News & Politics

What Is a Cheap Eat?

Our picks for the area's best bargain restaurants are now online.

>>2008 Cheap Eats Package

What is a cheap eat? In dollars and cents, it’s a restaurant where $25 or less per person, including tip and tax, buys a good meal.

But in compiling our annual look at the best bargain dining in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, we asked the restaurants we visited and revisited to do more than that. We asked them to dazzle us a little.

In one way or another, all of those that made this year’s list did.

Some places earned a spot by virtue of their excellence at one thing—bagels, burgers, barbecue. Others seemed the most articulate expression of a particular cuisine. But most of the restaurants on our list are versatile, all-around performers, remarkable for value, consistency, and distinctive cooking.

The quality of the competition got us thinking about the two big “best” lists we put together every year—about appearing to suggest that great food (100 Best Restaurants) and inexpensive food (100 Best Bargain Restaurants) are mutually exclusive.

The last few years have been a coming-out party for the Washington area, gastronomically speaking. The dining rooms of the region are aswirl with celebrity chefs, tasting rooms, wine bars, and restless experimentation. Almost lost in all of this is the fact that the fine-dining scene is beginning to catch up with the world of ethnic eating.

Dig into the juicy kebabs or the karahi at Ravi Kabob I or II in Arlington, and you’re likely to walk out as exhilarated as you would after a night at Citronelle—only much the richer. At the outdoors-only Johnny Boy’s Ribs in La Plata, the pulled-pork sandwich, slathered with Mama Sophie’s red sauce and topped with coleslaw, is no less sublime than the sweetbreads with morels at Restaurant Eve. House-made pasta is one of the glories of dining at the high-end Italian restaurants Tosca and Spezie, but the hand-rolled noodles at the Korean-style Chinese restaurant Da Rae Won in Beltsville are equally labor-intensive—and just as memorable.

No longer is the passion for local, seasonal ingredients limited to the big-ticket places. The best place in the area for mussels? It’s not one of the much-vaunted bistros that have opened in the last year; it’s a cramped tavern on H Street in Northeast DC called Granville Moore’s, run by a chef, Teddy Folkman, who takes pride in gathering local meat and produce.

Nor is big-time talent confining itself to formal dining rooms. Carole Greenwood’s Comet Ping Pong doesn’t just turn out great pizzas; it might be more satisfying than her “real” restaurant, Buck’s Fishing & Camping. Chef Barton Seaver’s newly opened Tackle Box, next door to his other Georgetown restaurant, Hook, is the relaxed, unassuming fish place that its parent can’t be, and its seafood is just as fresh.

We hope you have as much fun visiting these places as we did. And we think you’ll agree: These days, “great” and “bargain” are not mutually exclusive.