100 Best Restaurants 2010: Vidalia

No. 12: Vidalia

Cuisine: The shrimp ’n’ grits remains a signature, as does the butter-drenched cornbread, the lemon chess pie, and the superlative mint julep (served ice cold in a derby cup). And yes, the kitchen still shops for its ham and bacon from the Shenandoah and scours the waters of the Carolinas for fresh fish and seafood. But to think of proprietor Jeffrey Buben’s steady veteran as a purely Southern restaurant is to miss the message. The South is a starting point for creative chef R.J. Cooper III and his crew, who love nothing more than to put down-home ingredients in the service of bold, boundary-pushing experiments with form and expectation. For all his explorations, Cooper never forgets the crucial lesson that every Southern grandma knows not to violate: Make it delicious.

Mood: Nobody descends into this low-lit, glass-walled dining room looking for charm—it’s as featureless as the food is intricate. But by the time they settle in and enjoy Cooper’s countrified modernism, even the lawyers and lobbyists stop talking about work.

Best for: Gastronomes who can look past the restaurant’s former reputation as a bastion of Southern comfort and appreciate the singular thing it has become.

Best dishes: The menu changes often, but beyond the shrimp ’n’ grits and lemon chess pie, you can expect loving and lusty twists on the Reuben (with pork belly) and burger, both available at lunch or at the bar; imaginative, full-bodied takes on game (and, of late, goat); and unusually elaborated preparations of fish, including sweet wreckfish and that classic, Dover sole.

Insider tips: The bar menu, though brief, is a good deal—a chance to sample the work of one of the area’s best chefs. And the weeknight happy hour, from 5 to 7—with small snacks and, on Tuesday, free flights from one of the best wine lists in DC—remains a local treasure.

Service: ••½

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner. Very expensive.

See all of 2010's 100 Best Restaurants

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.