Washingtonian’s annual ranking of the region’s best restaurants hits newsstands Thursday, and this year’s top spot goes to a newcomer: Anju, the Dupont Circle Korean restaurant from Chiko owners Danny Lee, Scott Drewno, and Drew Kim.
The restaurant represents something of a break with tradition—it has a moderate price point and an informal vibe. By contrast, since the magazine began ranking the top 100 restaurants in Washington in 2007, the majority of the winners have been tasting-menu restaurants; all were categorized as “very expensive.”
Previous winners include Komi, Minibar, and Metier. All were highly ranked this year, but Anju stood out to lead critic Ann Limpert for a number of factors: “The cooking is the most exciting in the city right now: at once beholden to tradition and stretching the boundaries of Korean cuisine. It’s a terrific value, and a warm, engaging space. Plus, have you had their gochujang fried chicken?”
The full issue, ranking, and reviews of the restaurants deemed the 100 Very Best hits newsstands Thursday, January 23 (you can save yourself the hassle and subscribe here). Anju’s full entry reads:
1805 18th St., NW
It feels important to say: Anju never set out to be number-one anything. The modern-Korean restaurant’s name translates as “food to consume while drinking.” The idea for it was born out of boozy late-night chef gatherings. Service is pleasant but not exactly pampering. Sure modern Korean cuisine is having a national moment, but really, Danny Lee, Scott Drewno, and Angel Barreto—also behind the fast-casual Chiko—just want you to have a good time. In other words, in a city of stellar gastronomic temples—many of which are having great years, as evidenced by other top performers in our rankings—Anju is not part of the club.
Yet when we thought about the food that brought us the most joy in 2019, dish after dish from this plant-filled, bi-level dining room came to mind. The homey braises, dumplings, and kimchee pancakes. The peppery seafood fried rice! It’s been a fried-chicken-mad year, but we’ll never forget the crackling first bite of the twice-fried bird here, glazed in gochujang and drizzled in Alabama-style white barbecue sauce. Even the kimchee-topped hot dog, $5 at happy hour, is something we’d take over a foie-gras-laden boudin blanc. Have it with a cup of makkoli, a lightly fizzy Korean rice wine that the bar infuses—deliciously—with flavorings like roasted pear and burnt sage.
As low-key and freewheeling as the place seems, nothing here is an accident. Lee’s mother, Yesoon, handed over her recipes for the ambitious fermentation program, which produces complex kimchees you’ll want to eat with everything, along with less-expected delicacies such as shredded bellflower root. The soy-slicked beef tartare, with its hits of icy Asian pear and housemade hot mustard, took almost two years to perfect.
Is Anju the place you should choose for a 20th anniversary or big-deal birthday? If you want a night defined by luxury, maybe not. Will it prove as consistent over the years as the fine-dining establishments that turned the likes of José Andrés and Johnny Monis into legends? Time will tell. All we know is that, right now, we want to eat here every night we possibly can. Moderate.