Fine dining is fantasy wish fulfillment as much as it is an evening of gastronomic pleasure — at least, at many of the hushed palaces gunning for Michelin stars. Personally, I’ve never wanted to be king, so I often bristle inwardly when attended to by a small cadre of servers who fold my napkins, de-crumb my table, help with my coat and generally behave as if they have nothing better to do than watch me agonize over what stinky slices I want from the cheese trolley.
I’m a middle-class guy from a middle-class Midwestern family whose idea of a nice meal was a well-done T-bone from Mr. Steak in Omaha. Come to think of it, I felt pretty uncomfortable there, too, when I was a runt.
Regardless, what I’m trying to say here is that the restaurants we love are not always based on food alone. We cannot distance ourselves from the imprinting of our childhoods. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been dazzled by dishes at fine-dining restaurants, most recently at Minibar, where guest chef Albert Adrià (brother of Ferran, the big brain behind the late El Bulli) served long, slippery strands of cod skin, prepared to mimic the shape and texture of soba noodles. I think I gushed about those “noodles” for the next 10 minutes.
But even in my unbridled enthusiasm for this noodle innovation, there was a performative aspect to it, as if I was signaling to my tablemates that I was savvy enough to get it. That I can appreciate the kind of mind that looks at fish scraps and thinks, “soba noodles!” It can be exhausting to be so cool.
I’d much rather be sitting at the bar at Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring, talking college football with a good friend, listening to both sides of “Sticky Fingers” on the jukebox and pounding down tater tots as if I would never have to step on the scale at my doctor’s office again. When I walk into a place like Quarry House, it’s as if I’m paying for the pleasure to not be self-conscious in public. For me, QH is a place as relaxing as home, and the food and drink are good enough not to break that spell.
As I reflect on my favorite restaurants for the year, I’m painfully aware of how much comfort factored into my thinking, perhaps because 2018 was marked with so much chaos, doom and existential risk. Whatever the reason, I found much to love and appreciate in these 10 places.
10. Archipelago, 1201 U St. NW, 202-627-0794; archipelagobardc.com. It takes nerve, sensitivity and a great deal of R&D to pull off the Chinese-influenced menu that bartenders-cum-reluctant-toques Owen Thomson and Ben Wiley have installed at their U Street tiki outpost. Streamlining the Pacific Rim-and-tiki mash-ups pioneered by the likes of Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, Thomson and Wiley are smart (and modest) enough not to label their food “authentic” Chinese (cc: Andrew Zimmern), but more like homages to regional Chinese fare as filtered through traditional pub grub. Whatever you call it, their food, like their drinks, brings gravitas to a bar concept too easily dismissed as lightweight. Their crowning achievement? Hot chicken steam buns, a Taiwanese take on Nashville hot chicken.
9. Charcoal Town Shawarma, 2019 11th St. NW, 202-232-2330; charcoaltown.com.
If you have the willpower to order something other than Charcoal Town’s smoky chicken shawarma sandwich — good luck with that — you’ll find other delights on Bashar and Kinan Mihyar’s wall-mounted menus. The brothers, natives of Jordan, have borrowed the shawarma techniques of their home country to create a line of sandwiches that have quickly found their way into my heart (and stomach). Whether you order the crunchy chickpea-and-parsley falafel or the brothers’ spicy take on a cheesesteak, the fillings come swaddled in a thin markouk flatbread, crisped up on the griddle with a little oil. These irresistible bites are yet more evidence that great sandwiches start with good bread.
8. Saba’ Restaurant, 3900 Pickett Rd., Fairfax, Va., 703-425-1130. It’s hard for me to contemplate the generosity of this Yemeni restaurant without also considering the hardships faced by the chef and owner’s relatives back in the mother country. Famine. War. Travel bans. Yes, it strikes me as morally bankrupt to devour chef Taha Alhuraibi’s exquisite homestyle cooking — his shafout salad, his chicken mandi, his rice, which he prepares fresh every 30 minutes or so — while knowing that millions of Yemenis cannot savor a single bite of their own food. But I also find comfort in the symbolism of breaking flatbread at Saba’, showing, in my own small way, that all of us understand hunger and the love behind a good homemade meal.
7. Philly Wing Fry, inside the Whole Foods at 101 H St. SE, 202-469-7280; and at Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE; phillywingfry.com. The combo sounds like something a teenager would desire after one too many bong hits: a box packed with a Philly cheesesteak, chicken wings and a side of waffle fries. I mean, seriously, who needs White Castle (which we don’t have, by the way) when you can have chef Kwame Onwuachi’s Philly Wing Fry meal box? Onwuachi puts his own spin on each item, perhaps to the point where, say, a native of Philadelphia wouldn’t even recognize the chef’s cheesesteak, which comes stuffed with slices of dry-aged rib-eye, its blue-cheese funk unmistakable. But Onwuachi isn’t an authenticity hound. He’s chasing deliciousness, and he’s found it.
6. Little Sesame, 1828 L St. NW, 202-975-1971; eatlittlesesame.com. This downtown hummus shop, based on Israeli hummusiyas, is my kind of fast-casual. By that, I mean it’s a casual, counter-service operation where the chefs remain firmly in control. Co-owners and chefs Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne limit your options to a few add-ons, such as a seven-minute egg or green schug, the electric Middle Eastern condiment. Their approach essentially eliminates the risk of user-generated mash-ups in which the final meal resembles a junior-high cafeteria dare. Their velvety hummus also proves that the spread can hold its own when elevated to the center of the plate. The hummus is delicate, it’s creamy, it’s easily the best in town.
5. Federalist Pig, 1654 Columbia Rd. NW. 202-827-4400; federalistpig.com. Pitmaster Rob Sonderman’s Adams Morgan smokehouse didn’t top my annual list of Washington’s best barbecue joints, though it was deemed the only respectable option in town by Texas Monthly when Daniel Vaughn conducted a drive-by earlier this year. I’ve made a couple of visits since my last roundup, and each time, I’ve come away with a deeper appreciation for Sonderman’s daily battle with a recalcitrant Southern Pride smoker. He’s proved that his barbecue, while not the smokiest, is the most consistent and, just as important, the most creative in town.
4. Amoo’s Restaurant, 6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, Va. 703-448-3868; amoosrestaurant.com. You could forgive the average American for thinking Iranians subsist on nothing but kebabs. Most Persian restaurants in the Washington area focus on skewers, practically to the detriment of any other dish on the menu. Not Amoo’s. This family-run restaurant offers a widescreen, Technicolor perspective on Iranian cooking. Look no further than the housemade tahdig, the crispy-and-chewy layer at the bottom of every pot of Persian rice. In Iranian households, family members are known to fight over tahdig; in restaurants, the crispy rice is often reserved for VIPs. At Amoo’s, anyone can order it, even with a stew on top, which tells you almost everything you need to know about this colorful and cozy place.
3. Xi’an Gourmet, 316 N. Washington St., Rockville, Md. 301-875-5144; xiangourmetrestaurant.com. When it comes to Panda Gourmet on New York Avenue, there’s one thing that almost everyone agrees on: Its location stinks. The Sichuan and Shaanxi outpost is trapped on the first floor of a Days Inn, the motor lodge that time forgot. The owners behind Panda sort of solved this problem by opening a second spot in Rockville. Dubbed Xi’an Gourmet, the place is practically a carbon copy of the original, save for its new suburban digs among the other Chinese businesses in the area. It feels right at home. So will you when chefs Shibao Hu and Zhaoxing Wang — both transfers from Panda — start plating your old favorites: piang li noodles, Xi’an beef soup with pita bread, spicy pig trotters, and on and on.
2. Momo Yakitori, 2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE, momoyakitori.com. Among the places I reviewed this year, no restaurant appealed to my seemingly contradictory tastes — for comfort and precision — better than this Brookland spot. Chef-owners Andrew Chiou and Masako Morishita have created a playful space full of cat-themed kitsch while simultaneously developing a menu that does a small number of things very well. The chicken skewers — cooked over high-heat binchotan charcoal and often featuring untraditional cuts — are the stars. But don’t miss the yaki imo sweet potato appetizers, with their blackened skins, or the nutty green beans paired with black sesame sauce. And for crying out loud, don’t leave without trying the charcoal-toasted marshmallow, a campfire favorite transformed into a Japanese American delicacy.
1. Quarry House Tavern, 8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 301-844-5504. It would have been all too easy for Jackie Greenbaum to surrender to the forces of modern hospitality and transform the Quarry House into a millennial speakeasy, complete with Edison bulbs, reclaimed barnwood and a few succulents clinging to life. But she didn’t. She fought hard to maintain the smoker-cough wheeze of the place after QH fell victim to a fire and a broken water main, twin disasters that sidelined the tavern for three long years. When it finally came back to life this year, it felt like it had never gone away. Though cleaner, the place still had the dark heart of a Saturday night. Combine that with whiskey and beer lists that are more like encyclopedias — and burgers that are better than they need to be — and you have a neighborhood haunt that is timeless, not trendy.
Bonus road trip: ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque, 3201 W. Moore St., Richmond. 804-528-5648; zzqrva.com. If you need another excuse to drive to Richmond for the weekend, here’s the best one: Chris Fultz and Alex Graf’s smokehouse, the closest thing you can get to Central Texas barbecue in the Mid-Atlantic. You won’t find better barbecue for miles in any direction.