Lessons from a decade of discerning dining

When people ask me, as they often do, to name my favorite restaurant, I invariably tell them what James Beard, the late, great epicurean food writer, said when asked the same question. He replied, “The ones where they know me.”

That speaks volumes about my attitude toward the more than 100 restaurants in the D.C. area that I’ve reviewed over the past ten years. They range from gastronomic shrines of celebrity chefs, sleek steakhouses and seafood emporia catering to the expense account crowd, ethnic eateries of a dozen national origins, and mom-and-pop family shops of varying quality.

File photo
The bar scene at the Capital Grille.

As readers of The Hill know, I rate restaurants on a scale of one to 10 according to four criteria — food, service, ambience and price/value — and award up to five domes like these (insert domes), based on my subjective judgment.

Food is obviously the most important, with the other three criteria only slightly less so. But even the most impressive and imaginative cuisine, the most inviting dining environment and the most bang for your buck don’t measure up to a memorable dining experience unless you’re made to feel welcome from the time you enter the restaurant until you pay your bill.

My approach to reviewing restaurants is best summed up by Andre Soltner, former chef-owner of the fabled Lutece in New York City, in  his 1998 book, “Dining Out: Secrets from America’s Leading Critics, Chefs and Restauranteurs.” He wrote: The ambiance, the spirit of the restaurant, is very important — everything from how the reservations are handled to the greeting you receive when you arrive. If you walk into a restaurant and are not greeted well, it’s already over.”

I once asked Phyllis Richman, the Washington Post’s food critic from 1987 to 2002, how much weight she gave in a review to food, service and ambiance. Her answer was revealing:

“When I started, food was everything,” she said. “But I learned over the years, from my readers, to give greater weight to the other factors. Service is the hardest thing to evaluate because it’s the most changeable. The food, even if the chef is not there, they’re using the same ingredients. The style remains the same. The service can be totally different depending on who’s serving you and that server may not be there the next day. ...  But there are some restaurants that set a tone for their service and develop a kind of consistency, but a lot of restaurants don’t.”

That’s still true, and may help explain why many of the restaurants I’ve reviewed — I’d say at least a fourth — have gone out of business, victims of poor service, changing tastes, economic pressures, bad location, missteps by management, and fierce competition.

These include such once-popular restaurants as Anatolia, Aquarelle, Arbor, Bice, Bluestone Caf鬠Barolo, Nick and Stef’s, Jeffrey’s at the Watergate, Catalan WeST (maybe because of its odd spelling), Christopher Mark’s, Isabella’s, Jockey Club, LeTarbouche, Michael Jordans, Palomino, Ruppert’s, Villa Franco, Vintage, Vox Artis, West Twenty Four (James Carville and Mary Matalin were investors), Yanyu, Paul Young’s and Duke Ziebert’s, to name a few.

Some, like Bice, Villa Franco and Maloney & Porcelli, apparently were jinxed as they occupied the same location before closing their doors. But Yannick Cam, who has closed several other restaurants, moved into the same place and seems to be doing well. Chef Geoff’s, which occupies the same space as Sporting News Grill and Christopher Mark’s; Bobby Van’s, which replaced Isabella’s and another restaurant whose name I can’t remember; and Restaurant Kolumbia, which replaced LeTarbouche, also are thriving.

But never fear: There are plenty of outstanding restaurants among the more than 1,500 in the nation’s Capitol and some 7,000 in the metropolitan area, even though I’ve only bestowed the highest rating — five domes — on two restaurants, the latest last week to CityZen, Chef Eric Ziebold’s dazzling import from California’s Napa Valley at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, and the other in 2003 to my personal favorite, The Capital Grille. Both have that elusive quality that separates good restaurants from great ones, a combination of pizzazz, panache and personality.

Here are a dozen other personal favorites, in no special order:

• Restaurant Nora: Where you go to recover from that 26-ounce porterhouse at The Capital Grille. Chef Nora Pouillon’s natural organic food is so good and healthy, you can hardly stand it.

• Bistro Bis: Vidalia’s chef-owner Jeff Buben’s answer to LaCoupole in Paris at the hip Hotel George on Capitol Hill.

• The Palm: Great food with an attitude at this New York-style steakhouse that has been a favorite of Washington’s movers and shakers for more than three decades.

• D.C. Coast: Chef Jeff Tunk’s tri-coastal cuisine makes this K Street restaurant worth a visit. But beware of the noise. Try Tunk’s sister establishments Ten Penh and Ceiba as well.

• Loeb’s New York Deli: My neighborhood favorite, and the first restaurant I reviewed in November, 1994, it has been satisfying the appetites of Jewish food fanatics for more than 40 years; now operated by the three children of the late Walter Loeb.

• Bombay Club: One of four fine restaurants in Ashok Bajaj’s D.C. empire that includes 701, the Oval Room and Ardeo; it evokes memories of the British Raj and has the best ambience in town.

• Peking Gourmet Inn: A Bush family favorite in far-off Falls Church that has the best Peking duck and other Northern Chinese food in the area. Be sure to try the five-course “Bush Men.”

• I Ricci: Christianne Ricci looks like a movie star and the Tuscan cooking she fell in love with as a student in Italy is equally impressive.

• Lafayette Room at the Hay Adams: The most inspiring view in town in matched by Alsatian Chef Peter Schaffrath’s exquisite cuisine in the 75-year-old historic hotel.

• Kaz Sushi Bistro: This ranks as one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. Just make sure the chef who prepared your fugu wasn’t hung over or having a bad day.

• Senate Dining Room: Hard to get into, but it’s a lobbyist’s dream with a senator at every other table, and Chef Don Perez’s outstanding food at an affordable, and federally-subsidized, price.

• Bobby Van’s: A New York steakhouse that gets its steaks from the same purveyor as Peter Lugar in Brooklyn. Tell them I sent you.