It's hard to escape the fact that upgrading the surroundings of a restaurant often goes hand in hand with the decline of the cooking. And thus at the Lebanese Taverna, a pizza parlor turned full-scale Middle Eastern restaurant, prettying up the dining room and adding a few paintings has accompanied a decreasing zestiness in the kitchen. The dining room hasn't become that fancy, nor the food that disappointing, but it's not the hole- in-the-wall discovery it once was.
On the other hand, prices are low and service could not be nicer. The pita is warmed, the portions are large, and if you aren't too picky, you'll feel you've been well fed. Don't bother with the pizza; it's better at dozens of Italian restaurants. And while you can get a hamburger or a hot dog, it seems a shame when you could instead have hummus special, warmed and topped with ground meat; or maanek, spicy little homemade sausages. Appetizers run the gamut from baba ganouj to kibeh -- which is beautifully shaped but dry and needs spicing. Main dishes cover kebabs -- nicely constructed but lacking seasoning and juiciness -- to stuffed grape leaves to mousaka, shawarma, homemade beef sausages (bland as meatballs this time around), a couple of meat- and-rice dishes and raw kibbeh if ordered a day in advance. Everything costs under $10, but every dish on my last visit fell short of hopes.
Lebanese Taverna remains an awfully nice casual little restaurant, though not at the moment tempting enough for a trip across the Beltway. 5900 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington. 241-8681. L, D $6.95- $9.50. L, D daily. Closed Sun. CB, DC, MC, V. Beer and wine.