A&J (2 stars)

The original is in Rockville, the spinoff in Annandale. Both are small, both serve dim sum -- and both always seem to be packed. It's not that people come here to be pampered: At the Rockville branch, I've watched servers shout back and forth to one another across the dining room, and in Annandale, my friends and I have waited shoulder to shoulder in a cramped entrance. And yet, there are plenty of reasons to seek out these snug Chinese restaurants. One of them is the succulent smoked chicken. A second is a salad of mustard greens tossed with soy beans and bean curd skin. And while you're ordering from the mile-long list, why not throw in some tart pickled cabbage, a restorative bowl of pork and radish soup, and "pan fried beef bun," which comes off like a juicy hamburger with an Asian accent? All are very good. The food comes out fast, making the restaurants good choices for families, and the prices can't be beat: For less than $10, you feel as if you've feasted.

1319-C Rockville Pike (near Templeton Place), Rockville. 301-251-7878. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. Cash or check only. Small plates 85 cents to $5.65. Other location: 4316-B Markham St., Annandale, 703-813-8181.

Addie's (2 stars)

Set in an old bungalow, Addie's still looks like someone's home. One room is a soft yellow, the other a soothing shade of green, and both wrap their customers in a warm embrace of comfort, with old food advertisements on the walls and easy, attentive service. The food looks backward and forward at the same time: Homey roast chicken makes an appearance with fresh asparagus, tiny carrots -- and a base of orzo made creamy with mascarpone. More straightforward, but equally inviting, is a grilled rib-eye steak with mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach and a top of lacy onion rings that quickly disappear as everyone at the table reaches over to try them while they're hot. Yellowfin tuna is edged with sesame seeds and then barely cooked, so that the fish resembles sashimi; sticky rice, cucumber salad and a glaze of wasabi and soy sauce give the dish an Asian accent. Don't let your meal end until you've tried a sliver of the chocolate mint torte. "It's like an after-dinner mint," our waitress said, and she was right. Chef Mallory Buford and his crew will make you happy you braved Rockville Pike during rush hour.

11120 Rockville Pike (near Edson Lane), Rockville. 301-881-0081. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; for dinner Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $12.95, dinner $18 to $27.

Bistro Francais (2 stars)

On one side of me, some Japanese businessmen are breaking bread; on the other, a couple of well-coiffed gal pals are complaining about a third who never bothers to invite them over. The remaining seats appear to be filled by tourists and solo diners. Sooner or later, it seems, everyone comes to this nearly three-decade-old bistro in Georgetown. Its lures are legion, starting with a three-course lunch deal that throws in a glass of wine, all for $14.95. The schedule (open till 3 a.m. or later every night) is one discerning night owls can appreciate. The food? It's French, and satisfying. From the standing menu come a robust fish soup, rich homemade liver mousse, lamb steak nuzzled with sauteed potatoes for when you're ravenous and four kinds of omelet for when you want something light. The list of specials can be a dozen dishes long; cold poached salmon with a biting watercress sauce was one recent winner. Seating is knee to knee, but the service is breezy and professional. And the setting -- dark wood, brass rails, big mirrors and yellow lighting -- transports you to a neighborhood joint in Paris, if only for the duration of a meal.

3124-28 M St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue). 202-338-3830. www.bistrofrancaisdc.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily; for brunch Saturday and Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.50 to $17.95, dinner $14.95 to $25.95.

Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern (3 stars)

"And finally," the waitress says, concluding her litany of what's good at Colvin Run Tavern, "if you don't know what to order, just close your eyes and point anywhere on the menu. You'll be happy." Such confidence! And, as it turns out, a pretty accurate prediction. Cod gets a coat of buttery crumbs and an elegant lobster sauce; pork rack arrives moist and full of flavor; and red snapper comes to the table with a flurry of bold Mediterranean accents. This is a kitchen that likes lots of flourishes, yet, busy as the plates are, they tend to work. Desserts are the weakest link. Lemon tart is achingly sweet (though the tiny lemon souffle is a hit) and a bourbon-infused twist on creme brulee falls flat with the odd inclusion of dense layers of phyllo. Still, the welcome is warm, and there's live piano music in the foyer. A tip: Of the four themed dining rooms, the Charleston is the most elegant, the Shenandoah comfortably rustic.

In Fairfax Square, 8045 Leesburg Pike (near Gallows Road), Tysons Corner. 703-356-9500. www.kinkead.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $21, dinner $24 to $40.

Breadline (2 stars)

I time my visits to this self-service bakery-cafe according to the day of the week, knowing that on Thursday, for instance, I can always find the best Cuban roast pork sandwich around (and knowing that mornings are less noisy and less crowded than just after noon). Tuesday, on the other hand, compels me to order a bowl of peanut soup, smooth with coconut milk and kicky with cayenne and ginger. Actually, I always find something to admire here. The hefty BLT, made with tangy whole-wheat bread, thick, smoky bacon and summery tomatoes, is a model of simplicity and good taste; the beef empanadas send me to Argentina with every bite; the french fries spoil me for any that aren't similarly hand-cut and twice-fried; and the chocolate cupcakes, fine-crumbed and frosted, hark back to kinder, gentler times. Did I mention the recent arrival of three types of hot dogs (and made-from-scratch toppings)? As always, I'll be up-front: Owner Mark Furstenberg, the occasionally cranky man behind the counter, is a longtime friend of mine. But he's a purist, with the noteworthy aim of serving you the very best fast food he can, in an industrial setting warmed up with old photos of bakeries on tangerine-colored walls.

1751 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (near 18th Street). 202-822-8900. Open: for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $4.90 to $7.50.

Buck's Fishing & Camping (3 stars)

There's a canoe over my head and some incredibly good shrimp and grits on my plate. I'm in heaven. Except that I'm really at Buck's Fishing & Camping, where the arty environs are casual but the food shows true finesse. Everyone seems to have a story about chef Carole Greenwood, the talented but tough-talking mistress of the house, and her curious knack for offending customers. But my story would end like this: She really knows what she's doing in the kitchen. Her menu isn't very long, but there's rarely a clinker in the bunch. Buck's inches-thick prime sirloin heaped with golden fries of real flavor remains one of the best steaks in town, and its whole, wood-grilled fish (hopefully branzino) with greens and lemon rivals that of any Mediterranean restaurant around. Dinner should start with whatever seasonally inspired soup or salad is playing, or chicken livers flavored with ground pistachios and generously spread on toasted bread. Dessert turns the clock back, to a time when people thought to make pie and when chocolate cake didn't involve a molten center. Diets be damned! Co-owner James Alefantis plays the role of Boy Scout, guiding you to interesting wines and helping smooth over any ruffled feathers.

5031 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Nebraska Avenue). 202-364-0777. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: $14 to $32.

Cashion's Eat Place (3 stars)

The script on the menu is a telling detail: The choices are written in the fine hand of chef Ann Cashion. The black-and-white photos scattered throughout the softly lighted restaurant? Some of them capture moments from the lives of Cashion and her business partner, John Fulchino. And the wine list reflects a desire to enlighten diners as much as to ensure that they drink well. Such personal touches suggest that someone is home and cares about your well-being. A few hit dishes on the French- and Mediterranean-inspired menu are frequently available, and thank goodness for that. I'd hate to miss the delicate leek-and-goat-cheese tart or the curried mussels with spinach. Yet there's always plenty to tempt regulars away from the tried and true. Pork is a sure bet; hope to find the meat shredded and cooked with orange, with salsa on the side and tortillas for wrapping. And the kitchen fries like a dream. If you think that's hyperbole, you haven't sampled Cashion's fried seafood -- nubby oysters, golden scallops and crackling squid served with homemade tartar sauce and tangy pickles for balance. Service is casual and smart; dessert is worth sticking around for. Cornmeal pound cake sounds like Betty Crocker but tastes like Julia Child -- not too sweet and gilded with maple whipped cream and fresh diced apple.

1819 Columbia Rd. NW (near Mintwood Place). 202-797-1819. www.cashionseatplace.com. Open: for brunch and dinner Sunday; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: dinner $19 to $30.

Charlie Palmer Steak (3 stars)

When the question is "Where should we go for steak in the city?" my reply tends to be "Charlie Palmer on the Hill." In a town packed with places to dig into big slabs of meat, this import from New York distinguishes itself with cuts of character, a top-notch wine list and a dining room that sidesteps traditional macho steakhouse decor for something sleek and elegant (check out the moat around the ground-floor wine "cellar" and the pastoral mural in the semiprivate rear room). Rib-eye is thick and juicy, with the prized mineral quality that comes only from dry-aged beef. Almost as good is shell steak scattered with soft cloves of roasted garlic. And the side dishes go well beyond the usual potatoes and spinach to include french fries with chili mayonnaise, tender baby carrots and sweet peas, or maybe summery green beans with diced tomato that taste as if they've been hijacked from a Southern church social. A serious talent, chef Bryan Voltaggio isn't content to stop there, however. His duck -- onfit and slices of crisp-edged breast -- with juicy cherries and endive "marmalade" is a pleasure, while monkfish swaddled in prosciutto shows he knows his way around seafood, too. The people who take orders are polished but never stuffy, and the ace sommelier can tip you off to uncommon liquid charms. Who knew that Arizona makes a zinfandel you'd want to try again?

101 Constitution Ave. NW (entrance on First Street at Louisiana Avenue). 202-547-8100. www.charliepalmer.com/steak_dc. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $23, dinner $21 to $41.

China Star (2 stars)

Some like it hot, and for them there's this spartan Chinese restaurant, whose rambling menu features Sichuan dishes that don't pull any punches. Slices of cold beef brushed with chili oil, and pork mixed with salty-sour green beans and roasted red chili peppers set off four-alarm fires on your tongue, though their individual flavors manage not to get lost in the flames. Look around at what your neighbors, mostly Asians, are eating, and follow suit. Chances are good that they're ordering from among the specials printed in Chinese, but helpfully translated by the efficient wait staff; the selections change from day to day but might include pig's feet, flounder with diced pepper, beef hot pot and stewed chicken. With more than 100 dishes on the full menu, getting bored is not an option. Tables are packed together, and decoration is limited to a mural of the Great Wall. There are more comfortable Chinese restaurants around, but few that can sustain your interest longer. What looks like a yellow football making its way to so many tables turns out to be a scallion "pancake." It deflates when it's pierced, sending a puff of steam into the air -- and customers' fingers flying.

In Fair City Mall, 9600-G Main St. (near Pickett Road), Fairfax. 703-323-8822. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. V, MC. Entree prices: lunch $4.25 to $13.95, dinner $6.25 to $13.95.

Colorado Kitchen (2 stars)

The cheery red chairs, pressed-tin ceiling and framed vintage food advertisements say yesteryear, and so does much of the comforting American menu, which embraces meatloaf, roast chicken and pineapple upside-down cake. Yet the food, fresh and seasonal, is also very much of the moment. Chef Gillian Clark enhances that meatloaf with black currant gravy, and turns monkfish into schnitzel (the fish is paved in Japanese bread crumbs, sauteed and served with soft dumplings). This is a highly personal and slightly quirky oasis, where dinner might start with a taste of whatever the chef made that day (dig that corn chowder!). A trip to the bathroom, which is papered with dozens of homey recipes, may have you looking for pad and pen to copy them down (hey, that lemon pudding sounds nice). Service runs a bit more chipper than in the early days, but the food can still take a while to reach you, even when the place isn't crowded. Good news for those who might want beer or wine with their meal: The restaurant has applied for a license to pour them. Clark's shrimp and grits really deserve something stronger than fresh-squeezed lemonade, good as it is.

5515 Colorado Ave. NW (near 14th Street). 202-545-8280. Open: for lunch and dinner Friday; for brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday; for dinner Wednesday and Thursday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $9.50, dinner $12.50 to $17.50.

Corduroy (3 stars)

Tom Power is probably the least famous of Washington's culinary heroes, a situation exacerbated by a dining room that's removed from the downtown action, on the second floor of a minor hotel. Take advantage of that. If you want peace and quiet, you're likely to find it here, where the previously stark space has been jazzed up with shimmering metal curtains, mirrors and warmer lighting. Power once worked for the demanding Michel Richard, and the tutelage is evident everywhere on Corduroy's menu, a focused collection of dishes that revel in good ingredients and simple execution. Power's plump steak offers heft, chew and real savor, and comes with delicious pan juices and a stack of thin french fries dusted with parsley flecks -- a steak frites a French chef would be happy to call his own. Crisp-skinned striped bass rests on a sushi rice cake redolent of fresh ginger. It's a beautiful marriage between East and West. There are also flossy salads, lovely single-size pizzas, sometimes a fluffy omelet built around whatever mushrooms are in season and soups that sound plain but never are. The glory is in the details: good bread, nice wines by the (elegant) glass and a chef who seems never to be away from his stove.

In Four Points by Sheraton hotel, 1201 K St. NW (at 12th Street). 202-589-0699. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $17, dinner $18 to $29.

DC Coast (2 stars)

You don't have to be a fish eater to appreciate this titanic ode to the bounty of the sea. Indeed, one of the best dishes I found on a recent visit was a mighty pork chop flanked by sweet potato puree and crisp green beans. Of course, you're in (mostly) fine hands if you do eat seafood. Tender mussels in a heavy pot of sweet broth make for an appetizer of distinction, and the "tower of crab" -- built from a soft-shell crab, a crab cake and spunky corn relish -- is a delicious whimsy. The kitchen also has fun with fried oysters, treating them as if they were Buffalo chicken wings, which means the oysters are fried and accompanied by a "dip" of crumbled blue cheese and butter spiked with hot sauce. I tried, and failed, to restrain myself. Striped bass swims to the table fried, and whole. "Would you like me to show you?" a waitress asks. Nod "yes," and she expertly separates flesh from bone, and even spears a bite of fish for you to taste. A dunk in the garlic-and-soy dipping sauce adds zip. Lesser moments -- an oily lobster bisque, sludgy fruit sorbets -- sometimes surface. But such bumps tend to be smoothed over by the likes of a hot chocolate souffle or a tangy lemon meringue "pie," cleverly staged in a small Mason jar with thin cookies and a dab of blueberry sauce. All this in a two-story room with a stage set of an open kitchen and a crowd of people who look pleased to be on board.

1401 K St. NW (at 14th Street). 202-216-5988. www.dccoast.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $14 to $18, dinner $19 to $29.

El Guajiro (1 star)

Don't come here looking for ambience. This tiny storefront dining room looks as if it had been put together with a few knickknacks from home and after a quick weekend paint job. Proving that good things come in small packages, however, co-owner Geny Vega whips up some seriously satisfying Cuban food, using her family recipes, in a kitchen little bigger than a phone booth. A proper introduction comes by way of the crescent-shaped empanadas, generously stuffed with onion-laced ground beef or moist shredded chicken. "Better than I had in Cuba!" a globe-trotting pal of mine announces, polishing them off. Nuggets of fried chicken and thick slices of yuca are better for their sauce of garlic and lime. However, despite all the right ingredients -- roasted pork, cheese, pickles, ham -- a Cuban sandwich is woefully dry and disappointing. Not so the ropa vieja, a model of soft, sweet, shredded beef sharpened with olives and bell peppers and arranged around a mound of rice and creamy-centered plantains. Black beans are good, not great. Beer-seasoned chicken buried in a mountain of pea-flecked yellow rice will fuel you for today and tomorrow. (Burp.) Cineastes, take note: El Guajiro sits down the street from the restored AFI Theater.

8650 Colesville Rd. (near Georgia Avenue), Silver Spring. 301-565-4985. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. V, MC. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $9.95, dinner $7.95 to $12.95.

Equinox (3 stars)

It's the adjectives that seduce me at chef Todd Gray's modern American restaurant, where the pedigree of many ingredients is a source of pride. Thus the halibut is "wild," the beef strip loin is "organic," and the noodles are "house made." Haven't been in a while? The format at Equinox has switched from the standard a la carte to a tasting menu -- take your pick from three-, four- or six-course options and categories including pasta, fish and cheese. A single sweet diver scallop paired with a salad of grilled mushrooms and toasted walnuts yields quiet perfection. Pasta aficionados might head for the cheese-filled risotto fritters lapped with tomato butter, and carnivores will savor every slice of the grilled beef, set atop beans and ignited with a green peppercorn sauce. The garlic crust on the wild halibut is too damp, but the fish itself is cooked with care. The season dictates the dessert menu; late summer brought peaches in a croustade with lemon thyme gelato, and blueberries celebrated three different ways, including in a bite-size shortcake. Notice the room? Equinox is prettier than ever, thanks to a fanciful paint job that better shows off the shallot-shaped sconces.

818 Connecticut Ave. NW (near I Street). 202-331-8118. www.equinoxrestaurant.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Lunch entrees $18 to $27; fixed-price dinner $55 to $85.

Firefly (2 stars)

I wouldn't have to eat a morsel of food to be taken with Firefly. The faux tree dangling tiny lanterns from its limbs and the stone wall framing the kitchen prompt me to imagine indoors is out while the gentle, honeyed lighting at dinner suggests early evening in the country. Much of chef John Wabeck's food plays along with the easygoing theme. When I last dropped in, tomatoes in three colors, splashed with balsamic vinegar, and silken salmon carpaccio over thin slices of juicy melon signaled summer in every forkful. Nothing is overly complicated, but plenty is simply swell. Lamb steak with chard (hold the watery mac-and-cheese) is comfort food with class; tomato risotto comes swirled with fresh marjoram and pancetta; and it's fun to see a chef who eschews the ubiquitous salmon for something more daring, such as mackerel with rapini and a drizzle of chive oil. Sublime stuff. Pork-and-chicken spring rolls, nicely crisp on the outside, prove oddly mushy inside, and desserts could use a jump-start. But you'll drink well (Wabeck is a grape nut) and feel cosseted (the chef sometimes forsakes his white jacket and the stove for civilian dress and the dining room, where he plays host).

1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW (near N Street). 202-861-1310. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $11.50 to $16, dinner $16 to $26.50.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds (2 stars)

Its charms begin with the setting, an old house in the country, and continue with the warm biscuits in the bread basket. Quaint as that picture sounds, there is some serious -- and worldly -- food going on in chef and co-owner Heidi Morf's kitchen. Sure, you might be downstairs surrounded by flowery wallpaper and stone walls, but you also might be eating delicious, bite-size spicy tuna rolls, with chopsticks. Or chicken (a tad dry) with a nice Moroccan accent. There's no getting tired of the menu, because it changes every month or so. Grilled beef tenderloin, a recent feature, was a shade overcooked but still appealing, with its spiky potato cakes and tempura green beans. And the delicate cheese tart whispers of fresh thyme in its crust. Don't hit the road until after dessert, which trumpets the season and tickles the palate. Lately the options have included a plum upside-down cake made with local fruit and a breezy lime custard served with buttery citrus-poppy seed cookies. Lovely. The service is neighborly and knowledgeable, and if it seems to be taking too long between courses on a Saturday night, well, there's live harp music to distract you.

650 Zachary Taylor Hwy. (at Cresthill Road), Flint Hill, Va. 540-675-1111. www.fourandtwenty.com. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Saturday; for brunch Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. D, MC, V. Entree prices: dinner $24 to $32.

Guajillo (2 stars)

While the Mexican restaurant of my dreams continues to elude me in Washington, a few get points for trying harder than others. One of the handful of places that routinely rise above the routine is Guajillo, which takes its name from a chili pepper and is handsomely dressed with burnt-orange walls, "cloudy" blue skies on the ceiling and scooped cowhide chairs. Details count here. Light chips come with a dusky salsa and a side of pale orange habanero sauce, "if you like it hotter," a server explains. Fried cheese with peppers and onions -- queso fundido -- is not any better than the competition, but the chicken tamales are, thanks to their dark red sauce. Still, the best memories tend to be made from the list of specials. "Three flavor" mole reminds us that there's more than the famous chocolate-and-nut sauce in the Mexican repertoire; equally haunting are the green mole, made with tomatillo and pumpkin seeds, and the red mole, with three different chilies. In the pork carnitas, tender chunks of meat are arranged with bright guacamole, black beans and a quesadilla fat with cheese and the corn fungus known as huitlacoche; the whole assembly amounts to a strapping feast, prettily served on banana leaf.

1727 Wilson Blvd. (near North Rhodes Street), Arlington. 703-807-0840. www.guajillogrill.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; for brunch and dinner Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $15, dinner $9 to $18.

Heritage India (3 stars)

One day, Heritage India might decide to train its staff to better interact with its clientele, so as not to give diners the impression of rushing them through their meals -- or forgetting them altogether. Despite that annoying habit, the two-story dining room in Glover Park (there's also a branch downtown) gets my nod for Indian cooking that is as sophisticated as it gets in Washington. There's much to compete for your attention, from delicate vegetable fritters to juicy chicken tikka, from zesty strips of grouper blended with tomatoes and peppers to velvety baby eggplant draped in a creamy sesame sauce. Herb-laced spinach, possibly the best palak makai in town, reminds me that the menu welcomes vegetarians with open arms, while the lamb vindaloo beckons (and satisfies) fire eaters. The sauces are distinct, the tandoor-baked breads hot and tasty. And the setting is at once rich and comfortable. Heritage India's spacious dining areas are painted in soothing pumpkin colors, graced with handsome portraits and swathed in elegant fabrics.

2400 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-3120. www.heritageindia.biz. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $10.95, dinner $8.95 to $23.50. Other location: 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-331-1414.

Huong Que/Four Sisters Restaurant (2 stars)

The buzz on the grapevine about this, my longtime favorite spot for Vietnamese food, made me curious to pay it a visit. Was the restaurant affectionately known as Four Sisters, for the young women who work there, resting on its abundant laurels? A bite of one of the house specialties, sauteed shrimp with walnuts, revealed less than sparklingly fresh seafood. And the giant yellow rice crepe stuffed with "shrimp, pork and steamed bean sprouts" was skimpy on the protein and overwhelmed with sprouts. My heart sank. Then I sampled a plate of tender squid tossed with pleasantly sour cabbage. Delicious! Shrimp toast showed delicacy, and sweetly spiced morsels of meat from skewers of beef found a fine home inside sheer rice wraps, bundled with rice noodles and bright herbs. Asparagus punched up with slivers of garlic glistened. At least a couple of the four sisters were in evidence at that meal, pampering their many guests and showing newcomers how to eat this or dip that. "Do you work 24 hours a day?" a regular customer asked one of the siblings. "No, just 23," she shot back with a smile. Not every dish is wonderful at Huong Que, but the service always is.

In Eden Center, 6769 Wilson Blvd. (near Arlington Boulevard), Falls Church. 703-538-6717. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $5.95 to $24.95.

Inn at Easton (3 stars)

Newcomers to this Federal manse all have the same question. "What are bay bugs?" they ask their servers, who inevitably smile and explain that the menu item is not what they assume but, rather, slipper lobsters from Australia (and delicious, by the way, done up with anchovy butter and mango chips). Chef Andrew Evans's cooking, staged in a serene space, is full of similarly unexpected notions. Steak tartare shows up as a starburst of pointy shards of lavash flat bread around a cool, sesame oil-flavored mince of fresh ground beef; and Cobb salad is rethought with moist squab instead of chicken. His lamb, edged in bright herbs and sliced over a sheer disk of potatoes sandwiching creamed spinach, is quiet bliss, as are soft-shell crabs suspended in tempura and poised over thin noodles with wood ear mushrooms. The seasonal menu, inspired by the chef's time down under, changes every three weeks but is always fascinating, as are the inn's details. Russian Impressionist art graces the cool green walls, and in lieu of flowers on the table, you get a glass bowl of Japanese fighting fish.

28 South Harrison St. (near Dover Road), Easton, Md. 410-822-4910. www.theinnateaston.com. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. AE, MC, V. Prices: Friday and Saturday, fixed-price dinner $65; Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, entrees $25 to $68.

Inn at Little Washington (4 stars)

The difference between a three-star restaurant and a four-star experience is the difference between satin and silk, silver and gold, a Porsche and a Lamborghini. I saw stars, lots of them, on my most recent dinner to the wonder created 27 years ago by chef Patrick O'Connell and host Reinhardt Lynch in what was once a garage. The thrills start as soon as you arrive. Someone in formal attire is always on the porch to greet you, and no sooner are you slipped into a cushioned chair than water is poured in synchronized fashion and lovely little treats land on thick linens. Parmesan wafers to your left, fried squash blossoms ("from my own garden," our waiter whispers) to the right. Less than a minute later, a long plate of one-bite hors d'oeuvres arrives; they include a marble-size ball of risotto, barbecued rabbit turnovers and "the world's smallest baked potato." We haven't even looked at a menu yet! And when we do, we fret over having to make such difficult choices. I want the port-braised veal sweetbreads, pepper-crusted tuna "pretending to be a filet mignon" and one of everything from the vegetarian menu. It all seems too wonderful to be true, though reality occasionally slips into the picture -- say, a pinch too much salt here or a dish that is merely very good, not wondrous. If the weather is cooperating, ask to have dessert in the garden. Sheer, fruit-filled folds of pineapple "ravioli" refresh me; a chocolate-pistachio souffle rises tall and proud; the inn's lovely cheeses are presented on the back of a faux cow. If you're lucky, the star of the show might pay a visit. No, not the resident Dalmatians, whose spots are echoed on the kitchen staff's pants, but the gracious O'Connell himself. The check might come as a shock, but how often does fantasy become reality? The Inn has never been more transporting.

Middle and Main Streets, Washington, Va. 540-675-3800.www.theinnatlittlewashington.com. Open: for dinner daily. MC, V. Fixed-price dinner: $118 to $158.

Jaleo (3 stars)

The more I eat tapas everywhere else, the more I appreciate the little plates of Spanish flavors created by chef Jose Andres. The 70-plus choices at Jaleo are available hot or cold, with or without meat, mild or wild in flavor, light or hearty. Potato omelet, garlic shrimp, figs with ham -- there's something for every mood. If you get bored with this menu, you're not looking closely enough; Andres and his crew are constantly tweaking and upgrading it. A recent visit to the copper-topped bar found quail filled with pork, raisins and foie gras; squid tossed with soft, sweet onions; near-melting codfish with parsley oil and a red, fish-infused sauce; and, in a nod to the chef's experimental food at Minibar, skewers of watermelon and tomatoes drizzled with mint sauce and sea salt. Wow! (Less thrilling: ordinary pork in orange sauce.) Spanish dancers are depicted on a mural in the original Washington location -- and live, in the dining room there, on Wednesday nights. But you don't need to be in the District to take in the fun, thanks to Jaleo's expansion to Bethesda and Arlington.

480 Seventh St. NW (at E Street). 202-628-7949. www.jaleo.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $14.95, dinner $15.95 to $17.95. Other locations: 7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-0003; 2250-A Crystal Dr., Arlington, 703-413-8181.

Johnny's Half Shell (2 stars)

I didn't expect to find great meatloaf, cloaked in a bright tomato sauce and flanked by french fries and haricots verts, in a seafood restaurant. Then again, Johnny's Half Shell is full of pleasant little surprises, as anyone who has ever sampled the kitchen's zippy chicken wings or bursting-with-juices hot dog will attest. In the hands of chef and co-owner Ann Cashion, also of Cashion's Eat Place, staples of the American diet become haute. Still, it would be a shame to miss out on all those water-originating dishes that keep this tile-and-wood destination busy: the creamy, all-lump crab cakes, the seafood stew or the wood-grilled rockfish. The dining room, outfitted with tall booths, a marble counter and a lulling aquarium, looks like a seafood bar you might come across in San Francisco, except that this one honors the fish of the mid-Atlantic. Occasional slips, such as gloppy fettuccine with overcooked shrimp, are outnumbered by Johnny's abundant temptations: a short but thoughtful wine list, jazzy background music, speedy service and wonderful, homey desserts. Peach crisp and honey ice cream both remind me how inspiring "simple" can be.

2002 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-296-2021. www.johnnyshalfshell.net. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $21.95, dinner $15 to $23.95.

Komi (3 stars)

Johnny Monis is only 25 years old but already cooks with the flair of someone who has spent a lifetime in the kitchen. Seventeenth Street NW isn't known for quality places to eat, but Monis is helping turn the situation around, using a few tricks from the big boys. He bakes his own crackers and offers them in lieu of a bread basket. And there's always an amuse-bouche -- most often a demitasse of soup -- to savor before dinner. Where does he find his servers? They look like they stepped out of Teen Vogue and know the menu as if they have committed the recipes to memory. Let them steer you to their favorites, maybe the very nice chicken-pistachio pate or the poached lamb loin enhanced by black lentils and a tart cherry glaze. The narrow room is free of art on its soft green walls, the better to focus on what's on your plate. With the bill comes another fillip: lollipops in cold weather, or a cube of frozen watermelon with a drop of balsamic vinegar-spiked caramel in the heat of summer. Komi starts on a high and often stays there.

1509 17th St. NW (near P Street). 202-332-9200. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $18 to $24.

Laboratorio del Galileo (4 stars)

While I don't get to Italy nearly as often as I'd like, an evening spent in this restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Galileo always leaves me feeling as if I'd been in Milan or Rome for several hours. Unlike in the main dining room, it doesn't matter who you are or where you find yourself in this sunny-yellow space: Everyone is treated like a favored patron, and all 24 seats feel equal. There's no predicting what you might find. Chef Roberto Donna -- who amiably toils just feet in front of you in his gleaming open kitchen -- changes his program constantly. But one thing is certain: You will dine very well, exquisitely even. Fond memories can be made from the likes of duck liver custard, served with warm peaches and thyme; house-made spaghetti decked out with rabbit sauce; risotto (one night with morel mushrooms, another with frog's legs and watercress foam); olive-stuffed lamb roulade and a world-class cheese trolley. Grape granita, tempura figs, hot doughnuts -- the endings here are no less indulgent. Twelve courses after you sat down, you're wondering how you will ever get up from the table -- and when you can book a return trip.

1110 21st NW (near L Street). 202-331-0880. www.galileodc.com. Open: for dinner Monday through Saturday, depending on the chef's schedule. Closed Sunday. AE, V, MC. Fixed-price dinner $110 to $125.

La Flor de la Canela (2 stars)

The cocktail of choice is a foam-capped pisco sour, the tables are crowded with potato dishes, and a wood carving on the wall depicts Lima as it used to be. Welcome to Peru! Your tour should commence with either papa rellena or seviche. The first is mashed potato wrapped around ground beef, eggs and raisins, then deep-fried; the latter is citrus-splashed raw fish, and made to order. From there, feel free to fan out in the direction of beef (try the smoky lomo saltado), chicken (slow-roasted and herby) or something more adventurous (the tripe is irresistible -- really). If you want to up the heat, add a bit of the wicked green chili sauce that accompanies the food as ketchup might in an American establishment. The name of the restaurant loosely translates as "cinnamon flower," which also happens to be the title of a folk song in Peru. It's a dreamy little name for a dreamy little outpost.

117 N. Frederick Ave. (near Chestnut Street), Gaithersburg. 301-519-9100. Open: for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday. D, MC, V. Entree prices: $4 to $16.

Maestro (4 stars)

The Italian menu is part classical, part contemporary -- and thoroughly enticing. Thus on my last visit to this beautiful hotel dining room, I abandoned making the usual tough decisions and left my dinner in the hands of chef Fabio Trabocchi, whose multi-course "creative" tasting menu is not revealed in print. "The chef gives you what he thinks is best," a waiter explained. Rarely has surrendering responsibility been so rewarding. The first dish out -- a rectangular bar of fish paved with shimmering osetra caviar -- is so captivating, I wonder how it can be surpassed. The black roe adorns not one piece of fish but four perfect squares of pristine yellowtail, conch, wild salmon and bluefin tuna. Lined up on a hint of potato pancake, the appetizer looks like a candy bar as imagined by Tiffany's and tastes like something you'd find in Japan. There's more excitement to come, most memorably an update on the classic tournedos Rossini, in which foie gras is tucked inside beef medallions and served with celery root "ravioli" filled with liquid bone marrow. Trabocchi loves unusual presentations, and for this dish he perches a tiny bowl of truffled port sauce atop a tall votive candle. Dessert unfolds in stages, too. Silken litchi panna cotta splashed with grappa was trailed by a cloudlike caramel souffle and a plate of tiny sweets. Encore! The joy of an evening here is enhanced by sommelier Vincent Feraud, who relishes the challenge of pairing his colleague's art with his wine, and a room that is formal but not stuffy. "Would you like a table near the open kitchen or one that's more private?" a hostess always asks. That decision is easy. I'll take a front-row seat, the better to watch the maestro in action.

In Ritz-Carlton hotel, 1700 Tysons Blvd. (near International Drive), Tysons Corner. 703-917-5498. www.maestrorestaurant.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Fixed-price dinner: $76 to $116.

Majestic Cafe (2 stars)

If Rip Van Winkle went straight to the Majestic Cafe after his long slumber, at least he'd know what time of year it was. The menu in this sweet and narrow dining room positively revels in every season. Thus spring yields a long list of treasures, from asparagus and soft-shell crabs to artichokes and blood oranges. Much like the sunny space, with its charming old black-and-white photos running across the walls, the cooking here is clean and light. Spring rolls filled with rabbit crackle at the touch of a fork; a delicate tart assembles a tiny garden of artichokes, spinach and red peppers, plus fontina cheese; succulent lamb chops arrive with a citrusy juniper sauce. Chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg's affection for the South is revealed in her abundant use of vegetables and starches. Picture sweet potatoes drizzled with hazelnut butter; stewed tomatoes; hush puppies gussied up with remoulade; and spoon bread to tempt the most diehard Atkins follower. And if there's any place in Alexandria where you shouldn't forgo dessert, it's here. The high and lovely German chocolate cake and the creme caramel, subtly fragrant with lavender, make but two compelling cases.

911 King St. (near Alfred Street), Alexandria. 703-837-9117. www.majesticcafe.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; for brunch and dinner Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $8.50 to $12.75, dinner $17 to $24.50.

Mannequin Pis (3 stars)

For all the cooking I explored on a trip to Brussels earlier this year, the Belgian restaurant that I'm most smitten with turns out to be a 50-minute drive from downtown Washington. Handsome with yellow walls and red velvet drapes, Mannequin Pis looks like many of the smart little dining rooms I observed abroad. Its list of beers runs long and serious. Jacques Brel entertains in the background. Take advantage of the tightly packed tables to see what looks good at your neighbors'. It could be a deep pot of plump mussels in a rich saffron cream sauce, or a hefty piece of peppery beef with a hillock of excellent fries (for a real treat, let them soak up the pan juices). Specials tend to be just that; I'm still dreaming of one night's pasta gilded with sea urchin. And if you've got stoemp on the brain, here's where you want to order that soothing Belgian tradition of mashed potatoes and other vegetables. The stern warnings on the menu (sorry, no cell phones, and, sorry, this isn't a vegetarian restaurant) are balanced by an otherwise gracious staff.

18064 Georgia Ave. (near Route 108), Olney. 301-570-4800. www.mannequinpis.com. Open: for dinner daily. MC, V. Entree prices: $14 to $19.50.

Michel Richard Citronelle (4 stars)

Who says a four-star restaurant has to be serious? Certainly not Michel Richard, the jolly wizard behind one of the country's most entertaining dining destinations. What looks like ivory fettuccine turns out to be thinly sliced cuttlefish, enriched with corn stock, tossed with comma-size minced beets and capped with glistening beads of red trout roe. Dubbed "virtual pasta," it's one for the memory books. You might not think to order chicken -- chicken is too safe, too boring, right? -- though you'd be missing out on a gorgeous multi-part display: designer chicken from the Hudson Valley, part of which is poached, part of which is roasted and a bit of which gets fried into the most scrumptious "chicken nugget" ever. Trained as a pastry chef in Paris, Richard has a superb eye for color and texture. From his bag of gems he might also pull wild salmon spread with soft, sweet shallots and moistened with port wine sauce; a flat sausage formed from everything that's bad for you -- pig's feet, sweetbreads, foie gras -- set on silken potato puree and topped with a wafer-thin sheet of crackling pork skin; and desserts that smack of childhood. Shards of chocolate in a deep bowl of chocolate puffs gets a small pitcher of minty "milk" poured over it. Cocoa Puffs for the jet set! You will sip well, thanks to sommelier Mark Slater, and dine comfortably no matter your table, though a seat in the main dining room, with its view of the exhibition kitchen, is the most engaging.

In Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. NW (at 30th Street). 202-625-2150. www.citronelledc.com. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Fixed-priced dinner: $85 to $150.

Minibar (3 stars)

If the Cirque du Soleil served food, this is what it would look and taste like. Minibar, on the second floor of Cafe Atlantico, is just a few stools at a bar facing a small cast of cooks led by chef Jose Andres (also of Jaleo and Zaytinya), who take diners on a wild culinary ride through more than 30 bite-size courses. Nothing is what you think it will be -- and much of it is more appealing than you'd imagine, knowing what you're popping in your mouth. That sweet, salty and airy snack you get when you're first seated? That's caramelized pork rinds with maple syrup. What look like green marbles might show up in front of you. "Japanese baby peaches with yogurt," a cook explains. I'm told to sip my demitasse of foie gras soup like a cappuccino; it is cool on the foamy top and hot (and rich) beneath the surface. A dish created expressly for wine guru Robert Parker, one of many famous foodies to check out this novel show, is simply brilliant: The "deconstructed glass of wine" finds a translucent layer of grape gelatin decorated on the surface with pinches of mint, orange peel, vanilla -- a line of flavors commonly found in wine. Andres's near-constant experimenting means there's always something fresh to look forward to, and anything you don't like is soon forgotten in the whirl. What to drink with such whimsical fare? Wine steward Francisco Astudillo comes to the rescue with choice glasses from his international list. As far as I know, he's the only sommelier ever asked what wine goes with watermelon air.

405 Eighth St. NW (near D Street). 202-393-0812. www.cafeatlantico.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. All major credit cards. Fixed-priced dinner: $85.

Montmartre (2 stars)

The stamp-size ravioli, brushed with a lovely arugula sauce, truly melt on the tongue. Braised rabbit -- sharp with olives and arranged on creamy, truffle-perfumed pasta -- proves deliciously moist. And brunch delivers a fluffy omelet and a pretty green salad. Close your eyes at Montmartre and you could swear you were eating in one of Washington's starrier restaurants. Instead, you're sitting at a rough wooden table in a cozy 48-seat dining room on Capitol Hill, in view of Stephane Lezla, at work behind the counter of his open kitchen. The chef's food reveals passion and experience; before Montmartre, the 33-year-old worked at Bistrot Lepic, Lavandou and Provence under the watch of Yannick Cam. You can point just about anywhere on the menu and score a success. The dessert tray is as fetching as a jewelry case; the tortes look gorgeous and taste handcrafted. Not every meal is a dream come true. I've encountered tough veal kidneys and get an occasional gripe about snippy service. But more often than not, this is where I like to be when the mood calls for French but my budget demands restraint. Montmartre may not be perfect, but it's a perfect neighborhood restaurant.

327 Seventh St. SE (near Pennsylvania Avenue). 202-544-1244. www.montmartre.us. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday; for brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $11.95 to $17.95, dinner $16.95 to $19.95.

Nectar (3 stars)

The menu of this small restaurant is nothing if not concise. Consider an appetizer that places baby beets at the bottom of a white bowl with some basil and fresh dill, and pours over them a smooth, dark green puree of cucumber sparked with rice wine vinegar. Cool, shocking and refreshing -- and called just "cucumber soup" on the list -- it sounds like diet food but tastes magnificent. Similarly, the dish named "hanger" refers to an extraordinary steak cut into thick and rosy rectangular bars, arranged on soft polenta and ringed with buttery chanterelle mushrooms and intense beef jus. Wild Irish salmon tastes a little flat, despite its pedigree and gingery rhubarb base, but the dish is an exception to the rule at Nectar, where so much is so fetching. Some customers complain about the portions, which are restrained, and the service, which can be precious. But do you really want a truckload of food before that 8 p.m. curtain at the Kennedy Center? And in an age when great service is as rare as an undecided voter, I don't mind attention that is formal and correct. Nectar has lofty standards, upheld by chef Jamison Blankenship and restaurant director Jarad Slipp, who seems to have an amusing background story for every one of the interesting wines he pours. Their combined skills take your mind off the setting, which is surprisingly modest given the art on your plate.

824 New Hampshire Ave. NW (near I Street). 202-298-8085. www.nectardc.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $26 to $31.

O'Learys (2 stars)

Elsewhere, waiters tell you what they like on the menu and leave it at that. At O'Learys, diners experience the results of thorough training. "The crab cakes are 16 parts crab to one part filler," my friendly server said, painting a picture that turned out to be accurate. The crab cakes in this charming seafood restaurant, with its partial views of boat masts and seagrass, are models of their kind, rich with the lead ingredient and expertly seasoned (that is, not much at all). There are other fine ways to begin a meal: small steamed mussels in a broth infused with orange zest, or fried oysters that get a kick from fiery remoulade and tangy pickled vegetables. Entrees incorporate worldly accents, such as Thai barbecue glaze on the mahi-mahi, and black beans and rice with the grouper. Lobster is removed from its shell, simmered in butter and presented on a bed of crab-enriched risotto. "We do all the work for you!" our server said as it arrived at our table. Alas, the lobster meat was a tad soft, the risotto bland. Better: halibut dusted with corn meal and brightened with haricots verts, corn relish and a creamy shrimp salad (this is a kitchen that pays delicious attention to its accompaniments).

310 Third St. (at Severn Avenue), Annapolis. 410-972-0094. www.olearys-seafood.com. Open: for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $24 to $36.

Palena (3 stars)

If I had to pick one local chef whose food I had to eat every night, my inclination would be former White House chef Frank Ruta. It's all about honest ingredients and sure technique at Palena, where, unlike at so many other A-list restaurants, the menu is printed sans the name of the man in charge, a shy talent who only rarely surfaces from his basement kitchen to take a bow. I ate bushels of heirloom tomatoes over the summer; nowhere were they as beautifully served as here, in the form of a "tomato fantasy" of half a dozen shades, sliced and sprinkled with fresh herbs and elegantly set off by a tiny and flaky rectangular pizza. Here, the razzle-dazzle comes by way of harmonious flavor combinations and focused arrangements: asparagus soup with slivers of house-made salami; squab and pineapple roasted with Moroccan spices; cod roasted in olive oil fragrant with lavender. Ruta's sidekick, pastry chef Ann Amernick, sweetens the deal with such sublime endings as perfect blueberries in a delicate pistachio shell and a tropical fantasy of a pot de creme layered with heavy cream and toasted coconut. Servers manage the deft trick of balancing sophistication with friendliness, and regulars know that they don't have to eat high on the hog every visit. Palena's bar menu, served in the cozy lounge, delivers some of the best hamburgers, roast chicken and simple pasta you will find, anywhere.

3529 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Porter Street). 202-537-9250. www.palenarestaurant.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday; bar menu available Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Fixed-price dinner: $52 to $66.

Pesce (2 stars)

Chefs come and go here, yet no matter who's in the kitchen, the mission is always the same: sparkling seafood, as befits the restaurant's straightforward Italian name. Owner Regine Palladin, a frequent and graceful presence in the small dining room, wouldn't have it any other way. Pesce's menu, which changes daily, is written on a chalkboard and always poses some difficult choices. Will it be smoked trout and fusilli tossed with sweet peas and a light goat cheese sauce, or whole branzino, its sweet flesh countered by diced zucchini and juicy little tomatoes? Both are simple and both delicious. Look for things that aren't exactly mainstream; your reward might be the likes of tilefish, utterly moist beneath a crumb coat and teamed with buttery pureed potatoes, thin green beans and a glossy red wine sauce. And count on finding here such seasonal treats as shad and soft-shell crabs, nice wines by the glass with which to savor them and service that is casual yet informed. Desserts sometimes taste like an afterthought, and the room, walled in bricks and glass windows, traps noise. But those drawbacks are small in light of all the good catches.

2016 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-466-3474. www.pescebistro.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $16 to $19, dinner $19 to $24.

Raku (2 stars)

I'm often tempted to ask for "one of everything, please" at this stylish pan-Asian retreat in the middle of one of Bethesda's jam-packed restaurant rows. Oh, the plain sushi and dumplings are fine here, but the kitchen gives me some delicious reasons to walk on the wild side. Take the "Seoul Train Roll," its raw tuna center made crunchy with kimchi, or steamed pork and seafood dumplings whose wasabi-tinted wrappers scorch the tongue. Toro (fatty tuna) tartare bound in sliced cucumber, a special, is overwhelmed by too much sauce, but I like the idea of a tasting of three different kinds of yellowtail, another special, and the chance to experience it with fresh wasabi ($3 extra, and worth the splurge). Don't overlook the entrees, which include a lovely plate of sliced duck with tart cherries, crisp spaetzle and a little bacon-laced cabbage (a hit of ginger in its sauce is a reminder you're not eating in a German restaurant). The setting -- festive with colorful parasols overhead and bamboo on the walls -- is as much fun as the food, and the staff couldn't be more accommodating. When one of my pals jumps up from a booth to add money to a meter out front, the host stops him at the door: "Relax, you're eating dinner. I'll take care of it." Then he does.

7240 Woodmont Ave. (near Bethesda Avenue), Bethesda. 301-718-8680. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $18, dinner $8.25 to $23.

Ray's the Steaks (2 stars)

Tired of shelling out $100 a head for a proper steak dinner (and being charged extra for a baked potato)? Ray's the Steaks reminds carnivores they don't have to take out a loan just to enjoy a meal. Chef Michael Landrum buys great meat, which he cuts and ages himself, and includes in the price of a meal tasty creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, charmingly presented in little black skillets. While his New York strip and filet mignon are very good -- and the caveman-size bone-in rib-eye, lavished with soft onions and garlic, is enough to make a grown man swoon -- Ray's offers the chance to explore less common attractions, too, including chateaubriand and entrecote. "You won't believe how good these are," the menu brags about its crab cakes, which are lightly shaped from jumbo lump crab -- and taste fine, but not fantastic. Don't expect much in the way of atmosphere. The dining room is painted in shades of cooked meat and baked potato -- brown and beige -- and there's nothing to look at but a wall of wine that separates diners from cooks in the big open kitchen. But when you're eating some of the best meat around, who cares?

1725 Wilson Blvd. (near North Rhodes Street), Arlington. 703-841-7297. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $13.95 to $31.95.

Restaurant Eve (3 stars)

Good things come in threes at Eve. Think Cathal Armstrong, his wife, Meshelle Armstrong, and Todd Thrasher. They're the chef, the hostess with the mostest and the sommelier/cocktail master at what instantly became Old Town's top table when it opened earlier this year. Patrons are offered two ways to dine: casually, in the lively bistro, or more formally, in the chef's "tasting room." The former is hugged by brick walls and hung with gold swags. Here's where you might find cod tiled with thin slices of potato; a lusty rib-eye; and impossibly light fruit fritters -- pretty, immensely satisfying food. Much as I enjoy that experience, things get even better in the intimate tasting room, where the five-course menu begins with three gratis treats from the kitchen before the real show starts. With dishes as diverse and refined as lobster creme brulee, roasted venison loin with figs and hazelnuts, and, in a twist on surf and turf, seared ahi tuna with braised oxtail, chef Armstrong performs as ably as Washington's top toques. Service is smooth and sure, no matter which room you pick.

110 S. Pitt St. (near King Street), Alexandria. 703-706-0450. www.restauranteve.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Bistro entree prices: lunch $16 to $19, dinner $21 to $27.50. "Tasting room" fixed-price dinner: $65 to $90.

Sakoontra (3 stars)

A life-size Thai taxiin the foyer and walls splashed in blues and purples might pull you into one of Sakoontra's many seats, but it's the vivid cooking that will keep you transfixed. Hot-and-sour lemon grass soup lives up to its description, and its many vegetables taste bright and fresh. Saucer-size shrimp cakes are nicely springy, their red curry seasoning balanced by a sweet sauce of cucumbers and crushed peanuts. Slices of grilled beef, pink and crisp-edged, get tossed with red onions, herbs and brassy lime dressing for a steak salad to remember. As the food shows up, always fast and graciously, the table takes on the appearance of a mouthwatering photo spread. There might be a pretty yellow mound of fried rice, veined with cashews, raisins, pineapple and diced ham, each spoonful redolent of curry. Or pearly stir-fried shrimp, shimmering in their coats of honey and balanced with pepper and garlic. The person responsible for all this enticing food? Vilai Chivavibul. Most chefs of note in Thailand are women, and Sakoontra honors this tradition.

12300-C Price Club Plaza (near West Ox Road and Lee Highway), Fairfax. 703-818-8886. www.sakoontra.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.95 to $14.95, dinner $6.95 to $14.95.

Samantha's (2 stars)

One way for a restaurant to remain a local favorite is for the cooking to stay consistent year after year, and that's the case at this neat and trim purveyor of Salvadoran and Mexican fare. A meal at the family-owned Samantha's tastes as delicious today as when I first visited two years ago -- and the namesake was a mere five years old. Seviche is served in a big bowl that looks like a giant seashell; its treasure of cubed fish, red onions and bright lime juice goes down very easily. Tender bites of soft roast pork and crisp fingers of yuca, scattered with chopped tomatoes and herbs, are billed as an appetizer but amount to a small feast. It may well be the best yuca con chicharron within 50 miles. There's plenty of competition for your appetite, however. Meat eaters should head for the carne asada, thin, exceedingly tender and savory from its marinade. Fish lovers might consider the whole pan-fried trout, nearly buried under a colorful blanket of bell peppers and tomatoes. Both entrees come with oiled white rice and savory black beans. The menu is long and varied -- home to both Mexican combination platters and roast duck with olives -- and presented by personable servers in a dining room that bids you welcome with fresh flowers on the table and bouncy music in the air.

631 E. University Blvd. (near Piney Branch Road), Silver Spring. 301-445-7300. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $23.95, dinner $7.95 to $23.95.

Sorak Garden (2 stars)

Part of the fun of visiting a Korean restaurant with friends who have never experienced the cuisine is to watch their faces when the customary panchan show up. Those are the myriad little salads and nibbles that arrive after you've placed your order -- and a measuring stick used by devotees of Korean restaurants. On my most recent visit to Sorak Garden, my friend's eyes widened as our waitress appeared with a platter of tiny bowls moments after we'd been seated. "Dried squid," she said, introducing one snack. "Kimchi," she continued, placing a bowl of fermented cabbage on the table. "Eggplant." "Black beans." "Bean sprouts." "Mushrooms." She rattled off 10 different tastes, leaving us to graze on the mini-banquet and sip our beers. The table got more crowded as our appetizers and entrees arrived in quick succession. A strapping bowl of porridge with bits of pleasantly chewy abalone grew tedious after a few spoonfuls, but we eagerly downed half-moon-shaped dumplings filled with crumbled beef. Shredded beef and thin strips of bell peppers and onions were heaped over glassy noodles. It was a filling and homey dish. My friend and I were also looking for some fire, and we found it, in an entree of spicy squid tossed with cucumbers and a wicked red sauce. Sorak Garden has a lot of competition among Korean restaurants in Northern Virginia, but it remains the most stylish.

4308 Backlick Rd. (near Little River Turnpike), Annandale. 703-916-7600. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $13.95, dinner $10.95 to $44.95.

Sushi-Ko (3 stars)

Since chef Koji Terano tweaked his menu over the summer, there are fresh reasons to check out this 28-year-old Japanese restaurant. One of them consists of squares of eel, lightly crisp outside and rich within, accompanied by a squiggle of balsamic vinegar sauce. Another showcases three treats in one, a sampler of seviches: glistening cubes of tuna paired with creamy avocado, silky salmon with red onion and herbs, and dewy yellowtail. Each fish is nestled in a pretty scallop shell, and each is divine. Another small plate to seek out looks like a pale pink dish but turns out to be overlapping ribbons of flounder, with a tiny nest of fried carrot threads in the center and a splash of black truffle vinaigrette over all. Heady stuff. Sushi-Ko counts two small, spare dining rooms, but it's the ground-floor sushi bar I'm most drawn to. That's where Terano holds court -- and that's where fans know to reserve a coveted stool.

2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-4187. www.sushiko.us. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Friday; for dinner Saturday through Monday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $10.25 to $20.50.

Sweetwater Tavern (2 stars)

This barn-size restaurant is part of a chain (the Fairfax-based Great American Restaurants), yet it goes out of its way to make you feel special. Curious about the beer made on site? A bartender is happy to provide a free taste in a frosted mini-mug. There is country music to tap your toes to, and there are cowboys and Indians depicted in a handsome mural. The room all but shouts "Howdy!" So it seems appropriate to start with a Southwestern-style bean-cheese-avocado dip (eight layers, count 'em) and move on to a smoky pork chop, served with light brown gravy and brightened with corn salsa. Equally hearty is prime rib -- thick and succulent -- partnered with a big baked potato. Barbecued ribs? They're meaty if a tad too sweet, flanked by creamy coleslaw and fine, skin-on fries. Specials show the kitchen's range; halibut baked in banana leaf and presented with polenta is a dish I'd expect to find at an expense-account venue in the city. Sweetwater's fresh-faced servers in striped shirts navigate the space with smiles and good cheer. Plus, they know the menu as well as the cooks do. More than once I've left here wondering, Why can't every restaurant be so hospitable?

14250 Sweetwater Lane (near Multiplex Drive), Centreville. 703-449-1100. www.greatamericanrestaurants.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $19, dinner $8 to $30. Other locations: 3066 Gatehouse Plaza, Falls Church, 703-645-8100; 45980 Waterview Plaza, Sterling, 571-434-6500.

Taqueria Tres Reyes (2 stars)

Ding-dong! The bell rings every time someone walks through the door on a Sunday afternoon, which turns out to be a lot. If your weekend visit is anything like mine, expect to find a room full of Spanish speakers and a jukebox turned up to compete with their many voices. The place is a confection of white walls, pink trim and too many fake flowers to count. Service? You line up at a counter in the rear to place your order from the small Mexican menu, take a number, then try to find a spare seat before the food is cooked (and delivered by a waitress who swims through the crowd as easily as a fish through water). Chances are, locating a free spot won't be easy. But chances are, you're going to like whatever shows up on your table. Mucho. Tacos made with pork, tongue and even goat are all enormously satisfying, as is the shredded beef flauta beneath its cover of lettuce and cheese. Sliced radishes, scallions and lemon wedges dress up the plates; think of it all as fast food with slow-cooked appeal. Forget soda -- a meal here begs for horchata, that milky and refreshing blend of rice, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Do your ears hurt? Are your taste buds happy? Si, on both counts.

5403 Kenilworth Ave. (near Kennedy Street), Riverdale. 301-779-6060. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. Cash or check only. Entree prices: $3.50 to $11. Other locations: in Greenbelt Mall, 6056 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt, 301-441-8652; 8562 Mathis Ave., Manassas Park, 703-335-6663.

Tasting Room (2 stars)

When he launched this corner restaurant in downtown Frederick several years back, owner Michael Tauraso's mission was pretty straightforward: He hoped to offer "a place where people could come for a good plate of food and a good glass of wine." He's done much to live up to that aim, and it's offered in a bustling, glass-wrapped bistro. Regulars drive from miles away for the Tasting Room's tender and juicy filet mignon, a fine piece of meat enhanced with bearnaise sauce and crisp-soft au gratin potatoes. The herby roast chicken is good, too, with its nice, garlic-laced gravy. Pan-roasted rockfish and loose, fat crab cakes reflect a kitchen that knows its way around seafood. Appetizers are less successful, though you'll find an exception in the sherry-laced lobster chowder, and if you order only one dessert, make sure it's the chocolate "fix" -- and make sure you have strong elbows to fight off any competing forks.

101 North Market St. (at Church Street), Frederick. 240-379-7772. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7.95 to $15.95, dinner $17.95 to $32.95.

Tavira (2 stars)

First, you have to get past some hurdles. Like the fact that the restaurant sits in a nondescript bank building -- and it's underground. Once you're in your seat, however, doubts fade to delight as your waiter introduces you to Tavira's Portuguese menu, starting with a recitation of specials that unwittingly pays homage to the Energizer Bunny (the list goes on and on and on and on). If you've never been before, acquaint yourself with some of the regular dishes. Fried cod fritters and chicken massaged with a fiery pepper sauce are worth pursuing, more so than the casserole of tough pork, potatoes and clams. On the other hand, previous visitors to this cozy, low-ceilinged warren of four rooms should check out those specials. They might include baby squid in a light wash of garlic sauce, or twice-roasted duck, its mahogany skin yielding to ample succulent meat, joined by a sublime risotto.

8401 Connecticut Ave. (near Chevy Chase Lake Drive), Chevy Chase. 301-652-8684. www.tavirarestaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; for dinner Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.95 to $25.95, dinner $11.95 to $25.95.

Thai Square (3 stars)

The Washington landscape has witnessed a burst of Thai restaurants opening this year, and while some of them are very good and quite handsome, I always find myself comparing the new ones against this benchmark. Thai Square isn't much to look at, just four walls and a few travel-poster pictures, and the service, while fast and efficient, leans toward the matter-of-fact. But there's a reason so many Thais fill the seats: The cooking is true to its roots -- hot when it should be, never too sweet, always fresh. Think all larb gai is created equal? The jumble of ground chicken, cool lettuce and searing chilies here stands apart from the crowd. "The top of my head tingles!" my friend says -- then returns for more pleasure-pain. Fish cakes are lightly bouncy, shot through with herbs and embellished with a fine peanut-cucumber sauce. Pale green curry practically pulses with heat, but it's not so blazing that you can't also enjoy the interplay of coconut milk, purple basil and ribbons of yellow vegetable. The specials reveal even more prizes, maybe whole rockfish in a thick sauce of tamarind and red chilies that plays fruity off fire. With food like this, I don't need scenery.

3217 Columbia Pike (near South Glebe Road), Arlington. 703-685-7040. www.thaisquarerestaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $5.75 to $12.95, dinner $6.95 to $12.95.

Tutto Bene (2 stars)

Evenings, the place could pass for Little Italy USA, with an old-fashioned menu of very nice pizza, thinly cut veal splashed with marsala and the occasional live opera performance. At a time when every other Italian dining room glows Tuscan yellow, this one looks back, seemingly decades, with dark red walls and paintings of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum. It's all fun and entertaining, one of those rare spots that is as handy for a romantic date as for a night out with the bambinos. Even so, weekend lunches are when I'm most likely to show up. That's when the kitchen pauses from making pasta in favor of baking saltenas, delicious beef- or chicken-filled turnovers the size of small footballs and a staple in Bolivia, which is where the owner of Tutto Bene was born. There's more that summons Bolivia: zesty pork and corn stew, thinly sliced beef tongue over potatoes -- and a guitar player whose strumming elicits smiles of recognition from the regulars who flock here for the flavor of home.

501 N. Randolph St. (near North Glebe Road), Arlington. 703-522-1005. www.tuttobeneitalian.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily; Bolivian menu available Saturday and Sunday at lunch. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $6.50 to $18.95.

2 Amys (3 stars)

Pizza places come and pizza places go, but when I've got pie on my mind, here's where I'm mostly likely to dig in. Named for the wives of the two owners, this Neapolitan-style pizzeria excels at crusts that are thin, tender yet crackly, and sparingly decorated with a fine choice of toppings. I'm partial to pork sausage with hot peppers, and steamed cockles served in their shells. The main attraction is bookended by lovely "little things" to begin with -- snacks like fava bean crostini -- and desserts including ultramoist lemon pound cake and a tangerine sorbet that tastes like just-picked fruit captured in snow. At brunch you'll find prosecco jazzed up with grapefruit juice (move over, mimosa) and warm, sugar-dusted doughnuts. In true Italian fashion, everything is pretty simple. The wood-and-tile front room works best for families, while the rear "wine room" provides a warm refuge for adults. Is it nice out? Two Amys also boasts a patio, where you can eat your pie under the sky.

3715 Macomb St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue). 202-885-5700. www.2amyspizza.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; for brunch and dinner Sunday; for dinner Monday. MC, V. Entree prices: $7.95 to $12.95.

Urban Bar-B-Que Company (2 stars)

Small package, big satisfaction: Urban Bar-B-Que counts no more than 10 seats around its counter and butcher-block table, but it delivers the kind of finger-lickin'-good food you expect to find at a church social or a roadside stand miles away in the country. We're talking crusty, smoke-perfumed pork ribs; fresh-tasting coleslaw; mustardy potato salad; and a "soul roll" that combines brisket, caramelized onions and cheese in a crunchy egg roll wrapper. Want to crank up the heat? Pour on some "Carolina sop." Punchy with red pepper and cider vinegar and sweet with molasses, it's one of several sauces whipped up at Urban. Much of the business is carryout; any wait is made painless by the crew of friendly faces behind the counter, which frames the big open kitchen. Psst: The young owners hope to add more seats in the months ahead.

2007 Chapman Ave. (at Twinbrook Parkway), Rockville. 240-290-4827. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $5 to $17.

Zaytinya (3 stars)

Ever since this spare, sweeping ode to the flavors of the Mediterranean opened two years ago, it has been my response to all sorts of questions. Such as, "What's fun and exciting?" And, "Where can I go with some friends and not spend a ton of money?" And also, simply, "What's really good?" A big communal table, a soaring grid of shelves set with votive candles and an enthusiastic staff create a convivial party; the kitchen manages to successfully turn out dozens of the appetizers known as mezze, often in creative ways. Tiny lamb meatballs come sweetened with fruit and enhanced by cinnamon oil, for instance, while feta cheese is hooked up with tomato marmalade. Yet Zaytinya does justice to the Greek classics, too: Spinach and cheese pie is fashioned from handmade phyllo, and if there's a better taramasalata (whipped cod roe) around, I've yet to taste it. Fishermen's stew is tame despite its saffron broth, and the shrimp are second-class, but misses like that are outnumbered on the epic menu, which also features some lovely Greek wines. Among the best reasons to linger is walnut ice cream set off with crisp sails of sheer pastry, tangy yogurt cream and honeyed gelatin. It's called Turkish Delight, and it lives up to its billing.

701 Ninth St. NW (at G Street). 202-638-0800. www.zaytinya.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7.25 to $16.95, dinner $16.95 to $22.95.