The moment has arrived. Using a point system, factoring in scores for food, service, and ambience, I’ve named the 10 finest places to have a meal in Northern Virginia right now.
No. 1: 2941
Falls Church / Modern American / $$$$
There’s no dining experience that will whet every appetite quite like a tasting menu. The anticipation that builds as you wait for the grand reveal of each course, the satisfaction as it arrives in front of you looking irresistible, the sharing of a dish with the person by your side—it’s all a routine likely to whip you and your companion into a frenzy.
And no one in NoVA does this theatrical hurry-up-and-wait with the same gusto as chef Bertrand Chemel. The first step to ecstasy is reading the menu, with its creative offerings that only hint at the artistry to come. What exactly is Canary Islands branzino “bulgogi”? you wonder. The fish course, also available made with maitake mushrooms for the vegetarians, is a flaky fillet with crunchy skin that indeed tastes like Korean barbecue, but is served over a matsutake-mushroom-and-shoyu foam with pinpricks of crispy black rice.
It’s one of five courses that your server will proffer, each with both an omnivorous and a veg-friendly option. They’ll include diverse ingredients; a Japanese sea scallop starter is comprised of green almonds, apricot, Thai chile, and mint. And somehow, Chemel makes them all sing in harmony, harnessing manifold flavors in a way that remains unfussy.
Desserts, from pastry chef Kimberlyn Turman, are forgivingly light, leaving you and your guest ready to take on the rest of the night.
See This: Drive into the woods, where you’ll arrive at an office building surrounded by water features, including a waterfall and a koi-filled pond. And that’s just outside the art-filled indoor space.
Eat This: Get the tasting menu and trust the chef.
Service: As close to perfection as you’ll find. A team tends to your every need with efficiency and a sense of humor.
When to dine here: Your date is as much of a foodie as you are.
No. 2: The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm
Lovettsville / Modern American / $$$$*
It’s hard to say what plays a stronger role in chef Vincent Badiee’s culinary background: Is it his years in New York City and Washington, DC, playing key roles at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Gravitas? Or is it his childhood, spent on a Virginia farm? At The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, he makes a spiritual homecoming, cooking the kinds of food that have earned his restaurants Michelin stars, but using ingredients that he helps to cultivate and harvest on site.
Dinner menus run the length of nine courses, each one honed from the best bites of the season. The meal will likely start with crackers made from seeds bound together with spices into a snack so addictive that you ask your server to leave them on the table until you’ve finished them just before dessert. And that sweet finish? It’s worth saving some of your local steak or pork schnitzel for the next day in order to make room.
During blueberry season, dessert might be a lacquered purple-ish dome sealing in the flavor of white chocolate mousse and blueberry jam. Blueberry sauce is drizzled over the plate like a monochromatic Jackson Pollock, a study in the freshest fruit of the season. All of Badiee’s experience has added up to this moment and this plate.
See this: The glass conservatory feels like eating in a greenhouse strung with festive lights, but dining outside in the summertime is the best way to take in views of the Potomac below.
Eat this: Except at brunch, there’s only one choice, but the tasting menu includes hit after hit.
Service: What hospitality crisis? This large team is perpetually on its toes.
When to dine here: You and your other half have something to celebrate with a night to remember.
No. 3: Blend 111
Vienna / Modern Latin American / $$$$
Andrés-Julian Zuluaga knows how to design an eye-pleasing plate. Take, for example, the Chesapeake Bay rockfish. The seared, skin-up fillet reposes atop an island of roasted corn and cuttlefish. The sea? It’s a creamy peanut-seafood emulsion dotted with globules of crimson achiote oil. It’s a fantasia of colors, textures, and flavors.
The dishes might be multipronged attacks on your senses, but they never injure or unsettle a delicate palate. They will simply leave it wanting another bite. These are no mere plates of a protein and a couple of sides. They are multisensory artworks.
Scallops costeño looks like a forest of sprouting mushrooms but tastes like a visit to a fine-dining restaurant hidden in the South American jungle. Chunky, optimally seared scallops are sunken in aji de parcha, a creamy sauce made from intensely puckery passion fruit and chiles. They’re buffeted by roasted turnips, pockmarked in the oven, showered in cashews, and haloed with more nutty achiote oil.
Feeling more like turf than surf? Order the chuleton, or rib-eye steak, that comes to Vienna via Lynchburg’s Seven Hills Food. The 16-ounce behemoth is a crusty paradigm of the Maillard reaction that reveals a pink center, flavored with squiggles of tangy red chimichurri. Zuluaga never fails to get diners to eat their vegetables, whether it’s the side salad that accompanies a steak or a meal of smoked cauliflower with toasted quinoa.
But whatever you choose, every sense will appreciate it.
See this: Inside is as much stylish café as it is restaurant (check out the coffee drinks), complete with local art, while outside is festive year-round with string lights and effective heaters.
Eat this: Ceviche, scallops costeño, piñamaiz
Service: You’ll leave feeling like you’ve made a new friend who really knows their food and wine.
When to dine here: Your date is smart. Smart enough to appreciate this cerebral cuisine.
No. 4: Trummer’s
Clifton / Modern American / $$$
Many restaurants have an identity so strong that a new chef does little to transform it. One might have thought that Trummer’s, with its seasonal, Austrian-inflected cuisine, was one of those. That is, until Daniel Perron made a triumphant return to the kitchen late last year.
Perron first worked at the Clifton restaurant a decade before, as chef de partie. In between, he earned serious cred, garnering Michelin recognition and rave reviews from critics at the DC restaurants where he cooked. Back at Trummer’s, the Woodbridge resident is bringing touches of his Korean heritage to the locally sourced fare.
One example is a pork loin from the Shenandoah Valley’s Autumn Olive Farms. It’s prepared with a spicy-sweet strawberry gochujang, Perron’s take on Korea’s famous hot sauce. Served with chicharrones from the same pig, it gets a wholesome appeal courtesy of purple Okinawan sweet potato, tangy Japanese-style yuzu kosho, and bok choy. Another highlight is braised short ribs in a Korean barbecue–inflected sauce, served over creamy polenta di riso.
Not everything is explicitly Asian. A fried pork terrine is Perron’s own; a fritter served in smoky broth and sweetened with lingonberries is a subtle nod to owner Stefan Trummer’s European heritage. But there is no question that the cuisine is all Perron.
See this: A beachy vibe pervades the all-white dining space upstairs, in part thanks to the oversized woven ceiling fans. Settle in for pub fare at the cozy downstairs bar.
Eat this: Crispy pork trotter and head terrine, Korean barbecue braised short ribs, Peaches & Cream
Service: Reliably friendly—even if you’re not a regular, they’ll remember your face.
When to dine here: A celebratory night that doesn’t require a jacket and tie but merits them nonetheless.
No. 5: The Ashby Inn
Paris / Modern American / $$$$
It’s summer on the patio. Or perhaps it’s winter, safely inside the circa-1829 building, onetime home of blacksmith Manley Pierce. Either way, you’re seated to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing “Old Devil Moon.” And there it is, bewitching you as it glows over the hills of rural Paris.
The Ashby Inn doesn’t stun with koi ponds and towering ceilings. Its quiet grace comes from servers with whom you’d be pleased to spend more time, beautiful tableware, and gardens that supply the kitchen in the warm months. It would all seem anachronistic if not for the modern skills of chef Johnathan Leonard.
Leonard takes ingredients one might have seen on Pierce’s table and updates them with platings and flavor combinations worthy of the inn’s upscale price tag. Witness the guinea hen, seared in a cast-iron skillet. Sounds like something out of your great-grandma’s cookbook, but here, it’s a hearty meal emboldened by a sticky Cognac-and-truffle demi-glace. It’s accompanied by crispy shattered potatoes seasoned to perfection and a nest of wilted greens that includes chard and purslane. A shower of flower petals adorns the partially deboned poultry.
Desserts, too, take a cue from both past and future with of-the-moment riffs on classics like tres leches and banana pudding, the latter of which contains homemade Nilla wafers. But it’s that old devil moon that will keep bringing you back, peering down from above.
See this: The greatest rewards to be seen are outside, in the gardens surrounding the restaurant and the hills facing your table.
Eat this: Cured and roasted heritage pork belly, cast-iron guinea hen, bourbon-glazed banana pudding
Service: Attentive. Your glass will never go unfilled here.
When to dine here: You’re out to impress someone with whom you’d love to share a drive to the country.
No. 6: Ada’s on the River
Alexandria / Modern American / $$$
The steaks at Ada’s on the River may well be the best in Northern Virginia. That’s thanks to executive chef Randall J. Matthews [Update: Matthews is no longer chef at Ada’s on the River.] The meat, aged from 30 to 90 days depending on the cut, has a crisp, crusty bark thanks to the wood fire over which it’s cooked. The center melts in beefy, salty ecstasy. It’s simply about as good as a steak gets, and with prices starting at $26 for the 20-ounce tri-tip, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
But the à la carte flesh may not be the main attraction at Ada’s—the sides are just as compelling, if not more so. Broccolini is lightly cooked in embers, leaving it crunchy and smoky, but light and tangy courtesy of its sherry-vinegar aioli dressing. Cauliflower is charred but still al dente enough to stand up to a bath in lemon vinaigrette and a live burial in dates and pine nuts, which add nutty sweetness to its sharp paprika aioli.
Matthews’s creativity is seemingly boundless and can’t be constrained by typical courses. The cherry-topped foie gras doughnut, for example, is both sweet and savory enough to qualify as either an appetizer (which is how it’s listed) or as a rich dessert, depending on the diner’s whim. But don’t sleep on the more traditional finishers. Whether balloon-like beignets filled with caramel and apple or a jar of sinfully rich s’mores cake, it’s well worth saving room for something sweet after your steak.
See this: For better or worse, the interior gives us ’70s-airport vibes. Score a seat outside for a look at the water, or get an inside table with an even better view of the open kitchen.
Eat this: Foie gras doughnut; 14-ounce, 75-day-aged New York strip; Jam Jar S’mores Cake
Service: Knowledgeable but informal. Servers will tell you their favorites, but there’s no pressure to order the big-ticket items.
When to dine here: Riverside views are on the menu for a date night or celebration.
No. 7: Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill
Middleburg / American / $$$$
Executive chef Bill Welch joined The Salamander Resort & Spa’s team last year. He’s doing a masterful job using the property and surrounding area’s bountiful ingredients. Just take a bite of his roasted foie gras, a melting portion of fatty liver enhanced and complemented by wild blueberries, lavender pâte de fruit, and homegrown honey.
Those sweet elements remind us that the most exciting things happening in the kitchen at Harrimans are sugary. And for that, we must recognize executive pastry chef Jason Reaves. A local boy who began his training at Monroe Technical Center in Leesburg, Reaves is a Loudoun County success story—one more element that makes the treats served at The Salamander intensely local.
They include, of course, that honey harvested on site. The sticky stuff makes it into each element of the Sweet as Salamander Honey, a take on banana pudding that every dessert lover needs to add to their dining repertoire immediately. It begins with a server spooning honey over chunks of honeycomb on your plate. A life-sized white-chocolate bee with almond wings sits atop the jar of pudding that hides chocolate-banana cake and homemade Nilla wafers. For even more chocolate, there’s a Valrhona foam.
This is a restaurant filled with Wonka-esque magic, and a visit is prime time to eat dessert first.
See this: Every seat has a stunning view of the property thanks to a circular dining room with large windows. You won’t even notice the old-school country-club-style interior.
Eat this: Roasted foie gras, half fried chicken, Sweet as Salamander Honey
Service: Formal. A team tends to your every need, from bestowing bread from the basket of warm delicacies to the server who leads you through your experience.
When to dine here: Your companion is paying, and they like a special dessert as much as you do.
No. 8: Clarity
Vienna / Modern American / $$$
It’s a challenge not to fill up on bread at Clarity. “I’ll bring you more if you want,” your waiter assures you, when he delivers your first roll.
“I need to save room,” you tell him.
“It’s just out of the oven,” he says. Damn.
Once you demolish the first one, at once airy and chewy, he lets you know that the second has chorizo in it. Foiled again.
You will not be having dessert. You can’t skip the caramelized Maine day-boat scallop tartare. The finely chopped shellfish is surrounded by puddles of tangy, sweet charred-peach chutney.
You may order a burger, or a fish dish, or optimally medium-rare slices of local lamb. Or you may leave caution to the wind and bust a gut with the Nick Rib, a veritable paean to excess. It’s a cult hit that combines house brioche with tender fried pork in what may be the most compelling barbecue sauce you’ll taste.
Or will you be having dessert after all? There’s a creamy tahini-flavored custard with coconut granita and pineapple sorbet, a sort of Middle Eastern take on the piña colada. But it’s not too heavy, either. Perhaps that’s because chef Jon Krinn knows that you will not be able to resist the call of the roll.
See this: Score a seat at the chef’s counter to watch Chef Krinn work his magic, or soak up the sun in the cheery outdoors.
Eat this: The menu changes daily, but fish and meat dishes are especially reliable.
Service: Proud to serve great food, and happy to let you know it.
When to dine here: Dinner is great (and an opportunity for a tasting menu), but the lunch attracts buzz for a reason.
No. 9: Thompson Italian
Falls Church / Italian / $$$
The sign out front features light bulbs spelling one of the sweetest words that can be written: “pasta.” And whether it’s ricotta cavatelli woven with pulled pork ragù, rigatoni clotted with beef Bolognese, or ravioli filled with eggplant, the noods here are worthy of note. But they are not the only reason to dine at Thompson Italian.
Married chefs Gabe and Katherine Thompson have so much more to offer than housemade pasta. Salads, for example, are worth the price of admission alone. One recent highlight: a ball of liquid-centered burrata cheese that served as the centerpiece for a collection of stone fruit and lightly charred radicchio. The creamy, sweet, and bitter ingredients combine in a thickened balsamic dressing beneath a liberal dusting of pistachio-dotted dukkah, a nutty Middle Eastern spice blend.
In Gabe’s deft hands, a hanger steak, a cut usually regarded more for its beefy flavor than pleasant texture, melts in a diner’s mouth. In contrast to pasta, it’s a low-carb dish, with roasted market and pickled peppers as sides. They’re dressed in a layer of tangy almond salsa verde.
Even if you’re cutting carbs, it’s a prerequisite to try at least one of Katherine’s desserts. A blackberry upside-down cake takes on the texture of gooey bread pudding, melting the sweet-corn gelato by its side.
Forget about pasta? It’s not an assignment I’ll give you often. And go ahead and order a plate, while you’re at it. Just don’t miss the Thompsons’ hyper-seasonal specialties on its account.
See this: Foodie-themed art is a centerpiece to the hipster-comfy dining room.
Eat this: Burrata, hanger steak, blackberry upside-down cake
Service: Decorous and efficient.
When to dine here: You’re celebrating an occasion that doesn’t call for jackets and ties. Or just la dolce vita.
No. 10: Celebration by Rupa Vira
Ashburn / Modern Indian / $$
In the main dining room, brightly colored paintings depict a carnival, replete with a Ferris wheel. At chef-owner Rupa Vira’s modern ode to the cuisines of India, every day is just such a celebration and an occasion to feast. Though there is no tasting menu, it’s a shame not to order something from nearly every category on the bill of fare.
Start with lotus stems fried to a potato-chip-like crispness and drizzled with green cilantro and deep-red beetroot chutneys as well as white yogurt. The mix of hues is worthy of Holi, the Indian Festival of Colors.
Tandoori salmon is marinated and then charred in the clay oven, but it’s a swim in spice-laden mango sauce that makes the fish flourish. Chile sauce, tomatoes, salmon roe, and a pansy all gild the lily in a most welcome manner.
Finish with the Celebration Special, a rosy-flavored, gold-dusted pudding that arrives in a cloud of dry ice. It’s a worthy end to a joyous tribute to everything that makes India beautiful. Vira brings her creativity to the flavor and color of her native country, while servers add the friendliness that will bring diners back again and again.
See this: Colorful rooms (one has a purple theme; the bar area is mostly green) match the vivid art on the walls.
Eat this: Lotus root stem chaat, tandoori salmon, Celebration Special
Service: Cordial and informed, but can be slow
When to dine here: You’re seeking Indian spice in a way you’ve never tasted it before.
Entrees = $ 12 and under | $$ = 13-20 | $$$ = 21-30 | $$$$ = 31 and over
* prix fixe only