What Makes a Good Neighborhood Restaurant?

What makes a good neighborhood restaurant? Is it the scene? The food? The prices? The convenience? Why do we gravitate to some places and not others? Read the transcript of our Neighborhood Eats chat.

What makes a good neighborhood restaurant? Is it the scene? The food? The prices? The convenience? Why do we gravitate to some places and not others? Log on to the Neighborhood Eats chat Wednesday March 5 at 11 AM and weigh in.
In the March issue of The Washingtonian we write about 117 places, some well known, others less so, that are worth checking out if you happen to be in the neighborhood. These are not destination restaurants — temples of cuisine you go out of your way to dine at (for those, check out our 100 Best Restaurants and Cheap Eats lists). Nor do we survey entire neighborhoods. Rather we leapfrog over a wide area to places that speak to us for one reason or another right now.
This list is by no means definitive. There are lots of good neighborhood places out there — ones that have just opened, ones that have been revitalized, ones that we may not know about — and we hope to write about them in the future.  

Tell us about your favorite finds and ask writers Cynthia Hacinli, Ann Limpert, and Sara Levine about their go-to spots.Thanks everybody, for your questions, tips, and comments. It's been fun!  For the full archives of food & drink chats, click here.

Washington DC 20009
Sometimes I'm in the mood for a great cheeseburger and don't want to fire up the Foreman. Do you have a recommendation for Cap Hill or Dupont Circle?

Ann: I head for Mark and Orlando's for their hefty, hand-ground burger (and great skinny fries). If it's late at night, there's always Five Guys in Dupont. And if I'm in the mood to splurge, I grab the $16 sirloin burger at the bar at WestEnd. And in Adams Morgan, Bourbon delivers really delicious–and messy–renditions. And at lunchtime, Belga Cafe on Eighth St., SE, puts out a reliable patty. 

Cynthia: It's been awhile since I've been there, but Timberlake's does a good, basic burger. A classic, loosely-shaped bar burger can be found at the 51st State in Foggy Bottom. And for the uber-luxe burger, look to Bistro Bis, which tops their patty with duck bacon and Comte cheese. 

Can you each tell us what are your favorite neighborhoods overall for dining and why? U Street? Clarendon? Woodley Park?

Cynthia: Falls Church because of the sheer number and variety of ethnic restaurants, especially Vietnamese places. U Street because of the hip vibe. Silver Spring and Wheaton, again for the ethnic eateries. NW DC for the healthy number of small, independent restaurants.

Sara: Sometimes I wish I lived in Old Town since there are so many great places have opened up there in recent years: Majestic, Farrah Olivia, Eve, Bastille, Vermilion, etc. There are so many mediocre places in Bethesda but there's a good place to satisfy every craving. Growing up I would go to Yirasai or Raku for sushi, Faryab for Afghan food, Passage to India for Indian. And now there's Nark Kara for quality Thai food. 

Ann: It's really hard to pick a definitive favorite, but lately I've been drawn to Rockville. The soups at Bob's Shabu Shabu are something I think about on a weekly basis, especially in winter. Bob's Noodle 66 is just as good (also for soups) and so, so cheap. A&J–another bargain– is where I go when I'm in the mood for fried chicken and congee. And Il Pizzico, which is in upper Rockville, puts out fabulous pastas (bucatini with tomato cream sauce; ravioli in pistachio cream) that are on par with the owners' much spiffier downtown restaurant, Spezie. And Bobby's Crabcakes and Sushi Damo add a lot to the new Rockville Town Center. 

Arlington VA
We ate at Morty's after reading your blurb about it the previous day. It is terrible. The restaurant is dirty and unkempt, the pastrami is full of grisle, the cole slaw had an off-taste, the knish had a large piece of a hard, black substance in it, they claimed to be out of pickles…it has the look and feel of a dead restaurant. Whoever wrote your blurb should be sentenced to eat what I ate every day for a week. How can I trust what is written in your magazine? Neil Cohen ngcohen@gwu.edu
Cynthia: Sounds like a downward slide or a bad day. Or maybe just inconsistency depending on whether Morty and Mel are there. Last time I there a few weeks ago, they were generous with the pickles and the meats were properly sliced and on the lean side. We'll be sure to check it out to see what's up.

Falls Church, VA
Listings would be more usable organized by location, making much more sense since the places are NEIGHBORHOOD eateries. And where are Falls Church and Annandale? These two ethnic food-rich locales are barely mentioned, an amazing and glaring oversight.
Cynthia: We devote a lot of space to Falls Church and Annandale in our Cheap Eats (June) and Dirt Cheap features (November). The thinking behind this issue was to celebrate places that have something to recommend them for one reason or another but that don't make our other lists.
washington DC
I am moving to the Eastern Market/Potomac Ave area. Is there a place with fresh bread around there? How about a good neighborhood coffee shop? Any great ethnic dives? Thanks for your input!
Ann: It's tiny, and not super-cozy either, but Murky Coffee right near Eastern Market is one of my favorite coffee stops period (it's currently–and hopefully temporarily–closed though, due to tax issues). Really good cappuccino and espresso (I like the espresso drinks better than the drip coffee). On the bread front, I'd check out A. Litteri, the wonderfully crammed, always-crowded Italian market in the warehouse district. They've got fresh Italian bread (and great sandwiches!). And chef Ann Cashion's Taqueria Nacionale, right next to Johnny's Half-Shell, is definitely not a dive, but it is cheap. The upside: Great braised pork tacos, guac, and agua frescas (They even have Mexican Coke!). The downside: They're only open for breakfast and lunch and there's no place to sit. 
Arlington, VA
I love this idea! I think the categories are thoughtful and I especially appreciate the effort to find kid-friendly places in the area. And there are more mentions of restaurants in Arlington and Alexandria, which is great! I have one question for you: Is there a good place to take the family to eat Spanish tapas? My kids are 8, 4 and 4 and are adventurous eaters (which we really want to encourage) but places like Jaleo and Zaytinya don't seem to be the right fit for very young kids. We love both places, but is there a place where we can all go for tapas? Many thanks and cheers to all the reviewers!

Ann: Check out Guardado's in Bethesda, opened by a former chef at the Bethesda Jaleo. It's really casual and warm, and the menu is a mix of tapas (I remember really good sauteed mushrooms, and potatoes with aioli). There are Salvadoran dishes too, but it's the Spanish cooking that really stands out. 

Cynthia: You may find the suburban outposts of Jaleo–in Crystal City and Bethesda–more kid-friendly, especially in the summer when you can snag outdoor seating.  

Arlington, VA
Why was Clyde's on the cover? Granted they are a "neighborhood eatery", but couldn't a smaller, family-owned restaurant used the PR more? Clyde's was such a lame choice.

Cynthia: Our covers need to appeal to readers in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. As a recognizable destination, Clyde's, with its outposts in many neighborhoods, does that in the way that a single obscure restaurant can't. More people can relate to it. And we gave plenty of photo space to more obscure places inside the magazine.

Sara: Plus, Clyde's is a local success story, a hometown chain that has a long history in Washington. 

Historic Shaw, DC
Any recommendations for grown-ups in the Shaw area? We love Brasserie Beck, Morrison-Clark Inn and looking forward to the relocation of Corduroy. But we are in search of a new place where we can nosh, drink and/or dine without screaming to have a conversation. Thanks!

Sara: There's always the U Street area a few blocks away, with lots of great spots for dining and drinking. We like the new Marvin, the Belgian/soul food menu has a lot of winners. Three words: Chicken and waffles. It becomes more of a bar/lounge scene afterhours, but the downstairs dining room never gets too rowdy. 

Ann: There also Creme, a block away on U, where I love the big plate of vinegary pork and beans. And yes–I'm looking forward to seeing the new Corduroy too!

Silver Spring, Maryland
I'm looking for a Thai place which has a buffet-any ideas?
Cynthia: This is more of a takeout than a buffet, but Asian Foods, a grocery in Wheaton, has inexpensive curries, stir-fries, and fish dishes to go, including some fairly exotic finds. 
Alexandria, VA
Have you ever checked out Primo's Family Restaurant in Alexandria, VA (Belle View Shopping Center) on Fort Hunt Road? They have AMAZING greek food, are always filled to the rim with people every night of the week and have been a family neighborhood restaurant for over 20 years!
Ann: We haven't been there, but thanks for the tip.
Dupont Circle
Granted, this isn't so much of a restaurant question, but I'm still curious – what are your favorite neighborhood coffee shops? I think those can be much more important places for neighborhoods than restaurants!

Cynthia: Politics and Prose in NW DC and Mocha Hut on U St.

Ann: I know I mentioned Murky in a previous question, but I'd cast my vote for the comfier Clarendon location, which has free Wi-Fi, by the way. Also, Busboys and Poets, Stacy's Coffee in Falls Church (yummy cupcakes), and for something fancier, Leopold's in Georgetown.  And I share Cynthia's affection for P&P (mostly for the nightly readings) and the Mocha Hut on U ( mostly for the eggs on toast). 

Sara: In my neighborhood I love Java House (17th and Q sts., NW). It's nothing fancy but the coffee is good and they've got wireless internet–and good muffins. 

Washington, DC
This might be off-topic, as the point of the article appears to be how to avoid getting food delivered; but, I would love to hear about any good delivery options (Northwest DC-Chevy Chase area). Also, I'd love to hear about people's experiences, both good and bad, with the Takeout Taxi. Thanks! Love your work, Cynthia!

Ann: I haven't used Takeout Taxi all that much, but have mostly relied on A la Cart Express if I'm looking to order in. Still, it tends to take a really long time (one to two hours, in my experience) and the extra charges can make it pretty expensive. But, this isn't a big delivery town–in the way, say, New York is–and both those services give you a lot more options than just plain old pizza. 

Sara: I was surprised and thrilled that Thai X-ing in Shaw would deliver to my apartment near Dupont (I think they decide how far they'll go to deliver on a case-by-case basis, but it's worth asking). I love the salmon red curry, the fiery larb gai, and the drunken noodles. 

Washington, DC
While I was in NYC city this past weekend, I was reminded of all the great little neighborhood restaurants that specialize in health-conscious meals (ie. vegetarian, heart-healthy, organic, dairy-free, low-cal…). Are there any places like that around the DC area that are worth trying?
Sara: You should try Java Green on 19th between L and K sts., NW. It's not all-Vegan but they'll make anything with soy cheese. My co-worker and I are obsessed with the tofu-and-mushroom panini. 

Ann: A couple make-your-own salad spots have just popped up that bring me back to working lunches in New York. Sweetgreen, in Georgetown, is a tiny upstart run by recent Georgetown grads. My favorite salad–one of their pre-set combinations–is the Guacamole Greens, which has all the traditional guac elements (avocado, red onion, cilantro, tomato, tortilla chips) on a bed of mesclun. They also do great fro-yo (and I'm not usually a fan of the stuff), which is loaded with real yogurt so it has a nice tartness. I like it with coconut and pineapple, and maybe some slivered almonds. The other one is Chop't, which actually started in Manhattan, and it's pretty similar. Sometimes it's hard to stick to the healthy stuff there (hello, smoky bacon dressing). 

Washington, DC
I'd love your thoughts on the best red-sauce Italian places in Northwest DC/Chevy Chase area. The closest neighborhood spot I know tends to be greasy and mediocre in my opinion.

Cynthia: Olazzo in Bethesda is the best for food and ambience. In Silver Spring there's the very casual grocery/cafe De Marco's. Manoli Cannoli in Chevy Chase (formerly Marcella's) does a decent job too.

Ann: I really like the Bethesda Olazzo too. And if I'm in the mood for red-sauce at home, I usually head to Vace in Bethesda for their frozen meat sauce, lasagna, and pasta.  

Alexandria, VA
I've always loved the cupcakes at Buzz in Alexandria, but a recent visit there dealt a sad surprise…the cupcakes have shrunken in size! What's up with that? And where else can a girl get a great cupcake?

Ann: You know, I picked up a few cupcakes at Buzz this past weekend and I thought the same thing. They're also making miniature versions of the regular cupcakes that are even tinier. I like Georgetown Cupcake's offerings (also small), which have a really moist cake, but I'm not a big fan of standing in line for a half-hour to get one. And I recently had a really pretty, flower-topped vanilla-on-vanilla cupcake from Just Cakes in Bethesda that had a great sugar icing. Wegmans in Sterling does a great, classic bakery cupcake that brings me back to childhood. They don't cost $2.75 each, either. 

Sara: In our office we have frequent cupcake celebrations. Some people swear by Baked and Wired in Georgetown, and others prefer Buzz. I like the denser crumb at Baked and Wired, personally, but it's hard to pass up the chocolate-filled Bumblebee cupcakes from Buzz.

Cynthia: I like the denser crumb at Baked and Wired, especially the classic yellow cupcake with chocolate frosting and the giant, feeds-six cupcake is fun too, which you can order in any flavor.

Old Town Alexandria
My husband is always complaining that he can't find a good steak in Old Town. Any suggestions?

Cynthia: What about the Majestic Cafe? Cathal Armstrong does a flavorful New York strip with crisp fries there. Restaurant Eve has a small-farm beef ribeye with celeriac gratin–perfectly cooked when I last had it. 

Ann: You might not expect it, but Hank's Oyster Bar does a pretty good Flatiron steak as a Friday night special.   

Arlington VA
Rushing home debating what to buy for dinner that will be quick and taste "homemade" I've stopped at Kamoos Kabobs on Old Dominion right before the turn off to Kirby Road. The Kabobs are great. Other standbys are the Lebanese Taverna Market. Chicken places include Carribean Chicken, Crisp and Juicy. The Cafe de Paris on Old Lee Hwy in the little shopping center which includes Arrowine is reliable and sometimes I stop for a fresh, pretty authentic baguette.The new hamburger place in McLean "Joe's" offers many varieties of good burgers. Not cheap but good and a nice change.
Cynthia: Thanks for your suggestions. Another good spot, this one in Alexandria, is Food Matters, which dishes up comfort-style roast Amish chicken with pale gravy, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, interesting greens, a good burger, and changing pasta dishes. 
Washington, D.C.
I love italian food and I live in Montgomery County. If I could only go to two places in the Bethesda/Chevy Chase area, what should they be?

Cynthia: M Cafe in Chevy Chase for the lasagna or penne Bolognese, the prosciutto di Parma and burrata panino,  and the arugula and endive salads. Il Pizzico if you're willing travel to Rockville for a well-priced, savory meal. Palena if you're willing to head down Connecticut into NW DC (Cleveland Park), for a blowout expensive one.

Sara: My parents live in that area and they love Cesco on Woodmont and Cordell Aves.. They (and I!) think it's really underrated. 

eastern market
For the coffee place, there's also Port City Java, right at the north end of Eastern Market (8th and Independence). For fresh bread, there is a tiny little store whose name i'm blanking on but it's French and full of goodness — it's also on 8th st (right next to Tunnicliffs). For a dive, that's not really ethnic but a hilarious experience nonetheless, try Pete's Diner. It's on 2nd just south of Pennsylvania, ridiculously cheap, and the women who run it are the greatest.
Ann: I forgot about Port City! Thanks for the tips.
Arlington, Va
Great job on the neighborhood eats, Washingtonian! I was especially pleased to see Il Radicchio listed – my boyfriend and I are huge fans and go there often. For us, it's a combination of the amazing food, the laid-back atmosphere and the very reasonable prices. Thanks again for recognizing them, they deserve it!
Sara: Il Radicchio's a great deal for the bottomless bowls of pasta and carafes of wine. So many of my friends who live in Clarendon are loyal fans. I wish I lived closer. 
Rosslyn, VA
I just moved to Rosslyn from D.C. where I love going to neighborhood places like Firefly and Hudson. Are there any good places for an after work dinner or drinks? Or do I need to go to Georgetown?

Sara: You're just a short walk (or Metro ride) from Clarendon/Courthouse, so I'd check out Me Jana, an elegant new Lebanese restaurant that's become a really popular after-work drinks spot. Eleventh Street and Liberty Tavern are both great places to grab a drink that also have chef-driven menus and bar snacks. 

U Street
So, you didn't list the restaurants by neighborhood in the issue – any reason why not? It'd have made it easier for us folks looking to dine by location…
Cynthia: We weren't trying to cover entire neighborhoods as we might do in a survey. The idea was to leapfrog around to worthwhile places in lots of different neighborhoods – places you might dine in should you find yourself there to meet a friend, go to the movies, etc.
Alexandria, Virginia
For me, the best neighborhood eats are the ones that feel as comfy as putting on your favorite worn flannel pjs, sticking your hair in a wild ponytail and sinking into the couch with a dog at your feet and a pint of ice cream on your lap. Places that offer a warm vibe, a friendly smile, simply good food and a few unexpected perks. For me, that place is Evening Star in Del Ray. Every Sunday morning my husband and I venture there with our four-year-old, a bag of toys and the anticipation of the perfect weekend fare. We watch the Jetsons in the bar, negotiate with our daughter to share the decadent chocolate chip bread, and revel in the familiarity, the coziness, and the amazing deal. elizabeth
Ann: Wow, what a great, cozy picture. The Neighborhood Restaurant Group–which owns Evening Star–tends to pay close attention to details, with interesting wine and beer lists, friendly and smart service, and funky, personality-filled vibes. And sometimes, that can be as much of a draw as the food, if not more. 
Speaking of Thai X-ing, any word when their new big restaurant space will open? I'm so excited!

Ann: They're not picking up their phone this morning, but our trusted Thai X-ing source, Erin Zimmer responds: "He's still in the throes of remodeling, so I think summertime (probably on the later side) is likely."