Palena Cafe

The no-reservations cafe at Palena is a destination in its own right.

From June 2006 Cheap Eats

The balloon wineglasses, weighty silver, and overstuffed banquettes hardly cry out "budget." They are bonuses to dining in this elegant restaurant's no-reservations front cafe, which has become a foodie pilgrimage in its own right.

"I'd eat here every night if I could" is a remark we hear often. The house-made hot dog, 45-minute roast chicken, and truffled-cheese-topped burger garner most of the praise, and they're certainly deserving. But there are lots of sleeper hits in chef Frank Ruta's cafe repertoire.

The short menu shifts from night to night. The charcuterie plate, which tends to show up on Tuesdays, shows Ruta's attentive approach–he spends months curing bresaola, capicola, and other sausages. More whimsical is a plate of fried lemons, potatoes dauphinoise, and onion rings. And Ruta, who once worked in Italy, has a masterful hand with pastas–oxtail-stuffed raviolini, gnocchi with nettles.

Our one gripe? Pastry chef Ann Amernick's desserts–defrosted layer cakes, berries topped with wan crème anglaise–seem tired.

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 Logan Circle.