By Warren Rojas / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
How We Did It: Those who believe these dining guides are nothing but excuses to gorge at spectacular restaurants should know: You’re right. Just don’t discount the associated marathon dining scars), meticulous calculations (the restaurants are, for the first time, ranked in descending order) and monastic reflection (i.e. hallucinations caused by repeated rewrites).
Our hospitality climate is nothing if not incredibly dynamic. ¶ Buzz-worthy restaurants seem to flitter across our gustatory radar like ghosts in a dream, often instilling us with an I-need-to-share-this-with-my-loved-ones-before-it-becomes-a-madhouse rush, while occasionally leaving us reeling from a how-the-hell-did-that-place-flame-out-so-quickly? hangover. ¶ Which is why we’d like to salute those extra special properties that have outperformed their peers during each successive awards season (restaurant listing in descending order here). ¶ Meanwhile, those perplexed by the absence of the many dauntless newcomers who’ve leapt into the dining fray recently, just know that they, too, will have their day—REAL soon (read: March 2011).
[$$$$] Food: 9.1 / Ambience: 8.9 / Service: 9.2
2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church; 703-270-1500; www.2941.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Highs: Anything sea urchin
Lows: Waiting for overdone beef redo
Share: Maker’s Mark whiskey baba
Savor: Intricately adorned pastas
The continuation of budget-friendly price points and year-round dining specials have apparently helped flood 2941 with a whole new clientele.
While the storied space remains a magnet for business luncheons and celebratory outings, you are now just as likely to spot retirees in short sleeves dining alongside camera-toting, 20-somethings—2941 seems to welcome point-and-shoot diners intent on documenting chef Bertrand Chemel’s edible art—or Red Hat Society ladies sharing sips of newly discovered wines.
The more the merrier.
Twin lobster claws, the marvelously sweet, pink meat stained black with cuttlefish ink, are folded across a vibrant risotto populated by grilled mollusk, piquant scallions and red pepper-infused grains.
Beef tartare threaded with black onion sauce (sweet landing, garlicky finish) is well supported by crunchy rosti patties.
Dark chocolate ice cream, cacao, flourless chocolate biscuits and pecan streusel are fused together in a ravishing frozen truffle.
[$$$$] Food: 9.4 / Ambience: 8.7 / Service: 8.9
692 Federal St., Paris; 540-592-3900; www.ashbyinn.com.
Open for lunch Wednesday through Saturday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Al fresco dining
Lows: Sluggish drivers on Route 17 N
Share: Caramel-bacon topped chicken and waffles
Savor: Triple cream cheese anything
“Is that FOOD?” a fellow diner marveled after being confronted with a MoMA- quality confection fashioned from dark chocolate and marshmallow foam.
Welcome to the gastronomic equivalent of Shock and Awe.
Executive chef Tarver King wasted little time revitalizing the menu after arriving last fall.
“When we got here everything was Sysco, microwave, boil-in-a-bag,” the locavore-minded toque informed a regular who copped to straying for a few years after suffering through middling food and robotic treatment.
Methinks his wandering days are over.
Chicken-fried steak, its deep-set, breadcrumb-y crags flush with satiny yolk from an accompanying farm egg, is lavished with bacon fat-laced hollandaise and pickled celery.
Cumin- and coriander-rubbed pork effectively melts into a mélange of zesty beans, crispy spinach and softened leeks.
Pound cake smothered in salt-studded ice cream and cacao nibs left an indelible mark. “That salted chocolate is all I can taste,” one companion gushed.
[$$$$] Food: 9.0 / Ambience: 9.0 / Service: 9.0
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; www.restauranteve.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Highs: Insane lickety-split deals
Lows: Tough-to-secure Bistro reservations
Share: Birthday cake
Savor: Fabulously appointed organ meats
“In a bit of a hurry, got a meeting in 10 minutes,” one harried professional warned her server while dining at Eve.
“Would you like that birthday cake to travel then?” the staffer inquired.
“Oh no, I’ll eat THAT here,” the suddenly in-the-moment patron instructed.
Another case of indulgence-induced inertia sparked by chef/owner Cathal Armstrong’s culinary genius.
Armstrong’s menu leapfrogs across time and space, caroming from his Hibernian youth to previously uncharted deliciousness (braised and panko-breaded cow head burger, anyone?).
This sandwich lover hit the jackpot when served a lusty handheld fashioned from fried rashers, mellow cheddar and fried egg pressed between buttery grilled toast.
Lusty chickpeas blanketed in mesmerizing sauces (soothing yogurt, minty gremolata, feisty tamarind) and flanked by fried flatbread transported me to Southeast Asia with each forkful.
Tempura crab elegantly reposes in complementary pools of tomatillo salsa (zesty) and summer corn (naturally sweet).
[$$$$] Food: 9.1 / Ambience: 8.9 / Service: 8.8
42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville; 540-822-9017; www.patowmackfarm.com.
Open for dinner Thursday through Sunday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Highs: Divine truffles
Lows: Tragically short tenure of cocktailer Patrick Forest
Share: Shaved fudge-topped peanut butter cup
Savor: Zucchini-packed breads
Change is just about the only constant in this area.
And while some restaurant goers prefer the status quo—no retinkering or rebranding required, thank you—this hired mouth appreciates the type of gustatory derring-do that demands near-immediate return plans.
Patowmack Farm flirted with just such a game-changer earlier this year by welcoming Volt alumnus Patrick Forest. Sadly, the wily mixologist has since departed—though owner Beverly Morton Billand insists she’s already scouting replacements.
Meanwhile, veteran chef Christopher Edwards continues to spin out ambrosial snapshots of the seasonal bounty.
One garden throwdown pits squash, pickled green beans and gnocchi-like dumplings against vinegary frisee and biting black olives.
Subtly minty perennials brighten lamb medallions.
Tart blueberries invade both a sugary tart and its surrounding cream, while soothing lavender lays siege to vanilla ice cream.
[$$$$] Food: 8.8 / Ambience: 8.5 / Service: 8.7
218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007; www.labergerie.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily.
Highs: Flashy, tableside preparations
Lows: Wine-snobby servers
Share: Dover sole
Savor: Baked onion soup
As soon as her fashionably late friend arrived, one La Bergerie reveler lost it.
“Can we do wine? Can we do champagne?” the jittery celebrant begged her companions. Another attendee immediately bubbled over, declaring, “We need more than two hours … we have a whole summer to catch up on!”
Visiting La Bergerie is apparently so intoxicating for some, the mere act of sitting down is enough to get them punchy.
Time may not stop within the brick-lined walls. Still, staff do their best to prolong each dining experience, tempting guests with intensely rich creations—”OK, I’ll have chocolate,” one pushover cooed after minimal prodding about souffle options—and kid-glove treatment.
Crunchy spaetzle bobs amid a sea of fricasseed mussels, peas and bacon.
Anise-rubbed bird and sour Napa cabbage deliver flashes of Southeast Asia in every bite.
Hand-wrung orange juice and flash-fired Grand Marnier permeate every fold of buttery crepes.
[$$$] Food: 8.9 / Ambience: 8.4 / Service: 8.5
1120 King St., Alexandria; 703-684-9669; www.vermilionrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Highs: Ambrosial vegetarian tasting menu
Lows: What’s with the kiddie commode in the john?
Share: Seasonally inspired cocktails
Savor: Angus steak and short rib duo
Eating local reigns supreme at Vermilion, a neighborhood retreat prone to one-upping nature by recasting farm-fresh ingredients in daring compositions.
(Just don’t tell the bar crowd they’re actually eating/drinking healthy. It might spoil their Bacchanalian romps.)
Chef Anthony Chittum is equal parts topographer and alchemist, artfully transforming everyday foodstuffs—be they animal, mineral or vegetable—into edible landscapes reflective of his boundless culinary vision.
Fried soft shell crab and green tomatoes topple convention in a domino-like arrangement anchored by pureed avocado and festooned with strips of lusty bacon and acerbic frisee.
Tzatziki-drenched pork, piquant onions and crumbled feta are piled high in a gourmet gyro (chef Chittum: Please adopt the more is more philosophy and load the crunchy, seasoned fries into the pita for a pork and potatoes party).
A citrusy closer pressed candied fruits into frothy mascarpone enveloped by ricotta pound cake.
Trummer’s on Main
[$$$] Food: 8.7 / Ambience: 8.5 / Service: 8.4
7134 Main St., Clifton; 703-266-1623; www.trummersonmain.com.
Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Amazing breads, vanilla bean butter
Lows: Cluttered entrees
Share: XO taste popcorn
Savor: Duck confit-oyster hash
“There is always something going on in our food. That’s what makes it good,” our folksy-to-a-fault waitress quipped during a trek through Trummer’s culinary terrain.
Pardon the arrogance, madam, but I firmly believe chefs Clayton Miller (savory) and Chris Ford (pastry) deserve a little more of a build-up than your canned response.
Owner Stefan Trummer and sommelier Tyler Packwood do a much better job of chatting up their nationally recognized culinary tacticians—right down to spot-on recommendations about how best to wash down each whimsical bite.
Goat cheese ravioli topped with ravishing raw salmon and sprinkled with smoked, dried and cured tuna (winsomely grated over the dish for the grand finale) was thrilling.
Pickled watermelon and tempura mushrooms add sass to miso-soaked sea bass.
Coarse grains, plump raisins and chocolaty chips woven together by sticky maple syrup and foamy milk froth permanently ruined commercial granola bars.
Highs: Amazing breads, vanilla bean butter Lows: Cluttered entrees Share: XO taste popcorn Savor: Duck confit-oyster hash
L’Auberge Chez Francois
[$$$$] Food: 8.7 / Ambience: 8.3 / Service: 8.6
332 Springvale Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3800; www.laubergechezfrancois.com.
Open for lunch, dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Highs: Wild game extravaganzas
Lows: Meals marred by pesticide-lugging groundskeepers
Share: Kougelhopf dessert
Though the restaurant’s namesake and founder, Francois Haeringer, passed earlier this year, no one need fear any radical realignment at L’Auberge Chez Francois.
Presiding chef Jacques Haeringer has spent decades fostering the family’s Alsatian cooking traditions, and sees no reason to deviate from their culinary legacy now.
And while regulars will no doubt miss seeing the elder Haeringer emerge from the kitchen for a mid-meal visit, the departure has clearly not dampened the spirits of those who still come to celebrate life.
“Thank you for this special day,” one birthday girl gushed while toasting with friends—continuing my five-year-long streak of observing at least one occasion-marking exchange each time I visit.
Hickory-smoked bacon and caramelized onions add fat and sizzle to profoundly creamy calves liver (masterful).
Chicken awash in Riesling and herbs rests comfortably within a nest of golden egg noodles.
The Grille at Morrison House
[$$$$] Food: 8.7 / Ambience: 8.3 / Service: 8.3
116 S. Alfred St., Alexandria; 703-838-8000; www.morrisonhouse.com.
Open for breakfast Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Curious fruit leathers
Lows: Waiting almost an hour for one entree
Share: Warm beignets
Savor: Fish specials
I’m not one for karaoke.
But the weekly crooning fest hosted by the Grille at Morrison House is my kinda fun.
The reserved but relaxing lounge attracts all kinds, from traveling salesman actively bending the elbow while debating the subtext of the seminal anti-drinking flick “Harvey” to perhaps the most music literate karaoke singers of all time.
One white-haired gent belted out a haunting version of the original “Behind the Sea”—in its native French—that had the entire room swooning.
Then again, maybe it was the food.
Slivered Vidalia onions, egg and honey mustard form the heart of an ambrosial pie.
Duck hearts speared with fresh rosemary headline a game dish replete with foie gras-infused tapioca and winey chasseur sauce (excellent shallots).
A gourmet PB&J bears grape gelee and freshly ground peanuts pressed between fried brioche, with toasted marshmallow waiting in the wings.
[$$$] Food: 8.5 / Ambience: 8.3 / Service: 8.2
4009 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax; 703-691-4747; www.villamozartrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Highs: Ricotta-black olive cone
Lows: Spotty beverage service
Share: Grand Marnier-spiked chocolate polenta
Savor: Anything with wild boar
A fast favorite of the legal professionals and academia that traffic about Fairfax—I spent one evening listening to a doddering professor lecture his tablemates about the mythological succession that ultimately birthed Avatar—Villa Mozart continues to court those curious about Northern Italian cuisine.
Chef/owner Andrea Pace eschews culinary orthodoxy in favor of alimentary extremes, be they buttery, baked tilefish tethered to amaroidal asparagus or bittersweet chocolate noodles coated in brawny wild game ragout superseded by dazzling spearmint.
A paean to Italian dairy features ricotta and burratta bundled with caramelized leeks in flaky dough, while a quivering mound of dewy mozzarella is emboldened by hot pepper-spiked extra virgin olive oil and crushed pistachios.
Sautéed-till-glassy zucchini moistens a salad of peppery greens, crumbled sausage, stewed chickpeas and saliferous goat cheese.
Feathery homemade gnocchi are grounded by a stirring puttanesca executed with anchovies, capers and black olives.
[$$$] Food: 8.2 / Ambience: 8.4 / Service: 8.3
11960 Democracy Drive, Reston; 703-230-3474; www.passionfishreston.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
Highs: Sake flights
Lows: Absent-minded servers
Share: Seafood gumbo
Savor: Grilled octopus
“If word got out that you left here with even a little bit of room, I’d get in so much trouble,” the devilish PassionFish waitress joked as she delivered a deathblow nibble of nut-packed fudge.
Allow me: Local food hack killed by kindness. Nary a tear shed.
Customer service is clearly a top priority here. Nobody bats an eyelash when guests stroll in wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops (cowabunga, sir). Hell, they even dispense quickie cures sans outrageous co-pays (bartender came to my rescue with an angostura bitters potion when indigestion threatened to derail one visit).
A sea of celery, tomatoes, onion and zesty crawfish besiege a tower of long-grain rice.
Butter-brushed crab meat adorns a deepfried compatriot nestled in golden corn and okra relish.
Mousse-like capuccino cream adds insta-pep to winsome doughnut holes.
[$$$] Food: 8.2/ Ambience: 8.2 / Service: 8.3
11 N. King St., Leesburg; 703-771-2233; www.lightfootrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Sriracha-spiked dishes
Lows: Having to walk next door for whoopie pies
Share: Po’boy salad
Savor: Crab bisque
I hadn’t even finished unwrapping my silverware when I felt the gentlest of taps.
“My wife just had to know what you ordered. It just looks beautiful,” the kindly older gentleman inquired, leaving us both to admire the conversation-starting entrée Lightfoot staff had just seconds before delivered to my table.
Chef/owner Ingrid Gustavson favors comfort foods (fish tacos, revolving grilled cheese offerings), but is unafraid to explore Asian influences (rotating pad Thai specials).
Buttery biscuits and hand-carved country ham—prepared bi-weekly, much to the chagrin of calorie-conscious severs (“I just want to grab it off the bone,” one tortured soul confessed—groove with maple-mustard (mostly sweet, but also a hair spicy).
Syrup-drenched French toast redefines sweet courtesy of shaved white chocolate, blackberry-butter sauce and roast marshmallows (have mercy).
A river of chorizo oil-stained egg and melted cheddar flows through a fabulous asparagus-packed frittata.
Goodstone Inn & Estate
[$$$$] Food: 8.2 / Ambience: 8.3 / Service: 8.1
36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg; 540-687-4645; www.goodstone.com.
Open for dinner Wednesday through Monday, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Peppery, cured salmon
Lows: Played beet salad
Share: Rustic cheese boards
Savor: Wild game
The space looks largely the same—dozen or so tables overlooking a sylvan scene from their lodge-like perch—as it did during previous visits.
But once I crack the menu, it’s clear the Goodstone kitchen now serves a new master.
Though he abides by the same farm-to-table doctrine embraced by many of his Best Restaurants peers, executive chef William Walden remains wedded to the classic French cuisine that’s defined his culinary career.
So while produce and proteins may come from the Goodstone grounds, they’ll only reach your table after Walden has transported them to Provence, Alsace or Burgundy.
An engaging tart gurgles molten Gruyere and caramelized onion from every puff pastry-wrapped seam.
Chive butter and caper-studded mustard work their magic on crab-stuffed salmon.
Succulent vegetables and fruit (extra-tart pineapple) soak up a massaman-style curry sweetened by coconut milk but inflamed by spice.
[$$] Food: 8.6 / Ambience: 8.1 / Service: 7.9
8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church; 703-372-5161; www.seapearlrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, late-night dining Friday and Saturday, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Highs: Globe-trotting small plates
Lows: Long waits during happy hour
Share: Grilled fish ribs
Savor: Szechuan filet mignon
Marine life amplified by Asian-American accents clearly remains Sea Pearl’s forte.
But chef Sly Liao appears to be having great fun experimenting with farm dwellers as well these days.
Staff—including Liao’s gracious wife and partner, Ly Lai—make it easy to settle in courtesy of their warm smiles, cool drinks and encyclopedic knowledge of Liao’s culinary savvy. One server’s animated synopsis of the menu was as intoxicating as a poetry slam cribbed from “Larousse Gastronomique.”
A “salad” of chicken Paillard summoned thinly pounded bird, fried in a crunch-magnifying blend of panko and pulverized Italian buckwheat, escorted by arugula, asparagus, red onions and grape tomatoes.
Seared foie gras couldn’t save an overpriced banh mi mash up (buttery liver was good; anchoring shaved ham, less so), but found a formidable ally in the mightily dressed Akaushi burger (Wagyu by way of Texas).
[$$$] Food: 8.3 / Ambience: 8.2 / Service: 8.0
4301 Fairfax Drive, Ballston; 703-465-8800; www.willowva.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Highs: Outstanding cheeses
Lows: Inexplicably long pauses between courses
Share: Drunken duck flatbread
Savor: Chocolate-peanut butter candy bar
My server, obviously assuming that my thousand-yard stare meant I was clueless about what to order, leaned in and shared a little secret. He suggested that chef/owner Tracy O’Grady’s burgers are so outstanding—homemade sauces, gourmet toppings—he deliberately limits himself to only one per week “so when I do eat it, it’s something special.”
You, sir, were not lying.
One monstrous double stack reveals twin patties of hickory-smoked beef gripping caramelized onions, sautéed trumpet mushrooms and melted havarti. A tamarind steak sauce (awesome stuff) rides shotgun.
Seared day boat scallops (buttery yet sweet specimens) are cradled in a nest of fried potato twists, while streams of creamed salsify (mesmerizing), truffles (inky black turned to culinary gold) and butter (rich to the core) flow beneath.
Supremely fluffy chocolate layer cake—“It’s not even sweet. It’s smooth,” one companion (a career chocoholic) decreed—is slathered in hypnotic hazelnut frosting.
[$$$] Food: 8.4 / Ambience: 8.0 / Service: 8.0
219 E. Davis St., Culpeper; 540-829-8400; www.fotisrestaurant.com.
Open for lunch, dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
Highs: Pesto mussels
Lows: “Half an hour for two bites?”
Share: Sumptuous pots de creme
Savor: Fried egg sandwich
Foti’s is so welcoming, one fearless pair of passersby thought absolutely nothing of strolling right in from off the street in order to join the group of friends they noticed through the window for digestifs and a few shared desserts.
Scandal-free meal crashing? Someone alert the Salahis …
Had he been in the dining room at that particular moment, I’ve no doubt chef/proprietor Frank Maragos would have laughed off the impulsive intrusion—given the genial Greek’s propensity for visiting each table during slow nights to see if there’s any way he could personally increase your enjoyment of the evening.
Believe me, chef. You do plenty.
Pesto-brushed escargot (anointed in basil and ground walnuts) and unctuous pork belly float in a cloud of whipped turnips.
Smoked Andouille sausage and cayenne pepper push chicken paella into Cajun country.
Cooked-to-order steak (part of a new custom grill program) brings the beefiness, while potatoes and creamed spinach lock arms in a dynamite gratin.
The Liberty Tavern
[$$] Food: 8.3 / Ambience: 7.9 / Service: 8.0
3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-9360; www.thelibertytavern.com.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, late-night dining Monday through Saturday, brunch Sunday.
Highs: Bubbly bar maids
Lows: Generic, between-rush lounge bites
Share: Homemade ice cream sampler
Savor: Spaghetti Nero
“Let me know. I work for you,” one Liberty Tavern host unequivocally assured a befuddled guest.
Talk about putting the customer first.
The conviviality of the place is damn near infectious. What should/could become a mob scene—routinely two-deep at the bar during happy hour, brunch goers lounge like its their job on weekends—remains refreshingly serene thanks to: 1) hyper-vigilant servers and 2) chef Liam LaCivita’s hunger-taming skills.
Ear-shaped noodles are fleshed out with meltingly tender lamb, invigoratingly bitter dandelion greens, silky fried egg and aromatic herb sauce.
A picnic-style fried chicken platter summons golden brown bird pre-soaked in buttermilk and fried ‘til audibly crunchy. Plunge it into the accompanying sweet onion gravy for maximum effect.
Brown butter cake features head-turning hints of pistachio, beany vanilla ice cream and honey-thyme roasted apricots.