on the guest list alongside big-time fundraisers and A-list celebrities, including Bradley Cooper. The Hollywood star favors Georgetown’s swanky Cafe Milano—as do many other power diners in Washington—and you’ll do well with a glass of wine and Kobe-beef carpaccio. (Those hoping for a more budget-friendly Cooper sighting should try another one of his chosen haunts, the Tombs.) Another option: Skip lunch and splurge on breakfast dishes such as the lump-crab omelet or huevos rancheros at Seasons. The sceney spot for early risers played host to presidential pals Beyoncé and Jay-Z while they were in town, so you can get a taste of the (non) intrigue around rumors of a Beyoncé-Barack affair sparked by the French press.
For those not headed to an evening at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, plenty of restaurants nearby offer a taste of presidential dining. Consider booking at table at the Obama-approved BLT Steak, Blue Duck Tavern, the Source, or Oyamel, which the First Couple just visited on Saturday.
French visitors looking for a taste of home—and a less expensive meal—could try creative riffs on their country’s dishes; Michel Richard’s lobster burger at Central or Mintwood Place’s escargot hushpuppies are unusual Francophile finds. Or you could follow the lead of French Embassy insiders, who are rumored to favor Bloomingdale’s Red Hen. Even smaller, chef-driven restaurants are all the rage in Paris, and also en mode in DC. Some of the toughest tables in town—and deservedly so—can be found in eateries such as Rose’s Luxury on Capitol Hill and Little Serow just off Dupont Circle, which serves up fiery northern Thai cuisine.
In the past President Obama has been known to strengthen ties with foreign dignitaries with everyman fare; what world crisis couldn’t be solved over sandwiches from Ray’s Hell-Burger? The landmark burger joint closed, but a diplomatic outing could be made to Ray’s to the Third for one of the signature patties or, even better, a decadent cheesesteak.
Valentine’s Day planning: The most romantic day of the year (for some) is this Friday, so make sure to check our Valentine’s Day Guide for all your dining, cooking, and gifting needs. No reservations yet? Consider these budget-friendly options that’ll still impress your date, or see what the top 25 Very Best Restaurants have planned for the holiday.
Olympics, continued: The opening ceremony went down last Friday, but there are still plenty of dining and drinking specials to be had throughout the course of the games. Check out our roundup for viewing spots, daily happy hours, Sochi-style dining, and more.
Artini begins: The annual cocktail extravaganza that is Artini returns for 2014. The main event at the Corcoran Gallery isn’t until March 22, but first you’ll find a series of feature nights at various bars where barkeeps will mix up their signature libations for the party. First up: the W Hotel’s P.O.V. rooftop lounge, where barkeep Joe Ambrose pours drinks on Tuesday at 6:30.
Med-style beer dinner: DC Brau and Zaytinya team up for a beer dinner on Tuesday at 7 ($65 per person). A five-course menu is paired with the brews, including limited-release concoctions such as Exaltation strong ale and Model Citizen American cream ale. Founder Brandon Skall and brewer Jeff Hancock will partake and answer questions.
Hemingway Happy Hour: Drink like Papa at Bar Pilar on Tuesday during a Hemingway-themed happy hour from 5 to 7. Author Philip Greene will sign copies of his Hemingway-inspired cocktail book To Have and Have Another, and there’ll be rum tastings, snacks, and $5 libations.
Meet your local vendors: Rockville’s Dawson’s Market hosts local vendors the second Tuesday of every month, and you can meet them and sample their products from 4 to 7. This week you’ll find Gordy’s Pickle Jar, Farm to Freezer, Michelle’s Granola, and more.
Do the dosa: DC Dosa owner P riya Ammu is set on introducing diners to the South Indian specialty—essentially a kind of crepe stuffed with a variety of fillings. To that end you’ll find a series of “Do u dosa?” days beginning on Tuesday, during which dosas ($8) are buy one, get one free.
Pizza party: Pizzeria Paradiso chef/owner Ruth Gresser just released a cookbook, Kitchen Workshop: Pizza, and hosts a party at Brewmaster’s Castle on Wednesday to celebrate. The event runs from 6:30 to 9 and features an antipasto table, beers and ciders, pizza-making demos, and, of course, plenty of pies. Tickets are $65.
Valentine’s gift idea: Skip the generic box of chocolates and snag tickets to a chocolate, cheese, and bubbly class/tasting at Union Market’s Righteous Cheese. Fromager Carolyn Stromberg takes guests through four cheeses and Champagnes, as well as sweet bites. Reservations ($69 per person) are still available for the Thursday course at 7, as well as one on February 20.
Culinary festival: The Washington International Wine & Food Festival returns for the 15th year, Thursday through Saturday, at the Ronald Reagan Building. The festivities begin on Thursday from noon to 8 with a free Festival Marketplace, where guests can sip complimentary drinks and shop for Valentine’s gifts from more than 40 vendors. The main event features 100-plus wines, a beer garden, cocktails, live music, an international array of eats, and more. Tickets start at $120 per person.
Happy Birthday, Mr. First President: Mount Vernon commemorates George Washington’s 282nd birthday on Saturday with a sampling of his favorite breakfast: “hoecakes swimming in butter and honey.” Sounds better than Frosted Flakes! Get a taste from 9 to noon, while supplies last.
Gospel brunch: Celebrate Rosa Parks during a Sunday gospel brunch at the Mansion on O Street from 11 to 2 ($45 per person). You’ll find some of the civil-rights activist’s favorite foods, and a wax figurine on loan from Madame Tussauds.
Goddesses of food: Next week’s big ticket event is Turn Up the Heat, a soiree celebrating women chefs and benefiting the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. You’ll find a variety of participating chefs and mixologists at the Ronald Reagan Building on Wednesday, February 19, all cooking for a good cause. Tickets start at $275.
Adams Morgan may conjure images of drunken crowds, a stereotype not necessarily helped by the Reef’s fraught closure last year. Now the new tenants of the three-story building, who also own Ripple in Cleveland Park, are looking to join the ranks of AdMo spots that cater to a calmer clientele with Roofers Union. The team devised a space that combines a bar, sit-down restaurant, and, come spring, a revamped roof deck. Here’s what to look for at every level when it opens Tuesday.
First floor: corn dogs and cocktails
Ripple is known for creative cocktails—remember the Pelvic Floor Rickey?—and you’ll find similar aspirations at Roofers. The name nods to the restaurant’s top deck, though you’ll drink on the bottom floor during the winter debut. Barkeeps in the warmly lit, brick-walled room mix riffs on Old Fashioneds with spiced syrup and orange oil, and pour a variety of moderately priced (mostly $6) craft brews on tap. For snacks, look for dishes such as house-made French onion dip and a house-made andouille corn dog on the limited bar menu; the latter is served with homemade Whiz for all the junk-food connoisseurs.
Second floor: a window-walled restaurant
Reef regulars won’t recognize the second-floor dining room, which accepts reservations. Gone are the fish tanks and blacked-out windows, replaced by clear floor-to-ceiling panes looking out onto 18th Street. Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley devised a more casual menu than the one offered at Ripple, filled with the kind of gastropub-y eats she prefers on her days off. Diners can make a meal of small plates such as local lamb ribs, roasted cauliflower with mint pesto and pickled raisins, and miniature sweetbread po’ boys. You can also dig into heartier entrées. The “stuffed” side of the menu lists house-made sausages in freshly baked pretzel rolls—minus the merguez, which is served over lentils—while “stacked” refers to sandwiches; we like the sound of a crispy chicken thigh glazed with Sriracha and honey. Straightforward entrées like beer-steamed mussels and steak frites round out the options, most of which cost under $20. Newish pastry chef Vanessa Ochoterena whips up homey desserts such as a fudge-pretzel sundae and a tiered cake layered with chocolate and Boston cream. Dinnertime conversation fact: The uniforms hanging from one end of the room are vintage coveralls once worn by roofers.
Third floor: a remade roof deck
The top floor requires a climb up several flights of stairs, but the view of the District skyline is worth it. The roof is currently being remade into a drinking and snacking spot for the spring, with a possible expansion of space. Meek-Bradley plans for a rooftop brunch that may or may not be bottomless but will definitely be sky-high.
Roofers Union. 2446 18th St., NW; 202-232-7663. Open daily at 5.
Happy Monday, food truck followers! Head out for BBQ Bus’s ribs and brisket or beef-and-potato stew over rice from Chef on Wheels, and get a free drink if you show Seoul Food a copy of Augusten Burroughs’s Sellevision.
When it comes to Barack and Michelle Obama’s dining habits, “eat local” doesn’t just apply to produce. The First Couple have been known to favor restaurants within a few blocks of the White House, including Mrs. Obama’s recent birthday celebration at Poste. This past Saturday the stately duo stepped out shortly after 8 for date night at José Andrés’s refined Mexican eatery, Oyamel, about a five-minute trip from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Michelle Obama previously dined at the popular Penn Quarter spot with Let’s Move! director Sam Kass.
While there’s no official word from the White House, the outing could be an early Valentine’s Day date. The Obamas are readying for a busy week with the first state visit from French President François Hollande, while President Obama will address House Democrats at a retreat on February 14 in Cambridge, Maryland. Oyamel received a makeover last year with plenty of romantic touches and a new private dining area. The outing may mark the second year in a row for a V-Day celebration at one of Andrés’s Penn Quarter spots, though a decidedly more casual one; the couple scored a coveted spot at Minibar in 2013.
Georgetown’s entertainment options just got more diverse with the debut of Pinstripes on Friday. The 34,000-square-foot venue in the Shops at Georgetown Park, the sixth location of the Midwestern chain, offers 14 bowling lanes, six bocce courts, live entertainment, a full restaurant, an outdoor patio, and weekend brunch.
When it comes to eating, think beyond the typical alley offerings of beer pitchers and fries. The DC Pinstripes sells a selection of local brews and has an on-site wine cellar. Lunch and dinner menus lean American and Italian, with a lineup of small plates (bruschetta, crabcakes), plus flatbreads, pastas, and entrées such as chicken Parmesan and grilled ribs; there’s also a kids’ menu. When you’re not busy eating or bowling, head to an outdoor patio overlooking the canal for cocktails; in winter you’ll find an outdoor fireplace and blankets to stay warm. Sunday brunch starts February 16, and includes a buffet of made-to-order omelets, prime rib, and desserts.
Guests can book bowling lanes, bocce courts, and tables in the bistro in advance, though some will be reserved for walk-ins. Another perk for those coming into Georgetown: underground parking.
Pinstripes. 3222 M St., NW (entrance located on Wisconsin Ave.); 202-625-6500.
Feta dip at Little Red Fox
This newish neighborhood store offers sandwiches by day and prepared foods at night, ready for a busy Washingtonian’s takeout dinner. On the Connecticut Avenue strip with Politics & Prose and Comet Ping Pong, between Friendship Heights and Van Ness, Little Red Fox also includes a small, thoughtful collection of local beers and wines, available by the bottle or on draft to drink at the store’s big picnic table. On a recent evening visit, the spread included roasted whole Amish chickens ($18), baked salmon ($8.50 a portion), mac and cheese ($6.50 for a generous serving), and delicious assorted salads by the pint or quart: beet, kale, roasted red pepper. The warm sweet potato curry with raisins was perfect for a cold evening, but nothing beat the feta-and-olive-oil dip in the refrigerator case, heated a bit and served with one of the store’s tasty, fresh baguettes. And don’t forget to grab a coconut macaroon for dessert.
Meatballs and grilled bread at Bar Pilar
This is exactly what you want out of a dish this time of year, when it’s brutally cold out and you need something to warm you up, and quick. I mean, besides that Negroni that goes down with its sweet-and-bitter burn.
It’s also exactly what you want from a dish that consists in its entirety of meatballs, sauce, and bread—a lusty simplicity, with all the flavors knitted tightly together. There aren’t any twists in the meatballs: The chef, Jesse Miller, hasn’t slipped in cumin to give an Italian classic a Moroccan spin, or, I don’t know, added some lemon zest in hopes of lightening things up—one of the things restless chefs unable to resist putting their stamp on a great dish tend to do. They’re old-school and perfect, and the tomato sauce has the sweetness and depth you always hope for and seldom (well, seldom around here) find.
Here’s one measure of just how good this dish is: I’d have been perfectly happy with just sauce and bread.
Miller replaces Justin Bittner in the kitchen, and is off to a promising start. I’ve been in twice over the past month: One meal was great, another good. I’ll be writing more about this on next Tuesday’s chat, but for now let me just say that I’m hard put to think of a place on busy, bustling 14th Street I’d rather be eating in right now.
Butterscotch pudding at Ris to Go
As it’s filled out, Union Market has become quite a dangerous place, especially if you’re an impulse shopper like me. Even after gorging on burgers at Red Apron Butchery and pork buns at the Maketto pop-up, stocking up on wine at Cordial (a $30 Bandol rosé? Why not!), and then dropping some cash on gorgeous-smelling Sydney Hale candles and Liber & Co. cocktail mixers at Salt & Sundry, it was hard to walk away. One reason I’m glad I wandered around a little longer: the takeaway counter from chef Ris Lacoste, which stocks bottled salad dressings, sweet and savory mini pies, and grilled cheeses, among other goodies. My favorite find was a small plastic cup of rich butterscotch pudding, which has been a staple on the dessert menu at her West End restaurant Ris since it opened. It’s as salty as it is sweet, and a spoonful of cool whipped cream, dolloped on while you check out, makes it even better. At $5, it was one of the cheapest things I came across on that latest credit-card-weary shopping trip—and the tastiest.
Falafel at DGS Delicatessen
When most people think of DGS, a thick stack of corned beef or pastrami comes to mind, and justifiably so; the deli’s house versions are some of the best around. Still my go-to order of late is chef Barry Koslow’s superb falafel. The patties are tough to get right. Often they’re over-fried or packed into a puck-like consistency. Koslow’s are the opposite, whether you order them on a platter with cauliflower tabbouleh or, as I most often do, at the sandwich counter for a quick-grab lunch. The thick rounds are perfectly crisp but give way to a moist, tender center with discernible bits of chickpea and onion. Instead of golf-like balls, the falafel are fashioned into discs for easier eating, and stuffed into warm pita bread with hummus, feta, pickled beets, and marinated cucumber. Koslow may be known for his meats, but the vegetarian option is one of the most satisfying on the menu. (If you’re going meatless, the shakshouka egg dish is also standout.)
See also: Previous Best Things I Ate
Ah, Valentine’s Day—or should we say, “$75-set-menu day.” For those hoping to spend less—or at least entertain the option of spending less—we’ve found plenty of comparatively inexpensive options, whether you want to impress a date or keep things more casual.
Find cheap—but not cheap-looking—eats
Just because an eatery makes our Cheap Eats list doesn’t mean you’ll dine in a dive; there are plenty of atmospheric options. We especially like the low lighting and sleek decor of Bangkok 54 in Arlington, the warm-hued, chandelier-lit dining room at Bethesda’s Passage to India, and the deep booths at Bamian in Falls Church. If you’re Eden Center-bound, Rice Paper has a pleasant ambience, and you can head to Bambu after for a sweet fix. Back in DC, Ethiopic on H Street boasts a romantic interior with exposed brick and glowing lights, a decent wine list, and live piano music.
Order à la carte
A number of our favorite restaurants are sticking to their regular menus, including a handful of the top 25 Very Best. They may not be cheap spots, per se, but at least you can pick consciously without immediately committing to $100 per person. We like the idea of ordering the decadent pastas at Osteria Morini, opting for à-la-carte offerings at Graffiato or Del Campo (prix-fixe is also available), snacking on small plates at Etto, or digging into the bread-pudding soufflé at Food Wine & Co.. Also consider snagging a reservation at a restaurant that doesn’t typically take them, such as Pearl Dive, Estadio, and Hank’s Oyster Bar.
Pick a moderate prix-fixe
Not all set menus will burn your wallet. DGS Delicatessen offers an all-you-can-eat deal for just $30 per person, which includes bottomless platters of pastrami, corned beef, chicken sausage, sides, and more, plus $5 drafts and $8 martinis. Other moderate options: three courses at Bastille for $38, Eatonville for $29, and Le Grenier for $39, or a five-course meal at Daikaya for $45.
Head to the bar
We love the growing trend of casual bars with restaurant-quality food, perfect for a V-Day date. Shaw has an abundance, including Derek Brown’s trifecta of Mockingbird Hill, Southern Efficiency, and Eat the Rich, as well as Baby Wale, which offers a roast chicken for two. Others to keep in mind: Quench Rockville, Union Market spots such as Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and Fainting Goat on U Street. A number of restaurants offering pricier set menus also keep it casual in the bar area on February 14—try Bourbon Steak’s lounge, the Source (sushi only), and PassionFish.
Or drink your dinner
If your honey is more of a cocktail enthusiast, consider making a reservation at the Gibson for “couples cocktails”: two full drinks each and a third cocktail for $24 (we like the sound of a mezcal-based Part-Time Lover). Over at Cafe Saint-Ex you’ll find bottled cocktails that come with two straws for $14, to pair with $9 cheese or chocolate fondue. Trummer’s on Main channels Fifty Shades of Grey with the Pain & Pleasure cocktail, served with a whip; sip it solo, or try it in a four-cocktail tasting alongside snacks on Thursday, February 13 ($39 per person).
Give your date (guilty) pleasure
V-Day dining is about indulgence, so crispy fried chicken could fit the bill just as well as foie gras. Some of our guilty pleasures: BonChon, the Hell Burger at Ray’s to the Third, Le Diplomate’s “burger Americain”—available for takeout—and a feast of way too much food at Bangkok Golden. Shake Shack is also up there, offering an on-theme passionfruit custard special for the holiday that comes with a coupon for a second free cup or cone.