This was one of the early pioneers among Washington's New American restaurants, and offered a fixed-price menu when such were rare. Over the years it has changed only subtly -- the wall colors, the table arrangements -- but kept true to its early style. In some ways 209 1/2 is simple -- the menu is short, and the dishes are seasoned inventively rather than prepared elaborately. In other ways it is quite sophisticated -- the service plates, the flowers, the top-notch after-dinner liqueurs. And service is stylish (though one waiter said he'd never heard of the wine we ordered and didn't know whom to ask).
What's best about 209 1/2 is that dishes that sound like cliches taste freshly delicious: pasta salad with smoked mussels far from tired or boring, and tortellini with pesto remind you why those two elements became so popular in the first place. While the menu changes seasonally, it usually has a good shrimp and a pasta dish, a creditable filet with b,earnaise, and those signature zucchini pancakes that alone make this restaurant worth preserving. There has been an interesting seafood sampler plate that changes according to the market, but has included something oriental seasoned with ginger, something smoked, and so forth. And desserts, from spiced figs marinated in port to a homey dark fudge cake, are in line with the rest of the quality. 209 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 544-6352. L $11.95-$16.95, D $16.95-$28. L daily ex Sat, D daily. Closed Sun. AE, DC, MC, V. Res sugg. Full bar.