A wish list for Washington's dining scene might include more moderately priced French eateries, more Southern-style menus, better street food -- and a few more restaurants within walking distance of the city's stages.
Herewith, reviews of three establishments that offer prix fixe pretheater menus, in addition to close proximity to some of the area's major theaters:
Le Rivage (near Arena Stage), 1000 Water St. SW, 488-8111. Prix fixe menu ($13.95) served daily from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. All major credit cards accepted.
Nestled along the Washington Channel, Le Rivage offers a view from its wrap-around glass windows that includes as much highway as waterway. Inside the L-shaped dining room, though, the setting is serene and soothing, a romantic oasis enhanced with flickering table candles, large, well-spaced tables, and walls painted the color of salmon, or papered with what looks like fabric.
And at $13.95, Le Rivage also offers the least expensive prix fixe menus I came across. But not necessarily the most convenient (orders must be placed by 6:30 p.m.), or varied. In fact, the evening my party visited, so many selections featured mussels, we figured the restaurant must have got a good deal on them that day: For starters, there were fine, parsley- and garlic-accented baked mussels, as well as cream of mussel soup. And of the five entree selections, one was an exceedingly rich seafood casserole (with mussels, scallops and shrimp), another was pasta sprinkled with you-know-what. Only the dessert course, which included a respectable creme caramel and a very chocolaty chocolate mousse, remained free of mollusks.
You can't go wrong with such simple openers as the Caesar salad or a bowl of cheesy onion soup. And the catch of the day -- no, not mussels, but sea trout on our visit -- proved a satisfying main course, livened as it was with capers and accompanied by thinly sliced boiled potatoes and perfectly cooked green beans.
The greeting is warm, the service conscientious (a waiter, having overheard that a member of our table was celebrating his birthday, garnished the guest's dessert with an edible salutation and candle). And the food at Le Rivage? Adequate, if largely uninspired.
The Celadon (near National, Warner, and Ford's theaters), 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW in the J.W. Marriott Hotel, 393-2000. Prix fixe menu ($19.95) served daily from 5:30 to 7 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.
Here's what you get for $19.95 at the Celadon: mineral water poured from the bottle, a lagniappe of crackers with herbed cheese, a generous four-course meal that includes coffee, which is served from a silver tray graced with a potpourri of garnishes, from sweetened whipped cream and mocha beans to cinnamon sticks and amber-colored sugar. All this, plus very good service, in a stunningly beautiful dining room of Oriental design.
The menu reflects the restaurant's Asian leanings in such dishes as the hot and sour soup, brimming with fleshy black mushrooms, bamboo and julienned vegetables (and tasting far better than what a lot of Chinese restaurants serve), and a main course of Szechuan beef, a teasingly peppery and colorful melange of stir-fried (and full-flavored) steak strips, carrots and bell peppers.
On the Occidental side, there are an attractive, if somewhat soggy, appetizer of seafood pastry set on a pool of lobster sauce, and a succulent grilled chicken breast, spiked with Cajun spices and surrounded by a rainbow of al dente carrots, squash and broccoli.
The kitchen's finesse extends to the dessert course, which frequently changes but might include an airy and citrusy key lime pie, or a surprisingly light if decadently rich-tasting chocolate mousse cake.
The Celadon's prix fixe menu bested the competition from start to finish with its generous and thoughtful touches.
The Terrace Restaurant (near the Kennedy Center), 2650 Virginia Ave. NW, in the Watergate Hotel, 298-4455. Prix fixe menu ($19.50) served daily from 5 to 8 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.
Dinner at the Terrace, a grand dining room swathed in red fabrics and mirrors, got off to a rough start recently when we showed up with no one to greet us, followed by a flurry of activity with our being seated, and some confusion among the servers as to who would be waiting on us.
Fortunately, the kitchen proved more reliable that night. Steer toward the fish dishes -- they are not only greater in number, but generally better executed than the other dishes, based on a first course of prawns served with an appealing sauce of diced tomato and onion, and a main course of fresh, moist grilled mahi-mahi, adorned with a pineapple-accented buerre blanc.
Other dishes received mixed reviews. A multihued salad of tortellini blended with bites of smoked turkey and a sesame vinaigrette was, for all its ingredients, surprisingly flat. Paillard of chicken, on the other hand, was a beautiful and well-prepared dish, rounded out with an earthy yet light pilaf of wild rice and a medley of fresh, bright-colored vegetables.
But all usually ends well with the dessert cart, which showcases a tempting array of sweets -- among them a fine, smooth cheesecake with a garnish of fresh raspberries. And despite its slightly grainy texture, the rum raisin ice cream, enveloped in a delicate walnut cookie shell, was worth ordering for a taste of the edible cup alone.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.