What a difference a year makes. Since the last Annual Dining Guide
, pizza places -- a few trailblazers among them -- have popped up left and right in the Washington area. Previously restaurant-poor neighborhoods such as the Atlas District, Columbia Heights and Logan Circle are beginning to show signs of a vigorous pulse. Restaurants high and low on the food chain are paying more attention to wine, in terms of what they're pouring, how they're offering it and who's making the recommendations (your sommelier is likely to be a Gen-Xer). Acclaimed chefs have spun off casual versions of their formal restaurants. And certain suburbs, Alexandria in particular, now boast so many exceptional restaurants that there's no need to venture into the District for a great meal. Even our street corners have begun offering better than just hot dogs.
Two words -- money and traffic -- help explain some of the trends. In the Washington area, the median household income is almost $80,000; five counties -- Fairfax, Loudoun, Howard, Montgomery and Prince William -- rank among the 10 wealthiest large counties in the United States. At the same time, there are compelling reasons to choose a restaurant that doesn't involve a long car ride: high gas prices and the second-worst traffic in the country after Los Angeles.
As in other significant dining markets, chefs here will tell you that the bar is high in Washington. Cathal Armstrong, the muse at the helm of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, rattles off the names of distinguished chefs, including Michel Richard, Frank Ruta and Eric Ziebold. I'd add Jose Andres, Johnny Monis, Patrick O'Connell and Vikram Sunderam -- among others -- to that list. All of them push one another to be creative and take the kind of risks that make Washington such a monumental restaurant town.
"If there's no competition," Armstrong explains, the tendency is to "sit back and ride the wave." Far from taking it easy, he and his partners have opened four of the most interesting food destinations in the area, all in Old Town. One of them, Eve, now rates with the area's other four-star elite: The Inn at Little Washington, Citronelle and CityZen.
All the changes on the food front have kept this hired mouth on the run. I began researching this guide in late winter and ended mere weeks before publication. During that time, I visited (and sometimes revisited) 125 contenders all over the region. So it's likely that I dropped by your favorite sushi joint or neighborhood bistro. My criteria for highlighting restaurants this season was simple: They had to offer something special to a crowded dining scene.
There were disappointments as I made my rounds. Some previous favorites, including 1789 in Georgetown and Bangkok 54 in Arlington, were scratched from my little black book after less than stellar meals there, and the early promise shown by a few newcomers, foremost Brasserie Beck, dimmed during follow-up inspections. (If you're a Belgian kitchen, the mussels and fries have to be first-rate.) More significant, the region lost a major talent this summer when chef Fabio Trabocchi said ciao to Maestro in Tysons Corner for a job in New York. (The Italian artist promises he'll be back.) In the end, however, there was plenty to applaud and much to look forward to. The city's best sushi restaurant, Sushi-Ko, is planning to open an annex in Chevy Chase. Veteran chef Ris Lacoste is staging a comeback in the West End next summer. And Richard is looking at locations in Bethesda with the intention of opening a second Central.
Meanwhile, here's something to tide you over until next year: 50 restaurants that befit an American dining capital.