No. 11: Vidalia
There’s something quintessentially Washington about a businessman in a gray suit devouring a gravy-smothered chicken-fried steak. The Southern roadside diner staple is done just right—pounded thin, battered lightly, and gussied up with a poached egg, braised collards, and mashed potatoes so buttery they’re yellow.
The dining room, all frosted glass and shades of coffee and sage, might be one of the buzziest power-lunch spots in town, filled with diners who find refuge from experimental cooking in a soothing plate of shrimp ’n’ grits. But there’s more to Jeff Buben’s Vidalia than upscale Southern comfort. Talented chef de cuisine R.J. Cooper cures his yellowtail in molasses, and the mildly sweet squares are a lovely departure from the richness elsewhere on the menu. Carolina brook trout with fingerling hash and frothy brown butter sounds heavy, but the slender filet tastes as if it just leapt out of the water. He’s even updated the five-onion soup with onion “glass”—a purée of onions and sherry vinegar baked into a sheet.
Lemon chess pie made from an old Junior League recipe remains the sweetest finish, modernity and lightness be damned.