News & Politics

100 Very Best Restaurants (2006)

The finest dining in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Look beyond the stars. We mean it literally: The rankings in our annual list of the area's top restaurants can't begin to convey the larger sweep of the fascinating story that's unfolding. This story is between the lines, apart from the numbers. Connect the dots, as we've tried to do, and the pattern emerges. And what a pattern.

The old divisions are being erased. The old hierarchies are crumbling. Everything is blurring. City and suburb. Formality and informality. Upscale and downscale. Appetizers and entrées. Our notions of what a restaurant is, of what dining out is, are changing.

The image of Washington as a clubby, expense-account town defined by its steakhouse dens is about as relevant these days as the old canard that the city is a sleepy Southern backwater.

Consider the fact that the area's most appealing steakhouse isn't even really a steakhouse. And it's far from a power center. It's a restaurant in a Clarendon strip mall named Ray's the Steaks, crammed nightly with families and couples all clamoring for house-aged Hereford steaks that rival the very best of the big boys downtown for juiciness and savor.

Ray's is among the places at the forefront of the new suburban chic. It used to be that the most interesting, ambitious work was being done either in the heart of the city or out in the countryside. Now, as chain restaurants are taking root in the revamped downtown, chef-driven restaurants are taking flight.

At Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, you can sup from one of the area's most compelling tasting menus.

2941 is as grandly appointed as any dining room in DC, with a sumptuous French classical menu and a breathtaking wine list–the ideal prescription for an elegant hotel restaurant. Except that this vision of splendor plays out in the ground floor of a steel-and-glass high-rise off a highway in Falls Church.

Amici Miei, tucked away in a Potomac strip mall, is doing a brilliant impersonation of an urbane, big-city Italian restaurant, turning out the likes of grilled lamb in a raisin sauce in a dining room as warm and inviting as any you'd find in Little Italy.

Of all the restaurants that have invested heavily in a retro industrial look, Jackie's in Silver Spring is the best and most convincing. This vision of London's Soho, with its exposed beams, pull-down projector screens flashing enigmatic images, and trippy-colored booths, is as citified as anything you'll find in the redeveloped downtown.

The ambition and energy are drifting out even to the exurbs.

Not so long ago, Frederick was noteworthy primarily as a haven for weekend antiquing–a diverting fall getaway. Now? Dig into the deconstructed cassoulet at Zest and find out. It's just one of the highlights of a booming dining scene that is beginning to reshape our notions of eating in the 'burbs.

As suburb and city are becoming indistinguishable, high-end dining is becoming mixed up with low-end dining, with fascinating, often-delicious results. Call it the downscaling of upscale.

The granddaddy of this practice locally is chef Michel Richard at Citronelle, who seems to get his biggest kicks out of making his food look like junk food. A pressed-chicken patty in his Chicken Three Ways is a dead ringer for what you'd pull from a box in the frozen-foods aisle of the grocery store. Sure, the dish requires all the technical artistry that distinguishes a serious chef from a cook, but it wears its learning lightly.

Richard is no longer alone in spending as much of his time conjuring whimsy as coaxing deep, fully developed flavors to the surface. The favored ingredient of José Andrés at his Minibar at Café Atlántico, his restaurant-within-a-restaurant, is not truffles or lobster but Corn Nuts. Andrés and his cooks deploy the processed snack food in no fewer than three of their intricately crafted, spoon-size nibbles. Andrés doesn't want you to admire these mini-dishes, to sit in awe of them–he wants you to dig in and have some fun. For all his culinary tricks and gourmet goodies, he's just whipping up fun little treats. No big deal: It's just food. Relax.

Thus does the indisputably upscale become comfortingly downscale.

Just as often, it goes the other way, too.

At David Greggory, chef Greggory Hill is offering the comfort-food classic meatloaf and mashed potatoes on his eclectic menu. Just like Mom's–if Mom happened to study at the Cordon Bleu: The meatloaf is stuffed with foie gras mousse.

Once a delicacy reserved for special occasions, foie gras is the darling of the new breed of midlevel restaurant. Tallula, the Clarendon redoubt for stylish yuppies on the make, recently served the lobe of fattened duck liver with a Coca-Cola reduction. By unofficial count, no fewer than 50 area restaurants now feature foie gras on their menus–the majority of them neither French nor expensive.

Perhaps nowhere is the blurring of high and low more dramatic than in the decision by some of the biggest restaurants to reconfigure their operations.

Palena converted its front room into a cafe, complete with a menu of dishes under $10–a smart reach-out to a younger, more casually minded audience inclined to eat out more often for less. The three items that never leave chef Frank Ruta's ever-changing menu? A hot dog, a hamburger, and a plate of fries.

A while ago, it was smart of Roberto Donna to tack his Laboratorio onto the back of Galileo–in effect subjecting himself to the most extreme gastronomic scrutiny and cementing his claim to greatness. Today it's telling that Donna, having sold off most of his other restaurants, has consolidated his operations and is reaching out to a more casual crowd with his Osteria and Grill menus. Both offer the kind of simple, honest, soulful cooking that the various outposts of Donna's empire were supposed to deliver but only occasionally did.

IndeBleu is a model of the new breed of restaurant. It has mastered the art of the upstairs/downstairs split. Downstairs is the lounge, with a raft of accessibly priced small plates for the post-game, post-theater crowd and an environment that doesn't stint on style. Upstairs there's fine dining, but of the most unthreatening kind: Waiters drilled in the finer points of Michelin-style wave service (simultaneous water pourings, simultaneous clearing of plates) glide through the room in blue jeans.

Restaurants without big budgets and big-time investors are finding it possible to compete at the highest levels by adopting a stripped-down look that some might dismiss as trendy but which reflects a simpler, practical necessity. Komi in East Dupont Circle drops any claims to style or atmosphere or warmth–its walls are bare and its portions are small. But Johnny Monis's cooking is as careful and controlled as that of any of the more celebrated kitchens in town.

All of this is not to say that things are better than ever–simply that things are more interesting than ever.

The steakhouses are still around in abundance, and a number of them are performing as well as ever. Special-occasion standbys such as the Inn at Little Washington, 1789, and L'Auberge Chez François will never go out of fashion. A rack of lamb, a roast chicken, a hand-carved prime rib–these are as eternal as death and taxes.

But a new energy is in the air, and a lot of what we know about restaurants–what they represent, what they exist to do–is now in flux.

And going out to eat is suddenly more popular than ever, the new leisure activity for a workaholic town. Mondays and Tuesdays were traditionally slow nights for restaurant kitchens. Now you might be hard pressed to get a table at many of the restaurants on this list if you were to call in the late afternoon on the day you wanted to dine. Chefs jokingly refer to Friday and Saturday as "amateur" nights, when their dining rooms are full of supposedly less-sophisticated diners. These days, every night feels like veterans' night.

And if fine dining is no longer so fine, it's also no longer so predictable. You don't order one or two courses anymore, you order three or five–and hope you're full at the end. Restaurants now expect to see you not two or three times a year but two or three times a week. Reservations? They're going the way of the CD. A 45-minute wait for a table in the 'burbs on a Monday night? Show up and take your chances. Why not? There might even be foie gras on the menu.

A LA LUCIA (1 1/2 stars) 315 Madison St., Alexandria; 703-836-5123

THE SCENE. Poised on the edge of Old Town Alexandria, this two-year-old restaurant is a winning mix of the ambitious (a lively, vibrantly colored front room adorned with jazz collages and original artwork, a tasteful back room for more serious dining, and a dazzling-looking wine bar) and the appealingly low-key (simple Italian cooking untouched by recent trends toward regionalism).

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The chance to dine on generous portions of untrendy Italian cooking in bright, peppy surroundings.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The cooking might benefit from bowing a bit more often in the direction of checkered-tablecloth heartiness. And, amid the abondanza, service can sometimes be more efficient than welcoming.

BEST DISHES. Slabs of mozzarella with tomato, peppery olive oil, and basil that looks and tastes fresh even out of season; ringlets of calamari tossed with olive oil, red pepper, and celery; veal cannelloni distinguished by its firm, not soggy, shell; veal paillard, pounded thin and grilled until lightly smoky.

Moderate; entrées $10.95 to $28.95.

ADDIE'S (2 stars) 11120 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-0081

THE SCENE. Tucked amid the box buildings and fast-food joints along Rockville Pike, this quaint, saffron-painted house fitted with an antique stove seems curiously misplaced, a little girl's toy left by the side of the road. Walk inside and the chaos of the outside world begins to seem a few states away.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Jeff and Barbara Black's first restaurant is full of ragtag charm. The Modern American menu ranges far and wide for inspiration, from SoCal (roasted endive salad with blood-orange vinaigrette) to new Caribbean (grilled mahi-mahi kicked with mango-chipotle coulis)–but never seems to be showing off. And there are few more inviting spots to dine in warm weather than Addie's patio–you'd think you were at a backyard party.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Although many dishes have an appealing sturdiness to them and the menu is mostly free of clunkers, the cooking is ultimately less captivating than the atmosphere.

BEST DISHES. The oyster po' boy and shrimp salad, a lunch staple; fried oysters coated in panko; a mixed-berry crème brûlée with the faint flavor of yogurt.

Expensive; entrées $21 to $28.

AMICI MIEI (2 1/2 stars) 1093 Seven Locks Rd., Rockville; 301-545-0966

THE SCENE. The restaurant-going crowd in Rockville and Potomac has something to smile about these days. Amici Miei is the sort of dining room everyone wants in the neighborhood: a stylish yet unpretentious trattoria that captures the essence of regional Italian cuisine. And owners Davide Megna and Roberto Deias, both natives of Italy who've done stints at a half dozen well-known Italian eateries between them, go out of their way to charm their diners, regulars or not.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Megna's cooking reminds you that a dish doesn't need a dozen exotic ingredients to woo. Italy has hundreds of modest restaurants of this sort; they're much harder to find here.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The by-the-glass wine list could use a bit of bolstering. And all that marble and bare wood in the dining room means things can get loud.

BEST DISHES. A luscious vitello tonnato; fresh butterflied-and-grilled sardines to pop in the mouth; crisp-crust wood-oven pizzas, including a feisty diavola with spicy salami and roasted peppers; pork sausage with a bitter counterpoint of broccoli rabe; lamb chops with a sauce of wine and raisins; branzino cooked whole with salmoriglio, a pungent olive-oil herb sauce; the Caprese, a grainy chocolate nut cake popular on the Amalfi coast.

Moderate; entrées $13.95 to $24.95.

ASIA NORA (2 1/2 stars) 2213 M St., NW; 202-797-4860

THE SCENE. Couples hunting for a romantic night, organic-abiding families, and powerbrokers looking to unwind make up the unlikely coalition of diners at Nora Pouillon's elegantly understated restaurant in the West End, where the fusion is more soothing than showy.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. At a time when swanked-up Latin-Asian hybrids are springing up all over, chef de cuisine Haidar Karoum reminds you where Asian fusion began. His visually arresting creations skillfully blend French technique and local ingredients with dashes of Chinese, Thai, and Japanese. Not long ago considered the plucky upstart, the spinoff has left behind its legendary forebear, Restaurant Nora.

WHAT YOU WON'T. While some find the low-lit setting romantic, others see the brown walls and sun-shaped wall hangings as crying for renovation. And some dishes are priced to scare–$10 for miso soup?

BEST DISHES. Thai-style beef carpaccio with cilantro and crushed peanut; buttery, miso-glazed sablefish over wasabi-mashed potatoes; pork tenderloin with black-pepper caramel jus.

Expensive; entrées $22 to $28.

ASTER (3 stars) 101 S. Madison St., Middleburg; 540-687-4080

THE SCENE. Interior decorator-cum-chef Hump Astorga's year-old restaurant, in a country house off Middleburg's main street, is already a local favorite, and more and more city folk are jumping in the car for his exciting Modern American creations.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. From the two amuses bouches that quickly arrive to the expert service (You are wearing dark pants? A server switches a white napkin for black) to the distinctive look of each tiny dining room, you'll know that attention has been paid. A fire-lit lounge jumps with colorful cartoon cels, a cozy alcove features cabernet walls and black leather banquettes, and a glassed-in porch is lined with MFK Fisher paperbacks and Monet prints. Meanwhile, Astorga smilingly checks up on every table.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some things sound better than they taste. Aster delivers a heavy dose of whimsy, and a few dishes come off as too precious (the delicate Vegetarian Tasting looked like it took a hundred hands to build) or clumsy (a sabayon-pesto-drenched crab cake).

BEST DISHES. The four-way squash tasting, with sweet and subtle Delicatta squash panna cotta across from a demitasse of rich, Blue Hubbard squash soup; green salad with Seckel pear and beets; a terrific appetizer of seared tuna and house-made lamb sausage with chipotle foam; perfectly poached black cod in coconut chili broth; a root-beer float with ginger ice cream and sassafras foam.

Expensive; entrées $25 to $36. (Note added 12/06: This restaurant has closed)

BANGKOK 54 (3 stars) 2919 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-4070

THE SCENE. Endoo Tonkphontong's Thai cooking eats as good as the place looks. Walls of granite gray and Chinese red, a museumlike grid of shelves with native brass vessels, and vivid blooms make a vibrant backdrop for dishes both fiery and tame.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Savvy shopping–the owners make regular visits to local markets and the Southwest DC waterfront–and a passion for the assertive, authentic flavors of great Thai home cooking add up to an experience of rare exuberance. The small but respectable wine list is a welcome surprise.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some experiments fall short of the mark. And specials of jumbo crab and whole fish can bloat the bill, so ask about market prices.

BEST DISHES. Lush and fatty pork belly crisped and tossed with garlic, chilies, and basil; stir-fried cress pungent with black beans and garlic; supremely munchable fried bundles of shrimp and shredded vegetables called Firecrackers; pad cha, a spicy stir-fry of seafood and sweet corn in red-chili sauce; classic shrimp in green curry with tender chunks of Thai eggplant; dense, creamy, fresh young-coconut ice cream.

Inexpensive; entrées $7.50 to $12.95.

BISTRO BIS (3 stars) 15 E St., NW; 202-661-2700

THE SCENE. Real and would-be Capitol Hill power brokers fill the tables and crowd the bar at this stylish bistro in the St. George Hotel, one of the best places to experience the Hill during off-hours, when much of the real work gets done.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The well-prepared bistro classics offer simple satisfactions; one of the best cheese carts in town and a slate of terrific desserts will have you going away floating–mentally, at least. And Bis is one of the few restaurants at its level open for breakfast, ideal for squeezing in a strategy session before work.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The noise and the occasional feeling that everyone around you is more in the loop than you. Meals are strongest at the beginning and at the end–a caveat for diners who aren't inclined to linger.

BEST DISHES. A classic frisée salad with bacon lardons and a poached egg; plump, juicy steamed mussels with fennel and a spicy rouille; meltingly tender duck confit with white beans and duck sausage; pan-roasted veal sweetbreads; steak frites with tarragon hollandaise and crisp fries; a rich but delicate goat-cheese cake; wine-poached pear with cream.

Expensive; entrées $23.50 to $31.50.

BLACK MARKET BISTRO (2 stars) 4600 Waverly Ave., Garrett Park; 301-933-3000

THE SCENE. Owners Jeff and Barbara Black know how to pick their real estate. In an older neighborhood of turreted Victorians, this turn-of-the-century post office by the railroad tracks oozes country charm. The snazzy comfort food takes it beyond a local hangout.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The front porch for summer dining and the casual drop-in vibe. You'll feel as though you're in some far-flung rural burg instead of mere minutes from "civilization." Freight trains that thunder by only add to the charm.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The first-come, first-served policy means waits on weekends at dinner. And if you're not in the main dining room, you may be left wondering about that vaunted charm–the second dining room feels second-rate.

BEST DISHES. Cornmeal-crusted fried oysters to dunk in chipotle rémoulade; steamed mussels gone Asian with coconut milk and cilantro; crisp-crusted pizzas; pan-seared rockfish with a zippy radish-and-scallion salad; grilled hanger steak with chimichurri; homey roasted free-range chicken with jus; a great hamburger with a heap of brittle onions and the pungent bite of Maytag bleu; an honest-to-goodness triple-layer chocolate fudge cake; and, at brunch, eggs Benedict on tender house-made "angel flour" biscuits.

Moderate; entrées $10 to $25.

BLACK SALT (2 1/2 stars) 4883 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-342-9101

THE SCENE. You can't buy the kind of buzz that a loyal neighborhood following plus positive word of mouth have given Jeff and Barbara Black's newest and most ambitious restaurant, their first in the District. Black Salt does triple duty: as a fish market stocked with an exotic array of creatures from the deep; a stainless-steel bar, where almost as much eating goes on as drinking and gossiping; and a swanky dining room.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Variety and freshness alone make this a destination for seafood lovers. But this is no mere fish house–the wine list includes many half bottles along with interesting four- and seven-ounce pours, and a lineup of first-growth coffees wraps things up with flair.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Too-bright lighting combined with high noise levels during peak hours. And at times heavy-handed saucing and overly busy plates can make you pine for the clean simplicity of the raw bar.

BEST DISHES. A cream-laden New England clam chowder; excellent oysters on the half shell; shack-style fried Ipswich clams; fresh white anchovies drizzled with black-olive oil; wood-roasted Mediterranean bronzini with pancetta; a tureen of bourride loaded with oysters, diver scallops, and fingerling potatoes and spiked with Pernod; memory-lane sweets like butterscotch pot de crème and a plate of house-made cookies and candies.

Expensive; entrées $25 to $35.

BOB'S NOODLE 66 (2 stars) 305 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-315-6668

THE SCENE. There always seems to be a special occasion at this small, nondescript Taiwanese restaurant in North Rockville that teems with regulars. Even if you're not a regular, the affable Bob himself, former journalist Bob Iru, makes you feel at home, personally guiding you through the often-daunting menu.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The long and winding culinary journey that is the menu, ranging from small plates to soups to casseroles to family-style platters and encompassing a variety of cooking preparations, most of them delicious. And prices are so good–$16.95 at lunch fetches three large dishes plus a huge bowl of soup–that you're apt to come back for further exploration or overorder and save the leftovers for the next day (or two).

WHAT YOU WON'T. There's little pacing to a meal–dishes come out one after another, forcing you to eat them before they get cold instead of taking time to savor them. And some dishes are likely to dull the enthusiasm of the most intrepid diners–among them plates of loofah, duck's blood, and sliced stomach.

BEST DISHES. Taiwanese hamburger, a misnomer for a hunk of luscious pork tucked into a steamed bun with chewy greens; an eggy pancake studded with oysters and served with spicy chef's sauce; ginger chicken casserole, full of both homey savor and bite; whole steamed fish; peppery sautéed baby short ribs; shaved ice with red bean, lychee, and peanuts.

Inexpensive; entrées $9.95 to $22.95.

BOMBAY (3 stars) 11229 New Hampshire Ave., White Oak; 301-593-7222

THE SCENE. Indian cab drivers drop by for the lunch buffet during the week. Weekends are family affairs with sari-clad grandmothers, aunts, and cousins. Vivid purple sconces, framed native watercolors, and sitar music give diners a sense of place. But the real thrill is the cooking.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The deft spicing–this isn't timid food, but neither is it scorching. Chef Anthony Binod (who used to own a restaurant in Queens, home to New York's best Indian eateries) layers flavor upon flavor for dishes with depth–gravies are brimming with aromatics: curry leaves, mustard seeds, cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Flatbreads aren't always as flaky as they might be. Service occasionally can be indifferent, even gruff.

BEST DISHES. Some of the flakiest samosas around; an offbeat pakora of deep-fried cheese stuffed with fresh mint and paired with a cilantro-mint dipping sauce; the house biryani with crunchy shallots; a coconut-rich Goan fish curry; shrimp curry spiked with mustard seeds; tandoori lamb chops on the bone; and bhindi masala, a fiery, tomato-based okra stew that makes you wonder how anyone could ever malign this vegetable.

Inexpensive; entrées $9.95 to $17.95.

BUCK'S FISHING & CAMPING (2 1/2 stars) 5031 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-364-0777

THE SCENE. Bespectacled twentysomethings wander over from Politics & Prose, and neighborhood locals, chefs, and pundits jostle–and often endure long waits–for a spot at the bar or communal table at this intimate, Berkeley-fied haunt.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Nobody does comfort food with city-folk appeal like Carole Greenwood. And host and co-owner James Alefantis is a charmer.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The no-reservations policy works fine on weeknights but can be tough during the weekend rush. Waits might drag on longer than you're expecting, and if you're seated late, a good bit of the short menu can be sold out. And Greenwood's follow-her-bliss style results in a ragged inconsistency, with wonderful, spirit-lifting meals followed by indifferent ones.

BEST DISHES. Chicken livers on toast with bread-and-butter pickles; pan-roasted mussels; shrimp and grits; from the wood grill, whole branzino, lobster, or Greenwood's signature sirloin, mammoth and full of savor (a Fran Leibowitz quote on the menu reads: "My favorite animal is steak"); caramel ice cream; Texas chocolate cake.

Expensive; entrées $17 to $35.

CAFé ATLáNTICO (2 1/2 stars) 405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812

THE SCENE. José Andrés solidified his reputation here by dabbling in the flavors of Nuevo Latino, but now Atlántico is the playground of his protégé Katsuya Fukushima. The spiraling, three-floor dining room, a blaze of tropical colors, stays loud and crowded long into the night.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Like his mentor, Fukushima hails from the Ferran Adria school of culinary art, where deliciousness is nothing unless it's shot through with playfulness. If you're not up for the Minibar, the 30-plus-course carnival ride offered upstairs, Atlántico is a good place to give the style a whirl, with dishes like oysters with passion-fruit air and deconstructed Caesar salad. Alongside are some of the best fruity drinks in the city–mojitos, mango daiquiris, rum-spiked passion-fruit juice, and pisco sours–plus wine and Champagne flights. And the all-you-can-eat Latino dim sum brunch is one of the best ways to sample the style–and one of the best brunches in the area.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some think the Adria-approved foams, airs, and injections smack of trendiness and quackery, and a few dishes–risotto with Rice Krispies, duck confit with a lacquer of sugar–add credence to the argument.

BEST DISHES. A lobe of foie gras with mole and sweet sauces; soft, seared salmon belly with pineapple and quinoa; seared salmon with papaya-vanilla oil; dessert piña colada; an elegant tres leches cake with candied cashews and pineapple confit.

Moderate; entrées $18 to $24.

CAFE 15 (2 1/2 stars) 805 15th St., NW; 202-730-8800

THE SCENE. Moneyed Continentals and girl groups out on the town gather at this swanky restaurant in the Hotel Sofitel–with its aubergine walls, raw silk drapes, and abstract art–for updated French classics. In the high-decibel lounge across the lobby, the crowd skews slightly younger than in one of the most serene dining rooms in the city.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Gracious, unflappable service in a space that manages to be of the moment yet also warm and welcoming.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The schizophrenic quality of the cooking–some dishes soar, others belly-flop.

BEST DISHES. Perfectly cooked fresh prawns with lemon confit and buttery white tarbais beans from the foothills of the Pyrenees, a reminder of what shrimp ought to taste like; succulent lobster with the airiest of curry-shot cream sauces, ribbons of zucchini, and pumpkin gnocchi; a dense dark-chocolate mousse cone with praline ice cream; the signature beer brioche with beer ice cream and caramelized pear.

Expensive; entrées $17 to $36.

CASHION'S EAT PLACE (2 1/2 stars) 1819 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-797-1819

THE SCENE. Neighborhood regulars and tourists alike flock to this lively Adams Morgan restaurant, which is named in honor of a steak-and-tamales joint in chef/owner Ann Cashion's native Mississippi but hums with quiet sophistication and poise. Small wonder the restaurant is usually booked and the bar filled with patrons waiting for tables.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Cashion's soulful cooking is the main attraction, but the dining room, with black-and-white family portraits on the walls, has an appealing, homey atmosphere. Co-owner John Fulchino has assembled an impressive wine list with unusual selections and moderate prices.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The small size of the dining room, the closely spaced tables, and the noise make some diners feel claustrophobic. And the kitchen appears to have settled into a comfy sense of routine these days. That and the seldom-changing menu can make for cooking that sometimes feels as vital and in-the-moment as a greatest-hits medley in concert.

BEST DISHES. One of the best New Orleans-style gumbos in the area, dark and full of flavor; house-made charcuterie, perhaps a terrine of pork and veal, rabbit-liver mousse, and pork rillettes; a superb potatoes Anna; a fritto misto of seafood; a whole dorade with a chili lime dipping sauce.

Moderate to expensive; entrées $10 to $35.

CEIBA (2 1/2 stars) 701 14th St., NW; 202-393-3983

THE SCENE. This stylish downtown restaurant is different things to different people: The starched service and quieter, more private dining rooms appeal to people in power suits, while Match-dot-commers and after-work unwinders linger over Champagne-topped mojitos in the leafy bar. But it's Travis Timberlake's appealing, Latin American-accented cooking that makes Ceiba more than just a cool scene.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The little things: tiny shots of Gosling's Black Seal rum and peppered sherry that dress up a workmanlike conch chowder; a paper bag of caramel popcorn that comes with the check; and the sugarcane juice pressed in-house that makes the mojitos Havana-worthy.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service has a Pavlovian efficiency that can feel robotic, and, when the place isn't jumping, the vibrant, flashy setting (salsa music, colorful murals) seems oddly canned. Some dishes–grouper ceviche, jerk chicken–aim for authenticity but come off like Xeroxes.

BEST DISHES. Spicy yellowfin tuna ceviche cooled on a bed of ice and toned by mango, jìcama, and crushed cashews; grilled octopus salad with gazpacho dressing; the lunchtime Cubano sandwich; feijoada, a Brazilian pork stew; whole red snapper; pastry chef David Guas's coconut Key-lime tart, almond-accented flan, and churros dipped in warm chocolate.

Expensive; entrées $14 to $29.

CHARLIE PALMER STEAK (3 stars) 101 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-547-8100

THE SCENE. Despite the swirl of cigar smoke at the bar and the clubbiness among its well-connected patrons, celebrity chef/owner Charlie Palmer's restaurant is far removed from the steakhouse its name implies, from the design (whose soft blue and muted orange is more suited to a '70s-style cocktail lounge) to the ambitious wine program to the menu (full of gelées, reductions, and sometimes intricate, cheffy creations).

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. If the glimpse of the Capitol through the plate glass windows doesn't stir your patriotism, the all-American wine list might. (Note to techno-geeks and oenophiles: Ask for the restaurant's hand-held computer notebook before consulting sommelier Nadine Brown.) And there's something quintessentially American in the swaggering, bold flavors of chef Bryan Voltaggio's cooking, whether he's doing up a proper chop or prime rib or turning something as ostensibly delicate and Asian as an appetizer of tuna tartare into a dish with all the grandeur and savor of his bone-in New York strip.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Steak prices are high–$64 for a Wagyu sirloin–and the wine list is studded with extravagant markups. The steep tabs ensure that for many the restaurant is elevated into the special-occasion category. Problem is, the staff isn't geared to treat the diner with the kind of extra care and consideration that makes for not just a great meal but a memorable one.

BEST DISHES. Foie gras with an apple tarte Tatin, the best foie gras dish in the city and easily the biggest; a soy-soaked tuna tartare topped with a quail egg; a succulent butter-poached lobster; trio of crèmes brûlées.

Very expensive; entrées $23 to $68.

CIRCLE BISTRO (2 1/2 stars) 1 Washington Cir.; 202-293-5390

THE SCENE. The most unassuming of all the Adamstein & Demetriou-designed places in town, this modest hotel restaurant in the West End manages to feel cozy, sleek, and vibrant, thanks in part to the brilliant, hearthlike orange of the walls. It sometimes seems more popular with out-of-towners (many of them visiting faculty at nearby George Washington University, which owns the restaurant, or parents checking up on their investments) than with locals.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The simplicity and directness of chef Brendan Cox's French bistro menu. Theatergoers, take note: This is one of the few spots in town where you can eat romantically, and well, for around $100 for two.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The size of the menu, which has shrunk since Cox began and become more calculatedly crowd-pleasing. It's a boon, perhaps, to management but a disservice to a young, ambitious chef. And unless you're intent on getting some work done at your table, you're likely to find yourself craving some ambience on quiet, sparsely populated weeknights.

BEST DISHES. Frisée salad with lardon and sautéed mushrooms; a warm, melt-in-your-mouth leek-and-goat-cheese tart; juicy roast chicken full of smoky, bacony flavor; tangy beef tartare; apple Charlotte so rich and buttery the crust will put you in mind of shortbread.

Moderate; entrées $19 to $26.

CITRONELLE (4 stars) 3000 M St., NW; 202-625-2150

THE SCENE. Celebrities, political dignitaries, jet-setters, and foodies descend nightly on the cool yet cozy dining room of renowned chef Michel Richard's restaurant in Georgetown–one of the few spots in town with the culinary magic to make people forget about politics, if only for the night.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The sense of theater that every meal brings, from the relentless whimsicality of the cooking (which transplants the French countryside to anything-goes California) to the puckish chef's forays into the dining room to implore diners to attack their food, not stand back in awe. All of this mischief is undergirded by knowledgeable, efficient service and a world-class wine list assembled by sommelier Mark Slater.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The whimsicality sometimes results in food that's more eye-catching than delicious. And the tab may force you to scrimp on groceries for the rest of the month.

BEST DISHES. The "almost-famous pied de cochon," a sausage of pig's foot, foie gras, and sweetbreads topped off with a lacquered sheet of crispy pig skin; a cappuccino of wild-mushroom soup, served with a straw; the dessert tour de force called Breakfast, a witty, Rauschenberg-meets-Escoffier riff on room-service delivery in which a trayful of sweets impersonates eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns, and coffee; house-made cocoa flakes with minted milk.

Very expensive; three-course prix fixe $85, eight-course menu $150.

CITYZEN (3 1/2 stars) 1330 Maryland Ave., SW; 202-787-6006

THE SCENE. The young, Vogue-ish crowd that populated the front-of-the-room banquettes in the early going have given way to more-familiar DC scenemakers: lawyers, art collectors, and media mavens who trek to the Mandarin Oriental for Eric Ziebold's carefully sourced ingredients and witty creations.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Minimalists will thrill to the dining room's modernist vibe–stone pillars, chocolate-leather banquettes, and gourd-shape red-orange lanterns–and the mesmerizing wall of fire behind the bar. Foodies will revel in the glorious tidbits from the kitchen that appear throughout the meal, including Ziebold's miniature Parker House rolls, sheened with butter and tucked into a spring-loaded wooden box. Service is informed and correct but never stuffy.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Ziebold's menu changes at least once a month, meaning a dish you loved–the exquisite chicken and buttermilk dumplings, say–won't be around next time. The unrelenting experimentation occasionally results in dishes that aren't as tightly calibrated as you'd expect. Some may find the soaring space of stone and wood a bit cold.

BEST DISHES. Lychee Limey Libation, a zingy cocktail of Ketel One, fresh lime juice, and lychee purée; tiny wild-mushroom fritters; savory brûlées of foie gras with olive oil and red pepper; silky lamb's brain made festive with pickled green tomatoes and cranberry beans; sublimely tender pan-roasted rib-eye of veal with caramelized cauliflower; pumpkin tart with mini-turrets of Swiss meringue and caramel ice cream; and biscuit au chocolat, a cross between a soufflé and cake that oozes a flood of chocolate and is all the better for the thyme ice cream and crystals of fleur de sel that come with it.

Very expensive; three-course menu starts at $75; four-course starts at $85, five-course starts at $90.

COLORADO KITCHEN (2 1/2 stars) 5515 Colorado Ave., NW; 202-545-8280

THE SCENE. Chef and proprietor Gillian Clark has described her design inspiration as "Aunt Jemima's bandanna in 3-D"–an apt phrase for a self-consciously homespun dining room done up in black, white, and red (the napkins are bandannas) and enlivened by all manner of Americana, from a Pillsbury Doughboy to mammy figurines. Envisioned as a neighborhood restaurant, Clark's place draws a cross-section of people from all over–the variety of ages, races, and backgrounds is as remarkable as Clark's sweet, salt-topped mini-biscuits.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. "Comfort food" is too often a convenient cover for a chef's turning out heavy, uninspired food. Not here. Clark works alone, without a battery of assistants (that's her in her floppy white toque), and the best of her dishes–personal, distinctive, rooted –taste like the romanticized version of grandmother's cooking we wish we'd grown up on. A small wine list, newly added, has made dining out a richer experience. Maybe the best way to appreciate the simple pleasures of Clark's cooking is at brunch, which is one of the area's best.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service remains woefully at odds with the level of cooking; you probably can expect some part of your order to be botched or to wait a long time for your food to arrive. Portions sometimes seem stingy, especially for food that is so otherwise intent on warming the heart.

BEST DISHES. The Lilliputian fried chicken, a Cornish hen dusted with flour and dunked in the fry basket; crispy fried catfish with the creamiest, tangiest tartar sauce around; the hand-ground burger; cheesy grits topped with fat, well-seasoned shrimp; house-made cake doughnuts and doughnut holes; sticky, finger-licking pineapple upside-down cake.

Moderate; entrées $14 to $19.75.

COLVIN RUN TAVERN (3 stars) 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-356-9500

THE SCENE. Platinum-card-flashing guys and dolled-up dates flock to Bob Kinkead's clubby haven, a respite from the mall sprawl of Tysons Corner. A laid-back, fire-lit lounge strewn with a checkerboard and snapshots of Kinkead and his chef buddies gives way to a marble bar and three dining rooms–including the plush, banquetted Charleston room and the woodsier Shenandoah.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Executive chef Jeffrey Gaetjen has been with Kinkead since his 21 Federal days, and he's picked up the master's knack for balancing stunning presentation with comfortingly familiar flavors.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Presentation sometimes trumps flavor: A cloying Thai squid appetizer, an endive-and-chèvre salad, and a seared rockfish with lemon-rosemary emulsion are all more appealing to the eye than to the palate.

BEST DISHES. Clams Five Ways, a showcase of Kinkead hits including smoky clam chowder, clams casino, and those standard-setting fried Ipswich clams; a Provence-inspired Nantucket Bay scallop tart with fennel and picholine olives; duck breast with a velvety foie gras sauce; thick-cut prime rib, mashed potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding presented from an imposing silver carving cart.

Very expensive; entrées $27 to $41.

CORDUROY (3 stars) 1201 K St., NW, 202-589-0699

THE SCENE. What scene? The space resembles an airport cocktail lounge–after the flights have all departed. Despite the cold, impersonal mood, the place is developing a following: An increasing number of foodies enamored of Tom Power's Modern American cooking is turning the Sheraton Four Points hotel into a regular roost.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Say this for the atmosphere–you can have a conversation. And you can almost always get a table. Best of all, there is a reassuring durability and quiet confidence in Power's straightforward dishes, which depend more on the quality of the ingredients than on extraneous flash and as a result wear well through the seasons.

WHAT YOU WON'T. See above. Particularly on weeknights, the place seems lifeless.

BEST DISHES. A terrific cold lobster salad, full of succulent, firm white hunks of its main ingredient; one of the best roast chickens in town, its crisp skin concealing moist, flavorful meat; a flavorful steak frites with thin, crisp fries; slow-braised pork belly and sour cabbage; a dark chocolate hazelnut torte, cribbed from Power's stint with Michel Richard at Citronelle, is nearly as good as the master's.

Expensive; entrées $20 to $29.

DC COAST (2 stars) 1401 K St., NW; 202-216-5988

THE SCENE. Jeff Tunks's first restaurant, a striking art deco setting for the cooking of the Chesapeake, Gulf Coast, and Pacific Rim, is the favored lunch and happy-hour destination of the K Street crowd and a hot spot for touring celebrities. The giant, tipped mirrors behind the bar make it possible to keep tabs on who's coming and going from almost any vantage point.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The unpretentious sophistication of the service and the atmosphere, the dependably good cooking, and pastry chef David Guas's frequently witty desserts.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Getting a table at peak dining hours can be difficult. And sometimes dishes are big and pretty instead of delicious.

BEST DISHES. Wonderful Louisiana-style seafood gumbo; crispy fried oysters; a chile relleno packed with goat cheese and wild mushrooms; Tunks's signature Chinese-style smoked lobster, aromatic and juicy; a whole striped bass with garlic-soy dipping sauce; buttermilk beignets with a delicious café au lait crème brûlée.

Expensive; entrées $19 to $29.

DELHI CLUB (2 stars) 1135 N. Highland St., Arlington; 703-527-5666

THE SCENE. In a Clarendon suddenly booming with choices, it's easy to miss this tiny restaurant tucked amid the stores, shops, and big-box emporiums, and you get the sense that the young, stylish couples who make up the clientele are happy about that–eager to keep a place with reasonably priced, mouth-tingling food to themselves.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The northern-Indian cooking is assertive, though the heat often unfurls so slowly that you scarcely realize your lips are burning until it's too late. Distinguishing touches pop up regularly: ground pistachios in a chicken curry, fresh ginger and chilies in the crab cakes, house-made cottage cheese in one of the stuffed breads.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The space is cold and drafty, and though the bold spicing will make you sweat, it's not enough to make you want to linger. And occasionally you'll find yourself pushing aside dry hunks of meat and soaking up the various gravies with the wonderful black-cardamom-scented rice instead.

BEST DISHES. Terrific crispy and puffy tandoor-baked breads; spinach-and-potato fritters; juicy tandoor-fired chicken wings; five-spice Bengali shrimp; bhuna bhartha, a murky curry full of smoked eggplants and tomatoes.

Inexpensive; entrées $8.50 to $19.50.

DIVINO LOUNGE & RESTAURANT (2 stars) 7345-B Wisconsin Ave.; Bethesda; 240-497-0300

THE SCENE. There are really two scenes at this sleek Argentine eatery: One is in the lounge out front, where stylish twentysomethings quaff cocktails and make a meal of South American tapas; the other's in the dining room, a romantic lair with red walls and edgy collages.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The supper-clubby feel and a mostly South American wine list that's full of good deals.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service can be slow and uninformed. You can't order from the tapas menu in the dining room (though waiters occasionally can be sweet-talked into it).

BEST DISHES. Argentine-style grilled sweetbreads with fresh lemon; shrimp bathed in a garlic white-wine sauce; worth-the-wait seafood and Valencia paellas (pork, duck, sausage, chicken); the parrillada, a riot of short ribs, sausages, skirt steak, and sweetbreads sided with crisp fried potatoes–not to be mistaken for French fries. On the tapas menu, perfectly ripe avocado with pristine crab and citrus dressing; grilled baby octopus with lemon-and-white-wine sauce; sweet/savory roast duck leg with prunes; crunchy deep-fried ham and chicken croquettes; classic tortilla española, a wedge of omelet made with egg and potatoes.

Moderate; entrées $14 to $40, tapas $5 to $8.

EQUINOX (2 1/2 stars) 818 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-331-8118

THE SCENE. Proximity to the White House ensures the restaurant's status as a favorite of Bush-administration staffers, lobbyists, and downtown lawyers, but the quietly plush dining room and glassed-in atrium feel refreshingly ego-free.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Chef Todd Gray stays faithful to the seasons and local farms, dispensing with gimmickry and experimentation in favor of simple explorations of historic Maryland and Virginia cookery. A long-forgotten Chesapeake fish dish will turn up on the menu, and the bread pudding derives from a recipe from Thomas Jefferson. Wife Ellen, an effervescent hippie in a suit, oversees an earnest, eager-to-please staff.

WHAT YOU WON'T. When it works, the simplicity undergirding Gray's approach–the goal of dishes uncluttered by too many competing effects–can feel liberating and confident. When it doesn't, you may be left feeling as though something is missing, including, perhaps, inspiration.

BEST DISHES. Cream-of-chestnut soup; pistachio-crusted fresh-mozzarella salad with sour cherries; duo of chicken, a flavorful stewed leg and grilled breast scattered with roasted pearl onions; Armagnac bread pudding.

Very expensive; three-course prix fixe $55, four-course prix fixe $70, six-course prix fixe $95.

ETETE (2 stars) 1942 Ninth St., NW; 202-232-7600

THE SCENE. This Ethiopian restaurant, with its hardwood floors, lights dangling from the ceiling, and candy-colored Cosmos at the bar, may look like a trendy bistro, but at heart it's a cozy family operation: Etete means "mama," and tucking into the cooking of Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn is akin to being bundled up in a warm blanket.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The best Ethiopian cooking in the city is emanating from a single block on Ninth Street, Northwest, just below U, and Etete's is the most delicious of the bunch. Having your food ladled out of an iron cauldron with care by the gracious staff is a kind of pampering that's rare at any level. If you're lucky, and it's not too busy, Etete herself might emerge from the kitchen to serve you seconds from a bowl.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some dishes, like the rosemary-and-wine-marinated beef that sends up great clouds of steam like a platter of fajitas, are pandering and dull. And the menu can be off-putting to patrons only casually acquainted with Ethiopian cooking, featuring as it does such courage-requiring fare as lamb tripe and lamb liver.

BEST DISHES. Lega tibs, a lamb dish whose fabulous sauce derives from sticky, caramelized onions and a generous shot of berbere powder; gomen, a dish of bright collards laced with strips of jalapeño; azifa, a cold dish of green lentils tossed with Ethiopian mustard; a simple stew of potatoes and carrots bound in a sweet, peppery tomato sauce that concentrates their flavors; kitfo, a finely minced beef tartare at once smoky and pungent.

Inexpensive; entrées $10 to $12.

FARYAB (2 stars) 4917 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3484

THE SCENE. Even after eight years, this Afghani restaurant remains something of a secret, a hole in the wall frequently overlooked in favor of its glossier Bethesda neighbors. Inside, the effect is that of an Italian trattoria transported to an underground bunker–dark, quiet, slightly mysterious. Some in-the-know Bethesdans, proprietary about the place, wish to keep it that way.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The kitchen turns an unfamiliar cuisine into reassuring and homey meals without sacrificing flavor or character–no small feat.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The menu feels duplicative, with the same ingredients and approaches appearing in different guises throughout. The waitstaff is often unable to guide a diner through the choices or explain the history or finer points of the cooking.

BEST DISHES. The sweet, lightly spiced stewed pumpkin, one of the best vegetarian dishes in the area and a draw for omnivores, too; an intensely garlicky lamb-and-spinach stew; a terrific aushak, a soft noodle dumpling made lush by a rich meat sauce and memorable by yogurt and fresh mint.

Inexpensive to moderate; $11 to $17.95.

FOTI'S (3 stars) 219 E. Davis St. Suite 110, Culpeper; 540-829-8400

THE SCENE. If the Inn at Little Washington had never become so big and famous and self-aware–if it had remained a decidedly local treasure–it might resemble this storefront restaurant off Main Street in downtown Culpeper that mingles small-town charm and big-city ambition. If these comparisons between a culinary institution and a six-month-old upstart are premature, they're also inevitable–both the sous chef and sommelier hail from that justly revered temple of haute cuisine.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The Continental cooking of chef Frank Maragos, a former sous chef at the Inn, favors clarity over pyrotechnics. It also favors conscientious, smart shopping, often with local sources, including the butcher across the street (which supplies a wonderful Virginia ham). Sommelier Tyler Packwood is less interested in upselling than in introducing you to the often-unusual, nicely priced wines on his short list; he also oversees a waitstaff that makes up for its greenness with its enthusiasm. The dining room has a diffused warmth to it, even when the fireplace isn't going.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The restaurant's ability to handle the chaos that comes with its newfound crowds is still to be determined.

BEST DISHES. A beet-and-goat-cheese salad with stunningly fresh ingredients; vanilla-poached lobster in a Chardonnay reduction with half-dollar johnny cakes that yield more sweet-corn flavor than some cobs; succulent breast of duck with a small lobe of foie gras; a semi-deconstructed cassoulet over white beans, dubbed Lamb Three Ways, with a superb house-made log of lamb sausage; banana-and-coconut tart; crepes suzette.

Expensive; entrées $13.95 to $33.95.

GALILEO (2 1/2 stars) 1110 21st St. NW; 202-293-7191

THE SCENE. Though now bookended, and often upstaged, by its offspring–the casual Osteria in the front and the extravagant Laboratorio in the back–the main dining room remains a favorite for power dinners and anniversary splurges.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Newly promoted executive chef Amy Brandwein displays a fine touch with pastas and game, and the house-made breads are terrific.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The decor is more faded than elegant, the kitchen is prone to occasional sloppiness, and service is apt to leave non-VIPs cold.

BEST DISHES. Asparagus agnolotti with silky mascarpone; squab à l'orange with foie gras and celery root; porcini-crusted black cod.

Expensive; entrées $25 to $35. (Note 12/06: This restaurant is currently closed for renovations.)

GALILEO OSTERIA AND BAR (2 stars) 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191

THE SCENE. The dining room is for highrollers, but the front room, at lunchtime and dinner, attracts local office workers with its bargain-priced menus featuring homestyle dishes from chef Roberto Donna's native Piedmont.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Generous portions of filling food at remarkably low prices, accompanied by a short list of inexpensive, hearty wines. In short, one of the city's great bargains.

WHAT YOU WON'T. What's not to like about good food at good prices? Still, a tendency among the waitstaff to treat denizens of the bar and osteria as coach class can temper one's enthusiasm over finding such lusty cooking at such appealing prices.

BEST DISHES. A wonderful tuna sandwich on focaccia; a superb dish of pappardelle with venison ragoût; rabbit with soft polenta; braised short ribs of beef; a comforting bolito misto of beef, tongue, veal cheeks, and capon in a rich, flavorful broth.

Inexpensive to moderate; all items $4 to $12. (Note 12/06: This restaurant is currently closed for renovations.)

GERARD'S PLACE (3 stars) 915 15th St., NW; 202-737-4445

THE SCENE. The dining room, done up in shades of aqua and burnt orange and strewn with netting, is smart and intimate, a welcome departure from French restaurants that cop the clichés but miss the sensuality and intimacy. Bistro touches abound–a weathered cupboard is given pride of place in the dining room–but the clientele (in-the-know bureaucrats and technocrats, affluent tourists) lends an air of hushed formality.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The eye-popping prices might scream haute cuisine, but the best of former two-star Michelin chef Gerard Pangaud's dishes shimmer with an honesty born of the bistro, the gorgeous simplicity of fully developed flavors. In his hands, glazed baby root vegetables become more than grace notes–they startle you into wondering if you've ever really tasted a turnip before. The staff is knowledgeable and gracious without getting in the way.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Meals can be frustratingly uneven: One dish is apt to induce sighs of pleasure, another to leave you shaking your head in wonder that such ordinariness could have come from the same kitchen. And given the prices–expect to pay $300 for dinner for two–some might find the simplicity of the cooking a bit too simple.

BEST DISHES. The duck confit, crispy as a leg of KFC on the outside, meltingly tender within; crispy veal sweetbreads with a rich, earthy stew of wild mushrooms; an egg-white soufflé so gossamer it disappears on contact, like some kind of exquisite cotton-candy.

Very expensive; entrées $30 to $55.

GRAPESEED (2 stars) 4865 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9592

THE SCENE. A little bit of Napa comes to Bethesda in this airy wine bar/bistro done in pale woods with hits of plum and burgundy. In fair weather the front windows open to the street. When cold winds blow, it's cozy inside at the wine bar and in the intimate dining room. Popular with longtime oenophiles as well as the young and trendy.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The anything-goes menu of beginnings, middles, and ends. Wines also can be had every which way–by the glass, in flights, half pours, half bottles, and bottles.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Chef Jeff Heineman's approach to comfort cuisine–i.e., seasonally based dishes and a penchant for toying with flavors–means some plates might not be ready for prime time.

BEST DISHES. Steamed mussels with tomatoes, garlic, and wine; crunchy cornmeal-fried oysters with bacon beurre blanc; goat-cheese mousse with hazelnuts; braised veal cheeks, lent a jolt of sweetness from grapes and balsamic vinegar; fried chicken and waffles with a sherry-vinegar bourbon sauce standing in for maple syrup; autumnal pumpkin panna cotta.

Expensive; entrées $20 to $32.

HANK'S OYSTER BAR (2 stars) 1624 Q St., NW; 202-462-4265

THE SCENE. If Pottery Barn were a restaurant, it might look something like this tiny, lovable oyster bar. Pen-and-ink drawings of fish adorn the russet walls, the day's half-shell specials are scrawled on a blackboard, and steel ducts crisscross the dining room. An urbane, pea-coated crowd swigs Sancerre standing up during the inevitable wait for a table.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Chef/owner Jamie Leeds mixes the rib-sticking fare that won her praise at 15 Ria–nightly "meat and two" specials; buttermilk onion rings; cheddar-and-Gouda mac and cheese–with fresh, simply done fish and at least four varieties of oysters. It's the only place outside the impersonal seafood chains that you'll find icy platters of Hog Islands, Beausoleils, Kumamotos, and Belons.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Cramped quarters. Hank's doesn't take reservations (though you can call ahead to put your name on the list), which means there's often a long wait and–especially in the winter, when patio seating isn't an option–little place to do it. And the kitchen commits the occasional oversight–be it over-salting, under-frying, or a watery rendition of clam chowder.

BEST DISHES. A Kumamoto oyster shot with sake and tomato water; peel-and-eat shrimp; fried calamari and popcorn shrimp, served in a beachy pail with rémoulade; Caesar salad with oyster crackers and white anchovies; fried oyster po' boy; mac and cheese with white cheddar and Gouda; Old Bay fries and Leeds's famous onion rings.

Moderate; entrées $13 to $19.

HERITAGE INDIA (2 1/2 stars) 2400 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-3120

THE SCENE. Lovers of complex Indian cooking gather at this elegant second-floor aerie with its burnt-orange walls, vivid textiles, carved wood benches, and a photo gallery of bygone Indian princes for some of the best Indian food in the city.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Dishes that warm the palate rather than singe it–though when appropriate, as in the fiery vindaloo, the kitchen isn't spice-shy. Stylish touches–shiny copper bowls and a ceramic mini-tandoor brought to the table–make you feel like a Raj.

WHAT YOU WON'T. A waitstaff whose mantra often seems to be: The customer is seldom right.

BEST DISHES. Beautifully fried vegetable fritters; smoky, juicy tandoori chicken and quail; dum ka murgh, a curry of chicken marinated in sesame and poppy seeds; creamy spinach and corn; lacha paratha, a layered bread glossy with butter; and kurkuri bhindi, crisp rounds of okra tossed with onions and mango powder.

Moderate; entrées $9.95 to $20.95.

HUONG QUE (FOUR SISTERS) (2 1/2 stars) 6769 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-6717

THE SCENE. This large dining room is the site of happy, well-managed chaos, particularly on weekends, when Vietnamese and Westerners mob the restaurant–also known as Four Sisters–for cooking that may not be as bold or assertive as that of some of its 30-plus Eden Center neighbors but is consistently lively and reliable.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The menu is large, listing some 200 dishes, a great many of them unfamiliar to most Westerners, but the gracious staff (yes, there really are four sisters–plus two brothers and their parents) is always ready to advise you on what to order and how to eat it when it arrives.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Long waits for tables even at nonpeak hours. And because of the crowds, busing occasionally lags, leaving stacks of dirty dishes on nearby tables.

BEST DISHES. Crispy spring rolls and delicate shrimp toast, good introductory courses for the timid; smoky baby clams served with sesame-studded crackers; whole shrimp in their edible shells; caramel short ribs in a hot pot; sautéed frog's legs with silver noodle, mushrooms, and curry.

Inexpensive; entrées $7 to $15.

HUONG VIET (3 stars) 6785 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-7110

THE SCENE. Teens text-message one another and toddlers hone their chopstick skills while Mom, Dad, and the grandparents sip steaming bowls of soup at this humble, pine-paneled Eden Center restaurant filled with happy noise.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Wonderful regional dishes not found in the typical Vietnamese eatery and the fact that you're likely to be the only non-native in the place. This is the real thing–the food hasn't been dumbed down or gussied up. And it's too often ignored in favor of its flashier neighbor, Huong Que.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The occasional language barrier–not all the servers speak English.

BEST DISHES. The unusual Banh Cong, a dense muffin topped with shrimp–break it into pieces, spritz with fish/hot sauce, and roll in lettuce; crunchy lotus salad with pork and shrimp; chewy stir-fried wide noodles with seafood; salty pork ribs with lemongrass; finger-licking butter-fried frog's legs; bright green Chinese watercress with bean-curd sauce.

Inexpensive; entrées $6.95 to $11.95.

INDEBLEU (3 stars) 707 G St., NW; 202-333-2538

THE SCENE. The downstairs lounge with its orange chaises and pulsating house tracks attracts a Euro crowd that sips cocktails like the Naughty Angel. Upstairs in the cream-and-beige dining room (reached by a trippy catwalk), downtown hipsters, museum curators, politicians, and sports stars revel in Vikram Garg's Indian-influenced French fare.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The dramatic space, attentive service, interesting wines by the glass, and food that gives "fusion" a good name.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The ambient noise, from conversational din and music that isn't loud but plays on. In some dishes, the Indian and French flavors cancel each other out.

BEST DISHES. Mini-tower of lobster and lump crab trumped up with marinated mango, pine nuts, and curry oil; crispy wild-mushroom dosa with a surprise filler of bleu cheese and truffle oil; crusty yet dewy salmon with orange gastrique and smoked aubergine hash; spiced tandoori rack of lamb that is subtlety itself; veal tenderloin with a luscious sweetbread sauce; chicken fricassee with morels made ambrosial by a dollop of curry-leaf pesto; Choco Sutra, an ur-chocolate confection musky with brandied cherries.

Expensive; entrées $24 to $37, three-course menu $50, four-course menu $65.

INDIQUE (3 stars) 3512-14 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-244-6600

THE SCENE. Traditional and modern are come together to great effect at this stylish Indian duplex in Cleveland Park–think burnt-orange walls and crystal chandeliers–where young professionals and more-settled sorts throng for Indian food gone glam.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The downtown-comes-uptown sensibility and a menu that embraces the cuisine of northern and southern India and dishes up some fusion surprises, too. The $20 three-course pretheater menu is a steal.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Servers who need to bone up on the food and the occasional wait, even with a reservation. The open floor plan and split-level design make for an ambient din that can escalate to a roar.

BEST DISHES. Creative cocktails that aren't cloying, among them the terrific Lychee Bubbles and Pomegranate Martini; surprisingly good red-pepper-and-anise-flecked crab cakes; mini dosas with a lineup of offbeat chutneys; the deconstructed vegetable samosa, as delicious as it is stunning to look at; tandoori shrimp; tandoori lamb chops; Cornish-hen curry with hot peppers and curry leaves.

Moderate; entrées $11 to $21.

THE INN AT EASTON (3 stars) 28 S. Harrison St., Easton; 888-800-8091

THE SCENE. Forget about Victorian doilies at this Eastern Shore retreat. Andrew Evans and his wife, Liz, have created a sophisticated dining room with pale gray walls and modern Aboriginal art, all the while preserving the building's Federal-era charm. Evans's Aussie-inflected fare is the draw. Some diners stay the night in the stylish rooms upstairs; others fly back home in their private planes.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The pleasure of discovery, too often missing in dining out. It's hard to stay jaded with such novelties as Moreton Bay bugs, wattle seeds, and regional Australian wines–staples of the chef's stint Down Under. That Evans is equally accomplished in his handling of more-conventional ingredients lifts his cooking beyond gimmickry. The fishbowl (with a live Japanese fighting fish) on every table keeps things light.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Sometimes the odd foodstuffs are just odd.

BEST DISHES. Velvety cream-rich butternut-squash soup with the crunch of macadamia nuts; fried sweetbreads treated like foie gras with Sauternes and apples; a thick cut of bacon glazed with barbecue sauce and paired with crispy kale; Thai-style green curry made with "bugs," a saltwater crustacean from Australia; crisp-skin rockfish in a broth of white beans, chorizo, and littleneck clams; eggnog brûlée, a departure that tastes as good as the original; sticky fig-and-ginger pudding with English Devon cream, sure to make an Anglophile swoon.

Very expensive; entrées $24 to $38, four-course dinner $65.

THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON (four stars) Middle and Main sts., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800

THE SCENE. The rich and famous jet in on their private planes, the merely wealthy leave their Hummers and limos with the valet out front, and the wide-eyed wannabes park in the church lot across the street. Inside, all are treated like royalty at this legendary retreat whose over-the-top decor presages the decadent, magisterial experience that follows.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Chef Patrick O'Connell's cooking, rooted in rustic American traditions but adhering to the rigors of regional French classicism, is the very definition of gilding the lily. Where one sumptuous extra touch would suffice, he tosses on another two or three. It would all be too much if it weren't for the near-flawless execution–breads as perfect as any in the land, gnocchi that manage the trick of being both refined and rustic, a poached egg as quiveringly beautiful as a newborn fawn. Waves of waiters ensure that the meal is expertly paced and no need is left unanticipated.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The cost of all this indulgence could send you into cardiac arrest–the bottom line is easily double what any other fine-dining experience in the area will run you. Because of it, even plate-passing foodies might find themselves nitpicking at flaws–the relative disappointment of the desserts, say, or the presumption of excellence that can make dining here feel like a staged performance.

BEST DISHES. Oxtail consommé with a poached egg, strips of country ham, and threads of seasonal truffles; butter-poached lobster with gnocchi; meltingly tender slices of seared tuna, vacuum-packed and flown in that morning, with cucumber-jalapeño sorbet; a duo of foie gras with brioche, pairing a medallion of pâté and a seared lobe as crusted as a great steak and as smooth as a custard; exquisite veal sweetbreads with country ham and huckleberry.

Surpassingly expensive; prix fixe from $138 to $168 per person.

JACKIE'S RESTAURANT (1 1/2 stars) 8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-9700

THE SCENE. In a converted warehouse fitted with a faux-fur door curtain, co-owner Jackie Greenbaum's good-time-girl fantasy is decked out with Technicolor plexiglass, Pillow Talk-pink powder rooms, gooey comfort fare, and a soundtrack that dips from Paris trip-hop to DC punk. At the bar, tattooed twentysomethings and stroller-toting parents chat each other up over drinks.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The fun extends to the menu, a hodgepodge of twisted TV-dinner classics and more modern efforts put together by chef Sam Adkins, an Ann Cashion protégé.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Long waits if you don't have a reservation, and sometimes forgetful, flighty service. Some health-conscious plates–salt-baked rockfish, roasted chilies–seem just that.

BEST DISHES. Stick to the sinful stuff: "Elvis" miniburgers that ooze pimiento cheese; riblets stir-fried with black beans and scallions; house-fried nachos piled high with beans and cheese; nostalgia plates such as Southern-class fried chicken and a luscious pork shoulder with collard gravy.

Moderate; entrées $11 to $19.

JALEO (2 stars) 480 Seventh St., NW; 202-628-7949

THE SCENE. Theatergoers, students, backpacking tourists, and couples gather around carafes of sangria and plates of chorizo at José Andrés's loud and lively Penn Quarter tapas place–still the best, most consistent of his three Jaleo locations and the style-setter for small plates in the city.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. You'll taste the small-town cooking Andrés grew up on and see flashes of the avant-garde style he's since embraced. The small plates lend themselves to fun experimentation, and there's something for nearly every appetite–from brightly flavored gazpacho to rich tripe stew.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Overcrowding can curb Spaniard-style lingering.

BEST DISHES. A tin can of mussels marinated in olive oil, orange peel, and paprika; potatoes on toothpicks with Cabrales cheese; Cadiz-style fried shark; tomato bread with manchego cheese; croquetas; superb date-and-bacon fritters; goat-cheese-stuffed pimientos; a peppy gazpacho; Basque cake.

Moderate; small plates $3.95 to $9.95, entrées $14.95 to $16.95.

JOE'S NOODLE HOUSE (2 stars) 1488-C Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-5518

THE SCENE. Look past the grubby strip mall exterior, the Pepto-pink walls, and the harsh lighting–this is some of the best Szechuan cooking in the area. Asian and Western families crowd the tables, passing around plates of long beans and heaps of dumplings, while plenty of solo diners find satisfaction in a bowl of noodle soup.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. How far your cash carries you–very few entrées cost more than $10. The menu satisfies adventure-seeking chowhounds, tamer palates, and vegetarians. And the chili-pepper aprons worn by servers are the first clue that the kitchen doesn't scrimp on the heat.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Atmospheric it isn't. And while service is fast, it can feel rushed and gruff.

BEST DISHES. Pork dumplings; vinegary-sweet cucumber salad; whole steamed fish, head and all (don't miss the cheeks), with scallions and ginger or cabbage and chilies; pork kidneys with minced garlic.

Inexpensive; entrées $6.95 to $10.95.

JOHNNY'S HALF SHELL (2 1/2 stars) 2002 P St., NW; 202-296-2021 (Note 12/06: This restaurant has moved to 400 N. Capitol St. NW; 202-737-0400)

THE SCENE. A jumping bar crowd and good-time vibe makes for one of Dupont Circle's–scratch that, the city's–most appealing restaurants, a casual, tile-floored spot filled with neighborhood regulars and visitors on their way to and from the area's bars and clubs.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The atmosphere: Imagine a giant raw bar where a party has just broken out. Still, it's the friendly service and dependable, no-fuss cooking, which draws on the flavors of both the Gulf Coast and the Chesapeake Bay, that linger long after you've left the fun behind.

WHAT YOU WON'T. There are long waits for tables at busy times, though things are improving since the restaurant began taking reservations. And portions are often more precious than heaping.

BEST DISHES. Great shrimp and oyster po' boys, made on authentic Leidenheimer Bakery bread from New Orleans; terrific seafood gumbo and shrimp and grits; superlative versions of two Chesapeake Bay classics, crab cakes and crab imperial; and superb chocolate angel-food cake, now the restaurant's signature dessert.

Moderate; entrées $17.95 to $27.95.

JOSS (2 stars) 195 Main St., Annapolis; 410-263-4688

THE SCENE. This bustling, intimate sushi restaurant on Annapolis's Main Street taps into a broad cross-section of the city's society: burnished, sweater-wrapped sailors, lobbyists on break from the nearby statehouse, and razored, well-tailored Navy personnel, many of them regulars (check out their Polaroids on the walls) drawn by the consistently fresh fish and frequent specials.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. From the hearty cheer "Irasshai!" that greets you as you slip through the curtain in the doorway to the friendly, energetic service to the hum of excitement in the dining room at peak hours, the place radiates warmth and charm. The sushi is well-cut, prettily presented, and almost always firm, cool, and slippery.

WHAT YOU WON'T. If you're seated in the larger back room, you might wonder where the atmosphere went. And the same kitchen that can soar with complicated, exotic dishes can stumble on the simple stuff, like a salmon or tuna nigiri.

BEST DISHES. A black iron pot of miso brimming with soft poached salmon and slices of carrot and onion, a soothing meal by itself; a jellyfish maki, full of crunchy, spicy threads of fish; terrific sashimi of yellowtail, white tuna, and scallop; well-stocked, interestingly appointed bowls of chirashi.

Moderate; entrées $9.95 to $25.

KAZ SUSHI BISTRO (2 stars) 1915 I St., NW; 202-530-5500

THE SCENE. Lunchtime is when this bilevel restaurant, helmed by chef/owner Kazuhiro Okochi, one of the city's original sushi masters, comes alive: World Bankers and other downtown businessmen pour into a sanctuary of glossy dark-wood tables, bamboo accents, and colorful glass lightboxes. Evenings, by contrast, often can seem subdued, with postwork stragglers and GW students taking a study break.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Kaz "fondles the details," as Nabokov used to say: There's the thoughtful sake list with a couple of interesting flights; a serious green-tea roster; even house-made soy sauce (and instructions on how to use it). And when the master is at his best, few in the city rival his sheer inventiveness.

WHAT YOU WON'T. At times it seems that Kaz has grown bored with his lot as a sushi chef–and is more taken with synthesizing the flavors of East and West. Spikes in quality from visit to visit can leave you wondering whether the commitment and energy are still there.

BEST DISHES. Briny lobster with wasabi mayo; delicate sake-poached sea scallop with lemon and cilantro; short ribs braised and then caramelized on the grill with ginger and soy; smoky grilled baby octopus; sizzling bite-size cubes of miso-glazed Kobe beef.

Moderate; entrées $14 to $24.50, tasting menus $45 to $75.

KINKEAD'S (3 stars) 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-7700

THE SCENE. This Foggy Bottom roost isn't a favorite only of the K Street business crowd–it's also popular with out-of-towners and legions of locals who cherish it for providing the pampering, but not the fussiness, of fine dining. Regulars know to dine at the lively downstairs bar, packed at lunch and dinner and alive with the sounds of terrific jazz piano.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Pristinely fresh, carefully sourced seafood, attentive service, and consistency through the seasons.

WHAT YOU WON'T. If Kinkead's has a lingering fault, it's that the place runs so efficiently that it feels like a well-oiled machine–hardly the spirit of the brasserie it claims to want to invoke. Expect a perfunctory greeting at the door and service that can be more stilted than personable.

BEST DISHES. The best fried clams in town; a terrific crab cake–moist and generous with the crab and light on the filler; pepita-crusted salmon over a ragoût of crab, shrimp, corn, and chilies.

Very expensive; entrées $26 to $30.

KOMI (3 1/2 stars) 1509 17th St., NW; 202-332-9200

THE SCENE. This straw-color sliver of a dining room, presided over by a team of smart, shaggy-haired twentysomethings, has the feel of a neighborhood restaurant and the soul and ambition of something much greater. Each night–later rather than earlier–foodies settle in for some of the city's most exciting cooking.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Komi doesn't offer the latest cut of Wagyu beef, and it hasn't hired a publicist. Chef/owner Johnny Monis wins fans by finding beautiful ingredients and using them in simple–but not simple-minded–ways. Each dish on the Greek-inflected menu turns up a carefully orchestrated surprise. Mascarpone-stuffed dates hide a precise few grains of sea salt; tzatziki is lifted above the ordinary by the addition of white-truffle paste and beets.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The dining room can get noisy. Prices are creeping up.

BEST DISHES. Mezzethakia, a plate of little bites that might include oven-roasted olives, creamy ricotta kefte, and a tart lentil salad; ribbony chestnut noodles with trumpet mushrooms and parsnips; roasted guinea hen stuffed with figs and mortadella; suckling pig over apples and bacon with polenta; Greek-style doughnuts with a luscious chocolate mascarpone pudding.

Expensive; entrées $25 to $27.

KOTOBUKI (2 stars) 4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-625-9080

THE SCENE. Not only does this tiny, nondescript walk-up share office space with Makoto–its elegant, expensive neighbor–it also shares a similar vision of purity and simplicity. That vision, plus the cheap prices–owner and chef Hisao Abe maintains a small, unfussy menu–ensures a steady stream of customers, many of them Japanese patrons attracted to such rarities as oshizushi and kamameshi. Speaking of obsession: Abe keeps the Beatles playing on continuous loop.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The purity and simplicity of Abe's approach, which eschews the flash and clever juxtapositions of ingredients that many sushi bars can't resist in favor of straightforward presentations of cool, shimmering slices of fish.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Rolls have a tendency to come apart too easily, leaving you to order more nigiri or sashimi than you might have expected; tables that will accommodate groups are hard to come by.

BEST DISHES. Oshizushi, with its brilliant, sweet slab of mackerel atop a long log of heavily vinegared rice, is a perfect introduction to this sometimes fishy fish; ankimo, or monkfish liver, is as creamy and rich as foie gras, at a fraction of the cost; kamameshi, little rice casseroles topped with eel, chicken, or vegetables and ringed by a handful of peppery snacks; a lobster nigiri that never tastes clotted or mayonnaisey; excellent yellowtail and white tuna; cold sake brought to the table in a wooden box with a tiny spoon for dabbing salt onto the edge of your cup.

Inexpensive; entrées $13 to $15.

LA CHAUMIèRE (2 stars) 2813 M St., NW; 202-338-1784

THE SCENE. At both lunch and dinner, Georgetown's foreign-service set descends on this trusty standby, whose fireplace and beamed ceiling re-create the charming, cozy atmosphere of a French country inn. The only thing more dependable than the crowd of old-timers is the remarkably consistent service and the well-handled repertoire of bistro classics.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The assurance of the cooking and the service. Longtime customers know to time their visits according to the daily specials, such as Wednesday's couscous or Thursday's cassoulet.

WHAT YOU WON'T. If it's trendy combinations and fashionable cocktails you want, look elsewhere.

BEST DISHES. The light and wonderful quenelles in lobster sauce; delicious boudin blanc; a casserole of rabbit; tripes stewed in Calvados; calves' brains in black butter sauce; a definitive version of profiteroles.

Moderate; entrées $15.25 to $30

L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANçOIS (3 stars) 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls; 703-759-3800

THE SCENE. Rusticity and romance come together at this old-world Alsatian-French restaurant presided over for half a century by François Haeringer and his family. Son Jacques has long been in charge of the kitchen, but François is often found at the Tudor-style cottage's door greeting customers. Reservations, taken up to four weeks in advance, are hard to get, especially during the holidays.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Hallmarks of Alsatian and haute French cuisine–aperitifs with floating raspberries; mousselines; Dover sole; Châteaubriand; Grand Marnier soufflés–presented without pretension. And the value is makes this restaurant hard to resist: Entrée prices include appetizer, salad, dessert, and coffee or tea.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The embroidered frilliness–complete with red-vested waiters, copious doilies, and flowered curtains–will either feel charming or kitschy.

BEST DISHES. Roquefort salad; choucroute garni, a bed of sauerkraut laden with foie gras, goose confit, and sausages; lobster with citrus and Sauternes butter sauce; Alsatian plum tart; chocolate and Grand Marnier soufflés.

Expensive; entrées $57 to $65.

LABORATORIO DEL GALILEO (four stars) 1110 21st St., NW; 202-293-7191

THE SCENE. In a small dining room tucked in back of Galileo, Roberto Donna conducts one of the most intimate culinary experiences in the city. His open kitchen is really a stage–a mirror hangs across the ceiling so diners can watch Donna and his crew juggle pans and plates. Donna is especially fun to watch–one second he's dressing down his cooks in barking Italian, the next he's dotting sauce on a plate with the gentle precision of a painter–but the food steals the show.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Fourteen courses of unbridled lustiness. Diets be damned, this extravaganza of foie gras, butter, black and white truffles, and Italian cheeses is simple, indulgent, and totally transportive.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Donna's decadence teeters on the edge of too-muchness: an oozy fried egg with fontina cheese followed by foie gras with porcinis, chestnut soup with pancetta, and three pasta courses. And that was just the first half on a recent night. On the flip side, Donna's lighter dishes–say, a cube of black cod perched on a squared potato–lack enthusiasm.

BEST DISHES. Donna creates a special menu each night, but highlights on a recent visit were beautifully firm beads of risotto adorned with white truffle; house-made, threadlike tagliatelle with a sweet rabbit ragoût; a delicate breast of partridge served with zucchini flower or polenta and cauliflower; and a trio of simple desserts–passionfruit soufflés, a newspaper sheath of roasted chestnuts, and a round of just-fried and sugared doughnuts.

Very expensive; tasting menu $110 or $125. (Note 12/06: This restaurant is currently closed for renovations.)

LE PARADOU (2 stars) 678 Indiana Ave., NW; 202-347-6780

THE SCENE. Legal eagles, lobbyists, and politicos do lunch and dinner during the week; on weekends, suburbanites and out-of-towners check out the handiwork of Yannick Cam, one of the city's most celebrated longtime chefs. Oddly, the place is rarely full. The rear dining room wows, courtesy of a crazy Venetian-glass Medusa-head of a chandelier and exotic backlit blooms, but the main room comes into its own at night when fiber-optic "stars" twinkle on the ceiling. Snug and chic, the new lounge may well be the best spot in the house.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Cam is a prodigious talent when he's on, and the $45 three-course pretheater menu is a deal–as is the bar menu, from which you can order steak frites at dinner.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The wine list. It's as heavy as a telephone book but has precious little for those drinking by the glass or half bottle or watching their wallets. And while service has warmed up some, at times you can feel the chill.

BEST DISHES. A beautifully composed lobster-claw salad with avocado terrine and gazpacho; perfectly cooked veal chop with baby turnips; sea bass stuffed with shrimp mousse, partnered with roasted scallops and ringed with a sauce of vermouth, saffron, and rosemary; a chocolate saveur balanced with thyme sauce and hazelnut citroen confit ice cream.

Very expensive; entrées $20 to $27, tasting menus $70 to $145.

LE TIRE BOUCHON (2 stars) 4009 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax; 703-691-4747

THE SCENE. Claret walls, white linens, and splashy canvases of contemporary art are the backdrop for the classical-minded cooking at this three-year-old suburban French bistro, and the wall of wines is a come-hither to the Internet moguls in the neighborhood.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The intimacy of the place–only 13 tables.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The limited by-the-glass wine list–at least there are a few half-bottles.

BEST DISHES. Snails dripping parsley and garlic butter; house-made pâté of duck a l'orange; Normandy-style mussels with white wine, shallots, and a smattering of cream; a warm salad of braised leeks; a lean venison chop napped with a lick-your-fork chestnut purée; bouillabaisse fragrant with pernod; airy banana soufflé; thin-crusted apple tart with ultra-creamy vanilla ice cream.

Expensive; entrées $24 to $32.

LES FOLIES BRASSERIE (2 1/2 stars) 2552 Riva Rd., Annapolis; 410-573-0970

THE SCENE. This big, welcoming brasserie with its brass accents, art nouveau glass, and bentwood chairs is the place to go for seafood towers the way they're done at La Coupole and the classics that stoked America's love of Gallic fare back when French was the one of the few "ethnic" foods you could find in America. Most locals end up here sooner or later, so the room sometimes feels like one big party as neighbors stop to meet and greet.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Raw-bar choices impress, with a changing roster that includes periwinkles, langoustines, and Taylor Bay scallops along with clams and a half dozen kinds of oysters, from Belons to Malpeques. The wine list is accommodating, with a majority of bottles under $40.

WHAT YOU WON'T. When the place is crowded, service can seem a bit rushed. Families with young children are usually ushered to the back of the dining room.

BEST DISHES. Silky crab flan; a soulful plate of garlic sausage with lentils; fish soup scented with fennel and garlic and finished with rouille; seared foie gras and caramelized apples; an unusually flavorful coq au vin; robust calves' liver with caramelized onions; cold lobster with mayonnaise macédoine; a marvelous tarte Tatin.

Expensive; entrées $19.50 to $26.

LEOPOLD'S KAFE & KONDITOREI (2 stars) 3315 Cady's Alley, NW; 202-965-6005

THE SCENE. If you can find this airy, Euro-style restaurant/lounge/bar/coffeehouse tucked away in an alley off M Street in Georgetown, and if you can look past the self-consciousness and hauteur it exudes once you get there (big if), you'll be rewarded. The menu, which mingles Modern American dishes and contemporary riffs on Austrian classics, is excellent and, given its surroundings, surprisingly affordable–you could expect to pay twice as much elsewhere.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The space is impressively conceived to accommodate a variety of patrons at any one time: breakfast diners, people who want to linger over a cup of coffee, couples looking to split a Sachertorte after a movie.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service has improved some since its launch, but lapses still occur in the multipurpose space, and management isn't inclined to take responsibility. The chilled display case tends to mute the flavors of the otherwise excellent pastries inside.

BEST DISHES. Beautiful grilled asparagus, thick, meaty, and lightly charred; one of the best roast chickens in town; carefully grilled salmon dressed up with Medjool dates, shaved fennel, and a rim of basil oil; gooey, nutmegy spaetzle; crispy veal schnitzel; thick, layered finger sandwiches of smoked salmon or egg salad.

Moderate; entrées $13 to $23.

LEWNES' STEAKHOUSE (2 stars) 401 Fourth St., Annapolis; 410-263-1617

THE SCENE. To wander into this corner steakhouse, just across the bridge from Annapolis in Eastport, is to step back in time to the kind of restaurant that dotted the land before big-box chains, a colorful, convivial gathering spot with black-and-white pictures on the walls, lots of small-town charm, and neighborhood characters both waggish and welcoming.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Lovable as the atmosphere may be, you come here for the agreeably priced steaks–wet-aged slabs of prime, Midwestern beef seasoned with salt, garlic salt, and white pepper, thrust beneath an 1,800-degree broiler just until they develop a nice black char, and topped with a generous spoonful of clarified butter. A good, red-heavy wine list, including several pages of reserve selections, lets you drink as well as you eat. The amiable waitstaff goes out of its way to make you feel like a regular.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Venture beyond the meats and potatoes and you may come away disappointed.

BEST DISHES. Thick, juicy, beautifully marbled New York strip and rib-eye steaks; excellent prime rib; Old Bay-dusted Lyonnaise potatoes; creamy Key-lime pie.

Expensive; entrées $17 to $35.

MAESTRO (4 stars) Ritz-Carlton, 1700 Tysons Corner Blvd., McLean; 703-821-1515

THE SCENE. A mecca for foodies. The most coveted tables at this hotel restaurant in Tysons Corner offer an up-close glimpse into the unusually serene open kitchen, where chef Fabio Trabocchi turns out dishes as precise, as exquisite, and as personal as any in the country.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The buzz in the air at every meal, comparable to that at opening night on Broadway–the sense of being at the center of something memorable in the making. Diners choose from either of two grandiosely named menus–La Tradizione, in which the chef displays his effortless mastery of Italian regional traditions, and L'Evoluzione, in which he integrates influences from Europe and Asia. Both menus are rooted in tradition yet unbound by them, putting a premium on clarity and intensity of flavor while playing with expectations. Rarely is good food so good–or so much fun. And few sommeliers are as engaging and trusty as Vincent Feraud, who's as enthusiastic about helping you select a $40 bottle of wine as a $400 bottle and dispenses both good advice and good humor with gentlemanly ease.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The dining room, the very definition of corporate good taste, doesn't begin to approach the drama and excitement of the experience.

BEST DISHES. A mosaic of yellowtail, tuna, and striped marlin, as stunning and delicious a presentation of raw fish as any in town; a sublime hay-smoked turbot; baby goat, served in chops, with a rusticky, verdant pesto.

Very expensive; prix fixe $85 to $150.

MAKOTO (3 stars) 4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-298-6866

THE SCENE. Step through the carved wooden entrance, swap your shoes for a pair of soft black slippers, and enter another world–smaller, quieter, more ethereal, a jewel box of a restaurant with efficient, doting service presided over by sushi master Takashi Okamura.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Okamura's devotion to sourcing his fish, resulting in glistening, beautifully cut sashimi that's without peer in the area. Rarities abound, like a slab of fatty yellowtail–buttery, smooth, unsurpassingly rich. The tasting menu is controlled and masterly, comprising ten small courses that go well beyond sushi and sashimi: beautifully picked vegetables, robustly flavored soups, elegant fishcakes, sculpted portions of succulent and delicately embroidered meats and fishes. The drink to have with this artful repast is a bottle of cold, unfiltered sake.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Veer from the $49 omakase tasting menu–a legitimate deal–and you'll pay dearly. But it's hard not to veer–and frankly, you may not be full enough to resist splurging for extra sushi, which is often exorbitantly priced. Service, while gracious, can drift into an awkward, geishalike obeisance, and seating in the spare doll's house is so cramped that you're likely to spend your night whispering to one another.

BEST DISHES. The omakase tasting menu; strips of sweet broiled eel over rice; miso soup so rich and full of depth it makes the stuff you're used to seem like dishwater; sashimi of yellowtail, fatty yellowtail, toro, scallop, and giant clam, all in pristine condition.

Expensive; entrées $10.95 to $45.

MANDALAY (2 stars) 930 Bonifant St., Silver Spring; 301-585-0500

THE SCENE. The move to a brighter, more spacious location in a different county has not diminished the passionately loyal following of this family-run Burmese restaurant in Silver Spring–if anything, the place is more bustling than it was in its tighter College Park quarters, and it continues to win new fans with its homey Burmese cooking and familial warmth.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The kitchen succeeds in turning a complex cuisine–a blend of Indian and Thai cooking–into something comforting and accessible even as it teases your mouth with unfamiliar flavors. And sibling servers Aung and Kyaw–one baby-faced and smiling, the other gruff and funny–will make you feel as if you've been granted access to a family event.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The bigger space, intended to ease long waits, has resulted in longer waits, and the waitstaff, now bulked out with nonfamily members, is often too harried to devote the kind of personal attention it used to on every table. And some dishes are undone by overcooked meats.

BEST DISHES. Crunchy spring rolls, halved and arrayed atop a tangy tomato salad; greaseless gram fritters; strips of dark-meat chicken tossed with sour-mustard greens; catfish curry; shweji, a wonderful custard cake made from cream of wheat.

Inexpensive; entrées $6 to $11.

MANNEQUIN PIS (3 stars) 18064 Georgia Ave., Olney; 301-570-4800

THE SCENE. Yes, the strip-mall setting is unprepossessing, and yes, the small dining room isn't much to look at, but fans of Belgian food and beer are devoted to Bernard Dehaene's place–as well they should be. Such simple pleasures as these are hard to come by.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Hearty Belgian cooking–with more than 55 Belgian beers to choose from–in a casual atmosphere.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The tables are close together, so if the couple next to you is having a bad date, you're going to hear about it. And brace yourself for the occasional lengthy, unexplained lapse in service.

BEST DISHES. Frisée salad with lardons; mussels prepared a dozen different ways, including the classic marinière and the wonderful poulet, with cream; fabulous French fries, among the best in the area whether served plain or strewn with garlic; Flemish beef stew cooked with beer; waterzooi of lobster with vegetables in a creamy broth; homey bread pudding with cherries.

Moderate; entrées $15.50 to $28.

MARCEL'S (3 1/2 stars) 2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-6466

THE SCENE. Robert Wiedmaier's place harkens back to the Washington of old, when haute cuisine was king, every man showed up for dinner in jacket and tie, and a stately formality governed relations between waiter and customer. The exquisite tastefulness and the sure-handed, often luxurious cooking have ensured a steady procession of patrons, from the crowds of older, affluent Washingtonians who used to worship at the Watergate during the heyday of Jean-Louis to titans of the military-entertainment complex such as Donald Rumsfeld and Michael Eisner.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Each year chef Wiedmaier's Belgian-influenced French cooking seems to get better and his restaurant more comfortable. Thanks to a recent renovation, the dining room is warmer, quieter, and more beautiful than ever. And unlike some chefs who play the part of prima donna artistes, Wiedmaier takes his role as proprietor seriously–ferrying pretheater guests, gratis, by Mercedes to the Kennedy Center and providing reading glasses for customers who've forgotten their own.

WHAT YOU WON'T. A bill that easily can reach $150 a person. And at that level, you might hope for a little more innovation on the plate or more change in the menu from season to season.

BEST DISHES. The chef's signature boudin blanc, a sausage of gravity-defying lightness; beef tartare, an exemplary version of the bistro classic; roast chicken as juicy as you could hope for; a gratin of mussels; terrific preparations of game in season; a pear wrapped in puff pastry and drenched with caramel sauce.

Very expensive; entrées $29 to $42.

MENDOCINO GRILLE (2 stars) 2917 M St., NW; 202-333-2912

THE SCENE. Don't let the space, a subtly evoked wine cellar with thick wooden beams and stone walls, fool you into thinking that this is just another wine bar. The menu, which marries Californian flexibility with Mediterranean rusticity, is full of fresh ideas, and the atmosphere after a few minutes (and a few sips of wine) begins to seem like an oasis of civility amid the chaotic streets of Georgetown.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. From the bowl of warmed olives offered with drinks to the large selection of affordable wines by the glass (and half-glass), Mendocino pays attention to details. Chef Drew Trautmann's devotion to locally raised, sustainable food shows up in dishes that flaunt the bounties of the seasons.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The occasionally negligent service and the closely spaced tables seem out of keeping with a place where you're meant to linger. And the cheese service is undone by stingy portions.

BEST DISHES. A hearty salt-cod brandade with grilled bread; perfectly fried frog's legs with a tart sauce gribiche; a beautifully roasted organic poussin, served with potatoes and root vegetables; a superb choucroute garni of sauerkraut, duck confit, and sausages.

Moderate to expensive; entrées $18 to $32.

MINH'S (2 1/2 stars) 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-2828

THE SCENE. Situated in the ground floor of an office building, this Clarendon restaurant, which draws a mix of Vietnamese and Westerners, is surprisingly warm and inviting with white tablecloths, lacquered tables, and wine-color carpeting. The display of good taste isn't an empty promise: Minh's is as good as it looks.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The cooking, despite efforts to reach a broader, more upscale audience than is typically found at the Eden Center, is lively, bright, and fragrant. The service is similarly attentive to detail, generous, and unobtrusive. A frosty mug of Singha will set you back just $3.95.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Vegetarian dishes are surprisingly dull, seldom matching the brightness or liveliness of the others on the menu. Aside from pork and fish, meats are apt to be dry–a cautionary note about dishes that don't come blanketed in a sauce.

BEST DISHES. Sizzling catfish; yam-and-shrimp cakes as big and addictive as anything you'd find at a state fair; terrific grilled pork, juicy and full of smoky char, with slippery vermicelli noodles.

Inexpensive; entrées $6 to $14.50.

MINIBAR AT CAFé ATLáNTICO (4 stars) 405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812

THE SCENE. Culinary adventurers of all stripes huddle six at a time on high stools at a copper counter for one of the most intense, creative, and intimate dining experiences in the country. In this pocket-size corner of Café Atlántico–Minibar is a restaurant within a restaurant–José Andrés's team of chefs surprise, delight, and seduce with 30-some bite-size morsels crafted before your eyes, a sensory experience sure to get a rise out of even jaded foodies.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The creativity, the precise orchestration of every miniature, and the heady feeling that another thrill is a moment away.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some experiments, like a tasteless green-pea caviar, don't come off, and the overall effect probably could be achieved with fewer courses. Once you've experienced this dazzling tour de force–which is less about eating than about tasting and more a performance than a meal–you're not likely to feel a need to return next week.

BEST DISHES. You don't get to choose–but highlights have included the frothy Passion Fruit Whisky Sour in a shot glass; a mojito delivered via a shiny chrome atomizer; crunchy pork rinds with maple syrup; beet tumbleweed, a ball of deep-fried filaments that dissolve on the tongue like spun sugar; cotton-candy-coated foie gras; a Caesar salad where anchovy, cheese, and croutons are rolled together in romaine; fritters oozing liquid conch; a demitasse of hot and cold foie gras soup; a dessert piña colada with coconut ice cream.

Very expensive; $85 per person.

MONTMARTRE (3 stars) 327 Seventh St., SE; 202-544-1244

THE SCENE. A former post office in Eastern Market is the unlikely home of the city's best French bistro, a warm, happily chaotic place that reminds you that, although deal-making over dinner might be the norm on the Hill, lingering over a bottle of wine and some soulful plates of food has its practitioners, too.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The unpretentious atmosphere and absence of Gallic hauteur or gruffness. Stephane Lezla's cooking is consistently delicious, full of strong, developed flavors and smart but not showy combinations.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The menu changes little from season to season, year to year.

BEST DISHES. Excellent hanger steak; braised oxtails in a crispy phyllo purse; braised leg of rabbit with shiitake mushrooms and olives; mussels in white-wine sauce.

Moderate; entrées $16.95 to $19.95.

MOURAYO (2 1/2 stars) 1732 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-667-2100

THE SCENE. Greek goes contemporary at this Dupont Circle bistro, a destination for fans of Aegean fare and an intimate, casual, white-tablecloth place for locals. No Zorbaesque kitsch here–the sailor-suited waitstaff notwithstanding.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The regional ouzos and lengthy list of well-priced Greek wines and the forward-thinking Greek cooking are panacea to anyone who's had one dreary gyro too many.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Market prices for whole fish can be high, so be sure to ask.

BEST DISHES. Smoky grilled octopus napped with fava-bean purée and octopus-ink vinaigrette; a bright, vinegary fresh beet salad; salty cod moussaka; whole fish–including branzino, dorade, and red snapper–grilled or baked in salt; an earthy special of rabbit ragoût; manouri cheese with whole-walnut preserves.

Moderate; entrées $18.95 to $23.95

NIZAM'S RESTAURANT (2 stars) 523 Maple Ave., Vienna; 703-938-8948

THE SCENE. Owner Nizam Ozgur has kept watch over the dining room and kitchen since the earliest days of the Carter administration–probably why this Vienna restaurant turns out some of the area's best Turkish fare. Expat families and foreign-service types who gather in the ceramic-filled dining room revel in good food and surroundings that never get too loud or chaotic–this is one place where you can actually converse over dinner.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Too often Turkish cuisine is lumped in with Lebanese and Greek, obscuring its particular charms. The cooking here reminds you that not all stuffed grape leaves are created equal. A helpful waitstaff only adds to the appeal.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Mr. Ozgur can be a forbidding presence, especially for first-timers. Chatting him up usually takes the chill off.

BEST DISHES. Sigara borek, thick phyllo "cigars" filled with feta and deep-fried; imam bayildi, meltingly tender eggplant with tomato, pine nuts, and onions; stuffed grape leaves with a filling of rice, currants, and pine nuts; tavuk hunkar beyendi, smoky eggplant whipped with béchamel and mounded with chunks of chicken breast; doner kebab, thin slices of leg of lamb roasted on a vertical spit–order it plain or tossed with toasted pita, fresh tomatoes, and house-made yogurt; manti, tiny boat-shaped pasta filled with meat, steeped in broth, and finished with yogurt; apricot baklava.

Moderate; entrées $16 to $21.

NOTTI BIANCHE (2 1/2 stars) 824 New Hampshire Ave., NW; 202-298-8085

THE SCENE. This narrow, orange-dappled trattoria, with its potted herbs and vintage Martini & Rossi posters, is a hit with theater crowds from the nearby Kennedy Center, parents treating GW students to a real dinner, and business travelers staying upstairs at the George Washington University Inn.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Chef Anthony Chittum has a knack for making simple ingredients leap with flavor.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service tends to be leisurely. And the kitchen is sometimes guilty of buttering up dishes that are strong and clear enough to stand on their own merit.

BEST DISHES. A bruschetta plate, with crostini bearing a lush smear of chicken-liver mousse, eggplant caponata, and a light calamari salad; a goat-cheese frittata paired with stunningly sweet roasted tomatoes; charred baby octopus with celery salad; roasted chicken with pancetta and sage butter; tagliatelle with vodka sauce and shrimp; hanger steak with black-olive gnocchi; pistachio gelato.

Expensive; entrées $13 to $27.

OBELISK (3 stars) 2029 P St., NW; 202-872-1180

THE SCENE. This narrow dining room in a Dupont Circle townhouse might no longer be the subtly subversive place it was when it opened 18 years ago–insisting that fine dining could also be casual dining and making it safe for people to wear jeans out to dinner. But there's still a lot to be said for owner Peter Pastan's purist interpretation of Italian cooking, which relies almost exclusively on the simple goodness of first-rate ingredients.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. This is the kind of small, personal restaurant that most food lovers have dreamed of opening. Peter Pastan and his chef, Jerry Corso, actually have the skill to make it work.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Though there's more room to spread out, thanks to a recent refurbishing that jettisoned some tables, the atmosphere still can be claustrophobic and noisy when the restaurant is full–which it almost always is.

BEST DISHES. The tiny fixed-priced menu changes daily, but a recent winter menu included a generous assortment of wonderful antipasti; pheasant-filled agnolotti in a full-flavored pheasant broth; a perfectly cooked black sea bass with artichokes and an herby green sauce; an assortment of Italian cheeses; and a tartly delicious yogurt panna cotta for dessert.

Very expensive; five-course prix-fixe dinner $65.

OCEANAIRE SEAFOOD ROOM (2 stars) 1201 F St., NW; 202-347-2277

THE SCENE. The Penn Quarter outlet of this national chain, done up like a '30s-style cruise ship, is as lively and jumping as its boogie-woogie soundtrack. The oyster bar stays packed after happy hour, and although there are plenty of tables for 12 crammed with lawyers cutting loose, the smaller leather banquettes–and the sidecars and sea breezes–make intimacy easy.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Any given day you might find Icelandic char, a thick cut of Shetland salmon, and at least a dozen kinds of oysters. And chef-in-charge Rob Clink does the fresh catches proud with his French- and Asian-inspired daily specials. Portions are titanic–tall towers of shellfish, "colossal" crab cocktails, mountains of flaming baked Alaska–but the friendly servers are happy to pack leftovers to go.

WHAT YOU WON'T. It verges on overpriced–surf-and-turf is $79.95–and there's a corporate feel that won't appeal to some.

BEST DISHES. Daily oysters; crab cakes with mustard mayonnaise; katsu-crusted wahoo with ginger-cream sauce; whole red snapper drizzled with black-olive vinaigrette; baked Alaska.

Expensive; entrées $16.95 to $79.95.

OYAMEL (2 stars) 2250 Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703-413-2288

THE SCENE. Amid the gray expanse of office towers that is Crystal City, José Andrés's year-old Mexican spot sticks out like a pair of ruby slippers. It's easy to get a seat at lunch, but when night falls, expect to cool your heels and wait.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Design team Adamstein & Demetriou's gorgeous, high-ceilinged dining room is a painted rainbow glittering with tin butterflies. And Andrés's small-plates formula–here they're antojitos–is a proven crowd-pleaser. The good mood is further buoyed by a well-run team of servers, easy parking, and a terrific margarita with salt-lime froth.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Many of the tacos, like the chipotle-marinated shrimp and barbecue-pork varieties, are underseasoned and overwhelmed by chewy tortillas. And the long list of small plates includes dishes that are beautiful to look at but surprisingly bland.

BEST DISHES. Palmitos salad, which marries tart grapefruit, salty hearts of palm, and creamy avocado; crispy duck-confit tacos with a sliver of pineapple; cafe de olla, an aromatic, milk-chocolate flan; warm chocolate cake with mole crema.

Moderate; antojitos $3.95 to $9.50; entrées $12.95 to $18.95. (Note 12/06: This restaurant has closed.)

PALENA (3 1/2 stars) 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250

THE SCENE. White House kitchen veterans Frank Ruta and Ann Amernick have teamed up to offer one of the most extraordinary dining experiences in the city. Perhaps most extraordinary is that, in a Cleveland Park neighborhood aswarm with lawyers, talk of government regulations and tort reform gives way to talk of food once the first courses arrive. That's the power of great, fully committed cooking.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Choosing between front-room informality and back-room informality doesn't mean having to choose between cafe and restaurant menus. You can opt for casual and delicious or more formal and more delicious–at two different price levels.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Service isn't always as smooth as it ought to be. Nor is the wine program as ambitious as the quality of the food might lead you to expect. And while Ruta's cooking gets better and better, taking new chances, adding new flavors, the classicism of the dessert menu sometimes can come across as conservatism and timidity.

BEST DISHES. A salad of roasted and raw beets with lobster in a horseradish, lime, and cumin dressing; the best charcuterie plate in the city; Ruta's upscale BLT, a slab of the wonderfully flavorful house-cured bacon served with cabbage and a potato cake; a main-course duo of venison loin and beef short ribs braised with quince and chestnuts; a simple, intensely flavored grapefruit sorbet; house-made caramels.

Very expensive; three courses $57, four courses $66, five courses $75.

PALENA CAFE (3 stars) 3529 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-537-9250

THE SCENE. Two years ago, Frank Ruta turned the front room of his on-the-rise Modern American destination into a relaxed, albeit elegantly appointed, no-reservations cafe. Now, the overstuffed barstools and cozy banquettes see as much action as the formal dining room in back.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. That you can drop in on any evening and find a beautifully balanced salad, robust ragu, or excellent roast for the price of a pizza. Or you can order à la carte from the dining-room menu.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The no-reservations policy can mean long waits at peak times. The tab quickly jumps when you factor in house cocktails ($8 to $10) and wine.

BEST DISHES. Fried lemons, onion rings, and potatoes dauphinoise; house-made hot dog with German potato salad; juicy roasted chicken, worth the 45-minute wait; cheeseburger; raviolini stuffed with duck; corned brisket; Ruta's house-cured meats such as bresaola and capicola.

Moderate; entrées $10 to $14.

PASSAGE TO INDIA (3 stars) 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-3373

THE SCENE. Families and couples from India, Bethesda, and elsewhere switch off their cell phones and hush their voices at this latticed, chandeliered dining room presided over by gentlemanly owner Sudhir Seth.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Seth, who spent years cooking at Heritage India, has crafted a menu all his own, pulling in dishes from across his native India. Sure, you'll find a standout chicken tikka masala, but it's worth branching out to the warming casseroles from the North, biryanis and curries from the South, and seafood and vegetables from the East and West. And the kitchen has a way with the tandoor oven–even seafood comes out soft and succulent.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Impersonal, somewhat stiff service.

BEST DISHES. A cold appetizer of crab with masala spices; sev-mumura chat, a crisp salad of puffed rice, tamarind, and yogurt; kamal-kakri masala, a velvety stew of peas and lotus stem; tandoori scallops and chicken; garlic and cilantro naan; sliced mango with nutmeg yogurt.

Moderate; entrées $10.95 to $23.95.

PERSIMMON (1 1/2 stars) 7003 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-654-9860

THE SCENE. One of a handful of Bethesda spots with fine-dining ambitions, Persimmon has a loyal following and is one of the area's most likeable date spots. The pumpkin-painted dining room, outfitted with Americana, is convivial and warm. Chef/owner Damian Salvatore's cooking has its moments.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere plus cheerful and capable service.

WHAT YOU WON'T. No matter how much you want to love the place, what comes out of the kitchen is uneven. And there's a downside to a small dining room–when a tipsy diner screeches to her waitress, "Can you bring me my wine in a sippy cup?" you hear it, too.

BEST DISHES. A crisp salad of haricots vert and prosciutto; crab cakes with bacon mashed potatoes; hoisin-glazed salmon and shrimp dumplings in miso broth; a trio of chocolate.

Expensive; entrées $19 to $27.

PESCE (2 stars) 2016 P St., NW; 202-466-3474

THE SCENE. Chefs come and go at this casual, spirited Dupont Circle seafood restaurant, but the place never seems to break stride, thanks to owner Regine Palladin's watchful eye and unwavering devotion to serving good, fresh fish.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The menu, handwritten on giant blackboards hauled to the table when you're ready to order, changes daily, and the kitchen pays attention to the markets and seasons–in spring, an appetizer portion of that disappearing delicacy shad roe, pan-fried and simply sauced. The wine list, though small, is strong on moderately priced whites perfectly suited to the cooking.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The no-reservations policy is challenging on a busy Friday or Saturday night.

BEST DISHES. Simple starters–a plate of olives and anchovies; octopus braised in red wine with a white-bean purée; a delicious salad of smoked trout with Gorgonzola dressing; one of the best brandades in the city; a perfectly roasted whole dorade; a hearty mahi-mahi with braised cabbage and mustard sauce; sautéed clams with spicy chorizo.

Moderate; entrées $8.95 to $24.95.

PIZZERIA PARADISO (2 stars) 2029 P St., NW; 202-223-1245 3282 M St., NW; 202-337-1245

THE SCENE. Few people come to these simple, spare dining rooms for an evening's entertainment–they're crammed with singles, couples, and families looking for a quick and delicious pizza before heading off somewhere else.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Watching the pizza makers, who display a remarkable ability to stretch the dough to the breaking point and a keen sense of when to fetch a pie from the oven. The results are even better to behold: thin, flavorful crusts, judiciously portioned toppings, and often inspired combinations of ingredients. And few pizzas in this or any town are more dependable.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Long waits for a table at peak hours.

BEST DISHES. Set combinations–the spicy Atomica with salami and red-pepper flakes, the double-carb-loaded Genovese with potatoes and pesto, or the simple Margherita, which needs nothing other than tomato, basil, and mozzarella–are usually superior to any flavor combinations you might create on your own.

Inexpensive to moderate; entrées $9 to $17.

POSTE (2 1/2 stars) 555 Eighth St., NW; 202-783-6060

THE SCENE. The most intriguing of the hip hotel restaurants, with bold colors and modernist lines playing out in a high-ceilinged, monumental former post office.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. At its best, which is to say at its most crowded, the place thrums with excitement. If you tire of keeping tabs on the procession of well-heeled patrons, you can always eavesdrop on chef Robert Weland as he barks out orders to "fire a beef tartare!" from the counter. Weland has an uncanny sense of the culinary moment, crafting a constantly changing menu attuned to the things we want to eat now (short ribs, black cod) and investing his cooking with smart, contemporary touches without crossing the line into pretension.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The back room can't compare to the grandeur of the mirror-dominated front room–quiet midweek nights tend to accentuate its relative gloom; venturing beyond the often thrilling, carefully wrought first courses can turn up a disappointment or two; and although some of the staff can compensate for their gaps in knowledge with energy and enthusiasm, not all can.

BEST DISHES. Kobe beef tartare, presented in jeweled cubes and–a bit of wink-winkery–topped with a brioche bun; tiny ravioli filled with short ribs and foie gras and set bobbing in a mushroom consommé; wonderfully juicy Amish roast chicken; sea bass topped with a red-wine-poached egg; pillowy, ricotta-stuffed ravioli that rival those of any Italian kitchen in the city.

Moderate to expensive; entrées $15 to 25.

THE PRIME RIB (3 stars) 2020 K St., NW; 202-466-8811

THE SCENE. Jacket and tie are not recommended–they're required. At no other restaurant in the city will you find such a policy, and that's part of the appeal of Buzz Beler's K Street haunt, a time capsule of a place with tuxedoed waiters, Erté prints, and a Lucite baby grand piano. Make that a well-preserved time capsule: Few restaurants are more consistent. Or, to put it another way: Yes, the prime rib still justifies the name out front.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The staff will make you feel like you're celebrating a special occasion even if you're not. And things seldom, if ever, change.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Things seldom, if ever, change.

BEST DISHES. Prime aged steaks and prime rib; definitive crab imperial; some of the best crab cakes in the city.

Very expensive; entrées $24 to $39.95.

RAKU BETHESDA (2 stars) 7240 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-8680

THE SCENE. The giant chopsticks and splotches of color on the walls make for a playful setting at this lively, family-friendly pan-Asian restaurant known for its stylized riffs on Japanese and Chinese and even Modern American flavors–is worlds beyond that of its Dupont Circle sibling.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The witty, casual space is loud enough to absorb rambunctious children, yet the kitchen is conscientious enough about the food to make Mom and Dad–and everyone else–happy.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Sometimes it can get a little too loud and crowded. And more than a few dishes have strayed too far.

BEST DISHES. The signature tuna tartare with lemon basil sauce and peanuts, a buttery, crunchy mouthful; silken yellowtail sashimi with spicy wasabi ponzu sauce; an earthy duck roll with hints of mustard, hoisin, and teriyaki; smoky wok-charred Chilean sea bass with ginger tomato sauce; coconut-creamy Thai curry bouillabaisse; strip steak marinated with cilantro, chili, and shallots.

Moderate; entrées $11.50 to $22.50, sushi $3 to $10.

RAY'S THE STEAKS (3 stars) 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297

THE SCENE. This small, barebones dining room with an open kitchen, tin ceiling, and granite floors pulls off a smooth trick: It's both a casual neighborhood bistro and a prime-time steakhouse. Owner Michael Landrum wanders the packed dining room with a beatific air, chatting up customers who rave over his steaks–farm-raised, corn-fed Hereford and Angus from Iowa, Nebraska, and Washington state–and his gentle prices.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The emphasis is where it should be–on the meat, which is butchered on the premises daily. The sides are no slouches, either–terrific creamed spinach and hearty mashed potatoes served up in cast-iron skillets. And unlike the chain steakhouses, the owner is always on the premises taking a proprietary interest in the happiness of his customers.

WHAT YOU WON'T. With nothing to absorb sound, the dining room can get deafening. In cold weather, it's drafty inside. And there can be service lapses when it's really busy.

BEST DISHES. Hanger steak, steak au poivre, double-cut Cowboy Steaks and New York strip, all excellent; wonderful blackened scallops; a lip-puckering but creamy Key-lime pie.

Moderate to expensive; entrées $18.95 to $31.95.

RESTAURANT EVE (3 stars) 110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450

THE SCENE. Can a destination restaurant also be a neighborhood hangout? That's the question Cathal Armstrong and Meshelle Armstrong seem to be asking with their ambitious Old Town restaurant, a stylish, softly lighted lair that brings together a bistro, a tasting room, and a bar under a single roof. So far, the crowds seem to be providing the answer. Neighborhood regulars drawn by sommelier Todd Thrasher's imaginative cocktails talk loudly in the bar while servers in the tasting room regale rapt foodies with stories of where the fish and cheeses come from.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Armstrong is Irish, and his affinity for the earthy, lusty flavors of the countryside gives many of these dishes charm and distinctiveness. Don't be distracted by the Modern American feel of much of the menu–this is bold, personal cooking. A dedication to seasonal Virginia produce results in stellar fruits and vegetables.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Occasionally, the tasting room can feel stagey and stiff, despite the careful, attentive service.

BEST DISHES. Luxuriously fatty rillettes, the richness cut by pickled onions and grain mustard; house-cured pork belly; a hearty and generous bouillabaisse; luscious short ribs with polenta; pan-roasted sweetbreads with wild mushrooms; a daring and delicious braised tripe with chorizo.

Very expensive; entrées $25 to $35, tasting menus $85 and $110.

RISTORANTE TOSCA (2 1/2 stars) 1112 F St., NW; 202-367-1990

THE SCENE. In a part of downtown that's dotted with law firms, this accomplished Italian restaurant evinces an astute knowledge of its target audience–the well-spaced tables encourage private conversations, and a tasteful beige color scheme doesn't distract from the real business at hand: deal making.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. At the bar, a glass of wine and half-price portions of chef Cesare Lanfranconi's terrific pastas make for one of the city's most attractive dining deals; the $25 fixed-price menu at lunch is also a bargain.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The attitude of some servers–a suave indifference that can seem aggressive, even hostile. Main courses seldom rise to the level of the pastas.

BEST DISHES. The signature ravioli filled with aged ricotta and raisins; veal and prosciutto ravioli; agnolotti filled with braised duck and currants, served with foie gras sauce; a succulent lamb shank with buckwheat polenta; perfectly textured and intensely flavored granitas, including almond and watermelon.

Very expensive; entrées $29 to $34.

1789 RESTAURANT (3 stars) 1226 36th St., NW; 202-965-1789

THE SCENE. As befits a restaurant often chosen for special occasions, this Georgetown legend is among the few places in town that requires a jacket for gentlemen. In this dining room, tradition is not just observed but obeyed.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The Federal-style main dining room, particularly when it's decked out for the holidays, is one of the city's most festive destinations, and the solicitous staff is ever-alert to the needs and expectations of a special event. The sophisticated American cooking–short on experimentation, long on durable combinations of flavors–appeals to a variety of sensibilities. (And longtime fans should expect no drop-off from the kitchen as chef Ris Lacoste passes the baton to Nathan Beauchamp of Restaurant Eve in January.)

WHAT YOU WON'T. Being relegated to one of the less attractive subsidiary dining rooms.

BEST DISHES. Rack of lamb with feta mashed potatoes, an area classic; an earthy wild-mushroom-and-pancetta tart; a proper Caesar salad, a rarity these days; a sensational vanilla-and-chocolate bread pudding.

Very expensive; entrées $20 to $38.

SUSHI KAPPO KAWASAKI (2 stars) 1140 19th St., NW; 202-466-3798

THE SCENE. One of the biggest secrets in town is this basement haunt with signage so tiny it seems designed to dissuade customers from coming in. But Japanese businessmen know all about it and flock to it for its purist approach to sushi and sashimi.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Varieties of fish seldom seen elsewhere–kingfish, for instance, or a mash of white yam studded with jewel-like cubes of tuna–turn up regularly on this small menu of gems. More familiar dishes can evince an almost lapidary craftsmanship–a tuna tataki turns up a dish of sweet, tender toro so beautifully cut and arrayed that you almost hate to spoil the composition by eating it.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Unless you're a regular, you'll have to return several times before you command the kind of attention you deserve from the staff. And there's the rub–the prices can be as off-putting as the indifferent, gruff reception you may receive.

BEST DISHES. The chef's daily assortment of small appetizers, always fresh and interesting; tuna tataki; excellent, elegantly presented sashimi, including unusually fine selections of yellowtail, octopus, and clam.

Very expensive; entrées $12 to $36.

SUSHI-KO (3 stars) 2309 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-4187

THE SCENE. The spare interior, mingling sleek Asian minimalism with the cost-cutting aesthetic of Ikea, is a haven for Georgetown students and faculty, guidebook-toting tourists, couples, groups, black-clad fashionistas, and sushi obsessives, the latter plunking themselves down in the coveted stools by the front corner of the sushi bar to watch wunderkind Koji Terano wield his $2,000 knife.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The oldest sushi bar in Washington remains a model of consistency, serving up some of the freshest, most pristine raw fish around. It's also a successful innovator, pairing red Burgundy with sushi and bridging East and West in ways both subtle and flavorful. Still in his twenties, Terano is as flexible as he is talented, capable of whipping up a rich and varied feast with his omakase menu or wowing you even if you ask him to work within a strict budget.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The cheap, hard seats and stools don't encourage lingering, much less slow sipping of sake or Burgundy. And it's best to resist putting together your own menu at the bar or setting a budget if Koji isn't there.

BEST DISHES. Tuna Six Ways, which brings subtle variations of flavor on this versatile, rich fish, including a medium-fat seared tuna as savory as a great steak and a melt-in-your-mouth toro; chef's choice sashimi, a selection of what's most glisteningly fresh that day; crisped eel with balsamic reduction; expertly fried soft-shell crab kara age with ponzu sauce; a bracing but custardy uni.

Moderate; entrées $10 to $28.

TABARD INN (2 1/2 stars) 1739 N St., NW; 202-331-8528

THE SCENE. One of the few spots in the city where people are inclined to let their hair down is in this tucked-away townhouse that boasts a fireplace, a museum's worth of bric-a-brac, and a cozy but spirited dining room equally accommodating to couples out for a romantic dinner or groups of coworkers letting off a little steam after hours. Official Washington seems far, far away.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The kitchen, a proving ground for many bright culinary lights in its 88 years–Pedro Matamoros is the latest–goes out of its way to sweat the details, from developing a relationship with a local oyster purveyor to embroidering a simple steak dinner with a creamy marrow flan to rolling its own pastas. Few brunches are more worth setting aside time for–don't miss the house-made doughnuts.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The vaunted coziness can become cloying as you find yourself in the midst of conversations on either side of you; service that aims to be unobtrusive can turn neglectful, particularly at peak hours; and the prices push dining here beyond every-so-often into the realm of the special occasion, which is more than it can reliably deliver.

BEST DISHES. A rusticky, garlicky pork terrine; ribbony house-made pastas tossed in a rotating crop of seasonally driven sauces; caramelized diver scallops; lemon tart with house-made vanilla ice cream.

Expensive; entrées $18 to $30.

TABERNA DEL ALABARDERO (2 1/2 stars) 1776 I St., NW; 202-429-2200

THE SCENE. World-bankers and Euro expats hunker down in the gold-leaf-and-brocade dining room for expense-account lunches and celebratory paellas. The tapas menu livens up the place in mid-afternoon.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The antique charm of the place–absolutely untouched by the Ferran Adria strain of modernist Spanish cuisine–is matched by lovely renditions of traditional Spanish and continental pleasures. And even if you're just ordering a wine by the glass, the staff brings the bottle to the table for your inspection.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Some will find the decor–and the formal service–fusty. And the kitchen's missteps are harder to forgive given the prices of many dishes.

BEST DISHES. Bacalao, whipped into an ethereal brandade, is the best thing on the menu; venison with thyme-juniper sauce, pears, and red cabbage; veal cheeks with celery-root purée; chocolate parfait.

Very expensive; entrées $28.50 to $46.

TACHIBANA (2 stars) 6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771

THE SCENE. The large dining room can feel almost dead at night, and the service can be chilly. The action is at the sushi bar, which curves along an entire wall and boasts a skillful crew of chefs. Their handiwork–the best in the Virginia suburbs–accounts for the loyal following of office workers and families.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. From the fresh and beautifully cut sushi to the expert frying, the cooking is full of care and attention.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Atmosphere, anyone?

BEST DISHES. Excellent fatty tuna; good monkfish liver; an unusually moist and tender version of negimaki, scallions wrapped in beef; excellent teriyaki; crisp, almost greaseless tempura; nicely crusted tonkatsu.

Moderate; entrées $6.50 to $36.50.

TEMPT ASIAN CAFé (3 stars) 6259 Little River Tpk., Alexandria; 703-750-6801

THE SCENE. Families, groups, and the culinarily adventurous descend on this small, wood-paneled dining room off Little River Turnpike, where Szechuan master Peter Chang, who built a cult following at China Star in Fairfax, has turned a formerly unremarkable restaurant into a destination worth driving for.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The often-thrilling cooking–be sure to ask for the Chinese menu, which is much more interesting and rewarding than the American one. Chang laces his dishes with varieties of heat and spice–ground coriander in one dish, white pepper in another, rings of green chilies, red-chili oil. The result? Dishes that aren't so much incendiary as full of mystery and intrigue.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Your server is likely to direct you away from something exciting in favor of something you'd be less likely to return to the kitchen. First-timers, take note: Sometimes the less captivating the name, the better the dish, and vice versa. And yes, some dishes are scorchers.

BEST DISHES. The misnamed roasted fish with green onions, a kind of fry basket full of filets of pearly white fish with chilies, scallions, and ginger scattered about; minced beef in a dry hot pot; fish with sour mustard; the beautifully puffed scallion pancake; baby wontons in chili oil.

Inexpensive; entrées $8.50 to $13.95. (Note 12/06: This restaurant has closed.)

THAI SQUARE (3 stars) 3217 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-685-7040

THE SCENE. The unassuming dining room–glass-top tables, nondescript furniture, framed travel posters–will resonate with foodies who think that flash is often trash and that the most riveting food is found in plain-Jane, family-run restaurants with a native clientele.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Familiar dishes are likely to be done better here than elsewhere, and some you've never come across will awaken you to new possibilities. The prices are low enough and the menu long enough that you'll want to make frequent trips here to unearth more discoveries.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Those lovingly cooked plates sometimes take their time getting out of the kitchen.

BEST DISHES. Crunchy, chili-dusted sun-dried (and deep-fried) beef that's tender and chewy and thoroughly addictive (the pork version, an occasional special, is fabulous, too); fragrant green-curry shrimp; sweet pig-knuckle stew with tart pickled lettuce; catfish with a double whammy of chili paste and chili peppers and Thai eggplant for a smoky note.

Inexpensive; entrées $6.95 to $12.95

2941 (3 1/2 stars) 2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500

THE SCENE. A stream filled with koi fish leads the way to this stunning dining room overlooking a glimmering pond. Slip into a booth or a table by the fireplace, and you'll quickly forget you're in an off-the-Beltway office building.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The way the restaurant carries itself with a certain formal elegance while retaining its sense of the personal. Start with the best bread service in the area, with varieties like cherry almond and rosemary olive baked daily by Mal Krinn. His son, chef/owner Jonathan Krinn, transforms carefully chosen ingredients into sparkling, sometimes surprising creations. And the silver tureen of cotton candy keeps smiles wide, even as the check is being signed.

WHAT YOU WON'T. While service usually strikes the right mix of charm and efficiency, it also can be slow and salesmanlike.

BEST DISHES. Lemongrass-braised abalone; foie gras, seared and in a torchon; roasted sablefish in an airy sauce of ginger confit, yuzu, and lobster jus; ruby-rare venison over braised red and white cabbage; chocolate coulant; mascarpone napoleon with cassis.

Very expensive; entrées $25 to $40; tasting menus $75 to $110.

2 AMYS (3 stars) 3715 Macomb St., NW; 202-885-5700

THE SCENE. Families with babies, stressed-out yuppies, and empty-nesters pour in at all hours of the day, making a seat in this spare, white-tiled dining room in Cleveland Park tough to come by even during off hours–and one of the most coveted spots in town on a weekend night (no reservations accepted).

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Think of 2 Amys as a pizzeria only and you miss its real appeal–though many of its pizzas are the best in their class. The place turns out terrific small plates, tosses off some of the best desserts in town, and outdoes many a wine bar with its well-chosen rustic selections.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The more toppings on the pie, the greater the runoff, and the kitchen is occasionally guilty of turning out crusts that are both underdone and blistered. Depending on your tolerance, the noisy tables of children are either charming or annoying, and you're apt to feel cramped no matter where you sit.

BEST DISHES. Whole anchovies drizzled with olive oil; a dish of warm roasted olives; aroncini, the wonderfully cheesy risotto cakes; the margherita, the simplest and still the best of the pizzas; superlative vanilla ice cream teeming with butterfat richness; delicate almond cake; the cheese plate.

Moderate; entrées $15 to $20.

VIDALIA (3 stars) 1990 M St., NW; 202-659-1990

THE SCENE. Though not so distinctively Southern after its makeover–whither the lovingly elaborated onion theme?–the subterranean dining room has never looked more cheerful or contemporary–a fitting setting for Jeffrey and Sallie Buben's Modern Southern cuisine, which remains very popular with patrons of all backgrounds and sensibilities.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Smart, careful cooking that goes well beyond fried chicken and grits; gracious service; and a thoughtful, imaginative wine list that's among the top five in the area. And you won't find a better happy hour in town than the one in the bar from 5 to 7 weeknights: 20 wines by the glass under $7 plus a raft of free and bargain-priced nibbles.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The lack of natural light can induce a little claustrophobia. And every so often the cooking slides off track, veering from hearty simplicity into gooey, cheesy indistinction.

BEST DISHES. Shrimp and grits, a model of the genre; the sinfully rich Southern Cassoulet with pork belly, jowl, loin, and sausage; almost any of the sides, particularly the delectable greens with bacon and onions; a wonderfully tart lemon chess pie.

Very expensive; entrées $27 to $36, five-course menu $80.

WILLOW (2 stars) 4301 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-465-8800

THE SCENE. Gustav Klimt meets modern Continental in this sprawling warehouse of a restaurant, evoking 1930s Vienna with geometric textiles, shades of gold, plum, and burgundy, and curvy wood furniture. It's a fitting set piece for chef Tracy O'Grady's first restaurant, which aims to attract those older, more settled customers who followed her during her years at Kinkead's even as the place makes overtures to the young professionals who make up the new Clarendon.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. Although Italy, France, and Spain are her inspiration, O'Grady's cooking possesses a haven't-been-there, haven't-done-that quality. Still, it's the simple fare that's most satisfying. Like her old boss, Bob Kinkead, she's a whiz with anything fried or crusted. And the convivial lounge and bar is just the place to nibble on these morsels.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The overflow dining room feels like social Siberia–and it's cold enough you may need a shrug, too. Servers are hit and miss, with some more knowledgeable than others.

BEST DISHES. Crunchy fritters of ricotta and zucchini and prosciutto and fontina; wild-mushroom ravioli paired with fried veal sweetbreads; the Willow flatbread pizza, which defies all clichés with toppers like wild mushrooms, lemon, and white-truffle essence; memorable mustard-crusted pork Milanese with caramelized onions; bacon-crusted salmon; pastry chef Kate Jansen's beautifully crafted cookie plate with a blob of chocolate hazelnut ice cream at its center.

Expensive; entrées $14 to $32.

ZAYTINYA (3 stars) 701 Ninth St., NW; 202-638-0800

THE SCENE. The hip downtown vibe of this white dining room with soaring ceilings is catnip to trend-seekers. On weekends the youngish bar scene can get so frenetic that the buzz resembles the return of the cicadas.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. The kitchen, for all its moxie, never pumps the flavors of the Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese-inspired mezze so far beyond the originals that they become unrecognizable, and duds are few. The communal approach–the idea is to order several plates to share–is a great icebreaker and makes the place popular with large groups. And the bathrooms, with their unisex, avant-garde "fountain" sinks, may be the niftiest in town.

WHAT YOU WON'T. The dining room can get loud and service chaotic. Sometimes pacing is off, causing lags between dishes.

BEST DISHES. Garlicky pork sausages with tart orange rind and bean stew; lollipop lamb chops with rosemary syrup; spanakopita like no other, courtesy of house-made phyllo dough; Manti Nejla, tiny beef-stuffed pasta "boats" slathered with paprika, butter, and roasted garlic yogurt; crisp-fried mussels, a Turkish seaside snack; braised lamb on a bed of puréed smoked eggplant, béchamel, and keflograviera cheese; yogurt cream with apricot and Muscat gelée; and olive-oil ice cream with a mixed citrus salad.

Inexpensive; mezze dishes $3.50 to $9.95.

ZEST (2 stars) 200 S. Market St., Frederick; 301-620-7480

THE SCENE. The new Zest, housed in a renovated historic building in downtown Frederick, looks a lot like the old Zest: same butter-yellow walls, honey-hued wood floors, and wall of wine. Same open kitchen, too, allowing chef/owners Keith Sleppy and David Jones to mingle with diners like a couple of short-order cooks.

WHAT YOU'LL LOVE. This is a daring duo–and their Modern American menu with its jokes and asides speaks of a winning irreverence.

WHAT YOU WON'T. Not every flight of fancy works: Some plates soar, others nose-dive. And parking is harder to come by downtown.

BEST DISHES. Crisply fried sweetbreads on a brioche bun with house-made fingerling potato chips; house-made sausages with sweet red-onion jam; bacon fried chicken, a crusty bone-in bird on a mound of shrimp and grits dressed up with bits of bacon; wintry beer-braised Black Angus short ribs; a very respectable chocolate cake.

Expensive; entrées $23 to $29, five-course tasting menu $59, seven-course menu $79.

Restaurateurs of the Year: Ann Amernick & Frank Ruta

Chef Frank Ruta and pastry chef Ann Amernick took a risk when they opened Palena in 2000. Would a Modern American restaurant find success next door to an Exxon station in a Cleveland Park neighborhood seldom associated with first-rate restaurants? Would customers embrace a formal restaurant where slab bacon was a house specialty and desserts include salted caramels?

In the early years Ruta and Amernick did much to take the starch out of fine dining. Then, in 2003, they took the unusual step of converting Palena's front room into a no-reservations cafe, widening the audience for some of the area's most precise, most personal cooking. You could drop in for fried lemons and a house-made hot dog at the bar, order a dish or two from Ruta's pricier menu, or go all out in the more formal dining room. You didn't have to get dressed up; you didn't need to bring a pile of cash.

Ruta hasn't stopped taking risks. Lately he's been experimenting with Middle Eastern accents and wooing gastronomes to his cafe on slow Monday nights with luscious, affordably priced plates of veal tongue and testa. Since the cafe opened, many local restaurants–from old-guard bastions like Galileo to upstarts like Restaurant Eve–have found new customers and bigger success with Palena's high-brow-meets-low-key formula.

But give credit to Frank Ruta and Ann Amernick–they did it first. And they still do it best.


Classic & Modern

What makes dining out so interesting these days is the enlivening tension between classicism and innovation, tradition and change, sturdiness and playfulness. For every dish that seeks to pay loving honor to the past, there seems to be an equally loving, if cheeky, reinterpretation that aims to bridge the old and the new.

CLASSIC: Wood-grilled lobster at Buck's Fishing & Camping.

MODERN: Maine lobster in a curried cream sauce crowned with zucchini curls and ringed with pumpkin gnocchi at Cafe 15.

CLASSIC: Cheeseburger on brioche with garlic mayo at Palena.

MODERN: Kobe-beef tartare molded into a patty and topped with a brioche bun at Poste.

CLASSIC: Duo of Foie Gras–a seared slab and a torchon–at 2941.

MODERN: Foie gras impaled on a lollipop stick and swabbed in a cloud of vanilla cotton candy at Minibar.

CLASSIC: Roasted prime rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding at Colvin Run Tavern.

MODERN: Grilled calotte of prime Midwestern beef –the coveted dark, fatty "tenderloin" of the prime rib–with Perles du Japon risotto and Matusake mushrooms at CityZen.

CLASSIC: Vanilla crème brûlée at Montmartre.

MODERN: Savory lobster crème brûlée with baby fennel and tarragon vinaigrette at Restaurant Eve.

CLASSIC: BLT on Texas toast with applewood bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo at Urban Bar-B-Que.

MODERN: Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato–a cured, smoked, braised, and roasted slab of pork belly with a lettuce wrap of Vidalia-onion confit and a crouton of tomato raisin chutney at Palena.

CLASSIC: Rack of lamb with Shiraz sauce at 1789.

MODERN: Tandoori rack of lamb with a ragoût of green lentils at IndeBleu.

CLASSIC: Cassoulet of lamb, duck confit, and sausage with white beans at Bistro d'Oc.

MODERN: Deconstructed Cassoulet– shrimp, sausage, and white beans at Zest.

CLASSIC: Alsatian choucroute–sausage, duck, goose confit, foie gras, and sauerkraut at L'Auberge Chez François.

MODERN: Ocean choucroute–sea scallops, mussels velouté, and confit of green cabbage at Le Palais.

CLASSIC: Napoleon of puff pastry layered with custard in a pool of caramel sauce at Citronelle.

MODERN: Niçoise napoleon of boudin made with pig's foot, mushroom, and foie gras with crispy pork skin and mushroom sauce at Citronelle.

Dream Dinners

Todd Kliman

••Platter of freshly shucked Kumamoto oysters at Old Ebbitt Grill

• Tuna Six Ways at Sushi-Ko

•Lega tibs with gomen and azifa at Etete

• Duo of seared Hudson Valley foie gras with apple tarte Tatin at Charlie Palmer Steak

• "Almost-Famous" pied de cochon at Citronelle

• Butter-poached filet of sable at Maestro

• Shaved ice with red bean, lychee, and peanut at Bob's Noodle 66

Thomas Head

••Fried oysters with pickled vegetables at Johnny's Half Shell

• Charbroiled oysters at Acadiana

• Crab imperial at the Prime Rib

•Crab cakes at Melrose (closed for remodeling)

• Three-pound lobster at the Palm

• Lemon chess pie at Vidalia (without the berry compote)

Cynthia Hacinli

• Atomized spray of mojito at Minibar•• Taramasalata at Mykonos

• Foie gras de canard seared with figs, Armagnac, and duck reduction at L'Oustalet

• Whole cold lobster with mayonnaise macédoine salad at Les Folies

• Prime rib with Yorkshire pudding at Colvin Run Tavern

• Two orders of miniature Parker House rolls at CityZen

• Coffee-brownie fudge ice cream at Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Ann Limpert

• Passion-fruit whiskey sour at Minibar

• Cherry almond bread at 2941

• Oyster shooters at Citronelle

• Mezzethakia (with a double order of tzatziki) at Komi

• Chicken livers with pickles at Buck's Fishing & Camping

• Mussels with cider at Restaurant Eve

• Sorrento lemon sorbet at Dolcezza

• Fromage blanc tart at 1789

Goodbye Crème Brûlée, Hello Vanilla Gelée

For years, as chefs first began playing with their food–collapsing the distinctions between courses, and turning dinner into dinner theater–it seemed that dessert was being left behind in all the fun. Sweets remained largely an afterthought–a simple sendoff, nothing more.

Sure, you could turn up the occasional passion-fruit soufflé or deconstructed tart, but only if you were paying big money at Citronelle or the Inn at Little Washington.

More typically, opening a dessert menu meant confronting a familiar litany of crème brûlée, molten chocolate cake, and tiramisu.

Those warhorses are disappearing, thanks to an explosion of new ideas that's helping make the ends of meals as memorable as the beginnings and middles. Sweet is gaining on savory, in much the same way that a new guard of restaurants is gaining on the traditionalists.

"It used to be we only had steakhouses and crappy French . . . a lot of chefs getting fat in their genres," says Steve Klc, pastry chef at José Andrés's restaurants. "Chefs here see the competition–and lemon meringue pie doesn't work in a modern restaurant."

What does work is whimsy and junk food. Maestro in Tysons Corner winds things down with dessert cocktails and house-made marshmallows. 2941 sends diners home with cotton candy. Until Signatures shut its doors in November, lobbyists closed their tabs over cheesecake lollipops. At Citronelle, the last course could be a classic napoleon–or a bowl of house-made cocoa flakes with minted milk.

Klc has brought that innovation to a mass audience, without dumbing things down. His desserts are highly conceived and, at no more than $7 each, highly accessible. At Zaytinya he's created a splendid sundae of walnut ice cream, goat's-milk mousse, and orange caramel–an inspired riff on Turkish ingredients rather than a literal re-creation of a traditional dish. His sweets at Oyamel, including a liquid hibiscus cooler and a chocolate cake filled with mole, are often more compelling than the chef's savories.

Even the supposedly simple stuff is no longer simple. At Dupont Circle's Firefly, a crème fraîche panna cotta with cider jelly is a little tease–you might think apple pie à la mode, but you won't taste it. A few blocks away at Mark & Orlando's, ice cream flavors include ancho chili and black pepper.

Speaking of which, who would expect that the smoothest, creamiest, best-tasting vanilla ice cream in the city would turn up not at an ice-cream shop but at a pizza parlor–2 Amys in Cleveland Park?

Of course, it's one thing to say that pastry has come of age. It's another to say that the city has sloughed off its culinary reputation for conservatism.

David Guas, the pastry chef at DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba, and Acadiana, says he's constantly having to balance his desire to experiment with adventurous dishes, such as a gelatin cheesecake with lemon salt, against his audience's demand for desserts like mocha cupcakes. "You might look at my menu and say, 'Did these even come from the same person?' But a lot of people want what they know."

And what they know, Klc says, is something Southern, something comforting.

That would explain why the most popular dessert at Restaurant Eve–currently without a pastry chef–is a pink-iced slab of birthday cake. And why at Vidalia, co-owner Sallie Buben's vintage recipe for lemon chess pie garners more attention than pastry chef Naomi Gallego's cherry financier with crème fraîche ice cream. Even Palena's Ann Amernick, the only local to be nominated for the James Beard Award for best pastry chef, is lauded most for her simple DeMayo chocolate cake.

What does it mean? It means that, like so much else in this fragmented, Northern/Southern city, we're divided about our desserts. We embrace change. We cling to tradition. For every pastry chef with a Pacojet to play with, there's an audience that clamors for something sticky and sweet. Yes, we're saving room these days for coconut two ways with vanilla-lime gelée, but don't take that molten chocolate cake off the menu just yet.


Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.