July 23, 2024

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10 Classic Washington Restaurants We Love

1319 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 4316 Markham St., Annandale

Age: 26 years

A brief history: It’s easy to think of these cozy dim sum parlors as local, because they’ve been fixtures of the scene for decades—Rockville opened in 1996, Annandale in 2000—but the northern Chinese restaurants are part of a chain. Alex Chang opened the first location in Taipei in the ’70s and, after its success, brought a version to Los Angeles. Chang’s niece Elaine Tang and her family operate the Washington branches.

What we love about it: We often equate dim sum with roving carts, but the action can come at the expense of freshness. Here, a variety of noodles, soups, dumplings, and barbecue meats arrive piping-hot from the kitchen. It’s a good idea to arrive early on weekends to avoid a line—but thanks to pandemic-era changes, cash is no longer the sole currency, and diners can even get dumplings delivered or to go.

Greatest hits: Spicy beef noodle soup; Chinese fried-chicken rice; spicy wontons; Peking-beef wrap; turnip pastries with bacon; hot garlic cucumbers.

 

815 Connecticut Ave., NW

Age: 34 years.

A brief history: DC restaurateur Ashok Bajaj—behind Rasika, Annabelle, and six other places—launched his empire with this elegant Indian dining room near the White House (hence the boldface clientele, which has included four Presidents). This year, Bajaj gave the opulent space a modern makeover.

What we love about it: Old-school refinement (live piano, a quiet room, a massive chandelier) meets a classic repertoire of curries, chaats, and thalis. Longtime chef Nilesh Singhvi sets his dishes apart with top-notch ingredients and subtle but creative twists.

Greatest hits: Crispy kale with date-tamarind chutney; chicken makhani; tandoori salmon; lobster lababdar; goat-cheese kulcha.

 

1520 14th St., NW

Age: 12 years.

A brief history: The Logan Circle Spanish restaurant was a collaboration between late restaurateur and visionary Mark Kuller (also behind Proof, one of DC’s first food-focused wine bars) and the talented Haidar Karoum, now chef/owner of Chloe in Navy Yard. Kuller’s son Max runs the place these days, and more than a decade later several of Karoum’s dishes remain.

What we love about it: This is the apex of a neighborhood restaurant, with a dependably delicious small-plates menu that doesn’t change a lot (but enough that it never feels boring) and a cocktail list of slushitos and gin-and-tonics that’s destination-worthy in itself.

Greatest hits: Grilled calamari with salsa verde; mini pork-belly sandwich; Indian-spiced chicken with cilantro labneh; hanger steak with Valdeón blue-cheese sauce; Manchego cheesecake with quince.

 

332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls

Age: 68 years.

A brief history: Alsatian native François Haeringer opened the original Chez François near the White House during the Eisenhower era. In 1976, he transferred the hit restaurant to its current home, a timbered cottage that looks plucked from the old country. Haeringer died in 2010, and his son Jacques now runs the show.

What we love about it: The frilly decor isn’t for everyone, we admit. (If you can’t bear the sight of a doily, take your meal in the lovely garden.) But we appreciate the time capsule of a menu, in all its canonical French glory. Long live Châteaubriand!

Greatest hits: Roquefort-and-apple tart; Roquefort salad; foie gras with Sauternes; lobster with tropical fruits and crab; Grand Marnier and chocolate soufflés.

 

2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW

Age: 23 years.

A brief history: German-born chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier worked at JFK favorite Le Pavillon before taking over from legendary chef Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate. His Franco-Flemish flagship, named for son Marcel, is an ode to European fine dining.

What we love about it: While other luxe dining rooms modernized—hello, natural wines; goodbye, tablecloths—Marcel’s is impeccably classic. Veteran servers don sharp suits, tables are decked out with Bernardaud china, and dishes starring squab and Dover sole are covered with silver cloches, should you leave the table. But Marcel’s is hardly antiquated. Jennifer Castaneda-Jones—a rare female executive chef in the tasting-room world—oversees the multi-course menu.

Greatest hits: Lobster bisque en croûte; boudin blanc; mussels gratin; Époisses cheese course.

 

6775 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church

Age: Ten years.

A brief history: This perpetually packed Vietnamese dining room—founded by Mai Lam; her cousin (and chef) Phuong Ho; and her mother, Xuan Tran—replaced the family’s two-decade-plus-old jewelry store at the Eden Center.

What we love about it: This is the rare 100-item menu that’s strong in nearly every area. Come for the conventional stuff (spring rolls, shaky beef) or feast on a lavish seafood-packed hot pot or a platter of DIY rice-paper wraps.

Greatest hits: Sautéed baby clams with pork; bánh xèo, the stuffed rice-flour crepe; garlic-marinated roast chicken; vermicelli topped with grilled pork and shrimp; rice-noodle soups.

 

Stuffed chicken wings at Ruan Thai. Photograph by Scott Suchman

11407 Amherst Ave., Wheaton

Age: 24 years.

A brief history: The brightest star of Wheaton’s small but vibrant Thai dining scene is still this humble strip-mall place. Bangkok native Krisana Suchotinunt, armed with her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, launched the restaurant in 1998 and expanded it to the space next door in 2011.

What we love about it: Suchotinunt’s menu goes beyond the Americanized Thai staples. Her myriad salads (especially a famed toss of fried watercress and shrimp), expert fry-ups, and well-balanced noodle dishes are worth crossing state lines for.

Greatest hits: Stuffed chicken wings; grilled-beef salad; grilled pork skewers; duck with chili and lime or red curry; fried whole fish.

 

5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase

Age: 46 years.

A brief history: Washington’s first sushi restaurant opened in Glover Park in the mid-’70s. In 1988, then-chef Daisuke Utagawa bought the place, and he runs it to this day—albeit in a bigger Friendship Heights location. Some of the area’s best sushi chefs, such as Handry Tjan and Kaz Okochi, have emerged from his kitchen.

What we love about it: The sushi menu, whether a few weeknight rolls or a splurgy array of sashimi, with alternatives that go beyond tempura and teriyaki. But also the drinks list. (Utagawa has long argued that sushi tastes best with a glass of Burgundy.)

Greatest hits: Tuna five ways; yellowtail crudo; katsu pork ribs; white-prawn tempura; soft-shell-crab roll.

 

3715 Macomb St., NW

Age: 21 years.

A brief history: Neapolitan pizza has dominated the local scene for so long that it’s hard to recall a time when ephemerally thin pies were in short supply. But in the late ’90s, Dupont Circle’s Pizzeria Paradiso was about the only game in town. In September 2001, co-owner Peter Pastan split off to open this DOC-certified pizzeria of his own in the shadow of National Cathedral.

What we love about it: While the rustic pies are a draw, this is a grazer’s paradise. Go heavy on Pastan’s salads and impeccably sourced snacks (anchovies from Sicily, sheep’s-milk ricotta from Sardinia), and don’t skip out on dessert—or a fizzy, pizza-friendly Italian wine.

Greatest hits: Deviled eggs with green sauce; Vongole pizza with cockles; Norcia pizza with salami and grilled peppers; ice creams.

 

2420 18th St., NW

Age: 28 years.

A brief history: Owners Gebrehanna Demissie and Zenebech Dessu launched their business as an injera bakery near Shaw’s “Little Ethiopia” neighborhood, distributing teff-based flatbreads—the workhorse of Ethiopian cuisine—to businesses across the city. A homey restaurant followed, then relocated to Adams Morgan in 2017. After a pandemic pause, the warm space—overseen now by son Michael Demissie—is going strong.

What we love about it: Zenebech Dessu’s flavorful injera still shines alongside soulful stews and tibs, which can be paired with a well-made cocktail or local beer.

Greatest hits: Sambusas; beef or lamb tibs; vegetarian or meat combination platters; banatu (a tower of beef tibs, kitfo, aybe cheese, and egg).

This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert

Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Logan Circle.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Jessica Sidman

Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.