Washington's restaurants are getting in position for the 21st century. Downtown nightlife has been given a new start with the MCI Center, and restaurants are hitching onto its success. Seventh Street seems to sprout new restaurants every week, even if in many cases their mandate appears to focus more on entertainment than food. Things are looking up downtown.
Uptown is also displaying signs of new life. Cleveland Park, Woodley Park and Tenleytown are bustling with new restaurants, and more are in the planning. The suburbs are still thriving with a constant renewal of restaurant sites, but the city is conceding nothing in the competition for diners' attention.
Thus, as ever, it's hard to narrow down my favorites to 50. A word about what makes a favorite: It is not necessarily the best, but it has something special, distinctive, personal, unusual. It fills a need. It charms and entices and occasionally exasperates. It's a restaurant I love for good reason but not for all reasons. Sometimes if a restaurant has a noteworthy feature, but doesn't quite rise to the level of a favorite, I have mentioned it on one of the short lists scattered through this guide.
Even my favorites are not perfect. Kinkead's, for example, draws complaints about its telephone manners, but the food is usually great and the lounge menu is an unsung treat. Rupperts offers wonderful simple food, but it has a weakness for the precious a lone, bare green bean as a centerpiece and an austerity in seasoning but certainly not in pricing. Cashion's Eat Place drifts into offhand service and uneven cooking. Galileo persists with outrageous prices, along with overbooking and inconsistent food. But restaurants are complex operations; I can hardly think of an enterprise where more can go wrong more easily. And when you're always reaching, you're bound to slip now and again.
This list of my favorites is missing several familiar names. Some have been deleted because they faltered seriously, a few others simply because better ones won their places. Much of the attrition this year, though, has had to do with the restlessness of chefs. We had the summer of the big shuffle, when a large number of chefs at prominent restaurants played musical chairs. The problem is that they haven't settled in well enough to show their stuff. It will take more time than they've had for the new chefs at the Evening Star Cafe, Lespinasse, Monroe's, Nora, Pesce, Provence and the Tabard Inn to gain stability. Coco Loco has been sold. El Catalan seems to be in transition. The much-awaited new venture by Jeff Buben of Vidalia called Bis is too fresh to be a candidate.
So this is a snapshot, a list of favorites at the moment. The great advantage of having so many old favorites on hold is that there's been room to bring new restaurants onto the list. Just the kind of reassessment one would expect in the shadow of a new century.