A recent pulse check by New York magazine practically declared fine dining dead in Manhattan. “Running on fumes,” the article quoted an industry veteran as saying.
Diners who might never dream of splurging on a meal costing hundreds of dollars indirectly benefit from high-end restaurants, some of whose rituals have been adopted by more casual establishments. If you’ve ever encountered a welcoming “gift from the kitchen,” tasting menu, pre-dessert or parting goodie bag in a neighborhood spot, you’ve experienced the trickle-down effect.
With the holidays in mind — and pent-up demand for places to celebrate after almost two years of sticking close to home — I recently checked out six of Washington’s loftiest dining experiences. Three contenders are missing from the menu: Pineapple & Pearls, from Aaron Silverman, has yet to reopen, but it plans to change “everything about it except the name,” says the chef. The Inn at Little Washington — a 90-minute drive from the District — just enjoyed time in the spotlight in my annual fall dining guide. Finally, I tried … and tried … reserving at Minibar by José Andrés when the exemplar of avant-garde cooking reopened in October, but no luck — more evidence that fine dining has legs. (I promise to report back once I secure the tough ticket.)
While the following six District competitors vary in style, they share some of the most sophisticated cooking and polished service anywhere. More than once during my survey, the meals channeled rich memories of eating in top spots in France, Spain and Japan. My research project also underscores a truth: Washington ranks as one of the country’s best practitioners of the genre.
All you need to participate is an open palate and a fat wallet (or an extra-generous dining companion).
Critics might decry the price of these places. The true cost of dinner can be hundreds more than what’s listed once wine, tax and tip are added. Sure, fine dining is expensive, says Ziebold. “But so is football, and it’s not as much fun.”
In the end, it’s about priorities. If you live to eat, consider this my gift to you this season.
The city’s best high-end Italian restaurant lets you know from the start how important ingredients and the land are to its mission, when a server proffers canapes — eggplant mousse, a divine goat cheese and mushroom tart — arranged on a cushion of hay atop its tray, or more recently, a pedestal. Chancellors Rock Farm outside Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is the source for much of Fiola’s herbs, produce, beef and pork.
Fear not if you’re led to the back dining room, its walls colorful with Warhol-esque paintings of celebrities. You get the same expert service, pools of space and sumptuous cooking as up front. The pastas soar; fresh pappardelle shaped into a crown, filled with Italian cheeses, circled with mushroom broth and tiled with Alba truffles is among the glories. Always thinking ahead, the restaurant created by maestro Fabio Trabocchi and led by executive chef Antonio Mermolia sends diners off with something for breakfast, maybe apple cider coffee cake. “So you remember us tomorrow,” says an attendant. As if we could forget a magical night in Italy.
Signature dishes: Spirulina spaghetti with clams and oysters, seasonal mushrooms with leek flan and cacio e pepe bread, charcoal-grilled Japanese A5 “farmer” steak with black truffles.
Basic cost: $225 for eight courses.
Telling details: One of the most formal dining experiences in town comes with plenty of light moments. A mezcal drink called “A Foggy Day,” meant to evoke morning on a farm, arrives in what looks like a little smoke-infused greenhouse. And when a dessert in the shape of Italy is presented, Fiola’s Sicilian general manager points to where he’s from on the confection and says “that’s the best part.”
Nits: My reservation went AWOL, but we were nevertheless accommodated. Fiola might disappoint wine collectors with its policy of no corkage (i.e. no wine can be brought in from outside).
Change due to the pandemic: Lunch service suspended.
Best for: Reveling in the tasteful food, service and ambiance of one of the best chefs in the business.
601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-525-1402. fioladc.com. Open for indoor dining Tuesday (as of Dec. 14) through Saturday. Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users access the restaurant via a side entrance; a ramp can be requested to access the ADA-compliant restrooms.
Up front, this dashing restaurant from the prolific Enrique Limardo lets you know it’s not perfect, only striving to be.
Yet to dine here is to revel in all sorts of delicious details: some of the most sophisticated cocktails from one of the best bars in the city, servers who know the menu so well they give the impression they’re cooking your meal, interesting dishes that bridge the Mediterranean with Latin America — and the chance to eat the way you want. A la carte? As a tasting menu? Up to you.
Signature dishes: Moussaka cigar, foie gras with plantain brioche, braised lamb terrine.
Basic cost: Chef’s tasting menu $150, a la carte entrees $38 to $95.
Telling detail: Limardo quizzes servers on his recipes, asking them to explain dishes as if he were the diner.
Nit: A side of noise can accompany dinner.
Change since pandemic: Checks are accompanied by cards explaining the restaurant’s 5 percent fair-wage fee.
Best for: Showing naysayers that Washington has sexy, first-rate places to dine.
1124 23rd St. NW. 202-964-1012. imperfectodc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining Tuesday through Sunday, plus brunch weekends. Sound check: 80 decibels/ Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Heavy glass doors precede the foyer; restrooms are ADA-compliant.
Chef Ryan Ratino wants diners to feel as if they’re at a dinner party at Jônt, and that they do, starting with personalized place cards and “some bubbles, perhaps?” once you’re shown to your stool at a counter overlooking a gleaming kitchen and a (quiet) army of chefs in whites.
Three or more hours later — Jônt is a journey — you will have dispatched a full ounce of caviar, foie gras, Wagyu steak, king crab and a line-caught Japanese fish, akamutsu, that Ratino says costs more than the other indulgences on the list. You will also have moved rooms for dessert, little of which you can finish because ... well, all the greatness before it.
The hospitality at this sibling to Bresca is world-class. Expect lots of face time with the gregarious chef and great attention to detail. The left-handed diner next to me was won over by Jônt knowing where to place his utensils.
Signature dishes: Live scallop, Dungeness crab with koshiibuki rice, dry-aged duck (breast, sausage and bone broth).
Basic cost: $305 for 16 courses.
Telling details: A hospitality director Googles guests to get information that might enhance their experience; farewell treats might include restaurant-made cat and dog snacks.
Nits: Too many courses. Well before the multiple desserts, diners might be seen waving a white flag, er napkin. Also, the louder-than-necessary soundtrack includes music whose lyrics can be offensive.
Best for: Food warriors who want to check off Michelin-starred restaurants.
1904 14th St. NW. 202-773-9989. jontdc.com. Open for indoor dining Wednesday through Sunday. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access the restaurant via an elevator and dine in the pastry parlor; ADA-compliant restrooms.
Marcel’s by Robert Wiedmaier
The grand dame of the class is named for owner Robert Wiedmaier’s son, soon to be 23, just like the French-inspired, champagne-hued restaurant in the West End. My maiden review of Marcel’s reads much like today’s. A meal passes leisurely and luxuriously with the help of servers better dressed than you are, gifts from the kitchen that include crisp escargots with parsley pesto, thick linens across the tables and lulling background music (think Spanish guitar).
Proud decision-makers are in luck; diners are free to compose their own tasting menu from a long list of choices. Calling to me in winter are smoked squab breast with roasted chanterelles and venison paired with red cabbage and roasted squash, dishes that highlight the kitchen’s classic saucing. Marcel’s is the lone fine dining restaurant of this group with a woman heading the kitchen, chef de cuisine Jennifer Castaneda-Jones, 29.
Signature dishes: Lobster bisque en croute, boudin blanc, mussels with tomato fondue.
Basic cost: Four courses $110, five courses $130, six courses $150.
Telling details: As a server pulls out a chair for a diner, he tells her, “Take a deep breath and relax.” Guests get to create their own tasting menu from among 17 selections. Live piano music Friday and Saturday.
Nit: Is it because I’m seated in the rear dining room that my glass of wine arrives while I’m halfway into my main course?
Changes due to the pandemic: No more valet parking; open only five nights a week.
Best for: Business dinners, wine enthusiasts and older diners looking for a classic formal dining experience.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-296-1166. marcelsdc.com. Open for indoor dining and takeout Wednesday through Sunday. Sound check: 67 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Two sets of double doors precede the host stand; restrooms are wheelchair-accessible.
Métier is where I send people who want some ceremony with their meal, just not a three-ring circus. Guests step off an elevator that gives them the impression they’re headed to China (it’s comically slow) and glide into a room that’s Old World-romantic, with well-spaced tables, a candlelit chandelier (and beyond, one of the dreamiest private spaces in town). A picture window frames the kitchen talent, headed up by chef and co-owner Eric Ziebold, who hopes diners see the scene as “a brigade of people cooking just for you.”
Definitely, the cooking is personal and approachable — no need to Google much. Sweet potatoes you know. But have you ever had them served inside cannelloni, alongside a bar of not-too-sweet coconut pudding and finished with a bright froth of carrot-turmeric vinaigrette? Baby lamb is familiar, too, but staged with surprises, including a crisp eggplant-olive “beignet” whose only flaw is not being more than a single heady bite. Sauces are erased with the best mop I know: Métier’s heavenly Parker House rolls. A spirits cart rolls up, laden not just with after-dinner nips, but also with a bouquet of sweet treats, a reminder of how pastry chefs make life more worth living.
Signature dishes: Sweet potato cannelloni, Kuroge beef tartare with red pepper flan and mushroom tempura, baby lamb with smoked eggplant ratatouille.
Basic cost: $200 for a seven-course tasting menu.
Telling details: A page of “menu notes” describes each dish’s inspiration. Celebrants receive a candle from the owners’ lifestyle collection of wares.
Nit: The drink and wine list requires using a QR code (but how cute that it’s in a frame).
Change due to the pandemic: Pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the salon are suspended.
Best for: Diners who appreciate food that’s beautiful and delicious but doesn’t dominate the conversation.
1015 Seventh St. NW. 202-737-7500. metierdc.com. Open for indoor dining Wednesday through Sunday. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Consecutive doors lead to the foyer and an elevator to the downstairs restaurant; ADA-compliant restroom.
Xiquet by Danny Lledó
Am I in Spain? Chef Danny Lledó makes it feel that way with his tasting menu, a parade of perfectly calibrated dishes that leave you wanting nothing more than perhaps another serving of red prawns from the coastal town of Denia — some of the most spectacular seafood ever to cross my lips. Born in Maryland, Lledó is the son of a Spanish chef and the maestro behind a restaurant (say chee-KETT) that knows great ingredients don’t need much manipulation. Thin coins of grilled octopus, grapes so sheer you can read through them, bright orange “pearls” and saline caviar add up to a breathtaking seafood salad.
The evening commences in the ground-floor bar with a revivifying drink and a snack: “Ham of the sea,” a server poetically announces a pungent slice of dried tuna loin. Next, guests are escorted to the minimalist upstairs dining room — just six tables with a view of the glass-wrapped kitchen and its custom-made wood grill — followed by a trip to the mezzanine for some sweets. By the time you leave, you will have experienced 14 courses and one of the most civilized and transporting restaurants in Washington.
Signature dishes: Octopus salad, braised oxtail with foie gras and truffles, rice flavored as if by the sea (although it’s vegan, fragrant with plankton).
Basic cost: $210 for a 14-course menu.
Telling details: When I’m mulling wine, a server offers the option of half-glasses. The chef chats up diners, giving Xiquet the air of an intimate dinner party.
Nit: Bread gets its own course, but it’s the weakest link in an otherwise luscious lineup.
Best for: People who miss dining in the more modern temples of haute cuisine in Europe.
2404 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-913-4671. xiquetdl.com. Open for indoor dining Tuesday through Saturday night and Saturday lunch. Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Arrangements can be made to accommodate wheelchair users on the ground floor, but the nearest restroom involves stairs.