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Sure Things
In our new, improved dining guide, Tom Sietsema reveals which restaurants deliver the most culinary bang for the buck

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Certain value in uncertain times.

Now more than any time in recent memory, diners who have watched their home values sink and their stock portfolios plummet are less apt to take risks and more inclined to seek out a sound culinary investment. This year's Annual Dining Guide, my ninth, takes that calculation into consideration. It also features some enhancements designed to make the guide easier to navigate. We've consolidated all the basic information you want about every restaurant -- location, type of cuisine, star ratings and the page number of the review -- into one index. And we've added roundups of great places to sip wine, nibble pizza and inhale hamburgers -- three of Washington's favorite pursuits.

But the reviews remain the heart of this guide. While the chosen restaurants vary widely in terms of cooking style, geography and cost, they share something in common. Each is a sure bet, whether it's Nando's Peri-Peri, a funky new fast-food joint in Penn Quarter serving a plate of fiery wings for $7.95, or the opulent three-decades-old Inn at Little Washington and its blowout $178-per-person Saturday night feast.

It wasn't easy for restaurants to make the cut. Before compiling my recommendations, I ate my way from Falls Church to Frederick and from Boyce, Va., to Baltimore, sampling dishes and scrutinizing service at 110 establishments.

You might wonder why a favorite restaurant doesn't show up here. Some, including Colorado Kitchen in Brightwood Park and the Inn at Easton, have closed. Other establishments are in transition. Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert and Hook in Georgetown lost their chefs this year. A few places are too young. You'll have to be patient to learn my take on such newcomers as Adour at the St. Regis in Washington and Redwood in Bethesda. But the most obvious reason for exclusion was simply not measuring up to the area's high standard.

After one of the sorriest service experiences I can recall at Michel Richard Citronelle, among Washington's most renowned dining rooms, I was tempted to leave the modern French restaurant out of the guide altogether. But the food was nearly as sensational as my previous meals there, so I took away a star instead. Harsh? Not when it costs more than $200 a person to dine there. At that price, the pampering ought to be as perfect as what's served on the plate.

Even in troubled economic times, Washington's restaurant industry seemed to thrive during the first nine months of this year. New places opened by the score; a stream of celebrity chefs flocked to the city to establish highly anticipated outposts (Welcome to Washington, Alain Ducasse); and the region's food lovers ate it all up, undeterred by higher gas prices and a weak housing market. In the recently published 2009 Zagat Survey, people in the Washington area reported that they are eating out as much or more than they did two years ago. In August, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington enjoyed its most successful Restaurant Week ever, with 208 area eateries participating in the dining promotion, up 30 restaurants from the last meal deal in January.

Such figures remind us that food isn't just fuel. "When times get tough," says Lynne Breaux, president of the restaurant association, "people need camaraderie and sociability. They attain that in a restaurant environment."

No one knows whether the appetite for eating out will remain so robust. But there's plenty on the horizon for food lovers to look forward to: Posto, a casual Italian restaurant in Logan Circle from the owners of Tosca; Ray, a seafood restaurant in Penn Quarter from the owners of Oya; Bourbon Steak, a steakhouse created by San Francisco star chef Michael Mina for the Four Seasons in Georgetown; PassionFish in Reston, from the gang behind DC Coast, Ceiba, Acadiana and TenPenh; Ris, from veteran D.C. chef Ris Lacoste in the West End; a yet-to-be-named French bistro in the forthcoming Lorien Hotel & Spa in Alexandria from chef Robert Wiedmaier; and Avenue Oven in Takoma Park, from the owners of the aforementioned Colorado Kitchen.

I'll critique all of them in the coming months. In the meantime, I hope you find as much flavor and pleasure as I did in the restaurants in this year's guide. They are all great places to eat now.

Browse the 2008 Fall Dining Guide Reviews

The Ratings Code

Ratings are based primarily on food quality but take into account service and ambiance. Restaurants that earn no stars are rated poor.

* 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.

**** Superlative

An unsurpassed dining experience; these restaurants do what they do extraordinarily well.

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