News & Politics

Great New Restaurants: How the Washington Dining Scene Is Evolving

The so-called "middle class" of Washington dining is expanding, delivering a host of charming and casual places to eat.

One way to look at the area’s new restaurants is to note the absence of a Central Michel Richard or a J&G Steakhouse—a splashy, celebrity-chef-driven venture. The restaurants on this list are unlikely ever to attract any national attention.

Looked at another way, 2010 is further evidence of our continuing evolution as a very good food town. For years, the Washington dining scene sometimes seemed comparable to a Third World economy. It had a strong upper class (lots of excellent fine-dining options), a big lower class (lots of ethnic mom-and-pops), and a too-small middle class. The past year saw a welcome trend toward ambitious, interesting restaurants that you’ll likely enjoy but that won’t leave your wallet feeling pinched.

Beloved chef Ris Lacoste returned to cooking after a four-year hiatus, opening Ris in DC’s West End. Her restaurant might be the most formal on the list, yet the chef herself regards it as a kind of upscale diner, with such stick-to-your-ribs comforts as pot roast and spaghetti-and-meatballs.

Ray’s the Steaks at East River is likewise more diner than steakhouse, although owner Michael Landrum made his name with marvelous porterhouses and New York strips.

Yannick Cam returned with yet another Provençal-themed restaurant—but a Bethesda bistro this time, not a formal dining room.

Among the most widely anticipated restaurants was Estadio in DC’s Logan Circle, the latest venture from Mark Kuller and Haidar Karoum, the owner and chef of Proof in DC’s Penn Quarter, but the moodily lit tapas joint seems content to be a neighborhood restaurant—albeit one for the self-consciously hip. The DC location of Againn, a British-themed place known for its fish and chips and shepherd’s pie, has been sending out some of the most precise plates in the city.

Kushi, in DC’s Mount Vernon Square, flies a good portion of its fish in daily from Japan and fashions that pristine supply into some of the area’s best sushi, but the dining room at prime time resembles nothing so much as a bustling tavern.

In a different year, Eola in Dupont Circle and Bistro Cacao on Capitol Hill might have been grander statements, but the charm of both is that they’re such intimate, personal expressions.

The biggest hotel-restaurant debut in the past year? Sou’Wester, in the Mandarin Oriental, a place with $7 slices of cake and pie.

Another welcome development: Fast food continues to command the attention of some of the area’s top culinary minds—pizza in particular. Edan MacQuaid, the former pizzaiolo at 2 Amys, launched Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church; the food truck Pupatella planted roots in Ballston with a sit-down restaurant where it serves its excellent Neapolitan pies; and Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn brought tasty, by-the-slice options—along with egg creams—to Capitol Hill.

And in Arlington, Michael Landrum opened Ray’s Hell-Burger Too, slinging game-meat burgers—try the Dogcatcher, which piles roasted bone marrow and persillade atop a thick patty.

In a different year, it probably would have been a steakhouse.

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.

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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 Petworth.