Most restaurants suck at Restaurant Week. They view discount hungry guests with disdain, use sub par ingredients they would never allow into their kitchen save these two weeks a year, and in an effort to sustain profit margins, they will hustle you in and out as fast as possible in an effort to get more diners they disregard to take your place. Most participating restaurants view this week as a necessary evil to maintain the good graces of the Washington Restaurant Association, rather then the marketing opportunity that it is.
RW should be viewed as any other advertising or marketing expenditure would be – an investment in future earnings. In that spirit, I sought to craft a list of restaurants that embrace RW and make a great effort to impress. They treat their guests well, don’t short change ingredients and generally get RW right. They are listed in order of my highest preferences.
The Oval Room – flying under the radar since Tony Compte’s arrival about two years ago, this slightly aging dining room is producing excellent food. It leans slightly toward the molecular gastronomy but it does so without sacrificing substance. Waived corkage on Saturday nights make this a must-do.
Mendocino Grille – Chef Barry Koslow might just be the most talented chef in DC that is not a bold face name. It is high quality and inventive food with a solid nod to classical techniques but presented in a modern yet unpretentious manner.
1789 – A bit over-priced every other week of the year, this old-school restaurant melds highly professional and polished service with solid food that is an excellent value during RW. You must be in the mood for a formal experience here – 1789 is one of the few dining rooms that require gentlemen to wear jacket and tie.
Circle Bistro – Despite its corporate lineage this is charming restaurant with very precise cooking from a largely underrated chef. Anything that comes from the water is a sure bet from this kitchen. There are great values to be had on the wine list too – sadly no one on the staff besides the chef will be able to assist you with the wine. If you plan on dining here, send me an email and I will help you go through the list.
Café Mozu – the lovely KassyK asked me about CityZen recently. CityZen would never, and should never to my way of thinking, participate in a promotion like RW. As close as you can get is the terrific food at Café Mozu. Chef Zeibold also directs this kitchen, rock-star sommelier, Andy, also runs this beverage program; it just costs less than it’s more celebrated big brother.
New Heights – John Waybeck has been one of the most talented forces patrolling DC kitchens since his arrival on the scene at the early part of this decade. This will be his last RW behind a stove as he is leaving soon to become the wine director for a new restaurant. Do not miss an opportunity to sample his crafts at a discount.
Ardeo – constantly changing management in the front of the house and chefs in the back have lent an inconsistency to this lovely Cleveland Park dining room. However, they are currently in a very strong groove and producing the second best plates in this neighborhood (Palena is just down the street and Frank Ruta is a James Beard award winning culinary bad ass, and a nice guy to boot.)
Vidalia – I have been a fan of this place for some time; however it is making this list with some caveats. I have heard recent complaints – some from people I trust, some from unknown variables – about the service and the consistency of the food at Vidalia. On the strength of my last visit, it is included because when this kitchen is rolling they roll hard.
Edited on 18 December 2008 to add: Since the departure of one of the best sommeliers in the city, Doug Mohr, this wine list both the by the glass and bottle only has gotten criminally expensive.
Café du Parc – one of the few places on this list with conditions: if you work downtown, if the weather is midsummer night perfect, and if you are in the mood to dine outside, Café du Parc is a lovely under the radar choice for extremely good rustic French cuisine. It is a restaurant that always provides great value, however, their normal pricing is such that you can normally get three courses for pretty close to the RW pricing. In other words – don’t waste a RW pick here unless the aforementioned conditions apply; patronize this little gem some other time.
Poste – another conditional entry. Chef Robert Weland’s food is sophisticated, carefully sourced – including getting most herbs from the restaurant’s garden, – and very consistent. The dining room matches that elegance. It is a fucking shame that guests virtually draw straws as they enter the restaurant to determine the quality of their service. All that being said, a three course lunch for $20 is worth the gamble here; dinner, on the other hand, is most definitely not worth the risk.
Farrah Olivia – not many dining rooms are good enough to get me across a moat. During RW this one certainly is on that list.
Inde Blue – the overly night-clubbish feel of the lower lounge is not my thing – it works for some just not me. However, Michael Hartzer coming in to lead this kitchen that was adrift is nothing but positive for dining in that part of town. Walk upstairs to the dining room quickly, don’t dine Thursday through Saturday and a grand grown-up meal is yours for the enjoying.
A recent visit to Inde Blue revealed food that is worthy of a much better location and better service. I am in a gnerous mood – so they are staying for now.
Great Restaurants not Participating in RW
Many people detest restaurant week – not just servers and staff at participating joints but regular diners too. For those of you that want no part of Restaurant Week, the following is my list of places that provide great value every day of the year and have dining rooms that won’t be overrun with bargain shoppers.
Corduroy – Now that Chef/Owner, Tom Power, has been released from the purgatorial confinement of the Sheraton Four Points he has a dining room as elegant as his food. Precision and consistent food paired with one of the most fairly priced wine lists in town.
Cashion’s Eat Place – this is a dining room that is comfortably elegant, a kitchen that is carefully and deliberately ambitious, and has service that is always gracious. The late night menu (Friday & Saturday after midnight) is the best eating you can do anywhere in DC at that hour.
Granville Moore’s – if you haven’t taken a trip to the Atlas District to sample the best Moules and Frites in DC, stop what you’re doing. Seriously, stop. Right now. In addition to excelling at the Belgian staples, the meats (great burger, steak and cheese, hanger steak, and daily specials) kick ass too. They do not accept reservations; and get busy by 7pm during prime time. Go early in the week. Bonus – charming but small patio in the back.
I will be updating this list with more restaurants as we get closer to RW; check back for more information.
Last Update: 26 July 2008