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25 Best Restaurants

Gather round for a rundown of the hottest dining spots NoVa has to offer.

By Warren Rojas / Portrait Photography by Jonathan Timmes / Food Photography by James Kim & Marisa Zanganeh

The 25 Best list is, for better or for worse, a reflection of where our diverse citizenry—including the intrepid foodies, famished government workers, celebratory families, roving gourmet clubs, starry-eyed couples and everyone else I encounter during my never-ending dining excursions—gathers together to break bread and enjoy a nibble of the good life.

How those tastes have changed.

Over the past 16 months, almost a third of the restaurants tapped for our inaugural fine-dining roundup have either closed or are undergoing significant changes (see sidebar for a quick peek at the dearly departed). During that same period, about a half dozen of D.C.’s most talented chefs crossed the Potomac to breathe new life into old friends (Anthony Chittum), blaze a totally new culinary trail (Morou Ouattara) or further their brand by bringing their particular vision to the Commonwealth (Jamie Leeds).

Read on and I think you’ll agree, D.C.’s loss is definitely our gain.

 

RATING SCALE: 0.1-2.5 Poor to Fair / 2.6-5.0 Fair to Good / 5.1-7.5 Good to Excellent / 7.6-10.0 Excellent to Outstanding

AVERAGE ENTREE PRICE: $ Under $12 / $$ $13-$20 / $$$ $21-$30 / $$$$ $31+

 

Restaurant Eve
$$$$ Food: 9.6 Ambiance: 9.1 Service: 9.3
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; www.restauranteve.com. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

Armstrong shows lobster some love

Success has yet to spoil local restaurant mogul in the making Cathal Armstrong—the driving force behind Eve, Eamonn’s and the recently resuscitated Majestic (see page 72 for full review). If anything, the mounting pressure seems to have stoked even greater ambition.

Eve remains the center of Armstrong’s culinary universe, the showplace where dedicated chowhounds (Tasting Room), curious gourmands (the Bistro) and cash-strapped foodies (the lounge) can indulge in epic dining tours on their own terms.

Astute servers readily provide guidance (know the ingredients and interplay of their dishes), comfort (homemade breads are doled out with reckless abandon) and support (wine bottles are kept close for quick pouring but never crowd the table).

Every visit provides Cathal and company another chance to dazzle guests with organic surprises (Armstrong proudly supports Polyface Farms), re-tooled standards, jaw-dropping collaborations, or any combination thereof.

The innocuous sounding “bacon egg and cheese” weaves crisp romaine, a sunny egg, salty ham and shaved Parmesan into a rich tapestry anathema to basic salads. A stinging sea nettle and scallop soup embraces fingerling potato risotto (stellar). Fried veal sweetbreads emerge surrounded by crispy oysters and cubed country ham. Pepper-crusted pork belly—one dining companion warned, “I may inhale this” —virtually dissolves into a lake of onions, peas and cherry tomatoes.

 

Willow
$$$ Food: 8.8 Ambiance: 8.6 Service: 7.2
4301 Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703-465-8800; www.willowva.com. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

A gift worth unwrapping at Willow

Willow may no longer be the new kid on the block, but experience appears to have imbued chef Tracy O’Grady with the wisdom required to carry the restaurant into its golden years.

A popular spot along the Ballston corridor, Willow was plagued early on by issues of scattershot service, uneven cooking and just generally too high expectations. Staff now seems to have settled into a comfortable rhythm, popping up at regular intervals or at least apologizing ahead of time if they know they need to sew things up elsewhere before turning their full attention to you. Next up: Stop whisking unfinished plates back to the kitchen, only to return empty-handed (those were leftovers, and they were mine).

The food that does make it out to the tables is typically worth fighting for.

The bread surrounding an applewood-smoked bacon and gruyere BLT is stained sunrise orange from all the glorious bacon fat (jackpot!). Blue cheese-stuffed dates are absolute showstoppers. Salmon baked beneath a parchment-like potato crust (quite tasty) is almost upstaged by playfully sweet ricotta pancakes. Sultry pork chops enveloped in a second skin of homemade sausage (makes its bacon-wrapped contemporaries seem totally lazy) are escorted by a mesmerizing cipollini and salsify tart. Bite-sized peanut butter sandwich cookies never fail to please, nor does the sinfully rich dark chocolate layer cake.

 

Bazin’s on Church
$$$ Food: 8.7 Ambiance: 7.8 Service: 7.3
111 Church St. N.W., Vienna; 703-255-7212; www.bazinsonchurch.com. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday and Sunday brunch; closed Monday.

The buzz on Bazin’s continues to grow. And with good reason.

Partners Patrick and Julie Bazin have upped the ante on neighborhood dining with a come-as-you-are establishment that seems to appeal to everyone from graying expense account holders to penny-pinching 20-somethings out for a little pampering.

The plasma TV above the handsomely outfitted bar remains religiously tuned to the Food Network. (Catering to the crowd or the ultimate in subliminal programming? You decide.) Brick walls, exposed rafters and glossy wood tables communicate a basic but contemporary feel. Servers dutifully patrol the main dining room, but never rush the cadre of businessmen who seem to linger beyond their allotted lunch hours to squeeze in one of the astounding desserts.

A gourmet quesadilla replaces traditional Tex-Mex style fillings with shredded duck, flanking the barbecue bird with a smoky chipotle cream sauce and zesty salsa fresca. Citrus oil-spritzed asparagus come accompanied by a delightful fried goat cheese fritter (savory coin helps buffer the acidic dressing). A warming beef stroganoff unites tender steak, onions and mushrooms with sour cream-soaked spaetzle (well done). Salmon goes southern atop stone-ground grits finished in a marvelous shrimp-tasso sauce. Assorted chocolate and seasonal fruit creations keep dessert lovers happy.

The comprehensive wine list boasts plenty by-the-glass options from well-respected regions. Bottles start at $25 for a 2005 St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc.

 

Carlyle
$$ Food: 8.1 Ambiance: 7.6 Service: 7.7
4000 S. 28th St., Arlington; 703-931-0777; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch.

Carlyle’s feisty crab fritters

The crown jewel of the locally owned Great American Restaurants empire, Carlyle continues to cement its reputation as an all-occasion destination by plying patrons with edible Americana, unflagging service and just a hint of well-earned bravado.

A long-time anchor of the now-booming Shirlington promenade, Carlyle appears perennially packed by legions of baby-toting couples (typically parked along the outdoor patio), extended families (sprinkled throughout the two-level dining room) and random groups of fun-loving friends (fixtures at the standing-room-only bar).

A team-oriented service strategy means help is never more than a flick of the wrist away, though most servers proactively quash potential problems—drinks are refreshed like clockwork, addictive rolls from the neighboring Best Buns Bread Company arrive toasty warm—to avoid unpleasantness later.

But man cannot live by bread alone.

Alien-looking crab fritters (crispy tendrils convey an “it came from the sea” feel) deliver blue crab bobbing in a grilled corn and peppers cream. Beef back ribs are swabbed with a mustard-molasses glaze well worth getting your hands dirty for. Brown butter-kissed chicken can be spit-roasted for on-the-bone enthusiasts (good) or sauteed with arugula, peppers, capers and mushrooms over angel hair pasta (better).

Beer and wine prices veer from respectable (by-the-glass pours are all less than $10) to ridiculous ($5.25 for a bottled Corona?). Instead, let loose with a signature cocktail or specialty martini.

 

Zeffirelli
$$ Food: 7.9 Ambiance: 7.7 Service: 7.7
728 Pine St., Herndon; 703-318-7000; www.zeffirelliristorante.com. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner daily.

The Zeffirelli empire expanded this year with the acquisition of Tysons fixture Da Domenico. And while the Leesburg shop seems to play more with pastas, and Da Domenico remains the go-to spot for die-hard veal chop aficionados, the flagship Herndon Zeffirelli keeps the seats filled by wooing regulars and newcomers alike with delicious Tuscan cooking.

The double-decker dining room remains packed with local business types during lunch, while families and groups of friends claim the lion’s share of tables at dinner and on weekends. Staff in patterned vests and colorful ties hover attentively but never badger, lingering just long enough to rattle off their list of daily specials, refresh a glass or tempt you with tales of their homemade desserts.

Bacon-wrapped shrimp or clams casino make for easy pickings with a group, but patrons can go lighter with a breezy tomato, mozzarella, olive oil and scattered basil salad (very refreshing). Homemade lasagna does not want for dairy, layering the noodles and ground veal filling with mozzarella, Swiss and a touch of cream (molto cheesy). Roast rainbow trout emerges lightly crisped and smothered with capers, black olives and diced tomatoes.

Expect a dozen mixed reds and whites by the glass, while bottles start at around $30 for regional whites and climb to $300 for a 2001 Gaja Barbaresco. Other noteworthy finds listed under “Cellar Selections.”

 

Foti’s
$$$ Food: 8.8 Ambiance: 8.6 Service: 8.5
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper; 540-829-8400; www.fotisrestaurant.com. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Thursday through Sunday and Tuesday; closed Monday.

I know, I know. Driving beyond the Beltway for a meal sounds preposterous in our rush hour-ravaged corner of the universe. Luckily, memories of the inspired cuisine at Foti’s tend to last significantly longer than the round-trip commute.

First-time restaurateurs Frank and Sue Maragos seem to be flourishing, having received regional acclaim as well as ample praise from Culpeper natives happy to have such fine cooking right down the street.

Most nights, extended families and spiffed-up couples mingle freely amidst the exposed brick walls and hardwood floors that frame the longish main dining room. Nattily dressed servers (dig the electric blue shirts) can speak at length about their favorite wines—expect about a dozen mixed reds/white by the glass, all less than $11; bottles start below $30 and climb to $140 for a 2004 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape—or specialty dishes, but occasionally disappear for unexplained stretches.

The menu holds few real surprises, but offers plenty to enjoy.

Tender snails arrive sauteed in a terrific garlic-butter-bacon broth worth sopping up with the polenta cake bedding (a Gallic-Roman masterpiece). Doubly cooked chicken (flash-seared, then baked) benefits from a homemade rosemary-oregano-thyme rub, while pork gets a boost from a grilled onion and hickory smoked tomato-based barbecue sauce. Meanwhile, one unforgettable chiller folds goat cheese, raisins, mint chocolate and lavender into dark chocolate ice cream (my tongue is still doing back flips).

 

Hank’s Oyster Bar
$$ Food: 8.1 Ambiance: 7.2 Service: 7.1
1026 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-4265; www.hanksdc.com. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday and weekend brunch; closed Monday.

First came Cathal Armstrong’s fried everything emporium, Eamonn’s. Now we have our own branch of chef Jamie Leeds’ quirky, New England-style seafood shack, Hank’s Oyster Bar.

My poor arteries ache. But it truly hurts so good.

The lightning bolt-shaped Alexandria location features about a dozen seats up front, a central bar and a few more tables in back. Flickering tea lights and tulip-filled shot glasses masquerade as modern decor. Most nights, the crowd includes shorts-clad boomers and baby-toting Xers who take the longish waits in stride by sipping wine on the front steps.

Crunchy goldfish crackers preface every meal, while fresh oysters from all around the country—Washington, Rhode Island, California and, of course, Virginia—are advertised alongside daily blackboard specials.

Baskets of fried Ipswich clams (joyously crunchy) tend to disappear quickly when dining with friends. An intriguing blend of bluepoint oysters, Bloody Mary mix and sake almost always turns heads and invites conversation. The signature lobster roll mixes succulent meat with celery, onions and mayo, heaps the chilled seafood medley into a buttery roll, then seals the deal with Old Bay-spiced fries (great deep brown spuds). Sablefish arrives seared in a soy-balsamic glaze that caramelizes on top while injecting smokiness within.

Budget-friendly wines abound (bottles peak at $80 for Veuve Clicquot Champagne), but many dishes seem to call out for a nice cold beer (check out the craft brew selection).

 

La Bergerie
$$$ Food: 8.4 Ambiance: 8.2 Service: 8.2
218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007; www.labergerie.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Traditional French will never go out of style at La Bergerie, an Old Town Alexandria standard for fans of seductive foods in plush environs.

The warehouse-bound but still tony establishment provides a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of more touristy spots sprinkled up and down King Street. Well-appointed servers (sharp as ever in their signature dark slacks and copper-colored vests) are ever attentive and pleasantly accommodating. Dining recommendations are readily provided without a whiff of pressure, individual dishes are presented with a heartfelt “bon appétit,” and tables are cleared without so much as an interruption.

The seasonal menu is regularly stocked with gourmet delicacies (pheasant, foie gras, veal sweetbreads, wild boar), as well as French staples (sauteed snails, baked onion and Gruyère soup).

The made-to-order Caesar salad summons a visual feast, as servers whir into action assembling the now-ubiquitous salad from its base—think freshly cracked eggs, salty anchovies, streams of Worcestershire and crisp romaine leaves—ingredients (a delight every time). Duck confit heads to the highlands via a shepherd’s pie layering shredded duck (fatty in spots, but mostly flavorful) with wild mushrooms (great building block) and whipped potatoes (clever twist on the rustic meal). Medallions of roast pork are bathed in a luxe Roquefort sauce (more molten cheese, s’il vous plait!) that thrusts ordinary swine into the big time.

 

The Majestic
$$ Food: 7.9 Ambiance: 7.2 Service: 7
911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117; www.majesticcafe.com. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday though Sunday; closed Monday.

Once in danger of falling prey to a corporate takeover (the horror!), the clearly charmed and quite charming Majestic has come under the wing of Cathal Armstrong and Co.—an adoptive family that remains determined to restore this storied establishment to its former glory.

Snapshots of the restaurant through the ages dot a mustard-colored entranceway. Natural light pours into the basic but cozy main dining room through overhead skylights. The new owners installed chef Shannon “Red” Overmiller (a Restaurant Eve protégé) in the kitchen and gave Maria Chicas (Eve cocktail guru Todd Thrasher’s wife) free reign of the main dining room.

So far, so good.

The nostalgic menu reads like a gourmet picnic roster, emphasizing cleverly tweaked comfort foods. Overmiller also attempts to rewrite history every Sunday by preparing a let’s-all-gather-round-the-table-style meal (seasonal entree, homemade sides and dessert, all included) not seen since reruns of “The Donna Reed Show.”

Chicken salad hoists white meat chicken tossed with potatoes, celery and tarragon in herb mayo between buttery toast slices (better than most delis). Blue ribbon-worthy barbecued pork arrives dressed with caramelized onions and thick, country slaw (carrots and cabbage add crunch). Roast pork gets a hand from bacon-braised cabbage and apples sauteed with onions (a sweet-and-sour symphony). Deconstructed icebox cake scatters mint chocolate chip ice cream, plain vanilla and a pile of crumbled chocolate wafers into separate camps, then drizzles hot fudge throughout.

 

Vermilion
$$$ Food: 8.5 Ambiance: 8.3 Service: 8
1120 King St., Alexandria; 703-684-9669; www.vermilionrestaurant.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Chef Anthony Chittum, who most recently kept watch over the D.C. kitchens of Notti Bianche and Dish, has used his particular brand of culinary magic to turn Alexandria’s Vermilion white-hot.

No longer merely a wine bar or after-hours spot, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group-owned Vermilion now boasts some of the most refined cooking within the local dining chain. Whereas cocktail junkies used to pace through the dining room until a spot on one of the plush chaise lounges in the back or an open bar stool materialized, foodies are now coming around to drink in and devour the restaurant’s seasonally pegged manifestations.

Chittum has taken to re-tooling the menu about every other month—a move that stokes such powerful get-it-while-you-can buzz the most popular dishes tend to sell out before the end of your average dinner rush.

Savory sweetbreads flanked by savoy cabbage and pomegranate seeds are the stuff of legend. Diver scallops in caramelized truffle oil provide the sweet, while mini-stacks of gratin potatoes surrounded by sauteed leeks come through with the salt. Crab imperial stuffed-trout (blistered skin, stark-white flesh) is absolutely wonderful with homemade spinach fettuccine. Elsewhere, brassy roast chicken hits the barbecue mark, only to be sabotaged by a limp citrus-shelled bean succotash.

Look for nearly two dozen mixed whites and reds by the glass (all under $8), plus half-glass pours offered for, you guessed it, half-price.

 

Patowmack Farm
$$$$ Food: 9 Ambiance: 8.8 Service: 8.5
42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville; 540-822-9017; www.patowmackfarm.com. Open for dinner, Thursday through Saturday, weekend brunch.

Sometimes I think it’s the bucolic setting. Others, I find myself dwelling on those thought-provoking morsels that fool the eye into believing one thing while the mouth experiences another.

All I know for sure is that Patowmack Farm keeps calling me back. And I’m only too happy to oblige.

The epitome of seasonal, organic dining, Patowmack Farm performs magic with the very foods that poke up through its soil. Chef Christian Evans shifts his menu with each subsequent harvest, fashioning the farm-fresh ingredients into culinary flights of fancy.

Homemade breads envelop ingenious vegetable-fruit pairings (blueberry-fennel was divine, zucchini-squash delivered healthfulness by the bite). Fresh cheeses never fail to astound, be they a goat milk blue rolled with fresh asparagus, chives and a sunny marigold bud (magnificent) or a Camembert-laced risotto patty floating peacefully atop a lush asparagus broth. Deviled spinach salad brings a sugary pastry stuffed with an alluring bacon-egg blend. Pan-seared duck accompanies an over-easy egg draped across rosemary-flecked potatoes, then finishes them all with wild mushrooms and grilled squash ragout (outstanding). Grilled sea scallops dance atop a fabulous mussel salad encircled by smoked salmon. Homemade panna cotta arrives with a crispy cinnamon cookie that doubles as your spoon. A mixed berry mille-feuille forges sugary pastry, blueberries, wine berries, crème anglaise and fresh spearmint into the perfect summer send-off.

 

Farrah Olivia
$$$ Food: 9.2 Ambiance: 8.6 Service: 8.4
600 Franklin St., Alexandria; 703-778-2233; www.farraholiviarestaurant.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily, Sunday brunch.

Should visiting foodies ever question our area’s culinary chops, shuttle them directly to Farrah Olivia and let Morou Ouattara propel them into gastronomic oblivion.

One bite into most dishes, people marvel at the unexpected flavor combinations. By the third bite, they’re left wondering why nobody put such wonderful tastes together before. Then again, not every restaurant can lay claim to a West African-born, sensory-bending tactician like Ouattara.

The streamlined main dining room is all about transparency and charm, employing little else than ample sunlight and scattered snapshots of the restaurant’s sprightly namesake to set the mood. The deceptively short menu—curt descriptions sometimes fail to adequately express the sum of the typically exotic parts—can give first-time guests pause, but many servers are conversant enough in the head-scratching cuisine to steer novices toward at least seemingly familiar territory.

Gourmet breads arrive with fascinating spreads like bok choy pesto (thick, herby fun) and horseradish ricotta (lumpy, spicy goodness). An amuse of seared rabbit and espresso-charged potato soup kick-starts the appetite. Strips of flash-seared escolar are escorted by a hill of red wine powder and pickled plum (thrilling). Ham and eggs go gourmet in a sandwich featuring truffled ham, sauteed mushrooms, a fried quail egg and rich cheddar sauce (a lunch triumph). Cured quail is all tender breast meat and crispy drumsticks splashed with seductive chorizo oil.

 

Bellissimo
$$$ Food: 8 Ambiance: 7.9 Service: 7.2
10403 Main St., Fairfax; 703-293-2367; www.bellissimorestaurant.com. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.

It’s a bit hard to tell which came first at Bellissimo: the mountainous portions of homemade pasta (sizable plates all but guarantee leftovers) or the fiercely loyal patrons. What is clear is that the conflux of the two makes it that much harder for us regular folks to indulge in Bellissimo’s well-worn charms.

The tiny Fairfax locale houses maybe a dozen highly prized tables—most nights, the place is overrun by families, clusters of friends and boomer couples—framed on both sides by vibrant coastal frescos. Decorative columns and other Roman mementos help complete the Italian feel, but the food is the main attraction here.

Menu choices include a handful of pastas, along with loads of veal, poultry and meat (lamb, filet) options. Seafood creeps into various pasta dishes, appetizers and salads, while also bolstering numerous stand-alone favorites.

One fettuccine standard goes grand with a pungent marinara anchored by spicy Italian sausage bits and a hail of crumbled goat cheese (tangy cheese folds into the herb-infused sauce beautifully). Swordfish pescatore summons a terrific swordfish steak (remarkably tender) sauteed with mussels and shrimp in a winey tomato broth. Fried calamari is good, but the crunchy squid can’t salvage its clumpy polenta counterpart.

The exclusively Italian wine list touts approximately five dozen bottles, including nearly two dozen Piemonte and Tuscan reds, all under $120.

 

Ray’s the Steaks
$$$ Food: 8.2 Ambiance: 6.1 Service: 6.6
1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-841-7297. Open for dinner daily.

The atmosphere inside at times approaches bedlam. And the bare white walls will not be winning any design awards. But if it’s gloriously grilled beef you crave, Ray’s is definitely the place you want to be.

A true everyman’s paradise, Ray’s has become a community treasure by abandoning the corporate sizzle (no dress code, no reservations, kids of all ages welcome) in favor of superlative steaks. Owner Michael Landrum’s egalitarian vision, however, naturally leads to a throng of anxious patrons who must jockey for position before the doors open each night.

Stacks of wine partition the tightly knit dining room—it’s not unusual to bump elbows with your neighbor as you gleefully carve into a steak; just apologize and get back to business—from the always buzzing kitchen/prep area. Upselling seems verboten, though patrons are welcome to customize any entree with bonus toppings (saucy mushrooms, crumbled blue cheese, house marinades) for $1 a pop. Sauteed garlic and alternative cooking techniques are provided gratis.

A handsomely charred rib eye (blackened crust protects the naturally juicy meat within) shines even brighter with a dab of homemade horseradish. Sirloin Diablo summons cubes of spicy oil-splashed steak surrounded by more sauteed garlic and onions (hardly needed, but always welcome). Or go for broke with a jaw-dropping N.Y. strip smothered with blue cheese, mushrooms and onions (a steal at any price).

 

Tachibana
$$ Food: 8.4 Ambiance: 6.3 Service: 6.6
6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

One peek at the fascinating array of glistening fish and other from-the-depths delights stored beneath the glass at Tachibana’s main sushi counter, and you just know you are in for a genuine treat.

Owners of this venerable Japanese eatery have garnered so many awards for their amazing sushi catalog, they’re running out of places to properly display all the plaques. Better they run out of wallspace than seats, since regulars (a roughly 50-50 split between native Japanese and in-the-know Westerners) seem to snatch up the majority of tables at any given time. Solo diners, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward the long, half-moon-shaped sushi counter up front or the smaller sushi counter in back rather than wait for vacancies in the dining room.

Behind those counters, classically trained sushi chefs spend hour upon hour artfully scaling, gutting and slicing all the fresh seafood at their command. And their dedication is greatly appreciated.

One tempura roll marries glossy tuna and fiery jalapeno (tuna pops, jalapeno rocks). Hamanegi maki combines already robust yellowtail tuna (all-fish flavor) with a smattering of flaked bonito (a bold tuna-on-tuna tag-team). Shaved plum and minty shiso take your taste buds by storm (lip-smacking fruit is unbelievably flavorful). A chef’s choice sampler bears a dozen mixed maki and nigiri rolls featuring everything from red surf clam (terrific) to mackerel to butterflied shrimp (tasty but dreadfully familiar).

 

Claiborne’s
$$$ Food: 7.9 Ambiance: 7.5 Service: 8
200 Lafayette Blvd., Fredericksburg; 540-371-7080; www.claibornesrestaurant.com. Open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday brunch.

No mere novelty stop, Claiborne’s uses low-country cuisine to coax big smiles from its many travel-weary customers.

The renovated train station remains intimately connected to its transit-related past. Watch carefully, and you’ll notice the historic railroad photos all around the main dining room tremble ever so slightly as the passenger and commercial freight lines buzz by on the adjoining railway.

Whether the passing trains bother staff, you’ll never know, since the nametag-sporting (a bit hokey, but informative) servers appear focused on little else than anticipating your every need. Management typically pops by at least once per meal to confirm that everything is progressing smoothly, a formality that is more often than not unnecessary, given the ready amount of genuine hospitality showered upon every table.

The menu weaves together Southern favorites from land, sea and air.

Chevre lovers can climb the fried green tomato tower straight to heaven, as the skyward-reaching vegetable rounds arrive affixed with bounteous scoops of potent goat cheese. A crunchy catfish plate brings two whopping cornmeal-crusted filets set afloat on piquant tasso gravy (creamy bliss) and accompanied by some seriously garlicky collard greens. One harvesty platter summons medallions of cider-spiked swine (tender and oh-so-sweet) flanked by garlic mashed potatoes and braised cabbage.

Cigar enthusiasts, take note: After-dinner stogies can now only be enjoyed outside, given that the entire restaurant went smoke-free this summer.

 

Bebo Trattoria
$$ Food: 8.3 Ambiance: 7.6 Service: 5.9
2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-412-5077; www.bebotrattoria.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Helpful hints for the Bebo staff: Menus are typically appreciated. Empty glasses need refilling. Piping-hot pizzas cannot be cut with plain flatware.

Pardon for opening with this painfully obvious refresher course, but the continually scattershot service
at Bebo is particularly hard to stomach for those of us who remain smitten with Roberto Donna’s often brilliant cooking.

To his credit, Donna always appears to be around, whether that means personally supervising a pizza-making lesson/birthday party one weekend, snipping fresh basil for a lunchtime pizza order or catching up with old friends mid-dinner rush. To his detriment, Donna always appears to be around, which means he’s either incapable of correcting the long-standing service issues or he’s become accustomed to the pained looks stamped across so many of his guests’ faces.

Regulars know well enough to pounce on any open bar stools (thanks for always taking care of us, Stephanie). Sit anywhere else and you take your chances.

The food is typically more of a sure thing. Ricotta-filled prosciutto rolls ride in on an ash-stained crust (wood-fired oven adds smoke, character to the dough) topped with sweet tomato sauce and pools of molten mozzarella. A gorgonzola and sweet onion pie performs a perfect balancing act on the tongue. Jumbo pasta tubes are covered in a robust pork ragu (juicy meat just falls to shreds). Meanwhile, rabbit and homemade sausage pop up all across menu.

 

Lightfoot
$$$ Food: 8.5 Ambiance: 8.6 Service: 8.3
11 N. King St., Leesburg; 703-771-2233; www.lightfootrestaurant.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

No need to slip the host a sawbuck or practice your name-dropping skills to secure a table at Leesburg’s much-beloved Lightfoot. But chances are, you’ll leave this former bank feeling like a million bucks.

The sprawling, two-story restaurant integrates recycled vault accessories and vintage memorabilia to establish a quiet cool, then drops the lights real low to keep things nice and mellow. Clientele ranges from martini-toting girlfriends who seem quite content to gossip at the bar all night to mixed groups just as happy to pass plates back and forth so everyone can sample chef Ingrid Gustavson’s modern cuisine.

The menu tilts towards the sea (seasonal crab, halibut and salmon specials took center stage during recent visits), but land-lovers have nothing to fear.

Woodsy mushrooms and fresh goat cheese are baked into a flaky pasty puff (earthy richness). Creamy, spinach-laden stock is dotted with amazing little potato dumplings that simply melt in your mouth. No need to hunt for lobster in the soothing house bisque, a brew stocked with sweet lobster meat, homemade pasta and a smattering of salmon caviar. A grilled-to-order lamb T-bone (ideal for even the most discerning carnivore) is virtually bulletproof, whereas seared duck (done quite well, indeed) can’t fly high enough to escape a cluttered citrus risotto (bits of asparagus and sweet peas are good; pomegranate-orange-truffle oil emulsion seems like overkill).

 

Foundation
$$$ Food: 8.4 Ambiance: 8.4 Service: 8.2
9112 Center St., Manassas; 703-368-3427; www.foundationmanassas.com. Open for dinner, Thursday through Sunday, Sunday brunch.

It took all of two years, but Okra’s owner Charles Gilliam can finally say Foundation is ready to stand on its own.

The fine-dining extension of Gilliam’s casual Cajun bistro, Foundation started strong under the direction of some ex-Commander’s Palace toques, but quickly sputtered last winter following changes in the kitchen. Enter chef Matthew Wood, another Big Easy transplant who has re-energized the cozy yet daring establishment.

Dinner guests are always greeted with a welcome bit of bubbly before being escorted into the wonderfully intimate dining room. Gabby gourmands can belly up to the marble chef’s bar, pole positioning for those who wish to chew the fat with Wood while he prepares his five-course tasting menu (changes weekly).

A batch of signature dishes exploring mostly international themes cycles through seasonally, while Creole favorites seem to remain evergreen.

Cakey homemade biscuits are the perfect foil for fantastically spicy andouille gravy. A hollowed out tomato adds acidity to a wondrous seafood salad of chilled crab in a mustard-lemon aioli (very refreshing). Shrimp- and crab-stuffed crepes are blanketed by a lemony beurre blanc finished with threads of fresh dill (flavorful sauce, filling plate). Well-seasoned lamb chops (good, but a bit too bony for the price) are propped up by a curiously minty salsa verde. Dinner sweets are typically good, but the brunch-only beignets take the deep-fried cake.

 

Eleventh Street Lounge
$$$ Food: 8.4 Ambiance: 7 Service: 6.2
1041 N. Highland St., Arlington; 703-351-1311; www.eleventhstreetlounge.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch.

Ex-District toque Antonio Burrell has helped elevate Eleventh Street Lounge from hipster watering hole to foodie haven with his always adventurous and often challenging collection of sized-for-sharing creations.

The alterna-pub was already popular with locals and gourmet beer hounds (frosty pints of Stella Artois or Maredsous, anyone?), but turned a major corner last spring when Burrell—who completed tours at both Viridian and Vidalia before leaping over to Virginia—unveiled his ambitious new menu. Nowadays, you might see the same club kids and wannabe lounge lizards splayed out on the assorted couches and love seats you did before. But the maybe half dozen tables and high-tops that constitute the main dining area are becoming increasingly occupied by curious boomers who are probably more interested in sampling Burrell’s imaginative cuisine than they are in closing down the bass-thumping nightclub below.

Truffled eggs emerge as a crunchy quartet of fried oeufs dressed with a zesty horseradish aioli. Gourmet sandwiches like an updated Monte Cristo (sweet ham, smoked turkey and Swiss pressed between buttery brioche) are typically escorted by a salty-sweet stack of sweet potato and traditional french fries (great combo). Seared scallops sail into culinary history astride watermelon cubes stacked atop mint-avocado cream (amazing).

Signature martinis and specialty drinks are all the rage here. By-the-glass wines are all under $8, while bottles max out at $80 for a vintage Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

Ristorante Bonaroti
$$$ Food: 7.9 Ambiance: 7.8 Service: 8.2
428 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-281-7550; www.bonarotirestaurant.com. Open for lunch and dinner daily.

Chances are you know about a dozen places for good pasta. But do any of those interchangeable eateries feature daily specials longer than most competitors’ standard menus and happen to be a guilty pleasure of one of the area’s most cherished sports stars?

If not, I suggest adding Ristorante Bonaroti to your mental Rolodex.

Most nights you can still find owner Sergio Domestici tending to tables (regulars describe him as “our favorite waiter”) or greeting guests at the door. Expertly trained staff follow suit by anticipating patrons’ every need (warm lemon water follows a course of sauteed mussels for quick cleanup).

Stop by enough, and you might even run into a Redskin or two (tight end Chris Cooley loves the beef carpaccio and is rumored to bring teammates around before home games).

Homemade ravioli are filled with ground lamb and blanketed in a tomato-rich ragu. Fettuccine Sergio coats the familiar noodles in a subtle Alfredo, then ramps up the entire experience with shredded ham and sweet, delicious snow peas. The otherworldly St. Honore cake looks like a profiterole-napoleon love child, combining flaky pastry dough, sweet custard, cream-filled, chocolate-covered bonbons, whipped cream and streaks of chocolate sauce.

The predominantly Italian wine list features by-the-glass and carafe selections. Bottles start at $24 for a domestic riesling and rocket to $1600 for the 1975 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcini “Il Greppo.”

 

Serbian Crown
$$$ Food: 8.3 Ambiance: 7.9 Service: 7.4
1141 Walker Road, Great Falls; 703-759-4150; www.serbiancrown.com. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday.

As time marches on, so does the Serbian Crown, a throwback establishment characterized by its enduring grandeur and affinity for theatrics.

An Eastern European stronghold perhaps best known for its long-running gypsy dancing shows and strict allegiance to Franco-Russian cuisine, the Crown delights newcomers and regulars alike with tableside productions—deftly prepared Dover sole and freshly mixed beef tartare always raise a few eyebrows, while baked Alaska typically elicits gasps of delight—that are as amusing to behold as they are delicious.

Those with deep pockets can nibble on closely guarded servings of Ocetra and Beluga caviar. The rest of us can sneak a taste of the good life via no-less-pleasing red caviar mixed into sour cream-topped oysters (a regal, raw seafood delight). The aforementioned tartare combines pink-as-can-be ground beef with ground black pepper, onions, capers, flavored oil and raw eggs into a daredevil treat worthy of its namesake Asian invaders. Wild game selections don’t always hit (sauteed emu disappears into a too-strong green peppercorn sauce), but the ones that do are truly memorable (lion, anyone?). Other seasonal favorites include port-braised antelope (firm meat flush with flavor), Madeira-spiked wild boar (a solo feast par excellence) and savory venison creations.

Assorted wines are readily available. But with nearly two dozen name-brand vodkas and a rainbow of flavored varieties to choose from, logic dictates these meals go down with some of Russia’s frostiest spirits.

 

L’Auberge Chez Francois
$$$$ Food: 8.6 Ambiance: 8.1  Service: 8.8
332 Springvale Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3800; www.laubergechezfrancois.com. Open for lunch, Sunday, dinner, Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday.

No need to wait for a special occasion to plan a trip out to the always welcoming Chez Francois. Every visit here is an opportunity in and of itself to celebrate a shared passion for food, life and fellowship.

The quaint white cottage with bright red shutters, so familiar to devout gourmands and festive partygoers alike, continues to cement its place as a dining institution in an otherwise volatile restaurant landscape (see intro) by adhering to a fairly simple business plan: Spoil patrons rotten with authentically Alsatian food, hard-to-find wines and impeccable service.

Founder Francois Haeringer has passed the mantle on to his son, Jacques, who keeps the family’s 30-year legacy of hospitality very much alive. The Haeringers are aided, of course, by an army of seasoned service professionals with smiles almost as bright as the shiny gold buttons on their striking red vests.

A typical four-course dining adventure—it’s really six, if you count the seasonal amuse and intermezzo sorbet sent out gratis from the kitchen—can be custom tailored to include as much seafood, fowl or game as you like. One seafood medley summons a porcelain clamshell filled with nuggets of shrimp, crab and lobster in a terrific herb-cream sauce. The Papa Ernest plate unites sumptuous specimens of lamb (better), veal (best) and filet mignon (good), then seals the deal with a buttery half-lobster tail.

 

Bamian
$$ Food: 8.2 Ambiance: 8.5 Service: 7.3
5634 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-7880; www.bamianrestaurant.com. Open for lunch, dinner and late-night dining daily.

With its palatial decor and unabashedly Afghan menu, Bamian may seem a bit intimidating to first-time visitors. But repeat guests—the dining room gets more and more crowded with each visit—can attest to the overwhelming hospitality that is the heart of this thriving community touchstone.

Unsure which exotic vegetable dish or grilled meat to sample? Check with any of the incredibly gracious servers, many of whom start off soft-spoken but cheerfully open up when discussing their favorite native dishes.

The exhilarating bouranee baunjaun summons a spicy eggplant mash offset by mint-spiked yogurt sauce, best devoured atop warm pitas. A gloriously understated portion of subzi chalau rolls leafy spinach and white rice around until grain and greens unite in stir-fried bliss. Chopan kabob delivers chargrilled lamb ribs that are sparsely seasoned yet roar with flavor, with or without a dunk in the potent homemade chutney (packs a citrusy sting). Simply sweet goshe feel reveals curly sheets of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar and crushed pistachios (no-nonsense confections even dieters can enjoy).

Keeping with the times, the restaurant offers about a dozen mixed whites and reds by the glass (all under $8), while bottled wines start at $22 for a youngish Delicato White Zinfandel and top out at $29 for a St. Francis Merlot. Devout Muslims can enjoy chilled doogh or hot tea.

 

Café Renaissance
$$$ Food: 6.8 Ambiance: 7.3 Service: 7.5
163 Glyndon St., Vienna; 703-938-3311; www.caferenaissance.com. Open for lunch, Monday through Friday, dinner, daily.

Veal sweetbreads may not be for everybody, but those of us who do enjoy them treasure the few places that can satisfy our offal itch. Sadly, Café Renaissance has pulled the specialty selection from its proudly Gallic carte—a not-so-subtle departure that has not gone unnoticed by this Vienna mainstay’s rapidly graying clientele.

A sentimental favorite amongst the Greatest Generation set, Café Renaissance remains a cozy retreat for devotees of traditional Eastern European fare. Though the alluring sweetbreads have disappeared—one waiter says patrons routinely call to inquire if it’ll be on daily special,
management claims they can accommodate special orders with just a few days notice—gourmet staples like calves liver Bercy and seasonal game dishes continue to satisfy.

Roast eggplant gives way to a pleasing ricotta and prosciutto filling. Flattened chicken filets arrive smothered in a brazen gorgonzola-tomato sauce bolstered by capers and black olives (bravissimo!). Tilapia leaps from subtly sweet to sublime after a quick soak in lemon butter with tart apples and sliced almonds. An eponymous pasta dish scatters a bounty of fresh mussels, shrimp and jumbo sea scallops in the homemade sauce of your choosing (vodka cream adds bite, olive oil and garlic let the seafood do the work) atop steaming capellini.

By-the-glass wines are limited, while bottles top out at $600 for a 1971 Chateau Latour Pauillac.

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One Response

Deb Says:


Looking to host a bridal shower in January 2010 in Northern Virginia – can you recommend a quaint place that would do that for 40 ladies?
Thanks,

deb

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