It's the question every restaurant critic hears -- and tries to beg off answering: What's your favorite restaurant?
"Favorite restaurant for what?" is how I'm likely to respond. A date? Dinner with the kids? Something French, or Japanese? I could no more easily pick a single favorite venue out of the crowded field of contenders than I could prepare every recipe in The Joy of Cooking in a week. There's no one restaurant I'd want to eat in every day. On the other hand, there are plenty of places I admire for different reasons and on different occasions, and, after four months of table-hopping in the name of research, I want to share them with you in this, my fifth annual dining guide.
Keep in mind, this isn't a list of "bests" -- though those restaurants are well-represented -- but rather a collection of places near and far, grand and plain, pricey and cheap, fun and serious, that call to me right now. The one characteristic they share is that each makes Washington and its environs a more delicious region to eat in.
You may be wondering why your favorite isn't here. There are several reasons, the obvious one being that we all have different tastes. Beyond that, a number of my previous favorites were in transition as this survey was being prepared. The Oval Room recently lost its chef, and Zest was relocating from Monrovia to Frederick. Other places -- including some very well-known restaurants -- just didn't seem to be performing as smoothly or as winningly as I remembered them from previous seasons. Indeed, the list of restaurants that I am no longer eager to send people to proved sadly long. Some establishments are too new; they need some age on them before I can count them as favorites. Simply because a place didn't make my list of favorites this year doesn't mean I don't appreciate it, just that there's probably a competitor I prefer. Washington has plenty of respectable steakhouses, for example, but if I'm paying for the pleasure myself, Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill or Ray's the Steaks in Arlington is probably where I'll end up.
Since last year's dining guide, the Washington restaurant scene has shifted, and mostly in exciting directions. Thai and Indian eateries are growing in number -- and improving in quality. Little details here and there underscore raised standards: Fresh wasabi is the new norm in Japanese restaurants, and even unpretentious neighborhood spots are offering their customers an amuse-bouche (a bonus nibble from the chef) before dinner gets started. Red wine is still being served too warm, and vegetarians continue to have to hunt for good things to eat on too many menus, but bread baskets are more interesting and drinks are garnering headlines of their own. Plus, bursts of creative energy from chefs hyped (Michel Richard, Jose Andres) and chefs lesser-known (Jamison Blankenship, Cathal Armstrong) are helping to keep Washington firmly on the national culinary map.
A small confession: I had trouble winnowing my favorites to a mere 52. I hope to have the same problem next year. And I hope you'll dine better than ever in the months to come.
Tom Sietsema is The Post's food critic. He will be fielding questions and comments about this issue Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.