On the air there is a smell of flowers and garlic and coffee and Brut aftershave. There is the sound of flatwere clinking against the stem of a wineglass and a stirring of the massy leaves overhead and now and then the tap of heels on flagstone. A seedpod no bigger than an eyelash coasts into the water glass. The ice cubes shift. Above the petunias a trio of fireflies appears suddenly, as if on cue, as if hired as a combo to entertain for the evening, dancing like pixilated stars. The man at the next table puts out his half-smoked cigarette with a tranquil sigh. "Seems a shame to smoke out here," he says, gazing up at the sky and out over the patio. "Glorious, isn't it?"
It is. There are people whose preference for outdoor dining is a busy street corner, with their chairs grounded in steaming asphalt, their eyes on the curb and the NO STANDING -- LOADING ZONE signs. They are willing to endure exhaust fumes and sirens and shrilling brakes because they like to "people-watch," because cafes make them feel faintly Parisian, because it gets their urban juices going. There are others who prefer to eat farther away from all that, who wish to watch no people but the ones with whom they are dining, who want no urban juices to be stirred at all; who retain somewhere within themselves an image of lawn parties and lantern-lit gardens and lingering over coffee under the stars, if not from their own lives then from a story, a period novel, a film's flash-cut. There are certain places that match that image at least in part; they feel just removed enough, just roomy and romantic enough to make smoking there seem somehow irreverent.
Here is a sampling of such places, off the track, off the sidewalk, tucked away -- elsewhere. L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS, 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Virginia. We almost expected to see a cow or a shepherdess wandering past as we looked out over the tables on the lawn, over the circular flower bed's geraniums and roses, over an open expanse of field sloping toward the setting sun. To our right and left people were exhaling deeply. A man unknotted his tie and stretched his neck. A couple strolled across the grass holding hands. Chez Francois is modeled on a French country inn and its setting for outdoor dining has suitably pastoral charm, especially around 7 in the evening when the light is mellowing on the field, through the trees. There are only 10 well-spaced tables outside and there is some risk in planning a meal here: no reservations are accepted for these tables and Chez Francois is about 45 minutes from town. It is well worth the gamble however, and any waiting may be done on a bench under the oaks. One could scarcely hope for a more serene setting; besides the Auberge's own cream-and-brown walls, all that breaks the view is a distant rooftop and there is almost no sound from the road. The general shagginess of the lawn and flower-bed is part of the charm, we thought, surrounding the fine French cuisine with a relaxing informality; a feeling echoed by a red-and-white checked tablecloths and flowered dishes. We dined well on cold leek and potato soup, endive-spinach-mushroom salad, sea bass and veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, with homemade raspberry sherbet offered between courses. We were perfectly willing to tolerate four or five flies that were with us for the duration, and we sat awhile with espresso and fresh blueberry and raspberry tarts. As dusk came down kerosene lamps were set out by the polite and polished staff and the couple at the next table told their waitress they'd break down and have a brandy. Small wonder. It may be 45 minutes out of town but Chez Francois' garden feels delightfully farther away than that. OLD ANGLER'S INN, 10801 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac, looks a bit like a European ski chalet with its stone and stucco walls, awnings and windowboxes overlooking the patio, but the Old Angler's Inn has a long history of Americana since it was built in 1860. Like Chez Francois it is a substantial distance from town in a lyrical setting, nearly surrounded by rich old trees, some of the large sycamores particularly stunning. Amber lamps glow through the darkness and one eats undisturbed by any sort of urban sights or sounds. And yet there is something ordinary about this large flagstone patio with umbrellaed tables and a close-up view of the gravel parking lot if one's table isn't well chosen. There is an agressive fountain in the center, forcing voices to rise above it; the noise level was higher here than anywhere else we visited. The service was slow. The whipped cream was artificial. The food was uniformly unremarkable and remarkably overpriced. Despite its breathtaking backdrop, the Old Angler's Inn seemed less charming, less of a retreat than certain other places right in town. LA BRASSERIE, 239 Massachusetts Avenue NE, is such a place. Sheltered by an intricate and low-angling berry tree, lit by kerosene lamps and pinpoints of white lights strung through the foliage, La Brasserie not only has festive charm; it also has the most comfortable patio chairs we spent time in, and it has live music: flute and violin, at dinner and Sunday brunch.
The patio-garden is in front of the restaurant, not entirely removed from the sound of traffic, but La Brasserie managed to make us feel secluded even before the darkness hid the PHOTOCOPY and SCHNEIDER LIQUOR signs across the way. The patio is set off from the street by steps and generous flowerboxes; the tree-shaded pastel townhouses of its Capitol Hill neighborhood lend it a village atmosphere. We heard "regular" recommending dishes to their guests, and passerby admiring the flowers. The well tended greenery seemed to inspire talk of annuals and perennials, though what inspired the several conversations (here and almost everywhere else), of money-market funds, mutual funds and CDs is harder to trace. There was a temporary hush, we thought, when the food arrived at a table. We enjoyed lobster dijonnaise, breast of duck with carrot puree and fillet of salmon in a cucumber sauce. Garlicky mussels provencal made a pleasing appetizer, and kiwi tarts and strawberries in hot caramel sauce made a good finish. As it grew darker the music spun out over the patio, sweet and stately, and the DON'T WALK sign across the way seemed more decorative than demanding, caught within the framework of La Brasserie's twinkling foliage. In any case, none of the diners at La Brasserie seemed the least bit inclined to walk, or move at all, even on a sultry night.
Down the street and up some steps is THE AMERICAN CAFE, at 227 Massachusetts Avenue NE, more informal, less expensive, more suited to supping than dining. Its menu of soups, salads, quiche and other light fare is offered on a front patio from which we could hear strains of music from La Brasserie. The both itself appears more attractive from the street than from its own tables, we thought. Here too is light-strung foliage but not enough of it; the shrubbery serves mainly to screen out the street, leaving diners in a spare area where the main focus for the eye is the brick front of the restaurant with its bright sign. For our taste it was a little too bare, a little to dark. The service on the evening we visited was slipshod and slow, and our broccoli pie (the special of the day) was short on cheese and so long on vegetable one would have to a broccoli aficionado to enjoy it. We thought we'd done better on other occasions with the tasty cold salads, especially the chicken tarragon and the eggplant provencal that is done so well here. If dinner at L'Auberge Chez Francois is something like eating at a country estate, and at La Brasserie like dining in a patio-garden, a supper at The American Cafe is like snacking on a friend's redwood deck -- which is the right place, at the right time.
At the TAVERNA CRETEKOU, 818 King Street, Alexandria, a meal is more like eating in a friend's garden, if the friend is Greek. This was another of our favorite spots, though low humidity and cool breezes were an added factor. For more than a moment the deep blue of the sky looked Mediterranean, largely due to the Taverna's ambiance. Almost everywhere the eye rests on greenery: an arbor, a wall of Virginia creeper, a wheelbarrow filled with geraniums; holly trees, rhododendron, rosebushes, beds and boxes of red salvia, petunias, impatiens. The tables are well-spaced on a brick floor, almost all shaded by a striped awning. It's difficult to see a car or a pedestrian from the walled garden, making the proximity of King Street seem improbable. At night, as votive candles are set out and the garden is set off by the brightening whitewashed interior, there is an increasing sense of being far away; the darkness smells of hot olive oil, strong Greek coffee and ouzo. We enjoyed the arni gemusto (breast of lamb stuffed with ground sirloin, feta cheese and pine nuts in a wine sauce), the exohikon (chunks of lamb with onions, artichokes, peas, carrots and pine nuts, baked in an evelope of filo pastry) as well as the traditional moussaka. Appetizers of baby octopus are available, and we shared the spinach and cheese pie called spanakotiropitakia and the zesty tzatziki, a mixture of cucumber, yogurt and garlic, as well as mint-flavored rice rolled in vine leaves. Our Greek cofee was accompanied by baklava, fresh strawberries, and galaktoboureko, a light custard set in filo pastry. The waiters patiently defined and explained terms and dishes, unblinking even at a loud query nearby of "WHAT is THIS with all the syllables?" It seems to us that people speak slightly louder than usual outdoors, but at the Taverna we were not much disturbed. We listened to the birds at lunch and the breeze in the leaves at night, and both times to the sound of bouzouki music, and we forgot to mind that it was recorded.
Across a bridge and partway across town, THE IRON GATE INN at 1734 N Street NW, is nonetheless a neighbor of the Taverna in temperament and cuisine. The Inn, once a general's stable, is a Middle Eastern restaurant spread across a patio and under a grape arbor. The arbor shelters tables and dapples diners with light and shade; across the table a friend's white silk blouse suddenly turned to eyelet as we were seated. The noise level here was a bit high but the patio is larger than many and very busy; the tables with their red-and-white checked cloths were filled by 12:15 one afternoon. As at the Taverna, the waiters patiently explained the menu, this time the difference between malfuf and mnazzael (stuffed cabbage leaves; baked eggplant with lamb and rice), kifta and kibbeh (lamb meatball with tomato sauce; cracked wheat and ground lamb). We started with humos and baba ghanouj (chickpea dip; eggplant dip with sesame oil), carried on with couscious and stuffed vine leaves, and sampled a handy combination platter. The baklava was a doughier style than the Greek and the only disappointment was the mhalabeyeh pudding, its organe blossom flavor too subtle for palates; a friend said it looked and tasted more like cosmetic than confection. Later that evening the inn glimmered with lamplight; bunches of green grapes swung from the arbor in the breeze, and the owner said goodnight to all with his worry beads in his fingers.
Across the street is THE TABARD INN at 1739 N Street NW, its patio tucked behind the hotel's restaurant. At lunch we enjoyed its curried chicken salad, baked brie sandwich and homemade pastries, but at a Sunday brunch we found our eggs, omelets and rolls burned or flat or forgotten. The service that day alternated between slow and sassy and the tables are so close together one must pick a difficult path between protruding chair legs. The patio itself, walled in by buildings and shaded just slightly by a locust tree handing over one wall, is almost entirely devoid of adornment other than the hotel's windows, and despite umbrellas was one of the hottest spots we've visited during the day.
One afternoon up at 3419 Connecticut Avenue NW, we watched the fountain in the center of THE ROMA's courtyard spring to life. A large family group took a station at one of the tables under the grape arbor and gazed up at a mural of Lake Como. Later that evening as colored lights played over the fountain, a strolling violinist bowed a medley from "Fiddler On The Roof." It may sound kitschy but the Roma, as one habitue put it, is the Roma and doesn't pretend to be anything else. The atmosphere is friendly and festive, the layout attractive, the sound of a fountain welcome on a hot night. The arbor runs around the walls of the enclosure and the tables under it are separated by trellis-and-flowerbox arrangements; in the open center, there are tables with umbrellas and ornate white wrought-iron chairs. The menu is comprised of regulation Italian fare, veal dishes, pasta and pizza, but people come for the atmosphere as much as the food; they sing along with the music, watch the stars, and, in August, are encouraged to reach up and pick the ripening grapes.
At the ALPINE, 4770 Lee Highway, there is another Italianate patio with an entirely different personality. The terrace is smaller more intimate and serene. A less extroverted fountain of stone cherubs plays against the fence, while a graceful wisteria arbor shades the central area, umbrellas the rest. A grapevine flourishes near the fountain and flowerboxes edge the flagstones. Homemade pasta and veal are the specialities here and are served with good cheer. "Do you believe we're practically sitting in Lee Highway?" a woman near us asked, squinting somewhat dubiously through the shielding fence. Quite honestly, we didn't have much sense of its being their either, as we listened to the breeze jostling the strands of the arbor -- much to our surprise.
There are some hot nights and days when it's better to eat in air-conditioned comfort -- but one's eye still craves a garden. At times like that JOUR ET NUIT, at 3003 M Street NW, is perfect. This glassed-in second floor terrace overlooks stately treetops and a variety of flowering plants, boxed and barreled. On a steamy evening we felt that we were sitting in a carpeted climate-controlled garden, or at least on the edge of one, affixed to the exterior brick wall of the old Georgetown house that is now the restaurant. The illusion is stronger if one faces away from these walls and focuses on the flowers and fountain just beyond the glass to the north and east, but whatever one sits there is a sense of the shifting light-patterns that dusk brings to this indoor-outdoor terrace. The service and fare are elegant: we enjoyed an individual rack of lamb, soft-shell crab amandine, lobster royale, light and dark chocolate mousse and fresh berry tarts for dessert. Our dinner suffered only minimally from the faint hum of the air conditioning, and we couldn't deny we were glad of its comfort that night.
Diagonally across the street is another Georgetown house-turned-restaurant, VIETNAM-GEORGETOWN RESTAURANT, at 2934 M Street NW. Its outdoor patio is where any residential Georgetown garden would be, in the back, but it runs along 29th Street and cars and passersby are in view, the latter often looking over the low fence to see if they should venture in themselves. There are petunias in barrels and a large elm tree leaning over tables set close together. The patio is crowded, loud, quick-paced, punctuated by the ding-ting of the desk clerk-style bell calling waiters to pick up in the kitchen. The service is efficient but the rush and flurry of the staff, some quite literally on the run, is less than relaxing. The food is good: especially cinnamon beef with orange and caramel pork. The prices are moderate. For a lively, urban-style evening the Vietnam-Georgetown Restaurant's patio would be just right; for a getaway evening there are better choices.
Just a block away, the CAFE DE ARTISTAS, 3065 M Street NW, might be one of those other choices, though it has some drawbacks of its own. This patio restaurant can be entered through the Washington World Gallery or around the corner by way of a flowerlined flagstone path. The patio is small and was tranquil when we visited it; at dinner we were able to hear the piano from inside which added more pleasure. Pots of geraniums hang along a brick wall and the branches of a peach tree bend over another wall of tall weathered pickets.The tops of more distant trees are visible, and from an other angle, a slightly less poetic view of the top of the Georgetown post office. The food here is Spanish, of which we sampled black beans, rice and plantains, followed by pollo rancho luna (roast chicken in a marinade of oranges, wine, garlic and spices) and bistec Milanesa (a thin cut of tenderloin breaded and topped with tomato sauce and cheese), with a light flan for dessert. At lunch we liked the Cubano (thinly sliced roast pork and baked ham with swiss cheese on hot French bread) and the elena ruz (sliced turkey breast with cream cheese and strawberry jam). The tables are more suited in size to drinks and hors d'oeuvres. They are accompanied by the most uncomfortable chairs we found, the sort you get if you come late to a once-a-year barbeque and the hostess hauls out extras from the cellar. At lunch the patio was not sufficiently shaded from the sun by a few Vino Valdivieso umbrellas and at dinner our meal was somewhat tainted by the unmistakable smell of Lysol and garbage filtering through the picket wall from the alley beyond.
The terrace at DOMINIQUE'S at 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is on the sidewalk but does not have much of the feeling of a sidewalk cafe; it is more secluded by steps and by the evergreens, low walls and partitions between diners and pedestrians. There is traffic noise but it seems farther away than it actually is, and this must be due in part to the chic atmosphere of Dominique's. There are smart brown and white umbrellas, matching brown cloth napkins, and brown-aproned waiters and waitresses providing deft deferential service. Facing away from the street, one might feel this is a shaded patio of a rich friend with an invisible swimming pool, though the sound of traffic never entirely melts away. Here we enjoyed trout riviere Bretonne, scallops in a piquant sauce and softshell crab, though there were meatier entrees on the wide-ranging menu. We began with artichoke and marinated mushrooms, ending with plump raspberries. In the midst of this elegant atmosphere the waiters and waitresses gathered around a candle-topped chocolate-mocha cake to sing a vigorous happy birthday to a patron; her boyfriend had made the request. At dinner we noticed mostly couples on the terrace many holding hands under the table as the romantic lighting took effect. This is certainly an urban setting and yet the shrubbery, the service, and the sophisticated ambiance make it something of a centrally-located getaway all the same.
Hard to imagine our first president perched on a yellow patio chair nibbling chicken salad, but that shouldn't prevent anyone else from doing likewise in G. W.'s BACKYARD at Alexandria's Holiday Inn at 480 King Street. The spacious airy courtyard is bright with flowers, azalea bushes, holly trees and evergreen; it's a pleasant place to enjoy such light fare as pineapple stuffed with chicken salad, quiche and avocado filled with seafood. There are also sandwiches, salads and desserts available. At night the attractive bar serves drinks with names like Flying Frappe and Golden Surf. The food, which remains the same for lunch and dinner hours, seems average in quality but the setting is compensation: with Old Town's building code prevailing, the brick walls around us did not once remind us that we were in the maw of a Holiday Inn. In the evening there is entertainment: a polished five-person cabaret group called Celebration dances and sings songs "from Broadway to pop." We enjoyed listening to them as they reheared one afternoon, presenting a rousing rendition of "New York, New York" right there in George Washington's back yard.