Between Washington’s golden era of restaurant excellence and human nature’s impulse to seek novelty, the emphasis in dining often ends up on the “latest” rather than the “greatest” thing.
The restaurants in this guide may have been around for a while — perhaps you visited some of them when they first opened. They may have slipped under the radar because they don’t have a big social media presence, or they’re hidden in plain sight, overshadowed by flashier restaurants nearby.
All the more reason to go: Chances are, you can get a table without a wait.
If Rose’s Luxury and Bad Saint are the Blake Livelys of D.C. dining, Corduroy is its Meryl Streep: understated, sophisticated and consistently impressive. In the Shaw restaurant’s plush interior — complete with black-suited wait staff, white tablecloths and a phone book-sized wine list — chef Tom Power has stacked his slight, predominantly American menu with simple dishes. You’ll find no clever gimmicks or flashy mash-ups here: Power is a master at making luxurious compositions from well-executed basics.
Take the soft shell crab entree. The two lightly fried crustaceans on a bed of buttery greens are plenty rich, but the secret is the sauce: a bright, vinegary verjus dressing that lends just the right amount of sharpness. This is a fancy place, so be discreet when you lick your plate clean. 1122 Ninth St. NW. 202-589-0699. Appetizers $9-$16; entrees $27-$39. — Lori McCue
Great Wall Szechuan House
At first glance, Great Wall’s menu is packed with dishes familiar to unadventurous palates: Kung Pao chicken, beef with broccoli, moo goo gai pan. But the real reason to visit the unassuming dining room is the page titled “Ma La Specials.” This menu, once written only in Chinese, takes its name from ma la sauce, a slick oil packed with lip-numbing Szechuan peppercorns and chili peppers that makes your tongue tingle and puts a thin film of sweat on your forehead.
Start with the ma la cold noodle — long, chewy noodles swimming in a fiery soup of peppers and garlic. Move on to the stellar ma po tofu (available with or without meat); the beautiful eggplant in a pungent Szechuan garlic sauce; and the fatty, savory pork belly in the twice-cooked pork. There are times when the 10-table dining room is as sparsely populated as it is decorated, with the only noise coming from the Chinese news on the lone television. That’s when you feel like you’re in on one of Washington’s great dining secrets. 1527 14th St. NW. Appetizers $1.50-$6.50; ma la specialties $8.95-$14.95. — Fritz Hahn
When Washingtonians want an elegant Indian meal, they tend to think of one place. Well, two places: Rasika and Rasika West End. But over in Bethesda, far from the power-dining corridors of downtown Washington, Sudhir Seth has been quietly preparing some of the most refined subcontinental cooking in the D.C. area for more than a decade at Passage to India. The chef-owner has an encyclopedic knowledge of Indian cooking, which is immediately apparent once you crack open his menu in this ornate, wood-carved space. The dishes are divided into regional specialties, offering the casual diner a glimpse into the different ingredients and techniques used in north, south, east and west Indian cuisines. Think south Indian cooking is all about masala dosa, lentil soup and other vegetarian fare? Passage to India will set you straight, in the most delicious way. 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. 301-656-3373. Dinner appetizers $5.25-$12.95; entrees $14.95-$22.95. — Tim Carman
A spot that critics used to describe, with a mix of respect and ridicule, as “hipster” and “farmhouse,” Green Pig Bistro has settled nicely into a neighborhood restaurant — with just enough ambitions to keep it interesting. Gone from owner Scot Harlan and executive chef Pierre Saussy’s menus are the kung pao sweetbreads and “rabbit cake” that established Green Pig’s bona fides. But you’ll still find bone marrow, lamb toast and Buffalo ribs — the kitchen’s porky take on those ubiquitous wings found at every local bar. Green Pig feels as if it has figured out how to balance the chef’s nose-to-tail aspirations with the locals’ desire for more identifiable comforts. The dishes, even the “snacks,” regularly deal in big flavors and big portions, aimed at satisfying a diner’s appetite, not necessarily a chef’s ego. It’s the kind of neighborhood restaurant we all wish we had. 1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington. 703-888-1920. Appetizers $10-$15; entrees $14-$32. — Tim Carman
You might emerge from Ching Ching Cha, the tranquil Chinese tea house in Georgetown, feeling as refreshed as if you had just spent the last hour and a half meditating instead of eating and drinking. Bathed in light from overhead windows, the restaurant is quiet, except for the sound of flute music and the occasional clatter of dishes. Everything about the tea service is lovely, from the low-slung tables (take off your shoes and sit on a floor cushion) to the marinated tea eggs that look like marble, to the beautiful dishware and golden chopstick rests. There are nearly 40 teas on the menu, some rare, and they’re prepared artfully — servers first warm your glass with hot water then instruct you to let the tea rest for precisely 10 seconds before pouring. Snack on a quartet of spicy lamb dumplings, or go for the tea meal, which, at $14, is a bargain with a tomato, egg and tofu soup, plus a bento box with soy-glazed vegetables and your choice of salmon, chicken or tofu. It’s part restaurant, part refuge. 1063 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-333-8288. Appetizers $1.50-$8; tea meals $14. — Maura Judkis
Awash in Salvadoran, Mexican and “Tex-Mex” restaurants, the Washington area is still catching on to the underrated charms of Honduran cuisine, with its inverted, minor-key variations on Latino cooking. Like so many restaurateurs from Central America, El Catrachito co-owner Jose Lopez feels the need to include dishes from other, more familiar cultures, but if you want to walk away fat and happy from the table, you need to stick to the Honduran dishes. Don’t miss the baleada, something of a cross between a burrito, a calzone and a crepe, but made authentic with crema and red beans imported from the mother country. Keep in mind that some descriptions have different meanings here: A Honduran taco is more like a flauta, while an enchilada would be classified a tostada in Mexican circles. It’s all part of the re-education campaign necessary for full enjoyment of El Catrachito. 2408 University Blvd., Silver Spring. 301-946-1494. Appetizers and salads $1.75-$8.75; entrees $1.99 to $10.99. — Tim Carman
With the parade of throbbing new arrivals in Shaw, it can be easy to overlook this dining room that’s just shy of three years old. Chef Jesse Long’s menu is modern American — but not too modern — so you’ll find well-executed, elevated classics. The skin on the cast-iron chicken breast is textbook crisp, with simply seasoned juicy meat. A whipped, zesty horseradish cream adds interest to a traditional beef filet, served with creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed greens. For more international flair, look to the appetizers, the roster of which includes a Thai pork sausage and the SXSW, an herby warm dip served in a hollowed-out tomato, along with a runny poached egg and downright addictive house-made tortilla chips. New is great and all, but this settled resident deserves a bit of love, too. 1316 Ninth St. NW. 202-733-3849. Appetizers $6-$30; entrees $21-$24. — Becky Krystal
The tangle of house-made fettuccine hasn't so much as settled on your table when two servers approach, one wielding pepper, another Parmesan, asking if you’d like a dash. The instant that plate is empty — which, inevitably, it will be — it’s swooped out of view. An unreplenished water glass? An impossibility at Dupont Circle’s Al Tiramisu, where the service feels refreshing for being, well, so darn old-school. The menu reads like a list of Italian classics — beef carpaccio, ravioli in butter-sage sauce, lamb chops with rosemary. Specials, recited dutifully at the start of each meal, range from lobster risotto to a flawless branzino drizzled with a fruity olive oil next to potatoes and snow peas. The windowless dining room won’t earn many compliments, but you won’t miss the latest, hottest thing while you’re here, always just a nod away from another dusting of Parmesan. 2014 P St. NW. 202-467-4466. Appetizers $10-$17; pasta and entrees $19-$30. — Emily Codik
Washington has its old guard of sushi restaurants — Kaz Sushi Bistro, Sushi Taro, Makoto — but one visit to Sushi Capitol will have you wondering, “Why don’t I come here more often?” The friendly chef behind the bar may encourage you to choose the fresh shima aji (striped jack), or he might sculpt an extra-thick spider roll brimming with soft shell crab. (Whatever you pick, start with the miso soup.) The preferred method, if you have time, is to not choose at all. Ask for the omakase menu ($50 per person), which allows the chef to construct a meal with whatever fish he received that day.
On some weekends, it can feel like the tiny sushi parlor is hard to get into, with the apologetic “Sorry, we are completely full” sign hanging on the door. Visit earlier in the week, when it’s easier to get one of the 20 seats, and you’ll find one of the area’s finest sushi experiences. 325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-627-0325. Appetizers $4.95-$9.75; nigiri and sashimi $5.50-$12; maki rolls $3.95-$16.75. — Fritz Hahn
Classic American fare fills the menu at Artie’s, a comfortable neighborhood restaurant nestled in a nondescript Fairfax strip mall. But familiar dishes arrive with fresh accents: whimsical blue crab and shrimp fritters with lobster sauce and a sweet corn salsa; flaky pecan-crusted trout with crunchy Parmesan potato gratin; fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs slathered with just the right amount of sticky, sweet sauce. It’s worth calling ahead on weekends, but reservations aren’t necessary. On a recent Sunday evening, friends shared laughs with ice-cold beer glasses in hand, while kids at a nearby booth chowed on chicken fingers and a child’s portion of grilled smoked salmon. The food and service stack up to a number of bustling destinations in the District. But here, there’s no need for added fuss. 3260 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. 703-273-7600. Appetizers $7-$11; entrees $14-$29. — Matt Brooks