Savor the summer: Our top spots for dining alfresco across Washington

Quick, before it gets too muggy outside!

Save the good table, the one with the sunset view. If you want to enjoy the great outdoors — and by that, we mean the urban kind, which turns rooftop terraces into treehouses and windowsill gardens into cocktail-garnish farms — you don’t have to look any farther than the patio at one of these restaurants. From a classic crab shack to a high-tech outdoor kitchen, here’s how you’ll be dining alfresco in the Washington area this summer.

Rose’s indulgent refuge

At Rose’s Luxury — the current front-runner in the perpetual race for Washington’s hottest restaurant — the menu isn’t the only reason people are willing to line up for a table hours in advance. The Capitol Hill restaurant has perfected the art of carefully curated cool, apparent in the tiniest of details — mismatched tableware, quirky signs — creating an atmosphere that makes every guest feel like they’re in on a secret.

The only problem with a restaurant this lovely comes in the summer, when guests want to eat and drink outside. At Rose’s, there are a few small tables on the front patio that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. But if you choose to sit out front, your view will be of parallel-parked cars, instead of the thoughtful decor and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant. You’ll have a great meal but miss out on that sparkle.

There’s no danger of that, however, in Rose’s new reservations-only prix-fixe rooftop garden, where the ambiance of the interior is carried into the open, herb-scented air. On a recent evening, guests at the upstairs bar kept peering through the window with envy at our foliage-enclosed table of 10, canopied by birdcages full of twinkling lights and surrounded by a functional herb garden.

“That’s going to happen all night,” said Elizabeth Parker, our personal server.

The warm glow of strangers’ jealousy and your own waitstaff are just two of the perks you’ll get if you’re willing to shell out $125 per person (excluding booze, tax and tip) for the privilege of a personalized meal in a lush setting from chef Aaron Silverman. The table, for groups of eight to 10, can be reserved online up to three weeks in advance for a $200 deposit, which is credited toward the total bill.

Because there is only one seating each night, the garden is yours for the entire evening, or however long it takes you to get through the 16-plus dishes that will make their way to your table. It’s like having an amazing dinner party with your nine best friends, except you don’t have to cook, decorate, or even lift a finger. And other than an eclectic soundtrack of New Wave, Ray Charles and Kanye West playing in the background, the garden is quiet, too.

“I don’t like to go back in,” said Silverman, in one of his several visits to our table that night. “It’s so calm and peaceful out here.”

In the rooftop garden, beloved dishes from past Rose’s menus are resurrected. Remember that decadent lobster popcorn soup, a dish that tasted like liquefied butter and happiness? It’s back, and up here, it comes with even more lobster meat. We also were served the fried, brined chicken, another long-gone favorite, this time with a bowl of Carolina Gold rice topped with actual gold leaf.

Dishes from the current menu, such as a slice of sourdough topped with homemade ricotta and spring vegetable salad, or a linguettini described as escargot in pasta form, are served, as well as special dishes just for you — we got personalized bread service in the form of mini-loaves of black sesame-topped challah, with butter and honey on the side.

It’s an all-you-can-eat affair, so if you want more of that cloudlike gnocchi, just ask. And if you’re craving something from the current menu downstairs, like the miniature loaves of potato bread that greet everyday guests, don’t be shy about it.

Rose’s care extends from its food to its tableware, too. Mason jars and mismatched champagne coupes circle a table centered with fresh purple flowers. A plate of oysters are served on ice in a bowl-size shell. The spoons that come with several of our dishes quickly turn into a show-and-tell session; each one depicts an American president and a triumphant event from his time in office — e.g., the Lyndon B. Johnson spoon has Apollo 8, and the James Buchanan spoon features the Pony Express. (Fun party game for your group: What would you put on the spoons of our five most recent presidents?)

And when you receive what will inevitably be a staggering check — ours was a little more than $2,000 total, so $200 per person — it will be presented folded up in a perfectly Instagrammable golden fortune cookie, pretty enough to soften the blow.

Rose’s Luxury, 717 Eighth St. SE.
202-580-8889. rosesluxury.com. Book the garden table online at rosesluxury.com/private_events. Reservations become available at 11 a.m. on Mondays for seatings three weeks in advance.


Pull up to the semi-enclosed countertop seating at Ghibellina for a view of the sidewalk fashion show that is the 14th Street corridor. (Amanda Voisard/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Ghibellina’s people-watching perches

Sure, you may be lucky enough to snag a corner table in Le Diplomate’s outdoor garden or a wisteria-draped nook at the beautiful Iron Gate patio. But the most enviable seat in all of Washington right now is at a thin countertop with tall stools.

It’s the first thing you see when you approach Ghibellina, the Italian small-plates-and-pizza restaurant on 14th Street — and that’s why it’s in such high demand. General manager Marlon Marshall says the elevated front-countertop seats, which boast the best view in the dark restaurant, are rarely unoccupied. They’re available first-come, first-served, and “typically they are the first seats to be full,” Marshall said. “People call them great people-watching seats.”

The seats face outward toward the street and give diners and drinkers unobstructed views through the broad, open windows. It’s just like having a prime outdoor seat — without fully being outdoors.

But most of all, the seats are a status symbol. Fourteenth Street has become a promenade for the young, stylish and rich, and those who sit at Ghibellina’s six stools can people-watch their way through the endless sidewalk fashion parade below. But better yet, the diners themselves can be seen — framed perfectly by the windows, women’s legs elongated and flattered by the tall stools, with their perfectly chosen heels getting a rare audience.

Ghibellina, 1610 14th St. NW.
202-803-2389. ghibellina.com.


Diners looking for a warm-weather setting without pretense can sit over the water and linger over a bucket of crabs at Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Everyone’s a friend at Cantler’s 40th anniversary

First of all: Jimmy Cantler is a real guy. He’s not a construct to make the beloved waterside crab shack outside of Annapolis that bears his name seem more authentic or charming — it is all of those things on its own, without even trying. Cantler opened the restaurant’s doors 40 years ago and has been selling buckets of crabs and beer to hungry folks from the area, as well as visitors from across the country, ever since.

We tried to reach the 75-year-old Cantler, who spends half the year in Florida, but had no luck — we’re guessing he’s out fishing. In his absence, we chatted with Dan Donnelly, the restaurant’s general manager for 20 years, about what makes the restaurant so special.

7:30 a.m.: When crab deliveries to the restaurant begin each morning. “They don’t stop coming in until 7 or 8 at night, which isn’t a good thing for me,” Donnelly said. That’s the middle of the restaurant’s dinner rush, when the parking lot is sure to be full, making deliveries more difficult.

10 to 15 percent: Amount of seafood delivered to Cantler’s by fishermen who drive their boats directly to the restaurant, tying up on its docks. “It’s not as much as it used to be, because they’re not having a great year out there,” Donnelly said. “Mostly everything that gets delivered at the dock is crabs.”

10:15 a.m.: When customers begin to arrive at Cantler’s on busy weekends. The restaurant opens at 11. Donnelly said Father’s Day is usually the busiest day of the year, but even on a regular summer Saturday, “we’ll be full in about 15 to 20 minutes.” “We have limited parking. We usually end up with a car line.” The restaurant is situated on a dead-end road. “We have kids out there that direct [customers] where to park. That’s kind of a daunting experience for someone, especially if it’s their first time [visiting],” he said.

1: Hours that Donnelly said his customers often have to wait for a table — but it can be more (on a recent Saturday, we were quoted a 21 / 2-hour wait but were seated in one hour, 15 minutes). “Crabs are different. Crabs are a social thing,” Donnelly said. “It’s not like when you go to a regular restaurant and you have a table turn every 45 minutes. People could be sitting at our tables for a couple of hours.”

60: Number of bushels of crabs that Cantler’s goes through on a busy day. A bushel contains approximately 60 crabs, depending on the size — crabs come in four sizes, served at market price indicated by a chalkboard on the wall. That means that Cantler’s could serve as many as 3,600 crabs in one day.

250: Seats in Cantler’s, including the patio that overlooks the water. “I think the guests make it special,” Donnelly said. “They come in here, it’s picnic tables, and they just seem to come in and make friends with the people next to them.”

Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn, 458
Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis. 410-757-1311. www.cantlers.com .


Chef Frederik de Pue, center, built a kitchen on Table’s roof deck, allowing guests to see him in action without being stuck inside. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

At Table, chefs’ spectacle heads outdoors

The toughest time to be in a fluorescent-lit cubicle is on a perfect, sunny Washington day. Chefs might not have cubicles, but they feel the same way, according to Table and Menu MBK chef Frederik de Pue. “In most restaurants, you literally spend your time underground,” he said.

That’s not the case at Table, where chefs cook in an open kitchen on the ground floor behind a roll-up garage door. But that wasn’t outdoorsy enough for the chef, who recently built a kitchen on the Shaw restaurant’s second-floor roof deck. With a grill and smoker, fridge, sink, induction burners and a marble countertop, some of Table’s dishes can now be prepared entirely outdoors.

“It creates that atmosphere that you have in your back yard,” de Pue said. “For me, this is my home.”

But chances are, you aren’t throwing octopus tentacles and giant prawns on the grill on your deck. Table’s lunch menu, which changes frequently, will come entirely from the outdoor kitchen, and the dinner menu will be split between the two kitchens. de Pue says his staff will communicate with walkie-talkies to get the timing of the meal right.

When de Pue first proposed the idea, his chefs “all looked at me like I was nuts.” But now, he said, they’re clamoring for the opportunity to cook in the open air. The kitchen is covered with a sailcloth awning and can withstand most weather, although, de Pue said, he doesn’t plan to use the space year-round. He also isn’t sure how his chefs will fare in the District’s 100-degree August days, when guests are less likely to want to sit outside, too.

“The first time we put [the grill] on, in less than five minutes it was more than 600 degrees,” de Pue said. He has lined the deck with fans to keep both his guests and staff comfortable.

The benefits of outdoor cooking extend to the guests, too. In open-kitchen restaurants such as Table, where watching the chefs work is as much a part of the experience as the food on the plate, diners who wanted to enjoy the nice weather were faced with a tough decision: alfresco eating, or food-prep views? But now, guests on the patio have some of the best views of their food being prepared, if they peer over the window boxes of sage, basil and peppermint growing on the divider. Even the indoor guests can see the action, via large windows that give them a close-up, full-length look.

Now that his chefs are even more on display, the kitchen wasn’t the only thing that got an upgrade: “I made my chefs buy new pants,” de Pue said. “I did, too.”

Table, 903 N St. NW. 202-588-5200. tabledc.com.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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