Tuesday, March 13 at 11 AM
Every Tuesday at 11, food and wine editor Todd Kliman takes your questions about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news.

Editor’s Note: Washingtonian Online moderators and hosts retain editorial control over chats and choose the most relevant questions; hosts can decline to answer questions.

Published March 7, 2012

Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new restaurant merits the scorching hype?

The answer to all these questions and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online. From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the 'burbs and exurbs to hitting the city's streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.

Winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country's best newspaper column about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His work has appeared in The New YorkerHarper'sThe Oxford AmericanThe Daily Beast and Men's Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies. He is the author of The Wild Vine, a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.

Can't wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world.

 

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W H E R E   I ' M   E A T I N G   N O W  . . .

Komi, DC

The best, most sensual, most fully realized restaurant in the area remains Johnny Monis's lair of a place, a sparely appointed East Dupont townhouse withcheck itno menu.

Eola, DC
Daniel Singhofen scrapped his a la carte menu this past April, replacing it with a $65 five-course tasting menu. The move seemed premature, given that the chef had yet to establish his Dupont Circle townhouse restaurant as a landmark dining destination, one that had endured many seasons and fads. But Singhofen and company appear ready to make the leap. Courses are imaginatively conceived without straining for effect, and the execution is clean and precise without lapsing into austerity. Best of all, Singhofen imbues these sophisticated dishes with a quality more precious than all the tricks in the molecular gastronomer's toolkit: soul.

R&R Taqueria, Elkridge
Best Mexican food in the area, and it's not even close. Andit's in a gas station. Worth the drive to Elkridge.

Fiola, DC
Fabio Trabocchi's edge-of-Penn Quarter restaurant has put its tentative beginnings behind it. The dishes emerging from the brick-framed, herb-potted kitchen find the prodigiously talented chef moving further and further from the controlled elegance of his work at the late Maestro. They also find him cooking with a renewed confidence and conviction. The best of these platesan astonishingly flavorful ragu of wild hare with thick bands of papardelle, a double-cut, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop with toasted hazelnuts that accent the sweetness and nuttiness of the meat, a bowl of tender meatballs in a tomato sauce that frankly puts most Italian grandmothers to shamemarry rusticity with refinement. Dessertsincluding a fabulous cone of sugar-dusted bomboloni, with pots of apple marmalade and cinnamon gelatoremain a rousing finish.

Proof, DC
I love the tossed-off sophistication of Mark Kuller's wine-bar-plus, the sense you get that everything just seems to have fallen into place and nobody's straining too hard for effect. The cooking, under the direction of Haidar Karoum, reinforces the feeling with dishes that combine the complexity and intricacy of fine dining with the approachability of a neighborhood bistro: superlative foie gras (seared and served atop a cherry-studded short cake), crisp-skinned branzino in a saffron broth, a knockout plate of spaghetti and meatballs (foie gras is the crucial ingredient, an ingenious way of lightening the texture of the meat without resorting to bready filler). There's a wealth of good, interesting wines to pair with these plates—wines you're simply not going to find anywhere else in the city. The restaurant, to its great credit, makes them available in two-ounce pours that encourages you to try things you wouldn't ordinarily.

Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
#1 Combination and #2 Roast Pork. $3.75 apiece. Vivid reminders of what the boring and/or dumbed-down others all miss—the peppery bite, the pronounced sharpness of the pickling, the balance between meats and condiments, the lightness of the loaf.

Rice Paper, Falls Church
This new Eden Center mom 'n' pop, the first restaurant venture for the host family after two-plus decades in the jewelry business, breaks from the drab utilitarianism of its Eden Center peers with a pressed tin ceiling, dangling globe lights, sleek leather chairs, and the requisite industrial brick wall. It's the cooking, though, that commands inspection: spicy lemongrass ribs, garlic-marinated roast chicken with coconut rice, and the most stylish presentation of grilled stuffed grape leaves I've ever seen—and easily one of the most delicious. The coffee with condensed milk is a must-order, among the strongest and darkest you're going to find.

Bon Fresco, Columbia
Best bread in the area. And maybe the best sandwiches, too—I still can't stop thinking about the unlikely masterpiece of brie, lightly caramelized onions and sundried tomato pesto on a light and crusty baguette. And the London Broil on ciabatta is fantastic, too. Gerald Koh, the owner and bread-baker, is a former GM at Breadline and as passionate about his craft as any chef in the area.

Mintwood Place, DC
Perry's owner Saied Azali was lucky to land Cedric Maupillier, formerly the chef at Central and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle, for his rusticky new bistro. The Toulon native is doing typically great work—cranking out lovingly faithful renditions of such bistro classics as cassoulet (see if you can finish it without two glasses of wine) and steak tartare (the tiny, crunchy tater tots on top are a clever allusion to his old boss, Michel Richard) as well as offering up some sly, smart takes on tradition (frogs' legs with black walnut romesco, a lamb tongue moussaka). There's a whole boneless dorade with picholine olives and braised fennel that's a knockout—beautifully conceived, perfectly executed.

East Pearl, Rockville
A superlative addition to the unofficial Chinatown of northern Rockville, this cheery, three week-old restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken (the slices of meat beneath the crispy, lacquered skin are not merely tender, but luscious). And don't miss a Shanghai-style noodle dish that brings together angel hair, roast pork, shrimp, green onions and a generous spoonful of yellow curry powder into a light, greaseless and remarkably vivid whole.

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Producer's note—This week's contest: the chain restaurant that feels like yours: 

Whether you think she's a folk hero or just this week's Gawker fodder, Marilyn Hagerty—the North Dakota reviewer whose Olive Garden review went viral—reminds us that we all have a chain restaurant that feels like ours, somehow. It's that corporate airport bar where you've weathered delays and cancellations over the same sandwich and overly oaky Chardonnay, that drive-through parking lot where you and your dad chowed down in his truck after summer softball games.

So tell Todd yours. Does the sight of the Golden Arches engender, for you, more comfort than a cup of tea and a soft blanket? After a contentious day at the office, do you relish the way the soft petals of Outback's Bloomin' Onion bend so easily to your will? You don't have to find the restaurant's decor "impressive" like Marilyn, but you do have to justify your choice to the chat.  

The entry with the best explanation will win a copy of The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier, a brand new book that's being released today. Appropriately enough, it's by a woman who has published recipes for dishes inspired by Olive Garden. But we love her anyway. 

Good luck!

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Columbia Heights, DC

I know it's been stated a lot before about everyone's various pet peeves with restaurant websites and I agree. Maybe we should do a peer pressure thing and vote for worst restaurant website and see if that helps motivate owners to change their sites.

I'll kick it off - Rasika, from the 10 seconds it takes to load (it doesn't work at all on an iphone), the dancing lady on front, the floating around the site as you choose various options... spare me.

I have to give them credit though, for avoiding what I consider to be the kiss of death (besides outdated menus) - which is refusing to list the prices.

Rasika you are a classy place with delicious food, let your website reflect that!

It's kind of amazing how many bad ones there are, actually.

And the thing I find most frustrating -- and shocking, if you think about it -- is that the vast majority make it so damn hard to locate their hours of business. I've looked on many restaurant web sites and never seen anything listed at all. Hours! Like, this is when to drop by and give us money. Astonishing.

My current favorite -- I won't name the restaurant, except to say that it's new -- is a site that goes to great lengths to tell you about the chef and his background, and extols his gifts for ... making bouillaibaisse? procuring rare ingredients from far-flung sources?

No. Are you ready?

It extols his gifts for turning a profit. Apparently, his previous restaurant witnessed a 10 percent jump in food sales.

I kid you not.

 

80th Birthday celebration

Good morning.

Back in January, I emailed you to ask if you would be interested to join my "second mom" and me to celebrate her 80th birthday in May. I'm sure you receive many such requests, but I have not heard back from you at all. She is an amazingly sprite and young-hearted food lover and I cannot think of a more meaningful gift I could give her than if you could dine with us.

What can I do to sweeten the deal? Thank you.

Thanks for writing in ...

I remember. I assure you, it was nothing personal; I just lost track of your note. Drop me a line again -- tkliman@washingtonian.com -- and I'll see what my time is like in May.

Food Photography

many people these days lovee to snap pictures on their phones or cameras while dining out. Would it be possible for you to have a professional photographer fields some questions in the weekly chat in the future?

I guess I'm not sure what you're asking.

Are you hoping that this photog might be able to offer some tips that'd make for better cell phone camera shots?

I mean, I could ask, but I would hate to. The photographers I know, and that we work with regularly, would roar with laughter at the suggestion that shooting pics on a cheap camera phone and shooting with a real camera, in designed light, and making all sorts of adjustments all the while, subtle and not so subtle, are somehow being equated.

But maybe that's not what you're asking ... ?

Arlington, VA

My chain-away-from-home: Panera.

I travel a lot, so searching out a Panera is comforting. I love eating local, but when I'm really stressed and pull off the road only to find 30+ emails from my boss asking why I've been out of touch the past few hours, I'm heading to Panera.

I love breathing in the steam from the hot mac and cheese and firing up my laptop so I can get caught up with work -- a good break before I have to hit the road again.

Hey, we've all been there.

That circumstance, not Panera -- though we've all been there, too. Even if we don't ever talk about it.

...

BTW, this Marilyn Hagerty thing ... I'm still trying to figure out why she's such a sensation. After some conversation over dinner last night and some more thinking about it later -- really, too much cogitation wasted on something so insignificant -- I've decided that all the to-do about her and this review stems from BOTH an un-ironic and an ironic embrace.

Un-ironic, because she's 85 and "people" find it to be "cute" that she isn't drooling in a home and is actually engaged with life and going out to restaurants on her own. (Boy, we do hate the old, don't we?)

((I will say that my own mother, who is 84, and has written several reviews for this publication -- see: Dining with the Critic's Mother -- wipes the floor with Hagerty when it comes to critiquing. And probably living, too. But that's another day, another point ...))

And ironic, because that review, now gone "viral," seems so oddly unaware that the Olive Garden is a chain, and that in the minds of many in the media and on the coasts it is tantamount to corporatism and crass commercialism. The tone is as flat and affectless as a GPS guide.

Arlington, VA

So I was browsing through your website trying to decide which burger to try today. I click on your 'Dining Guide' for Best Burgers and find an article from 2004! Really? 2004? With all the burger happenings around town in the past couple of years, you couldn't bother to update this listing? for 8 years?! So sad.

Sad?

Not sad. And not even really true. That may well be the last time a "guide" of that kind was done; I haven't taken the time, just now, to scour the site. (2004 precedes my time here, by the way.) But we choose our favorite burger places annually, in the Cheap Eats feature we put out each summer.

Give that a read, and decide which one you want to try. I want to say that we had four or five burger spots on our list last year.

Chesapeake Bay Seafood House

From my childhood Chesapeake Bay Seafood House (CBSH), before it became a buffet.

Like the previous person my parents used to take my siblings and I to CBSH once month, that was our monthly dinner out and we loved it everytime. You start off ordering the crab legs and work your way up the menu since it was all you can eat. Their fried cod to this day is the best fried cod I have ever had. Nothing has come close. The blend of spices that were in the batter or flour just made the dish sing every time.

God, I haven't thought about that place in 25 years. Or more.

I used to go there a bunch, too, when I was a kid. It was never, ever clean, if I'm remembering right, there was always that smell -- you know that smell I'm talking about? Not a bad smell, an offensive, aggresssive smell, but that smell you find in a lot of places with carpets, where something not-clean just gets ground down into the nap after all that vacuuming. So that, even though a place might look fine -- no crumbs to be seen, no stains anywhere in sight -- it's not; it's dirty. It's the dirt you can't see ...

But the food ... I probably wouldn't like it now, but then it always hit the spot. Yep, the fried cod, the fried shrimp ... The hush puppies -- remember those?

So strange, you run into kids now, kids in this area -- spoiled and entitled and thinking that everywhere on earth is like DC -- and their idea of a good, anytime meal is something like 2 Amys. So wrong. You are supposed to be raised to think something like Shakey's is IT, then, when you grow up and mature, and you discover your palate, you can learn to appreciate a place like 2 Amys, which is only one of the best places of its kind in America and maybe the world. But if you start with 2 Amys, then you are destined for a life of continuous anticlimax, of things never quite measuring up, of going around finding everything and everyone wanting.

 

Food Photography (real camera)

Sorry, I should have been more clear.

Would like to hear tips on how to shoot good food pics using a good camera and not with a cell phone camera.

I like cooking at home and taking pics (most of the time with my cell phone camera) and sending them out to friends. Recently, purchased a nice camera and wanted to gain some insight and tips on how best to utilize it in taking food pics.

Sorry, for the confusion.

That's okay.

Hey, Jessica -- what do you think? Would it be a good idea to bring in someone like Scott Suchman for a cameo appearance?

Tell you what, while I wait to hear back from J-Voelk, why don't you send along some specific questions you'd like to pose ... and anyone out there who is also interested (I'm guessing there may be others; I don't know why) why don't you do the same ...

Crossin' the border

Todd --

I'm heading out to Mt. Rainier on Thursday night for a glass blowing class (I know, random but it seems like fun!).

What would be your top recommendations for a late (post 9pm) dinner be in the area? No limitations other than relatively cheap, although having just eaten at Peter Chang's China Grill this weekend (YUM) I think I'm probably spoiled on Chinese food for the near future.

My first choice'd probably be Franklins, for the microbrewed beers, the wood-fired pizzas (ask for a light hand with the cheese and a crispy crust), the pan-roasted mussels and a page's worth of seasonal specials, including, right now, a good salad that features grapefruit segments, local cheese and almond bark atop fresh greens.

Little Mexico is also close by; I like Taqueria la Placita for the pork leg tacos with pickled onions, and La Sirenita makes good chilaquiles, posole and chicken mole.

If you can make it before 9:30, there's Fishnet, on Berwyn Rd., in College Park. They're putting out some really good grilled- or fried-fish sandwiches. The fish is always fresh and of high quality, and there are generally five kinds -- including hake, wild king salmon, and sometimes bluefish and rockfish. Great fish tacos, too.

I'd love to hear where you end up. Drop me a note, ok?

WP

I can never let a visit to my home state of Wisconsin go by without a stop at Culver's, even if it means driving twenty minutes out of the way right before I leave, then turning the car around and scarfing down my food en route to the airport.

Culver's is a Midwest-based chain with some of the most consistently delicious food I've ever found at establishments of its type (and even some restaurants that are "classier").

My order is always the same: plain ButterBurger with cheese (yes, butter - it's the Midwest!), deep fried cheese curds, and a dish of chocolate custard. The ButterBurger is cooked to order and melts in your mouth, the cheese curds have a sharp cheddar taste in every bite, and the custard is creamy and rich, always freshly made, and the perfect way to wind down the meal.

The chain feels homey and comforting, and it doesn't matter which location I'm in; they all evoke the same nostalgic feeling in me, and remind me that I'm getting to experience a little piece of home that I won't be able to enjoy again until my next visit. It's a place that will always have a soft spot in my heart, and I check their website constantly, holding out hope that they'll open a location closer to DC than the one 316 miles away in Ohio so that I can get the feeling of home even when I'm far away from home.

Damn, that sounds good. If potentially fatal. ; )

Seriously, I want to get in my car right now and drive to Wi-SCON-sin and order the same thing you order.

Thanks for writing in ...

We have a front-runner ...

Greenbelt, MD

Since 1985, my group of friends gets together once a month at a restaurant (usually in Montgomery County but occasionally in Prince George's County and in a few cases in D.C.).

Recently we have had problems with the noise level in those restaurants. The point of our getting together is to talk, and when the noise in those restaurants gets too loud it's impossible for us to have a conversation.

Have you noticed an increase in the noise level in restaurants recently? Are restaurants doing this deliberately to increase the turn-over rate?

Recently?

No, not recently. It's been going on for about three or four years, now.

I love a lively restaurant. The excitement of it, the sense of being in the midst of a party, of possibilities in the air, is a big part of why so many of us go out to eat. But it's another thing when you can't hear the person across from you, and that person is sitting maybe two feet away.

It costs a lot of money to create a "surround" where the noise is ambient and warm and you are never not aware of it, yet all the same it doesn't invade your personal space. Most restaurants don't have that kind of money. Or if they do, they are not choosing to spend it in this way.

You asked about turn-over. It's not about turn-over, I don't think. It's about creating an amped-up atmosphere, a place that feels like a scene. More and more, the city's new restaurants want to be thought of as clubs, with all the excitement and exclusivity that that implies.

Jessica Voelker

That's an interesting idea!

We have a couple of Best Bites blog photographers who could be great for this. I'm always so impressed with the images they turn in, particularly given the fact that they are always working in new environments and that they have to turn things around so quickly.

So there you go, chatter: Taken under advisement, as my father used to say whenever I floated an idea for a change in plans.

Stay tuned ...

Giving out Stars when reviewing restaurants

What is your opinion of the Los Angeles Times, which has stopped giving out stars in their restaurant reviews and in giving out stars in general for restaurant reviews?

I think there's a lot to be said for the idea.

If I review a place in the Eden Center that I'm enthusiastic about, I can communicate that enthusiasm in the writing -- but then there's the matter of starring, which must be in accordance with the already established scale, which was, I need to add, put into place with fine dining spots in mind. And no matter how carefully people read the review itself, they fixate on the starring. A very good place in the Eden Center might merit two stars, let's say. Some readers will look at that and think: Not bad. He kinda likes it. In fact, I remember walking through the Eden Center a couple of years ago and saw a couple looking in the window of a restaurant. One spied a review we did, and said: "Two stars out of four." And walked away. Didn't read the review; didn't take the time to know that that review was a very positive one. Just: two stars out of four. Which sounds middlin'.

With a different sort of scale, the reader might see that Eden Center gem as ... a gem. And not as -- "pretty good, if you're looking to dine and be taken care of."

And I guess it goes without saying that as a critic, who reveres words, I want people to read what I have to say, and think about it, or savor it, or what have you, without the filter, as it were, that starring in a sense creates. Not to read the words to see how a place earned those stars, but to read, period.

On the other hand: Stars are handy. They make it easier to look at a lot of options at a glance. They generate conversation. Not everyone is a food lover; not everyone savors the words in a review; not everyone lives to know what new places are out there, and why they're good and what they mean and the context they occupy, etc. They just want to eat well.

Arlington VA

I worked at Bubba Gump's in grad school, and I'm still obsessed with eating there.

It's probably because I have happy memories... but their bucket of boat trash (seriously) sends me into a tailspin. It grosses my family out - they've flat-out refused to go with me anymore - so I go alone to the one in Times Square when I'm in NYC for work. When the bartenders started recognizing me, I knew I had a problem.

Isn't it usually the opposite? You work in a bakery, and you swear off eating donuts?

Pretty funny, Arlington, pretty funny ... Thanks for writing in ...

Washington,DC Chain Review

My go-to chain is the prepared foods bar at Whole Foods.

I run a lot of destination distance races. During my preparation, I always find the nearest Whole Foods. The plentiful spinach, grains a plenty, and quick eats helps me get through long races.

How about a limerick for the local Whole Foods, wherever "local" means?

Salad Bar Whole Foods

Long run fuel for dudes

Ladies too love your spinach

or get a whole grain sandwich

run away from broods

Ha. Thanks for playing ...

Yeah, local. Doesn't always mean 10 miles, as Alice Waters used to have it.

Doesn't even always mean 100 miles.

Sometimes it means 500 miles.

I'm not kidding. I've seen others use this "definition" to claim something as being local.

By which definition, Momofuku is my neighborhood restaurant.

Van Ness

The scene: SW Waterfront. Sunday afternoon. Roughly 4pm.

Families chowing down on some freshly steamed crabs. Ducks paddling around the marina. A walk along the waterfront is capped off with a couple Dark & Stormies on the deck at Cantina Marina. Too much concrete around to make one forget that they are in the middle of a major city...but not a bad way to spend a sunny afternoon.

BTW, "Red" at the Arena Stage very good.

Sounds pretty nice to me.

And I really do want to see "Red," really, really do. Thanks for the reminder. Are there tickets still out there?

Vienna, VA

I live near Tysons and I am so disturbed that Michel is gone.

We went half a dozen times in the brief time it was open. We thought from the beginning it should have endeavored to be more "Bistro" a la Central, and less Maestro/Citronelle.

But my question is really this: Why doesn't an area like Tysons, with so many affluent professionals have more chef owned restaurants that thrive? What makes it different than the city? Is it just population density or a cultural divide? There are certainly tons of busy restaurants...

You know, it's funny. I know several people in the food world here who have been asking this. And asking it for a couple of years, actually.

I wondered why, myself, but now I think the problem lies with the question. It's all wrong. Why is Tyson's any different from McLean? Or Potomac? Both of those spots are loaded with people who are loaded. And yet the one thing they both complain about, over and over again, is the dearth of good places to eat. Affluence has not amounted to good dining.

The difference is that some very big names gave Tysons a try, and not Potomac or McLean. But they were led not by passion for Tysons, or by a need to make a statement in Tysons, but by the would-be dreams of developers.

Shaw, DC

If you put a tarp on the gaudy outside signage, forgot it was chain, put aside your feelings on Ted Turner, and just focused on the food, I think a lot of people would consider putting Ted's Montana Grill in their list of best burgers in the area.

That would be missing a few other highlights, of course. Before the burgers even arrive you can focus on the addictive yeast rolls and a bowl of homemade half sour pickles that are absolutely killer.

The burgers? They are on the big, grilled, and greasy side of the spectrum. The meat tastes extremely fresh, they aren't afraid to cook to order, and the topping combinations make sense without (generally) moving to overkill.

Better yet, they offer bison patties with as much if not more oomph than their bovine counterpoints. Those topping combinations play perfectly with the funk of a buffalo burger.

Thinking about the green chile buffalo cheeseburger with a side of squash casserole and some of those pickles (and a tall cold beer) to cut the fat has my mouth watering at my desk. It's not just 'for a chain' good; Ted's on a good day is straight up good.

Jesus, you did it. You made me hungry for it. You made me want to jettison my plans tonight and actually take my two friends to Ted's.

Damn you, Shaw ...

(I fully expect to receive an email this afternoon taking umbrage with my foul, heretical language, as I did several months ago for using the word "bitch" as a synonym for "complain.")

Cheverly, MD

My boyfriend wants his birthday dinner to be at a restaurant that serves rabbit. Totally random! Any suggestions for restaurants in the DC area that serve rabbit and are reasonably priced?

Or how about a restaurant called Rabbit -- the salad and sandwich place that is a recent arrival in Arlington. 

But of course that's the opposite of what your boyfriend's looking for. That's rabbit food. He wants the rabbit itself.

You could go French and Montmartre, at Eastern Market, where the lapin is -- or was -- served braised, over poppyseed noodles. Give the place a look. It's also not an expensive night out, by DC standards. You can probably come in under $80 for two.

Spader, MD

For me, it HAS to be White Castle.

A long time ago, I suffered a great loss, and happened to find myself picking up a sack of burgers from the joint when I was on my way to a party. I met a girl who worked there, and things just really clicked- maybe because of where I was in my life, maybe because of where she was in hers. Even though we came from two really disparate backgrounds, it was a really great time in my life, coming off of a really terrible time. That's why White Castle is my "home"- every time I see one, sometimes even when I see something that was there when I was there (someone was vacuuming a carpet when I met her), I tear up a little- for both the good times and the bad.

You know -- that's just beautiful.

One of those odd, unexpected things in life. How something that most of us would regard as ubiquitous and impersonal becomes freighted with meaning and resonance -- becomes a symbol. And stays a symbol.

And if you want anyone to understand why it means what it does for you, you're forced to explain yourself, and the explanation always comes up short, because assuming you could write, you would need reams of pages to put it into words -- and even then the words are likely to fail. Because words often fail ...

 

Washington, DC

Chili's is the one restaurant that has seen me through a personal food revolution... from when I was in high school, and "adventurous" meant I was eating something other than pasta with butter for dinner and I first tried the Southwestern Egg Rolls, crispy and cheesy and just spicy enough to be interesting without pushing my newly expanding boundries too far.

To college in Ithaca, NY, where despite the amazing restaurants that populate that small city, some of my fondest memories are from raucous Chili's 2-for-1 margarita nights with my girlfriends (I think there was food there too).

To adult life in DC, where despite my now "adult" palette, I still feel a surge of excitement when I'm travelling through an airport and I see the Chili's sign, and know that a Southwestern Egg Roll and an unnaturally sweet margarita is waiting.

Nicely done.

For some reason -- and I don't know why now, with yours, because we have had a bunch of responses that might have triggered the memory -- but this is making me think of that line of Philip Roth's, offered up in a letter to John Updike and intended as a summing up of Americans culturally as compared to Europeans: "We're all hicks." ; )

Derwoodian

For me, Hoss's is the chain that feels like home.

There were a few in western MD/WV panhandle, but it's a central Pennsylvania chain, with a lot of locations over the state line.

When I was in college, coming back from a semester abroad, my parents picked me up in Harrisburg from the train and took me to the Hoss's in Mechanicsburg, before heading home on the turnpike.

It's not fancy food, but it's solid, and their salad bar has a ton of salad options/soups/breads/desserts. The burgers were always good, and the steaks were a really good value, in terms of what you were getting.

Top it off with bread pudding with a little softserve, and it made for a homey meal. I don't get there as often anymore, but when I do, it's my own remembrance of things past- of being with family, and enjoying a nice meal.

My memory exactly.

I like Hoss's. The feel, the comfort, the softserve, the name. The name, the name ...

Falls Church

Dick's Drive-in, in Seattle.

It's a mini-chain, if that counts, with devotees of both the 45th St. and the Cap Hill locations ready to duke it out over which one is "better".

The burgers have been the same way for the past 30 plus years, the fries have the right amount of vinegar and salt and extra of the fried crispy bits you're not embarrassed to pour straight into your mouth from the paper packet; and the milkshakes are unpretentious.

There's nothing goofy or trendy or dolled up about Dick's - except maybe for the occasional overly ironic hipster who has recently "discovered" it - but it's old-school, old-Seattle food on par with Ivar's.

Ah, nostalgia...

Never eaten there, but I understand it exactly from your description.

I love this especially: "There's nothing goofy or trendy or dolled up about Dick's - except maybe for the occasional overly ironic hipster who has recently 'discovered' it."

Thanks. I'm adding it to my list.

Whenever I put out calls for recommendations for restaurants in a place I don't know, or haven't been to in a while, I never get these sorts of recommendations. The places that don't change are the places I want to know about, because the meal and the experience I get there will likely be what someone who lived in that city a generation ago would have gotten. That's interesting.

Sometimes a place with great food feels impersonal -- feels as though you could be an Anyone in Anycity, as our modern philosopher-king Walker Percy might have put it. Sometimes the place with the good or pretty good food and the sense of time and place is the better, more interesting place.

Shenanigans!!

That White Castle post was just a ripoff of the James Spader movie "White Palace"!

Never saw it -- obviously.

I was wondering about that Spader, Md. I know my Maryland towns pretty well. And my first thought on seeing it was, "Oh, like the creepy-handsome low-affect actor."

Chain

Pizza so simple- yet so complicated. If you love thin crust, and you're at an exotic locale next to an interstate and a mall where do you turn? The big boys swamping the airways with their ads where they keep piling on the cheese and dough? A local joint, which will probably be a step up from the big boys but still be too thick? How about the local brick oven spot with their oh-so-precious $15 artisan single serving pizzas made with locally sourced ingredients where you're lucky to get a couple of spots of mozzarella?

Bertucci's save me - brick oven, check; floppy thin crust, check; a little bit of grease dripping off the tip; check. Even a decent supply of salads to start off my meal.

Add a selection of wine and beer above grade and I'm full of the most comforting of comfort food well within my per diem, ready for my meeting the next day brings me.

It definitely serves its purpose: You can count on it.

That's the thing with most chains: You can always count on them.

In many instances, we pick the interstate restaurant not because it's good, but because it's a chain, and we know that chain is mediocre. And mediocrity is much to be preferred over our near-certainty that Restaurant X is going to be terrible. It's comforting. It's safe.

Van Ness - Remembering Friendly's

Growing up in in the burbs of Syracuse, NY Friday night meant piling my friends into my Mom's brown Caprice Classic and driving over to Friendly's

The must order was a Jim Dandy - 5 scoops of ice cream, strawberry, marshmallow AND chocolate toppings, a split banana, sprinkles, and walnuts. Ice cream flavors where order based upon which ice cream colors would clash (mint choc chip meets orange sherbet meets black raspberry meets watermelon sherbet meets strawberry), because that's what you do when you are 16.

When ever I drive past a Friendly's I feel the urge to pull over and order a Jim Dandy.

Resist that urge. ; )

I say that in all humorousness, and in all seriousness, too. The last Friendly's I was in was pretty awful. But I love reading the specifics of your memories -- everybody piling into the brown Caprice, especially.

Falls Church, VA

The chain that doesn't feel like a chain to me is Rita's.

And perhaps that's because it is a franchise organization, or because it's only open for part of the year, but for me it's just the excitement of a rare treat regardless of the location.

It will always hold memories of childhood visits to Philly to visit family and friends, of skipping class on a warm spring day at Penn State when Rita's finally opened, and most of all, of getting our friend (from New Jersey) that he is wrong - Rita's is better than ice cream. Victory is delicious :)

I like Rita's, too.

And "Rita's is better than ice cream" -- the corporate heads would be wise to give you a citation for that on the web page.

...

I'm starving, no small thanks to all of you. I loved reading all of your responses. Making chain food sound good isn't easy, and yet not only did you all do that, but some of you made me actually want to seek out these places on their own.

I'm torn between the chatter who wrote in in praise of Culver's, in Wi-SCON-sin, and the chatter from Shaw who raved about Ted's Montana Grill. So, because you can't slice a book in half, I'm going to write to the publisher and see if we can't get another copy of The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier. In other words, our first tie.

Drop me a note, you two -- tkliman@washingtonian.com -- and we'll get that ball rolling.

Enjoy the gorgeous day, everyone.

Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK ... ]

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 03/07/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Chats