Not even the pandemic could kill fine dining—despite a decade of obits for the genre, it’s still thriving. But it did democratize the idea of luxury. Who says you need to wait for a special occasion to indulge in, say, a magnum of sparkling wine? Grab one at a Monday happy hour. You can hang out at a high-end chef’s home kitchen (find it on Airbnb) or pop into a chocolate shop for a single hand-painted bonbon. Here, our favorite ways to splurge—whether you want to spend $10 or $200.
Sip a Giant Martini at a Fancy Hotel Bar
There’s something wonderfully Washington about drinking an icy martini in a historic hotel bar by the White House. Yes, we’re talking about Off the Record (800 16th St., NW) the Hay-Adams hideaway that has catered to Presidents and politicos. A-list patrons are portrayed on artful paper coasters. (Go ahead and take one.) But you’re really here for a big, frosty martini and seasoned bartenders who have seen—not said—it all. At Silver Lyan, the bank-vault cocktail bar beneath the Riggs Hotel (900 F St., NW), you can get your martini four ways: vermouth-heavy (50/50 or wet) with gin, or a vodka version (dirty or dry). On the side: olives, pickled onions, and a briny oyster.
Or Take Jell-O Shots
While you’re at Silver Lyan, why not celebrate a return to the new normal-ish with a round of fancy Jell-O–inspired shots ($80 for four servings)—top-shelf booze mixed with fresh fruit juice and gelatin.They’re chased with four shots of chilled Gosset Champagne. An easier-on-the-wallet version: the margarita and orange-crush flavored Jell-O shots ($3 each) at Last Call (1301 Fourth St., NE), Gina Chersevani’s bar near Union Market.
Sip a Cocktail Out of a Whole Pineapple
When barman Owen Thomson first started making a cocktail out of an entire pineapple at the defunct Adams Morgan bar Bourbon, you couldn’t actually order one. The head-turning drink was bestowed only upon tables the staff especially liked. Today, anyone can order the fruit vessel ($25, serves two) at his tiki bar, Archipelago (1201 U St., NW). It’s filled with rum, “secrets,” and a flaming lime.
Eat a Friggin’ Delicious Piece of Bacon
Bacon is the star, not the sidekick, at Shaw’s Espita (1250 Ninth St., NW), which serves a single thick-cut slice for a brunch or dinner app ($10). Chef Rob Aikens marinates hunks of heritage pork belly in carnitas seasoning—think cumin, oregano, cinnamon, and chilies—then gives them an achiote-chili rub. The four-ounce slab is drizzled with smoked honey before hitting the table.
Go Out for S’mores—Without the Kids
Bottle service: boring. S’mores service: genius—especially at a rooftop bar. At Wild Days, atop downtown DC’s Eaton hotel (1201 K St., NW), winter revelers will find just that at its fire-pit tables. The sweet service ($28 for two to four servings, $48 for six to eight) comes with roast-your-own marshmallows and all the fixings.
Splurge on a Travel-Worthy Winetasting
If your winery vibe is less party bus and more Pétrus, RdV Vineyards (2550 Delaplane Grade Rd., Delaplane) should be your destination. The Virginia estate is adults- and reservations-only, caps customer groups at four, and hyper-specializes in two red Bordeaux-style blends that you’re unlikely to find outside the winery (or a Michelin-starred restaurant). Visitors start with flutes of a prestige cuvée Champagne on a tour through the exquisite grounds. A four-wine tasting ($120 per person) follows in the granite cave, showcasing winemaker Rutger de Vink’s 2017 Lost Mountain alongside rarities from Bordeaux and Napa as well as seasonal snacks. The two-hour reservation leaves plenty of time to linger over another glass.
Book a Weekend at a Fine-Dining Chef’s Airbnb (and Maybe Get Him to Cook for You)
Gorgeous waterfront rentals within an hour and a half of DC are in high demand these days. Historic Rousby Hall, on 16 acres along the Patuxent River, has the advantage of belonging to hospitality duo Robert and Polly Wiedmaier, who own DC restaurants Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck, among others. In addition to perks such as a heated pool and a private beach for nighttime bonfires, guests can sometimes score special meals by Chef Wiedmaier—whether summertime crab feasts (he catches and steams the crustaceans himself) or seasonal family-style dinners that can be customized to taste. The Wiedmaiers, who live next door, can also drive over cakes and other treats in a golf cart. “I get down here to get away from my eight restaurants,” says Wiedmaier, who’ll also take guests sport-fishing on a 12-person pontoon boat. “I’ll do whatever if I feel like it.” Find it starting at $600 a night for up to eight guests here. (Meal and booking prices vary.)
Give Yourself a Single, Perfect Chocolate
When Petite Soeur (1332 Wisconsin Ave., NW) owner Ashleigh Pearson was a broke Cordon Bleu pastry student in Paris, she’d save up to buy a single macaron at a luxe patisserie. Now the alum of Per Se and Marcel’s has her own chic Georgetown boutique where single hand-painted bonbons come in decadent flavors like s’mores—we love the airy homemade marshmallow and the buttery sablé graham cracker—and are packaged in a tiny gift box. They start at $3.25 for one and go up to $50 a set.
Feast On All the Melted Cheese
If you’ve ever eaten grilled cheese and thought, “Needs more cheese!,” then Swiss fondue and raclette are your best buds. At Stable (1324 H St., NE), Swiss natives David Fritsche and Silvan Kraemer prepare cauldrons of bubbling fondue with a mix of earthy Vacherin cheese and two Schlossbergers (starting at $27 a person). It comes with enough garlic, wine, and housemade bread to recall a night out in Gstaad—even before you dip into the house Schnapps. Raclette ($35 a person) is served with an electric machine that lets diners melt the tangy mountain cheese and slough it over potatoes and pickles. A bonus: indoor dining “chalets,” done up with Swiss accents and pine walls for social distancing. Want to take the fête des fromages home? Stable packages fondue and raclette to go and will also rent out the equipment.
Super-Size Your Wine
Popping a magnum of wine feels way more celebratory than opening its equivalent two bottles. The grand presentation is perfect for the moment, as somms move from Zoom-led tastings (pray to Bacchus, never again) to communal revelry. “We have a large outdoor space with large tables, so magnums lend themselves—more wine, more people, more fun,” says Frederick Uku, co-owner of St. Vincent (3212 Georgia Ave., NW) in Park View. He has launched Magnum Mondays at the indoor/outdoor wine garden, when giant bottles of bubbles and Bordeaux go for 25 percent off. Magnums typically hold special wine, too—vineyards tend to release premium vintages in them—and Uku says he marks them up less than he does regular-size wines.
Take a Trip Through a Dessert Fantasia
The Sunday buffet brunch ($110) at Georgetown’s Four Seasons Hotel (2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW) is extravagant, no doubt—but have you heard of the dessert room? It’s a whole room! And you can stuff your face like Violet Beauregarde without turning into a blueberry. New pastry chef Amanda Khan, a DC native, recently re-launched the weekend tradition after a long pandemic closure. Cue the celebratory cookies, cakes, crème brûlée, cobblers, and seasonal sweets such as a parade of winter-citrus and chocolate tarts.
Graze on a Custom Charcuterie Board
You’ll impress friends (or social-media followers) with a platter artistically arranged with cheeses, charcuterie, fruits, and other gourmet goodies. Buttercream & Burrata, which launched during the pandemic, offers everything from an assortment of crudité to big brunch boards layered with pastries. Chef Julia Handzlik of Honeyleaf, who previously worked in the Polish Embassy, sells her still-life-worthy spreads in picnic-perfect boxes and party-size tables.
Make Your morning Coffee Something to Look Forward To
At the Mount Pleasant restaurant/cafe Elle (3221 Mount Pleasant St., NW), we get excited about a double shot of espresso, particularly when it’s mixed with housemade tamarind syrup, Topo Chico water, and crushed ice. It’s fizzy, slightly sweet, and just the right amount of bitter and sour. Think of it as your breakfast cocktail minus the booze.
Kick Your Day Off With an Incredible Breakfast Pastry
Five we love right now:
• Dulce de leche–filled Boston-cream doughnut from Sunday Morning Bakehouse (11869 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda).
• Cro’gel—a croissant/bagel hybrid—stuffed with smoked salmon and cucumbers at Fresh Baguette (4919 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 804 Hungerford Dr., Rockville; 1737 Wisconsin Ave., NW).
• Balsamic/sour-cherry scone from Little Food Studio (849 Upshur St., NW).
• Passionfruit doughnut from Bread Furst (4434 Connecticut Ave., NW).
• Cinnamon roll from District Doughnut (Barracks Row, the Wharf, Union Market, Georgetown, and Ballston).
Pick Up a Pint of the City’s Best Ice Cream
We know—$15 is a lot to pay for a pint of ice cream. But we’re suckers for the hyper-seasonal, small-batch creations from Ben Brunner, pastry chef at the dormant fine-dining restaurant Komi (currently operating as Happy Gyro, 1509 17th St., NW). The cheffy flavors—also available as scoops from a cart—rotate often, but unusual combinations have included cardamom with candied orange and pistachio or French triple-cream cheese with persimmon honey and polenta crumble.
Order a Large-Format Dish Just for Yourself and Eat It All Week Long
The best candidate? Duck, which is easy to pick at and great even cold from the fridge. At Maketto (1351 H St., NE), a whole ($80) or half ($40) bird comes with fluffy bao buns; sesame-plum sauce; and a mess of herbs, pickles, and fermented veggies. Q by Peter Chang (4500 East-West Hwy., Bethesda) offers a traditional crackly-skinned Peking version ($37 for a half duck, $70 for a whole), with filament-thin pancakes, hoisin, and leeks. And in Shaw, Unconventional Diner (1207 Ninth St., NW) adds a French twist to that style, subbing in honeyed duck-leg confit ($27).
We, too, are over the long truffle-oil masquerade, in which the cheaper form of the French or Italian delicacy is drizzled onto French fries and pizza and pasta. If you want truffles without an exorbitant upcharge, there are better ways. You’ll find the real-deal fungi chopped and sprinkled over chestnut soup as part of the $95 four-course menu at the Dabney (122 Blagden Alley, NW). They’re shaved over gnocchi ($34) at Centrolina (974 Palmer Alley, NW), and truffle-scented sottocenere cheese is folded into the famed 40-layer lasagna ($32) at L’Ardente (200 Massachusetts Ave., NW). And we’ll make one exception for the truffle-oil-infused shoyu ramen ($18) at Menya Hosaki (845 Upshur St., NW).
Order a Croque Monsieur (or Madame)
The croque—a sandwich rivaling the chivito or cheesesteak when it comes to unbridled decadence—is the kind of lunch that practically begs for a glass of wine. Which is why we like to get our melty ham-and-cheese fix at sommelier Sebastian Zutant’s Brookland hangout, Primrose (3000 12th St., NE). The weekend brunch staple ($16) swaps in mortadella but otherwise plays the sandwich straight, with a cloak of béchamel (and, thank God, a vinegary salad). On other days of the week, we head to the Bethesda brasserie Duck Duck Goose (7929 Norfolk Ave.). Ashish Alfred crowns his Gruyère-laced croque madame ($19) with both a runny egg and a playful surprise: salty pearls of salmon roe. It will soon be available at the restaurant’s new Dupont Circle location (2100 P St., NW).
This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Washingtonian.