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2021 Fall Dining Guide

Tom Sietsema spotlights 48 DC-area restaurants, including his 10 favorites

Line cook Sam Hoefer works at the dessert station in the open kitchen at the Dabney in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)
Line cook Sam Hoefer works at the dessert station in the open kitchen at the Dabney in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

Eat out with any frequency and you can’t help but notice changes on the restaurant scene wrought by the pandemic. Service seems to be in a free fall as dining room staff have left the industry in droves, there’s a chance you’ll be asked for proof of vaccination when you show up for your reservation, and good luck finding somewhere to eat early in the week or late at night. A lack of staff means shorter hours of operation at restaurants across the board. Eighteen months into the global crisis, the people who feed us away from home wonder how much resilience they still need to muster.

One of them, Angel Barreto, sees something profound — positive even — coming out of the mess. The executive chef at Anju in Washington, who’s spent half his 32 years in the industry, is no Ted Lasso. “I’m nervous,” he says. “A lot of people have left the industry.” Asked to sum up 2021, “crucible” is the first word out of his mouth. On the other hand, he feels he’s bonded more with his colleagues since the pandemic “set ego and hubris aside.” Echoing others in the industry, Barreto says, “We give so much to guests. But we don’t give back to staff.”

LEFT: Bartender Maurizio Arberi at Imperfecto in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Rigatoni with sausage at the Red Hen in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

His response to the upheaval: “radical self-care,” meaning more time with friends and outside pursuits and taking stock of the whole person, mental health included, in a business known for its long hours and uncomfortable working conditions.

This year’s survey of my favorite restaurants, my 22nd annual fall dining guide, is a reflection of how the pandemic has changed me, too. For openers, I’m spending more time in increasingly casual restaurants, looking harder for more vegetarian dishes and inclined to shine a light on restaurants whose chefs aren’t household names. Just because you don’t see some of my previous choices doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve dropped off my radar or fallen out of favor. I still stand behind stalwarts Buck’s Fishing & Camping in Washington and Charleston in Baltimore, which you can find in my Hall of Fame. Ditto Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse and the Hitching Post, which remain prized members of my collection of D.C.-area classics. Ultimately, this is a record of why I think Washington remains one of the best places to dine in America.

I’m listening to you, by the way. Because readers asked, the following reviews offer information on vaccine mandates and accessibility. I haven’t decided when, or whether, to bring back star ratings, but beginning Oct. 17, I’m restoring sound checks to my reviews. For better or worse, restaurants are lively again.

1 Oyster Oyster

A chef’s mission: Make plants irresistible

Tasting menu $75

Few chefs have more fun getting us to eat our vegetables than Rob Rubba, whose (mostly) plant-based tasting menu is a garden of good eating in Shaw. The joyride might start with a wispy bite of fried julienne celery root — so light it melts on the tongue, along with a surprise center of silken smoked tofu — and move on to dishes that trumpet the season.

Over summer, diners thrilled to a rainbow of tomatoes served with what tasted like herbed ricotta but turned out to spring from pumpkin seeds, and a round of watermelon plied with chile-hot peanuts, shiso and a hidden local oyster sharpened with ginger vinaigrette. Eggplant stars in a schnitzel topped with shaved fennel kraut that would be at home in Germany.

Eight courses sound like a lot, but they’re presented so that something light (or lighthearted) might follow something weighty.

Rubba’s inspired food is served by attentive staff in a small dining room whose pinks and greens radiate joy. The chef not only wants us to eat well, he encourages us to think about our impact on the Earth — one reason he named his restaurant after oyster mushrooms and oysters from the water, both eco-friendly and sustainable. Yet his preaching is subtle. The candles on the tables are oyster shells filled with wax. Were you to inspect his open kitchen, you’d find vegetable scraps being saved for cocktails and lids instead of plastic wrap to cover food.

No menu until after you’ve eaten. “A lot of guests have opinions about vegetables,” based on unpleasant experiences with say, canned mushrooms or overcooked asparagus, says Rubba. The game-changer prefers to surprise customers and “maybe change your mind.”

A host of memorable restaurants has rolled out during the pandemic. Dedicated to the good life, in all respects, Oyster Oyster leads the pack.

1440 Eighth St. NW.

No phone.

oysteroysterdc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Indoor seating only.

Tasting menu $75, wine pairing $55.

No takeout or delivery. Proof of vaccination required. Because of a step at the entrance, wheelchair users should enter via door to the left of the storefront; ADA-compliant restroom.

2 Reveler’s Hour

A pasta and wine bar that deserves to stick around

Entrees $25-$35

The owners publicly declared they’re in trouble in September — “down to our last four weeks,” says Jill Tyler, hostess with the mostest at what’s become the first place I think of on a rare night off from table hopping.

Knowing that Tyler and her colleagues, chef Jon Sybert and wine maven Bill Jensen, are also behind the nearby Tail Up Goat is reason enough to pay respects. While the siblings have in common hospitality and great things in glasses, Reveler’s Hour is the more relaxed of the two, a model pasta and wine bar in a room that’s dark as a movie theater but illuminated with candles and surrounded by wine.

Made by hand, the pastas have included such glories as capunti strewn with poached tuna, tomatoes, fennel and pistachios. Every dish tastes best in class, be it light arancini that any Italian chef would be proud to serve or a pork chop from Autumn Olive Farms that leaves the wood grill tender and juicy (and eats like a prized steak). Here’s hoping grilled provolone on a cushion of toast makes a return appearance and the pecorino cake with pine nuts and jam never strays from the dessert list.

Everyone I take falls in love with the experience. “I’ve been eating with you since you started,” one of my oldest friends said over a dinner that began with a gratis mocktail when a server heard me say my pal didn’t drink. “This is top five, for sure.”

The reaction to the restaurant’s news was so heartwarming, the owners began taking steps to buy themselves at least another six months or so. “We feel comfortable we can get to the other side,” Tyler told me recently. I’m crossing my fingers, looking for four-leaf clovers, rubbing rabbits’ feet — and booking more time here. You should, too.

1775 Columbia Rd. NW.

No phone.

revelershour.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday Saturday. Indoor seating only.

Entrees $25-$35.

Takeout Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, no delivery. Proof of vaccination or negative test required. No barriers to entry (door is automatic); ADA-compliant restrooms.

3 Annabelle

The perfect pairing: excellent chef, polished host

Entrees $28-$39

Pair the city’s best-known host with one of its premier chefs, and what you get is a night to remember courtesy of Ashok Bajaj and Frank Ruta. The multiple rooms soothe visitors with aqua and fuchsia seating, cascades of greenery and servers whose smiles are backed up by polish. The cooking places a premium on ingredients and technique rather than the chef’s ego.

Ruta’s menu is a master class in execution. His pâté is a world-class organ recital, his gnocchi the softest of pillows. The former White House chef even manages to make cabbage seductive. Cut in quarters, rubbed with butter, lemon zest and rosemary and roasted so that the inside seems to melt and the outside takes on char, this cabbage might as well be on a pedestal, especially when paired with plump figs, brilliant Japanese carrots and a pool of sheep’s milk yogurt.

Ruta’s roast chicken drew food lovers to his still-missed Palena in Cleveland Park. A rethought version at Annabelle — a whole baby chicken made great with citrus peels and warm spices — is cause for applause, too, evinced by table mates reluctant to share. Sea bass cooked low and slow with lavender and lime and delivered on steel-cut oats and hedgehog mushrooms is one of those combinations that make you go “huh” when you read about it and “whoa!” when you taste it.

Is there a dish Ruta doesn’t excel at? I have yet to encounter one. But I love the chase.

2132 Florida Ave. NW.

202-916-5675.

annabelledc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Pastas $24-$26, entrees $28-$39.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

4 Unconventional Diner

A French chef’s take on next-level comfort food

Entrees $16-$29

No restaurant fed me more often, or better, throughout the pandemic than French chef David Deshaies’s whimsical tribute to American comfort food near the convention center (hence the name). Leave it to the disciple of the late great Michel Richard to make fabulous meatloaf, striped with sriracha and enriched with gruyere; and fried chicken, its golden goodness gilded with a “granny” gravy flavored with morels — then to see that the dishes are just as appealing in a takeout container as they are at a table in the restaurant. Additional salutes are in order for lemony crab linguine garnished with sliced celery, a French twist on Peking duck (it’s confit, of course) and brunch offered daily.

Like a lot of us, Deshaies says he looks for vegetables when he eats out. Competitors should check out the high bar he maintains in his own lair, where the meatless attractions include kale nachos, shiitake-filled batons of phyllo and “tiptop” chop, a sumptuous mound of shredded kale, quinoa, slivered almonds, pomegranate seeds and carrots rising from a plate of garlicky hummus. Dressed with lemon juice, sumac and turmeric, it’s the best chopped salad in town.

The diner’s lively, art- and plant-stocked dining rooms are bridged by a long stretch of bar, my preferred place to eat and drink — when I’m not enjoying Deshaies’s happy meals at home, that is.

1207 Ninth St. NW.

202-847-0122.

unconventionaldiner.com.

Brunch and dinner daily. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $16-$29.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

5 Bombay Club

A 32-year-old classic gets a modern makeover

Entrees $10-$34

Ashok Bajaj is giving diners fresh reason to visit the oldest in his stable of 10 restaurants. The Indian oasis, 32, looks like a million bucks following a makeover this summer that kept memories of the original club design — a dining room carved into zones of privacy, a white piano that gets tickled Thursday through Saturday — while offering new art (love the 3-D dancers) and a color scheme that changes with the light (silver on my evening visits).

“India has changed,” says Bajaj. “It’s more global.” The redo reflects that, and extends to the menu, overseen for half the life of the restaurant by chef Nilesh Singhvi. His latest creations — zesty crab and roasted coconut served beneath a rice crisp, soft duck patties made tangy with goat cheese and set on orange chutney — should help fill the plush seats. Meanwhile, halibut sauced with coconut milk, curry leaf and green peppercorns, part of a collection of regional classics, is an invitation to south India. Bajaj wanted to drop the restaurant’s time-consuming thalis; budget-minded patrons will be happy to see that the fetching little feasts, presented on fancy platters and priced for $30 or less, have, unlike dark wood or depictions of the Raj, stuck around.

The new list also addresses the question the owner routinely hears — “What’s your favorite dish?” — with half a dozen favorites from over the decades. Among the treasures from the original menu are tandoori salmon and ever-fiery green chili chicken. To eat either entree, delivered by servers who look after you like most honored guests, is to understand what’s kept the doors open all these years.

815 Connecticut Ave. NW.

202-659-3727.

bombayclubdc.com.

Dinner daily, lunch weekdays. Indoor and private outdoor seating.

Entrees $10-$34.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

6 Caruso’s Grocery

Old-school Italian, done just right

Entrees $20-$38

The founder of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group says he’s been trying for years to get someone in the company to whip up an Italian-American menu. The issue? “It doesn’t feel challenging enough” for some chefs, says Michael Babin. Then he brought aboard Matt Adler, a veteran of Osteria Morini who told him he knew exactly the place Babin wanted: a comforting restaurant like the one Adler’s father ran in Upstate New York.

Welcome to Caruso’s Grocery, which takes its name from a store Babin’s long-ago Sicilian relatives operated in Baton Rouge and revels in old-fashioned details. I’m talking banquettes the shade of marinara sauce, Sinatra on the soundtrack, chianti in straw-swaddled bottles and herby hot garlic bread presented with a four-cheese dunk.

The newcomer, adjacent to the Roost food hall in the Hill East neighborhood, is neither cheesy nor cheffy. It’s the Goldilocks of restaurants — just right. The single best starter is a plate of calamari, sprinkled with semolina and fried to a fine crunch. Adler stands in front of the visible kitchen, inspecting plates as they go out: some of the best, and most photogenic, pesto-sauced pasta, veal cutlets and shrimp scampi in memory.

The appeal extends to the liquids and the hospitality: The $10 cocktails are improvements on throwbacks, and a spot on your shirt (hello, tomato sauce!) is followed by the offer of a Tide stick from a server.

1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.

202-661-0148.

carusosgrocery.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor seating.

Entrees $20-$38.

Takeout, no delivery. No barriers to entry, but wheelchair users might need assistance with the two front doors; ADA-compliant restrooms.

7 Thamee

A rare — and delicious — taste of Myanmar

Entrees $17-$19

Regulars know it as much for its ambitious social mission as its tea leaf salad and catfish mohinga. The forward-thinking Thamee responded to racial injustice by promoting Black and Brown producers and adding a 30 percent charge to checks to support staff health care and profit-sharing.

The latest major change at Thamee (“daughter” in English and pronounced thumb-MEE) turned a full-service restaurant into a fast-casual operation. That hasn’t stopped staff from ferrying food to customers on the second-floor dining room or chef Jocelyn Law-Yone, 68, from storytelling.

Take the gourd fritters, finger-length slices of vegetable sheathed in a batter made with feta cheese. “My father was from Yunan, the only place in China that makes cheese,” says the chef, who then details how cheese was hung out on bamboo poles to dry, in the absence of refrigeration. A salad showcasing white flower mushrooms prompts an anecdote about the last trip the owners took to Myanmar, three years ago. Law-Yone asked the hotel kitchen staff to make a dish they would typically cook for themselves, nothing fussy. Her translation of the request highlights the light crunch of the pale, gelatinous mushroom, its ruffles dressed with lime juice, garlic oil and roasted chickpea flour for creaminess.

There’s no other food like this in Washington. A tangle of slippery lo mein noodles shows up slick with chile oil, crisp with fried shallots and colorful with red cabbage and chopped scallions. The eyes eat first. Meat and potatoes take on new meaning when they’re given the Burmese treatment — cooked with pungent herbs and garam masala — and presented as a pleasantly sour beef curry.

At a time when her many of her peers are retired or thinking of it, Law-Yone has become the public face of the ambitious restaurant she co-owns with her daughter, Simone Jacobson, and Eric Wang. Turns out she’s as much an artist as a chef. The paintings of women with thanaka, a paste made from sandalwood bark, rubbed across their cheeks? Her contribution.

1320 H St. NE.

202-750-6529.

thamee.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $17-$19.

Takeout and delivery. Wheelchair users are asked to call in advance. The restaurant keeps a ramp for navigating the high step at the entrance, but not the stairs leading to the second-floor dining room and patio. A ground-floor restroom is ADA-compliant.

8 Ruthie’s All-Day

Southern flair, from morning to night

Entrees $14-$43

Name a restaurant wish, and Ruthie’s All-Day grants it. Easy parking? Check. Entrees with mass appeal (smoked meat, grilled fish and vegetables) that average $20, sides included? Ditto. The drinks are as serious as any in Washington, and true to its name, the Arlington restaurant serves breakfast five days a week. Chef Matt Hill and his business partner, Todd Salvadore, have worked at some of the area’s best restaurants, and they’ve incorporated best practices into everything they do at Ruthie’s, a tribute to the chef’s late North Carolina grandmother.

A custom wood smoker made from a repurposed propane tank, along with an Argentine grill and box smoker in the kitchen, flavor much of the Southern-inspired menu. Hill sweats the details. Biscuits are baked every 30 minutes or so, and the side dishes are first-class. Mac and cheese gets finished with Parmesan breadcrumbs, and the braised greens served with smoked tomatoes sting with the juice of pickled Fresno chiles. It’s not all brisket, spare ribs and wood-grilled salmon or chicken. Sprinkled among the family-friendly eats are dishes that hark to Hill’s fine dining days at Charlie Palmer Steak and the late Range. Cue the sparkling tuna tartare, garnished with strips of nori and sharing its plate with a brushstroke of pureed avocado freckled with Korean chile flakes.

“I want to be open all the time and for all people,” says the chef of his window-wrapped restaurant. Truth in advertising.

3411 Fifth St. South, Arlington, Va.

703-888-2841.

ruthiesallday.com.

Breakfast and lunch weekdays, brunch weekends, dinner daily. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees with sides $14-$43.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

9 Happy Gyro

Casual comforts from a four-star chef

Sandwiches $12-$14, pizzas $32

Sure, I miss Komi, the fine-dining lair created by chef Johnny Monis and his wife, Anne Marler. But the restaurateurs are doing a four-star job of helping us navigate the pandemic with life rings including pizza and ice cream at Happy Gyro. Introduced as a pop-up in what used to serve a Greek-influenced tasting menu, the takeout, which also highlights plant-based dishes, seems destined to stick around. As Marler shared via text, “We really just want to see where these adventures lead us and continue to have fun with it all.”

Everything coming out of the kitchen is something to rave about. The beautiful salads capture whatever season we’re in — corn, cucumber and nectarine in August — and side dishes such as tomato-sauced Romano beans scattered with feta cheese are snapshots of the chef’s childhood, both at home and on visits to Greece. Crispy potatoes stuffed into pillowy housemade pita is a lot of carbs — almost too much fun. Monis’s obsession with pizza goes way back and results in 16-inch sourdough pies spurred to greatness by long and slow fermentation and the fact that the chef bakes each sturdy round himself.

The talent behind the ice cream, Ben Brunner, is the reason I broke up with Jeni’s this year. His pints come in such fun flavors as oatmeal cookie with shaved chocolate and ricotta with sour cherry. Cool detail: Those and other tastes can also be enjoyed from a cart parked in front of the restaurant, where the ice cream is scooped into housemade sourdough waffle cones.

Regular customers are known to get extras — messages even — tucked into their bags; Marler compares them to notes in a kid’s lunchbox. “We hope people feel that love.” We do, we do!

1509 17th St. NW.

No phone.

happygyrodc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. No on-site seating.

Sandwiches $12-$14, large pizzas $32.

Takeout, no delivery. Orders retrieved outside; no access to restaurant.

10 Incheon

Creative takes on Korean dishes in Annandale

Tasting menu $60

The mistake is to think of the youthful 45-seat restaurant as yet another Korean outpost in an area brimming with similar menus. Justin Ahn was born in Korea but relocated to Southern California when he was a year old. He grew up watching his mother cook the food of their homeland and was raised to pick and choose the best of Korean and American cultures. The self-taught chef says his “flavors are going to be Korean” even if his techniques are otherwise.

Sure enough, his steamed egg custard, fragrant with sesame oil, gets finished with bird’s-eye chiles, fish sauce and lime juice — a very Thai touch. A riff on bibimbap, the colorful Korean rice dish, swaps out rice for elastic wheat noodles (jjolmyeon) imported from the restaurant’s namesake city in Korea, arranged with a rainbow of cucumbers, carrots and onions plus tender sea snails instead of the traditional beef. Diners are instructed to mix the ingredients with a nearby sauce based on gochujang so that each bite delivers the taste equivalent of a little bugle blast. It takes skill and good timing to achieve jjolmyeon with the desired chewiness. Ahn delivers.

Incheon can be quiet enough that Ahn himself introduces the seven or so dishes that make up his tasting menu. Magic sometimes returns to the table. Ahn combines arborio rice and pecorino cheese as deftly as any Italian chef, but makes his risotto singular with the help of dashi instead of chicken stock and diced boiled abalone as the featured attraction. Ahn thinks of the dish as an enhanced juk, or Korean porridge. More allure comes by way of ivory dominoes of soft-crisp pork belly, fanned onto a plate shared with julienne radish kimchi, a pungent ssamjang (paste) made with walnuts, and spears of lightly pickled napa cabbage for wrapping the meat and condiments.

“You’re not going to get the usuals here,” says the chef. He’s right. Now do it.

7118 Columbia Pike, Annandale, Va.

703-688-3347.

incheonrestaurant.com.

Dinner Thursday through Saturday. Indoor seating only.

Tasting menu $60. No takeout or delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

A&J Restaurant

An abundance of dim sum

Bites, small and large plates $2-$13

The flavors of Northeast China are on parade at these same-named dim sum outposts in Rockville and Annandale, where, despite the pandemic, customers are treated to an improbable selection of nearly 70 dishes. The tip of the iceberg finds chicken smoked over tea leaves, cigar-length pork potstickers, crisp cabbage ignited with Sichuan peppercorns, and nugget-size steamed spareribs, coated in soft rice crumbs seasoned with five-spice powder.

Reliability is a hallmark of the restaurants, where the shredded pork and mustard green soup is as delicious and restorative as I remember it back when Facebook was in its infancy, and the shaved dry bean curd, pungent with cilantro and crunchy with peanuts, remains a prized snack. Soups, including a subtle beef broth, come with a choice of thin or wide noodles; the latter, made with the wheat common in northern China, are rolled out in-house.

A&J offers its menus in Chinese and English, but fear not: The lists are the same, except for the fuller descriptions on the English version. Equally enticing are the prices: Only one of A&J’s many dishes costs more than $13.

1319 Rockville Pike, Suite C, Rockville, Md.

301-251-7878 (Rockville location).

4316 Markham St., Suite B, Annandale, Va.

703-813-8181 (Annandale location).

aandjrestaurant.com.

Lunch and dinner daily. Indoor dining only.

Bites, small and large plates $2-$13.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry at the Rockville branch, which has an ADA-compliant restroom. In Annandale, wheelchair users can enter the restaurant via the right side of the building, which has a ramp.

Albi

Levantine dishes straight from a chef’s heart

Shareable entrees $52-$65

Such beautiful food! It really ought to be in pictures. Baba ganoush is hardly the most photogenic dish in the world, but chef-owner Michael Rafidi primps it so that the first course — eggplant three ways: whipped, charred and pickled — holds our gaze. (Onion flowers help.)

Fortunately, there’s plenty of flavor, too. Check out the swordfish kebab, cooked over coals and painted with a sauce made vibrant with green chiles, cilantro, caraway and more. The pale yellow drift to the side is whipped yogurt with fermented mango. Drizzled with smoked tomato honey, lamb is staged multiple ways on a shareable plate that turns shaved squash into pretty yellow ruffles and tucks some meat into tasty peppers. Even soft-serve ice cream impresses us when it’s flavored with tahini caramel and delivered in a delicate glass tea cup.

The dining room is just as seductive. There’s no more fetching kitchen in town than the open one at Albi — Arabic for “my heart” — surrounded by a mural of characters holding hands. Looking for a party room? Albi now counts two, the newest of which is a glass-enclosed rear patio that can seat up to 25 revelers.

[At long last, Albi gets to the heart of Levantine cooking]

A little card on the table explains Levantine ingredients; a sommelier with a sense of taste (and humor) identifies the perfect quaff for dinner. No restaurant can be all things to all diners, but I like how this one goes right for the hugs.

1346 Fourth St. SE.

202-921-9592.

albidc.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Mezze $16-$25, shareable entrees $52-$65. Sofra tasting menu $95, chef’s table at the hearth $150 per person.

No takeout or delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Anju

Hands down, it’s D.C.’s best Korean restaurant

Entrees $20-$34

The owners of the city’s best Korean restaurant are also behind the popular, fast-casual Chiko. They were positioned to adapt quickly to offer takeout at Anju, then, and even have fun with the menu during the pandemic. Just ask the customers who ordered the Korean take on beef Wellington, swaddled in pork belly, for Christmas.

[For exceptional Korean food, book a table at Anju]

That said, my preference is a table in the second-floor dining room. Dressed with scarred walls, white brick and live plants, the space is home to servers who bring, say, a bowl of rice carpeted with folds of dewy salmon, pea shoots and pineapple puree — bibimbap scattered with raw fish — and aptly introduce the shimmering beauty as “Instagram-worthy.” When guests asked for more vegetarian options, Anju responded with dishes including wangmandu, big crisp dumplings fattened with Impossible Meat and finished with a racy chile crunch. The kitchen, helmed by executive chef Angel Barreto, fresh from being named one of this year’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine, excels at panchan (love the shredded sauteed bellflower root) and seems to come out with a new kimchi every season, the latest fashion being julienne papaya and carrot moistened with Asian pear puree.

For the full Anju experience, you have to try something from the childhood of co-owner Danny Lee, whose mother and business partner, Yesoon Lee, is behind the great comfort of braised chicken thighs, onions and potatoes in a cloak that looks like lava as it bubbles away on the table. The stew, dak jjim, is just a few ingredients, including Korean red chile flakes, but oh, what a sight — and oh, what a mom!

1805 18th St. NW.

202-845-8935.

anjurestaurant.com.

Dinner daily, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $20-$34; tasting menu $70, beverage pairing $30.

Takeout and delivery. Wheelchair users should call ahead so a ramp can be set up at the door and seating at the kitchen counter can be arranged; ADA-compliant restroom.

Blend 111

Prizes abound, in the glass and on the plate

Entrees $28-$44

Hate the name. Love what the restaurant has become: one of Northern Virginia’s best places to dine.

The bar, fronted with chic leather stools, teaches that jalapeño-infused tequila, mezcal and Spanish red wine are soul mates in a glass. The dining room is dressed with gray chairs that hug you through a meal and panels from wooden wine boxes collected by the owner — a salon for chowhounds. The calm presence in the open kitchen? Meet Andrés-Julian Zuluaga, an alumnus of the school of Fabio Trabocchi.

[Remember Blend 111? Forget its debut and feast on its much-improved second act.]

All of Zuluaga’s food is interesting, but two main courses stand out. Braised brisket framed with caramelized green plantains and black beans dotted with cubes of white cheese is a feast made finer with grill-striped arepas, corn cakes destined to be split and stuffed with the slow-cooked beef. Meaty rockfish teeters on a bed of corn and diced cuttlefish, circled in a sauce coaxed from peanut butter and shellfish broth. Riding shotgun: a tamal of housemade masa wrapped in Swiss chard. Your fork doesn’t know where to start. Your eyes widen with each bite.

Last winter, Blend 111 served meals in a parking lot turned “Andean outpost.” Owner Michael Biddick promises the return of the attractive heated space, along with one of my prized pandemic purchases from any restaurant: $12 blankets woven from cotton and recycled fibers.

111 Church St. NW, Suite 101, Vienna, Va.

571-363-3613.

blend111.com.

Dinner daily, lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $28-$44.

No takeout or delivery. Proof of vaccination required for indoor dining. A ramp leads to the front entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.

Centrolina

A top chef makes the elegant accessible

Entrees $24-$30

Such a reassuring restaurant. Going into Amy Brandwein’s warmhearted osteria and market, I always know I can count on seeing a few regulars. Make that whole branzino cooked over a wood grill or pasta draped with the chef’s wonderful white Bolognese, what she calls “a warm blanket” of veal and beef cooked in chicken stock and milk and finished with sage and butter. In fall, she serves the popular Bolognese on pasta made from chestnut flour, and autumn is more luscious because of it.

I like the way Brandwein thinks. A surplus of eggplant might translate to see-through fried slices, drizzled with honey and toasted almonds — an elegant appetizer with the crowd appeal of potato chips. The chef makes things other restaurants offer, but often with some small twist or two that turns them into more personal statements. See her cacio e pepe, Rome’s classic cheese and pepper pasta, dressed up with oysters and bottarga and bright with lemon. Brandwein can also be dramatic, evinced by poached sablefish paired with black chickpeas, a monochromatic moment worthy of a frame.

Throw in a gracious staff and some of the best alfresco seating in the city — there’s no prettier alley than this one in CityCenter — and you get something both refined and approachable, a delicious package deal.

974 Palmer Alley NW.

202-898-2426.

centrolinadc.com.

Lunch Wednesday through Saturday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, mercato open daily. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Pastas $24-$30, wood-fired entrees $28-$39.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Chennai Hoppers

A southern Indian standout in Gaithersburg

Entrees $12-$19

One of the area’s best ambassadors for the food of southern India is this retreat, opened nine months into the pandemic by chef John Rajoo, a native of Tamil Nadu, whose capital is Chennai. While I’ve experienced his cooking only as takeout, the food inside the bags and boxes is arranged just so, as if waiting for a photo shoot.

[Head to Chennai Hoppers for some of the area’s best Indian cooking]

Want to light up your dining room table? Order some avial, batons of steamed banana, carrots and the Indian vegetable called drumsticks in a golden cloak of shredded coconut, curry leaves and yogurt. Or dense and delicious morsels of lamb rolled in a grass-colored paste of raw green papaya, ginger, mint and red chiles. Rajoo’s lighter-than-usual biryani is another standout, with rice that’s faint red, from chile powder, and deeply flavorful, thanks to a ginger-garlic paste. It would be easy to fill up on pancakes alone; the scroll-like dosas, wrapped in both wax paper and foil and tucked into pizza boxes, are excellent.

The restaurant takes heat requests seriously. Rajoo adjusts the level with a combination of roasted black peppercorns and dried red chiles. Going in, even hot heads might want to ask for “medium” spice.

A shortage of staff meant a delay in seating guests in the dining room, which partially opened recently. My only issue with Chennai Hoppers is a menu so long and varied that even after several takeout orders, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of the kitchen’s handiwork. On the upside, that just gives me more excuses to return.

136 Paramount Park Dr., Gaithersburg, Md.

240-813-0061.

chennaihoppers.com.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $12-$19.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

The Dabney

A streamlined celebration of the Mid-Atlantic

Four courses $95

Jeremiah Langhorne says he’s serving half as many customers as he did pre-pandemic — and his is a better restaurant for it. Limiting the number of guests to 100 or so a night means a happier staff and more precision on the plate, he says.

[The Dabney brings depth and technique to Mid-Atlantic cuisine]

By the looks of my dinner this summer, he’s onto something. Grilled rockfish set on a shimmering pool of sungold tomato sauce and circled with brioche croutons and herbs arranged as if with tweezers was beautiful and luscious. Same for dominoes of roseate local beef accessorized with grilled broccoli, burned eggplant and a dollop of ketchup, brilliant with red pepper. Those and other dishes were served as part of a tasting menu, introduced during the pandemic, that launched with a trio of snacks, one of them catfish dip garnished with pickled red onions and scooped up with what tasted like a zestier version of Fritos.

A celebration of the bounty of the Mid-Atlantic — look for quail with wild grapes — the Dabney occasionally incorporates truffles or foie gras into the menu, and “I couldn’t live without olive oil,” jokes the chef. The majority of his food is touched by a hearth that serves as the focal point in the homespun dining room and gets as hot as 1,000 degree in its center.

Langhorne says the next chapter is all about refinement: “not doing as much as before,” but doing everything better. Cheers to that.

122 Blagden Alley NW.

202-450-1015.

thedabney.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Four-course menu $95 per person; a la carte bar menu $28-$33.

No takeout or delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Daru

Where ‘Indian-ish’ food sparkles

Entrees $16-$26

The most dramatic restaurant entrance in Washington? My vote goes to Daru, whose black-and-glass door commands attention with concentric white rings inspired by Himalayan mandalas and a welcome written in Sanskrit: The guest is god.

Owners Dante Datta and Suresh Sundas bring to their maiden restaurant off the H Street corridor mouthwatering résumés. Datta, responsible for the 12-seat bar, counts time at Elle, Columbia Room and the esteemed Rasika West End, where he met Sundas, the former tandoor chef there. What was originally conceived as a watering hole was, because of the pandemic, rethought as more of an “Indian-ish” dining establishment.

[Rasika veterans serve memorable ‘Indian-ish’ food and drink at Daru]

Smooth off the edges of a rough day with the Hari Daiquiri. Crafted from rum, curdled and clarified kefir and a puree of cilantro and mint, it’s the color of life — green — and inspired by mint chutney. Another liquid pleasure is an old-fashioned, gold with saffron liqueur, biting with ginger liqueur and softly nutty, thanks to the introduction of Scotch to cashew butter.

The chef uses local ingredients and Indian techniques to come up with such intriguing dishes as a chicken kebab plied with blue cheese, sour cream and cream cheese and set on a pool of spiced sour cherry sauce, a nice foil to the rich meat. Tacos are fashioned from herbed Indian flatbread and jackfruit lit with chile paste and lemon juice — a vegan draw if you opt out of the sour cream base.

Sundas clearly learned a lot at Rasika West End. Even his more straightforward-sounding dishes sparkle at Daru. Lamb chops are marinated overnight in garlic, Greek yogurt and green chiles — elements that insert themselves into every nook and cranny of the meat — and acquire a shower of crushed pink peppercorns after they leave the grill. The green comet tail on the plate? You’ll want to swipe a bite of oh-so-soft lamb through a puree sparked with oregano, parsley, garlic, turmeric and red wine vinegar.

The entrance catches your eye at Daru. The food, drink and hospitality — even early in its game — win your fandom.

1451 Maryland Ave. NE.

202-388-1848.

darudc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $16-$26.

Takeout, no delivery. Proof of vaccination or negative test required for indoor dining. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Dauphine’s

You’ll swear you’re in New Orleans

Entrees $23-$85

Located where The Washington Post once stood on 15th Street NW, Dauphine’s nails so many delicious details, it’s as if you’re enjoying them in the city that more or less put them on the map. New Orleans is summoned in the long-grain Louisiana rice that shores up the fish amandine and in the crackle from the Leidenheimer bread that’s shipped in for the beefy po’ boy. Executive chef Kristen Essig comes to Washington from the Big Easy, where she co-owned one of its most beloved restaurants, Coquette. And if the drinks taste true, credit goes to Dauphine’s spirits maven and co-creator Neal Bodenheimer, whose Cure bar in New Orleans helped fuel the country’s craft cocktail revolution.

[Dauphine’s pays respect to New Orleans with top-notch cooking and cocktails]

The design adds to the you-are-there feel. Wrought iron stretches over the part of the main dining room where charcuterie boards and seafood platters are whipped up, and a jungle of plants around the perimeters lends lushness. An outdoor fountain splashes in a back garden. Named for one of the French Quarter’s best-known streets, the restaurant manages the neat trick of evoking one of the best food cities in the country without going the Disney route.

The paneed rabbit, a star on the opening menu, has been replaced by breaded skate wing, but rabbit is destined to flavor the fall gumbo. Still around, and still tasty: head-on shrimp in a dark pool of earthy birch beer, rosemary, cracked black pepper and what Essig calls “woozy,” or housemade Worcestershire sauce. End dinner with a show: baked Alaska, as flamboyant as Mardi Gras when its meringue dome is ignited at the table.

1100 15th St. NW.

202-758-3785.

dauphinesdc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $23-$85 (duck jambalaya for two).

No takeout or delivery. No barriers at the entrance; a lift in the bar allows access to the main dining room. ADA-compliant restrooms.

The Duck & the Peach

It’s where you want to be on Capitol Hill

Entrees $25-$47

Airbnb could be forgiven for recruiting the all-day, modern American restaurant on Capitol Hill. “I want it to feel like someone’s home,” says owner Hollis Wells Silverman. Light pours through the windows, which take in a spacious patio outside. Caramel-colored leather chairs and banquettes prove stylish and comfortable; clusters of elegant wooden lights could double as art installations.

[On Capitol Hill, two ambitious restaurants debut from one thoughtful owner]

The cooking, from chef Katarina Petonito, mirrors the setting. The food is tasteful in every way. The butcher steak, thick and blushing, underscores the chef’s tenure at St. Anselm, one of the city’s best grills. The meat, carved into two chunks, rests on a whip of turnips and alongside carrot coins ignited with harissa. Shrimp cooked just enough to warm the seafood are paired with Israeli couscous and a vivid sofrito.

The name of the restaurant demands she offer duck and peaches, and the combination of crisp-skinned fowl and juicy fruit is simple and satisfying. But an even finer dish is the chicken, brined in citrus, massaged with oregano and dried before roasting. Stick around for Rochelle Cooper’s desserts, a favorite of which is her ritzy twist on s’mores, its honeyed meringue teased into little “flames.”

Wells Silverman and team seem to have sweated every detail. The roomy, unisex restroom thoughtfully includes Braille type near the entry.

300 Seventh St. SE.

202-431-1913.

duckandpeachdc.com.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $25-$47 (for the signature duck).

Takeout and delivery. Proof of vaccination or negative test required for indoor seating. Consecutive doors at the entrance make it easier for wheelchair users to go in through the patio. ADA-compliant restroom.

Elle

Playful tastes from a ‘mad scientist’ chef

Entrees $15-$38

Every neighborhood should have an Elle. A coffee shop and bakery by day, the Mount Pleasant storefront morphs into a lovely little restaurant at night, where chef Brad Deboy says his response to the pandemic has been “having fun with food and being creative.”

The proof is in his pasta, specifically cavatelli tossed with broccolini, “sausage” whipped up from tempeh made on-site and “Parmesan” created by hooking tofu up with miso, tamari and rice wine vinegar. Try it, you’ll like it. Okra charred on the grill, paired with pickled fennel and eaten with a sumac-seasoned tartar sauce is detailed so passionately by a server, we bite — then scrape our plate clean. Notice a pattern? The kitchen treats people who don’t eat meat like VIPs. But if you do, you’re welcome, too. While every other chef in town is pushing chicken, Deboy invites us to try pheasant — brined in lemon, onion and bay leaf and better for passing over a charcoal grill before you slice in. Ziti stuffed with ricotta comes with a topping of bacon-y steamed clams and garlic toast: clams casino as a garnish. An earlier illness found the self-described “mad scientist” researching food that would restore his health. Hence his fascination with fermentation throughout the menu.

Long and clattery, the dining room is warmed up with vintage accents and young servers who look after you like good neighbors. The drinks are as much fun as the food. “Troublesome Bubblegum” brings together improbable bedfellows — pisco, watermelon, chamomile, herbaceous amaro — that refresh and delight us.

3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW.

202-652-0040.

eatatelle.com.

Breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Indoor and outdoor seating for dinner; indoor dining not available for breakfast or lunch.

Entrees $15-$38.

Takeout available for breakfast and lunch, not for dinner. No delivery. Proof of vaccination required for indoor dining. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Et Voila!

Mussels, waffles and cozy consistency

Entrees $19-$48

Service just about everywhere has taken a hit during the pandemic. A visit to this cozy Belgian outpost in the Palisades proves a welcome exception. Drinks show up quickly. Bread lands promptly. And it’s no big deal when an elderly woman pauses at the entrance, struggling to find the mask she swore she stowed in her purse. A host offers her a fresh shield from a basket inside, where she’s led to her reserved table and handed — how quaint — a menu with a cloth-and-vinyl cover.

[Classic, well-executed dishes keep this Belgian veteran ticking]

It’s a kinder, gentler dining experience at Et Voila!, which might find House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Imperfecto chef Enrique Limardo at the next table. The constant here is consistency. Expect the snails to show up in a bubbling green carpet of herbs, Parmesan and butter, topped with a raft of thick toasted bread. Know that the signature steamed mussels still come in a double pot, with a thatch of crisp fries in a newspaper-lined, copper-colored vase. We marvel as a waiter removes the bones from a plate of Norwegian sole with the precision of a surgeon. “I used to work at Montmartre,” the much-missed French draw on Capitol Hill, he tells us. The sight of a tall hamburger being ferried through the long and narrow dining room has me rethinking my order, a thought dismissed as I tuck into tender hanger steak lapped with green peppercorn sauce. The entree is textbook perfect, down to a hedge of mustard-sharpened salad greens.

Desserts — chocolate mousse, floating island, profiteroles — run to the classic. The most Belgian of them all, though, is a waffle — chocolate, served with white chocolate whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Voila!, for sure.

5120 MacArthur Blvd. NW.

202-237-2300.

etvoiladc.com.

Dinner daily, lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $19-$48 (for whole sole).

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Field & Main

A wine-country gem with a sense of humor

Entrees $19-$45

Would you like to sit outside, on a covered patio or in a cabana resembling a Japanese teahouse? Prefer to sit indoors, in view of the animated open kitchen or in a room that dates to the 1790s and is said to get visits from a ghost?

This Fauquier County gem anticipates whims and delivers the goods. No matter where you settle, you’ll find a menu framed by what farmers and growers are sending chef Neal Wavra, who co-owns the property with his wife, Star. Imagine smoky green beans and shishito peppers tossed with buttermilk, chile paste, sesame oil, garlic — a rousing kitchen sink of recruits. Or duck confit, staged with tender little scallion pancakes and miso-poached pear. A roulade of flank steak from Paris, as in Virginia, veers Mediterranean with eggplant, olives and roasted tomatoes. Ultimately, farm-fresh ingredients and creative ways to show them off add up to meals you hope to repeat — sophisticated cocktails and chocolate tart with salted caramel included.

You’re reminded you’re in wine country with a list that reads like a bible yet has fun with the subject. “What we are drinking” is a weekly-changing page of recommendations, and if you guess the grape behind the current “mystery wine,” you get half off the price of the glass.

P.S. Reported by mediums, the ghost in the oldest dining room is harmless. Wavra says she moves the votives on the mantle only when “nobody is there.”

8369 W. Main St., Marshall, Va.

540-364-8166.

fieldandmainrestaurant.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, lunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $19-$45; prix fixe $79, wine pairing $49.

Takeout, no delivery. Ramps near the patio allow entry into the restaurant, which is equipped with ADA-compliant restrooms.

Flamant

Expect surprises at this Annapolis standby

Entrees $32-$44

Frederik De Pue has moved the indoors outside at his destination restaurant in Annapolis, where a 30-seat patio dressed with carpets, curtains — even a temporary roof — makes for a considered and cozy backdrop for his creative tasting menu. Dinner commences with a flurry of snacks — a bite of pork rillettes paired with fig and black garlic, a furl of smoked salmon on a dab of yogurt and pickled herbs — before moving on to dishes that ask diners to eat outside the box.

[Shake up your dinner routine with a (short) road trip]

A garland of ingredients that suggest salad Nicoise finds a spread of smoked trout replacing the traditional tuna. The chef gives chicken the “everything bagel” treatment, except that the entree’s crunch comes as much from dried, crumbled chicken skin as the usual seeds and garlic. With the gluten-free chicken comes cauliflower, baked with aioli and richer for it. “I wanted to do surf and turf, but not with beef or lobster,” says De Pue, who has a catch in flash-fried octopus paired with peach-topped pork loin. Cheesecake requires some explaining at the table, too. The slice of blue cheese bordered with berry jelly on one side and savory shortbread on the other is more cheese course than dessert — and I love it.

You can still sit inside the handsome bungalow. But fans in summer and heaters in winter let patrons enjoy the chef’s surprises, year-round, in the great outdoors.

17 Annapolis St., Annapolis.

410-267-0274.

flamantmd.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Saturday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $32-$44.

No delivery or takeout. Wheelchair users can enter through a side door; ADA-compliant restroom.

Frankly … Pizza!

The stellar results of a chef’s obsession

Pizzas $11-$20

The name of his place is tongue in cheek, says owner Frank Linn. When he opened his Maryland pizzeria seven years ago, friends told him he needed to round out the menu with appetizers and pasta. “I just wanted to do one thing as good as I can,” says the chef. The singular sensation at Frankly … Pizza! is a cross between Neapolitan and New York-style pizza based on a dough that’s fermented at least a day, cooked in an oak-stoked oven and simply dressed with toppings that show thought. The tomato sauce — a touch sweet, a little tangy — comes from an old family recipe; the bacon is made in-house.

[Frankly . . . Pizza! tosses pies that reach for perfection (and come close)]

And yet, “it’s always about the crust,” says Linn. Black blisters populate the rim. The eating is soft-crisp and chewy. No floppy crusts here. “I’m a folder,” says the owner. Count on bold flavors, as on one night’s Provençal, a special trumpeting capers, olives, juicy sungold tomatoes and salami slices practically thin enough to read through. Linn’s sly sense of humor resurfaces in the terrific “Porky Marge,” a margherita pizza punctuated with crisp nubbins of bacon and showered with Romano cheese.

Aim for a counter stool and the chance to watch the staff shape rounds of dough on a surface of durum and maybe meet Valerie Harding. The server has been on board since Frankly … Pizza! served its first pie and makes an ace ambassador, asking strangers where they’re from and letting them try as many of the beers on tap as they want. Kudos to the restaurant for keeping most wine bottle prices below $30.

The owner says he’s doing one thing right. The truth is, there are lots to like here: housemade sodas that change with the season (fall finds pumpkin pie and Concord grape), a small dining room decorated with old cooking utensils and Mason jars-turned-lights, and warmth beyond that of the oven. Harding insisted we stay for dessert. Our reward was a moist wedge of vanilla-fragrant cake sweetened with blackberry cream cheese frosting. Of course, it was made there. Of course, we inhaled it.

10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md.

301-832-1065.

franklypizza.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Pizzas $11-$20.

Takeout Tuesday through Sunday, no delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Green Pig Bistro

Pork and so much more in Arlington

Entrees $16-$87

Talk about a good neighbor. In the short time she’s been the chef here, Tracy O’Grady has reached out to Arlington with housemade breads and pastas, a long dessert list that addresses both cake and pie, and steaks for two: 18 ounces of rib-eye or New York strip with a choice of three sides — you know, so locals don’t have to trek to Washington for a steakhouse experience. A stack of high chairs in the dining room rolls out the welcome mat for young families, and the patio has grown in the past year or so from several outside tables to space for 80 diners. (It helps that the family who owns the bistro works in construction.)

Pork gets a lot of play on the script, as a chop, in cassoulet, and as a cheese-stuffed schnitzel, its plate bulked up with spaetzle and seasonal vegetables. Delicious — now hop on your Peloton. Brunch finds a strapping plate of huevos rancheros that fits braised pulled pork in with the eggs, black beans and corn tortillas. In another life, O’Grady was a representative for the National Pork Producers Council. Yet her time at the late Kinkead’s in Washington should encourage diners to explore crisp diver scallops, arranged in summer on an orzo salad with artichokes, roasted fennel and sweet garlic. And vegetarians are respected with quinoa cakes tarted up with goat cheese and staged on a Greek salad with fiery labneh.

Fun is a side dish here. Food lovers will appreciate the restroom doors. They’re labeled James (as in Beard) and Julia (as in Child).

1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington, Va.

703-888-1920.

greenpigbistro.com.

Dinner daily, lunch Tuesday through Sunday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Pastas $18-$26, entrees $16-$87 (prime cut rib-eye for two).

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restroom.

Henry’s Soul Cafe

A perfectionist’s take on chicken

Entrees $10-$14

What started as a glorified 7-Eleven in 1968 quickly morphed into a source for soul food as founder Henry Smith added a grill, fryer, chicken dinners and sweet potato pie to his storefront on U Street NW. These days, customers can still count on Smith’s high standards in every order of carryout.

[Open for 53 years, Henry’s Soul Cafe proves that comfort is always in demand]

“My father was a perfectionist,” says Jermaine Smith, who co-owns the operation with his sister, Henrietta Smith-Davis. For proof, taste the cafe’s fresh local chicken sprinkled with herbs and slow-baked to succulence, or catfish dusted with cornmeal and flour and fried to a beautiful shade of gold. Portioned as if leftovers were expected, the entrees come with a choice of two sides, all of which would look at home at a church social. Say “amen” to the velvety collard greens (best splashed with hot sauce), mashed potatoes flecked with red bits of peel, and creamy mac and cheese.

There’s a reason Henry’s, which also has a catering arm — and a second, lesser branch in Oxon Hill — sells about 100,000 sweet potato pies a year. The smooth filling revels in nutmeg, ginger, vanilla and orange, albeit in amounts that let the sweet potato shine. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for some customers to show up with their own containers. “I don’t care,” says Smith-Davis, laughing at the memories of people trying to pass off her food as home cooking. “As long as they keep getting it from me!”

1704 U St. NW.

202-265-3336.

henryssoulcafe.com.

Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Limited indoor seating (two stools at a counter).

Entrees $10-$14.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to entry, although the small restroom is too snug to accommodate a wheelchair.

Il Pizzico

A taste of Italy in Rockville

Entrees $17-$30

The pandemic prompted this Italian charmer to take reservations for the first time in 31 years. Otherwise, regulars can count on finding pretty much everything that they have long appreciated about the Rockville stalwart: housemade bread served with black olive tapenade, rooms quieted by linens on the tables and tufted fabric on the walls, and cooking made consistent by the fact chef-owner Enzo Livia retained his loyal kitchen crew.

[Italian restaurants can charm and soothe, even without their dining rooms]

Il Pizzico translates to English as “the pinch,” as in “pinches of different flavors of Italy,” says Livia. A recent dinner found us tucking into risotto swollen with what tasted like a forest of porcini mushrooms, lamb ragu humming with red wine and rosemary, and pork tenderloin nearly upstaged by its roast potatoes and creamy borlotti beans. The pastas are mostly rolled out right here; the specials shake up the routine. Duck confit slipped into triangular pasta, fried to a light crisp and served on a spoonful of fontina sauce merits a return engagement. Now and then, the chef offers a taste of the food his mother made back in his native Sicily. Hope for sweet-and-sour eggplant on crostini.

In a small strip mall, the facade is nothing to look at. Inside? Il Pizzico is all heart.

15209 Frederick Rd., Rockville, Md.

301-309-0610.

ilpizzico.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, lunch Tuesday through Friday. Indoor only.

Dinner entrees $17-$30.

Takeout, no delivery. Consecutive doors at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.

Imperfecto

Newcomer is impeccable if not perfect

Entrees $31-$59

No matter what you think of the bridge between Latin America and the Mediterranean created by Enrique Limardo, you can’t say he overpromised. Take the name: “We seek perfection, but we will never achieve it,” says the chef of his effort in the West End. Yet the journey, he adds, should be a happy one.

Plenty in his restaurant, a luxe extension of his Seven Reasons on 14th Street NW, will make you glad to be there. The dining room is airy and light-filled. The staff, many of whom come from the well-regarded Fabio Trabocchi empire, are a poised and informed bunch. From the bar flow some of the most beautiful and delicious drinks around. An elegant riff on a gin & tonic arrives in a glass the size of a globe — which didn’t stop anyone from the last drop.

[If you think fine dining is on pause, Imperfecto would beg to differ]

As for the cooking, there’s little on the menu that you’ve likely encountered before. The “ancient grain” salad unites golden couscous and nutty black quinoa beneath a cover of sliced sunchokes and pickled cucumbers, a construction amplified by dressings that veer from hot to sweet to tangy. Fried lentils replace the usual bulgur in a tabbouleh displayed on a swipe of hummus fueled with tamarind; Lebanese flatbread, sprinkled with za’atar, makes for a finger-blistering scoop. The richest dish of the lot is the slow-cooked lamb, shaped into a soft terrine and grouped with red cabbage, sweetened with agave syrup, and an uber-silky potato puree inspired by the late French chef Joël Robuchon. The menu seems not to have budged much from its opening days, but I like that housemade chocolate bars still come with the bill.

The restaurant isn’t flawless. It can get nightclub-loud some nights, and servers have a tendency to check in like nervous new parents. But Imperfecto is never, ever boring.

1124 23rd St. NW.

202-964-1012.

imperfectodc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, brunch weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $31-$59; chef’s tasting menu $150, wine pairing $125.

No delivery or takeout. Heavy glass doors precede the foyer; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Inn at Little Washington

Still the standard for stately dining

Tasting menu $315

Yes, the menu looks smaller than before, and the service skews young. But you know what? So many fancy snacks might kick off dinner — gravity-defying gougeres, caviar and creme fraiche sandwiched in see-through wafers — you could be forgiven for feeling full by the second course, and the recruits give me hope for the future of restaurant service. They’re being trained by some of the best in the business, foremost chef-owner Patrick O’Connell, who has something fun to talk about as he chats up patrons: a bakery-cafe across the street in what used to be the hamlet’s post office (look for a late October launch) and a dreamy glass conservatory. Awash in green tile and fringed parasols from Bali, it’s become my new favorite landing spot in the country’s most famous inn.

The spring in the chef’s step could be the reality that this year, the venue’s 43rd, is its most successful ever; an average of 60 people are on a wait list each night. From this longtime visitor’s perspective, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most mouthwatering. Foie gras glides to the linen-draped table with an elegant gâteau — cornbread (layered with foie gras buttercream), a reminder of where you’re enjoying it. The presentation of a seafood custard capped with cognac foam has a server spritzing Pernod from an antique atomizer. Vegetarians fly first-class here; kudos to the towering hearts of palm “crab cake.” Meanwhile, Mother Nature has a rival in the pastry team, whose hand-painted “peach” involves a sumptuous mousse. (The wine list is a dream, if priced for tech czars.)

Some of the inn’s classics aren’t publicized. If you hanker for, say, the painter’s palette of sorbets or world-class ice cream sundae, just ask. This is the Inn, after all. Your wish is their command. Which reminds me, there’s no better place to be a regular. Other places might write happy anniversary on a plate in chocolate. This memory maker rolls up with a cart carrying an enormous dome of spun sugar hiding progressively smaller replicas inside — along with dessert and a salutation on a marzipan ribbon.

309 Middle St., Washington, Va.

540-675-3800.

theinnatlittlewashington.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Monday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Tasting menu $315.

No takeout or delivery. Wheelchair users can enter with the help of ramps and valets; ADA-compliant restroom.

Izakaya Seki

Streamlined, but still strong

Plates $3.75-$45

Before I tell you how much I revere this Japanese dad-and-daughter act, let me share a request from co-owner Cizuka Seki: Help wanted. Looking for a server and a line cook five days a week.

Were she able to fill those positions, Seki says, she and her father, Hiroshi, the 32-seat tavern’s 74-year-old chef, could expand service to Sunday and offer longer hours. For now, their staff of eight is doing its best to accommodate patrons, who are reminded they can’t camp out for the evening. Reservations, required for now, are for 90 minutes. And an unpredictable supply chain means ingredients you might expect to find aren’t always available. As never before, says Seki, “I have to say no” now and then.

If the operation sounds strict, it still holds great appeal. The prized seats are those at the counter, where patrons no longer sit knee to knee but still get to observe the chef up close. In true izakaya fashion, the menu, illustrated with Seki’s doodles, leans to snack-size plates meant to be washed back with drinks. (You can count on the restaurateur, a fan of wines from Burgundy and the Loire Valley, to steer you to something special.) A sniff of the air — clean, hot oil — is a siren call to anything fried: crisp silvery smelts, maybe, or soft-shell crabs, sweet of meat, served with ponzu sauce for dipping and as delectable as any I’ve had this year.

The chef is a discerning shopper. His lightly pickled wild sardines, served sashimi style, are from Hokkaido, Japan, noted for the freshness of its seafood. The lush uni, meanwhile, is plucked from Santa Barbara, Calif. Hiroshi presents the treasure with a dab of wasabi and a tiny quail egg. Any meal is better if it includes roseate slices of beef tongue hot off the grill — hotter with a dab of Japanese mustard — and some cool punctuation in the form of “kimchi” cucumbers punched up with garlic and chile flakes.

Tick, tick, tick. Time’s up. Time for someone else to enjoy one of the best meals of their week.

1117 V St. NW.

No phone.

sekidc.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Indoor seating only.

Small and large plates $3.75-$45.

Takeout for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Proof of vaccination required for indoor dining. Wheelchair users are asked to call ahead so a ramp can be set out at the door; ADA-compliant restroom.

Kinship

Looking for indulgence? It’s here.

Entrees $18-$90

The biggest change at one of the top restaurants in town? Kinship is down to serving dinner five nights a week. Otherwise, it feels like 2019 in the sedate dining rooms, where servers in smart Alton Lane suits attend to your needs like the pros they are and the ever-epic menu is divided into categories that prioritize the thinking of chef Eric Ziebold.

“Craft” features halibut poached in olive oil and decked out with a panko crust. “History” reimagines ratatouille as a summery salad garnished with a savory sorbet. “Ingredients” makes luscious use of a bumper crop of tomatillos from the chef’s garden, the source of a sauce for a soothing, taleggio-stuffed arepa.

[Expect a warm welcome and dazzling dishes at Kinship in Shaw]

Sign of the times: Ziebold says the most popular category of all is “Indulgence.” Guests who couldn’t travel during the pandemic are spending their vacation money on luxuries such as caviar, truffles, Japanese Kuroge beef and his signature lobster French toast — breakfast for dinner for $38. That said, kudos to a sommelier who, without prompting, steers diners to liquid treasures that are well south of three digits.

Kinship makes it easy and safe to sup indoors, planting flowers on unoccupied tables as a way to keep diners socially distanced. Did I mention the menu is still printed on the kind of luxurious stock typically reserved for wedding invitations? Kinship is tasteful in all ways.

1015 Seventh St. NW.

202-737-7700.

kinshipdc.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor seating only.

Entrees $18-$90.

No takeout or delivery. Consecutive doors lead to the foyer; ADA-compliant restroom.

Makeda

An enlightened version of Ethiopia

Entrees $9-$17

“How could you not want to eat that?” a wide-eyed friend of Ethiopia says as dinner is brought out, half a dozen vivid vegetables and stews arranged on a swath of injera.

We briefly pause to admire the edible canvas before plunging into the spread: deep golden cabbage, zesty red lentils, a rosy mound of kitfo that replaces the usual minced raw beef with raw tuna. The fish — slick with olive oil, fragrant with cardamom and fiery with mitmita — does what the chef, Senait “Mimi” Tedla, intends: “It makes you feel good,” she says of her enlightened version of the Ethiopian classic, whose flames typically come from spiced butter.

[An Ethiopian newcomer makes a spicy splash in Alexandria]

Makeda, its name a reference to the biblical Queen of Sheba, is full of niceties. A request for tej produces a lovely honey wine made by a local producer. Some of the best gored gored in the area is found here; strips of filet mignon, so soft you barely need to chew, arrive in a spicy, brick-colored cloak of awaze, Ethiopia’s answer to hot sauce. New to the menu is salmon goulash, based on a recipe Tedla’s mother made for her father, who grew up in Italy. Cubes of fish cooked with onions, garlic and rosemary demonstrate the chef’s passion for Mediterranean flavors (in another life, she cooked in Israel).

Meals unfold in a dining room dressed with paintings from Addis Ababa and offering live entertainment on Thursday (Ethiopian jazz) and Saturday (traditional music). But even Monday nights pack in fans of the chef. Long live the queen … of this kitchen.

516A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria, Va.

571-312-7606.

makedarestaurant-va.com.

Dinner and lunch Tuesday through Sunday. Indoor seating only.

Entrees $9-$17, combination dishes $26.

Takeout, no delivery. Wheelchair users are asked to call ahead so a ramp can be set out at the door; ADA-compliant restroom.

Mama Chang

A celebration of family favorites

Entrees $16-$40

The name pays tribute to the women in restaurateur Peter Chang’s life, foremost his wife and co-chef, Lisa; and his mother, a former farmer in central China. Indeed, the vast menu in Fairfax is a celebration of homestyle cooking, “the kind of food I enjoyed growing up,” says Lydia Chang, the couple’s daughter and business partner.

[If family-style takeout is on the menu, these 3 restaurants have a whole lot to offer]

No matter how many people tag along, I always wish there were more. I don’t want to miss a dish in the lot. My current fascinations include crisp spring rolls bursting with shrimp, pork, wood ear mushrooms and taro root — a truly filling filling — a strapping stew of sweet potato noodles, sour mustard and squiggles of pork, and (new to the lineup) cumin lamb skewers. The dry-fried lamb has diners breaking out in sweat and smiles, as the juicy morsels are fueled with red chile pepper, powder and oil.

If the service is a touch more hesitant these days, well, that applies to a lot of restaurants now. I appreciate the environment, open and airy, and the attention paid to the wine list.

I’ve saved the best for last. Mama Chang’s glorious tofu skin salad, slick with chile oil and garnished with cilantro and scallions, qualifies as a final meal request — not anytime soon, fingers crossed. I envision many more meals in what’s become my choice Chinese spot in the region.

3251 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va.

703-268-5556.

mamachangva.com.

Lunch and dinner daily, dim sum weekends. Indoor seating only.

Family-style entrees $16-$40.

Takeout and delivery. Wheelchair users can enter through a side door (off the parking lot on the left); ADA-compliant restroom.

Muchas Gracias

Thoughtful tacos worth taking home

Entrees $19-$29

The slim storefront comes with a big caveat, but let me show the kitchen some love for a few sentences. Tacos are probably why you’re drawn to a table on the sloping front patio, snug dining room hung with Mexican masks or covered back lot. Whatever your preference — short rib birria flavored by a complex mole, grilled fish brightened with avocado mousse — reveals care and thought. (The tortillas spring from fresh masa and a hand press.)

The deeper your dive on the menu, though, the more competition the tacos get for your taste buds. It would be just as easy to fill up on a refreshingly tart striped bass ceviche; crisp masa cakes paved with inky black beans and pickled onions; ultrasmooth corn pudding steamed inside a poblano pepper, or one of the truly special specials from Christian Irabién, the Mexican native and former Oyamel cook whose mission extends to supporting local farms and immigrant workers. Details — cloth napkins, Rancho Gordo beans, guacamole that relies on super-creamy Mexican avocados — enhance the grazing.

The weak link? Service. It’s missing in a lot of places these days, but Muchas Gracias is a poster child for inattention. The servers act as if they’d rather be getting root canals than greeting or seating you. If you’re the kind of customer who appreciates eye contact or acknowledgment — it takes seconds to say “Good evening. I’ll be with you in a moment” — this restaurant might disappoint you.

My solution: takeout or delivery, which never fails to erase a bad day, and not just because the spicy margaritas are top-shelf and true to their word.

5029 Connecticut Ave. NW.

202-244-5000.

muchasgraciasdc.com.

Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $19-$29.

Takeout and delivery. Proof of vaccination required for indoor dining. No barriers to entry, although there’s a slight incline at the entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.

Pennyroyal Station

A generous serving of comfort

Entrees $25-$27

How are you, Jesse Miller? “It’s been tough,” says the chef and co-owner of one of the brights lights in arty Mount Rainier. “We thought we’d have more figured out by now,” he says of operating a restaurant during the pandemic. “But we’re trying not to steer away” from the principals’ original ambitions, chiefly “heightened comfort food.”

[Like a good neighbor, Pennyroyal Station is there for you]

He and his colleagues are doing an ace job of hiding any obstacles. Grilled octopus shares its grandma plate with craggy zucchini fritters and hibiscus chimichurri, brined red snapper is circled with a chunky puttanesca that ought to be sold by the jar, and the crusty Royal burger — available in three sizes and cooked the way you ask — lives up to the billing thanks to a patty of local Roseda beef and a glossy bun from Lyon bakery. Chocolate chess pie is a slice of heaven made possible with a coffee- and orange-flavored cream and candied ginger. If the kitchen is taking shortcuts, I can’t taste them. A motherly server adds to the outing, revealing that the chicken wings are on the hot side and pork shoulder tacos are enough food for a family. (“But if you like leftovers …”)

The patio treats customers to a mural abloom with flowers and incorporating local architecture. Inside awaits a beaut of a bar, fronted with sea-foam-colored stools, and high-ceilinged dining rooms painted in soothing shades of green. Hang in there, Pennyroyal Station! You’re a light in the dark.

3310 Rhode Island Ave., Mount Rainier, Md.

240-770-8579.

pennyroyalstation.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, lunch Wednesday through Friday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Sandwiches $14-$21, entrees $25-$27, family meals $40.

Takeout and delivery on weekdays. Proof of vaccination for indoor dining required. Ramp leads to bar entrance and an ADA-compliant restroom.

The Point Crab House and Grill

Crab is the star, but not the only one

Entrees $19-$29

Bobby Jones, the chef and co-owner of one of Maryland’s prize crab destinations, says his seafood restaurant 10 miles north of Annapolis was inspired by long-ago summer family gatherings at his grandmother’s “little creekside rancher” on Kent Island. Three sides of the Point’s dining room are windows or see-through garage doors that put customers face to face with a fleet of boats; the menu channels the late Patricia Lyons Jones with dishes including “Mom-mom’s” crab soup. The bowl packs in seafood and country ham along with seemingly a bushel of vegetables, in a broth made rich with a quartet of stocks.

[Get your Maryland crab fix at the Point Crab House, along with ace service and a water view]

Indeed, the Point is a crab lover’s bonanza, where you can enjoy the main event as a dip, atop toast, steamed to order or mixed with mayonnaise, lemon juice and hot sauce and presented as a broiled cake. For the steamed crabs, Jones buys only live specimens from the Chesapeake Bay, which he plies with a seasoning blend that runs a dozen ingredients long. The texture is as much a selling point as the taste; different grinds of some of the seasonings add a pleasant crackle to the eating. (Anticipate fingers stained red with paprika, chiles and cayenne, too.)

Not into crab? Not to worry. Other delicious options include spicy steamed shrimp, fish and chips staged in a fry basket and tacos (pork or fish) distinguished by their two-ply cradles: a soft flour tortilla lined with a fried corn tortilla.

The staff’s T-shirts say it best: “Get to the Point.”

700 Mill Creek Rd., Arnold, Md.

410-544-5448.

thepointcrabhouse.com.

Lunch and dinner daily. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $19-$29.

Takeout, no delivery. Ramps near the entrance and roomy restrooms make the restaurant wheelchair-friendly.

Red Hen

A reliable favorite makes its return

Entrees $19-$32

Owner Mike Friedman says, “our goal is to make it feel as normal as possible” to eat in his Italian-leaning restaurant in Bloomingdale. It helps that he retained his entire staff, who still went through two weeks of training before reopening the dining room in June. “We’re reintroducing hospitality,” says the restaurateur.

A magnet since it opened in 2013, Red Hen does “normal” well. As before, the smell of smoke from a wood-stoked oven seduces you the moment you step inside the wood-and-brick interior. Green olives do the job of a bread basket; good drinks (go for the rosemary-laced gimlet) spring from the central bar.

The kitchen, under the watch of chef Robert Cain, is as reliable as ever. A “Caesar” assembled with pea shoots, charred snap peas and breadcrumbs instead of croutons is unconventional but so good, even purists polish it off. Ribbon-shaped mafalda pasta shows off leeks, thyme and a handful of wild mushrooms, while a mighty pork chop “Milanese” is accompanied by a little pitcher of mustard sauce to cut the richness. Maple panna cotta with caramelized hazelnuts is the definition of sublime.

Confused about tipping these days? Red Hen adds a 20 percent gratuity to the bill — then flags it with a highlighter for transparency. No wonder reservations are still hard to come by. Red Hen rocks.

1822 First St. NW.

202-525-3021.

theredhendc.com.

Dinner daily. Indoor seating only.

Pastas $19-$20, entrees $32.

Takeout, no delivery. Wheelchair users can reach the dining room via a side door near the kitchen; ADA-compliant restrooms.

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

There’s a new chef on the farm

Tasting menu $125

Major talent has stepped into big shoes at this road-trip-worthy restaurant in Loudoun County, where Vincent Badiee replaced Tarver King last November, following King’s news that he planned to open a place of his own in the area. Any concerns I had about a successor were erased by a July dinner consisting of nine small courses that seemed to channel much of the new chef’s résumé. Badiee, 33, previously cooked at Gravitas, Cranes and Fiola — three different but impressive Washington, D.C., restaurants — and in New York at such notable brands as Eleven Madison Park.

The setting at Patowmack Farm — 40 acres owned by restaurateur Beverly Morton Billand — is beautiful and practical. At different times of the year, the organic soil provides much of the makings for meals. Lettuces, shishito peppers and cardoons are a given. So are frost grapes, wild chamomile and pawpaw. The owner’s “earth-to-table” philosophy is based in part on her wide-open pantry. “I want to be the change,” she says.

[The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, under a new chef, calls for a road trip]

Most guests are led to an open-sided white tent on a stone terrace, where the view of rolling green hills and a glimpse of the Potomac River vie with Badiee’s cooking for diners’ attention. His tasting menu changes from visit to visit; the nine or so courses marry just-picked ingredients with abundant creativity. A simply billed “farm egg,” its top removed, nestles in hay. A dip of a demitasse spoon into the shell finds a sunny yellow custard flavored with some delightful surprises: anchovies, golden raisins, fennel and more. One of the best vegan memories in recent months is the chef’s Blue Ridge bowl with local vegetables and basmati rice, over which a server pours an amber liquid that tastes like the distillation of a garden with a whisper of ginger.

Corn might be stuffed into pasta and arranged on a piney cream sauce; local beef is sliced over charred shishitos alongside a brushstroke of mustardy Diane sauce. Diners are sent into the night with treats for tomorrow — granola, zucchini bread — that in some cases never make it home. Guilty!

42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va.

540-822-9017.

patowmackfarm.com.

Dinner Thursday through Saturday, brunch weekends, monthly Sunday supper. Indoor and outdoor seating ($100 for gazebo seating).

Dinner $125 per person, Sunday supper $95.

Flat sidewalks lead to the dining areas, and ramps lead to ADA-compliant restrooms.

Rohobot

Tastes travel well from Addis Ababa

Entrees $10-$29

The award for the best-insulated delivery meal goes to this plain, 30-seat storefront in Silver Spring, which bundles its vegetable combination like a babushka wraps a baby: so completely, it’s hard to see what’s inside. Peel back the folds of injera, though, and you witness a kaleidoscope of yellow lentils, dark green collards, crimson beets and turmeric-colored cabbage with bright orange carrots.

It’s all as luscious as it looks. Those chopped collards have lots of garlic, ginger and red onion going for them. Same for the earthy-sweet beets, which also get a stab of heat from jalapeños. The fire in the red lentils? Berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend that torches whatever it touches. Customers asked for breakfast and chef-owner Tsehay Beferdu delivered, with a menu offered daily until noon. Eye-openers include kinche — boiled cracked wheat finished with clarified butter — and beef stew mixed with torn injera.

Beferdu uses the recipes she learned from her restaurateur-mother as a girl growing up in Addis Ababa and later showcased in a trio of hotels she ran in Ethiopia’s capital. The meatier draws on her menu include awaze tibs — sauteed lamb, rosemary and jalapeño — and kitfo, blazingly spiced minced beef cooked (or not) the way you ask. Diners who forget to specify get the dish, often eaten rare, cooked medium. Upgrade to “special,” and the kitfo comes with collard greens and housemade cottage cheese.

No utensils necessary, chowhounds know; the extra scrolls of spongy injera in your order are all the scoops you need.

7833 Eastern Ave., Silver Spring, Md.

301-650-7595.

rohobotrestaurant.com.

Brunch and dinner daily. Indoor seating only.

Entrees $10.45-$29.

Takeout and delivery. No barriers to access, but the restroom is snug.

Rooster & Owl

Four courses of cleverness

Tasting menu $75

This winning mom-and-pop no longer does takeout, and wine pairings have gone the way of Novak Djokovic’s winning streak on the tennis court. Chef Yuan Tang and his wife and co-owner Carey say they’re too busy with guests in the dining room to juggle the former and that wine pairings involve too many interactions — ill-advised in pandemic times.

Happily, the four-course tasting menu that diners can design for themselves remains a staple of one of the city’s most creative restaurants. Diced fluke arranged with ribbons of compressed celery and matchsticks of green apple in a puddle of dashi adds up to the most revivifying crudo for miles. A pupusa bursting with oxtail and octopus gives new meaning to surf and turf, and the dish — inspired by a dishwasher who makes staff meals — is better for a sauce of black beans made darker and more maritime with squid ink. The lightest bouillabaisse around is a few Gulf shrimp and a crisp square of red snapper lapped with a tomato-colored sauce that tastes of the sea and is best mopped with the buttery pullman toast on the side. Like before, the courses are restrained, and sharing them is encouraged.

Rooster & Owl is newly comfortable, thanks to a handsome front patio set with table lamps and a dining room that has replaced concrete floors with wood. Shelves carve the room, whose rear mirrors make it look bigger, into discreet nooks; the cookbooks on display include those from some of the country’s foremost restaurants and chefs. On my last visit, a young woman spent a course or two rearranging drinks and food for some close-ups. “Just eat it and enjoy it!” I wanted to tell her. But I was doing the same thing. An elegant slice of chess pie piped with chantilly cream and offered with a scoop of bourbon ice cream has me snapping away. Tang’s food isn’t just clever, it’s worth preserving for posterity.

2436 14th St. NW.

202-813-3976.

roosterowl.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Four-course dinner $75.

No takeout or delivery. Steps at the entrance require wheelchair users to enter through a door to the left; ADA-compliant restroom.

Rose’s Luxury

Serving happiness above all

Tasting menu $75-$85

Aaron Silverman, the visionary behind one of the most beloved dining destinations in Washington, says, “We’re not in the restaurant business, but the business of making people happy.” Sure enough, dinner at Rose’s Luxury commences with light-but-luscious focaccia offered with housemade ricotta and accompanied by the kind of music you wouldn’t mind as background to your life. The restaurant’s smart service with a smile feels like old times. Kudos to the server who presents the menu as if his fingers were a frame and the list were worthy of one.

Which it is, despite some trimming of the drinks and wine lists and a format switch. Go now, and you “build your own adventure” by ordering two dishes from a roster of some of the most novel food around. Chewy, foot-long noodles tossed with a vivid “pesto” of garlicky arugula puree and rough-cut pistachios is as much fun in the eating as the reading: “Think fusilli and spaghetti had a baby and somehow bucatini got into the mix,” teases the menu. A staff snack whipped up from leftover oxtails proved so popular, it was redesigned for public consumption. Open wide for oxtail birria starring beef-fat tortillas and a steaming teacup of reduced braising juices, a dunk like no other.

New head chef Samuel Meoño, 27, is behind the whole chicken, brined in a host of goodies — ginseng tea, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, honey — then air-dried for a day, roasted, lacquered and gussied up with so many colorful flowers, it’s as if the chicken encountered a ticker-tape parade en route to the table. Culinary heroes Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa and Joël Robuchon are celebrated in a sublime dish pairing the Japanese chef’s silken fish in miso with the late French chef’s crazy-rich whipped potatoes. (Rose’s Luxury swaps sea bass for the original black cod and rings the entree in brilliant chive oil. Suffice it to say, the deftly charred fish and luxurious potatoes would make their masters proud.)

The bottom line at the restaurant: “Make it delicious and pretty and give customers a sense of value, whether it’s one bite or a platter,” says Silverman. Desserts are outsized. Ask for the chess pie and you get the whole thing, presented in slices beneath a glass globe.

“We try to create joy,” says Silverman, whose team excels at awesomeness.

717 Eighth St. SE.

202-742-3570.

rosesluxury.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Tasting menu $75 Tuesday through Thursday, $85 Friday and Saturday.

No takeout or delivery. Wheelchair users should call ahead for a ramp at the entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.

Royal Nepal

A homey Himalayan feast

Entrees $13-$23

The owner likes nothing more than when customers opt for a thali: “All the flavors of Nepal” in an assortment of dishes, says Subash Rai, who does double duty as the restaurant’s chef.

Diners choose a centerpiece (chicken, lamb, goat, wild boar, potato-cauliflower curry), which is positioned on a long wooden board with a changing vegetable, buttery black lentils, baby spinach sauteed with ginger, garlic and cumin seeds, plus a bite of dessert.

Further crowding the table is a brass plate set off with a bed of rice topped with a fried egg, sprinkled with ground chiles and enhancers of purple onion and lemon wedge. A thali is a lot to take in. Alone, the stewlike wild boar, cooked with onions and tomatoes, hums with mustard powder, chili powder, lemon juice and sage. But you wouldn’t want to miss a note in the concert.

“What we do is cook what we eat at home,” says Rai. Lucky visitors to Royal Nepal. A meal begins with complimentary sel roti — rings of honey-sweetened rice bread — accompanied by a bowl of fermented daikon, slick with mustard oil and tossed with mustard and fenugreek seeds. A bite of fried bread followed by a taste of daikon — sweet followed by savory and decidedly sour — wakes up the appetite. “It’s an amuse-bouche for us,” says the chef.

Comforts abound. The one that calls loudest is kwati, a soup prized by the Nepalese as much for its health benefits as its heartiness. The combination of nine beans — mung, kidney, soy and fava, among others — warmed with bay leaf, cloves and chiles is fuel you won’t forget. And I can’t imagine a Nepalese meal without momos. Try the dumplings filled with shredded cabbage, carrots and potato, each bite improved with a swipe through roasted tomato sauce.

Throw in some folk music and some murals from far away, and it’s easy to think you are, in fact, in a Himalayan roost.

3807 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Va.

571-312-5130.

royalnepalva.com.

Lunch and dinner daily. Indoor seating only.

Entrees $13-$23.

Takeout and delivery. Wheelchair users can enter through a side door from the parking lot; ADA-compliant restroom.

Spanish Diner

Just like grandma made ... in Madrid

Entrees $12-$20

Spanish Diner opened two years ago to such great and sustained applause in New York, rainmaker José Andrés says he felt compelled to open a second branch in Washington, specifically Bethesda, where he lives, and where his three daughters insisted he couldn’t close the Maryland branch of Jaleo unless it was followed by something similarly flavored.

The girls got their wish, and Bethesda gained something special, in May: a restaurant with the exuberance of his original Spanish tapas draw, but also a greater selection of comfort foods, including a section devoted to eggs, one of the famous chef’s many passions. (Maybe you’ve heard. When he’s not minding his ever-expanding culinary empire, Andrés is saving the world.)

[José Andrés brings Spanish comfort food — including a lot of eggs — to Bethesda]

The heart of Spanish Diner, for me, is a category of dishes toasting “our grandma’s cuisine,” everyday food you might find in casual dining establishments or in the home of a conscientious Spanish cook. I’m a fool for golden nuggets of fried potatoes and juicy pork meatballs draped with tomato sauce, and fall-apart cod flanked with velvety red peppers. There’s also a luscious beef stew featuring sliced flatiron steak, its sauce made haunting with star anise and woodsy black trumpet mushrooms.

The interior feels as alive as the man behind the menu. Waves of yellow draw eyes to the ceiling and, as at Jaleo, glass-topped foosball tables double as dining spots. As for dessert, the eye-opener of the bunch is the pineapple boat, swollen with a rum syrup and bright with mint and lime. Toothpicks inserted into individual chunks invite you to pluck away.

7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, Md.

301-284-3700.

spanishdiner.com.

Lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $12-$20.

Takeout and delivery. Proof of vaccination required for indoor dining. A ramp leads to the entrance, where a wheelchair user might need help with double doors; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Swahili Village

A menu full of delicious lessons

Entrees $20-$30

Kenya native and self-trained chef Kevin Onyona poured $2 million into transforming a basement dining room (the one-time Vidalia) near the corridors of power into an upscale African statement. As luck would have it, Swahili Village opened on March 15, 2020. When Onyona was able to partially reopen the space for on-site customers in June, his target audience of nearby embassy and World Bank employees was mostly working remotely.

Nyama choma is a dish that could keep the newcomer — part of a mini-chain with a branch in Newark and plans for New York and Tysons — in business. Eaten throughout Kenya, it showcases bites of chargrilled beef or goat that have been marinated in a spice blend whose list of ingredients is as long as the Nile. The weave of cumin, ginger, fenugreek, coriander and more is warm and wonderful. Another prize from the kitchen is mbuzi mchuzi, chopped goat cooked low and slow with onions and garlic, rendering the meat tender. A gravy flavored with curry and bell peppers fills the mouth with spices that bring you closer to Africa.

Hospitality makes a good case for supporting Swahili Village, too. Schooled to be a priest, Onyona has his waiters watch how the food is made before they become guides, and the effort pays off at the restaurant. New to ugali? A server delights in explaining how the block of white cornmeal mash absorbs whatever it touches and can be used to scoop up other bits of food. A server might suggest with your meal a little thimble of what looks like liquid fire: pili pili, a habanero-stoked condiment and an exception to Kenya’s relatively tame flavor profile.

Every entree has something to recommend it, and most come with a choice of sides. Whole fried tilapia is snowy flesh draped in masala sauce mixed with coconut milk. Try it with the city’s best collard greens and sweet-sticky plantains, and swoon away.

Word seems to have spread. A recent visit found us in the middle of what felt like a nightclub — loud music, busy bartenders — but still serving food that’s very much the personal expression of its muse.

1990 M St. NW.

202-758-3384.

swahilivillages.com.

Dinner and lunch daily, brunch Sundays. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $20-$30.

Takeout and delivery. Wheelchair users can eat on the patio or in the downstairs dining room, which is reached via an elevator in the lobby of the neighboring building; ADA-compliant restrooms.

The Tasting Room

The inspiration is from everywhere

Entrees $25-$60

While this popular American restaurant changed hands shortly before the pandemic, new owner Jarrett Walsh and executive chef Nathan Johnson have only enhanced the window-wrapped dining destination in Frederick, Md.

Patrons can still find filet mignon and lobster chowder — longtime draws on the menu — but Walsh has asked the servers to ditch their ties, and Johnson, the former chef de cuisine of the late Volt, is helping to fill seats with seared scallops, which at a May meal arrived dappled with a froth of buttermilk and staged with a green garden of asparagus, peas and fava beans. A perch at the convivial bar lets you watch the skilled mixers and shakers and glean the latest mating rituals. (Empty ring fingers are so yesterday; these days, singles are more interested in a potential someone’s vaccination status.)

The beauty of American cooking? “It’s from everywhere,” says Walsh. Indeed, Johnson’s list draws inspiration from around the world. Housemade ravioli tends to be stuffed with something that reminds you what time of year it is, and the scallop ceviche lit with lime and chiles brings Lima close. I’m most drawn to fish here, although the plump pork chop, brined in baking spices, is mighty impressive. One of the best reasons to reserve at brunch is the chance at pupusas, an idea of sous-chef Alberto Lopez, a native of El Salvador.

101 N. Market St., Frederick, Md.

240-379-7772.

trrestaurant.com.

Lunch weekdays, brunch weekends, dinner Monday through Saturday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Entrees $25-$60.

Takeout, no delivery. No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Three Blacksmiths

New hosts don’t miss a beat

Tasting menu $138

Concerned reservation holders reached out to me when they heard that the warmhearted owners behind the Rappahannock County dining destination, chef John and Diane MacPherson, sold it in August to another couple, chef Jake and Sara Addeo. “Have you been?” patrons asked me. “Is it still good?”

[Three Blacksmiths invites more to the table]

I have, and it is. Fans can rest assured that the original details remain in place and that the new hosts have “no plans on making any changes,” says Jake Addeo, who last cooked in Washington at the Occidental and Bibiana. A five-course dinner is still served just four days a week to no more than 20 people at a single, 7 o’clock seating. And this in a honey-lit, wood-bound dining room that factors in sheepskin stools for purses, local rocks to ferry the bread and tiny anvils with your party’s name written on it.

Shortly after the restaurant changed hands, I sat down to Arctic char lapped with a yogurt sauce tinted with tarragon, slow-roasted venison loin enriched with a whip of lardo, and an arresting toasted coconut semifreddo (flowers paved its sweet surface) — a parade of dishes that signaled a smooth and luscious transition.

As before, you should also know Three Blacksmiths still takes reservations about 200 days out — and March 2022 is already spoken for.

20 Main St., Sperryville, Va.

540-987-5105.

threeblacksmiths.com.

Dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Indoor seating only.

Tasting menu $138.

No takeout or delivery. Wheelchair users can enter through a side door; ADA-compliant restroom.

Vin 909 Winecafe

Pizza and wine that draw a crowd

Entrees $16-$21

The long line outside the cute bungalow has us worried when we pull up before its doors open for dinner. Scores of wannabe customers stand ahead of my posse at the first-come, first-served pizza-and-wine draw in the Eastport part of Annapolis. No sooner is it 5 p.m. than the crowd files past a garden that might win Adrian Higgins’s stamp of approval and into the restaurant, where smiling greeters are somehow able to promptly seat the lot in a span of minutes. When we marvel at the staff’s efficiency, a host tells us, “We have lots of little corners to seat people,” including a rear enclosed patio with a two-stool chef’s counter that looks into the pizza-making operation.

Owned by Alex Manfredonia, who brings fine dining experience from San Francisco, Vin 909 has the reception down pat. Same for the generously apportioned food, fussed over by chef Justin Moore. Seemingly a bushel of arugula shows up with a hailstorm of pistachios, goat cheese crumbles and juicy blackberries. The fetching “chowda” packs in fistfuls of clams whose shells collect smoked bacon, grilled sweet corn, diced potato, crisp scallions and hot cream. Each spoonful tastes like a day at the beach. Maryland blue crab draped with lemon beurre blanc and presented on a crisp wonton nets another rich pleasure.

The decade-old restaurant has fun with its wine list, a liquid romp around the world. “Value is not a dirty word,” describes the category of $6 wines by the glass; “I got class, I just don’t want to pay for it” includes the $9 options. No bottle on the standing list is more than $43.

From the brick oven come thin, crisp pies, including the Spotted Pig, decked out with wild boar meatballs, sopressata, a pleasantly sweet tomato sauce, fresh basil and multiple cheeses. (The crust is based on the one created by the owner’s father, who founded what became La Prima Food Group based in College Park.) One slice leads to another, and before you know it, you feel like you’re the piggy — which doesn’t stop you from inhaling some butterscotch pudding before you waddle out.

909 Bay Ridge Ave., Annapolis.

410-990-1846.

vin909.com.

Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, lunch Wednesday through Saturday. Indoor and outdoor seating.

Pizza and entrees $16-$21.

Takeout, no delivery. Wheelchair users can access the restaurant and the restrooms via a ramp and an entrance in the back of the building.

About this story

Editing by Joe Yonan and Jim Webster. Production and photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Design and development by Clare Ramirez. Additional development by Madison Walls.

Tom Sietsema has been The Washington Post's food critic since 2000. He previously worked for the Microsoft Corp., where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. He has also written for Food & Wine.