The dining critic’s reflections on 2013’s 50 Best Restaurant list.
“Am I an optimist or a pessimist?” I asked Warren Rojas, the former Northern Virginia Magazine dining editor, at dinner last night. Over fried calamari (with a wasabi aioli at a Chinese restaurant; I’ll get to that in the February issue), we were talking about hope. I want every restaurant meal to be wonderful. Glorious. To flush me with enough fodder to create taste memories forever. But sometimes they don’t. And then I’m heartbroken.
“You have to manage your expectations,” Warren tells me, as I’m about to finish my second year as a restaurant critic.
“So, if I always want the best, but then am disappointed, does this make me a deluded optimist? Or a perpetual pessimist?” We didn’t figure it out.
Eating for the 50 Best Restaurants issue is a balance in presumptions and, after the swallow, reality. Will my favorite restaurants from last year continue producing thoughtful food? Will a new restaurant fail to fulfill its promise? Will an established restaurant suddenly feel more vibrant than ever?
It takes a lot of meals, money and miles to put together a list of upstanding restaurants from Arlington to The Plains, from Lovettsville to Fredericksburg. It also requires some intuition. When the Loudoun County chef shuffle placed some of the area’s top chefs in new restaurants—just before our deadline to close the list—we had to decide how to handle the switches. The magazine’s policy would normally allow the chefs to gain comfort in their new kitchens before formally reviewing the food. But we didn’t have the editorial time in bizarre magazine world where we work on Christmas stories when it’s still jacket-less weather. My editor and I decided to judge them immediately because they were established chefs at established restaurants. It was a time I hoped for the best and a time when these newly rearranged talents rewarded me with lovely dishes. Maybe I am an optimist.
The 2013 Best Restaurants list was compiled differently than last year: Only the top 10 restaurants are ranked and the remainder of the restaurants are compared to other restaurants in that same county, which should help you find a great place to eat, much closer to home.
After the jump: Updates on the list, as the chef shuffles continue.
2. Vinifera‘s chef Bo Palker has left one Westin for another. Palker moved from Reston to Arlington’s Pinzimini. Vinifera hired a new chef who will start cooking this month, but the restaurant has not released the name.
3. Peter Chang keeps expanding: A Virginia Beach location opens tomorrow at 3364 Princess Anne Road.
Also, I want to thank my family, friends, co-workers and fellow food writers. After thousands of texts, tweets, snaps and chats (IRL and online) about my incessant eating, driving and the need for critical inspiration, they continue to embrace, endure and enable my food-tracked mind. And to my husband, who drives me west on 66 in rush hour (and then north on 7), who allows even a fifth meal of the day on a too hot Saturday in Leesburg and who never stops enjoying eating and discussing food in Northern Virginia with me.
And one more, to Tim Regan, because as I’m typing this he walks across our office to tell me, seemingly out of nowhere, “I think you’re one of the only realistically cynical people about food who I know, which is nice.” Here’s to an optimistic 2014.