The Fairfax City area, now including Fair Lakes and Fair Oaks, continues to grow, and the restaurant scene is booming. There are top-of-the-line destination restaurants like Le Tire Bouchon and the Bailiwick Inn plus lots of ethnic restaurants. A recent count shows that Fairfax City has 115 restaurants representing 16 different cuisines. While neighboring Falls Church gets the nod for Chinese and Vietnamese eating, Fairfax excels in Indian and Thai places, and it has some good Italian restaurants.
A dinner for two–without alcohol but including three courses, tax, and a 15-percent tip–is the basis for this cost guide: $40 or less is inexpensive; $41 to $70 is moderate; $71 to $130 is expensive; more than $130 is very expensive. Unless otherwise indicated, restaurants are accessible by wheelchair.
The Eight Best
Bailiwick Inn (expensive). The building that houses the Bailiwick Inn dates to the early 19th century. Several Civil War events, including the first Confederate casualty, happened there. Rooms are available at reasonable prices, but more important, there is an excellent restaurant. The cozy dining rooms retain their old-time character with brass chandeliers, white tablecloths, draperies, and fireplaces. Patrons can dine outdoors in a sunken garden. The cooking, in the hands of chef Kenneth Foy, is French-American. Service is welcoming and professional. When was the last time a server offered you a taste of wine when you ordered a glass?
The dinner is prix fixe–appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert for $55 ($59 on Friday and Saturday). Dishes to savor include the Hudson Valley foie gras with roasted chestnut sauce and fig purée; a traditional oyster stew with vegetables and cream; pan-seared scallops over asparagus with a reduction of port, balsamic vinegar, and raspberry; pan-seared halibut over a ragoût of artichokes, olives, and tomatoes, with a Champagne lemon butter; and a veal chop with an unsweetened cherry sauce. Among the outstanding desserts is a cappuccino mousse with a scoop of chocolate sorbet.
Bailiwick Inn, 4023 Chain Bridge Rd.; 703-691-2266. Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, Sunday for brunch, Tuesday through Friday for lunch, and Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Bombay Bistro (moderate). The name may have been selected for alliteration, but it gives a clue to the restaurant's sophisticated Indian cooking. Bombay (now Mumbai) is the financial and entertainment capital of India, and its seafood rivals that of any city. Try the whole tandoor-seared rockfish, which has been marinated in yogurt, ginger, and garlic and is served smoky and blistered from the fire.
Bombay Bistro offers dishes from all over India–tandoori from the north, spicy vegetarian from the south, biryanis from the northwest, and other regional dishes. You can find unusual aromatic braised lamb shank, Prince Edward Island mussels steeped in curry leaves and white wine, shrimp and scallops tossed with coriander and tamarind, and chicken Chettinad spiced with a tangy curry. Other treats are gingery fish cutlets served with an offbeat tomato chutney; Goan fish curry; and lamb nilgiri korma, which uses green curry and cilantro. Rounding out the menu are southern-Indian vegetarian dishes. The restaurant offers one of the area's best Indian buffets seven days a week.
Bombay Bistro, 3570 Chain Bridge Rd.; 703-359-5810. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
China Star (inexpensive). Szechuan cooking has become harder to find and more of a cliché when you find it–spicy Chinese food that uses shredded meat and vegetables and a flood of cooking oil. China Star, however, does it right. Szechuan cooking is a varied cuisine, and though many dishes use hot peppers, not all do. At China Star, the degree of spiciness is indicated on the menu by symbols of chili peppers and stars.
For appetizers, consider the mixed-flavor chicken, the room-temperature salty duck, the five-spice bean curd, and the warm crispy and shredded bean curd. Good main courses include spicy beef shank, braised fish with black-bean sauce, filet mignon with sour mustard, ma la diced rabbit, Lake Windless prawn, pork with bitter cucumber, chicken with shredded leeks, and princess pig's feet in a brown sauce. For the cautious, the menu includes Chinese-American standards like beef with broccoli and chicken with snow-pea pods. Don't expect anything fancy in the way of decor.
China Star, 9600-G Main St.; 703-323-8822. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cho's Garden (moderate). Area diners have embraced the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam but tend to avoid the cooking of Korea. While some Korean dishes may seem off-putting, the number and variety of pleasing offerings are considerable, ranging from table-top barbecue, broiled fish, and stir-fried preparations to main-course soups. Cho's Garden is one of the area's best Korean restaurants.
Appetizers include dumplings, grilled dishes, and tofu. Half a dozen or more side dishes such as bean sprouts, medallions of breaded fish, and spinach are offered. The menu features barbecue dishes such as short ribs, marinated sirloin, sliced pork, and sliced chicken. Other winners are bibim bap, a clay bowl of warm rice with a variety of bite-size vegetables and meat; snf jahpchae, sautéed sliced beef, vegetables, and cellophane noodles; and a discus-size seafood scallion pancake. Dishes labeled spicy are that and more. Several Japanese dishes round out the menu.
The Monday-through-Friday luncheon buffet, a winner, includes good sushi plus a selection of Korean dishes for $11.95.
Cho's Garden, 9940 Lee Hwy.; 703-359-9801. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Jaipur (moderate). One of the two Indian restaurants from Fairfax to make The Washingtonian's 100 Very Best Restaurant list–the other is Bombay Bistro–Jaipur offers an attractive setting in which to enjoy its excellent cooking. The city of Jaipur, one of the jewels of Rajasthan in northwest India, is known as the pink city, and the restaurant adopts that color scheme.
Appetizers are mostly battered and deep fried–bite-size boneless pieces of lightly battered fish known as macchli-amritsari, along with better-known samosas and vegetable pakoras. An alternative is chat papdi, a mixture of flour chips, steamed potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, mint, and tamarind sauce. Half portions of tandoor dishes, including chicken, lamb, and salmon, are available as starters–a practice customary in India and a welcome innovation here.
For the main course, try the spicy lamb vindaloo; the creamy chicken malabaar made with coconut milk; the murgh shekhawat that consists of pieces of chicken cooked with brown onion paste and tomatoes; and the lamb saagwala, pieces of lamb and seasoned spinach. The list of vegetarian dishes is long, as is the selection of Indian breads.
Jaipur, 9401 Lee Hwy.; 703-766-1111. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Le Tire Bouchon (expensive). This restaurant delights the eye as well as the palate. The walls of this cozy stucco house are hung with abstract art and Parisian cafe posters. The cooking is splendid. A team of experienced chefs and restaurateurs whose résumés include just about every top French restaurant in the area has put together a first-rate operation. The menu balances nouvelle cuisine and more-traditional fare. This is the place to go in Fairfax for a special occasion.
Among the appetizers, the ravioli of lobster with red-beet-and-ginger sauce is outstanding. Also excellent are the Nantucket sea scallops wrapped in Parma prosciutto with lentils; sautéed frog's legs with tomato, sweet garlic, and white wine; Hudson Valley foie gras; and baby-arugula salad with shaved Parmesan, caramelized shallots, and raspberry vinaigrette. Among the main courses, which range from $23 to $33, consider the roasted duck breast with a foie gras sauce, the entrecôte with cracked pepper flambéed at tableside, and the pan-seared snapper with saffron cream sauce. The made-to-order apple tart is a terrific dessert.
The generally fine wine list would be improved by the inclusion of some wines under $35.
Le Tire Bouchon, 4009 Chain Bridge Rd.; 703-691-4747. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Pad Thai (inexpensive). The smallest restaurant in this survey, with 38 seats, Pad Thai holds its own against a strong field of Thai places. The brother-and-sister team that runs the kitchen and dining room seems to get everything right.
Good starters are steamed mussels with a lime-and-chili sauce; hoi jaw, which is crab, ground shrimp, and ground pork wrapped in tofu skin, sliced, and pan-fried; large pan-seared chive dumplings; and several refreshing salads. Exuberant main courses are duck hi-so, bite-size morsels of duck fried with shrimp, onions, and other vegetables with a black-bean-and-ginger sauce; deep-fried and juicy soft-shell crabs offered with a choice of sauces; flaming watercress, which is more sautéed than flaming; and, of course, pad Thai, the familiar noodle dish of bean sprouts, egg, scallions, ground peanuts, and a choice of shrimp or meat. Several mixed seafood dishes are offered in a variety of preparations–stir-fried, on a hot plate, in a hot pot, and with curry paste. Pad Thai knows how to prepare seafood.
Pad Thai, 11199-E Lee Hwy.; 703-591-2525. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Temel (moderate). The elegant decor of this restaurant, which bills itself as Euro-Mediterranean, includes skylights, recessed lighting, waterfalls, celadon walls, and impressive friezes. There are a few Greek dishes and a couple of Greek wines, but this is chiefly a Turkish restaurant–a good Turkish restaurant.
A fine way to start is with the Temel platter, enough for two or three or possibly a lunch for one. Included are stuffed grape leaves, hummus, feta, fried zucchini, falafel, and Temel's Cigars–finger-thick deep-fried phyllo rolls oozing herbs and feta. The Turkish pizzas, thin-crusted and light on the tomato, are another good bet.
For more-substantial fare, order the lamb shish kebab enhanced with paprika; grilled baby lamb chops; or skewers of ground lamb–or combine them in a mixed grill. Seafood has its successes, too. The grilled salmon filet and grilled trout are prepared simply and well. The succulent lamb shank was a bit undersized. For dessert, go the Middle Eastern route with baklava and rice pudding or try the excellent baked pears. Doner kabob, layers of veal and lamb cooked vertically, is available on weekends.
Temel, 3232 Old Pickett Rd.; 703-352-5477. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
26 Other Good Places
Arigato (moderate). Proprietor Ryong-Chui Park has three Japanese restaurants–two in Fairfax, and one in Seoul, South Korea. The two in Fairfax are airy with lots of blond wood. The one in Fair Lakes sports a high ceiling and interesting old photographs on the walls. The one on Lee Highway boasts a wall aquarium. Service is experienced at both places.
The food is very good. Sushi and sashimi are fresh and well carved. Shrimp tempura is crisp. The other staples, such as udon noodles and teriyaki, give no cause for complaint. Main courses average around $15 at dinner. Salmon teriyaki was especially good at a recent lunch: Two fresh, 1/2-inch-thick salmon steaks were cooked just right for only $8.50.
The Fair Lakes location features a luncheon buffet Monday through Saturday. Offerings include some unexpected sushi, such as surf clam and octopus, along with the less-exotic tuna, salmon, mackerel, and an array of maki rolls, plus several hot dishes. The price is $12.50.
Arigato Japanese Restaurants, 11199-A Lee Hwy., 703-352-9338; 13039 Fair Lakes Center, 703-449-8404. Both restaurants are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Artie's (moderate). All the seating at this upscale tavern is at booths. The wood paneling glistens, and photographs and models of speedboats abound. The menu is neither extensive nor ambitious, but the preparations are professional and the service conscientious.
It's hard to miss with any of the half-dozen starters. Blue-crab fritters coated with a tangle of crisp phyllo, grilled-corn salsa, and spicy lobster ginger butter and a straightforward hot spinach-and-artichoke dip are first-rate. Soups, which change daily, have consistently satisfied. The star of the menu, usually available on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, is blackened prime rib served on the bone. Other good choices are sautéed chicken breast, jambalaya pasta with a nod to Louisiana, and barbecue baby back ribs. The wine list is short but carefully selected, and the prices are reasonable. For dessert try the deep-dish apple pecan pie or the warm flourless chocolate waffle, both with fine house-made vanilla ice cream.
Artie's, 3260 Old Lee Hwy.; 703-273-7600. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bellissimo (moderate). A comfortable setting, with two wall-size murals of northern Italy, and excellent service make this a good choice for a night out. Many dishes succeed admirably, although seafood is sometimes overcooked. Good choices to start a meal are snails with parsley in a white-wine sauce; lean, tender, and thinly sliced carpaccio; Italian sausages with white beans; grilled sea scallops with pesto; and the Giovanni salad with crisp greens and diced goat cheese. Order your pasta al dente if you want it firm. Two winners were the ravioli stuffed with crabmeat in a marinara sauce and the linguine with diced shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms.
Main courses have improved in the three years since this magazine's initial review. A lightly breaded, pounded veal chop Milanese, rainbow trout stuffed with crabmeat with balsamic-vinegar-and-red-wine sauce, grilled lamb chops with rosemary, and tenderloin of beef bathed in an intense Barolo reduction with shiitake mushrooms, sautéed spinach, and polenta can all be ordered with confidence.
Bellissimo, 10403 Main St.; 703-293-2367. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, Monday through Saturday for dinner.
Best of Thai (inexpensive). This simple, no-frills Thai restaurant in the heart of old Fairfax turns out highly competent cooking. There is little on the menu that is unfamiliar to fans of Thai cuisine, but its consistency and reasonable prices–most main courses are under $10–makes it a place to visit.
The chicken satay is particularly good; not far behind are steamed mussels in a broth with lemongrass and basil, and crisp spring rolls filled with cellophane noodles, shiitake, and vegetables. Salads, including a honey-roasted duck salad, and watercress with seafood with a spicy lime dressing, can be shared as appetizers or serve as a light lunch. The garlic shrimp with black-pepper-and-garlic sauce is a winner, with the shrimp deserving particularly high marks for texture. Choose one of the eight curries, such as the shrimp with red-chili paste and coconut milk, and one of the ten noodle or rice dishes, such as the traditional pad Thai, for a well-rounded meal.
Best of Thai, 4004 University Dr.; 703-267-9619. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Blue Iguana (moderate). No tropical lizards are in sight in the dining area or on the menu, but the decor is decidedly blue. The cuisine is American. The bar, which occupies about half the floor space not counting the tables outside, is lively. The servers are experienced and helpful. Main-course prices are $15 to $25 for generous portions.
If there is a theme to the food, it is a touch of sweetness, nicely balanced by other flavors. This sophisticated approach showed up in appetizers of ginger-scented calamari with a sweet chili sauce, shrimp and papaya puffs encased in phyllo dough, fried oysters with a jìcama-and-orange salad, and a roasted tart of tomatoes and Vidalia onions. Recommended main courses include the grilled filet mignon with a port thyme reduction, and a braised lamb shank, both better than the overcooked halibut and a passable citrus-roasted duck. A garnish of spinach was first-rate. The foccacia with olive oil spiked with Parmesan shavings and chili flakes was a good touch. House-made molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream was a winner–and the whipped cream is whipped in-house.
Blue Iguana, 12727 Shoppes La., Fair Lakes; 703-502-8108. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Sunday for brunch, and daily for dinner.
Blue Ocean (moderate). This engaging storefront restaurant uses scores of Japanese lanterns and a mural of Mount Fuji to add color to the simple furnishings. It's a good restaurant, but it could be better. Unusual for a Japanese restaurant, Blue Ocean maintains two menus. There's the standard printed menu, but dozens of the kitchen's authentic specialties appear in Japanese only on a pair of small blackboards that sit on the floor until Japanese customers arrive. Add those to the menu and the restaurant might be excellent.
As it is, the sushi and sashimi are very good. So are the crisp tempura and the fragrant soups with udon or soba noodles. Steak teriyaki is good but not special. In another twist, some specialties must be ordered in advance: one day for the sukiyaki and nabe hot pots, which are available only for two at $45, and four days for the traditional seven-course meal, including matsu, for $65 each. Ocean nabe (order one day in advance) consists of a dozen kinds of seafood and fish simmered, along with a variety of vegetables, in a broth and dunked into a dipping sauce. It was worth the wait.
Blue Ocean, 9449 Main St.; 703-425-7555. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bombay Cafe (inexpensive). Diners who want straightforward and inexpensive Indian food and don't mind eating on foam-plastic plates with plastic flatware will enjoy this cafe. At a time when some of the more elaborate Indian restaurants ask $20 for their high-end dishes, it's refreshing to find a place where nothing reaches double digits: You can get a pair of vegetable samosas for $1.69 and tandoori roti for 99 cents, and unlimited fountain sodas are free when you order anything over $3.
The menu covers a lot of ground: shrimp and salmon curries, lamb rogan josh, several biryanis, and stir-fried kadai specials. Buffets are $6.99 weekdays and $7.99 on weekends. A recent weekend buffet included Butter Chicken, chicken curry, tandoor chicken, shrimp biryani, a couple of vegetable curries, and two desserts. If it's good, cheap Indian food you want and not a fancy setting, you won't be disappointed.
Bombay Cafe, 11213-E Lee Hwy.; 703-352-8282. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bombay Garden (moderate). This Indian restaurant stands out in several respects. It emphasizes healthful dining, employing the Ayurvedic style of cooking, which uses no butter and very little oil, despite their presence in most Indian recipes. It also promotes wine as an accompaniment to dining. Its impressive wine list would make many European restaurants proud, and it sponsors wine dinners that show off the happy marriage of wine and Indian food. Check with the restaurant for the next event and reserve early.
Good familiar starters are chicken tikka, vegetable pakoras, and smoked tomato soup. Less familiar are fish pari, filet of lightly breaded white fish; seekh kebab, rolls of spiced ground lamb skewered and charcoal grilled; pan-seared grouper with a mango-chutney sauce; ragara patties, potato patties stuffed with herbs; and curried mussels. Good main courses are well-marinated tandoori trout, green-chili chicken, lamb biryani, and grilled eggplant with onions, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, one of several good vegetarian dishes. Luncheon buffets, served daily, offer good opportunities to sample the fine and varied food.
Bombay Garden, 4008 University Dr.; 703-383-1553. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Bravo (moderate). This attractive restaurant is outfitted with plenty of wood, stained-glass windows, artificial trees with tiny lights on the branches, large mirrors, and booths rather than tables. Music is courtesy of Sinatra and friends. The cooking is pan-Italian, with a wood-burning oven for pizzas, plenty of pastas, and main courses of grilled fish, chicken cooked a variety of ways, veal, and steaks.
If the restaurant is shooting for consistency rather than distinction, it has hit its mark. Whether it's preparing baby clams sautéed in a garlic wine sauce, mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat, or fried calamari, the kitchen does its job well. The same goes for the pizzas, which are individual size and nicely crisped. Among the pastas, thick bucatini carbonara was fine, cooked al dente as ordered; linguine with baby clams is another good choice. Veal scallopine piccata featured good veal that was not overcooked. The wine list would be improved by the inclusion of vintages; a fine Pio Cesare Barbara d'Alba '02 was a reasonable $30.
Bravo Italian Café, 11250 James Swart Cir.; 703-352-0260. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cantina D'Italia (moderate). This is a traditional Italian restaurant housed in a contemporary setting, with colorful tile designs and wooden trim. If the cooking is not cutting-edge, it is certainly consistent. It's a comfortable place where diners feel equally at ease enjoying a pizza or very good shellfish.
The mixed cold antipasto contains a fine variety of meats, cheese, and vegetables dressed with a tart vinaigrette. Mussels come with white wine, parsley, lemon, garlic, and olive oil or with a marinara sauce. Pizzas and pastas are well prepared. The individual pizza starts at just $5.95. Among the pasta successes are penne with shrimp in a marinara sauce, and fettuccine Bolognese. The veal scallopine is worth ordering, either in veal piccata or in a more-complex preparation. The shrimp scampi with a lemon garlic-butter sauce is very good. Main courses usually come with a pasta that is surprisingly well prepared, although don't hesitate to ask for the mixed vegetables as an accompaniment if you're having a pasta course.
Cantina D'Italia, 13015 Fair Lakes Shopping Center; 703-631-2752. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cattleya (inexpensive). This is another of the good family-owned-and-operated restaurants that abound in the Fairfax area. If you like to dine outdoors, Cattleya offers a special opportunity: Though located on one of Fairfax's busiest thoroughfares, this Thai restaurant is set well back from the street.
Neither the menu nor the price is exceptional. Among the starters, one of the few unusual dishes is the successful Cattleya puff, similar to fried wontons filled with curried shrimp, chicken, potatoes, and carrots. Papaya salad and yum ma kheau, a spicy salad featuring grilled eggplant, are other good choices. Good main courses are Cattleya seafood sautéed with snow peas, ginger, carrots, and scallions; wild pork sautéed with peppercorns, tomatoes, and basil leaves in a red-curry sauce laced with wine; and pad see ew, wide rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, broccoli, eggs, and sweet soy sauce.
Cattleya Thai Restaurant, 3981 Chain Bridge Rd.; 703-934-8880. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Chutzpah (inexpensive). Despite its setting in a strip mall, this stab at a real New York-style Jewish deli comes as close as can be found in the area. It's not the Stage or Carnegie or even Mel Krupin's in its prime, but there's plenty to savor.
The menu is long, ranging from the standard deli sandwiches to a host of Eastern European main courses. Try the chopped liver, stuffed derma, matzo-ball soup, stuffed cabbage, potato knishes, and potato latkes. Then move on to one of the deli sandwiches or main courses, such as calf's liver with sautéed onions and Romanian marinated flank steak. Sandwiches come in several sizes, and most have been good. One unexpected disappointment was the hot pastrami–it was sliced too thin and appeared to have been reheated long after slicing.
Breakfast and brunch are big deals in delis. Whether you order blintzes, smoked whitefish, whitefish salad, or eggs scrambled with lox or grilled salami, you can be sure you won't leave the table hungry.
Chutzpah, 12214 W. Ox Rd.; 703-385-8883. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Coastal Flats (moderate). Here's another winner from the folks who've brought you Artie's, the Sweetwater Taverns, and Silverado. The place is huge, with 60 booths. Dangling from the blue-painted ducts near the high ceiling is a mermaid or two. The large porch is loaded with a vibrant singles crowd. The wait for a table, even on a weekday, can be an hour or more. No reservations are taken, but you can call as you leave home to be placed on the waiting list. It's a fun place, so be patient and enjoy.
The menu leans heavily to seafood. Appetizers include blue-crab-and-rock-shrimp fritters with grilled-corn salsa and lobster-and-ginger butter; sweet and spicy calamari with string beans, a bit on the sweet side but tender and appealing; and a lobster roll. Main courses will please meat as well as seafood lovers. Key-lime roasted half chicken and hickory-smoked baby back ribs vie with grouper fried in a beer batter and sea bass with soy sherry broth, ginger, scallions, and sticky rice. There are good margaritas, beer on tap and in the bottle, and a surprisingly fine wine list that includes Acacia and Chalone Pinot Noirs.
Coastal Flats, 11901 Grand Commons Ave.; 571-522-6300. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Dolce Vita (moderate). On a good day, which is most days, this is a very good Italian restaurant. The front dining area is less formal, bounded on two sides by windows looking onto the strip mall's parking area and on the third by an open kitchen that includes a pizza oven. The more-formal rear area boasts humorous black-and-white murals. Dinner prices average $5.95 for appetizers, $11 for pastas, and $18 for main courses. At lunch, main courses are $6.95 to $9.95, including a salad and soft drink.
On a recent visit clams posillipo and a special of scallops in the shell with a white-wine-and-garlic sauce were excellent. Pizzas and pastas generally have been good, although one was overcooked on an off evening. Thinly sliced chicken piccata and veal Marsala were fine. Mixed vegetables, an option to accompany the main course, were well prepared, but minced spinach was not a winner that night. The house ten-leaf salad is consistently good.
The wine list is varied and impressive, with several top-of-the-line Piedmont and Tuscan wines well worth their $80 price tags. If only the vintages were listed.
Dolce Vita, 10824 Lee Hwy.; 703-385-1530. Open daily for dinner, Monday through Saturday for lunch.
House of Lions (inexpensive). At first glance this restaurant, located in the basement of a Comfort Inn, doesn't inspire confidence. It is attractive enough, with a nice, airy feel and a subterranean waterfall, but the menu that servers usually provide lists the unexciting standards of a neighborhood Chinese-American restaurant.
For a top-flight meal, ask for the Chinese menu. Simply typed on yellow paper with Chinese characters on one side and English on the other, it includes 60 or so authentic dishes prepared by a highly competent chef from Taiwan. Order the likes of shredded pork with preserved cabbage, shrimp with garlic sauce, crispy salty shrimp, bean curd in brown sauce, and black mushroom and Chinese cabbage. Providing variety are ten noodle dishes, with and without soup, and nine non-noodle soups like scallop-watercress. Prices are reasonable, with most vegetable and noodle dishes around $8, meat a little more, and seafood $13 and up.
House of Lions, 11180 Main St.; 703-273-3998. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Merrifield Kabob (inexpensive). Kebab shops are popping up all over. Few are more than a grill with a few tables and chairs, and the quality of the product varies a great deal. Merrifield Kabob sets itself apart with a more attractive place to sit and eat and the use of fresh Halal meat. The range of offerings is small–seven kebabs, a gyro platter or wrap, a daily stew, a few vegetables, rice, salad, and bread.
The kebabs are marinated, aggressively seasoned, and cooked over an open flame. And the prices are right with kebabs, including rice, fresh-baked bread, salad, and a vegetable, starting at $6.75 for bone-in chicken and topping out at $9.95 for lamb chops. Also available are kebabs of boneless chicken, beef, lamb, and ground beef as well as a few combinations. Baklava and a custard are the desserts; beverages are soft drinks and juices.
Merrifield Kabob, 8428 Lee Hwy.; 703-204-4400. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Minerva (inexpensive). If you're looking for authentic Indian food at bargain prices, this is the place. The decor is nothing special, but that doesn't deter the loyal Indian-American clientele.
Minerva offers one of the most comprehensive and pleasing luncheon buffets in the area for $8.95 on weekdays and $10.95 on weekends. Because many of the dishes are stewlike curries, they hold up remarkably well on a steam table, while other dishes, such as chicken tikka, are replenished regularly from the tandoor. The dinner menu shines, too. Many of the 16 listed appetizers such as samosas, pakoras, and cutlets are deep-fried. Main courses to savor are lamb and chicken curries, the tandoori preparations, the biryanis, and the long list of vegetarian treats, including southern-Indian specialties like the thin and crisp dosas, made with a rice-and-lentil flour, stuffed with a choice of vegetables, and moistened with a souplike sauce. Breads, both simple and stuffed, are a treat.
Minerva, 10364 Lee Hwy.; 703-383-9200. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Pars (moderate). Whether you call the cooking Iranian or Persian is beside the point. The cuisine has a long heritage and many distinctive preparations, and Pars is a nice place to enjoy it. Oriental rugs, cushy booths, and wooden accents provide a comfortable and attractive setting.
Good starters include stuffed grape leaves; mirza ghasemi, eggplant with garlic and tomatoes; halim bademjan, a smoky dip made with eggplant and red beans; and kuku sabzi, a mix of spinach, hard-boiled egg, garlic, parsley, and dill.
Kebabs are the heart of the operation, and they are very good. For a special treat try one of the upscale ones like filet mignon or lamb chops, or, almost as good, Cornish hen. They come with fine basmati rice and blistered tomatoes. But this is no mere kebab house: Try lamb shank with basmati rice, dill, and lima beans; charbroiled chicken with basmati rice, dates, raisins, and lentils; and chicken with fried-walnut-and-pomegranate sauce. The traditional Middle Eastern flatbread may not appeal to everyone, but what cuisine doesn't have a clinker or two?
Pars, 10801 Lee Hwy; 703-273-3508. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
P.J. Skidoo (moderate). In a world dominated by chains, this attractive, midscale steakhouse with hands-on ownership stands by itself. P.J. Skidoo, which just celebrated its 28th anniversary, boasts an airy, high-ceilinged front room and a rear dining area nicely subdivided into cozy nooks. Hanging from the walls are delightful old food posters and magazine covers. The bar is large and active.
Steak and roast beef are kings, the latter listed as the house specialty. It comes in three sizes; the largest, 16 ounces, is $18.95. The USDA Choice meat is correctly seasoned and cooked. Pepper Jack sirloin steak, with crushed peppercorns and Jack Daniel's, is one of the justified specialties of the house. Supplementing the beef are a half dozen chicken dishes and a variety of seafood offerings, including shrimp, crab cakes, trout, and salmon. Appetizers tend to be tavern food, the likes of fried zucchini and fried cheese sticks. An onion soup topped with mozzarella with a sprinkle of Parmesan was good.
While the wine list is distressingly short, an Australian Shiraz was good and a bargain at $20.
P.J. Skidoo, 9908 Lee Hwy.; 703-591-4516. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Sakoontra (inexpensive). This very good Thai restaurant has a Thai taxi just inside its doors. The connection with the cooking is not clear, but no matter. The kitchen knows what it is doing, and the prices are very reasonable. Dish after dish is listed at $6.95 for the vegetarian version, $8.95 with chicken, beef, or pork, and $11.95 with seafood. Prices are even lower at lunch.
The standards–satay, spring rolls, pork and shrimp dumplings, various stir-fries, curries, noodles, and fried rice–are done well here. On a recent visit, less-familiar dishes won the gold. Honey shrimp are gently crusted and stir-fried with garlic, scallions, ginger, fresh pepper, and honey. The result resembled sweet-and-sour sauce but was far from the usual gummy fare. Another winner was yum watercress, the watercress deep-fried and presented with a mélange of chicken, shrimp, squid, and cashew nuts in a moderately spicy lime sauce.
Sakoontra, 12300-C Price Club Plaza; 703-818-8886. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Seoul House (moderate). Like most Korean restaurants, this one offers Japanese dishes along with its native cuisine. What sets this Korean restaurant apart from many that have opened in Fairfax is its ability to make non-Koreans feel comfortable.
What Seoul House lists as appetizers, most non-Korean diners would consider main courses–pan-fried fish or shrimp and oyster or seafood pancakes, which are listed between $12 and $15. No reason not to have them, just don't consider them appetizers. Diners who must nibble on something will be pleased to find that a half dozen or more side dishes are delivered promptly to the table.
Good entrée choices are the Korean barbecue–bul goki, thin slices of marinated beef, and bul kalbi, marinated short ribs, as well as sliced chicken and pork. Broiled fish, a salad of warm rice with shredded beef and vegetables and hot sauce on the side, spicy and nonspicy stews and main-course soups, and a selection of sushi and sashimi round out the menu. An all-you-can-eat weekday luncheon buffet offers sushi and Korean specialties for $12.50.
Seoul House, 11272 James Swart Cir.; 703-934-8250. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Star Thai (inexpensive). Here's a restaurant sure to distract you from the outside world. The decor is colorful, with abstract murals and a surreal atmosphere. The servers keep the clientele, both Thai and non-Thai, happy.
The menu is standard, with prices topping out at $11 for nonseafood items; seafood goes for a few dollars more. Soups, salads, and appetizers make up a third of the listings. Spicy beef salad and equally spicy larb gai, made from minced chicken, hot chili, garlic, basil, and green beans, are good salad starters. The Star sampler offers a trio of appetizers for $6.95. For a main course consider spicy Siam calamari; nua tone, made with beef and fresh ginger; or the milder goong kratiem, shrimp stir-fried with white-pepper-and-garlic sauce. Among the curries, order the Panang Gai with chicken or better yet with shrimp, in which crushed peanuts are added to a red-curry sauce that includes soothing coconut milk.
Star Thai, 13046 Fair Lakes Shopping Center; 703-222-5452. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Café (inexpensive). Like the rest of these colorful Tex-Mex restaurants, Rio Grande keeps churning out tacos, enchiladas, nachos, tamales, rice, beans, tortillas, pico de gallo, and the rest of the standard repertoire to a full or nearly full house. The place works equally well as a family place, a date destination, and a singles bar. The salsa is tangy, the tortilla chips are crisp, the margaritas are cold and refreshing, and the Dos Equis and Corona keep flowing.
Diners looking for something beyond basic Tex-Mex should focus on the section of the menu where listed individually and as parts of combinations are such dishes as grilled frog's legs, shrimp, and quail. If you're at the Rio Grande, you're probably not counting calories, so you might as well try one of the large and gooey desserts.
Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Café, 4251 Fairfax Corner Ave.; 703-266-7760. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Viet House (inexpensive). Although there are a few other items on the menu, this is foremost a pho house, where Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese aficionados can get a fix of the national dish. One of the better deals around is a meal-size bowl of aromatic broth loaded with rice noodles, thinly sliced meat, and scallions to which the diner adds bean sprouts, basil or Asian mint, red-pepper sauce, and hoisin sauce. A large bowl is $6.45, a small one–which is not so small–$5.75. Hungrier patrons can start with the crisp spring roll or the soft summer roll, rice vermicelli and shrimp enclosed in rice paper. Alternatives to the pho are such simple pleasures as grilled lemon chicken on rice or grilled pork and a spring roll on rice vermicelli.
Viet House Restaurant, 11216 Lee Hwy., 703-934-0923; 9966 Main St., 703-691-0090. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and early dinner.
Woodlands (inexpensive). One of a quartet of nearly identical eateries bearing the same name, this simple southern-Indian restaurant is vegetarian to the core. Although southern-Indian food is catching on, most diners will find many of the dishes new. Popular are the paper-thin and crisp rice-and-lentil crepes, the size of a large plate, stuffed with seasoned potatoes, house-made Indian cheese, or other fillings folded over and topped with a thin vegetable-soup-like sauce.
Pancakelike uttapams studded with scallions, croquettes of cream-of-wheat-like grain (idli), and a host of other rice-and-lentil-based dishes round out the menu. Most of these items are mild but can be made incendiary with the addition of lemon chutney or another condiment. Dishes listing chilies as an ingredient are likely to sear the tongue. No alcohol is served, so try a lassi, a yogurt-based drink that is salty, sweet, or mango flavored.
Woodlands, 4078 Jermantown Rd.; 703-385-1996. Open daily for lunch and dinner.