In looking back on my restaurant visits during 1990, I'm struck by the fact that, with few exceptions, the eating was pretty good, the clinkers relatively few. But here, in alphabetical order, are my top picks among the restaurants I reviewed over the past 12 months. As a guide on prices, inexpensive means entrees less than $10; moderate, $7-12; moderately expensive, $12-16; expensive, $14-25.
HUNAN PAVILION 6303 Little River Turnpike, Alexandria, 642-3073. Moderate.
I'm sorry to say that it took me four years to discover Hunan Pavilion, where about 30 Northern Mandarin dishes listed at the back of the menu augment the more familiar array of Hunan, Szechuan and Beijing offerings. Standouts include the Mandarin-style "combination noodle" soup, a frequent special of whole pompano bathed in a hot chile sauce, scallops in a delightful brown sauce and a bargain Peking duck.
IL BUON GUSTO 6681 S. Backlick Road, Springfield, 644-4044. Moderate.
An excellent value, this is a pleasantly decorated neighborhood restaurant where the pastas are the best deals of all on the Northern Italian menu. The wide, flat pappardelle noodles, for example, were wonderful with a gossamer cream sauce and bits of smoked salmon. Ditto for the spaghetti, intensely flavored with pesto. But even if you stray from the pastas, you won't be disappointed with choices such as the veal, pizziaiola and the chicken breast rolls. For dessert, the tiramisu is the best I've had in a long time.
KYBER TANDOOR MAHAL 5216 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, 525-4440. Inexpensive.
If eating spicy Pakistani food in the front of a grocery store sounds interesting, then this is a place for you. There are few amenitites; seating is limited to six tables and you place your order at the counter overlooking the kitchen. But for less than $7 an entree, you get wonderful lamb stews, marinated meat grilled on skewers and fluffy basmati rice. If you want something less fiery, try the chunks of grilled chicken breast coated with a distinctive orange-colored yogurt marinade.
LIMELIGHT 107 Loudoun St. SW, Leesburg, 777-7492. Expensive.
The attractions here are the lovely Art Deco setting and the inventiveness of chef George Vetsch, whose eclectic menu reflects his classical French culinary training and the provocative use of a wide variety of seasonal ingredients. This summer, for example, his creamy white corn bisque was luscious, the North African seasoning on a rack of lamb distinctive and the Tuscan-style grilled vegetable salad a joy. But not all of the chef's experiments work to perfection, so a less expensive way to discover the true winners is at lunch, when main dishes are in the $6-8 range.
SHAWARMA Sudley Manor Square, 7857 Sudley Manor, Manassas, 335-0999. Inexpensive.
The Feghali family provides warm, friendly service and terrific Middle Eastern specialties at bargain prices. My favorites among the dozen or so appetizers are the deep-fried kibbi balls (ground meat and pine nuts covered with crushed wheat); the dense, pungent mini-sausages; stuffed grape leaves; and hummos. As for entrees, don't miss the terrific roast lamb perfumed with garlic and served with real mashed potatoes. And for the finish, there is great baklava and Turkish coffee.
TEMPO 4231 Duke St., Alexandria, 370-7900. Moderate.
In their first attempt at running a restaurant, the husband-and-wife team of Wendy and Serge Albert have come up with a big winner at this small, unpretentious but charming location. The sophisticated continental menu reveals French, American and Italian influences. The sauces are first-rate, whether in the scaloppini marsala or the swordfish in a light lobster sauce. Desserts, too, can be exceptional, such as the cheesecake and key lime pie. Lunch is an especially good value.
THAI SECRET 9114 Center St., Manassas, 361-2500. Moderate.
As is often the case at good Thai restaurants, some of the best choices here are among the appetizers and soups. The Thai shrimp roll and skewered strips of marinated beef or pork were excellent, as were the soups: boldly piquant shrimp and lemon grass, and the chicken galanga. Seafood entrees -- the scallops with basil leaves or the battered-fried cod fillet -- are quite good, as is a melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon for the incorrigible steak-eater in your party.