Winter makes us crave days spent in museums buffered by rich meals and warm drinking chocolate in our favorite European cities. While we could book our flights for 2022 and merely dream, we prefer to take action and get our Continental fare close to home. Here are our critic’s picks, from the Balkans to Britain, taken from the Best Restaurants list of 2020.
Arlington / Balkan / $$$$*
You might not even know that you’re craving cevapi, but you probably are. Kajmak and ajvar, too. Balkan food isn’t well known outside of Europe (yet), but it’s meat-and-potatoes comfort cuisine at its finest. Doubtful? Just order the cevapi, a dense, garlicky beef sausage that’s made in-house and grilled to perfection.
Whether it’s the buzzy brunch or popular dinner, the kitchen at Ambar is a well-oiled machine, quickly turning out small plates in bulk. That means that for a set price, you can order all you want and still make it home in a reasonable amount of time. But the truth is, you’ll want to linger as long as you can, trying dish after dish.
See This: Photos of life in the Balkans decorate the ceilings and banquettes of this bright restaurant.
Eat This: Smoked lamb prosciutto, cheese pie, cevapi
When to Visit: Two or three dishes isn’t enough—you’re craving real variety.
Upperville / British / $$$
How do you ensure your food is fresh? Go to a restaurant that’s owned by a farm. In the case of Hunter’s Head Tavern, it’s Ayrshire Farm, just up the road, that supplies the British-style gastropub with its heritage-breed proteins.
This means you can find dishes using every part of the animal, including creamy chicken liver mousse served with pickled grapes, local watercress and pink peppercorn chips. This is comfort food to some, but anyone with a heart will have it warmed by a plate of homemade sausages and creamy mashed potatoes with al dente green beans. It’s local love at its best.
See This: The tree-filled patio is packed with dining canines. Head inside for an authentic English pub feel.
Eat This: Fish and chips, bangers and mash, Chocolate Chocolate Cake
When to Visit: You (and your pooch) feel like food straight from the farm.
Great Falls / French / $$$$
François Haeringer moved his restaurant from DC to Great Falls in 1976, and ever since the bicentennial, little has changed. Haeringer’s son Jacques continues to prepare his father’s classic recipes using produce grown on the property. Even the hops for the beer made in-house come from the restaurant’s 6 acres.
The space is timeless, and so is the food. There aren’t many places left at which you can indulge in the old-timey tradition of ordering your soufflé before dinner, leaving you to excitedly anticipate deflating it all through your meal.
Not that you won’t be distracted by course after course of excellence. We defy you not to let out a little bit of a moan when you take your first bite of escalopes de veau or Châteaubriand. But there’s nothing like the thrill of that first bite of soufflé.
See This: A warren of rustic rooms that recall the French countryside, circa the middle of last century, gives a historical feel. For a look that’s more modern, sit outside, where you can listen to the splish-splash of the fountains.
Eat This: Dinner is a five-plus-course prix fixe, but you have options. We like the crêpe à la ciboulette, escalopes de veau and hazelnut soufflé.
When to Visit: It’s time to impress a Francophile—or a friend passionate about local history.
Vienna / Greek / $$$
Restaurants are an oft-ignored wing of show business. From stellar service to dishes that wow even before you take a bite, there’s no arguing that dining out is entertainment. And it’s rarely as transfixing as it is at Nostos.
It’s possible to have more than one course prepared at your table for a show that you can bite into. Start with the saganaki, a pan of funky kefalograviera cheese that’s flamed tableside as the server shouts, “Opa!” See his acumen with a knife when he fillets a whole branzino for you. It’s most satisfying when it’s simply covered with squeezed lemon. Maybe it’s because the collection of compelling mezedes is so light, but you’re sure to leave feeling inflated.
See This: White walls and rugged bricks conjure Hellenic elegance.
Eat This: Saganaki, lavraki (whole branzino), galaktoboureko
When to Visit: An evening that calls for a gorgeous meal that doesn’t leave you too full for romance
Fairfax / French / $$$
In the United States, we see French food as fancy, something worth putting on high-heeled shoes for. In France, it’s just food. And so it is at Parc de Ville.
Unabashedly casual, the Mosaic District bistro has attentive service and a room that will keep your eyes occupied, but it’s really all about the food. Whether it’s an enviable burger, a shareable appetizer or a chocolate mousse that you wouldn’t dream of sharing, the cuisine speaks for itself. It’s comforting, satisfying and, yes, as perfectly casual as it is French.
See This: Blue banquettes line the tall windows at this bright bistro. From there, watch Mosaic shoppers pass by, or spy on what the kitchen is cooking up.
Eat This: Salade frisée, steak frites, mousse au chocolat
When to Visit: Nothing but French fare will satisfy you, but you don’t feel like dressing up.
Arlington and Alexandria / Russian and Uzbek / $$
It’s not too tough to find a Russian market in NoVA. But when you’re looking for a native to cook for you, matters get more complex. This pair of homey restaurants treats you to the cuisine your babushka might have prepared for you, had you grown up in the former Soviet Union.
Whether it’s plov, a lamb-covered rice dish from Uzbekistan (yep, that’s Central Asia, not Europe), or chicken Kiev, intended for a Russian banquet, Rus Uz offers a taste of a cuisine you might not even realize you’ve been craving.
See This: Murals and tchotchkes depict life on the steppes of Uzbekistan, transporting you even before your first cup of tea arrives.
Eat This: Meat pirozhki, plov, honey cake
When to Visit: Anytime wanderlust strikes
Arlington / Spanish / $$$
Tapas are great. They can be better than great. But there is far more to Spanish food than tapas. As the name of SER suggests—it means “to be” in Spanish, but it also stands for “simple, easy, real”—Spanish food at its best is ingredient-driven, fresh and focused on flavor. Sometimes, you crave more of a dish than a small plate can provide.
Case in point is the presa de cerdo Ibérico ahumada, a full-size dish of smoked pork. The centerpiece is densely marbled and crusty seared meat that melts in your mouth like wagyu, a wisp of smoke defining the flavor of each bite. It sits atop an orange pool of mojo picón, a sauce that balances earthy cumin and luminous vinegar, elevating each bite of pork and the soft Canarian-style papas arrugadas—multicolored potatoes that add an additional burst of flavor to the plate.
It’s far from a tapa, but you’ll still wish you could order more than one just to keep experiencing its wonders. Luckily, there’s far more to love. From pans of paella to churros dipped in intensely cacao-flavored chocolate mousse, there’s lots to help you indulge your taste for Spanish flair.
See This: The letters S, E and R are displayed in lights above the kitchen, which is viewable through a small window. A collection of hams hangs nearby, priming diners for good things to come.
Eat This: Croquetas de puchero, presa de cerdo Ibérico ahumada, churros con chocolate
When to Visit: Barcelona beckons, but you and your guests are hungry now.
Clifton / Italian / $$
The dining room is a hive of activity, with servers buzzing back and forth between the kitchen and the patio and diners laughing heartily as they take another sip of wine. But you barely notice. You’re rapt, taking in the aroma and taste of the Genovese scallops, just one of chef Justin Gudiel’s original creations.
Briny seared scallops sit atop a nest of skinny capellini. The noodles are coated in a creamy pesto sauce that bursts with garlic and basil. On top, ruby-like tomatoes glisten with sweet-and-sour juices that light up the pasta dish. You may have never eaten it before, but it’s a taste of homey contentment all the same.
See This: The cozy historical building is full of nooks and crannies, but most people choose the patio with its brick fireplace.
Eat This: Arancini, Genovese scallops, tiramisu
When to Visit: You’re in need of the love only a warm bowl of pasta can provide.
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