Contrary to the dire predictions of futurists imagining the next millennium, we're not heading toward menus of vitamin pills and nutrient mush. In fact, our restaurants are more varied than ever and even closer to nature. Our roster of cuisines grows relentlessly longer, and the ingredients we're served are increasingly likely to be local, fresh and even organic. True, in winter we're offered out-of-season asparagus and melons that taste like packing material, but in summer we can find just-picked heirloom tomatoes and strawberries with near-wild flavor. At the same time, salt-and-pepper plainness has all but disappeared; our chefs cook with peppers of every hue, shape and heat level the planet can offer.
The diversity is not just on the plate. We can dine at any time of the day or night; we can find a meal in any price range, as quick or as leisurely as we wish. We seek nostalgic foods of yesteryear and undiscovered ingredients, hearty richness and dishes that are aerobics-light. And depending on our moods, we demand black-satin formality or sweat-pants casualness, serenity or an impromptu carnival. In a single suburb, we can find more options than the whole region offered half a century ago.
Choice, options, variety -- those are the themes of our cusp-of-the-millennium dining out. We're always looking for something new, and then demanding it adjusted to our style. We want everything the world can grow and cook, and we want it Our Way.
We Americans eat nearly half our meals away from home, and even those we eat at our own hearths are likely to have been cooked elsewhere. If future historians would want to know us, they need only examine our restaurants, which are the places we conduct our meetings and our romances, gather with our families, recover from our workdays and launch our playtimes.
Here, then, is a record for archivists and a stock-taking for us. This year's dining guide is not simply my own personal favorites, it's a list of those among Washington's best restaurants that depict something particular about our taste, respond to a need of this moment, and can be expected to meet the demands of 2000 and beyond.
How soon is Washington going to get Kosovar restaurants? The political upheavals of the world have long contributed to the dining possibilities in our capital city. That's why we have such an abundant choice of cuisines: Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Afghan, Salvadoran, Iranian, Lebanese.
Bacchus started as a modest downtown Lebanese restaurant more than 20 years ago, and it has continually redecorated and evolved, adding a more glamorous Bethesda branch and increasing its stunning list of mezze every year. Entrees are just what one would hope from a Lebanese restaurant: mostly kebabs of lamb, chicken or fish that are intensified by their marinades and grilled to a charred and juicy state.
Often, though, diners never make it to the entrees: The mezze list is world enough. The sausages are tangy, the vegetable dishes fragrant; the sesame-flavored dips are deft versions of the familiar hummus, baba ghanouj and such. These small dishes range from irresistible (lemony chicken drumettes) to pedestrian (dry and chewy squid), though the disappointments are few. The greatest satisfaction comes from gathering a few companions to share a tableful of little dishes and a bottle of Lebanese wine. 1827 Jefferson Pl. NW. 202-785-0734. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.50 to $11.25, dinner $14.25 to $16.75. (Other location: 7945 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-657-1722.)
Nostalgia has been modernized for the new century. From the menu, you'd expect Bis to be a homey place on a side street in Paris: escargots, onion soup, steamed mussels with Pernod, veal stew, steak tartare. Instead, it's a big, modern hotel restaurant, and these traditional French dishes have been updated and even faintly Americanized.
While the menu emphasizes the rich, long-cooked foods of yesteryear, even the escargots have been rethought: Served in a dark, winey sauce with diced vegetables, they have an Asian undertone. Often the lighter dishes work best. A thick white bowl of salad -- endive with pears, walnuts and blue cheese, or the classic frisee with lardons -- is a good way to start. Among the entrees, fish tends to be the star. The waiter will probably steer you toward the daily specials, and for good reason.
I keep wanting Bis to be that cozy side-street restaurant, where the waiters are attentive without hovering and the roast chicken crackles. Such warmth and perfection aren't on Bis's radar screen. Just look at its shortcomings as quirks, and appreciate that Bis is the kind of restaurant Capitol Hill has been waiting for, one that combines a fine wine list, meticulous attention to the quality of ingredients and a lack of fussiness not otherwise found within walking distance of the Capitol. 15 E St. NW. 202-661-2700. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.50 to $17.50, dinner $17.50 to $24.
The Bombay Club has been faced with fierce competition from newer luxurious Indian restaurants, and no longer is its food the most exquisite. Rather, the cooking has been tamed, seemingly toned down for mainstream American tastes. Yet -- or maybe as a result -- the restaurant is as busy as ever. Americans today may have a taste for the exotic, but they have an even greater affection for comfort.
What accounts for the Bombay Club's success is the sense of well-being it imparts, as if you've had the good luck to be assigned to a foreign post where your every need is attended to by an extensive staff. The dining room is extraordinarily comfortable, with soft banquettes and spacious tables. Ceiling fans and tall sea-blue shutters lend it the feeling of a veranda set in a well-tended garden. If there is a flaw in the environment, it's the staff's inclination toward obsequiousness.
The Bombay Club was the first of our Indian restaurants to offer such elegant appetizers as spice-rubbed scallops and tandoor-cooked fish. They're still fine, if no longer exciting. Curries are constructed from well-trimmed and tender meats; vegetable dishes and black dal are fragrant pleasures. But except for the fish, tandoori dishes are disappointing, a bit pale and limp instead of tangy and crusty. And curries are milder than ever.
The Bombay Club gains a lot from its location. Few downtown restaurants are so generously spaced yet so modestly priced. You can work up a substantial dinner bill from the extras here, but you can also dine moderately and find an elegant evening a bargain. 815 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-659-3727. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $7.50 to $18.95.
Now that the novelty of fast food has worn off, we are left hungry for meals that can be eaten on the run but don't taste as if they had been created in a rush. We're learning that a sandwich can be as exquisite as a three-star meal. All it takes is great bread and uncompromising fillings.
That's the point of the Bread Line. It starts from scratch, by making its own slow-rising, crusty and chewy traditional breads, and even if the place weren't owned by a friend of mine I'd tout them as the best in town. The rest looks easy, at least once the Bread Line has taken care to buy imported prosciutto, the best local produce and top-quality cheeses. Of course it whisks its own mayonnaises, simmers its own ketchup, smokes its own barbecue, roasts whole turkeys daily. No trouble at all.
Then there's the more complicated stuff: pizzas and grilled flat-bread sandwiches, each with an imaginative wrinkle. A changing list of soups that can compete with any top chef's or home-style grandma's. Salads gathered from the world's cuisines. This is a quick-lunch and carryout restaurant that refuses to serve a BLT outside of tomato season and composes its seafood chowders with the same shellfish that expense-account restaurants strive for.
We've grown up from those early McDonald's days and we've traveled the world. We know how good food can be. And we are willing to line up and brave lunch-time crowds to get it. 1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-822-8900. Open: for breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m to 2 p.m.; for light fare 2 to 5 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: breakfast $1.65 to $3.25, lunch $2 to $8.95.
Hot colors and cool spices mingle at Cafe Atlantico. It's a three-level restaurant that sizzles with vivid artwork and burbles with good spirit, especially when the crowd's been plied with lime-and-firewater caipirinhas. This kind of entertainment doesn't need a stage.
Cafe Atlantico is a hit show livened with daily inventions from the ceaselessly energetic Jose Andres. This young star chef has brought a Spanish sensibility from Barcelona and weaves it through dishes that evoke Mexico and Latin America as well. His version of Brazil's feijoada might be restructured as a new dish, even a salad. His Mexican chicken mole might emerge as airy ground-chicken patties detonated by chilies. Seviche has graduated into a tuna tartare with a refined lime tang.
I often prefer Andres' tried-and-true dishes, remaining skeptical of the new ones until they've been honed for a while. But the chef makes it possible to keep tabs on his creative directions without risking disappointment. He offers tasting menus every night, and on Saturday afternoons he creates a "Latin dim sum" brunch; for $19.95 you get small tastes of as many different dishes as you can absorb. That's when you can discover whether you like tiny ravioli of pineapple, diced-vegetable salad with fried plantain chips or sauteed shredded collards. I gravitate toward the more traditional guacamole, seared salmon (especially when it's the rich meat from the belly, teamed with seasonal tomatoes) or shrimp drizzled with lime powder and tamarind oil, which show Andres' mastery of familiar forms and his instinct for combining flavors. 405 Eighth St. NW. 202-393-0812. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9.95 to $14.95, dinner $15.95 to $24.95.
Diversity is a goal in more than personnel offices and residential neighborhoods. It's a useful objective for restaurants nowadays, too, as Cafe Milano shows. The place is best known as a noisy, fashion-themed late-night hangout for the young, the rich and the beautiful who nibble, at most, on a few leaves of arugula. In the bright light of day, though, it works equally well for quiet business lunches or sociable Georgetown salad-and-mineral-water get-togethers. Early dinners draw a sedate crowd seeking serious Italian cooking. The remarkable thing is that one menu fits all.
That's because the food is so Italian, so straightforward a showcase for excellent ingredients and the magic of simplicity. It's as light as you wish, sparkling with flavor and as colorful and lovely as the designer neckties that decorate the walls. If all you want is a salad or a plate of paper-thin raw meat or fish, you'll find the quality high and the preparation flawless. Pizzas and pastas reach beyond cliches yet remain pure. A toss of shrimp, asparagus and diced raw tomato with just a little olive oil dresses wiry golden tagliolini. The agnolotti dough might be disappointingly heavy, but its spinach filling is light, its pureed squash sauce more so. And if you're primed for a meal of substance, there are grand starters, my favorite a grill-crisped squid with potatoes, onions and olives. Entrees include a wide choice of fish, veal and, richest of all, grilled liver garnished by an onion stuffed with creamy risotto.
Cafe Milano shows that fashion can be long-lived and serve all ages. It never neglects substance for style. 3251 Prospect St. NW. 202-333-6183. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Wednesday 4 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday 4 p.m. to 1 a.m, Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Wednesday midnight to 1 a.m., Thursday through Saturday 1 to 2 a.m., Sunday 11 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $19, dinner $11.50 to $45.
Cashion's Eat Place
Some of the best of the 20th century's advances in dining are packaged in this one small Adams-Morgan restaurant. Cashion's shows off contemporary American-eclectic cooking that relies on the classic techniques of Europe but mixes home-grown ingredients with flavors from around the world. It's the work of a chef who's both female and Harvard-educated -- neither of which would have been possible much earlier in our history. And while the cooking is serious, this closely packed, effervescent little dining room maintains a casual style.
We're diners who've grown accustomed to eating a different cuisine every day, so we're undaunted by finding curried mussels along with house-made Italian ravioli and French pork rillettes. Ann Cashion's fritto misto is more than remarkably light, it's ecumenical, with garnishes of Asian greens and ponzu sauce. Like all fine modern menus, hers changes seasonally, and like the best of modern chefs, she experiments within the range of culinary reason.
While the menu can boast such luxuries as foie gras and wild mushrooms, this Eat Place can get pretty down-home, too. It's hard to imagine a sweeter end to an evening out than a plate of Cashion's scrumptious butter cookies. Maybe with a glass of milk. 1819 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-797-1819. Open: for dinner Sunday and Tuesday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: about $14.95 to $21.95.
When a place explodes with restaurants the way Bethesda has been doing, it sometimes feels as if the same restaurant keeps opening over and over. Diners crowd into one, then swarm the next new place, abandoning the first. It's a wasteful system, except perhaps for real estate agents.
In such conditions, the challenge is to find those restaurants worth keeping. Cesco seems like a good bet.
Service can be neglectful, but in its caring moments Cesco is as personable as any restaurant under the Tuscan sun. The asset that sets Cesco above the crowd is Francesco Ricchi, the owner-chef, who developed his talent in the family-run trattoria of everyone's dreams in the hills above Florence. Italian technique is in his hands, its traditions are rooted in his soul. He knows how to make simplicity soar. His pastas are supple and just chewy enough, their sauces a sheen rather than a puddle. His meat and fish dishes have spunky seasonings devised to enhance rather than mask. And in its short lifetime, Cesco has turned two appetizers into local classics: puffy fried bread wrapped in prosciutto, and a bouquet of feathery greens enclosed in a sleeve of crisped Parmesan. Finally, Cesco's creamy, chocolaty, nutty and liqueur-drenched zuccotto could wean us from our addiction to tiramisu. 4871 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-654-8333. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $14.95, dinner $10.95 to $21.95.
At the end of the century we're learning new ways of communicating, new ways of getting information, new ways of shopping. Yet the more technology saves time, the busier we seem to be. Who has space on the schedule for a long, leisurely lunch?
C.F. Folks fills the gap for lawyers, bureaucrats, executives and anyone else who needs to eat in a hurry but refuses to compromise quality. It's a tiny lunch counter, sidewalk cafe and carryout with the kind of food we once sought in temples of gastronomy. Regulars skip the printed menu and choose from the blackboard of specials: rare grilled tuna bathed in dill on a bed of mesclun with sugar snap peas, blue cheese and fresh figs. That's an under-$10 carryout lunch? Sure is. So are soft-shell crabs, in season, or some of the best crab cakes in town. And while there are some missteps -- a pretty dull linguine with fresh tomatoes and cheese, a gummy berry cobbler -- they are no more common than at restaurants charging two or three times the price. Amenities are few: You've got to order at the counter and watch for one of the few small tables to come free.
But the point here is the food. It's fast food you'd be pleased to find even at a two-hour lunch. 1225 19th St. NW. 202-293-0162. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No credit cards. Entree prices: $4.25 to $10.85.
Ching Ching Cha
We've gone through the wine bar frenzy and the brewpub explosion. Now we're caught up in tea. Ching Ching Cha has something to teach us, though it is as much about ritual and serenity as it is about beverages. This small Chinese tea-house, furnished with gleaming wood tables and chairs inset with mother-of-pearl, has such an aura of peaceful beauty that you feel as if you were shedding the outside world along with your coat.
The menu is short; you can choose from light or lighter. Between meals, there are a few tea snacks, namely lustrous meat or vegetable dumplings, spiced boiled eggs and spiced peanuts. The dessert list is also simple. The full meals, presented in lacquer boxes, offer three choices: gingery chicken, salmon striped with a mustard miso sauce, or tofu in teriyaki sauce. For $10 to $11, the food is delicate, bracing, healthful and satisfying.
Food is secondary, though. The restaurant's focus is on tea: the pot of water boiling in the center of the table, the careful selection from the many pages of teas, the instructions in brewing -- different for each variety -- and finally the sipping from a tiny covered porcelain cup with your fingertip holding the lid just so. You leave Ching Ching Cha satisfied and refreshed, having picked up some tea lore, and surely energized to face the start of a new millennium. 1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-8288. Open: daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $10 to $11.
Chef Jeff Tunks learned a lot living and cooking in New Orleans, and not all of it about food. His spacious two-story restaurant, with its giant mermaid at the door and open kitchen in the rear, shows the New Orleans penchant for drama, and it's as unfussy as you'd expect from the Big Easy. Entertainment these days isn't about rules and neckties, the restaurant implies. It's about big portions of really good food, mostly seafood because that's what people think of as light and healthy.
A lot of DC Coast's best dishes come from New Orleans. The fried oysters are like shellfish floating in a crisp puff of air. And Tunks's gumbo, dark and spiked with vinegar, is thick with crayfish, crab, shrimp, oysters and spicy Louisiana sausage, all top quality. But like most modern chefs, Tunks has traveled, and picked up ideas along the way. His lobster is garnished with Chinese-style fried spinach, and his calamari is dazzling with lime and cilantro. If his crab cakes aren't quite as light as Maryland's best . . . well, he can learn. DC Coast is a kaleidoscope of American seafood cooking, all bright and shining fun. 1401 K St. NW. 202-216-5988. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Saturday 2 to 5:30 p.m. and for half an hour after dinner. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.95 to $17.95, dinner $16.25 to $22.95.
Hotel restaurants are no longer cold, formal and overpriced. At least some of them aren't. Take Gabriel, an independent and original restaurant where the mood is casual and the foods of Spain and Latin America are polished and refined, with flavors as bright as Washington's summer sun.
Chef Greggory Hill creates nuevo Latino dishes in such abundance that before you're halfway through reading the menu, you vow to return. His dozen or more tapas include classics like shrimp with garlic or salt cod croquettes, as well as monkfish with Mexico's hoja santa leaves and tomato-raisin chutney. To accompany them are 16 sherries, Brazilian caipirinhas or sangria.
The nibbling possibilities are all the more seductive when you consider the appetizer list (sensational soft pork tacos, an elegant rendition of pupusas with grilled scallops and chorizo) and entrees that can be ordered in half portions. Among these is one of Washington's greatest vegetarian plates, a wood-grilled arepa -- a corn pancake -- piled with crisp tortilla strips and a stuffed Anaheim chili. If grazing is your style, you couldn't do better than the Sunday buffet brunch, which goes well beyond French toast to seafood salads, tacos and roast suckling pig.
2121 P St. NW. 202-956-6690. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $16.50, dinner $16.50 to $26.75.
When the young Roberto Donna came to town nearly two decades ago, he set a higher standard for Italian restaurants here, even though he was barely out of his teens. He gathered acclaim, he accumulated restaurants and in his enormous success he ultimately was criticized for resting on his laurels.
Now he's facing the millennium with a renewed commitment to his flagship, Galileo. He lost his longtime executive chef, Todd Gray, so Donna promoted the sous chef, Cesare Lanfranconi. In the meantime, the restaurant reconfigured its dining room to include a demonstration kitchen, the "Laboratorio," where Donna can conduct cooking classes and prepare special dinners. That means he's got to be on-site, of course.
Even before the Laboratorio opened, the restaurant seemed refreshed. The pastas and risottos have always been simple yet exceptional; now the appetizer and entree lists have grown more enticing. Galileo has traditionally led the pack with exquisite ingredients -- the best imported prosciutto, its own mozzarella, superb veal and fowl. Now, all the more, seasonal produce plays a strong supporting role. Morels in spring, sweet corn and tomatoes in summer, chard and mustard greens are combined with Italian accents of pancetta, black olives, balsamic vinegar or white truffles to turn duck or quail, salmon or sea bass, rack of veal or lamb into new excitement. Even the desserts are enlightening. Galileo seems to have been revived. 1110 21st St. NW. 202-293-7191. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.95 to $17.95, dinner $21.95 to $29.95.
As our lives increasingly tend toward the global, we need a few reminders of home territory. Regional cooking has become ever more valuable.
Washington no longer seems like a Southern city, but its roots are in the South. Georgia Brown's keeps the old traditions alive even as it invents new ones. How wonderful to find a full-dress expense-account restaurant that offers fried chicken gizzards, fried green tomatoes, grits and gumbo and she-crab soup. It's a convivial restaurant, its service finely honed with a gracious Southern lilt.
I don't know anywhere else north of Charleston, S.C., that serves frogmore stew, that lightly buttery amalgam of seafood with plenty of sweet corn, green beans, onions, potatoes and diced tomato. I could wish that the potatoes were more thoroughly cooked, the scallops more flavorful and the head-on shrimp more pristine, but I'm glad to find it even with its flaws. And if the biscuits aren't the very flakiest or the corn sticks are a mite too firm, they're better than most restaurants' boring and flabby French slices. In other words, Georgia Brown's is a comforting presence, no more perfect on close inspection than home turns out to be. 950 15th St. NW. 202-393-4499. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $11.95 to $20.95.
Indian restaurants were once synonymous with low-budget eating, exotic possibilities for inexpensive first dates. A new generation of Indian restaurants has moved upscale, with elegant dining rooms and cooking of no less refinement than we expect from our top European or American restaurants.
A grand birthday celebration in the 21st century won't be limited to French haute cuisine, as it might have been through much of the past century. Heritage India can offer a banquet that's equally festive, at tables gleaming with silver, attended by staff in elaborate costumes. Its ingredients favor fresh seafood and well-bred meats, the cooking is exacting, and the seasonings are exciting. Each dish displays a different palette, its own texture and such intricacy that you're compelled to pause and examine how the spices unfold in every bite. Tandoori meats tingle and explode with juices. Curries might be subtle or powerful, velvety or full of crunch.
Part of the appeal of Indian restaurants today is the opportunity they offer vegetarians to dine sumptuously. Heritage India presents vegetables with all the panache the French reserve for caviar. No longer does ethnic cuisine mean bare tables and cooking that's rough around the edges. 2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-3120. Open: for lunch Sunday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6 to $10.50, dinner $7 to $21.95.
Inn at Little Washington
The best has never been good enough at the Inn at Little Washington. It keeps striving to be better. Two years ago, the leap forward was an extraordinary new kitchen. This year it's a sumptuous lounge plus a charming bar where smokers can congregate. And chef Patrick O'Connell is cooking better than ever. In its 22nd year the Inn looks ready for decades more.
No restaurant anywhere presents a greater sense of generosity, a stronger drive to fulfill its diners' every wish. Dinner starts with a tray of cunning hors d'oeuvres passed at the table, and passed again. Then there's a demitasse of some heady soup. Appetizers present impossible choices, for who can pass up a black-truffle pizza or a boudin blanc that's like velvet? But then there's foie gras, served hot with local ham and huckleberries or chilled with Sauternes gelee. Main courses feature Virginia lamb or venison, local fish or rabbit, mushrooms from nearby woods and vegetables grown to order. For dessert you can return to pizza, this time with rhubarb, or try a triple-chocolate extravaganza or a circus of ice creams.
Yet the Inn is about far more than food. The service, the wine list, the furnishings -- and the prices -- are all this century's utmost. Probably the next century's, too. Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. Open: for dinner Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 6 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 8:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday, except October and May. MC, V. Fixed-price four-course menu: Monday through Thursday $98, Friday and Sunday $108, Saturday $128.
Spain perfected grazing long before we considered anything except a piled-high plate of meat and vegetables a proper meal. And now Spain's tapas tradition seems just right to launch us into a new millennium. We're eating lighter, and faster, over a wide landscape of tastes and with little structure to our meals, at least much of the time. Jaleo fits the moment deliciously.
While the restaurant makes a stellar paella, what really draws us to Jaleo is the tapas, page after page of them. Tapas hot and tapas cold, tapas as salads and tapas that are scaled-down versions of entrees: The choice is far too exciting to confine to one meal. And it revolves with the seasons.
You can stick close to the familiar, with garlic shrimp or imported ham on tomato-rubbed toast. You can celebrate warm weather with soft-shell crabs or oysters dressed with chopped olives, cold weather with a small stew of tripe and sausages. Vegetables alone could fill your table, none more luscious than fried potatoes two-toned under a pair of subtle sauces. And if you've never understood the fuss over anchovies, you can here try some of the world's best, as complex as fine wine. With its sunny service and vibrant decorative tiles, Jaleo can raise the grazing to party intensity.
480 Seventh St. NW. 202-628-7949. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday and Monday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m to midnight; for tapas Sunday and Monday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $12.95, dinner $12.95 to $15.50.
Johnny's Half Shell
As far back as anyone can remember, Washingtonians have yearned for a great deli and a real down-home seafood restaurant. We're still waiting for the deli, but Johnny's Half Shell goes a long way toward fulfilling that seafood need. The cooking is so plain that some might not get it. But if you recognize a classic Maryland crab cake or crab imperial and prefer your rockfish just grilled with a hint of wood smoke, you'll find a home here. Chicken stew with house-made noodles called slippery dumplings also evokes yesteryear, and the humble hot dog is raised to glory.
Appetizers, though, are the stars. Johnny's grills a mean chicken wing, and that darling of the late 20th century, grilled squid, is here crunchy and lemony. Gumbo from the South, clam chowder from Manhattan: The regions are honored.
Keeping in mind our penchant for indulgence, Johnny's devotes some attention to desserts. With house-made coffee ice cream, puckery lemon tart, fresh fruit crisps and cloud-soft chocolate angel food cake, it does the classics proud.
2002 P St. NW. 202-296-2021. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Saturday 3 to 5 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.95 to $18.95, dinner $11.95 to $18.95.
Kaz Sushi Bistro
Asian chefs in this country have long toiled in anonymity. Finally, though, there are exceptions: Arun in Chicago, Nobu in New York and Los Angeles. In Washington, now, we have Kaz Okochi, who has gained fame as a sushi chef skilled not only at reproducing the raw fish dishes of Japanese tradition, but also at creating new variations.
His restaurant is small and only moderately fancy; the focus is on the food -- a parade of a la carte small dishes, bento boxes and sushi variations, plus a few entrees for the conventional. Kaz cuts his own sushi from the whole fish, stocks fresh wasabi and even makes his own soy sauce. All this makes for impeccable sushi and intriguing creations such as raw tuna with foie gras or salmon with mango. Even at dessert, Kaz plays with the classics to create green-tea tiramisu and sake granita. This inventive Asian chef has found something to teach the Italians. 1915 I St. NW. 202-530-5500. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $9.50 to $15.50, dinner $11.25 to $21.
Chef Bob Kinkead looks poised for the 21st century, communicating with his staff through a headset. His mission is also up-to-the-minute: His emphasis is on seafood, his geographic scope is worldwide yet with strong roots in his New England background, his ingredients are the most glorious that modern transportation systems and local agriculture can provide, and his style is luxuriant yet comfortable. This is one of Washington's finest restaurants, yet it's neither extravagant nor formal. And its wine list is a marvel.
Like many restaurants today, Kinkead's shines brightest in its first courses. It's hard to resist the catalogue of oysters, and the list of soups and stews on the raw bar menu could occupy you for a week. The main menu's salads are compelling, and then there are such appetizers as grilled squid on polenta, seafood tamales, fried clams as good as any on the Maine coast and a lime-and-chili-spiked tuna tartare that could be a model for everyone else's.
By the time your entree arrives, you might be nearly full. It would be a shame, though, to miss the crackly-crusted snapper with coconut peanut sauce, the pepita-crusted salmon or the pearly halibut smothered in crab imperial. They're large portions, and their accompaniments -- spoon bread, corn pudding, broccolini -- are often dazzling. Fortunately, Kinkead's has a weak point: desserts. But if you've done justice to the rest of the menu, you won't care. 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-7700. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for light fare daily 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $20, dinner about $21 to $27.
L'Auberge Chez Francois
Since Chez Francois has been unceasingly popular for 46 years -- half of them downtown, before it moved to the country -- it's reasonable to assume it will continue well into the next century. Francois Haeringer may be 80 and recovering from heart surgery, but he's still there every day. And his three sons are carrying on what he has built. Thus this country inn, with its heavy French accent, always keeps up but never changes. It's a restaurant of warmth, of abundance, of tradition.
The meal starts with garlic toast and herbed cottage cheese, plus a small hors d'oeuvre, perhaps a nostalgic slice of quiche. Then comes the five-course fixed-price dinner. The Haeringer family's Alsatian roots show up in choucroutes, in mousse-topped salmon or trout, and on the wine list. The rest of France contributes scallops and shrimp drenched in garlic butter, sweetbreads and foie gras in a puff pastry shell, duck and rabbit and chateaubriand. Sometimes simplest is best, as in an appetizer of local ham topped with asparagus and Parmesan. Desserts are displayed at the entrance, glistening bavarians, Alsatian plum tart and kugelhopf.
But for all the vast choices and elaborate preparations, food is not the star. The service, the folksy dining rooms, the terrace with its masses of flowers are restorative. Where else can you sip champagne with raspberries, dine on a rack of lamb for two fully garnished, and watch deer leap across the horizon in the waning sun? 332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls. 703-759-3800. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 1:30 to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Five-course dinner $38 to $47.
There's room in any era for grandeur. Lespinasse, after the first year of chef Sandro Gamba's regime, is world-class in all aspects. The dining room, regal in blue and gold, has always been magnificent. The service is a blend of French formality and American warmth. And the cooking has the smooth elegance of tradition with the lightness of a modern touch.
It's expensive, to be sure. No other restaurant in the city quite matches its overall prices, nor does any reach its heights of finesse. The four-course fixed-price menu could be considered a bargain at $48. A dinner here starts with the tiniest treat, often a shimmering pale green cucumber jelly the size of an extravagant diamond. Appetizers include sauteed foie gras or a subtler, more complex foie gras ravioli, nearly weightless and anchored with black truffle and paper-thin crisps of artichoke.
Gamba's cooking is pure and deceptively simple. Why, you might ask, do his sauteed morels taste more like mushrooms than nearly any other chef's? Is it that faint moistening of chicken jus? Even his braised veal shank, dark with reduced brown sauce, seems plain but somehow heightened, fuller-flavored than others you recall. Not that he avoids surprises: He teams lobster -- perfect lobster -- with celery root, apple, mache and truffles, and together they taste like chamber music. Desserts are things of beauty, their textures fragile and their flavors intense. Bitter chocolate tart with blood orange sorbet brings a luscious end to a gently thrilling meal. A millennium could hardly want a better beginning. 923 16th St. NW. 202-879-6900. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $33, dinner $15 to $35.
Americans are grazers: We love buffets and tapas and tasting menus. We're also obsessed with eating light. Thus Makoto might be seen as the most American as well as the most Japanese of restaurants. At dinner it serves a 10-course meal that leaves you feeling satisfied yet far from stuffed, and its total fat count could fit on the head of a pin.
This is a tiny restaurant, hidden behind a wooden door. You remove your shoes when you arrive and are invited to sit on backless stools. If you want be entertained, take a place at the sushi bar to watch the chefs. It's a friendly spot.
You can order a la carte from the sushi, yakitori and fixed-price menus, but ordering surcharged items with the full dinner isn't worth the difference. For the basic $40 you'll be served, rapidly and graciously, a progression of seasonal vegetables, miniature still lifes of shellfish, sushi and sashimi, perhaps a tempura, a small grilled entree of fish or beef filet, a buckwheat noodle soup, then dessert, usually a grape ice, and tea. What makes Makoto extraordinary is its range of surprises. Steamed salmon with grated turnip and wasabi-spiked broccoli is a winter dish with summer lightness. Sliced conch in broth is presented in the shell, flaming. Most important, though, Makoto's ingredients are impeccable, from the freshest sushi fish around, to broths of great finesse. 4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW. 202-298-6866. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8.95 to $23, dinner $10 to $23.
The secret to success at this moment in history? Flexibility. And Robert Wiedmaier's got it. This talented chef launched his new restaurant with dishes that he'd devised two restaurants ago and prices too high to allow mistakes. After a rocky start, he's rethought his strategy and revamped the menu, pegging many of the prices 10 to 30 percent lower. Better still, his ideas are fresher and his cooking is surer.
One recent dinner was dazzling, from seared diver scallops in a spectacular saffron broth to a crisp-skinned but silken chicken with cabbage, bacon and mustard, as elegant a bird as ever was roasted. I could find fault, say, with the syrupy sauce on the foie gras, but the few missteps are now far outweighed by successes. Wiedmaier captures the essence of fish, whether commonplace halibut or luxurious Dover sole, highlighting every nuance. And he's introduced more diversity of texture and flavor to his garnishes. The bittersweetness of ending a great meal is reflected, deliciously, in the chocolate praline torte. It leaves you checking your calendar for the next anniversary that needs celebrating . . . here. 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $12 to $15, dinner $17 to $24.
Back before there were restaurants, inns were the only public places to eat. And even at the turn of the century hotels were renowned for grand dining rooms and menus that were encyclopedias of the finest foodstuffs available. As free-standing restaurants developed, though, hotel dining rooms grew fusty and conservative. Now the pendulum has swung back. Hotels can offer a showcase for creative chefs, providing them with a low-risk environment in which to develop.
Brian McBride has had years to build an audience while his talent steadily matured. Now, though his Melrose restaurant in the Park Hyatt provides all the comforts of a newly redone luxury hotel dining room, people come specifically for the food. His menu, like many others, is contemporary American with Asian touches. But dishes that might read as same-old are done better here. Had you given up on seafood ravioli? McBride's are like plump, juicy wontons crossbred with clouds. Did you have in mind a healthfully restrained lunch? His cuisine naturelle leaves out the richness but not the flavor and the excitement. And if, in the American way, you decide to reward yourself for dietetic restraint with a sumptuous dessert, you've come to the right place. You thought you'd tasted great lemon-and-berry tarts before? Compare this one and you might revise your opinion. 1201 24th St. NW. 202-955-3899. Open: for lunch daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner daily 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $15 to $27.50, dinner $24 to $29.
Michel Richard Citronelle
Michel Richard is an original, always eager to swim upstream. Just look at his menu: While most chefs nowadays list each ingredient and its origin, his reads, "Soup -- Alsatian," "Lamb -- Rack served Provencal Style." His patrons have learned to trust him to do something extraordinary; he doesn't need to sell it with menu prose.
Ever since Richard himself took over the Washington branch of his Citronelle chain, the public has showered it with stars. His truly creative mind, overlaid with solid training and decades of experience, has boosted him to the top. That Alsatian soup is made with sauerkraut, rendered as a mildly piquant broth and garnished with smoked salmon, cucumber and caviar -- far more elegant than it sounds. The rack of lamb is coated with a paste of green herbs, and filet mignon is crowned with pommes soufflees, those crisp little potato balloons. The glorious vegetable plate is small globes of vegetables in a bath of pesto.
The patrons who really know Richard, though, don't even look at the menu. They just ask the chef to cook for them, and trust sommelier Mark Slater to choose felicitous matches from the extensive cellar. They've made their decisions for the day; the rest they leave to the resident experts. What could be more appropriate to launching a frantic 21st century? 3000 M St. NW. 202-625-2150. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $16 to $20, dinner $27 to $35.
Few chefs can span old and new, homey and elegant the way Susan McCreight Lindeborg does. Her menu has touches of the Old South -- corn bread, black-eyed peas, hush puppies -- but they're updated. And they mingle so subtly with Indian, Southeast Asian and European flavors that you aren't even alerted to call this fusion food. It's just fine cooking.
Morrison-Clark is a sedate Victorian inn that graciously serves some of the city's most satisfying dishes. Appetizers range from Southern black-eyed pea soup with country ham, to French duck confit with a delightfully delicate bean salad, to fragrant curried couscous salad. Main courses also start in the South, with grilled catfish or salmon cakes with pecans, but roam through an Indian-style salmon with tamarind, Greek lamb, beef with a French duxelles, and some of the best roast chicken you'll find, even though it's upstaged by its fabulous creamed potatoes. For dessert, think American: flawless chess pie and dazzling cheesecakes.
This is an ageless restaurant. And its prices, a giant step down from equivalent menus, should further assure its longevity. 1015 L St. NW. 202-898-1200. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Saturday 6 to 10 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.50 to $15.75, dinner $18.50 to $24.
Morton's of Chicago
The American frontier lives on. We're a country of plains and prairies, known for our beef, served wood-seared and oversize, an evocation of the cowboy and the open range. In spite of all our dietary concerns, steakhouses are ever more popular.
Morton's is the archetype, and still has no peer for overall satisfaction. Flawed though it may be in its details, it lives up to expectations, from the manly dark-wood interior to the heft of its steak knives. The menu is brought to the table in the raw, so you can verify the thickness and marbling of the steak. Everything is so big that you feel shrunk to childhood wonder.
The real wonder is that with so many branches around the country, Morton's porterhouse maintains its consistent stellar quality. Not everything is great: Some Morton's branches look a little basement-like, and the last time I tried the rib-eye and the prime rib, they were distinctly more bland and less juicy than before. But you can easily fashion an impeccable meal from smoked salmon or oysters, some knockout vegetables (try the plain spinach) and the most beefy, flavorful aged sirloin or porterhouse I've found. Most of all, Morton's service has the right attitude: These cave-man portions may be a little ridiculous, but overindulgence sure is fun. 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW 202-955-5997. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8.95 to $21.95, dinner $19.95 to $30.95 (Other locations: 3251 Prospect St. NW, 202-342-6258; 8075 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, 703-883-0800.)
New American cooking has been around long enough that we expect some maturity from it. And that's what we find at New Heights. The menu travels the world, from India to the American Southwest, sweeping ingredients and techniques into its fold. But its complicated juxtapositions don't blunder into the bizarre.
That means the succulent sturgeon sits comfortably with yucca puree and caramelized cherry tomatoes. And a rib-eye of buffalo with herbed fingerling potatoes, asparagus and horseradish is just meat-and-potatoes with a green veg, but better than most.
One of the most perceptive ideas New Heights has promoted is its adventurous dishes that can be ordered as appetizers or entrees. Palak paneer, rooted in tradition, is an exceedingly pretty and rich version of India's curried spinach with house-made cheese. Quinoa-goat cheese dumplings with parsnips and jicama, on the other hand, are a mildly agreeable mishmash.
I miss the service of the early days, when the waiters were intelligent and personable with no hint of officiousness; now they have a glossier veneer. Still, New Heights manages to serve as both a neighborhood restaurant and a destination for consistently interesting contemporary food. 2317 Calvert St. NW. 202-234-4110. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: dinner $17.50 to $26.
Who would have guessed that at the end of the 20th century food safety would still be an issue? It's certainly one of the talking points at Nora, and a significant factor in the restaurant's success. Nora has much to boast of: The water is filtered. The dairy products, grains, produce and meats are organic whenever possible. Even the servers' hemp shirts are environmentally friendly.
Yet Nora is not for brown-rice ascetics. Its ingredients are bright and lush, its dishes represent a world of refined tastes, and its prices are right up there with the most extravagant. The dining room is gracefully decorated with museum-quality quilts, and, with a few exceptions, the staff's smooth choreography assures your comfort.
What about the cooking of all those commendable ingredients? At its best it is simple and superb. The first shad roe of the season is crisp-edged and teamed with bacon and wilted greens in a cider-thyme vinaigrette. Perfect, if you don't count the dry corn bread alongside. In general the vegetables could use a few moments' more cooking. And the plates would benefit from fewer distracting ingredients. Mako shark with jerk spice basmati, avocado-uni vinaigrette, banana-rum salsa and arugula? Nora's impeccable produce, meats and fish are best when fussed with least. 2132 Florida Ave. NW. 202-462-5143. Open: for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: about $22 to $30.
While restaurant cooking grows ever more baroque, these days combining a dozen or more ingredients on one plate, Obelisk keeps it simple. And that's an important element of its growing success. The fixed-price menu offers just a few choices, the tempting wine list can be read in a few minutes, and the cooking is aimed at fulfilling each of its ingredients' promise rather than arranging them into new harmonies. The dining room, too, is lightly adorned, as if meant to be mere background.
Thus Obelisk gives you the opportunity to notice that the bread is remarkably good, that the grated cheese has character, that the tapenade is made from the headiest of olives. Those tiny details have an environment in which to shine. And on a bigger scale, the pastas are some of the most supple anywhere, and the inevitable veal with mushrooms is wildly delicious. As one would expect in such a perfectionist restaurant, the ingredients are fervently seasonal. Almost everything is delicate (with the exception of an overbearing dish of meatballs in tomato sauce). Obelisk has also improved its pastries. From a lemon pie with a dazzling tartness and a fragile almond crust to a dense, dark chocolate hazelnut cake, Obelisk could adjust your attitude toward Italian desserts. 2029 P St. NW. 202-872-1180. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. DC, MC, V. Fixed-price four-course dinner about $47 to $49.
Those hearty-voiced servers at Old Glory aren't really getting younger, it's that you're getting older. This meet-over-meat Georgetown singles mecca is maturing, or at least its clientele is. Some are even bringing their kids for a monumental pulled-pork sandwich or a rack of ribs and a lesson about barbecue sauce from the six house-made regional classics on each table.
Good Old Glory never changes. Well, the biscuits aren't what they used to be, the potato salad has lost its will to live, and the once-great cherry and coconut cobbler has become apple. But this down-home barbecue joint's solid quality has hardly budged. Those sauces are all different and each excellent. The meats are honestly permeated with wood smoke. The cowboy music is as loud as ever, and so is the happy-hour crowd. The chicken wings are some kind of hot and juicy, and the sides still run to fried okra, hoppin' john, hush puppies, mac-and-cheese and real hand-cut shoestring fries. The violently crimson red velvet cake is as dreadful as that classic is supposed to be. Authentic, that's Old Glory. 3139 M St. NW. 202-337-3406. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $6.95 to $13.95.
It's today's version of the red-sauce Italian restaurant. The older we are, the heavier were the Italian sauces of our youth, starting from those sludgy ones that held their shape in the spoon. But the youth of the next century will probably believe that mom-and-pop checked-tablecloth Italian restaurants always served dishes like Pasta Mia's: fresh noodles, in light and vibrant tomato sauces or rich but judiciously applied cream sauces, flavored with sweetly roasted garlic and fresh herbs but not too many. Most of the entrees -- which range all the way from pasta to pasta -- are meatless, and all are served with a good, craggy house-made bread. The soft, white mozzarella, which shows up with prosciutto, tomatoes or roasted peppers as an appetizer, is made here, too. The menu is simple, the service is casual and cheerful, the lines are long and the loyal crowd is too young to realize that the prices are barely higher than those of half a century ago. 1790 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-328-9114. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. MC, V. Entree prices: $7.95 to $11.95.
We've become a nation of fish eaters, so fish, really good fish, is expensive these days. Pesce, though, keeps the prices moderate, even as it serves some of the most succulent seafood in town. It packs tables closely and forgoes such luxuries as tablecloths and fine china. It's not a place for lingering.
Still, Pesce produces some extremely refined food. The menu changes twice a day, and always includes three interesting pastas, a long list of appetizers and a fetching variety of fish entrees. Some of the food is familiar: soft-shell crabs tempura in season, crab cakes, raw oysters, steamed mussels. But Pesce goes beyond the usual, wrapping smoked salmon around tuna tartare and offering a grand cold seafood platter as an appetizer to share, or even a light entree for two. There are dishes for vegetarians, made with produce that matches the quality of the seafood. The mainstay of this small cafe, though, is an unusual array of sparkling fresh fish -- sturgeon, bluefish and walleye pike, along with more routine salmon, grouper and such. Once grilled, pan-fried or roasted perfectly, the fish is teamed with inventive accompaniments ranging from lima-bean-and-chorizo ragout to the season's freshest produce -- say, asparagus and wild mushrooms -- in an Americanized risotto.
The line for tables can be long, but that's no surprise for an agreeable little cafe that is one of the very best fish restaurants in town. Pesce's is a formula that suits our hurried search for quality of life. Eat and run? It's more: Eat very well and run. 2016 P St. NW. 202-466-3474. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch about $12.50 to $16.95, dinner about $13.50 to $22.
Pizza has been going through bad times in this country. Not that it isn't enormously popular -- it seems to have outdistanced the hamburger as the all-purpose American dish. But while a burger remains a burger, pizza has been reinterpreted as everything from a gooey eggless quiche to Chinese stir-fry on a crust. Pizza has gone berserk.
Pizzeria Paradiso is an island of pizza sanity. It produces real pizza: blistery yeast-dough crust, lightly garnished, very simple and pure. The toppings sometimes head upscale (the salty dried roe called bottarga along with a runny egg) or veer off-center (slightly crunchy sliced potatoes). But you can stick to tomato-and-basil or pungent four-cheese, or orchestrate your own combo from such high-quality ingredients as ripe raw tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, aged Parmesan, fresh garlic and vegetables and a few Italian meats. These pizzas don't ooze, they don't squish and they don't drip. They taste wood-smoked and wonderful. And this cheery, clattery little pizzeria also serves fine salads, plus a few top-notch sandwiches. It's all very Italian, except that in Italy you'd have to go elsewhere for your gelato. At Paradiso, that, too, is right here. 2029 P St. NW. 202-223-1245. Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m. DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $5.50 to $15.95.
Rio Grande Cafe
Chain restaurants are clearly riding a wave into the next century. The question is, which ones will last. I'd bet my dinner check on Rio Grande Cafe. Its branches feel like the real Southwest yet part of the neighborhood. They're as noisy as a nursery school at recess -- but no wonder, since they're ideal restaurants to take kids. The servers behave like loving aunts and uncles, the portions are hefty and prices modest, the tortilla machine provides entertainment, and there's nothing in the decor that even the wildest child could destroy.
Most important, the food satisfies the adults paying the bill. The sauces are the real Tex-Mex McCoy, plenty tangy and hot where they're meant to be. The chips are right-from-the-machine fresh. The cooking of late is more flawed than it once was -- the enchilada's chicken dry, the seviche tired -- but it is bolstered by fine guacamole, excellent stewed brown beans, and quesadillas that exude plenty of cheese and spice. And the margaritas taste of fresh lime and an abundance of tequila, which makes everything else better. 4919 Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-2981. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday 3 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 3 to 11:30 p.m.; for brunch Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7.25 to $10.95, dinner $7.95 to $23.75. (Other locations: 4301 North Fairfax Dr., Arlington, 703-528-3131; 1827 Library St., Reston, 703-904-0703.)
On one hand, Rupperts is our most austere luxury restaurant. On the other, it's an adventure. A Washington institution -- Rupperts hardware store -- on a block of urban blight was gutted and refurbished in a kind of modern Shaker simplicity, where the table decoration might be a single vegetable. The room has the hush of a temple; the staff has the ardor of acolytes. The cooking is pure and remarkably plain for its prices.
Rupperts' menu is small, about five choices for each course. Yet it follows the seasons minutely. Burdock root shows up as a springtime soup; peaches appear when fresh, or turn up dried in a sorbet out of season. What makes Rupperts work is the impeccable ingredients -- dewy moist fish, truly flavorful beef, shellfish that strokes your taste buds with its innate sweetness. The cooking is straightforward and the seasoning light, yet imagination shows in such matches as shad roe with grits or steak with oysters and parsnips. With the crisp-skinned, succulent guinea hen, you might get a wonderful, crusty fritter of oatmeal. This is a fresh look at combining ingredients without the over-complication that trips up many young chefs. So if the salt is missing from this starch or that, or the baby turnips are too undercooked to cut, that can be overlooked amid the satisfaction this careful balance of creation and tradition provides. 1017 Seventh St. NW. 202-783-0699. Open: for lunch Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entrees: $25.
In the century just passing, Chinese cooking brought a long succession of fads to this country. Cantonese food, Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwanese, Hong Kong -- each had its day. Now, though, Chinese restaurants seem to grow fewer each year -- and duller.
For that reason I'm more grateful than ever for Seven Seas, a Chinese restaurant that still seems vigorous. You can watch finfish swimming or Dungeness crabs and lobsters crawling in tanks, then choose one for your dinner. The menu also lists scallops cooked in their shells, abalone, conch, clams giant and tiny, and much more. Even if the black bean sauce is heavy on the cornstarch and the black cod needs a little more cooking, the freshness of the fish and the astonishing choice compensate.
But don't stop at seafood to discover Chinese dishes that are way beyond the ordinary. Smoked ham with garlic greens shows us a delicious new wrinkle on a Southern American combination. And the moo shu pork on the Chinese menu (don't settle for the American menu) is a fascinating amalgam of old-fashioned egg foo yung, transparent noodles and everyday moo shu. If Chinese restaurants are an endangered species, this will certainly hang on as one of the last and hardiest. 1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville. 301-770-5020. Open: daily 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $7.25 to $20.95. (Other location: 8503 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-345-5807.)
It's not as old as its name suggests or its dining rooms look, but 1789 does have 37 years under its belt. And there's every reason to expect it to thrive for many more. It's a bastion of Georgetown tradition: the place where Georgetown University alumni take their undergraduate offspring to celebrate, and the dining spot of choice when the university has an important visitor to impress. Its warren of dining rooms range in style from Federal formal to pub plaid, but all are decorated handsomely, and the service throughout strives for Old World dignity.
Under chef Ris Lacoste's direction, the menu has continually been modernized, even though the richness and portion size hark back to an earlier age. Lacoste is profligate with nut crusts, crunchy bits of bacon and accents of cheese. Her oyster stew tastes of both walnuts and pancetta as well as the richest cream. Her crab cakes are slathered with a buttery sauce.
Seafood is a specialty. Lacoste knows to cook tuna rare, salmon barely pink and scallops shimmering just beyond raw. And their quality is tops. Whatever faltering is found in her kitchen stems from excess -- too many ingredients, a cacophony of flavors. And since her style is a high-wire act depending on delicate balance, it is easy to tell when the chef is not in the kitchen and an understudy is trying to carry it off. Not that those flaws disrupt the commitment of this restaurant's loyal fans. 1226 36th St. NW. 202-965-1789. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: about $18 to $32.
Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria
After surviving 71 years of social change without varying its mission of serving plain, home-style food at rock-bottom prices, Sholl's has been in danger of expiring before the millennium. It's not technology or shifting population centers or cholesterol that have threatened this Washington institution. It's simply that Sholl's couldn't sell enough $3 meatloaf-and-mashed to keep up with a substantial rent hike. Fortunately, a compromise has been reached.
One wonders what would happen if Sholl's closed its doors. Where would the regulars, who greet each other like neighbors, go for their old-fashioned, well-balanced dinners with shredded-carrot salads and spoon bread? Where could old and young, rich and poor meet over a bowl of chunky vegetable soup? Where might staffs of the nearby offices still find such nearly extinct desserts as rice pudding and baked custard? Where would the bus loads of school-kids fill up on real biscuits before their days of sightseeing? What could anchor the new downtown to the old? 1990 K St. NW. 202-296-3065. Open: for breakfast Monday through Saturday 7 to 10:30 a.m.; for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m; for dinner Monday through Saturday 4 to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday. Cash only. Entree prices: $1.75 to $5.75.
Nobody could have predicted that raw fish would become such a mainstream American favorite. Certainly when Sushi-Ko opened decades ago, sushi was only for the adventurous.
It still is food for adventurers, at least at this ambitious Japanese restaurant. Sushi-Ko maintains two chefs -- one Japanese and one American -- who, in addition to preparing the usual array of Japanese cuisine, invent fish dishes with a Japanese sensibility and delicate American touches. (The American touches aren't as consistently successful as the pure Japanese.) They go to great lengths to bring in ingredients worthy of attention: seafood from Alaska that is rarely found here or, on occasion, imported Kobe beef.
Sushi-Ko respects Japanese tradition with fresh wasabi as well as the usual powdered green horseradish, and with a painstakingly acquired selection of sakes. Yet it creatively matches its food with French wines, too.
Washington has many sushi restaurants, and many good ones. Part of the reason is that Sushi-Ko set a high standard as the first sushi bar this city ever saw. 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-4187. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $18.50, dinner $10.50 to $18.50.
Taberna del Alabardero
Few restaurants embody the term Old World as thoroughly as Taberna del Alabardero. Its dining room is Spanish Victorian, with lace headrests against the cushy banquettes, and everything is Very Proper.
Sometimes Taberna's correctness translates into fine traditional food and service. Other times the food is too simplistic for the prices, and the service makes you feel like part of the furniture. I suspect that a hand-tailored suit and a European accent bring a customer more personal attention. The menu is intriguing: an attractive array of tapas, three kinds of paella, appetizers of softly scrambled eggs with Spanish ham, very fresh fish, complex stews and braised meats. At its best, Taberna's cooking is distinctively Spanish. Yet much of it is simply Western.
In other words, Taberna depicts our hopes and fears of a European Union. Regionalism vs. internationalism. Local style vs. mass-market anonymity. It's a classic, though it sometimes reminds us why few of them have survived. 1776 I St. NW. 202-429-2200. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m.; for tapas Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $17 to $22, dinner $22.50 to $32.
In our mass society, we are ever more hungry for something personal, something distinctive. Thus we increasingly revere regional cooking. Although Washington hasn't much of its own, we borrow from the Eastern Shore and we latch onto the South.
Vidalia isn't exactly the Southern restaurant its name suggests. It's the expression of Jeff Buben's hearty eclectic-American style influenced by his Southern wife, Sallie. The bread basket contains corn bread and biscuits, yes, but also Vidalia-onion focaccia (none quite as good as before the Bubens opened their second restaurant, Bistro Bis). The menu encompasses grits cakes and foie gras, mushroom-crusted halibut and a mainstream thick steak. It would be a shame to miss the shrimp and grits, its shrimp so sweet you'll know they've never been frozen, and the grits both coarse and creamy. Or look for international dishes with a Southern touch, like monkfish wrapped with country ham. Certainly indulge yourself with a cream-drenched Vidalia onion casserole.
For all its down-home emphasis, Vidalia is well versed in luxuries. Every ingredient is prime. The wine list excels, and its reasonable prices encourage you to drink well. Despite Vidalia's downstairs location, its sunny yellow dining room feels like a very comfortable home. 1990 M St. NW. 202-659-1990. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9:30 p.m. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12.50 to $18.75, dinner $19.50 to $27.50.
This isn't exactly fusion food, it's more like postmodern pan-Asian seafood. Nothing bizarre, mind you. These are familiar Asian dishes, refined and beautified.
Yanyu offers two moods, a casual downstairs and more formal second floor, but both are small and personal. The menu stretches from humble fried rice dressed up with smoked eel to luxurious shark's fin soup. And every ceramic plate or lacquer box is a work of art, as is the food it displays.
The Chinese vegetables we usually find canned -- bamboo shoots, lotus roots -- are here served fresh. Fish we think of as daily fare -- cod, Chilean sea bass -- are cooked and seasoned royally. Never will you see larger shrimp, or more garlic smothering them, than in Yanyu's salt-baked version. But just because this is a seafood restaurant, don't ignore the meat -- particularly fowl. For a better, more elegant Peking duck you'd probably have to go to Beijing. And kung pao chicken shows you how crackling and juicy a bird can be.
Yanyu has reminded us that glamour and extravagance weren't invented by French or Italian restaurants. And that all the best restaurants aren't downtown. 3435 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-686-6968. Open: for dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $14 to $32.
Zuki Moon Noodles
As long as the lights at the Kennedy Center continue to shine, Zuki Moon will be a pivotal restaurant in Washington's cultural life. It's the only place within walking distance for a meal of grace and quality at a moderate price.
Chef Mary Richter has designed a menu of Japanese-style hot and cold appetizers, grills and noodle soups. The appetizers are particularly good, vibrant salads and a refreshing variation on sushi rolls made with soba noodles instead of rice. Dumplings, though their wrappers are delicate, sometimes need more seasoning and a lighter touch. On the grills-and-entrees side, poached halibut in miso and mushroom broth has been brilliant, its spinach somehow raised to particular glory. Grilled fish with sticky rice, vegetable garnishes and crunchy bits of fried ginger is satisfying without being heavy. This is food that leaves you alert for the opera.
While Zuki Moon is a charmer, it hasn't made much accommodation to comfort. I keep wishing for a little less austerity -- in the kindergarten-size painted wood chairs and in the broths for the noodle soups.
But who's to quarrel with a friendly, cheerful restaurant that provides light, quick and utterly fresh little meals for before or after the theater? It pays great attention to the needs of vegetarians without ignoring carnivores. It offers a generous array of beverages, from fruit juices to wines and beers, and a serious selection of teas. No wonder Zuki Moon has a faithful following, even among people who aren't going to the Kennedy Center. 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-333-3312. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $8.50 to $16.95..
Restaurants by cuisine
Cashion's Eat Place
Inn at Little Washington
Morton's of Chicago
Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria
Ching Ching Cha
L'Auberge Chez Francois
Michel Richard Citronelle
Kaz Sushi Bistro
Zuki Moon Noodles
Taberna del Alaberdero
Johnny's Half Shell
Rio Grande Cafe
Restaurants by Locale
District of Columbia
Cashion's Eat Place
Kaz Sushi Bistro
Morton's of Chicago
Sholl's Colonial Cafeteria
Taberna del Alabardero
Johnny's Half Shell
Zuki Moon Noodles
Ching Ching Cha
Michel Richard Citronelle
Morton's of Chicago
Seventh Street Area
Rio Grande Cafe
Rio Grande Cafe
L'Auberge Chez Francois
Rio Grande Cafe
Morton's of Chicago
Inn at Little Washington