GARRETT'S -- 3003 M St. NW. 202-333-8282. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner daily 6 to 10:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.50 to $3.95, entrees $4.75 to $7.75; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $4.95, entrees $4.75 to $14.75. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $25 per person.
THE SECOND-FLOOR TERRACE AT Garrett's should be called the Eye of the Storm.
Looking up the narrow wooden stairway from the entrance of Garrett's, you'd never guess there is a sunny enclosed terrace at the top. And in the din of the mating-and-beer-drinking game that packs the three bars at Garrett's, you'd never expect to find a quiet place to eat. No wonder so few people over 30 -- or is it 25? -- seem to venture in. Even when the stand-up crowds around the bars are dense, I've seen only a few tables on the terrace occupied.
If you have been in Washington long enough to remember the French restaurant heyday, you might recall Garrett's predecessor, Jour et Nuit, whose second-floor terrace was always crowded despite the competition from the far better Rive Gauche and the far cheaper Chez Odette. Now Rive Gauche has become the Banana Republic, Chez Odette is the Georgetown Seafood Grill, and that beloved Jour et Nuit terrace recently has been restored by Garrett's for more attractive dining. Its two old-brick walls are intact, and the rest of the walls and cathedral ceiling are glass with sparkling white frames. A little color is provided by bright paper napkins, and candles offer a bit more romance. But sunshine or moonlight, plus glimpses of Georgetown streets and architecture, are all the decoration the restaurant needs.
Dining on this terrace, you can actually hear the piped-in music rather than your neighbors' conversation. The height of luxury is implied in the distance between the tables: Few Georgetown restaurants allow such space. But overall this is a casual restaurant, where the waiters' clothes are indistinguishable from the typical Georgetown window-shopper's, and the waitress explains that she doesn't want to bug you about ordering, so you should just give her a high five when you're ready. It's friendly, this reasonably comfortable and utterly refreshing dining room.
The menu is strong on bar food -- nachos, burgers and cold sandwiches, a few salads and pastas, and grilled steaks and seafood. Prices are far more moderate than the portions, so ounce for ounce it's a bargain. Many of the dinner and lunch prices are the same, but dinner features more expensive grilled entrees, while the main dishes at lunch include low-cost pastas and quesadillas.
Just as Garrett's terrace dining room is particularly charming for Georgetown, the cooking is a giant step up from the singles-bar norm.
Nachos are available as a "starter" at $3.95 or as a lunch entree at $5.95. The starter is plenty for an entree, though. And these nachos are luxuriously composed of blue-corn chips well weighted with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese and lots of spicy Southwestern sausage. The nachos' jalapenos and black olives are standard canned ones, but the mound of avocado relish on the side is just great, and the tomatillo salsa is almost as good. Garrett's serves a good quesadilla too, its cheddar and Monterey Jack filling alive with garlic, with those same terrific avocado and tomatillo relishes on the side. The chili is comparatively tame and tastes a little thin, though the beans have an admirable firmness. And the "house specialty" seafood chowder is extravagantly creamy, boldly spiced and chock-full of bits of fish, seafood and finely diced potatoes with the skin. Barbecued baby-back ribs are served as an appetizer at dinner or an entree at lunch, and while they won't make rib history, they are pleasantly lean, meaty and slathered with a thick tomatoey "sesame mesquite" sauce that's perfectly fine.
Overall, Garrett's does the standards well. Its burgers are thick and juicy, very rare when you specify that, and nicely seared. A full wardrobe of toppings is available, including a simple, creamy horseradish/lime sauce, caramelized onions or those excellent avocado and tomatillo sauces as well as the usual range of cheese, bacon, mushrooms and chili. Garrett's roast beef sandwich is made from lean, rare top round roasted in-house, and it is a hefty pile of meat. I only wish the kaiser rolls were more crusty and less spongy, and the french fries had more character.
Among the more elegant entrees are grilled jumbo shrimp. The six shrimp don't seem quite jumbo, but they are beautifully cooked, smoke-permeated and flavorful, and served on a bed of pineapple-ginger chutney that packs a knockout punch. At first, the juicy cubes of pineapple taste refreshing; then they set your mouth on fire with their pepper and ginger. If you're prepared for the heat, this chutney is a hot-and-cold sensation. Tucson chicken is far tamer, though its marinade is said to contain hot peppers, coriander, cumin and oregano. The skin on this boneless breast of chicken is attractively grill-charred, the meat is moist and tender; in all, it is a simply lovely slab of meat on a bed of mildly spiced rice. The standing menu also includes cornmeal-battered Virginia trout, marinated char-grilled filet mignon and fettuccine with seafood and lobster cream sauce. The daily specials are likely to include a grilled strip steak, a fish or seafood and another pasta. The pasta is hearty and homey, and on Mondays and Tuesdays it is a bargain as the main dish of a fixed-price dinner that includes soup, salad and house wine, all for $9.95.
Garrett's is not immune to trends. The fettuccine is flavored with black pepper and saffron, the vegetables are julienned squashes, the vinegar is balsamic, the sausage is andouille, and the mousse is likely to be made with kiwi. But it doesn't let these trends disrupt the homey familiarity of the food. This is food to fill up on, not food to talk about.
Only desserts tend to be too cute for their own good. Fruit mousse in a chocolate cup is a showoff with grainy texture and not much taste. Flourless chocolate bourbon cake is as rich as fudge but misses on the quality of its chocolate. And choco-coronets are ice cream served in small chocolate-coated cones that might be better off bare.
It's the appetizers and entrees at Garrett's that give you a little more than you'd expect -- generous home-style cooking. Pub food has improved since Georgetown hit the tourist maps, and here is a strong example. With such pleasant food and airy surroundings, Garrett's terrace dining room is a respite from the thunderous crowds.