Food isn't everything.

(I said it!)

That might sound like heresy, coming from a guy who is paid to eat, and my apologies in advance to the hardworking and thoughtful cooks who make dining out so much fun. But the truth is, people go out to eat looking for more than just a fill-up. Food is part of the draw, but often there's an important subtext to a restaurant meal. It might involve wooing a mate, sealing a deal with a client, partying with a group of friends or bonding with the kids.

Now and then, we find ourselves in a place not so much because we need to refuel but because we're in the mood for a lively scene, or to get out into the countryside for a few hours. Other times the food is the thing: We're craving carbs or a great steak, and we'd go anywhere to get them.

With those thoughts in mind, I spent the past four months visiting restaurants old and new, near and far, that tap into a number of popular hankerings. Some of the places I've included here, but certainly not all, are the best in their class. Many are my personal favorites.

All hold the power to put you in a better mood.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . A PARTY

***Bangkok 54 Restaurant & Bar

No sooner do you walk in the door than you know you're in the right place. From the host stand, you can see the fresh ingredients for your meal on display in the kitchen, and watch as the cooks chop and stir. As you're led to a table, you'll observe that the owners have an eye for detail that extends to the setting. Bangkok 54 represents a new breed of Thai restaurant, having moved beyond neon colors and laminated tables to semi-serious art gracing the walls and cozy banquettes with beautiful pillows. Leave any hankering for satay or pad Thai for your neighborhood standby, and explore the spectrum of dishes that sets this place apart. Pork belly, stir-fried with fresh basil, and shredded catfish atop a salad of green mango, peanuts and cilantro make delicious stopping-off points. So do cubes of beef and potato in a gently sweet curry -- a massaman to remember -- and tofu that's first roasted, then sauteed with chilies and garlic to bracing effect. With its caring staff, Bangkok 54 is perfect for a first date, great for a group. And even a solo meal here is a party for the palate.

* 2919 Columbia Pike (near South Walter Reed Drive), Arlington. 703-521-4070. www.bangkok54restaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6 to $13, dinner $7 to $13.

***Ceiba

One waiter shows up with a stone bowl containing a bubbling mass of cheese, beef strips and velvety poblano peppers, trailed by another carrying an earthenware dish of warm tortillas. Curious diners on both sides of me lean in and ask what I've ordered. "Queso fundido," I tell them as I dig into one of the many crowd-pleasers at Ceiba (pronounced SAY-bah). The fun in this whimsical tribute to Central and South America takes place in a series of rooms, some with pale blue "skies" overhead and big tropical plants in the windows; my favorite claims a barrel-vaulted ceiling and sight of the busy kitchen. Launch an evening with a tart margarita, continue with duck-stuffed empanadas or craggy crab fritters, and move on to the strapping pork feijoada, framed by a confetti of dark kale, beans and rice, or shrimp threaded on skewers of sugar cane and brightened with pineapple salsa. Not everything is great -- striped-bass seviche with corn nuts and sweet potato tastes flat -- but enough is.

Pastry chef David Guas practically dares you not to order dessert, with seductions like dulce de leche cheesecake with tiny slices of pineapple poundcake, or chocolate Cuban coffee cake spiked with a chili custard sauce. With your bill comes another sweet touch: caramel corn spilling out of a paper sleeve.

* 701 14th St. NW (at G Street). 202-393-3983. www.ceibarestaurant.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards.

Entree prices: lunch $11 to $17, dinner $18 to $29.

***Jackie's

A green shag rug lights up the floor of the lounge, and the vinyl booths in the brick-walled dining room run hot pink. What used to be an auto-parts shop has been winningly transformed into a space where the 1960s converge with industrial chic. It's a groovy scene that niftily suits owner Jackie Greenbaum's Day-Glo personality. So it's hard not to smile. And it's tough to decide what to eat, when the choices embrace such tempters as "mini Elvis burgers" and daily-changing "nostalgia" platters that reflect what some of us grew up on: Tuesday means beef brisket, Wednesday brings fried chicken hot from the skillet, and Sunday is honored with catfish, coleslaw and hush puppies. Yum. That said, the kitchen demonstrates its range with more innovative dishes: a starter of mussels bound in shredded phyllo and enhanced with garlicky mayonnaise, say, or a main course of an organic pork chop teamed with crisp yuca slices and snappy red pepper ketchup. Even on a Tuesday, Jackie's -- fun and full of energy -- feels like the weekend.

* 8081 Georgia Ave. (entrance on Sligo Avenue), Silver Spring. 301-565-9700. www.jackiesrestaurant.com. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for brunch Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: dinner $12 to $20.

***Oyamel Cocina Mexicana

Everywhere you look in this sprawling, orange-and-gold ode to Mexican cooking, there's something to catch your eye: cooks patting out tortillas in the open kitchen, which is smartly fronted with counter seats; a swirl of tin butterflies floating overhead; fanciful animal masks on the wall; a long communal table flanked by scooped cowhide chairs. Similarly, everywhere you look on the menu -- designed by star chef Jose Andres, of Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo, Minibar and Zaytinya acclaim -- there's something you simply have to try. Tacos, stuffed with such luscious fillings as baby pig, halibut or shredded duck with pineapple. Soups, brimming with the likes of hominy and spicy pork.

Seviches that sparkle. On the other hand, chicken with mole poblano is best for its mysterious sauce; the chicken itself is dull and dry. You'll be missing out on some fun if you don't knock back a sassy margarita with one or more of the kitchen's many antojitos, or Mexican snacks. Come brunch time, be sure to save room for some churros, doughnutlike twists sprinkled with cinnamon and served piping hot with a cup of rich hot chocolate. Dessert doesn't get any better.

* 2250 Crystal Dr. (at South 23rd Street), Arlington. 703-413-2288. www.oyamel.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner Tuesday through Sunday; for brunch Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7 to $13, dinner $5 to $19.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . RED MEAT

***Capital Grille

Take a cue from the restaurant's show window of dry-aging beef and pick a cut from within: If there's a better sirloin or porterhouse in town, I have yet to slice into it. The Capital Grille is as manly a steakhouse as you can picture, from the dark wood to the stuffed animal heads to side dishes that arrive in small barges (nutmeg-laced creamed spinach) or as edible mountains (four hungry customers merely put a dent in a voluminous plate of onion strings and cottage fries). Still, it's a civilized oasis, where steaming, jasmine-scented towels are sometimes brought between courses. To start, there are a bold French onion soup and, unfortunately, bland crab and lobster cakes; to close, consider the decadent flourless chocolate espresso cake or the dreamy coconut cream pie. From beginning to "check, please," the Capital Grille is a meat market with great appeal.

* 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (at Sixth Street). 202-737-6200.www.thecapitalgrille.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $37, dinner $20 to $50. Other locations: 1861 International Dr., Tysons Corner, 703-448-3900; 500 E. Pratt St., Baltimore, 443-703-4064.

***Lewnes' Steakhouse

For years, I've been driving past this two-story, family-run steakhouse on my way to fresh fish at the nearby O'Learys in Annapolis. Here's what I recently discovered I had been missing: a warm welcome at the door. Delicious clams casino. Terrific meat -- Lewnes' serves only U.S. prime beef, revered for its tenderness and marbling, and grills its steaks and chops under super-hot broilers, after which they're topped with butter. The result? A succulent porterhouse steak, and one of the juiciest prime ribs, stoked with fresh horseradish, around. The primal joy is interrupted by gloppy creamed spinach but buoyed by crisp, bracelet-size onion rings and fine red wine. And the waiters in their white jackets couldn't be more accommodating. Want to split the signature Greek salad? No problem (and no extra charge, either).

Can't decide between the Lyonnaise and french-fried potatoes? Your server is happy to bring you a plate with both for the same price. More than many restaurants, Lewnes' lets us have it our way.

* 401 Fourth St. (at Severn Avenue), Annapolis. 410-263-1617. www.lewnessteakhouse.com. Open: for dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $17 to $33.

***Ray's the Steaks

What this loud and underdressed Arlington steakhouse lacks in comfort and decor it more than makes up for in the quality of its beef. Owner Michael Landrum -- he's the tall dude in the chef's whites watching over the host stand -- competes with the big boys downtown with great cuts of meat that are judiciously seasoned and expertly grilled. Take your pick from the New York strip steak lapped with brandy-laced mushroom sauce; prime rib spiked with Cajun seasonings; or (my favorite) the very French onglet, a ropy hanger steak oozing juices at every touch of a fork. Those and other slabs of protein are accompanied by little skillets of garlicky spinach and delectable, skin-on whipped potatoes; unlike the competition, Ray's includes these sides in the cost of the entree. And, unlike other steakhouses, this one is low-key, which means you and your server can wear jeans. Dinner begins with spiced nuts and ends with peanut-buttery fudge with the check. Sweet. The walls are bare, and the tables are tightly packed, but guess what? There's a line out the door anyway.

* 1725 Wilson Blvd. (near North Rhodes Street), Arlington. 703-841-7297. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $15 to $32.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . A BARGAIN

**Etete

Save for a few basketlike tables near the front window, Etete could pass for a stylish American bistro, with its long red banquette, sleek black chairs and peach-colored walls. But the hubcap-size platters exiting the kitchen give the restaurant's identity away: There's no mistaking the floppy folds of injera -- tangy bread -- or the earth-tone dollops of stews and salads atop it as anything other than Ethiopian cooking. Named for its owner and chef, Tiwaltengus "Etete" Shenegelgn, who is known in the Ethiopian community for catering dozens of weddings each year, this narrow retreat serves food (sometimes sloooowly) that pulses with personality. Derek tibs translates as crusty bites of sauteed beef sweetened with caramelized onion strings, chopped tomato and slivers of green pepper, accompanied by zesty, brick-colored lentils and a dab of what looks like ketchup but turns out to be (watch out!) berbere, Ethiopia's famously fiery ground hot pepper seasoning. More elaborate is the "special" kitfo, in which raw minced beef is arranged on injera with several kinds of seasoned cottage cheeses and collard greens, then ceremoniously dressed with melted butter. A feast -- and a little trip to Ethiopia -- for $12!

* 1942 Ninth St. NW (at U Street). 202-232-7600. www.eteterestaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $8 to $14.

**Gom Ba Woo

Before I retire, I hope to be able to declare a "best" among the dozens of Korean restaurants that blanket Northern Virginia. Until then, I'm happy to take my steamed dumplings and barbecued meat at this homey little room sandwiched between a Vietnamese noodle shop and a Japanese seafood buffet in a modest shopping center. English is clearly a foreign language for the hardworking servers here, so it helps to show up knowing what to order. I gravitate toward the enormous bowls of soup: baby clams and crumbled tofu in a spicy dark red stock that brings tears to my eyes; kimchi with fatty bites of pork; or a milk-colored broth of marrow with shaved beef that is ordinary on its own but becomes enormously satisfying with a dash of salt, a sprinkle of chopped scallions and a dollop of chili paste. (Fear not, a waitress will mime instructions for proper seasoning.) The small snacks, or panchan, that accompany every meal negate the need for appetizers, and they are replenished if you run low. On the other hand, don't expect a lot of finesse. Drinks can be forgotten, and you might be seated at a table that hasn't been cleared yet. Still, surrounded by Korean business types, seniors and families, you'll find Gom Ba Woo well worth exploring.

* 7133 Columbia Pike (near Annandale Center Drive), Annandale. 703-642-1577. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily. MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7 to $28, dinner $8 to $28.

***Kotobuki

You won't believe your eyes when you see the prices on the menu. Can good sushi really be had for a buck a piece? Your taste buds will tell you it's possible. A rainbow of select raw fish awaits your call behind a glass display case: Flounder is subtle, mackerel is rich, and sea urchin proves creamy as mousse and fresh as a sea breeze (and worth the extra 75 cents). If you're lucky, there's also toro, the sought-after underbelly of tuna. And to enhance the experience in this tiny, second-story oasis, which is simply decorated with painted Japanese characters and red banquettes, sake is poured into a small wood box, and chef Hisao Abe sometimes prepares his own soy sauce. Kotobuki's menu is short. Don't come expecting teriyaki, tempura or other mainstays of Japanese restaurants in the States. However, the kitchen does offer kamameshi, a rice casserole presented on a wooden stand and arranged with a choice of vegetables, chicken or -- my pick -- eel.

* 4822 MacArthur Blvd. (near U Street). 202-625-9080. www.kotobukiusa.com. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday; dinner Tuesday through Sunday. MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $11, dinner $12 to $15.

**Mandalay

One of the most exotic vacations from workaday Washington is a meal at Mandalay, home to pork stew bulked up with pickled mango, and sauteed shrimp charged with cilantro, onions and sour mustard leaves. Both Burmese dishes are irresistible. Both also face stiff competition on a long menu whose frequent references to noodles, cumin, curry leaves and fermented fish and shrimp pastes all underscore Burma's connections to China, India and Southeast Asia. Prime detours are any of the refreshing salads (make mine pickled tea leaves); beef with tomato-onion gravy and a sprinkling of (yeow!) red chili flakes; and mohingar, Burma's famous fish-and-rice-noodle soup. The dining room is only slightly dressy, with dark wood tables and booths covered in orange-gold fabric, and the service runs hot and cold. Food -- fragrant, nuanced and somewhat mysterious -- offered at gentle prices is what really keeps me coming back.

* 930 Bonifant St. (near Fenton Street), Silver Spring. 301-585-0500. www.mandalayrc.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. MC, V. Entree prices: $7 to $9.50.

***Thai Square

Thai Square isn't much to look at. Indeed, its lone attempts at decoration seem to be a red stripe and a few travel posters on otherwise blank white walls. Judging from the filled seats, however, no one seems to mind, because they're eating some of the finest Thai food to be found in the Washington area. Evidence: spice-rubbed pork satays that sit at the head of the class; tender squid sauteed with garlic, basil and chilies; mussels imbued with lemon grass and Thai basil and served in a clay pot, trailed by a fragrant cloud of steam as they exit the kitchen; and whole fish fired up with red chilies and balanced by tamarind. Entrees average $9, and, counting specials, the menu offers more than 100 paths to enlightenment.

* 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: $7 to $13.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . .DINNER AND A SHOW

**Cafe Saint-Ex

Clocks on the wall announce the time in five different cities, and black-and-white photographs of pilots expand on the flight theme in this snug dining room, inspired by author-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Chef Barton Seaver gives a neat twist or two to such standards as roast chicken, laced here with pistachio butter, and rib-eye steak, paired with sweet-potato fries. Ordering bruschetta brings a clumsy heap of tuna and white bean puree on bread, and potato gnocchi lands dull and heavy. But my raves outnumber my rants. Beets, oranges and goat cheese add up to a fine salad, while grilled tuna sits on a creamy bed of risotto made interesting with cauliflower and black olive oil, and dessert includes an elegant goat cheese cake lightened with honey. There's more: patio seating in good weather and a cozy lounge, dubbed Gate 54, downstairs. And it's all an easy stroll from the Studio Theatre in Logan Circle.

* 1847 14th St. NW (near T Street). 202-265-7839. www.saint-ex.com. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday; dinner daily;brunch Saturday and Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $8 to $14, dinner $9 to $22.

***Circle Bistro

Brendan Cox seems to know just what many of us want to eat before we settle in for a night of song, dance or drama at the Kennedy Center: something light yet interesting. Those adjectives certainly apply to the skilled chef's flaky tart of tomato and summer squash, or his steamed mussels in a luxuriant herb and wine broth with tiny croutons. Actually, there are a number of strong performances on his modern American menu. Hanger steak sliced into rosy rectangles and matched with a little cone of french fries is a fine display of meat; trout dusted with lemon zest and scattered with yellow and green beans, then finished with an almond and herb butter sauce, is its equal. The absent-minded service doesn't do justice to the quality of the cooking (you're apt to be kept waiting at the host stand, and side dishes sometimes go AWOL). Stick around for dessert, however, where the reward for your patience might be a peach tartlet garnished with ginger ice cream, or delicate chocolate madeleines with a trio of dipping sauces.

* in One Washington Circle Hotel, 1 Washington Circle NW (at 23rd and L streets). 202-293-5390. www.circlebistro.com. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; for lunch Monday through Saturday; for brunch Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $12 to $17, dinner $19 to $26.

***Poste

A fine warm-up act to a concert at the nearby MCI Center or a play at the Shakespeare Theatre is dinner at Poste. Housed in the Hotel Monaco, the high-ceilinged dining room always has a nice glow and a happy buzz, while from the exhibition kitchen come dishes that dare to be a little different. Garlicky snails wear pastry caps, and an arugula salad shows up looking like a perfect hedge, breezy with mint and sweetened with figs. In winter, there might be roseate venison paired with Brussels sprouts, while springtime may bring herb-paved cod served with a mini-skillet of boulanger potatoes. Strong performances like apple and quince tarte Tatin or a trio of custards will keep you in your seat through dessert.

* in Hotel Monaco, 555 Eighth St. NW (near F Street). 202-783-6060. www.postebrasserie.com. Open: for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily; brunch Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $18, dinner $15 to $28.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . PASTA

***Al Tiramisu

A man in a starched white chef's jacket strolls through the dining room carrying an earthy harbinger of fall: "The season's truffles!" trumpets owner Luigi Diotaiuti. All smiles, he holds out a bowl of what look like white rocks; their intoxicating perfume reminds you they're the kitchen equivalent of gold (and best enjoyed, shaved, over risotto). Despite its cramped and sometimes noisy quarters, Al Tiramisu remains the city's most joyful Italian experience. Part of this mood is encouraged by the convivial and attentive staff up front, but the cooks play along, too. They grill a fabulous veal chop, offer fish so fresh it almost flaps (look for treasures like turbot or Dover sole) and do pasta proud, be it ravioli filled with butternut squash and draped with a smooth walnut sauce, or tender gnocchi in an onion-sweetened tomato sauce. Dessert is a no-brainer: Just repeat the restaurant's name.

* 2014 P St. NW (near Hopkins Street). 202-467-4466. www.altiramisu.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily. AE, DC, MC, V. Entree prices: $16 to $19.

***Amici Miei

Don't let its location in a shopping center or the cliche photograph of Sophia Loren at the front door scare you off. Any cheesiness at Amici Miei ("My Friends") is limited to fresh mozzarella in the tomato salad and creamy ricotta inside delectable spinach ravioli. Brought to life last winter by Davide Megna, a former chef of Washington's Arucola, and Roberto Deias, a one-time waiter at that establishment, the restaurant dishes up real Italian cooking with gusto and finesse: smoky baby octopus arranged on soft cubes of potato with herb sauce; a classic vitello tonnato (sheer slices of veal topped with a creamy tuna-caper sauce); and pizza that leaves its wood-burning oven with a thin charred crust and a fresh-tasting tomato sauce. The details here add up. Most of the pastas are made in-house, as are the breads, and the chicken is free-range. If the dining room reminds you of one in a generic hotel, you'll find that host Deias makes a most affable concierge.

* 1093 Seven Locks Rd. (in Potomac Woods Plaza), Rockville. 301-545-0966. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $11 to $25.

***Osteria del Galileo

When people inquire about Galileo, I have to ask which space they're talking about, because chef-owner Roberto Donna now maintains three separate menus under one roof. One is for the main dining room, with its regional Italian focus. Another is for the glamorous Laboratorio, with its gleaming open kitchen and extravagant tasting menu. The third is for diners who sit in his eight-table osteria next to the bar. Here the menu is easy on the wallet and easy to like, for it brings together comforting plates and pleasant service in a simple space that doesn't demand that you dress for the occasion. There are only a few choices per course, but what choices! Vitello tonnato is sublime. So is the baby roast chicken. Pastas taste house-made because they are (ricotta dumplings are a favorite), and the meat dishes seem to be channeled from the kitchen of an Italian grandmother (pork sausages are as lusty as they come). Continue with what's casual for dessert: Tonight's cannoli are worth whatever they'll cost you on the scale tomorrow.

* 1110 21st St. NW (near L Street). 202-293-7191. www.robertodonna.com/restaurants/osteria.asp. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $8 to $10.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . A GASTRONOMIC EPIPHANY

****Maestro

If you want to catch a great show, some of the finest dinner theater around unfolds in Maestro's big stage set of an open kitchen, where a cast of cooks and waiters led by Fabio Trabocchi routinely dazzles anyone with the good fortune to be seated close to the action. The kitchen is all gleaming pots, white toques and serious concentration; the dining room is all oohs and aahs as Trabocchi and crew send out dish after wondrous dish. Diners have the option of composing a five- or seven-course dinner from a vast range of traditional and experimental Italian dishes, but experience has taught me to leave such difficult decisions to the chef and order his "creation" menu. Little waves of surprises follow. Think you know carpaccio? Think again. At Maestro, it comes not as thin sheets of sliced raw meat but as ruddy beef wrapped around a nugget of tofu and alternating with silken bites of foie gras in a long, clear glass cylinder, along with a splash of aged balsamic vinegar. Clever! But also delicious. A nest of wire-thin pasta picks up some bite from anchovies and minced chilies, while the most extraordinary roast pigeon is accompanied by a vial of lavender-perfumed sauce and a dark dab of paste whose flavors ricochet from coriander to nutmeg to orange to cloves -- and beyond. Maestro's cheese course is first-rate, and so are its desserts, my current favorite being a tall and airy peppermint souffle alongside a velvety scoop of lemon verbena ice cream. Sommelier Vincent Feraud wears a tux, but that formality won't stop him from joking with you as he watches after your liquid needs, just as ably as the kitchen feeds you.

* in Ritz-Carlton hotel, 1700 Tysons Blvd. (near International Drive), Tysons Corner. 703-821-1515. www.maestrorestaurant.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Fixed-price dinner: Tuesday through Thursday $84 to $110, Friday and Saturday $125 to $150.

**** Michel Richard Citronelle

Feeling jaded? Have Michel Richard make dinner for you. No other chef in town possesses quite the eye, or the skill set, of this imaginative French native, whose cooking could be displayed in a contemporary art museum if only it wouldn't spoil. A meal might begin with a miniature salad nicoise tucked into an eggshell and containing a surprise: What look like egg white and egg yolk are actually fresh mozzarella and yellow tomato. Is that a hamburger in front of me? No, it's a light-as-air bun sandwiching a fine blend of pig's feet, pig's ear, chicken mousse, mushrooms and shallots. Its flavor is at once earthy and luxurious. A tin of glistening beluga caviar is set down, and by now you know to expect a delicious joke; the "caviar" is pasta cooked in lobster consomme, enriched with butter and stained black with squid ink. All this sleight of hand is punctuated by dishes that are more straightforward -- lamb edged in a brilliant herb crust, turbot paired with the sweetest peas imaginable -- but just as magnificent. If the underground dining room is looking a bit dated these days, chances are you'll be too busy contemplating the art on your plate to dwell on the matter. Richard is in a league all his own.

* 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-price dinner $85 to $150.

*** Palena

There's nothing flashy about the food at Palena. Order a "summer salad," and that's precisely what you get. Yet, like everything that's served here, the dish bears the distinctive stamp of chef Frank Ruta: exquisite ingredients (in this example, lime-intensified fresh beans, shaved truffles, a slice of house-smoked ham, genuine mozzarella di bufala) arranged as a lush still life. Unlike a lot of other star chefs, Ruta delights his audiences with subtlety, letting the ingredients get all the credit for his understated yet masterly performances. His gnocchi, fashioned from Yukon Gold potatoes, are tender as can be, and scattered with tiny, slightly nutty-tasting Japanese mushrooms and crumbled -- and pricey -- Castelmango cheese. A veal entree arrives as a choice chop and loin, handsomely accessorized with glazed baby fennel, carrots and onions. From the bar come classic cocktails, and from pastry chef Ann Amernick come desserts that make you wish she still ran a bakery. The room, with its flickering votives and soothing colors, is much like the cooking, at once relaxed and seductive, and the staff sees to your needs as if you were the only person who mattered.

* 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. AE, D, MC, V. Fixed-price dinner: $57 to $71.

**** Restaurant Eve

Eating in the serene "tasting room" at Eve reminds me of dining in a garden. Pictures of fruits and vegetables on the walls set the scene, while much of the food that comes from the kitchen revels in the season. If there are great tomatoes nearby, chef Cathal Armstrong finds them and tucks them into a paper-thin pastry shell with biting Roquefort, infant basil leaves and sauternes vinaigrette. And if there's a humble ingredient that needs an ego boost, the Irish-born chef is just the guy for the job. Tripe may not be something diners expect to find in a luxury restaurant, but Armstrong's version -- slowly braised in veal stock with citrus zest, arranged with house-made lamb sausage and dusted with chopped aromatics -- makes a convincing case. The chef's inspired tasting menus (take your pick from five or nine courses) are filled with pleasures great and small. The fish known as escolar is poached in olive oil, then sliced into wedges and drizzled with a haunting vinaigrette made with smoked ham. And lemon-kissed custard cake is lavished with the sweetest blueberries ever. This remarkable food is delivered by gracious and intelligent servers, and accompanied by fine wines and cocktails that raise the bar: Eve goes to the trouble of making its own tonic for its gin and tonic.

* 110 S. Pitt St. (near King Street), Alexandria. 703-706-0450. www.restauranteve.com. "Tasting room" open for dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Fixed-price tasting room dinner: $75 to $98.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . .QUALITY TIMEWITH THE KIDS

** Mitsitam Cafe

For anyone who despaired when the National Air and Space Museum turned much of its cafeteria over to McDonald's, the Mitsitam Cafe is cause for hope. Located on the ground floor of the National Museum of the American Indian, this nod to the culinary traditions of Indians from around the Americas is both a tasty and an eye-catching place to eat on the Mall. Different food stations serve up salmon cakes from the Pacific Northwest, chicken-stuffed tamales from South America, buffalo burgers from the Great Plains, and shredded pork tacos and tomato rice from Mesoamerica. Most of the selections are very satisfying, with a few silly exceptions: The Indian tacos from the Plains heap iceberg lettuce, grated cheddar cheese and chili on saucer-size fry bread, which doesn't bring to mind the prairies so much as it does a TGIF. And I seriously doubt any Indians traditionally finished their meals with fruit tarts or coconut macaroons, both of which are also available here. But the success stories prevail over the lapses, and the setting -- airy, open and warmed up with orange and earth tones -- gives government cafeterias a good name. The best seats overlook a curved glass wall with a view of water splashing over rocks, which keeps kids of all ages mesmerized.

* in the National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000. www.americanindian.si.edu. Open: for lunch daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $6 to $12.

*** Samantha's

Parents weary of encountering sighs when they walk into restaurants with kids in tow ought to get acquainted with the family-run Samantha's. The staff actually smiles when this demographic shows up, quickly rearranging tables to accommodate whatever number of diners there are. (Early one evening, I spotted no fewer than three families using the white napkins to play peekaboo with some very young diners.) The menu, a mix of Mexican and Salvadoran flavors, proves long and enticing. Fried green plantains draped with mild white cheese, chicken-stuffed tamales and chicken soup with a small garden of vegetables all make great introductions. And take your server's advice when she steers you to her favorite beef dish or a daily fish special. The payoff might be one of the best skirt steaks you've ever cut into (carne asada), or flounder stuffed with fresh spinach, both entrees made more memorable by hearty black beans and oiled white rice. The portions are huge, but order dessert anyway. The flan is as soothing as a call from Mom, the tres leches cake ultramoist -- and quick to disappear.

* 631 E. University Blvd. (near Piney Branch Road), Silver Spring. 301-445-7300. Open for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $11 to $24.

*** 2 Amys

"See anything you like?" a bartender asks me as I glance first at the menu and then at the temptations printed on a chalkboard. Frankly, I usually see too much that I like at this lively Neapolitan pizzeria, whose "little things" include addictive salt cod croquettes and deviled eggs with green sauce, and whose pies could be ordered for their sensational crusts -- yeasty, crisp and slightly charred from a wood-burning oven -- alone. But don't do it. The toppings (fresh mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, sweet cockles) are terrific. Parents like 2 Amys because they know they can get a nice glass of Italian wine while they wait; kids are welcomed with plenty of highchairs and crayons and paper. Everyone can relate to food that is made with great ingredients and lavished with attention, be it a glass of fizzy lemonade that tastes of real citrus, an appetizer of fried squash blossoms or dreamy ice creams, almond cake and marsala-laced custard. Beyond the casual, and loud, main dining room is seating on a patio during good weather and in a small wine bar, where you'll find hanging meats, soft lighting and a bit more quiet.

* 3715 Macomb St. NW (near Wisconsin Avenue). 202-885-5700. www.2amyspizza.com. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Sunday; for dinner daily. MC, V. Entree prices: $8 to $13.

**Urban Bar-B-Que Company

In spite of its name and its suburban setting, the Urban Bar-B-Que Company comes off as being in the country. The welcoming howdy from whoever's at the counter fuels a laidback spirit, as does the intentionally scruffy interior. "Spitting is positively prohibited" warns a weathered sign. A shelf of cookbooks includes The Joy of Cooking -- and Biker Billy Cooks With Fire. Then there's the real reason for your visit: meaty (and hot!) chicken wings, zippy chili, vinegary pulled pork and soothing side dishes such as macaroni and cheese and baked beans. Beef brisket was shamefully citified -- boring -- on one of my recent pit stops there, and collard greens lacked punch. Yet "Dave's Almost Famous Crab Cake" came as a happy surprise (co-owner David Calkins shouldn't be so modest), and Key lime pie had pitch-perfect tang. Fans used to have to rush for an available stool, but Urban recently added 28 more seats -- and beer and wine -- to its list of draws.

* 2007 Chapman Ave. (at Twinbrook Parkway), Rockville. 240-290-4827. www.urbanbbqco.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $6 to $17.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . A MEATLESS MEAL

** Nirvana

If your idea of Indian food is limited to samosas and a curry or two, the family-run Nirvana will open your eyes to a richer world: slender banana peppers stuffed with a paste of coconut, coriander, mint and nuts (the divine mara mari), and what looks like a toy top but is actually an edible flour shell with cloves, red pepper and cumin waiting inside to tease your tongue (the zippy khasta kachori). More familiar but no less satisfying are the crepelike dosas filled with vegetables, and the beds of fragrant basmati rice, the best of which is flavored with tamarind, nuts and raisins. Nirvana also sets out a lunch buffet, which changes to reflect a different region of India each day; for less than $10 a person, it adds up to a lusty little tour. Watching over the pretty -- and sometimes chaotic -- dining room is Doler Shah, elegant in a sari and eager to introduce you to her personal take on meatless cooking.

* 1810 K St. NW (near 18th Street). 202-223-5043. www.dcnirvana.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $5 to $10.

*** Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant

As cheerful as its name suggests, this trim vegetarian oasis is proof that diners can eat healthfully and happily even if they're card-carrying carnivores. Fashioned from white mushrooms and soy protein, morsels of fried "chicken" taste much like fowl -- McNuggets with a conscience. And what looks just like sweet-and-sour pork, "Sweet and Sour Sensation," is actually crisp green bell peppers, pineapple, carrots and more swabbed with a lively red glaze of tomato, vinegar and pineapple juice. Wonton soup is a sumptuous treasure for only $2.50: In its robust mushroom stock float threads of spinach and a trio of delicate dumplings. Not everything on the epic bill of fare tastes as poetic as it sounds. "Peace and Harmony" combines big pieces of eggplant and a sun-dried tomato and mushroom sauce under a gooey cover of rice cheese (made with rice, oil and milk protein). And pumpkin tofu pie reminded one of my pals of "a wet protein bar." But the flavors are generally on target; curry fried rice, abundant with colorful chopped vegetables, is both kicky and fragrant. As busy as it gets, the place feels serene. Sunflowers crop up everywhere: in pictures on the white stucco walls, in garlands hanging above the cashier's post, on the curtain separating the foyer from the dining room. And instead of bringing you the latest singing sensation, the background music sounds like a day at the spa.

* 2531 Chain Bridge Rd. (near Nutley Street), Vienna. 703-319-3888. www.crystalsunflower.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $5.75 to $6, dinner $5.50 to $11.

** Vegetable Garden

There are no surprises when your food shows up at the Vegetable Garden, because every dish gets a photograph in living color on the menu. Thus an order of "beef" with pecans looks exactly like it does in its picture (although those beef strips turn out to be soy protein in a sweet glaze). With its light pink walls and sea-green carpet, the small dining room is a modestly attractive place to refuel, and the servers are quick to bring you something refreshing from the juice bar and to deliver your food, which is made without meat, dairy, eggs or MSG. Among the draws are crisp and greaseless spring rolls, each bite bursting with cabbage, carrot and black mushrooms; gently tingling kung pao tofu, colorful with red and green sweet bell peppers; and soft chunks of eggplant in a delicate black bean sauce. The Vegetable Garden isn't as innovative as Sunflower, one of the area's best meatless retreats, and some of its flavors are too restrained -- tomato and spinach soup is thin, for instance, more spalike than truly satisfying. But the welcome is warm, and the small bonuses (your water is filtered) add up.

* 11618 Rockville Pike (near Marinelli Road), Rockville. 301-468-9301. www.thevegetablegarden.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $9.50, dinner $9 to $16.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . TRADITION

*** Occidental

One of the history lessons a lot of tourists miss in Washington is a meal at the Occidental, whose soaring walls are covered with hundreds of framed pictures of notables past and present. Look, it's Teddy Roosevelt! Also watching you eat are J. Edgar Hoover, baseball legend Walter Johnson and Sen. Hillary Clinton. The room -- which dates to 1906 and includes a gleaming wood bar -- is steeped in yesteryear, yet the cooking is very much of the moment. An order of spring rolls, crunchy and fat with jerk chicken, includes a mango-chili dip that is spicy but not searing. The ubiquitous tuna tartare gets personalized with wasabi vinaigrette and slender house-baked saltines. Oysters served warm in their shells with creamed spinach need to lose their manchego cheese covers, but the lobster roll, lightened with celery and presented on toasted brioche, is a real catch. And lamb chops slathered with pesto and rounded out with barley risotto deliver plenty of savor, too. This often-hearty food is accompanied by equally generous service -- at the host stand, at the bar and especially in the dining room, where my last waiter was so adept at entertaining me with bits of trivia about this historic address that I wasn't surprised to hear he was planning to be a social studies teacher.

* 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (at 15th Street). 202-783-1475. www.occidentaldc.com. Open: for lunch and dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $23, dinner $23 to $38.

*** 1789

The only surprise at this 1962-vintage Georgetown address is how delicious it remains after all these decades. With her all-American crab cakes and rack of lamb, chef Ris Lacoste keeps longtime patrons happy, offering food that is familiar but never dull; the crab cakes get a nice assist from lemon-thyme aioli, while the lamb nods to modern tastes with feta-laced potatoes. Yet Lacoste also makes food fashionistas feel at home, with her sublime grilled pork and Copper River King salmon; the pork takes on a Southwestern accent with black beans and salsa, and the salmon (a late spring treat) sports a delicate crust of Parmesan and brioche crumbs. Waiters in white jackets and an enforced dress code -- gentlemen, don't leave home without a jacket -- hark back to a more genteel era, as do the six intimate dining rooms spread over three stories. Early- and late-comers can take advantage of another of the restaurant's assets: a three-course, pre- and post-theater menu for $35. Book now to savor Lacoste's creations here, since the chef is considering a new venture.

* 1226 36th St. NW (at Prospect Street). 202-965-1789. www.1789restaurant.com. Open: for dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $18 to $38.

*** Tabard Inn

Some of us think of this tucked-away restaurant as a bit of a secret, at least until we go to the fire-lit lounge for drinks in winter and find every couch taken, or aim for the lovely garden patio in summer to see that others had the same idea. The Tabard Inn's low ceilings, dim lighting, snug seating and black-and-white tile floors provide just the right backdrop for dinner with an old friend or a first date. Before "fresh" and "seasonal" were ubiquitous on American menus, this 30-year-old restaurant was developing relationships with local growers and even claimed its own farm. Its goal of serving simple, good food still holds true. The kitchen announces spring with a sublime puree of asparagus and watercress; winter might find flavorsome lamb with a flan of black trumpet mushrooms; and salads are anything but ordinary (keep an eye out for shaved pear and smoked trout). Tradition gets balanced with innovation, which means scallops come wrapped in a band of salmon on top of squid ink fettuccine moistened with a light butter sauce. Service is quietly efficient; the wine list is a gentle charmer. No wonder the word is out and the room is full.

* 1739 N St. NW (near 17th Street). 202-833-2668. www.tabardinn.com. Open: for breakfast and dinner daily; lunch Monday through Friday; brunch Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $15, dinner $19 to $26.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . DRIVE IN THE COUNTRY

*** Aster

Cuban-born Hump Astorga was an interior decorator before he became a chef, and there's plenty of evidence at Aster, his handsome five-room restaurant in Middleburg, that he still cares about presentation. Witness an amuse-bouche, one of several to come your way at dinner: Pickled carrots are threaded on a toothpick and set above a shot glass of cool, curry-scented soup. "Eat the carrots, and knock back the shot," you're told. An eye-catching first course of "deconstructed" clam chowder is staged on a plate divided into four parts: bite-size clam croquette; quarter-size corn custard; a couple of tablespoons of corn, potato and bacon ragout; and a small cup of clam "foam." Astorga can get carried away. "Cheeks and Bellies," a showy entree pairing barbecued veal cheeks and "pulled Thai pork bellies," is too sweet and busy, garnished with cabbage slaw, potato salad and grilled watermelon. That still leaves plenty to like. Hoisin-glazed ahi tuna is red-centered and arranged in upended pieces with a haystack of julienned vegetables and thin noodles, everything circled with a frothy carrot emulsion. Servers are as suave as any you'll find in the city, and desserts run to the whimsical and miniature: a tiny pineapple-carrot cake with orange-coconut panna cotta, perhaps, or a little root beer float composed with cherry-ginger ice cream and sassafras foam.

* 101 S. Madison St., Middleburg, Va. 540-687-4080. www.asterrestaurant.com. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: $24 to $35.

*** Inn at Easton

The world has influenced chef Andrew Evans. As a child, he says, he visited France, Spain, Lebanon and Israel with his "hippie mom"; as an adult, he spent seven years in Australia, where he learned what a "bay bug" is, received accolades for his work in a Vietnamese restaurant and met his wife, Liz, with whom he now runs a boutique inn in the heart of Easton. The chef's menu, which changes every three weeks or so, is exciting testament to his travels. "Everything is good," a server tells me, in one of the few instances where such praise rings true. Look for those bay bugs (slipper lobsters) in fragrant green Thai curry; sliced pork over Asian noodles; a juicy steak with top-notch french fries for conservative palates; or braised baby octopus layered with thin sheets of caramelized eggplant, everything sealed with asiago cheese -- a terrine for adventurers. And you'll miss out on one of Australia's great exports if you forgo the signature dessert, sticky fig pudding. The 45-seat dining room is civilized but never stuffy, its soft green walls graced with Russian Impressionist paintings and its tables set with glass bowls of lively fish instead of flowers. Psst: If you're seeking a little privacy, there's no cozier nook than the alcove table for two, aptly known as Table No. 1.

* 28 S. Harrison St. (near Dover Road), Easton, Md. 410-822-4910. www.theinnateaston.com. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. AE, MC, V. Prices: Sunday and Wednesday through Friday, entrees $24 to $38; Saturday, fixed-price dinner $65 to $85.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . COMFORT FOOD

** Black Market Bistro

Nestled in a wooded enclave, Black Market Bistro looks like something Norman Rockwell and Martha Stewart would have dreamed up had they ever worked together. A friendly porch outside leads to a couple of high-ceilinged dining rooms, the more attractive of which includes a shiny bar with counter seating. All-American burgers and root beer floats share space on the menu with steak and shrimp, though the ruddy beef is made more fun with crushed herbs and garlic, and the shrimp gets a barbecue accent and some cheesy grits, too. Black Market's pizza still needs work -- the pale crust doesn't have much savor -- but the endings are spot on. Fruit crisps make lavish use of whatever is in season, and a dark slab of chocolate pate sends forks flying. Now and then, conversation is interrupted as a train rumbles by. Rolling pins and worn-looking aprons help decorate the mint-colored walls. Black Market Bistro looks backward and forward at the same time.

* 4600 Waverly Ave. (near Kenilworth Avenue), Garrett Park. 301-933-3000. www.blackmarketrestaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; brunch and dinner Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $7 to $14, dinner $8 to $24.

*** Buck's Fishing & Camping

I could easily eat Carole Greenwood's food every night of the week. Her prime steak has no peer in town, and her "world-class" mussels are not hyperbole, just exceedingly, incredibly good. Knowing the chef's background -- she studied sculpture -- explains the arty setting, a room that's softly romantic and completely original: Blood-red walls meet wild photographs meet a long communal table lit from handsome amber globes on high. And yes, that's a canoe above your head, a prop in keeping with the small restaurant's outdoorsy name.The menu is too short (and therefore the kitchen tends to run out of certain things), which means

you want to show up early so as not to miss the likes of a light salad of honeydew and country ham or a fabulous entree of crackling fried rabbit arranged on a bed of whatever vegetable or starch the chef was inspired by at the market. At Buck's, the glory is in the many thoughtful details: a well-made cocktail from the effusive bartender; a few minutes of engaging conversation with co-owner James Alefantis, a host with the most; and a big slab of not-too-sweet chocolate cake with a drift of fresh whipped cream that begs for a glass of milk and sends you home on a sigh.

* 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW (near Nebraska Avenue). 202-364-0777. Open: for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: $17 to $34.

** Colorado Kitchen

Name a middle-class American comfort food, and Gillian Clark probably makes it -- and makes it well. Meatloaf? You bet. Fried chicken? Yep (although it's really Cornish hen). Except for the saucer-size potato chip embedded in it, tuna noodle casserole resembles something Mom used to make, and the pork chop is crunchily coated with golden cornflakes and nicely accompanied by red cabbage and tender spaetzle. But the menu isn't all Betty Crocker. The chef also acknowledges the 2000s with hake fried to a delicate crisp and served with elegant turned potatoes, and a chocolate cake that's gooey and warm inside, and better than the typical, trendy molten dessert. This often-soothing fare comes in a sweet package of red chairs, diner-style tables and framed old food advertisements. Still, it's not all too good to be true: Biscuits were dry on my last visit, as was the lemon-coconut cake. And service can be memorable or not depending on which server you get. On the other hand, Colorado Kitchen also now pours beer and wine and must surely be the only restaurant within a mile to start dinner with an amuse-bouche.

* 5515 Colorado Ave. NW (near 14th Street). 202-545-8280. www.coloradokitchen.info. Open: for lunch Friday; dinner Wednesday through Sunday; brunch Saturday and Sunday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: brunch and lunch $5.50 to $18.50, dinner $13 to $18.50.

*** Delhi Club

From the street, it looks like just another restaurant in a neighborhood full of choices. Step inside, though, and you'll find a dash of style with your samosas: pretty green tables, decorative scarves on the walls and Indian music to lend a sense of the faraway. Starters average just over $4 apiece but show care and attention. Chicken wings are meaty and succulent, garnished with fresh herbs and zippy from their bold marinade. Spinach, potato and onion find their way into light and spiky fritters, and if you think all crab cakes come from the same mold, the chili- and ginger-ignited version here will change your mind. The long and tempting menu has something for every appetite. Carnivores should gravitate toward anything made with lamb.

Vegetarians should head in the direction of bhuna bharta, a smoky mush of eggplant, tomatoes and fragrant spices. Both camps can come together for the tandoor-baked breads, which are stuffed with cottage cheese, scattered with mint or topped with garlic and butter -- and simply wonderful.

* 1135 N. Highland St. (near Clarendon Boulevard), Arlington. 703-527-5666. www.delhiclub.com. Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $6.50 to $19.50, dinner $8.50 to $19.50.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . BUSINESS

*** Bob Kinkead's Colvin Run Tavern

The only danger of hosting a business dinner here is that the food might upstage someone's pitch or presentation. Take, for example, an order of she-crab soup, which a server spoons out of a big tureen into a smaller bowl of sweet crab set on a slender plate -- a ceramic canvas that also includes a tiny crab sandwich and salad of pickled okra, tomatoes and corn. Similarly, sesame-edged squares of rare tuna over Chinese broccoli are presented with a steamer basket of spicy peanut noodles. Such theatrics give way to smiles of satisfaction when diners start eating; chef Jeff Gaetjen's plates are crowded but also quite flavorful. Although Colvin Run is a sibling of the fish-oriented Kinkead's downtown, there is much more than seafood to consider here: Spring rolls filled with curry-laced pork and joined by an herby salad make a tasty appetizer, and the best antidote to a nip in the air are meaty short ribs flanked by sauteed potatoes and bright green fava beans. Where to huddle? For the sake of privacy, seek out a booth in the manly Shenandoah Room, all dark wood and gray stone; the lighter and more elegant Charleston Room; or the intimate Camden Room, with seating for up to 12, in the rear.

* in Fairfax Square, 8045 Leesburg Pike (near Gallows Road), Tysons Corner. 703-356-9500. www.kinkead.com/colvin/colvin.htm. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $14 to $22, dinner $25 to $38.

*** Charlie Palmer Steak

Convenient for lobbyists and the people with whom they seek face time, this sleek, gray-and-blue destination on the Hill (notice the Capitol across the way?) is also a prime place to cut into a steak, be it a thick rib-eye or a pedigreed Wagyu sirloin with the texture of butter. But meat is far from its only asset. The kitchen, under the eye of chef Bryan Voltaggio, also sends out fine oysters (nicely matched with beer sorbet), robust tuna tartare, buttery skate with an olive puree, and side dishes that go beyond the routine: Picture creamy goat cheese pasta, fleshy chanterelle mushrooms and green beans with onions. No detail is too small. With your steak comes a plate dotted with five mustards, and the suave waiters wear suits that I wouldn't mind hanging in my own closet. Meanwhile, the deep American wine list means you will sip as well as you eat.

* 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; dinner Saturday. AE, D, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $13 to $20, dinner $23 to $64.

*** Oval Room

Its proximity to the White House and media outlets means there's always something, or someone, to enliven a meal at the Oval Room, where Condi Rice and Brit Hume are known to refuel between TV appearances. The two dining rooms, set off by celery-colored walls and splashy modern art, are designed for comfort. Velvet-covered banquettes make it easy to sit through a business discussion, and the prime tables along the front windows allow their occupants to be seen but not overheard. Wisely, chef Paul Luna offers a tapaslike menu of small plates to start and many entrees in half-portions, and his food is interesting but never over the top. Thus bite-size spring rolls are filled with ribbons of steak, and garlic-perfumed seafood soup takes on a Brazilian accent. Meat-eaters are acknowledged with a tasty veal chop scattered with mushrooms, while vegetarians can indulge in hat-shaped pasta stuffed with minced roasted vegetables, dusted with shaved Parmesan and lapped by a delicate curry sauce. Feeling adventurous? Grouper swaddled in crisp ribbons of plantain is a delicious destination. Looking for something sweet? Luna's free-form tiramisu, potent with espresso and rum, delivers a lovely twist on tradition.

* 800 Connecticut Ave. NW (near H Street). 202-463-8700. www.ovalroom.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; dinner Saturday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $9 to $28, dinner $10 to $34.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . SEAFOOD

**Jerry's Seafood

If you drop by at prime time, expect to wait: This family-run destination has a long history of serving top-notch seafood, but it doesn't take reservations. Sweet crab finds its way into cream of crab soup, crab bisque and (my favorite) Maryland crab soup, which is chockablock with corn, tomato and lima beans. Then there are the famous crab "bombs" to consider -- six to 10 ounces of handpicked crab, seasoned with Old Bay, bound with a bit of mayonnaise and baked to a light, golden tan. Heaven! Feel free to venture beyond crab, however: Skewered fried shrimp and daily specials like rockfish splashed with garlic butter promise satisfaction, too. Meals come with a choice of two sides; coleslaw is fresh and creamy, but stewed tomatoes are sweet enough to qualify as fruit soup. Aside from some stuffed fish swimming on its walls, the boxy dining room isn't much to look at. But the details are rich: red napkins tied with nautical-looking rope, an iced mug for your beer and first-rate hospitality. "Is this your first time?" I heard a young waiter ask some customers, "Let me bring you tastes of our soups," which he then brought (and which they enthusiastically finished).

* 9364 Lanham-Severn Rd. (near Carter Avenue), Lanham. 301-577-0333. www.jerrys-seafood.com. Open: for lunch daily; dinner Tuesday through Saturday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $35, dinner $21 to $35. Other location: 108 Second St., Lewes, Del., 302-645-6611.

*** Johnny's Half Shell

Treasures on the half shell -- glistening oysters and clams -- are mere warm-up acts on a bill of fare that is so enticing that a seafood fancier will fantasize about ordering "one of everything, please." Squid is grilled to retain its tenderness, then tossed with fried shallots and wisps of wild arugula for a seafood salad of distinction. Oyster stew finds the lead ingredient in a bath of warm cream dusted with cayenne for kicks. Lunch means po' boys stuffed with crunchy-juicy fried shrimp inside toasted buns, and dinner yields simple but serious entrees, such as crab imperial and wood-grilled steak teased with green chili butter. Indeed, while Johnny's is best-known for fresh seafood, the trim restaurant also pours nice wines by the glass and churns out lovely endings (bracing lime sorbet, burnt-sugar ice cream). I adore the marble bar, facing an aquarium, and the green booths with their tall backs. But so do a lot of people. Be prepared for some clamor with your lobster.

* 2002 P St. NW (near 20th Street). 202-296-2021. www.johnnyshalfshell.net. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $7 to $26, dinner $20 to $26.

*** Sushi-Ko

Washington's oldest source for raw fish and vinegared rice is also one of its best, thanks to a young chef with a clear idea of what's fresh and appealing and a deft way with a knife. Koji Terano isn't yet 30, but already he cooks like someone with decades of experience. The most engaging way to taste his work is to snare a coveted counter seat and request omakase -- Japanese for "chef's choice" -- and watch a series of lovely arrangements float your way. If you're fortunate, they might include crisped eel on slices of sheer cucumber; a seared fold of white tuna presented with avocado, Japanese mountain potato and chips of garlic; a mellow bowl of soup with a few choice morsels of lobster; maybe duck drizzled with a mustard-punched miso sauce; and snowy, wine-flavored sorbets. But you'll also find plenty to applaud on the standing menu and at a table on one of the two sparely decorated floors. There informed servers deliver amazing rock shrimp tempura, a tasting flight of tunas, and flounder sashimi, elegantly garnished with a halo of fried carrot threads and truffle vinaigrette.

* 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street). 202-333-4187. www.sushiko.us. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday; dinner daily. AE, MC, V. Entree prices: lunch $10 to $16, dinner $23 to $33.

IN THE MOOD FOR . . . ROMANCE

**** Inn at Little Washington

"Take as many as you wish," a server murmurs as he proffers a tray of Lilliputian savories moments after my friends and I have been ushered into this cocoon of comfort and luxury. All around us are beautiful paintings, plush seats, flattering light, and men and women who look very pleased to be dining in one of the dreamiest restaurants anywhere. Chef Patrick O'Connell's background in theater is evident on every whimsically staged plate, be it risotto served in the hollow of a big tomato, vegetable "sushi" that manages to make red peppers and hearts of palm look like raw fish, or a chocolate-robed birthday cake that is sliced to reveal a checkerboard of pistachio and white chocolate ice creams inside. Those are but a few of the many fine dishes that make up this very American and seasonally tuned script, whose charms also include crab cakes sandwiched between rounds of fried green tomato; minced squab, local peanuts and mushrooms scooped into cool lettuce wrappers; and beef "two ways" -- as a perfect little filet mignon banded in Swiss chard and as tender short ribs, barbecued and crunchy with pecans. Under the direction of co-owner Reinhardt Lynch, the service is haute but shows a sense of humor; someone in your party has to order cheese just to hear the faux cow it's served on go "moo," and kitchen tours are preceded by a robed young man waving incense at the door. In-the-know romantics ask for Table 66 in the intimate terrace room looking onto the garden, a destination so popular, jokes O'Connell, that these days, "all the tables there are number 66. We have 66A, 66B, 66C . . ."

* Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. 540-675-3800. www.theinnatlittlewashington.com. Open: for dinner Wednesday through Monday. AE, MC, V. Fixed-price dinner: $138 to $178.

** Layalina

Rima Kodsi is one of the best matchmakers I've ever encountered. Few restaurateurs are so eager to connect you with their cooking. One moment she's at your table telling you what she made special that day; the next she's detailing what's typically Syrian. She's also quick to translate for anyone unfamiliar with her highly personal Middle Eastern menu. So a salad of chopped cabbage, herbs and lemon becomes "Middle Eastern coleslaw." And her recipe for baba ghanouj -- roasted, pureed eggplant -- "gets lightened with zucchini." It's hard to order wrong, though some dishes are more equal than others. Kodsi's thick dip of red peppers and nuts is a fine way to launch, as is her kibbe filled with ground meat and onions or just green peppers. Chicken arranged with shards of pita, yogurt and chickpeas adds up to a lovely shawarma, and requesting the special might bring you eggplant with slivers of lamb and rice, a huge and homey comfort. Every square inch of the place is claimed by a rug, a musical instrument, a photo of a VIP; it's hardly luxurious, but attractive enough for a first date. Mention a birthday, and out comes a doll that belly dances on your table. Meanwhile, the soundtrack sounds strangely familiar to disco-generation ears: "That's 'I Will Survive,' in Arabic," a young server explains.

* 5216 Wilson Blvd. (near North Florida Street), Arlington. 703-525-1170. www.layalinarestaurant.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: $8 to $19.

** Taberna del Alabardero

A hot coin of pastry-wrapped chorizo staves off hunger as you peruse the menu, and if you listen, more people around you seem to be speaking Spanish than English. "Welcome to Madrid," this grandly formal restaurant seems to whisper.

Seducers know to request the plush red banquettes in the corners -- snuggle centers strewn with pillows and backed with frilly white lace -- but even the broad chairs, covered in what looks like tapestry, are a treat to your seat. The tapas bar is handsome, too. No matter where you find yourself in this pleasure palace, the lighting is gentle, the music is hushed and the servers, smartly attired in vests or tuxes, see to your well-being. The caveat? The cooking can be very good (salt cod is partnered with crimson roasted peppers; fresh sardines are tickled with tomato vinaigrette; garlic and pork cracklings jazz up the artichoke stew) or truly underwhelming (lamb stew ringed with mashed potatoes may make you wonder if Dinty Moore had a hand in its creation). That said, you will always drink well from the epic wine list, and end on a little high with anything that jiggles: The kitchen's flans are all sublime.

* 1776 I St. NW (entrance on 18th Street). 202-429-2200. www.alabardero.com. Open: for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; dinner Saturday. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch entrees $11.50 to $23, dinner entrees $12 to $47.50.

*** 2941

Even before they taste a morsel of food, people who have never visited this coolly glamorous restaurant are in for a few surprises. First, who could imagine an expense-account restaurant in a suburban office park? Second, the stone walkway that leads from the valet attendant to the glass entranceway passes by a pool stocked with lively orange fish. And then there's the lake view -- in Falls Church, no less. The dining room is lovely, all glass windows, warm wood, never-ending ceilings and chairs wrapped in tangerine- or eggplant-colored fabric. Solicitous waiters in elegant suits look after your every whim, and they know the menu as if they'd written it themselves. Jonathan Krinn's food frequently lives up to the grand introduction. The chef's calamari and zucchini tempura are light as air, and his steak tartare unites great raw beef with house-made ketchup infused with brandy. Both appetizers are delicious. Stars among the main courses might include a saffron-perfumed risotto dimpled with sweet clams, or a heartier plate of pork loin with a foamy sauce of meat stock, tomato and vinegar reduction -- "and veal brains," a waiter confides -- offered with pirogi. The tabs will remind you of New York, but so will the sophistication.

* 2941 Fairview Park Dr. (near Route 50), Falls Church. 703-270-1500. www.2941.com. Open: for lunch Sunday through Friday; dinner daily. All major credit cards. Entree prices: lunch $11 to $35, dinner $22 to $71.

The Ratings Code

Ratings are based primarily on food quality but take into account service and ambience. Restaurants that earn no stars are rated Poor.

* (1 star) SATISFACTORY

Restaurants that are useful to know about if you are nearby; they may have only a few dishes or a single quality, such as a view or atmosphere, to distinguish them.

** (2 stars) GOOD

Restaurants with generally appealing cooking, service and settings; they tend to be worth driving across town for.

*** (3 stars) EXCELLENT

Rewarding destinations, no matter where you're coming from; they typically blend high-quality cooking with environs and service to match.

**** (4 stars) SUPERLATIVE

An unsurpassed experience; these restaurants do what they do extraordinarily well.