50 Best Restaurants 2012

Here’s our list for the most worthy meals in NoVA.

By Stefanie Gans / Photos by Jonathan Timmes / Illustrations by Matthew Hollister

Society Fair
The demo kitchen at Society Fair

To understand the restaurant landscape in a region as diverse as Northern Virginia is to appreciate the beauty of dichotomy.

Dinner in farm country possesses all the sophistication as a meal inside the Beltway and a restaurant in Arlington deliberately creates a farmhouse aesthetic.

Wherever the highway unfolds, food rules.

Restaurants on this list put forth dishes that are, of course, wonderful and in line with the tenets of modern dining: seasonal and ingredient-focused.

Value and atmosphere also contributed to rank. But it still came down to the food.

Here’s our list for the most worthy meals in NoVA.

Restaurant Eve
Modern American | $$$$
110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450; restauranteve.com

“I know this is a big bite, let it just melt in your mouth.”

It’s hard to watch someone else eat your pork belly. But something this extraordinary must be shared. Pretend it’s LeBron: There must be a witness.

Restaurant Eve’s dedication to perfection is palpable. Each plate dignified with just enough strips of black bass sashimi with a mathmatically corrrect diameter for a circle of chili emulsion.

Beef tartare becomes the essence of a roast beef sandwich with wisps of mustard and triangles of dark rye bread.

Lunch time rewards with elegance, as peppery meatballs meet polenta with personality: texturized and cheesy. Another dish, be it antelope hash or famed birthday cake, comes for a modest sum during the two-for-$15 special.

Eve will be the first time you see beauty in a turnip and will continue to win your reservation for that coveted night out.

Must Try: Pork belly


The New Garnish

Forks routinely ignore mini-bouquets of curly parsley, green and tasteless, occupying precious space on the clean, white plate. Microgreens—baby plants plucked just a week or two after germination—now adorn dishes. They are wispy and light, delicate and decidedly beautiful. The taste is vegetable-light. An unobtrusive, delightfully edible garnish.

Market Table Bistro
Curious Grape

Modern American | $$$
1120 King St., Alexandria; 703-684-9669; vermilionrestaurant.com

Gwyneth Paltrow once ordered yogurt for breakfast when she filmed a travel television show touring Spain. Mario Batali ordered (sous vide) eggs, like a normal human.

How miserable it must be to be thin for a living. To be forced to choose a milky, bland protein over soul-satisfying eggs.

Vermilion makes its own yogurt, a really beautiful sheep’s milk variety, laced with honey and topped with granola and fresh and dried fruits. This. This is better than eggs.

Like the swinging hips of Elvis, the tenderness with which the kitchen treats ingredients arises instinctually.

Slices of summer’s ripest peaches cling to a thin wrapper of tarese, a variation of pancetta. Burrata cheese adds creaminess, walnuts a crunch and arugula a bite, elevating straightforward components to luxury.

The way salmon is cooked here is a reminder of why the fish became popular in the first place: soft, light, soothing. The accompanying pale pink olive aioli, blended with anchovy, offsets the fish’s richness.

Late on a Tuesday night, guitar cases shuffle through the doors. Local musicians sit on bar stools and play softly as couples finish brûlées and wine at their neighborhood place.

Must Try: Soup and sandwich at lunch


The Ashby Inn & Restaurant
Modern American | $$$$
692 Federal St., Paris; 540-592-3900; ashbyinn.com

The two-minute walk from the parking lot to the darling house-like restaurant is the only effort you’ll expound on your leisurely meal in Paris. Surrounded by greenery, bright flowers, rolling hills and tall trees, a calm and nutruring waitstaff brings your attention back to the menu.

Yellow cherry tomatoes, rolling around in a baby-sized cast iron pan, turns Asian with a dusting of salt flakes and green tea power.

Lunch transforms pig’s trotters (feet), into a meltingly delicious fried sandwich that manages to feel fancy, even with a messy fried egg glowing with yolk.

A pale pink soup tastes more like watermelon than the watery fruit itself, and wows with its subtlety.

It’s a reminder that the best ingredients shine without a fuss.

Must try: Fried pig trotter sandwich


Modern Mediterranean | $$$
2941 Farview Park Drive, Falls Church; 703-270-1500; 2941.com

At the beginning of this year, 2941 transformed from a special occasions French prix fixe to a more casual, French and Mediterranean restaurant. It’s rebirth should be commended.

An eggplant morphs into something so supple and rich, you might swear off pork belly.

Even though a lobster bisque lacks any flesh, the crustacean can be tasted throughout a light broth that manages to feel creamy too.

Gnocchi takes on the consistency of delicate, whipped mashed potatoes.

Custard is probably not the right venue for spinach, but the exploit is worthy in the attempt.

What you’ll find on the plate is almost always beautiful.

Must try: Gnocchi


Pan Seared Maine Scallops in Pesto Broth from Brabo
Pan Seared Maine Scallops in Pesto Broth from Brabo

Modern American | $$$
1600 King St., Alexandria; 703-894-3440; braborestaurant.com

Valentine’s Day unfolds in late summer as cubes of pink tuna and magenta beets fit together Tetris-style. The dish is one of many on Brabo’s rotating tasting menu, a concept previously reserved for holidays but now offered nightly.

Zucchini blossoms, almost always stuffed with cheese and fried, go rogue melting into burrata-blessed saucy pasta. Swordfish cooks up so meaty it’s a wonder it comes from the sea and an olive emulsion coats the bottom of its plate, rivaling hummus’ creamy-factor.

Slit horizontally, thin scallops buoy in a salty, airy broth radiating the nuttiness of Parmesan.

Sit at the bar: the Sarah Burelis-look alike will treat you gently.

Must try: Scallops in Parmesan broth


Maple Ave
Modern American | $$
147 Maple Ave. W, Vienna; 703-319-2177; mapleaverestaurant.com

The doctrine of today’s urban kitchens managed to zip around the Beltway, 30 miles out and around and into a humble space on Vienna’s main strip.

The menu can stay grounded in classics, like a baked mac and cheese, but finesses the outcome with nutty (Gruyere) and sharp (cheddar) cheeses with longer, funkier, twisting noodles and salty panko crumbs that tear into the creaminess below.

Firey, little wings (this is what a chicken wing looks like without growth hormones, by the way) bathe in creme fraiche and chili paste for a bar snack that belongs nowhere near unappreciative drunkards.

Larger plates can offer delicately spiced scallops with an overlay of barely wilted peashoots or a leg of lamb, inspired by Morocco, that arrives deboned for eating ease.

A tangy yuzu (Asian citrus) key lime pie-in-a-round delights with singed housemade mini-marshmallows.

The room is tight—with an even more snug parking lot around back—and provides little atmosphere, but Vienna is better for the arrival of this scrappy mom-and-pop shop with an eye toward honesty and ingenuity.

Must try: Crème fraiche wings


Baby artichokes with bread crumbs from the Curious Grape

The Curious Grape
Modern American | $$
2900 S. Quincy St., Alexandria; 703-671-8700; curiousgrape.com

The Curious Grape reopened around the block from its previous address and turned from a wine shop into one of the best restaurants in Northern Virginia. You wouldn’t know it walking in: to the left is a mini-wine store. To the right, a circular dairy case doubles as the bar. Further to the right, bare tables scatter near the tall windows and into a separate back room that sometimes holds wine classes and tastings.

The vibe is anything but intimate; it frankly lacks personality. But the kitchen punches out plates with zeal.

Salt-crusted empanadas, filled with braised pork, become gourmet after a dip in a house-made pumpkin seed and multi-chile salsa, twisted with creme fraiche. Creamy buffalo mozzarella contrasts with clean tasting sardine slivers, in a dish that also combines tempura fried basil and zucchini flowers. The outrageous mix-and-match flavors continue with a minty Vietnamese penne pasta. A steak cuts like mousse, chewy black rice bathes in a plum beurre blanc for an earthy, sweet tango and a spiced roasted chicken sports the crisp skin of its fried cousin.

Most plates are available in full or half portions, with the latter generous enough for a meal. The waitstaff is sweet, quick with wine knowledge and happy to serve you.

Must try: Artichokes with bread crumbs


Lyon Hall
Euro Beer Bistro | $$$
3100 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-741-7636; lyonhallarlington.com

You really just want to be here.

The bar is always packed, but not with pushy people waving twenties at annoyed bartenders. It’s three late-twenty-somethings, sipping wine and snacking on mussels and fries, or a couple in their 40s, sampling the house-made charcuterie and cheese and sipping a flight of Euro-import brews.

It’s chatty, friendly. It feels well, kind of what you’d expect Rosario Dawson to be like: effortlessly charming, laid-back, chill. Cool.

The food mirrors the mood: soft gnudi, with a delicate cheesiness, and crisp, sliced fava beans. A well-thought out market salad with wide swaths of almost transparent carrot, strips of fennel balanced by the zing of radicchio.

Hot dogs that would make a stadium’s version blush, come mini-sized, but still produce meaty bites.

The menu is mostly smaller plates, but entrees gain respect. Somehow a hammered-to-pancake-thin pork schnitzel remains juicy.

Start and end your meal with a beer. One of the handsome bartenders will talk you into trying something on special that night. He’ll flip his hair, push his big, dark, round glasses up his nose. You will fawn. And order.

Must try: Short-rib hot dog



The Curious Grape

Evening Star

Ford’s Fish Shack



Green Pig Bistro

Magnolias at the Mill

Mala Tang


Pizzeria Orso

Poppy Hill


Ray’s 3

Rice Paper

Society Fair




The Bavarian Chef

Bazin’s On Church




Evo Bistro

Fire Works


The Grille At Morrison House

Lebanese Taverna

Liberty Tavern




Ray’s the Steaks

Villa Mozart

Greek | $$$
8100 Boone Blvd., Vienna; 703-760-0690; nostosrestaurant.com

My dad and I often discuss why restaurants charge more for a whole fish the kitchen barely touches verse a filet a chef must manipulate.

Shouldn’t more kitchen work reflect in the price?

At $31 for a whole Bronzino, baked and served with a side of unfussy broccoli and cauliflower, Nostos continues to prove the seeming contradiction.

When the whole fish arrives, crisp with blackened skin contrasting against the pliable whiteness of meaty flesh, dollar signs disappear. This is the kind of simple dish only a sea-dwelling nation can deliver.

Smaller plates create similar pleasures. Meatballs find more in common with a burger, and are better for it. Fried zucchini stays moist under a kiss of batter. Store-bought phyllo dough tastes like tissue paper after sampling a true version of spanakopita.

The space is white walls and black and white photos of the famous touring Greece. Today’s famous come to Nostos: Hi Newt!

Must try: Bronzino


La Bergerie
French | $$$$
218 N. Lee St., Alexandria; 703-683-1007; labergerie.com

“Excuse me, I’m having an out of body experience right now,” the curly haired woman shouted in the almost empty, dim dining room of La Bergerie one Friday night.

She exclaimed this after spooning a simultaneously light and rich bite of soufflé into her mouth.

We were still finishing a well performing, pink-hued tenderloin and lapping up the bucket-o-béarnaise sauce (but avoiding the uncared for side of sautéed spinach).

It was hard to focus on the meat, or even the—yes, spring for it—Dover sole, tender as freshly washed Jersey sheets, as the woman cheered for her chocolatey enjoyment.

We, too, found joy later, but not from the fussy baked dessert.

Instead, a waiter in black tie buttered and warmed crepes suzette for us, tableside. Soft, sweet, tinge of citrus, a way for flat circles of flour to showcase the beauty of butter.

La Bergerie has been the spot for decadence for decades. The room can feel dated, the service at times, stuffy (in that unparralleled French vein), but the food remains a romantic treat, if at times, other worldly.

Must try: Crepes suzette


Farrah Olivia
Modern American | $$$
2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-445-6571; farraholiviarestaurant.com

Tortellinis blossom into flowers, with petals of artfully constructed dough surrounding a center plumped with peas and goat cheese, heightened with mint. The barely dressed pasta, with a scattering of pine nuts, lets the handcrafted edible flora perform.

A sweetened parsnip, cauliflower and Parmesan flan feeds like dessert, but dabbed with a spicy dried shrimp and tomato paste, and topped wth Sriracha—scientifically morphed into salmon roe-like spheres—moves the dish to the dinner column. (Minus one point for springy asparagus spears next to autumnal vegetables.)

The drab room (more suited for a corporate conference than an inventive meal) diverts from sparks on the plate, but when the kitchen is on, Farrah Olivia borders on stunning.

Must try: Tandoori spiced salmon


Modern American | $$$
2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-5051; tallularestaurant.com

Talulla welcomed a new chef this summer and Nate Waugaman maintains this neighborhood gem just off Frat Row in Arlington.

The kitchen keeps a hearty lamb ragout light, but still indulgent, with smooth and soft house-made fettuccine, weaving through chunks of tender lamb that elevate the dish with its distinct flavor of meatiness.

Scallops bring together classic Italian flavors of pig (bacon) and fruit (melon) for a summery meal.

Waugaman pulls double duty at the adjoining EatBar and offers gourmet snacking—bacon popcorn balls and a scrapple hash—at dive bar prices. Waiting for a table never tasted better.

Must try: Lamb ragout with fettuccine


Hanger Steak, cabernet shallot reduction & pommes frites
Hanger Steak, cabernet shallot reduction & pommes frites

French Bistro | $$$
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria; 703-519-3776; bastillerestaurant.com

Bastille recently celebrated its sixth anniversary by returning the menu to its rustic French roots. The bistro classic of steak and fries (always a solid option) will stay. On Sundays, a mandatory three-course prix fixe for an easy $29, can start with deeply flavorful cream of onion soup that vanquishes thoughts of the more pedestrian French onion soup.

A grilled salmon mimics smooth sushi on the inside and a charred steak on the outside, a feat that makes the ubiquitous fish feel special. Roast chicken remains juicy, though missing a dark, crisp skin. Dinner ends in a chocolate haze with a rich pot de crème, garnished with maple caramel walnuts that keep this traditional dessert interesting.

Must try: Cream of onion soup


The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm
Modern American | $$$
42461 Lovettsville Road, Lovettsville; 540-822-9017; patowmackfarm.com

“This is the first bread of the night,” a server says, placing a blackberry brown slice on my small plate. A ciabatta roll comes later, and is all I can dream about after the initial tease. Bread and butter is still the best part about dining out.

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm always feels dressed for a wedding with sweeping views, flower-filled pathways and a gazebo trimmed in twinkle lights. It’s so pretty that a middle-age couple takes turns snapping pictures of each other around the property.

The kitchen takes cues from nature. A potato gnocchi in a broth reared from smoked potato skins tastes like a campfire cocktail, in the best way possible.

Lightly seared scallops melt into a mushroom puree that mixes on the plate with meaty osso bucco jus. Puffed rice, yellow from saffron threads, bring a pop of texture to the indulgent dish, served as a lunch entree.

One night foam landed on every plate, an unwelcome throwback to 2007. But the menu aims high—most times it works—and the eagerness to wow is worth the drive to this tiny spot, on a hill, off a windy country road.

Must try: Smoked potato soup


The New Signature

You will never find this item on the menu ever again. Ever. This smoked tomato soup, this roasted acorn squash taco. Enjoy it this week. It will be gone the next. Menus now rotate so frequently that 10-page, laminated, mini-books only exist in museums.

Patowmack Farm

The Majestic
Modern american | $$$
911 King St. Alexandria; 703-837-9117; majesticcafe.com

The floor at The Majestic looks like Formica. The seats, like diner booths. And the menu lists meatloaf, liver and onions and lasagna.

Then there’s an elegant soft shell crab with a tangle of peashoots. And a corn soup, excuse me, velouté, bursting with summer sunshine and cooled with creme fraiche. Coldplay, U2 and Men at Work (“I come from a land down under”) play in the background.

The Majestic slides between neighborhood go-to, historic landmark (orginally founded in 1932 before the Restaurant Eve team took over in 2007) and Hollywood hot spot (OK, not really, but Robert Pattinson swung by during the White House Correspondents’ dinner weekend).

One night The Majestic can blacken a local catfish with aplomb and another night can barely pep it up with an Asian-leaning vinegary sauce. But the eclectic offerings, especially the contrasting of Americana and America-now, keep The Majestic humming.

Must try: Soft shell crabs


Evening Star Cafe
New Southern | $$$
2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051; eveningstarcafe.net

The bright yellow walls, funkified with what looks like total scores from the flea market, bring a stylized, low-key charm to the remodeled Evening Star Cafe.

A Southern-bred chef with a gourmet flair lets a solid plate of fried chicken stand true to its origins (red eye gravy, collards) but takes a strange and worthy path where sausage turns into a filling for tubes of calamari, floating in a kombu seaweed broth.

Watermelon mingles with cucumber and cilantro for a surprisingly savory side dish.

The beer remains straightforward: a rotating list of the coolest craft brews, as well as some from the restaurant group’s own brewery, Bluejacket.

Must try: Fried chicken


Pizzeria Orso
Modern american | $$
400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church; 703-226-3460; pizzeriaorso.com

There’s the beefy Parmesan broth, gaining heft from mushrooms, and floating around pasta pillows of fava beans for a winter-turns-spring dish.

Gnocchi nestles with a smoky (a la bacon) cream sauce. Giant meatballs sink into the rich polenta below. There’s also fried Brussels sprouts (goodbye kale chips), a Bolognese poutine with a poached egg and roasted pumpkin agnolotti. This, by the way, is the menu at a pizza place.

Pizzeria Orso, of course, also offers pizza that is consistently good, and sometimes great, especially the self-titled round with fives cheeses and long strips of prosciutto on a chewy, char-pocked crust.

Following today’s rules, the menu changes frequently. With every new moon, it gets better.

Must try: Meatballs and polenta


John Dory Filet with local tomatoes

Italian | $$$
4244 Loudoun Ave., The Plains; 540-253-5501; girasole-panino.com

Almost a third of the menu at Girasole is specials. Listen (there’s no print out) because this should guide ordering decisions.

Pudding-smooth butternut squash fills house-made ravioli in a light cream sauce. Oyster mushrooms with silky pappardelle noodles come barely dressed, showing off the ingredients and real deal Parmesan sprinkled atop.

Smoked Virginia trout, a menu staple, lays on the plate bare, with just diced raw onion, capers and a bit of horseradish sauce. The slab of all that fish is a little unnerving, but its slyly sweet and abundantly smoky.

The Plains might feel like a schlep to some. Girasole’s sister restaurant Panino lives in a Manassas strip mall and offers a very similar base menu with equally large and enticing specials: farm fresh tomato salad nicoise and buttery scallops over angel hair in a brothy sauce.

At both restaurants, a boozy, moist amaretto hazelnut cream cake trumps an odd mousse version of tiramisu.

Must try: Butternut squash ravioli


Market Table Bistro
Modern American | $$$
13 E. Broad Way, Lovettsville; 540-822-3008; markettablebistro.com

“I’ve only had three tables too,” says the server here, who must have only been allowed into a casino last year, but can expertly explain the maple syrup gastrique glossing the plate with slices of Hudson Valley duck, on the already sold-out special. The plate comes flushed with rosy meat (at times too chewy), fanning across a well-executed butternut squash risotto, which bends more sweet than cheesey, due to the aforementioned syrup.

The kitchen shows noteworthy ambition in this pocket of farm country. Tomato season brought a quadruple take on the season’s prize: a spot-on gazpacho, a hard-to-eat stack of mozzarella and tomato slices spotted with balsamic spheres posing as caviar, peeled cherry tomatoes graced with citrus—and a green tomato sorbet with Parmesan lace teetering overhead, that is savory, salty, cheesy and utterly magnetic.

The house-like restaurant, complete with backyard tables, and a roaming cat, feels like dinner at an inventive and culinarily minded friend’s home.

Must try: Green tomato sorbet


La Strada
Italian | $$
1905 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-548-2592; lastrada-ontheave.com

La Strada manages to up the bacon-on-everything status quo with a dreamy chocolate fettuccine licked in a creamy sauce, punctuated with pancetta. The chocolate is not overt, but the piggy is, which makes this a proper dinner and not dessert.

Another homemade fettuccine—fettuccine a la limone—brightens a summer day with a serious bang of sour lemon juice. Heavily peppered mascarpone cuts through tartness and brings a lusciousness to the dish. The noodles have bite, and sport chainsaw edges, a nod to its homey quality.

The long, narrow room, and decidedly Italian waitstaff, bring a cozy, Italian feel to the downtown strip of Del Ray.

Must try: Chocolate fettuccine


dish towels
The New Napkin
Dish Towels

If today’s chefs are rockstars than farmers are royalty. Restaurants eschew tablecloths and stuffy service, and instead create experiences linked to the land. Farmhouse chic is a thing. Rustic is a way of life. And ironing a bleached napkin is a waste of resources. Roll silverware in a dishcloth, one with faded red stripes.

Green Pig Bistro
The Wine Kitchen

Green Pig Bistro
Modern American | $$$
1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington; 703-888-1920; greenpigbistro.com

The current omnipresent pork trend is staying. Thank Green Pig Bistro’s pig ear tacos. Crunchy strips of ear, mixed with additional, softer pig parts, combine in a miniature-sized tortilla for the ideal way to start a night of adventurous dining.

Kung pao sweetbreads borrow from China with a sweet and savory sauce, but greet the brave by exchanging chicken for lamb and veal innards.

Canada influences a spin on poutine fries, but Green Pig shows American pride by switching in Oregon’s Tillamook cheddar for the norm cheese curds and adding duck liver to a rich gravy for the this potato-as-meal side.

Theatrics play a role here and can therefore suffocate what could be better by being simpler. But the ambition is duly noted, and doubly appreciated.

Must try: Pig tacos


Trummer’s On Main
Modern American | $$$
7134 Main St., Clifton; 703-266-1623; trummersonmain.com

How is a cucumber salad worth six dollars? Because it is so damn pretty.

Chunks of cucumbers, more like artful rods, stack on top of each other in a tall glass usually reserved for a Tom Collins. Miso and black sesame seeds dress the vegetable and all of a sudden this mostly tasteless sliver of light green becomes a meal remembered.

Trummer’s takes much care on appearances. Sometimes too much. Foams appear too often and maybe bay leaves should not be turned into a sugary crumble coating for an oversized, and underseasoned, glazed pork shoulder.

But more is beautiful: pink steak sits on a soft and crusty loaf, boosted with béarnaise mayo.

Liquid nitrogen aides a raw egg yolk into the middle of a ravioli that also doubles as the sauce for an elegant, nighttime play on breakfast.

Must try: Steak sandwich


Goodstone Inn & Restaurant
Modern American | $$$$
36205 Snake Hill Road, Middleburg; 540-687-333; goodstone.com

Yes, there will be a $55 entree at Goodstone Inn and you will wonder how a crabcake that costs more than a bus ride to Brooklyn will taste.

You will think about how much you last spent on a bushel of crabs this summer, and how $55 could feed your entire family.

But you’ve trekked out to Middleburg, little America with big wallets. You will feel proud to finally get some off-roading in on that SUV as gravel roads, lined with lambs and llamas, lead you to the top of the working farm. To a room fit for less than 15 tables.

Order the crab, a certified True Blue, a new term from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, denoting the creature’s origins. It’s as big as a potpie with none of the filler. Pure, tender chunks of creamed meat, mounded on the center of the plate. Sweet purple carrots fill the perimeter.

Not all dishes compare. A beef Penang with local peanuts tastes no better than Thai take-out.

The ingredients are honest. The presentation is old school. The price is outrageous. But a $55 crab is worth the bragging rights.

Must try: Crabcakes


The Wine Kitchen
Modern American | $$
7 S. King St., Leesburg; 703-777-9463; thewinekitchen.com

Instead of hooks, a wrough-iron coat hanger uses wine keys and other assorted old steel tools as a resting place for jackets.

A random knife sported a fish fin and tail. And the women’s bathroom is decorated with a painting of a window silhouette, with a sink below, and a glass of wine to the side, for cheeky dishwashing scene.

The details manifest on the plate too. An adorable quail, singed and smoky, releases South American flavors next to a bacon-enhanced chunky, creamy corn tucked into a tamale, split open like a baked potato. Balsamic vinegar stains pasta shells in inky, sticky black-brown. Bright goat cheese brings tang and a pop of color and pine nuts with diced lardon slip into the shells’ crevices.

Pound cake feels fresh after it’s fried, and somehow manages to stay moist; a feat for pound cakes in any situation.

Must try: Gnocchi caprese


Sea Pearl
Sea Pearl

Sea Pearl
Seafood | $$$
8191 Strawberry Lane, Suite 2, Falls Church; 703-372-5161; seapearlrestaurant.com

Seriously, how does it work? Sea Pearl continues to amaze with its star dish of fish ribs. What is normally delicate fish meat amps up with a lacquer of thick, salty, sweet, smoky and soulful sauce. Just like ribs.

A crab Louie calls to California Ladies Who Lunch with a component compilated salad of a half avocado with shrimp, boiled asparagus (bland, out of season—tisk, tisk) and hard boiled eggs (with gray centers—tisk, tisk.) But the sauce sings with heat, asking for a few more sips of wine.

A baked Alaskan cod emits steam at the table, and once cooled, turns into an elegant display of flaky, well-cooked white fish. A side of spatzle surprises with a smokiness, accented with lemon on top of simple wilted spinach. A beautiful dish matching a serene setting of floating iridescent discs hung throughout the expansive space.

Must try: Fish ribs


The Alpine flatbread
The Alpine flatbread

Modern American | $$$
4301 N. Fairfax Drive, Arlington; 703-465-8800; willowva.com

Willow’s mascot is a cross between Venus and a royal monarch, a dated, but classy woman, and her aura is replicated with beauty and restrain from the kitchen.

Flatbreads, a signature item here, don’t disappoint, even when calamari meets fontina, breaking the no-fish-and-cheese rule.

An adorable pot pie, fitted with its own cap, stores mushrooms, carrots and peas in such a smooth sweet potato puree, it feels like a sauce.

Meat-free dining is usually available and is given as much thought as its fleshy menu companions, with a vibrant carrot sauce and springy asparagus proving its rein.

End the meal sweetly because desserts are treated seriously here with in-house pastry chef Kate Jansen showing up Resses’ with a peanut butter and chocolate tart sitting in a hard chocolate shell topped with sauces of vanilla and caramel and ending with a smile on your face.

Must try: Peanut butter and chocolate tart


Meat | $$
1650 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-974-7171; raystothethird.com

Just as financial professionals recommend consolidating finances under one institution, Michael Landrum of the Ray’s empire (Ray’s the Steaks, Ray’s Hell-burger) gathered his multiple meat-centric concepts and dropped them at 1650 Wilson Boulevard. Landrum’s flagship, Ray’s the Steaks, contributes to the menu with strips and filets, but here, offers a bonus discounted three-course option.

Well-seasoned sirloin and bland vegetable skewers are unique to this concept, and like most of the vegetables at Ray’s, don’t warrant the necessary attention from the kitchen.

Fried to a dark crisp, chicken pays homage to Ray’s The Steaks at East River in Washington, D.C. Burgers are here too, and as flavor-bursting as ever.

The newest cow-on-the-plate from Landrum, Nice ‘n’ Greasy, Steak ‘n’ Cheesy, also claims residence, and these proclaimed non-Philly-style hoagies still further the paradigm that messy and meaty is beautiful.

Must try: Steak tartare deviled eggs


American Beer Bistro | $$
Multiple NoVA locations; rusticorestaurant.com

The dreams of eating a raw burger are alive in Northern Virginia. Rustico—with outposts in Alexandria and Arlington—alleviates the possibility for over-cooking by serving its sliders raw. The steak tartare mixes with red onion and capers for a luscious few bites to start the night. To wit: Even the crust is cut off.

The pizza, however, is inconsistent. Sometimes the dough takes Viagra, for a stiff, crisp eating experience and sometimes it suffers impotence, arriving soggy and limp.

A side of ultra creamy mac and cheese finds its matching top as ground salty pretzels skim the surface for bites that feel silky and snappy all at once. Also: Check out the bathroom, Gaudí would admire the mosaic work.

Must try: Pretzel-crusted mac and cheese


The New Dinner

Wild boar agnolotti, beets with goat cheese fondue, bacon deviled eggs. Small plates hoard the best ingredients, most inventive preparations and magnetic combinations. Spend time on the upper half of the menu. Make a meal of snacks, bites, sharing. And even at a pizza place, notice the brilliance of a starter: you might forget about that
circle of cheese.

Pizzeria Orso

Curry Mantra
Indian | $$
9984 Main St., Fairfax; 703-218-8128; dccurrymantra.com

You will learn that India is the world’s largest democracy, holds the world’s largest population of IT professionals and boasts the world’s largest film industry from one of the many patriotic signs around the deep red room.

You will also learn that okra finds a friend in simmered tomatoes, nuanced with heat. Mutton floats in a spicy cream.

A vegetable Thali lets you travel around the menu with one order, offering bits of a sour take on saag paneer, spicy chickpeas, sweet and vinegary softened eggplant and a slightly chewy dal makhani.

Must try: Jaipur Bhindi Masala


Korean Cajun | $$
20789 Great Falls Plaza, Unit 176, Sterling; 571-313-0505; mokomandy.com

A neighbor sat at the bar to order take-out, admitting he had no idea what to pick. He found two other middle-aged men on stools, and the three, plus the hottie, 30-something bartender formed a friendship.

She suggested he try the fried kale chips while waiting for his order. He repeated, head cocked, “C-o-a-l?”

“K-a-l-e, it’s a vegetable,” said the bartender, patiently.

“Never heard of it,” he said, taking a bite. “My wife would love this.”

The fusion of Korean and Cajun feels confusing on some plates, but has much potential for excitement.

While a few scallops retained a bit of grit, the flavors are there as a creamy mayo with slow, lingering heat snakes around the plate.

House-made noodles perhaps leave the boil too soon, but the array of mushrooms and balance of sesame, soy and sweet, find heat to play with. Still, this is Sterling, and its an original in a sea of chain restaurant options.

Must try: Fried kale chips


Sunday’s meal: sausage and Meatball Gravy; from poppy hill
Sunday’s meal: sausage and Meatball Gravy; from poppy hill

Poppy Hill
Italian | $$
1000 Charles St., Fredericksburg; 540-373-2035; ciaopoppyhill.com

The same man that will clear the dishes, freshen the table with clean lines and work the kitchen, will dangle at each table.

He’ll brag about his social worker daughter in the same breath as his Sunday gravy. Listen to him. The owner is proud for a reason.

A nonna’s touch floats throughout the week’s beginning meal in a homey pasta dinner: Tender meatballs sink into a rich sauce hosting chunks of sausage together with tagliatelle noodles.

A gamey boar sausage tastes of pungent anise, mixing in a red wine tinged tomato sauce that also hosts raisins for a complex, hearty dish.

Bare bones, house-made fettuccine is submerged in pitch-perfect Alfredo.

Must try: Fettuccine Alfredo


L’Auberge Chez Francois
French | $$$$
332 Springvale Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3800; laubergechezfrancois.com

Steak medallions, tender and aggressively seasoned with salt and pepper, take the right tone of meaty satisfaction, enhanced with a brown gravy.

Mussels, helpfully de-shelled, and delicately plated, glimmer in a garlicky butter sauce.

Vegetables do not receive the same luxe treatment, and honoring greens marks a great kitchen by today’s standards.

But, word has spread to Great Falls. The onsite garden is six times larger than it was last year—the restaurant’s biggest garden in its 50-plus years—and in the summer, satisfied all of its tomato needs.

Fall will bring cabbages, turnips, broccoli … and will hopefully invigorate innovation for earth’s treasures.

Must try: Mussels with garlic butter


Prawns mingling with White Beans & Poblano
Prawns mingling with White Beans & Poblano

Grandale Restaurant
Modern American | $$$
14001 Harpers Ferry Road, Neersville; 540-668-6000; grandalefarm.com

Cream elevates a wickedly good gazpacho, balancing the gritty tomato texture and for $4, it works.

Getting to Grandale requires some tire-on-gravel driving, but the green-covered mountains and the wispy and shiny textures growing from the land bring a real meaning to farm-to-table dining. Inside is snug; outside the 360-views make you feel small.

Ajada oil, flavored with garlic, paprika and vinegar, adds depth to softened white beans juggling prawns curled atop. Seared grouper steps aside to sugar snap peas, grown here, that live up to their sweet and biting name. Chard slathered in an intense blackberry sauce helps along roast chicken.

Must try: Gazpacho


Hank’s Oyster Bar
Seafood | $$$
1026 King St., Alexandria; 703-739-4265; hanksoysterbar.com

Some chefs can’t even pull off a simple scallop dish, but Hank’s Oyster Bar manages to maintain a buttery softness with its scallops, folded into a weekday (!) omelet, with equally cared for chunks of shrimp. Served diner-style with (Old Bay) fries on the side, the omelet is bare bones with only diced tomato and onion embedded in the eggs. The seafood shines.

Oysters come first here, obviously, and many of the bivalves don’t travel very far: Half of the oysters on a recent daily menu previously lived in the Commonwealth’s waters.

Hank’s can play dress-up too: Luxury is an $8 lobster bisque with generous chunks of the eponymous star, and a local rockfish wears a garlicky puttanesca that stars without overwelming the subtle fish.

The long, narrow space with bare wooden tables welcomes families and dates, and always neighbors.

Must try: Popcorn shrimp


Modern American | $$$
7920 Jones Branch Drive, McLean; 703-847-5000; hiltonmclean.com/harth

An orange sunset permanently glows from behind the magnificent bar, greeting guests at the entrance of McLean’s Hilton. Haphazardly arranged glowing sticks float above the bar, guiding your eye up to the ceiling, as visible elevators race to the top. You can almost imagine Jon Hamm hitting on a brunette; it’s ripe for a film set.

To the left is härth, where style sometimes trumps the kitchen’s efforts. View cocktail and wine options on an elaborate (search by region, vintage or grape) iPad app.

The start is lovely: salty, smooth butter or jerky-like homemade bacon jam for slathering on soft bread. Flatbreads are thin and crisp, pairing bitter broccolini with sweet fennel.

Fork-pierceable cubes of root vegetables feel springy in an herbal vinaigrette that turns coarse frisée into a limber green. Any fish is a good option.

Outside is Vegas: loungey couches, an on-demand fireplace, long and enclosed in glass, decorated with rocks. With a view of a parking lot.

Must try: Bacon jam with bread


Ford’s Fish Shack
Seafood | $$
44260 Ice Rink Plaza, Suite 101, Ashburn; 571-918-4092; fordsfishshack.com

If this wing didn’t have a tail, you might miss its fishy existence. In a clever move, Ford’s Fish Shack breads and fries an entire pucker fish, which coincidentally measures the size of a chicken wing, and sauces it Buffalo-style. Once the spine is removed with one slit of the knife and yank of the bone, the fish eats as easy and as a tender, but with a delicate, though still meaty bite. The accompanying root vegetable slaw doesn’t play the cooling partner, and instead wacks with a pickled punch.

Bits of cooked lobster fill in for ground beef in a play on nachos, as crispy and browned potato chips hold a tower of tomatoes, blue cheese and a snappy basil aioli.

A crabcake, barely bound together, holds steady in a mound with creamy remoulade sauce topped with loose, crunchy breadcrumbs.

Breakfast honors the campfire with a pungently smoky, and delicious, trout and eggs.

Must try: Crabcake Benedict


Society Fair
Modern American | $$$$
277 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-683 3247; societyfair.net

Society Fair is not a restaurant. It’s a bakery and a butcher, a cheese shop with desserts, a sandwich counter, a wine bar, and once a week, live theater.

Fridays at 7:30 p.m. John Wabeck doubles as chef and sommelier, wearing a mic and guiding guests through the preparation of a $75, three-course meal. (Other nights in the demo kitchen are reserved for private parties, but “petite entrees” are always offered in the seating area.)

Twelve can sit around a curved bar, sipping Todd Thrasher-approved cocktails or wines (optional $50 pairing) and are greeted with mixed olives (including the divine Castelvetrano), fresh bread and Kerrygold butter.

The rest of the menu varies not just by the season, but by the week, allowing for last minute substitutions depending on what farmers bring in.

There’s a bit of “television magic” as some prepping of the meal happens in front of guests and pre-made version suddenly appear (tortilla espanola), although some dishes are made a la minute (monkfish over lentils). But it’s always a show.

Must try: Friday night surprise


Tuscarora Mill
American | $$$
203 Harrison St., Leesburg; 703-771-9300; tuskies.com

Cave to your instincts. No knife. No fork. Just use your fingers to dip medium-rare chunks of beef into a truffled bowl of blue cheese. It’s both an elegant and primal fondue.

Tuscarora Mill fills lots of roles: date night, family dinner, bar snacking. It’s all solid, especially finding a version of eggs Benedict on the menu midweek. Slapped with an “O” and an apostrophe, the dish uses Irish-style bacon that’s smoky, salty and thinner (in a good way) than its Canadian counterpart.

A smoked chicken pasta dish is light on the smoke, and heavy on the cream sauce, but remains a crowd pleaser with sweet caramelized onions and rich dots of pancetta.

The handsome dark wood and old-school pulley system dropped from the ceiling, cloaks the room with comfort and sophistication.

Must try: Eggs O’Benedict


Lotus salad
Lotus salad

Rice Paper
Vietnamese | $$
6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-538-3888; ricepaper-tasteofvietnam.com

The white, mod chairs look lifted from the set of Mad Men. Rice Paper’s entire space feels both ‘60s spacey and perfectly current (just like the AMC show).

Exposed bulbs drop from the chrome tin ceiling. Bold, yellow-printed wallpaper lines one wall, decked with mirrors, facing exposed brick. To find out that this is a Vietnamese restaurant in Eden Center feels like Don Draper exposed his secret identity.

Rice Paper has its fans too. Lunch crowds on a Tuesday packed the tiny dining room.

Tofu here resembles a silky underdone quiche instead of how the soybean normally appears as awkwardly crumbly.

Quail dons a crisp skin, making a play for its cousin’s wing appeal. Ground prawn hugs a sugar cane for barely sweet meat that can be wrapped inside a weave of Vermicelli noodle patties.

Whether you need the energy or not, take a straw to Vietnamese iced coffee, a revelation in the richness of caffeine.

Must try: Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk


Shrimp in garlic from Jaleo
Shrimp in garlic from Jaleo

Spanish | $$
2250-A Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-413-8181; jaleo.com

The Macaroni Grill hijacked tapas. Mac and cheese bites served with truffle dip is not a tapa, although that’s how the American-Italian chain markets the snack. Tapas used to mean a specific idea of Spanish small plates and Jaleo is a stronghold, keeping plates fiercely loyal to its Spaniard upbringing.

Bits of tuna melt into mayonnaise for a lunchtime dollop, filled with softened potatoes, carrots and springy peas. A white bean salad reflects tang from briny olives.

Most impressive is the sourcing. Pay the premium for the purest pigs on the planet: jamon de Ibérico. The black- footed pigs run wild in Spain, eating acorns, and therefore taste delicate, salty and earthy. It’s an exquisite piece of meat, eaten with tomato-smushed bread and little else.

Bold reds and yellows bounce around the expansive space, making the vibe continually party-esque, especially when catching a Spanish fútbl.

Must try: Jamón Ibérico de bellota Fermin


Magnolias at the Mill
American | $$$
198 N. 21st St., Purcellville; 540-338-9800; magnoliasmill.com

The restaurant may be housed in a former mill decades old, but the food here is still relevant, including a beer list ripe with choices both local and national.

Irish nachos appeared around St. Patrick’s Day where smoky corned beef smothered in between house-made potato chips and melted cheese lather together for a creamy, crunchy mess.

The kitchen pumps out wide ranging items, like well-assembled fish tacos, snugged in a tortilla with cabbage slaw and pico de gallo. An abundant side salad furthers the Cal-Tex feel with corn, black beans and fried tortilla chips. Crab pizza feels ordinary, but nothing a few squirts of hot sauce can’t help.

Must try: Corned beef nachos


Lobster Spring Roll
Lobster Spring Roll

Seafood | $$$
46240 Potomac Run Plaza, Sterling; 703-421-0404; hookedonseafood.com

With silver metal strands of beads hanging from ceiling to floor, and generously sized circular booths (perfect for a night of bottle service) scattered around the room, this Sterling seafood spot feels like a night at Atlantic City. The deep red chairs and curved layout continue the Jersey Shore party aesthetic.

Stick with the fun sushi rolls. Inner Harbor honors Maryland with tempura shrimp tucked into a strip of seaweed with matchstick cucumbers and avocado, adorned with creamy Old Bay crab. The Ragin’ Cajun roll forgot some of its anger, but works because of the white fish tempura overlaying the cooked crawfish inside.

Must try: Inner Harbor roll


Hot pot from Mala Tang
Hot pot from Mala Tang

Mala Tang
Chinese | $$
3434 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-2381; mala-tang.com

Date night at Mala Tang would require some work. First, sift through two different menus with three different types of food. There’s Xiao Chi, small plates of silky and garlicky dan dan noodles and a warming jerky: dried beef spiced with pepper and cinnamon and decorated with sesame seeds, requiring dedicated chewing time.

An appetizer portion of mapo tofu arrives in a massive bowl with tofu floating in a deep red sauce, spicy and even though it’s under the vegetable section, supports bits of ground pork.

Where the real fun is—and labor—boils up table side. Order the hot pot with mala broth and sort through the long ingredient list for a pick-your-own-(slurping)-adventure.

Must try: Mala broth hot pot


Ethiopian | $
5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church; 703-820-2870; meazaethiopiancuisine.com

Chickpeas are quite magical actually. These legumes morph into something different, but always delicious, all over the globe. In Ethiopia, chickpeas live in a powdered state before forming into a smooth, thick sauce. Order a full entree of the shiro (number nine on Meaza’s menu) and let well-cared for vegetables (number seven) surround the perimeter of the injera round.

There will be collard greens, chopped fine and cooked until just soft. Then tender chunks of carrots, whose sweetness will offset the fire from a neighboring smoky, sultry burgundy-hued lentil mash stinging with the fiery spice blend berbere. A dollop of yellow lentils offer a starchy, cooling component.

Carb-on-carb action takes place with fitfit, a mound of shredded and berbere-enhanced injera (a slightly sour, spongy flatbread) laying atop a layer of injera, scooped up with a side of injera. This family-style outing might sound confusing, but ordering is easy and the servers are sweet and helpful.

If you leave craving more heat, Meaza owns the market next door to kick-start your Ethiopian spice collection.

Must try: Shiro


Vietnamese | $$
6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881; presentcuisine.com

Take your time and read the menu. Soft shell crabs, in a fried coating, are not merely named by the ingredients, but read like a poem: Basket on the Sandy Beach.

The crabs are snapped into parts for easy, shared eating and are better for the intense, almost jarring, but more so wonderful, black pepper sauce.

Dragon shrimp, aptly named, let corn flakes—reimagined with a light green hue—curl around the back to create the rigid edge of the mystical creature. It’s not all show, the shrimp manage to plump underneath its crunchy coating. Beef liver jerky, bright red and sweet, shifts between pleasantly chewy and tender, and adding one more textural element to a bright, crunchy and fun salad of green papaya.

Must try: Green papaya salad


Japanese | $$
6715 Lowell Ave., McLean; 703-847-1771; tachibana.us

In Tokyo, restaurant size equals the width of a hotel room, so menu options are limited. One shop sells sushi, another noodle soups, another pig parts on skewers. Tachibana pulls across Japan’s culinary landscape.

Read the whiteboard upon entering to find the freshest fish. One night it lead us to a rich butterfish nigiri.

A seaweed ochazuke, rice with a green tea broth, is pleasantly salty.

Other wins include broiled black cod, marinated in sake and miso and savory in a way only the Japanese can pull off, and a crunchy, spicy salmon roll.

Must try: Butterfish sushi


Sea Scallop with Celeriac Puree & Carrot Chips from Vinifera
Sea Scallop with Celeriac Puree & Carrot Chips from Vinifera

American | $$$$
11750 Sunrise Valley Drive, Reston; 703-234-3550; viniferabistro.com

It feels like a hotel.

The carpet gives it away as does the biz-lounge area with squat, soft couches huddled around tables and electrical outlets for on-the-go, low-on-battery business travelers.

But you will want to spend time here. Especially in the warmer months, when dining on the wrap-around patio surrounded by Vinifera’s tomato and pepper plants growing from three-feet-high cement vessels.

Luxury emits from the plate. A Chilean sea bass melts at the touch of a fork, flakes sliding off and into a comforter of cheesy, creamy risotto. Fresh spinach dangles around the grains with bits of artichoke melting into the buttery mound. A slight tang from Meyer lemon cuts the decadence, but only barely.

It’s also easy to avoid entrees hovering around $30 mark. Reston plays along with the current trend of dining-by-picking.

Vinifera borrows from Spain’s Basque region for über small plates, pintxos, boldly flavored, one-bite treats: Artichoke and blue cheese nestle together in a light fried batter and emerge crisp from the fryer. Smaller plates, dubbed “blending” promote more than one fork, as a crabcake, sans filler, sits atop a sweet, chunky butternut puree for a summer-meets-fall pairing.

Vinifera proves dining in Reston exists outside the town’s center.

Must try: Sea bass with risotto


Seafood | $$$
11960 Democracy Drive, Reston; 703-230-3474; passionfishreston.com/passionfish

A schmear of whitefish rillette with hard toasted bread starts the meal instead of butter, segueing guests into a fishy state of mind. (Although I wish the rillette was saltier and fishier … and on a bagel.)

Pinkish-hued grilled octopus, displayed within a duo of brightly colored sauces around the plate, retains it meatiness and offers a smoky tinge. A slab of haloumi, the cheese notorious for its unmeltability, is referred to as “fondue” on the menu and seems like an odd pairing for the tentacled sea creature, but both offer the same texture in an almost bizarre manner.

Lunch caters to the 60-minute crowd as both entree, side and dessert arrive at once. Thursday’s mini crabcakes are mostly fleshy, with just a quick browning on both ends to keep the meat together.

The cakes rest on a chipotle-spiked slaw, crunchy and snappy and any extra dressing can be used for the basket of sweet potato fries served alongside.

Coconut macaroons end that particular meal, and with no substitutions, might leave guests (or this girl) craving an alternate ending.

Luckily, the bill arrives with a square of fudge.

Must try: Crabcakes


Me Jana
Lebanese | $
2300 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-4440; me-jana.com

Surrounded by plates of ground meats, dips and fried bits is a good thing and Me Jana makes it easy.

Beef morphs into the shape of a football, takes to the fryer and rumbles with the sour cream of the Middle East—labneh—for a meaty treat.

For lahem be-ajeen, pita acts more like pizza dough that’s stretchy and soft (and really good), and holds spiced ground lamb accented with sweetness from pomegranate molasses.

Falafel can be dry and zucchini fritters turn up mushy, but the large menu full of small plates offers enough options for a casual night out.

Must try: Fried kebbeh


The Iron Bridge Wine Company
American | $$$
29 Main St., Warrenton; 540-349-9339; ironbridgewines.com

Dark wood, walls lined with wine bottles and peppy servers elevate the experience of Iron Bridge, sitting on the strip of downtown Warrenton.

But the balcony makes the place sing. It’s cozy, decorated with greenery and confirms how lovely it is to dine—with a glass of wine—al fresco.

A well-crusted steak, paired with just the right red—from the many Virginia options in the portfolio—returns the night to bliss after an unfortunate fondue acts more like string cheese, which makes dipping soft pretzels, grapes and Italian sausage impossible.

Lunch offers an open-faced French dip, surprising with lamb (instead of beef) and watercress (instead of a green-less sandwich.)

Must try: Steak


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(November 2012)