50 Best Restaurants

This is what you need to know about this year’s list. Barbecue is just as deserving of the full restaurant treatment—trendy light fixtures, local craft beer list, sit-down service—as other cuisines. A Thai restaurant’s bar program is just as important as its spicy noodle dishes. Afghan is more than kabobs. Dinner in a butcher shop makes for a lovely time. The surprises this year have less to do with where you’ll find the best night out (hello three-peat for The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm) and more with the neighborhoods attracting kitchen talent. There are plenty of options for fancier dining, too, with places for occasions so special you’ll leave your phone off the table. And really, that’s what it’s all about: a plate of good food and company to match. No filter required.

By Stefanie Gans • Photography by Rey Lopez and Jonathan Timmes

TOP 10

[#1] The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

[#2] Restaurant Eve

[#3] Clarity

[#4] 2941

[#5] The Ashby Inn & Restaurant

[#6] Requin

[#7] Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar

[#8] Sense of Thai St.

[#9] Mokomandy

[#10] Vermilion


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Falls Church • Contemporary • $$$

The soup tastes gently of asparagus. With the white version as its source, it’s a pristine gardenia-colored puddle splattered with red-orange annatto chili oil and bits of crab and green asparagus trying to stay afloat. It is easy to be seduced at 2941, especially with a simple bowl of veloute. Crisp pea tendrils break through the almost-undercooked gnocchi as that dizzying scent of truffles radiates from the cream sauce. Shaped into the kind of long, rectangular box built for presenting jewels, diced salmon forms the bottom layer as a starchy stretch of white beans and the surprising cut of soy break in. Order desserts here, where a sorbet becomes the definition of summer: A spoonful of dark, saturated blueberry will warm your thoughts through a long winter.

A Chocolate-hazelnut pave Photo by Rey Lopez

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Afghan Bistro
Springfield • Afghani • $$

If you’re new to Afghan Bistro, you will be told that there is never-ending rice, flatbread and a foursome of housemade sauces, which include an herby avocado chutney and sweet-hot mango. But just because those sauces are on the table doesn’t mean you need to employ them: A salty, barely spicy seekh kabob has all the flavor it needs; leek- and scallion-filled dumplings come with their own topping of minted yogurt, crumbled beef and lentils; and just don’t mess with the radiant lamb shank moghuli. That dish, reminiscent of an Indian curry, is marigold in color and just as sunny. The meatless dishes are just as good, especially a platter filled with vibrant greens, soft winter squash and rice topped with sweet carrot shreds and even sweeter raisins.

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Vienna • Saudi • $$

Let’s start with dessert: Imagine brownie batter crossed with the inside of a Fig Newton (hnaini). It is served warm, and a thick spoonful makes you wish you didn’t fill up on the parade of carbs coming out of this Saudi kitchen. First is a fried orb, the interior perimeter lined with softened potatoes, the inside with ground beef (potato kibba). Then there’s a bowl of jireesh, a completely foreign but wholly relatable dish described by servers as cream of wheat but is, as I’ve been portraying it to anyone who would listen (including in last year’s list), a warm, cozy blanket of oatmeal-meets-mashed potatoes. There are a few different versions of lamb clinging to the bone atop yellowed rice, just seasoned differently. Pour some housemade hot sauce on top and scoop it up with pita. Like the salt and pepper shakers (Arabians dressed in traditional gear)? You can buy them next door at the lounge.

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The Ashby Inn & Restaurant
Paris • Contemporary • $$$$

If you eat out enough, there are certain menu items in a given time that will be its tell. Burrata, more or less a ball of mozzarella with cream inside, is ours. And the burrata at Ashby Inn is a gleaming white sphere ready to release its soul over beets in varying forms: raw, sliced, cubed, roasted and turned into a foamy puree, the latter taking full advantage of the beets’ prom dress, party-time hue. Over a year into his tenure at Ashby Inn, Patrick Robinson has continued the kitchen’s prestige (though JV-level service—front-of-house lacks dinner menu knowledge, from the sommelier to the host/food-runner—is a problem at this type of destination venue and price point). But the housemade charcuterie, the spicy coppa in particular, brings the focus back to the craftsmanship of the restaurant, and a singular ravioli, filled with lamb shoulder, where the delicate pasta mimics the braised meat, somehow outshines the also excellent rack of lamb and lamb belly reloude next door. Actually next door: Early next year the inn will open Ashby Apothecary, a general store featuring medicinal oils, produce and local and housemade items like vinegars, bread, jams, pickles and prepared soups.

Roasted and raw—and foamed—beets surround a heaping ball of burrata at Ashby Inn. Photo by Rey Lopez

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B Side
Fairfax • Contemporary • $$

Lest you forget where your food comes from or that next door is butcher shop Red Apron and that B Side exists to showcase its various charcuterie—which includes porky liverwurst, peppery ciauscolo (another spreadable meat), sausage, salami, prosciutto, rotating burgers, esoteric cuts of steak and an assortment of other animal-inspired dishes—the back wall covered floor-to-ceiling in chalkboard paint portrays very cute and sometimes cuddly drawings of the cows, lambs and chickens you will be eating. And while that sentence might be unwieldy, B Side is a tightly scripted restaurant. One side of the menu lists charcuterie (formatted like a sushi menu); the other has a few appetizers and entrees. Though it’s a meat-based place, the menu swings seasonal, but the smoky, spicy pimento cheese and the garlic- and rosemary-flecked fries are must-orders on every visit.

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Bangkok Golden
Lao & Thai • Falls Church • $

If there is one dish in all of Northern Virginia that should never be taken off the menu, it’s the crispy rice salad at Bangkok Golden. Crunchy rice, full cilantro leaves, scallions, bits of pork and a salty-sour punch signals the brain to keep shoveling in one more bite after you swore you’d move on to the spicy-sweet shredded mango salad or the bowl of steaming broth, clear and fragrant with chunky housemade rice noodles and soft cubes of tofu. But the only thing to divert your attention might be another umami dish of grilled pork shoulder, sliced and ready for a swift pick-up with sticky rice into a rust-colored sauce that is like a kiss from your bad-boy ex-boyfriend: sweet, bitter and dangerous all at once.

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Fairfax • Seafood • $$

What if Dave Grohl never joined Nirvana and the group disbanded before Nevermind? What if Carrie Bradshaw kept talking directly to the camera and HBO never renewed Sex and the City? Brine in Mosaic was given that same chance to change for the better and did. It kept some of the same dishes, but this year they found their way, like that media-bait plankton pasta. A loose brown butter sauce hints at the sea with Olde Salts clams, guanciale, chili threads and chewy housemade fettuccine dyed green from the microscopic sea organisms, in this case dried into a powder. You can’t taste it, or I couldn’t, but the fact that the kitchen is employing the sea-based superfood makes the dish all the more exotic—and delicious nonetheless. The seafood program focuses on the local, the sustainable, with the meaty tilefish standing up to olives and peppers and the bluefish steak withstanding an almost-burnt exterior from the wood-fired grill. But what seems to have a gained a cult-following is the burger, a fatter Big Mac with shredded lettuce and special sauce on a sesame seed bun that would make Ronald McDonald abandon post.

Brine plays to Mosaic’s wide audience: happy hours with local oysters and beer, funky dishes like plankton fettuccine (right) and one of the best burgers in the area, a gourmet knock-off of a McDonald’s classic. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Ciao Osteria
Centreville • Italian • $$

This Italian restaurant from owner Sal Speziale and chef Antonino Di Nicola deals in both American-Italian classics and dishes you’d never see in red-sauce joints. There’s lamb rillettes decorated with mint jam and mustard seeds served with crostini. It’s smooth and rich (and doesn’t need the trendy blistered shishito peppers or the old-fashioned sprig of rosemary). Instead of sandwiches, the wood-fired oven offers piadinas, Italian flatbreads with dough folded over a mix of cheese (burrata, stracchino) and meat (prosciutto) reminiscent of a quesadilla. Though the expansion of Neapolitan-style pizza remains slow in the area, find the signature soupy center here in Centreville with a crust chewy and charred. And of course there’s the pasta. Most of the noodles are dried, imported from Italy. But the kitchen makes its own for the lasagna, a layered tower, cheesy, saucy, dotted with meat, a feeling of warm, sincere solace, like a nap in a hammock on a sunny afternoon.

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Vienna • Contemporary • $$$

Is there anything cooler than feeling like an insider? Hang out at the open kitchen at Clarity and chat with the chefs. Really. This is not a show kitchen. You will actually see the work getting done. Between lunch and dinner rush, watch someone run dough through the machine, turning it into fettuccine noodles, almost translucent, with fennel fronds clinging to the long strands like iced-over windows. There’s then a drizzle of oil and a zesting of cheese. The noodles are delicate, fragile even. The Vienna restaurant, still crowded after its spring 2015 opening, speaks not just to the lack of ambitious places to eat in the town but also to the funky, approachable and always-changing menu. The best part of an appetizer of crab beignets is probably the lemon aioli-dressed kohlrabi slaw draped over dabs of housemade pickled ghost pepper relish. Slices of cured beef carpaccio resemble the delicate shags of freshly shaved roast beef and are all the more interesting for it. There are beautiful, composed desserts, but sometimes you just need All. The. Chocolate., like with this wicked, messy bowl of dark chocolate ganache, chocolate cookies and a sprinkle of what seems like the bottom of a bag of pretzels, chunky salt included.

Vienna-based Spartan Oil finishes a bowl of housemade fettuccine at Clarity. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Cork & Table
Fredericksburg • Modern American • $$$

The menu at Cork & Table is as simple and straightforward as its name, like in a duck salad: Thin slices of bird fan out on one side of the white rectangular plate and a mound of greens, dried cranberries and goat cheese lies on the opposite end, but the lush, smoky duck could have stood alone. It was one of four courses for $35 (or three courses for $25), an unbelievable deal. Pork tenderloin is better for a dunk in the sherried mushroom sauce over creamy polenta, and bay scallops, a miniature version of the shellfish, play well with sweet peas and briny artichokes in a bowl of spaghetti with a touch of cream sauce. Last tastes are just as delightful, with a dense dark chocolate pot de creme or a warm bite of sticky toffee pudding mixed with dates and topped with caramel sauce.

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Elephant Jumps
Falls Church • Thai • $$

The dishes at Elephant Jumps are lost in translation. It’s not that the flavors don’t transfer to our tastes here; it’s that we lack the vocabulary to describe such bright, nuanced dishes. In my mind, I see a Roy Lichtenstein painting. Pop! Varoom! Wham! And this is all to describe a salad with roots and recipes from 100 years ago. It’s a vibrant concoction, less salad than an almost-soupy gathering of shrimp and chicken combined with banana blossoms absorbing the sour, sweet and spiciness of the surrounding chili sauce-tinged coconut milk. Decorating the bowl is a fuchsia banana blossom, punctuating its exoticism.   
One month a special and three months later a staple on the menu, the hung lay curry contains tender chunks of pork in an almost-brown burgundy-colored curry, balancing its depth with a frontal funkiness, like exactly why you fell in love with Ally McBeal.

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Enatye Ethiopian Restaurant
Herndon • Ethiopian • $$

After about 20 minutes of tearing off bits of injera, pinching the various raw and cooked lamb or beef, lentils, collards, cabbage, a liquefied sauce of chickpeas and a mound of pureed mushrooms (yes, mushrooms), I like to nudge everything to the side. The injera (upgrade for the bitingly sour 100 percent teff version for $2.50) lying underneath the gored gored (chunks of raw beef), picks up its glaze of berbere and butter. This injera is a sponge, not only what this Ethiopian bread looks like but also how it behaves, soaking up the various flavors and textures, the remnants of what was there before.
A former cab driver, Ethiopian native Eskinder Kifetew opened Enatye Ethiopean Restaurant last November with his brother, sister and mother, who runs the kitchen. You probably haven’t seen pureed mushrooms on Ethiopian restaurant menus in the area, and that’s because it’s not a traditional recipe. It’s something his mom, Wollansa Adamssu, created for the restaurant, a small room with only a few tables scattered tight to the bright orange walls, sparsely decorated with paintings of Ethiopian women, one of which depicts Adamssu.

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The Plains • Italian • $$$

Lydia Patierno, the owner with her chef-husband Louis Patierno, can help you pronounce anything on the menu and give you a five-second story on the dish before she dashes on to the next table at their restaurant, Girasole.
Chitarrini, a rounded linguine noodle, hails from Marche, where her grandparents are from. In The Plains, it is dyed with squid ink, cooked so al dente it could shock you and tossed in a tomato sauce that’s as brothy as a soup. It’s a little spicy but still cedes the attention to sweet chunks of crab. As a gracious host, she’ll offer grated cheese but will be quick to tell you it’s not the Italian way.
She’ll encourage you to order the fried Roman artichokes. The outer leaves become so crunchy they turn almost tough, but that only makes the heart taste more tender.
A dessert plate shimmied around the restaurant might feel antiquated, but in this unpretentious and cozy restaurant, it’s charming. If it’s on display, select a rich, dense slice of gianduja, a chocolate-hazelnut mousse-as-pie.

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Goodstone Inn & Restaurant
Middleburg • French • $$$$

Up a winding gravel driveway, about 10 minutes from the rest of downtown Middleburg, Goodstone Inn mixes classic French with New American influences. A pea soup is more cream than vegetable and is made fancy with enough truffle oil wafting in the air for you to know it’s there before the server finishes setting down the bowl. A cross-seasonal salad of spring strawberries and fall apples defies the logic of what grows together goes together with the snap of the apple, its sweetness matching the strawberry, and a vegetable hit from arugula and fennel, plus sharp notes from slices of Asiago cheese. A filet, soft and rosy, is surrounded by mushrooms, potatoes and the new vegetable staple, Brussels sprouts, paired with bacon and dressed in a demiglaze. Flakes of salt enliven Chantilly cream over a classic creme caramel. It’s a beautiful little plate of simplicity.

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Green Pig Bistro
Arlington • Contemporary • $$$

Green Pig Bistro is surely where to find honkin’ hunks of meat. The daily specials showcase meatloaf and beef stew, and that’s in the summer. There are also small, satisfying comforts like a saucy pile of snails and mushrooms over toast. A mound of kale, “cut small enough so it’s not annoying,” says my dining partner, is almost meal-worthy with turnips and millions of shreds of ricotta salata, all lemony and heavily dressed. Steak tartare tastes extra, not necessarily extra beefy but amped up, like how seeing Billy Idol is exhilarating enough, but then he takes his leather motorcycle jacket off, stands topless in the pouring rain and screams “Rebel Yell.” This tartare is boosted with bone marrow. You get it.

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Hank’s Oyster Bar
Alexandria • Seafood • $$$

Before every new restaurant opened with a raw bar, oyster slurping was a rare occasion. A special occasion. There was Hank’s Oyster Bar then. And now that it has competition, it is still where to go for everything from the sea (the meal even starts with after-school-snack favorite Goldfish crackers). The food remains unfussy, like a rockfish that melts into the leeks, tomatoes and cabbage below; buttery scallops paired with crisp Brussels sprout leaves; and a roast chicken that makes you ache for home, wherever that may be, whether roast chicken was there or not. It’s that good.

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Hank’s Pasta Bar
Alexandria • Italian • $$

There was a time, just last year, when the name Hank meant oysters. Not true anymore. Well, there’s still Hank’s Oyster Bar (of course, see above), but now the moniker also stands for pasta. This is neither a red-sauce joint nor a fancy Italian spot. What it is gorgeous strands of malfalde, a long, wide noodle rippled on each side, making friends with a cream sauce decked with spinach and crumbled fennel sausage. Or long strands of hollow bucatini in an extra-decadent version of carbonara thanks to a bonus round of cream. I can never veer from the dozen-plus mostly housemade pastas, but if you can, let me know how that grilled rib-eye is. I’ll be twirling noodles.

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Kapnos Taverna
Arlington • Greek • $$

Bitter is the new black. Be it hops in beer or all of those Italian aperitifs dominating cocktail menus, the black sheep of the taste world is having a moment, and it can be explored in an eggplant dish at Kapnos Taverna. The aubergine is warm and silky with honey but wears an attractive bite from a puree made from pith. Charred shrimp paired with charred bread do well to soak up a sauce rich with Metaxa, a Greek brandy. Make sure to order dips (and extra bread!) for the table, especially the whipped feta, taramosalata, a mildly fishy one with carp roe and a thick tzatziki decorated with dill and grapefruit. That bitter is everywhere.

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L’Auberge Chez Francois
Great Falls • French • $$$$

“Well, I’m impressed.” “They’ve only served the bread, Dad.” That’s the kind of place, the kind of service, the kind of scene L’Auberge Chez Francois sets up. After driving through winding, tree-lined roads, trying to peek at the mansions hundreds of yards in, we sat on the back patio on a day when the plants and trees and gardens were bright green. The sun was out. The tomato plants reached what seemed like 3 feet high. The bread is varied, topped with seeds or toasted with garlic, served with butter and cottage cheese. The prix fixe lunch comes with a few ounces of wine. “Cote du Rhone sounds fancy,” says my dad. It’s a place where they not only serve snails in the shell but also provide a utensil designed to hold the shell in place while the other hand uses a miniature two-pronged fork to dislodge the mollusk, which is then dipped into a buttery, garlicky, herby sauce. There is still something about French cuisine, to this country, to a certain age group, that finds it the utmost in sophistication. It’s not always fussy, like a cassoulet served in a ceramic bowl filled with saucy white beans and bits of duck and pork that is comfort at its core. We dip a fork into a deeply rich chocolate tort. I peek over at my dad’s text: “I’m at this fancy-pants French restaurant …”

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Lyon Hall
Arlington • European • $$$

Lyon Hall owns its mission as a brasserie but isn’t afraid to fold in something new. A traditional sausage plate welcomes Asian-star pork belly alongside andouille and bratwurst sausages and buttery, bacon-embraced Lyonnaise potatoes. There’s straightforward steak frites with bearnaise and a croque madame-ish dish with a sunny-side up egg over a ham- and cheese-stuffed croissant during happy hour. (Bonus: Happy hour prices are honored on the patio.) There’s also more refined fare, like a fillet of halibut emerging with the rest of springtime: sweet pea ravioli levitating above a carrot puree.

Inflecting modern American flourishes on Euro treasures, Lyon Hall is a solid place for a plate of mixed sausages and too much good beer. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Maple Ave Restaurant
Vienna • Contemporary • $$$

There is something about this drab restaurant that is endearing. There’s always been something, because even though Maple Ave has all the charm of a dentist’s waiting room, it still draws a crowd. There were couples on dates, one pair in their early 60s, another in their late 20s. There was a large party, celebrating something, with people coming in one at a time with presents. And then there was a mom and her daughter. The mom asked about the risotto, disappointed not to see it on the menu. “Is it seasonal?” she asks the server. “I’m not sure it’s coming back,” the server says, explaining the new chef wants to add her touch to the menu, almost two years under new ownership. The mom and daughter leave. The server shrugs it off as she comes by to check on my table; she figured they’d leave if the small child couldn’t have her pick. I get back to my food, squishy gnocchi and mushroom strands over buttery butternut squash puree. Before: a bouillabaisse in a smoky tomato broth that is so gorgeous it doesn’t need to hide behind the splashy seafood. Another day: smoked arctic char over an almost burnt-chocolate tasting black bean puree with pop from a cilantro sauce and sweetness from fennel. Later: a vanilla cheesecake batter that has been cooked sous vide—it’s a cross between yogurt and mousse, topped with blueberry compote and spiced walnuts that is what a breakfast parfait wishes it could be.

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Springfield • Yemini • $$

Imagine spring with pretty pale greens and flowers in vivid pops of reds and pinks and oranges. Scramble that scene into dots and slashes. Throw it in a jar and shake it up. This is how shafout tastes. In a round white dish, yogurt, thinned to a watery consistency, transforms into the color of sea green. Bits of lettuce, pomegranates, peppers and lahooh (sour and spongy bread like Ethiopia’s injera) float in this liquid salad at the Yemeni Marib restaurant. It’s refreshing, cool. Slightly spicy and utterly jarring in a society where salad so often means dry and boring. Where shafout is delicate, there are also heaping piles of comfort. Malthoothah layers jireesh (like cream of wheat) and qursan (bread simmered with vegetables) with rice and then a giant leg of lamb, with the bone still attached, on top. Soft carbs mingle with the soft meat in a meal portioned for many. But the best lamb could be the garnish on top of the tangy, tahini-forward hummus. Diced lamb with onions and peppers and tomatoes and lots of cumin turn this ubiquitous dish (I think gas stations even sell hummus these days.) into not just a meal but something worth its double-digit price tag.

Yogurt never looked as pretty as when it’s turned into a liquid salad at Marib. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Market Table Bistro
Lovettsville • Contemporary • $$$

“We bought the whole pig,” says the server, explaining why there is pho on the menu at the decidedly not Vietnamese restaurant Market Table Bistro. The pho—and to be fair, the kitchen wasn’t trying to replicate the noodle soup; it was called “Pork Pho Sho” after all—is more of a pho-meets-ramen-ish bowl. It doesn’t really taste like pho at all, but because it’s so good on its own, with the crazy porky broth, the pork meatballs, the udon noodles, the poached egg (with DIY garnishes of kimchi and jalapeno chili hot sauce), it captures the compassion of your Jewish grandmother’s soup, if she stopped keeping kosher. The menu at the Lovettsville restaurant always reaches in different directions: ginger brings a pop to deviled eggs, soft greens and pickled vegetables invigorate a so often by-the-numbers shrimp and grits plate, and rabbit blends into subtle, pesto-painted pappardelle.

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Fairfax • Japanese • $

Still sizzling and popping when set at the table, the chicharrones, the pleasantly spicy, barely greasy fried pork skins at Marumen, are a sign that though ramen is what the restaurant is known for, there’s more to it. Salmon slips into a soak of miso and sake for a boozy-sweet starter (though the barely dressed salad greens only weigh down the plate). A crispy batter still punches through the heavily sauced chicken thighs tucked into a soft white bun. The ramen (creamy, not brothy) is best spicy and flavored with miso to welcome bouncy noodles, a hefty slice of pork, a molten-yolked egg and—even for this non-fan of bamboo—bamboo slices that are tangy and soft like a scarf. And that hefty plate of chopped barbecue pork and melted mozzarella over tater tots will make you miss those late college nights, or hazy mornings.

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Sterling • Cajun & Korean • $$

Is it fair to judge a restaurant on brunch service? It’s a shift notoriously maligned by service staff and kitchens, and most of the time brunch doesn’t represent the best of what the restaurant can do. Sometimes, though, it can carry the brand from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Eggs Benedict with a shrimp patty on brioche-like English muffins covered in hollandaise does the traditional right. The ready-for-lunch crowd should get into the shaved catfish; the slices, paper thin and fried into crispy curls paired with mellow shishito and sweet teardrop peppers, are what would happen if Philly’s steak-and-cheese cooks composed trendy seafood plates. Nodding to its dual mission of Cajun and Korean cuisine, Mokomandy doesn’t save a hoppin’ john for New Year’s Day and instead treats it as a base for sweetly glazed pork belly and translucent strands of lardo. Asian inspiration fits into mussels brightened with soy and ginger. And sometimes, things are just straight-up good, with lots of crab over juicy-crunchy fried green tomatoes.

Shaved and fried and perfectly crispy, catfish proves it deserves more than the blackened treatment Photo by Jonathan Timmes

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Alexandria • Indian • $$

Namaste sits in an unassuming strip mall. Namaste itself feels ordinary: a TV in the back, big booths, saffron-colored walls. But as anyone who has dined at a restaurant in a strip mall knows, none of that really matters because there’s this dish. It’s almost like a taco salad, with a crunchy outer shell filled with fried bits of whisper-thin noodles the length of an eyelash. It looks like a volcano, actually, with yogurt and tamarind cascading down the sides and chickpeas as the rubble. The Chinese influence is strong in gobi manchurian, cauliflower snuggled into a thick batter and fried; it might remind you of General Tso but in a foreign land. Lamb in a mellow, rich cashew cream sauce is a favorite T-shirt, soft and relaxed and just as familiar as the tomato-y dal makhani, a bowl of lentils impossible to find humble.

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Vienna • Greek • $$$

Erase the image of soggy eggplant, loads of cheese and a storm of marinara. Eggplant doesn’t have to be drowning to be comforting. At Nostos, long, silky strips of eggplant wrap around each other, one strip flowing into the next like a dog who finally caught its tail. There are herbs and onions and striking feta, a combination both common and winning. Nostos doesn’t often change its menu, but that only means you can always find a simply prepared fish. A server will debone it for you, leaving the flesh with equally simple sides, usually wilted greens and roasted potatoes. Understand it as-is; it doesn’t even require a drop of sunshine from a lemon.

Order a whole fish at the Greek Nostos and watch it transform into soft, easy bites during the elegant show of tableside deboning. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Peter Chang
Arlington & Fredericksburg • Chinese • $$

The Peter Chang brand—yes, it’s a brand now—doesn’t have the same aura as it once did. Chang and his team own several restaurants in the area, including Arlington, Fredericksburg and Richmond. The China-born chef no longer cooks and flees to the next state, be it Georgia or Tennessee. Instead, you’ll see many of the same items over and over, the cumin-scented bamboo fish and shredded tofu skin (think fettuccine) slicked in a seductive hot and numbing sauce. At least that’s where I gravitate during every visit. There are specials too, like a gingery cucumber salad and a shredded duck dish that is both fried and greaseless, a marvel of the Chang kitchen.

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Pizzeria Orso
Falls Church • Italian • $$

An amuse-bouche at a pizza place? Well, when the chef is French and also runs the upscale 2941, then yes. The amuse? A fried piece of dough, kind of like a beignet, topped with cheese and parsley and a drizzle of oil. And like it’s supposed to, it will get you fired up for the rest of the meal. The margherita—the restaurant is certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana Americas to serve traditional Neapolitan pizza—is true to its standards, an unfussy pie balancing a salty-sour crust. A Wednesday special presents charred gnocchi, best smashed with your tongue because chewing isn’t necessary, with bits of lobster and some lobster sauce with (gasp) grana padano, proving cheese and seafood may not be a faux pas after all. At least not for a French chef running a more-than-pizza pizza restaurant.

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Queen Amannisa
Arlington • Uyghur • $$

What Northern Virginia lacks in high-end, prepaid ticket, almost $1,000 dinner-for-two restaurants, it makes up for in variety. You won’t find a Uyghur restaurant within the District borders; in fact, you won't find this type of cuisine, with roots stretching across the Middle East, Central Asia and China, very often anywhere, which is a shame because those long, handmade noodles slick with the frenetic flavors of ginger, garlic, star anise and the drippings of big chunks of bone-in chicken is a dish that should be as easy to find as Brussels sprouts with bacon, pimento cheeseburgers and poke. But back to Queen Amannisa, from first-time restauranteur and Xinjiang native Emam Maimaiti, where there’s also a bedazzled lamb kabob with seasonings piled on during cooking so they create texture, not just taste, plus lamb in other dishes, like tucked inside dumplings and mingling with peppers served with rice, mimicking the Chinese flavors we’re more accustomed to here.

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Ray’s the Steaks
Arlington • Steakhouse • $$$

While owner Michael Landrum continues to open, shut, reorganize and rearrange his beef-dedicated empire—including adding Tasty Dug-Out, a restaurant spotlighting the Georgian dish khachapuri, to the side room of Ray’s Hell Burger—Ray’s the Steaks hasn’t really changed. It’s an easygoing steakhouse for the masses. In the summer you can find men in shorts and sneakers dining on some of the best steaks in town, including a boneless rib-eye with classic char lines. Gratis and endless (they even add more for take-home) sides—creamed spinach and mashed potatoes—slide into the backdrop. The steak can arrive in myriad ways, in lots of cuts and under lots of sauces, but I always wait to hear what the night’s special is, what’s been camping out in the meat locker, aging, growing mold and deepening in flavor. Order that.

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Red’s Table
Reston • Contemporary • $$$

Out on the deck, over Lake Thoreau, the drinking is local. Save one or two from D.C. or Maryland, the draft, can and bottle lists feature mostly Virginia craft beers. The tartare isn’t just tartare; it’s named Virginia Beef Tartare, with beef from a co-op of Virginia farms, plus cucumbers and grated cheese for a curious combination that might not work for everyone but kept me trying bites both crunchy and soft. A more commonly seen plate of roasted beets and a strong cheese, in this case a pureed feta, stands out for its use of the whole vegetable. Quick-pickled beet greens and stalks, surprisingly crisp and juicy, live the root-to-stem paradigm, and to chef it up, the speckled black dots are not pepper. It’s charred onion. Dinner can sway classic with skin-on duck and, in keeping with its natural affinity to fruit, is plated with slices of nectarine cooked with cinnamon-spiced honey. Back to the South is a fried chicken plate done right with a thick, crackly coating of cornmeal batter, softened spinach and a seared watermelon. Serving watermelon warm is a little risky, maybe not to everyone’s taste. But if there’s something that Reston needs, it’s a restaurant willing to break some rules.

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Lovettsville • Contemporary • $$$$

“May I break the yolk for you?” I nod, and my server, with a tattoo of a pineapple—the universal symbol for hospitality—on his forearm, takes a spoon and smashes a soft egg, forcing the yolk over a scallion pancake embedded with duck confit and splattered with harissa aioli. This scene plays out while “Sex,” a house-music, R&B mashup of Salt-N-Pepa’s classic “Let’s Talk About Sex” by Cheat Codes & Kris Kross Amsterdam, fills the Mosaic restaurant during lunch service. There’s something about this particular music choice and service style in an upscale-casual French-Mediterranean restaurant with a Top Chef alum in the kitchen that can be distilled down to what it means to dine out today. It’s all the components of a tuna nicoise salad in a mound of confit tuna popping with pickled egg and topped with matchsticks of golden beets so juicy it’s like biting into an apple. It’s a swordfish playing steak’s role, paired with an egg, fries and bearnaise sauce. It’s mixing new with old, using high-end technique on the breezy whims of trends. It’s serving classic French onion soup and the au courant blistered shishito peppers. It’s loving a chocolate soufflé, unironically. And what’s more hipster than that?

Top Chef’s Jennifer Carroll garnishes a duck leg with a scattering of scallions at Requin. Photo by Rey Lopez

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The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm
Fairfax • French-MediterraneaN • $$$

“Be careful, there’s an ember in there,” says the server. If we needed a reminder that The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm’s intention is to serve dinner as close to the field, the grass, the earth, the elements as possible, this dish is it. Pieces of the trunk from Linden Vineyard’s grape vines lie on the bottom of a metal basket. Then a pile of cedar, from Patowmack’s property, cradles an ember that just minutes before helped cook a piece of Virginia Beach wahoo. The fish, lightly smoked using that same vine bark, comes decorated in flax seeds and dabbed with a grape-leaf mayonnaise and is slipped onto a skewer and placed on top of a pickled grape leaf—pickled, of course, so it doesn’t burst into flames. This is just one dish, mostly the mechanics and not all of the background, which also includes first cold-smoking the fish, using the grape vine trunk as wood chips, letting the fish marinate and then grilling it over charcoal. And this, I will repeat, is one dish out of nine from an almost-fall tasting menu at the Lovettsville restaurant. There is no better way to spend an evening in Northern Virginia than among the imaginative, inventive and truly rewarding edible realizations of chef Tarver King’s kitchen. Dinner here has always been more than food, especially with that view into the mountains and the keepsake menu printed with your name. But now there are added sensory experiences, like with that burning basket of wood and an intermezzo course where a pitcher of liquid nitrogen mixes with mint and essential oil to create a puff, puff, puff, and suddenly the air is candy canes and magic and Mr. Wizard’s lab. The accompanying granite comes with instructions to mix the contents to create a yogurt-like substance dotted with last season’s preserved blueberries. It’s not all show. King shaves raw pattypan from his garden into an exquisite salad: squash dressed in a combination of anchovy and parmesan, salty and savory and better than movie popcorn. Sourcing prowess shows up on the humbly titled “Vegetables and Weeds From Around the Farm” where a silky White Hamon sweet potato, simply roasted and blended with salt, bests any pie filling. Servers spend a lot of time explaining dishes but not nearly enough to really understand the hours, energy and creativity it takes to pull this meal together. I get the luxury of learning more when I call King; in all of these dishes, every component has a tale. A pork shoulder was braised in a broth made out of bark. What?

In a rustic but dazzling display, skewered fish arrives at the table with a cloak of smoke thanks to a hidden ember entangled in the wood and leaves below. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

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Restaurant Eve
Alexandria • Contemporary • $$$$

“If we’re making ramen, we’re making our own noodles. We’re not buying. What’s the fun in that?” At a few years shy of 50, when most chefs leave the line for empire-building (hold that thought), Cathal Armstrong still very much lives in his kitchen. If there is something on the menu, from the harissa seasoning his multistep, 1,000-ingredient bouillabaisse to the lumpia wrappers for his version of Filipino egg rolls, he’s making it from scratch. Yogurt, tasso-style duck and dumplings. Everything. A starter for lunch, the mussels in a buttery namm jim, a Thai dipping sauce for seafood, are so spicy guests require a warning, but on that same menu, a hand-cut steak tartare remains a pitch-perfect classic. Before the next course, be it bass surrounded by cream and cucumbers or a stunning bouillabaisse, servers will come smiling to the table, whisking away any remnants of the previous course (or crusty bread!) with a shiny crumber. The pan-Asian family-style tasting menu is still one of the most exciting and surprising ways to dine fine in Northern Virginia. And as for Armstrong, before he opens a restaurant and a distillery in D.C. (he’s also looking at an Old Town waterfront property), make sure to be the center of his attention at Restaurant Eve.

Mussels are a fiery starter. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

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Rice Paper
Falls Church • Vietnamese • $$

Most often seen at Greek restaurants, grape leaves encircle ground beef at the perpetually crowded Rice Paper in the Vietnamese land of Eden Center. It’s one of the many choice ways to start a meal (as well as the imperial autumn rolls with a crispy outside and noodles, minced assorted seafood and taro root forming a creamy center), especially considering it’s an easy bite while flipping through the large menu. One dinner can go the way of dropping prawns, scallops, mussels, pork … into the hot pot, a spectacle for sure. Or keep the soup all to yourself, especially the one with funky, punchy tamarind broth.

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Sense of Thai St.
Ashburn • Thai • $$

Do the opposite. First, figure out food. Maybe the larb gai, with a little heat to linger on your tongue from a dish of minced chicken with red onions, mint and cilantro piled into large lettuce leaves. Or grilled yellowtail jaw, the cut of the moment, extra tender and accepting flavor from its charred skin. Or sun-dried beef, strips straddling the line between jerky and steak. Then, order your drink. But don’t really order your drink. Tell the bartender it’s his choice, and hope the him is Jeremy Ross, a gentleman with dark eyes, a bushy beard and wide shoulders. Tell him what’s for dinner, what you like, what you don’t. It will probably be smooth with bespoke vermouth, and the liquid will dance around an ice cube so big it will almost touch the sides of the glass. Why America is great right now: lanna spaghetti, turning an Italian meat sauce into something with wisps of Thai. There are slices of housemade sausage plus more crumbled pork and noodles barely dressed—just remnants of a tomato sauce laced with fish sauce and tamarind paste and a little parmesan. Why is this so funky? Why is this so fascinating? It’s a mix. A combination. It’s pulling from Thailand and Italy in one mound of pasta and meat. It’s America in all its everyone-is-welcome glory.

Description Photo by Jonathan Timmes

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Arlington • Spanish • $$$

There should be no question to pay $19 for six pieces of codfish jowl and a few peas at SER, the colorfully decorated Spanish restaurant in Arlington. The fish lives in a thick, creamy sauce, coaxed from cooking down the fish itself. It is luxury in a bowl. While many Spanish restaurants opening here serve tapas, SER is decidedly not a small-plates restaurant. Think a big plate of braised short ribs in a deep wine sauce presented with mashed potatoes assembled tableside, using olive oil instead of butter, natch. Dessert can be a souffle or a fascinating feat with pudding breaded, fried and served over vanilla-scented milk for a sweet ending that feels extra naughty.

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Social Restaurant & Oyster Bar
McLean • contemporary • $$$

The chef stands in front of the miniature oyster bar, where a few metal trays packed with ice keep the mollusks cold. He shucks them himself. It’s a tiny operation: 35 seats, 10 tables, four barstools and one motorcycle against the back wall. (There’s a helmet too.) A bowl of octopus chips, first confited, then frozen, sliced and fried, evokes just enough hint of fish to imagine you’re in a bar in Seoul, where bar snacks—usually some sort of version of dried, fried or otherwise prepared bits of fish—are required eating while exploring the depths of soju. Or for first-generation Filipino chef Jeff Barillo, it’s reminiscent of the dehydrated anchovies he eats over rice and eggs. But this is McLean, and it’s packed on a Tuesday night, a late-dinner crowd. Earlier this year, trout cooked campfire-style in a cast-iron pan was clean eating with plenty of springy asparagus and fresh chickpeas. There’s roasted quail on top of last-of-the-summer corn with a cumin-y carrot puree, and, says the chef who casually chats with guests sitting at the counter, he’ll soon be stuffing the mini bird with housemade, fall spice-spiked ground rabbit.

Chef Jeff Barillo plays with a nitrogen-charged iSi canister at Social. Photo by Rey Lopez

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Stomping Ground
Alexandria • Contemporary • $$

Darling Del Ray finally gets the restaurant the neighborhood deserves. Positioned in the middle of the main strip of retail on Mount Vernon Avenue, Stomping Ground offers biscuits and coffee by day and eclectic, casual dinner after dark. The plates focus on vegetables: Chunks of eggplant are ready for a dunk in labneh, a Middle Eastern-style yogurt, enhanced with a bracing lemon curd, and a halved avocado plays well with a dousing of green goddess dressing. Entrees are almost always less than $20 and portioned as an appropriate meal, not overwhelming, not small-plate territory. A fillet of sea bass nestles in a cream sauce dotted with slinky leeks and hunks, yes hunks, of bacon. The service is warm, friendly and attentive. Better yet, a refrigerator case on the way out encourages you to buy something for tomorrow, be it a jar of sorghum, a container of smoked trout salad or a single can of Coors.

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McLean • Japanese • $$$

Hidden on the second floor and around the back of a nondescript building in McLean, Tachibana feels like a feat of culinary discovery. Inside the wraparound room with two separate sushi counters is a range of Japanese dishes: a sweet broth hosting fried tofu and soft, wide udon noodles, a mix of seaweeds for a funky, slurp-able salad and, of course, the stunner of the sushi menu: a swath of lush, fatty pink tuna.

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Falls Church • Japanese • $$$

What is more darling than the actual illustrations of fish, crab, octopus and the like is the way that each rectangle of card stock is adhered to the wall. Clothes hangers, some with metal clasps and others with long wooden strips opening in one piece, grip these drawings decorating the tiny Takumi. What’s on the plate can be just as clever as raw slivers of calamari tuck into each other to form a mound crowned with pale orange uni, a small raw egg yolk and nori snipped into confetti. It’s a dish for the brave, those who can handle slime and mush and slippery strings of raw squid. But diners who dare dip a chopstick into this bundle will feel victorious. The menu offers more conventional items too, though they feel superior here, like the creamy cube of tofu in the miso soup or the pristine raw butterfish draped over rice.

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Texas Jack’s Barbecue
Arlington • Barbecue • $$

It’s understandable to think that the barbecue served at Texas Jack’s would be Texas-style barbecue, but it’s a misnomer. Chef Matt Lang, previously of famed Fette Sau in Brooklyn and the D.C. outpost of Hill Country, doesn’t stick to just one style, though his brisket, seasoned only with kosher salt and coarse black pepper and smoked for about a dozen hours, stays true to its Texas roots. It’s crazy tender, smoky of course, with sticky bark. A pork shoulder leans toward the Yucatan, and a carrot salad also plays up a Mexican influence with cumin, cilantro and pumpkin seeds. Cucumbers mix with yogurt, labneh and toasted wheat berries, and somehow shredded pork and pinto beans on top of risotto works as a side. Texas Jack’s is not a roadside stand. It is a proper restaurant with an on-trend beer list, cool light fixtures and lots of bare wood in a big open space, but don’t let the stylized aesthetics distract from the meat. Its heart is still in the smoke.

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Trummer’s on Main
Clifton • Contemporary • $$$

With the delivery of a creamy-crumbed corn bread, a new version of the restaurant’s breadbasket, comes news from the server that Trummer’s on Main has a new chef. Most recently from Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Cropf was rewriting and practicing the new menu during the final weeks of putting this issue together, but to start, snapper wears a crisp skin well and finds friends in the gathering of emmer, raisins, capers and cauliflower. Lobster cream seducing a plate of shrimp and grits is a reminder of the pleasure of dining in charming Clifton. Better yet: Hazelnut truffles arrive as a parting bite with the check.

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Tuscarora Mill
Leesburg • Modern American • $$$

Piles of slaw, seaweed and soba line the top of the rectangular white plate. Slices of pink tuna crowd the center, and, as a final touch, chopsticks lie on the left-hand side. It’s one of a few dishes with Asian nods, as Tuscarora Mill juggles a wide menu. But the long-standing Leesburg restaurant remains classic American to the core, with a simple dish of crab cakes (tons of meat bonded between a hard sear on top and bottom) with a grown-up salad of chopped fingerling potatoes, green beans and chunks of bacon. The tables dress in white cloth, and there’s a breadbasket offered, even during lunch, even in the bar area. It manages to be equal parts neighborhood hangout and night-out venue, slipping into trends (say yes to the pork belly tacos) but always keeping steak as an option.

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Alexandria • Modern American • $$$$

Vermilion is a pillar in the Modern American, fine-dining community. Sourcing is local and sustainable. Menus change with the season. A gift from the kitchen starts each meal. There’s a bread basket. It retains an air of formality, but it is friendly. Bright window seating is in the front, the glorious trappings of a dark bar pervade the back (where it’s known as an industry hangout), but of course, let’s focus on the food. Vermilion turns the tragedy of salmon—that maligned farm-raised, off-tasting, wedding option—into a silky goddess of the sea. A rich mousse formed into a quenelle tops a disk made of chopped salmon, snuggled with cucumbers and so many snips of chives it looks like Astroturf. Everything offers a texture to explore: the slippery tartare, the bursting bubbles of roe, the crunchy cucumber, the silky mousse. Scallops are so crispy it’s like they’ve been fried in a potato chip factory, and a gorgeous buttery, herby sauce slithers into the crevasses of a textbook-rosy filet. It’s an adult’s night out in Old Town Alexandria.

Chives decorate a rich salmon and roe appetizer. Photo by Jonathan Timmes

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Villa Mozart
Fairfax • Italian • $$$

If berry soup doesn’t sound appetizing to you, I get it. Is it a smoothie gone wrong? An attempt to salvage a kitchen failure? It’s not. It’s all the best summery flavors condensed and squeezed, concentrated. It’s like sucking melted ice cream from the bottom of the cone. It’s like lapping up the sticky, juicy remains dripping down your arm. But this is at Villa Mozart, so it’s all very classy, especially adorned with a scoop of sour cream ice cream offsetting the sweetness with a floating island of adult tartness. Everything else works, too. A bare-bones artichoke soup proves ingredients are truly everything; it’s where peppery oil forms beads on the surface, gently lubricating the tongue. Lamb chops come flavored with impact—you’d be too scared to season this heavily at home. It’s a reminder of what you pay a restaurant for: flavor, finesse, a bowl of liquefied berries.

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Water & Wall
Arlington • Contemporary • $$$

Early this summer, Tim Ma handed over Water & Wall’s kitchen duties to John Leavitt, formerly of 2941, and the plates are artfully and delicately presented in that fine-dining model. A cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab seemingly floats above splashes of springy green sauce against black slate. Sliced fennel, shiso and pickled peaches catapult this humble local staple into something more majestically minded. The uniquely ribbed skate wing turns into a dead-on impersonation of schnitzel with a cast of unlikely characters—braised greens, beets, hibiscus aioli and … lobster—figuring out how to become a unified plate. Dessert is a 21-and-over zone with boldly boozy bourbon cream over a chocolate chip cookie bar that is basically an after-school special in the making. Kids, don’t try this at home.

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The Whole Ox Butcher Bar
Marshall • Contemporary • $$

When you are done eating dinner at Butcher Bar, the restaurant within the butcher shop The Whole Ox, you will not wonder, “Why did I eat dinner in a butcher shop?” but rather, “Why don’t more butcher shops offer meals?” or better yet, “Why don’t they open a full-fledged restaurant so it’s not as hard to find a seat at one of the only dozen or so tables?” Or you won’t question the logistics at all because you’ll only be thinking about the food: the whipped, herbed lardo melting into hot sliced bread; the salsa-like gazpacho that you’re not sure whether to sip or dip into; the mustardy tartare that is classic instead of show-boating; the steak, the sausage, the softshell crabs. Who cares if dinner is in a butcher shop when it tastes like this?

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Arlington • Japanese • $$

Jonah Kim left his namesake restaurant after less than a year, but still under the Mike Isabella Concepts umbrella, it continues as a ramen bar with reaches into buns (get the crunchy, saucy fried chicken version), fried chicken (you can take home a bucket!) and sushi (avoid). The ramen list makes you think about what makes ramen ramen as you order a bowl more resembling a chicken noodle soup, that familiar salty broth but with shreds of nori, chicken meatballs, enoki mushrooms and lots of scallions. And noodles of course. Don’t be too shy to slurp.