Tom Sietsema's 40 favorites

Tom Sietsema's 40 favorites

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A Balkan restaurant. A good delicatessen. Kitchens set on serving smoke. More spinoffs than “Happy Days.”

A bumper crop of interesting new restaurants in Washington means I’m serving you a very different menu from just a year ago for my 14th Fall Dining Guide. While the theme remains the same — favorites — my suggestions reflect a much-changed landscape. It’s telling that only 15 of my 40 picks from last October made it onto the 2013 list.

More than any previous fall dining guide, this one revels in Washington. While there are useful places to know about in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the District is bursting with exciting new flavors that are worth the trip from beyond its borders. As you will read on coming pages, the most enticing stretch of the city to graze along right now is the 14th Street corridor, host to a mini U.N. delegation of cuisines.

You may wonder why some previously well-reviewed venues are missing. Some are in flux: The Ashby Inn and the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm recently changed chefs, while Restaurant Eve in Alexandria announced plans to drop its bistro menu and make every seat in the house more special. Other establishments have been replaced by stronger candidates in their genre. Au revoir, Chez Billy. No bistro in the city can come close to Le Diplomate.

Favorites stand out from the pack, often for their food, but also for the way they make us feel. If there’s anything I’ve learned in this job, it’s that food is important, but it’s not everything. Comfortable surroundings and attentive service can prop up average cooking, but the opposite is less true: Even great food is diminished if a diner feels neglected.

Here’s hoping my favorites become yours.

P.S. Don’t miss another great part of this year’s guide: my picks for 10 great tastes for less than $10.

Tell me what you think. Chat with me about these picks at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16.

Ambar

The rustic, two-floor room is no mere novelty act. Influenced by Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hungary, the robust food is good anytime, fall and winter best of all. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Bangkok Golden Thai Restaurant

Visitors to this cramped but cheery storefront are handed two menus: one lists Thai dishes and the second offers Laotian fare. For years now, I've filled up on the latter because I can never get too much of the country's distinctive heat. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Barmini

If you want a taste of tomorrow today, reserve a seat at this futuristic lounge adjoining Minibar, the daring dinner theater from Spanish ambassador Jose Andres. Barmini is home to some of the most fascinating liquids this city has ever sipped. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Blue Duck Tavern

Handsome quilts create a restful backdrop to the assured, farm-to-table cooking of the Texas-born, French-trained Sebastien Archambault. If you're searching for a place to suit a meat-and-potatoes type and a food lover, here's the happy medium. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Bourbon Steak

You don't have to like meat to warm up to the city's best steakhouse. While grilled beef is the centerpiece, chef John Critchley stocks his menu with all sorts of temptations from field and stream. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Casa Luca

Chef Fabio Trabocchi comes from a four-star background -- the late, great Maestro in Tysons Corner -- evinced here by the way he approaches even basic food. Read more...

Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post

CityZen

If you want to see what separates the good from the great, book a table at this coolly elegant restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and get a master class in the good life. Read more...

Mandarin Oriental, Washington D.C.

Daikaya

There are two ways to experience this restaurant: Stay on the ground floor to sip the broth and slurp the noodles of Sapporo-style ramen or go upstairs to order from a menu of fried, grilled, steamed and "unique" small plates. Read more...

Scott Suchman for The Washington Post

Del Campo

Chef Victor Albisu leaves seemingly no dish untorched as he evokes the asados, or barbecues, of South America. Come hungry. Read more...

Scott Suchman for The Washington Post

DGS Delicatessen

DGS is no standard-issue deli. For starters, the Dupont Circle outpost comes with a bar. Further, the kitchen is more respectful than reverential regarding tradition. Read more...

Scott Suchman for The Washington Post

Doi Moi

Part Thai, part Vietnamese, Doi Moi is pure pleasure. Restaurateur Mark Kuller (Proof, Estadio) and chef Haidar Karoum returned from Southeast Asia to create flavors that some foodists compare to the 3½-star Little Serow "without the wait." Read more...

Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post

Estadio

True to its name, this Spanish retreat in Logan Circle can be noisy as a "stadium" at full tilt. But good small plates and sherry cocktails are worth any ruckus. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Et Voila!

This snug Belgian restaurant in the Palisades always makes me wish I lived closer. Every neighborhood deserves an Et Voila!, a source of steamed mussels and beer-based beef stew that is priced for regular workdays but could just as easily host a celebration. Read more...

Sean McCormick for The Washington Post

Etto

The big talent at tiny Etto in Logan Circle is Cagla Onal-Urel, a Turkish native whose Italian small plates underscore the idea that simple can be sublime. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Garden District

Every day feels like Oktoberfest at everyone's favorite beer garden. The fence-enclosed picnic tables on 14th Street NW are some of the most prized seats in the city. Read more...

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

GBD

The letters stand for Golden Brown Delicious, three words that apply to two hot dishes here: fried chicken and doughnuts. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Ghibellina

The pizza, with its raised lip, perfect char and yeasty character, is marvelous. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Inn at Little Washington

How does chef-owner Patrick O'Connell do it after all these decades at one of the most famous addresses in the food world? I believe in magic. Read more...

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Izakaya Seki

With its small plates and fresh fish, this serene Japanese restaurant, just 40 seats on two floors, attracts Japanese speakers in droves. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Kapnos

The latest and perhaps greatest idea (yet) from "Top Chef" veteran Mike Isabella. At this Greek restaurant, the familiar flavors are all accounted for, but the presentations are up to the minute. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Kogiya

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The trendiest Korean barbecue around is a group-friendly and thoughtful place to feast on meat that's grilled at your table and comes with a swarm of tasty side dishes. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Komi

What links the many courses at this modern Greek restaurant is a reverence for great ingredients and superb taste. Read more...

Scott Suchman

Le Diplomate

Le Diplomate, under the care of executive chef Adam Schop, executes a perfect omelet, an expert steak au poivre, a divine apple tart, everything delivered by some of the best servers in the city. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Little Serow

This underground, 28-seat restaurant specializes in the hot, sour and herby notes of northeastern Thailand, doesn't take reservations and offers only a seven-course, family-style menu. The payoff is some of the most mind-blowing eating anywhere. Read more...

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

Malgudi

Introduced in February by the owners of the steady Heritage India above it, the offshoot makes a great compromise for diners who eschew meat and those who embrace it. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Meaza

The area's biggest Ethiopian restaurant also ranks as one of its best. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Mintwood Place

Cedric Maupillier is a master of turning familiar recipes into quiet sensations. His menu is French but also American, which means he incorporates ideas from around the world. Read more...

Matt McClain for The Washington Post

Oval Room

Judging by the limo purring out front and a sprinkling of VIPs inside, the second-most-famous oval room in Washington is the one owned by Ashok Bajaj. Top gun Tony Conte delights in slipping surprises into his cooking. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Oyamel

This Mexican playground from creator Jose Andres is a trailblazer. Thanks to recent expansion next door, it's also more comfortable than ever. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Palena’s Dining Room

"Tastes of the Season," an enticing four-course sonnet from chef-owner Frank Ruta, deserves a big audience. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Range

The kitchen is the restaurant's best asset. The service? It's better if they know you at Range. Read more...

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Rasika Penn Quarter

Rasika in Penn Quarter could easily rest on its considerable laurels, but instead improves on what it does by every year adding fresh reasons to drop in. Read more...

Michael J. Colella

Red Hen

Intriguing wines at user-friendly prices make this bustling newcomer in Bloomingdale worth crossing town for, but so, too, does the relaxed Italian cooking from Michael Friedman. Read more...

Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

Ripple

It would be easy just to drink dinner at this dashing attraction in Cleveland Park, where the sophisticated cocktails and carefully curated wine list elevate Ripple from the neighborhood-restaurant norm. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Roberto’s 4

Roberto Donna cooks dinner for a mere four diners at a kitchen counter at this restaurant-within-a-restaurant inside Al Dente. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Trummer’s on Main

Austin Fausett came here in May from the venerated Inn at Little Washington, and the practice shows in much of the food he's serving in one of the region's best reasons to take a drive in the country. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Vermilion

Longtime chef Tony Chittum is missed, but his successor, William Morris, is a rising star. Read more...

Sean McCormick for The Washington Post

Vidalia

No restaurant in the city does a more convincing shrimp and grits or pecan pie than this place, a salute to Southern cooking. The service is pampering and so much else is so right. Read more...

Joseph Victor Stefanchik for The Washington Post

Woodberry Kitchen

The best restaurant in Baltimore gets to that lofty place by not just meeting, but exceeding, expectations from year to year. Read more...

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

The Ratings Code

Satisfactory
Restaurants that are useful to know about if you are nearby; they may have only a few dishes or a single quality, such as a view or atmosphere, to distinguish them.
Good
Restaurants with generally appealing cooking, service and settings; they tend to be worth driving across town for.
Excellent
Rewarding destinations, no matter where you're coming from; they typically blend high-quality cooking with the environs and service to match.
Superlative
An unsurpassed dining experience; these restaurants do what they do extraordinarily well.

Decibels Key

Quiet:
Under 60 decibels.
Conversation is easy:
60-70 decibels.
Must speak with raised voice:
71-80 decibels.
Extremely loud:
Over 80 decibels.