Sometimes it's not so much food or atmosphere we seek out in a restaurant, but rather a kitchen (other than our own) that will serve into the wee hours of the morning. As anyone who's ever craved a meal after midnight can attest, this can pose a problem for diners in Washington, which has never been known for keeping late hours.
Nonetheless, there are alternatives -- spaghetti, seafood and tacos, for starters -- to the fast-food fare served up by the neighborhood 24-hour convenience store. A recent search for such late-night eateries turned up the following:Anna Maria's (Dupont Circle), 1737 Connecticut Ave. NW, 667-1444. Hours 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday. Appetizers $1.95 to $8.95; entrees $5.95 to $19.95. American Express, Choice, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
Anna Maria's looks like a movie set from a grade-B film: The foyer is papered with black and white photographs of the one-time proprietor, Anna Maria, schmoozing with one-time stars (a waiter later explained it was Anna Maria's late hours, not necessarily her food, that encouraged their visits). Equally quirky are the dining rooms, decorated with a mishmash of stained wood and textured plaster, sky blue chairs and red tablecloths -- along with what appear to be bowling trophies adorning the rafters. To keep your ears busy, a band of tuxedo-clad musicians entertains from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. In all, it's just what you need to stay awake, the visual and aural equivalent of a pot of coffee.
Aside from the garlic bread, which is powerful enough to ward off a coven of vampires, the food is less than memorable, but with sufficient delights to warrant a visit: Start with Anna Maria's Special Salad, a mix of greens, chickpeas, tuna and assorted vegetables or the hot (seafood) antipasto, bathed in a mild marinara sauce, and continue on to a big, buttery, garlicky, cheesy (and rather salty) fettuccine alla carbonara, or perhaps a simple if strapping portion of spinach lasagna. If you're lucky enough to have an affable waiter by the name of Raouf to smooth the evening, all the better.
Aux Fruits de Mer (Georgetown), 1329 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 965-2377. Open 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Appetizers $2.95-$9, entrees $7.50-$14.50. American Express, Choice, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.
True to its name -- not to mention the fish tank prominently displayed in the window -- the menu at Aux Fruits de Mer is composed largely of fish and seafood. While that doesn't necessarily guarantee a pristine piece of fish, it does offer lots of possibilities, such as redfish in a barely discernible dill sauce, buttery softshell crabs sprinkled with almonds, or satisfactory, sweet lobster (steamed, broiled or stuffed with crab). Meat eaters are welcomed with the likes of lamb curry and steak with bernaise sauce. While the prices might remind us we are dining in Georgetown, the service is fresh and breezy, the setting as cozy as a neighborhood tavern but with a distinct French accent. In short, a good place to know about when you crave something other than eggs and bacon at 1 a.m.
Stetson's (Adams-Morgan), 1610 U St. NW, 667-6295. Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday, 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday. Appetizers $1.95-$3.95, entrees $3.50-$7.95. American Express, Choice, MasterCard, Visa.
Great Tex-Mex cooking this is not -- even the frothy margaritas lack much punch. But for a respite from the ubiquitous fern bar scene, this is the spot. You can belly up to the bar, which stretches the length of this rustic, wood-and-tile saloon, or sit at laminated tables. The menu's theme carries over into the background music, which includes plenty of country-western favorites, and the service, which is generally as relaxed as siesta time.
The food is likely to impress you more with its size than with any composition of flavors. The best part of a combination platter of bland spanish rice, pasty refried beans and a lifeless beef taco was the chicken chalupa, flavorful with shredded chicken and redolent of garlic. I encountered similar highlights and flaws with the satisfactory barbecued chicken, accompanied by finely chopped, creamy coleslaw -- and awful, mushy french fries, plus a tasteless, bite-size piece of corn on the cob. Better was the chile grande, topped with cheese, chopped onion and slices of jalapeno peppers. You could probably make a meal of chips, perhaps those described simply as "nachos" (actually a tasty, messy mix of tortilla chips, chili, cheese and slices of hot green pepper for added piquancy). Otherwise, stick with the beer and the jukebox and the camraderie of dozens of neighbors.
Tune Inn (Capitol Hill), 331 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 543-2725. Open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday. Sandwiches and entrees $2.15-$4. Cash only.
The menu at the Tune Inn lists sandwiches, omelettes and a few dinners, none of which cost more than $4. But truth be known, the menu also might list a jukebox reverberating with the voices of Patsy and Willie and Dolly, wise-cracking waitresses, and enough stuffed, mounted animals to suggest a tribute to the Wild Kingdom.
Don't expect much more than a decent cheeseburger, cheap drinks, and a few wonderfully homey potato side dishes here -- the dinner salad is mainly iceberg lettuce, the fried chicken is deftly fried but bland, and the chili, mildly hot, is a cut above boarding school fare.
That said, the always busy, always noisy Tune Inn is as charming a dive as one might imagine, a bargain hunter's find, and with good reason, one of the Hill's most popular destinations.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of Washington Post Food section.