We all know that restaurant survival rates in their first year are downright dismal. But what about when you factor in a global pandemic that keeps diners inside for more than a year?
This issue focuses on 30 of our favorite spots that have either opened or reopened in the last year. They’re fighting for survival, but that’s not why you should eat at them. These are some of the best and brightest places to emerge in Northern Virginia in this most unusual age.
From Spanish-accented tapas served on the Potomac to all the carbs we’ve come to crave while shut up at home, we’re vaxxed and ready to get out to restaurants. Where to eat now? Try one of the eateries that follow, and don’t forget that your old favorites can use some love, too.
Because: Spanish food on the Potomac is casual perfection.
Picture this: You and your best buddies are sipping sangria on the water. A server brings tapas to the table one by one. A briny breeze brushes your face just as the calamari arrives. The unmistakable yielding bounce of the sautéed squid, with its dressing of salsa verde, is beach food, pure and simple. The only thing missing, unfortunately, is the sand.
Barca, constructed from a pair of shipping containers, is Alexandria Restaurant Partners’ take on a chiringuito. “They’re kind of like extensions of trailers with outside seating—restaurants out on the sand,” explains managing partner Dave Nicholas. The restaurateurs discovered the concept on a research trip to Spain, and they brought a taste of the Mediterranean back with them. Most seating is al fresco; 210 spots surround the containers, which hold a kitchen and bar. But for those who prefer to stay inside, the intimate wine bar seats 65.
There are 15 well-thought-out small plates, using unusual Spanish ingredients like Garrotxa cheese and Pedro Ximénez vinegar, as well as meat-and-cheese boards. The latter is where the good stuff lives, like jamón Ibérico de Bellota, which retails for $21 an ounce.
Servers recommend two tapas per person, which can get expensive, with some reaching a cost of $18 each. For a less pricey lunch, there are montaditos, sandwiches on warm fluffy bread with fillings like chicken with serrano ham, piquillo peppers, mahón cheese, parsley, and garlic aioli. A single bite is a passport to a shore far warmer than the Potomac. 2 Pioneer Mill Way, Alexandria
Chateau de Chantilly
Because: There’s more to life than dessert, but we’re not sure what it is.
It’s tough to find a seat at Chateau de Chantilly. At any time of day, customers are camped at tables with computers and coffee or boba tea. It’s only natural in a space designed to mimic a soaring-ceilinged fantasy library. For those who scope out a spot inside or on the small patio out front, the rewards are great.
That’s because the cafe isn’t just a stop for a lavender-flavored latte or thick hot chocolate. From 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, hungry visitors can munch on snacks like Korean-style sausage buns in the self-serve case full of freshly baked sweet and savory breads. They may prefer to have a full meal of Nova lox on a freshly baked croissant or a roll filled with prosciutto and French fig jam.
But there’s no escaping the calorie binge of a dessert or two. These are where Chateau shines the brightest. The ever-changing roster of pastries might include chocolate-lined tart shells piled with crème pâtissière and a mound of fresh blueberries or grapes one day. The next, the case could focus on intensely flavored, refined chocolate mousse. In the pair of extra-large pastry cases, there are full-size cakes to take home for celebrations as well as scores of petite treats you won’t be able to bear sharing.
One never knows exactly what one will find at Chateau except a crowd, but that’s just a testament to its appeal. 13974 Metrotech Dr., Chantilly
Epiq Food Hall
Because: Fourteen different vendors means near-infinite delicious combinations.
You’re looking for a crab cake sandwich. But maybe you want a unique taco, too. Or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo. We could go on … and on … and on …
That’s because Epiq Food Hall, a two-story, 13,000-square-foot space in a Woodbridge strip mall previously most notable for its proximity to a Costco, has a whopping 14 different culinary partners. Principal Michael Kim chose the vendors from among favorite food trucks and other food businesses ready to launch a brick-and-mortar space. The result is a diverse mix of some of the best the region has to offer.
From brick-oven pizza to ramen to Korean fried chicken, the eats mostly include dishes in short supply in Prince William County. Jammin’ Island BBQ serves jerk chicken and Jamaican beef patties all week, but on Sundays, look for the vendor to serve a Filipino brunch that includes crispy roasted pork belly and halo halo for dessert.
British fish and chips, complete with mushy peas, come courtesy of London Chippy, where the mac and cheese is also an unlikely standout. Get a fruit-filled lemonade at Pho Harmony & Grill or a sweet and salty plum-ade at The Sweet Bakehouse.
Whatever marks the first, second, or third course of savory fare (we’re not judging!), we’ll extend very little forgiveness for missing a cute Nutella-filled, cartoon-rabbit-shaped waffle at Kiki’s. Better yet, get it with a side of peaches-and-cream-swirled soft-serve. 14067 Noblewood Plz., Woodbridge
Because: There’s more to Korean pub grub than wings.
Kimbap, tteokbokki, budae jjigae—if you’re Korean, you may already love to indulge in some of these less-than-healthy dishes with a beer or soju. If you’re less steeped in the cuisine, let us introduce you: Reader, meet K-pub grub.
There’s no better place to make its acquaintance than at Oseyo in Centreville, with its varied collection of the creamy, the fried, and, yes, even some vaguely healthy dishes. Among the last of those are the kimbap, seaweed-and-rice rolls filled not with raw fish, like sushi, but with egg, crab stick, fish cakes, veggies, and, at Oseyo, everything from bulgogi to anchovies.
In America, pub grub usually means finger food, and while there is a certain rugged satisfaction to tearing apart the fried game hen of the Oseyo Chicken Platter, much of the menu requires chopsticks. The greatest delights can be had by ordering any of the three tteokbokki, dressed in classic chile sauce, Chinese-inflected black-bean sauce, or cheesy carbonara. From there, diners select toppings including ramen noodles, popcorn chicken, and fried squid to enhance the chewy rice cakes that form the basis of the dish.
And the aforementioned budae jjigae? It’s also known as army stew, featuring a collection of motley ingredients once gathered in desperation from American military bases (think Spam and Vienna sausages) mixed with Korean staples like kimchi and ramen noodles. With a story like that, it’s an unlikely comfort food, but with a beer or without, just watch a K-pop video on Oseyo’s big screen and enjoy. 14260-G Centreville Sq., Centreville
Le Vingt-Trois Café & Bakery
Because: Here’s to the ladies (and gentlemen) who lunch.
“Everything happens on le vingt-trois,” says Mary Achi. Job offers, hotel room numbers, and, yes, her first restaurant are all number 23 in her world. But the Australian native, who went to French school and is deeply immersed in Gallic culture, has far more going for her cafe than numerology.
Her real secret is a way not only with interior design (it was her previous career) but also with baked goods. That pistachio-ricotta cake in the case? Don’t hesitate to devour it. The nutty pastry is so light that it practically disappears into vapor. Pair it with any of the carefully prepared coffee drinks, particularly the powerful homemade cold brew.
Drinks and dessert are all well and good, but when you’re looking for a meal, Le Vingt-Trois is just as much of a destination. Achi makes her own baguettes and serves sandwiches on the ideally crisp-jacketed, fluffy rolls.
The best is the signature sandwich, a jambon-beurre. The French staple is usually composed of jambon de Paris (French ham) on a baguette spread with butter. But Achi makes it so much more. She uses a sizable mound of paper-thin prosciutto in place of the ham, but it’s the butter that really makes the sandwich special. Dotted with fresh herbs, the thick slick tastes like a kitchen garden. Fat slabs of brie add to the creaminess, while peppery arugula builds on the impression of a sandwich prepared at a Provençal home. But until you can make it to France, we’ll always have Herndon. 311 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon
Because: The only thing better than fajitas is Indian fajitas.
“America is ready for more complex recipes and more complex foods and flavors,” says chef Renu Prakash. She should know. She’s been in the restaurant business for close to 40 years, but she’s been playing with spices since she was a child. And to her, there are no national borders to delectability.
“Let’s just say it’s delicious. It doesn’t matter where it’s from,” says Prakash. But we food writers want to assign labels to better help our readers imagine what they’ll be tasting. And what Prakash is proffering is a fusion of Mexican-American and Indian food.
A sizzling plate of fajitas is always a good reason to head out for Mexican. At Mama Tigre, it’s also incentive to feast on Indian spice. The chicken tikka fajitas taste like the cumin-scented tandoori dish, which often comes to the table sizzling with a bed of onions. This version also has colorful peppers and jalapeños. Rather than tortillas and sour cream, diners wrap the chicken and veggies in rounds of naan with a minty cucumber raita. Pair it with crispy cauliflower tacos in tikka masala sauce, sesame seeds, and mango chutney for a bite that you won’t find anywhere else in NoVA.
With spice as her medium, Prakash is creating art for the palate. But for those who just want a ground beef taco in a hard shell like mom used to make, she’ll satisfy those baser urges, too. 10443 White Granite Dr., Oakton
Because: Sometimes form and function meet over cocktails.
When Jeremy Ross creates cocktails, it’s no mere lark. Though Tiki Thai opened in December 2020, it had been in process for years. It began as a series of pop-ups at the GM’s other restaurant, Sense of Thai St. Over the years, Ross perfected his ambitious drinks. “It involves so much technique and passion. You can actually taste the passion that goes into it,” he says.
Drinks are served in custom glassware crafted to ideally complement each flavor combination, like the fruity, cognac-imbued Moveable Feast in its Hemingway-shaped mug. But the aesthetic thrills aren’t all booze-fueled. The room itself, with its high ceilings and tiki totems at every turn, is memorable even after a couple of tipples.
The food is, too. There’s a pupu platter, naturally, but the menu can best be described as Thai with a hint of fusion. Sometimes it’s more than just a hint, as with the tacos. Fillings include Thai-style steak, chicken, or crispy shrimp tucked lovingly between the folds of flaky roti that stands in for a tortilla.
For something equally fun but a bit more traditional, the crispy whole branzino is just the ticket. It’s ready to be dismantled and placed, piece by piece, into lettuce wraps with vermicelli and dipped in a gingery tamarind-chile sauce. The robot out front would gladly join you for another drink and a pandan waffle if he weren’t so busy greeting customers. Yes, robots are taking our jobs, but as long as they don’t take our drinks, we’ll be OK. 12100 Sunset Hills Rd., Ste. 107, Reston
Uncle C’s Chicken & Waffles
Because: The only thing better than breakfast is fried chicken.
Ordering is unusually uncomplicated at Uncle C’s Chicken & Waffles. That’s not because the menu is small. The bill of fare includes breakfast and lunch sandwiches, seafood, even an unexpected salad. But this is a case in which the central item is so distractingly superb, it’s impossible to ever stray from “the usual.”
In this case, it’s right in the name. All you have to do is measure how hungry you are. The basic chicken and waffles includes three pieces of chicken and one waffle. The rest of the decisions simply build from there, all the way up to 15 pieces and five waffles. Don’t laugh. At first bite, you’ll be contemplating the possibility of more.
The ultra-thin exterior of powdered-sugar-dusted crispness gives way to a waffle whose center practically implodes at first bite. It’s helped along by a dip (or drenching) in Smucker’s Breakfast Syrup and a pat of butter that slowly melts with the heat of the pastry.
And the chicken? It’s available as tenders, wings, or thighs. The best way to approach it is to order the three-piece and get one of each. The tender is the best of all of the excellent poultry, with its spicy, garlicky crunch.
But as splendid as the individual parts are, the sum of the chicken and waffles is the real secret to Uncle C’s success. 6308 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria
Supreme Hot Pot
Because: There’s more to life than all-you-can-eat.
Let’s face it: As relaxing as it is to have a chef cook your dinner, sometimes, you just want meals your way. That’s why Burger King’s slogan lasted 40 years. But you don’t want fast food. And perhaps you’re a little bit of a control freak in the kitchen. For you, the obvious solution is hot pot. Better yet? The deluxe version that owner Ben Zhao modeled on what he ate in his home province of Sichuan.
From the moment diners step into the Columbia Heights restaurant, it’s clear that great care has been taken to create an experience that goes beyond a table filled with boiling broth. Red-and-gold-dominated murals toe the line between traditional symbols like dragons and carp and an in-your-face modern aesthetic. The sauce bar? It’s stocked with everything you need to make your own dips, or, for the less type-A guests, there are habit-forming pre-made options.
But the most important difference is delivered directly to the table. Angus beef selections include beef brisket and nearly transparent rib-eye, both of which cook into ethereal fattiness. Offal lovers are in luck with options including everything from beef artery and pork brain to chicken gizzard and boneless duck feet. Zhao says that produce, like daylilies and winter melon, is sourced daily to maintain freshness.
The restaurant is able to keep up this quality because it’s not all-you-can-eat like most NoVA hot-pot restaurants. But don’t worry. With these fiery soups, you’ll definitely get full. 2301 Columbia Pike, Ste. F, Arlington
The Lost Fox Hideaway
Because: You deserve stellar food on your Sunday Funday.
Looking at the menu at The Lost Fox, you probably wouldn’t guess that the crowd is young and beverage-focused. Think of the demographic you’d see in a Clarendon bar, and that’s about what to expect. But as in Arlington, these hip folks have disposable income and discerning palates.
Enter executive chef Tommy Messina, whose Southern-inflected fare sparkles on a menu mostly composed of small plates. Diners will find themselves ordering dish after dish of his creations. The potato pavé is as crisp as it should be and is covered in meaty duck confit as well as pickled and spiced green strawberries. It’s a smart dish that fits right into the antique-filled dining room.
In summer, diners will likely be especially taken with the rooftop garden terrace. There are few better places in NoVA to sip a frosé or mint julep and sink your teeth into a plate of Messina’s batter-armored chicken wings. They’re piled atop a soft hoecake that awaits in a pool of spicy sorghum syrup.
And while you may be tempted to drink your calories, resist the urge to cut yourself off before dessert. The Earl Grey crème brûlée is sized to share, but keep it to yourself. The mouth-coating custard is infused with just enough bergamot-spiked tea to refresh. Its glassy layer of burnt sugar crumbles easily into the warm body of the dessert with port-stewed figs tumbling in. It’s so captivating, you won’t need a drink to feel thoroughly blissed out. 20374 Exchange St., Ashburn
This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.