THERE IS NO question that Washington's restaurants are among its major attractions, especially for newcomers, first-jobbers, summer interns and students. Washington's range of cuisines (and decors and clientele) can be eye-opening for those from less diverse cities. And this is also a town that talks restaurants: "power lunches," political hangouts, even power breakfasts.
The problem for most of these newer/ younger Washingtonians -- in fact, the problem for the majority of "ordinary" people - is that this is still primarily an expense-account economy, and most of the prettiest, trendiest, most evocative or in-scene eateries are out of budget reach. And the same buzz that makes certain restaurants intriguing can also be intimidating. (We will point out that many of those same ethnic establishments mentioned above are great bargains as well, so nobody ought to be wasting their money at some homogenized franchise.)
But everyone ought to be able, just once in a while, to walk into a primo restaurant, sit down and participate in the very real pleasures of fine dining without having to fast the rest of the week. It's a way of learning to relax with your food, to pay attention to flavor, to appreciate the process of cooking and absorb some of the true sensual sophistication that so enriches life.
So let's suppose you have $20 and a clean face: What can you order that will provide a filling meal, a rich aesthetic experience and a mini-vacation from intern life? No, don't shrug and say "soup and salad" -- though that's a safe and often fulfilling bet. From some of the most highly-touted area restaurants come some surprisingly indulgent menus, most allowing for a glass of house wine, though not necessarily for taxes and tips. (Don't add these up to the penny: This is a concept, after all, not a commandment.) The bread and butter is nearly always free, of course, so you're generally getting to dine on even more food than we're mentioning; but some places are even more generous than others, as you'll see.
(And to those restaurateurs who don't want to encourage such frugality, we offer two responses: One, you should never make your regulars feel as though they are required to spend a certain amount; and two, the budget-conscious of today are the consumers of tomorrow.)
Carole Greenwood of Greenwood in Cleveland Park (3529 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/833-6572) has a couple of menu lineups that will fit the bill: First, a combination of the summer salad of fresh green beans, corn, beets, and cherry and globe tomatoes with basil dressing over greens, and the dozen littleneck clams with summer vegetables (zucchini, carrots and Vidalia onions tossed with olive oil and white wine), sopped up with house bread. Option two is the queso fundido (cheese fondue) of Monterey Jack and goat cheeses with jalapenos, sweet corn and lime, which comes with a plate of yuca chips, green beans, cherry tomatoes and cold, boiled new potatoes; paired with the current version of Greenwood's signature yin-yang two-soups-in-one-bowl, one made of Middle Eastern lime zucchini (a pale green sweet variety) and the other from tomatillas, both topped with a basil salad. And if you choose to skip the wine, you can add a plate of picholine, kalamata and Sicilian olives.
The recommendation from New Heights chef John Wabeck is to combine the chilled cucumber soup topped with creme fraiche, sevruga caviar and herb oil with the grilled portobello mushroom with peaches, blacked-eye peas and mustard dressing -- "and I'd prefer the sauvignon blanc, but that makes it $21." Settle for a glass of chardonnay, which Wabeck says would be acceptable, and stay right on budget (2317 Calvert St. NW; 202/234-4110).
At the coolly elegant mimimalist-Venetian look Persimmon in Bethesda (7003 Wisconsin Ave.; 301/654-9860), $20 will get you one of the nicest light dinners in town: house-made liver pate with fresh bread, which is complimentary for all diners; the fennel-arugula salad with lemon oil vinaigrette; and the first-rate but not cloyingly-rich mushroom-blue cheese ravioli. You can squeeze it down to get that glass of wine by exchanging the salad for the pea soup, which is nothing like the pasty glop you get from a can.
At Coppi's Vigorelli in Cleveland Park (3421 Connecticut Ave. NW: 202/244-6437), you can have a really filling meal, though a drink might push you a bit over the $20 top. Combine a Ligurian salad of tomato, cucumber, roasted red peppers, red onion, potatoes, anchovies and olives with a bowl of either mussels or fresh squid in broth served over toasted focaccia, and you'll know why Italy is food lovers' heaven.
Despite its Federal-pedigree decor, Georgetown's 1789 (1226 36th St. NW; 202/965-1789) would be the place for a cold Parisian cafe experience: a glass of wine, a cup of one of the day's rotating soups (recent options have included chilled avocado soup with a jicama salad, roasted corn chowder with Smithfield ham and tortilla strips, gazpacho and a grilled zucchini-summer squash soup with fresh basil pesto) and the cheese platter, which has three varieties of the chef's choice with fresh fruit, currant-walnut bread and a sourdough baguette. In fact, if you prefer the bistro atmosphere to the fine dining room, ask to be seated at the small but classic bar.
You can make the hot, eclectic Relish (1800 M St. NW; 202/785-1177) live up to its name with a basket of breads with house-made relish (sometimes eggplant, sometimes garbanzo, sometimes sun-dried tomato); a salad of baby greens with root veggie relish; and the cappellini with tomato sauce and fresh basil. You could even push it by swapping salads -- how about arugula with goat cheese, prosciutto, French breakfast radish and Dijon vinaigrette or spinach salad with red onion confit, Stilton cheese, honey pecans and peaches? -- or pastas from the cappellini to the linguine with spot prawns, rocket-pistachio pesto and summer vegetables.
At BET on Jazz (730 11th St. NW; 202/393-0975), you could have a seafood double-header: lobster bisque with sherry and chervil; and the pan-seared, rum-glazed salmon with baby spinach and "three nations" bean salsa (white Italian, red American and Latin black).
Getting hungry? We'll have more suggestions next week.