Falls Church / Modern American / $$$$
There’s no dining experience that will whet every appetite quite like a tasting menu. The anticipation that builds as you wait for the grand reveal of each course, the satisfaction as it arrives in front of you looking irresistible, the sharing of a dish with the person by your side—it’s all a routine likely to whip you and your companion into a frenzy.
And no one in NoVA does this theatrical hurry-up-and-wait with the same gusto as chef Bertrand Chemel. The first step to ecstasy is reading the menu, with its creative offerings that only hint at the artistry to come. What exactly is Canary Islands branzino “bulgogi”? you wonder. The fish course, also available made with maitake mushrooms for the vegetarians, is a flaky fillet with crunchy skin that indeed tastes like Korean barbecue, but is served over a matsutake-mushroom-and-shoyu foam with pinpricks of crispy black rice.
It’s one of five courses that your server will proffer, each with both an omnivorous and a veg-friendly option. They’ll include diverse ingredients; a Japanese sea scallop starter is comprised of green almonds, apricot, Thai chile, and mint. And somehow, Chemel makes them all sing in harmony, harnessing manifold flavors in a way that remains unfussy.
Desserts, from pastry chef Kimberlyn Turman, are forgivingly light, leaving you and your guest ready to take on the rest of the night.
See This: Drive into the woods, where you’ll arrive at an office building surrounded by water features, including a waterfall and a koi-filled pond. And that’s just outside the art-filled indoor space.
Eat This: Get the tasting menu and trust the chef.
Service: As close to perfection as you’ll find. A team tends to your every need with efficiency and a sense of humor.
When to dine here: Your date is as much of a foodie as you are.
McLean / Persian / $$
The branzino is market price. You know that means it won’t be cheap. The whole fish was $35 when I tried it, and I still call it a bargain. That’s because there are few seafood dishes as splendid in NoVA. The meaty, moist white fish is colored a rich brown with sweet-and-sour pomegranate molasses. Like an Everlasting Gobstopper, each bite is slightly different. One may sing with saffron; another zaps the tongue with appealing acid.
Pair it with shirin polo, buttery basmati rice bejeweled with candied carrots, orange peel, barberries and cranberries, almonds, and saffron-glazed pistachios. The fruity, nutty side dish only serves to amplify the oversized flavors of the fish, or any other grilled goods. The lamb loin fillet in saffron cream is another stunner. Even vegans can take advantage of the 100 percent plant-based version of the koobideh kebab.
The saffron ice cream should end every meal at Amoo’s. It’s so popular that it has spawned a business of its own, Kinrose Creamery. Take some home, along with what are sure to be ample leftovers from big, aromatic plates with portions that just won’t quit.
See this: The tiled floors and paintings of Persian life set a casual scene.
Eat this: Kashk bademjan, branzino, saffron ice cream
Service: Chef Sebastian Oveysi’s father, Masoud, presides over the dining room; if he doesn’t greet you with a “God bless you,” you haven’t been to Amoo’s.
When to dine here: You’re seeking a relatively healthy flavor explosion without too many bells and whistles.
McLean / Italian / $$$$
The plate is lush with prosciutto. It’s woven in wide ribbons along the curve of the plate. At first glance, it’s more damn ham than any reasonable person would want when there are still two more courses coming. But you are neither reasonable nor alone. You and your date eagerly scoop up slices of the prosciutto with cubes of jiggly Parmesan panna cotta and sweet brûléed figs, and crunch into salty Parmesan crisps.
This unusual meat-and-cheese plate comes from the mind of new chef Francesco Pescatore, a young gun who arrived in NoVA after tenures in London and the Middle East. He has a way with unexpected flavor combinations. Octopus is paired with chamomile, pears, and artichoke. Delicate tortelli are filled with buffalo ricotta and spinach in a sauce flavored with pink peppercorn, vanilla, and black truffle.
Even desserts are stylish. Tiramisu is crafted to order and served in a metal cocktail glass. Chocolate mousse appears in a dome shape, filled with buttery caramel sauce. This chef is one to watch.
See this: If there is a more obvious central casting entry for the role of “upscale restaurant” in a movie, I’ve never seen it. The bar has a bit more character, including a pack of regulars.
Eat this: San Daniele prosciutto, gnocchi with braised short ribs, tiramisu
Service: A bit hands-off. Chances are, you’ll be waiting a while for your check after you’ve finished eating.
When to dine here: You have a date open to smaller portions and higher prices if it means unique flavors.
Vienna / Indian / $$
A butter chicken enchilada. Puffy naan flavored with truffle oil. An Indian-spiced take on deviled eggs. Chef Deepak Sarin may not be new to the restaurant game, but decades into his career, he’s definitely not afraid of innovation.
He also doesn’t shrink away from hard work. Sarin splits his time between Bansari on the Fairfax-Vienna border and Bhai Sahab in Leesburg. He prepares Indian classics with the boldest flavors in our region at both, but while he specializes in hard-to-find traditional dishes like a vegetarian Rajasthani thali in Loudoun, Bansari is his culinary laboratory for fresh ideas.
That also includes regional recipes you won’t find anywhere else. Amritsari tandoori chicken masala is one such delight. Deeply marinated poultry pieces bob in a spicy tomato sauce calmed by a drizzle of cream. The already complex mashup of flavors inherits additional depth when you upgrade your bread to that truffle naan or, for that matter, pudina paratha, with its refreshing mint leaves.
Don’t miss the Indo-Chinese dishes, either. Fiery hakka noodles and tangy paneer 65 will add spice to your life in ways you probably weren’t expecting. But anything Sarin proffers will likely have your taste buds firing on all cylinders.
See this: A stylish brick dining room is filled with bookshelves and birdcage-shaped chandeliers.
Eat this: Paneer 65, Amritsari tandoori chicken masala, truffle naan
Service: Solid. Ask for recommendations, and you’ll get lots of great information.
When to dine here: A casual night with friends who love spice as much as you do.
Vienna / Modern Latin American / $$$$
Andrés-Julian Zuluaga knows how to design an eye-pleasing plate. Take, for example, the Chesapeake Bay rockfish. The seared, skin-up fillet reposes atop an island of roasted corn and cuttlefish. The sea? It’s a creamy peanut-seafood emulsion dotted with globules of crimson achiote oil. It’s a fantasia of colors, textures, and flavors.
The dishes might be multipronged attacks on your senses, but they never injure or unsettle a delicate palate. They will simply leave it wanting another bite. These are no mere plates of a protein and a couple of sides. They are multisensory artworks.
Scallops costeño looks like a forest of sprouting mushrooms but tastes like a visit to a fine-dining restaurant hidden in the South American jungle. Chunky, optimally seared scallops are sunken in aji de parcha, a creamy sauce made from intensely puckery passion fruit and chiles. They’re buffeted by roasted turnips, pockmarked in the oven, showered in cashews, and haloed with more nutty achiote oil.
Feeling more like turf than surf? Order the chuleton, or rib-eye steak, that comes to Vienna via Lynchburg’s Seven Hills Food. The 16-ounce behemoth is a crusty paradigm of the Maillard reaction that reveals a pink center, flavored with squiggles of tangy red chimichurri. Zuluaga never fails to get diners to eat their vegetables, whether it’s the side salad that accompanies a steak or a meal of smoked cauliflower with toasted quinoa.
But whatever you choose, every sense will appreciate it.
See this: Inside is as much stylish café as it is restaurant (check out the coffee drinks), complete with local art, while outside is festive year-round with string lights and effective heaters.
Eat this: Ceviche, scallops costeño, piñamaiz
Service: You’ll leave feeling like you’ve made a new friend who really knows their food and wine.
When to dine here: Your date is smart. Smart enough to appreciate this cerebral cuisine.
Vienna / Modern American / $$$
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.
Esaan Northeastern Thai Cuisine
McLean / Northern Thai / $$
Too many of us think first of coconut milk and chiles when Thai food is on the horizon. Esaan Northeastern Thai Cuisine is here to remind us that lime, fish sauce, and mint are just as important. After all, the nation’s chefs are famous for their use of the four major flavors: sweet, sour, spicy, and salty. All are prominent in the fresh fare here, but forget about the heavy curries you suck up when supping on Southern Thai food.
The lean, mean cuisine from the North is beautifully represented by a dish called yum kai zapp. The spicy deep-fried chicken salad could make the keto gods weep, but don’t worry: There’s sticky rice on the side if you need it to temper the heat. The juicy, crispy breast meat is lightly soaked in a lime-flavored dressing and gets a smack of heat from dried chiles. Mint, cilantro, and red onion light up the flavor like a sunny day. Just a reminder that there’s so much more than creamy curries when dining Thai-style.
See this: A full-sized motorcycle takes up one corner of this petite, dark wood–lined haven.
Eat this: Kai kra ta, yum kai zapp, sticky rice with Thai custard
Service: Personalized. Expect owner Tu Yutthpon to check in on you himself when he’s there.
When to dine here: Chiles, lime, and mint will revive you during a workday lunch or wake you up after a long day.
Han Gang Korean Restaurant
Annandale / Korean / $$$
The poke trend is hot in NoVA right now. We are thoroughly here for the raw-fish dishes. The only problem is we wouldn’t take a date we wanted to impress to one of the Chipotle-style counter-service spots that serve the stuff.
But I have a secret: You can get something similar, and just as delicious, at Han Gang Korean Restaurant. Hwe dup bap splits the difference between Hawaiian poke and Korean bibimbap. A bountiful bowl of salad comes to the table topped with rosy-hued cubes of ahi, salmon, and yellowtail.
One of the friendly servers mixes in a bowl of warm rice and then another filled with a crimson sauce of spicy gochujang and nutty sesame. The result is a lovably motley blend of flavors, from the briny fish to bright perilla leaves mixed with the lettuces.
This can be a warm-up for the top-flight meats ready to hit the barbecue grill at your table, but for a light meal, the hwe dup bap here is one of the best bets in town.
See this: Tables and booths in this blue-toned restaurant are usually full of diners grabbing a bowl of bibimbap.
Eat this: Haemul pajeon, modeum gui combination, hwe dup bap
Service: A cast of caring ajummas have been here long enough to know the menu backward and forward. Listen to their advice.
When to dine here: You’re willing to pay a little more for Korean that’s a literal cut above.
Tysons Corner / Chinese / $$
The ceiling is decorated, Sistine Chapel–style, with a gold-and-blue peacock. Blue birds are on each plate, which you contemplate as your wait for a pot of floral tea to arrive. And then the fowl arrives at the table. It may be in the form of Peking duck, but if you called 48 hours ahead, it’s Han-style stuffed duck.
Undoubtedly the most ornate dish of this Cantonese kitchen, the bird is stuffed with rice that absorbs its juices, but also tender chestnuts, salty egg yolk, cubes of ham, dried scallops, and shrimp. It’s not the only upmarket dish here. Try the lobster stir-fried sticky rice or, for a surf-and-turf, add the velvety cubes of Han-style filet mignon.
For many, the main attraction here isn’t the opulent entrées, but the all-day dim sum. Get it at dinner with a colorful cocktail. Whatever you pick, don’t miss one of the sweet buns filled with egg custard. The hot center oozes into the diner’s mouth at first bite. It’s just sweet enough to make you forget the birds and think just about their gooey, lush ova.
See this: An avian theme in the dining room goes from ceiling to the ornate plates. And if you order right, it extends to what’s on the plate, too.
Eat this: Baked barbecue pork buns, Han-style stuffed duck, almond ball with custard yolk heart
Service: Concise. You won’t be learning your server’s life story, but you’ll get what you want, quickly and accurately.
When to dine here: Dim sum is calling, and you want it in a high-class setting.
Annandale / Korean / $$$$*
For decades, Annandale has been K-Town, home to Korean restaurants that range from the traditional spots for a kimchi jjigae to new-school entries with fusion dishes like bulgogi pizza. But one thing that I never expected to pop up was the kind of tasting menu restaurant one might find in a far larger city.
Thank chef Justin Ahn and co-owner Brandon Kim for their boldness in trying something utterly unexpected in Annandale—a $60 round of fusion plates, along with cool cocktails and interesting wines and beers.
Though Ahn kicked off the menu with Korean fusion, he says that he’ll cook more from other traditions as the restaurant progresses. Look to dishes on his initial menus for a preview of what that might mean. For example, a Korean steamed-egg dish is showered with prik nam pla, a chile-filled Thai sauce.
You never know exactly what will spring from Ahn’s mind to your plate. But chances are, it will be something new that you wish you could have again.
See this: Faux plants above diners’ heads add a little bit of green to the pragmatic setting.
Eat this: Trust the chef that the tasting will be something to remember.
Service: Often, chef Justin Ahn will personally deliver your dish and describe how he created it.
When to dine here: You and your other half want to keep it casual for a meal full of gustatory surprises.
L’Auberge Chez François
Great Falls / French / $$$$*
Don’t let sticker shock get you down. Though entrées at L’Auberge Chez François are labeled as costing between $94 and $99 (or up to $198 for the Châteaubriand de L’Auberge, sized for two), that actually gains diners entry to an exclusive club. For that price, guests of the Haeringer family are treated to course after course of culinary history.
Current chef-proprietor Jacques Haeringer inherited the mantle from his father, François. He opened his restaurant in DC in 1954 and moved it to Great Falls in 1976. Since then, it’s been one of the region’s great treasures, an experience noted as much for its ambience of gardens and fountains outside as it is for its Alsatian cuisine.
This is the kind of place with an amuse-bouche that comes straight from the garden, perhaps a shot of gazpacho in tomato season. The salad course and your entrée are divided by a housemade sorbet that will ready the palate for fireworks to come. And after you inhale a raspberry soufflé, there are still chocolate truffles waiting to complete your meal. Long-lasting memories are guaranteed—and that is priceless.
See this: As soon as you turn into the driveway, you enter the Alsatian countryside, complete with kitchen gardens on 6 acres of land.
Eat this: Crêpe à la ciboulette, Les Deux Tournedos, raspberry soufflé
Service: A team of expert servers attends to your every whim.
When to dine: City-style French fare won’t do for your group.
Maple Ave Restaurant
Vienna / Modern European / $$$$*
Romance on the menu? Your first thought is likely one of the spots on this list known for a gorgeous dining room with lots of atmosphere. But you’re more creative than that. You realize that seduction can come in the form of celebrity-worthy service, multiple courses that are ripe for sharing, and, yes, an intimate, but not showy, setting. And that calls for Maple Ave Restaurant.
Since reopening in August, the Vienna restaurant has been focused on four-course tasting menus featuring chef and co-owner Justė Židelytė’s greatest hits. Even if you’ve had some of the dishes before, you’ve never tried them quite like this. The long pandemic closure, during which she hosted private parties and did takeout, allowed Židelytė to further hone her craft. Thank her when you pass by as she tends to the herbs surrounding the restaurant.
They appear in a cast of colorful plates that draw inspiration from Japan to Latin America to Židelytė’s native Lithuania. They’re also inspired by the seasons—the menu changes monthly and uses ingredients like local maple syrup to dress a bowl of crisp, hot apple-cider doughnut holes. To a romantic food-lover, this restaurant’s return deserves a warm welcome.
See this: The petite, no-frills dining room just makes the vibrant plates stand out more.
Eat this: Mushroom-truffle risotto, pork confit steak, bittersweet chocolate mousse
Service: General manager and co-owner Ricardo Teves takes care of everything himself, so service is deeply personal.
When to dine here: You’re ready for a casual date night full of gustatory surprises.
Fairfax / Mediterranean / $$
When you crave Kabuli pulao, you go to an Afghan restaurant. If you want saffron-suffused kebabs, you’ll probably head out for Persian food. But for those who are craving both, as well as specialties from elsewhere in Central Asia and the Mediterranean, there is Mazadar Restaurant.
Since Ida Beylee took over last year, the Fairfax restaurant has taken on vivid new life. Every day from 2 to 6 p.m., there’s an afternoon tea party featuring pots in flavors like ginger with honey and cinnamon. Guests sate their hunger with a wrap before moving on to one of Mazadar’s handcrafted desserts. Those include buoyant rosewater flan and saffron ice cream that comes in petite Day-Glo yellow scoops so soft they threaten to melt into nothingness before they hit the table. This would be a crying shame; it’s worth a visit to the restaurant for the floral sweet on its own. It matches the chairs, too, which are decorated with black-and-white flowers.
At mealtimes, Mazadar is especially hospitable to vegetarians. The Vegetarian Delight is a plate divided between three meatless stews, each more delectable than the last. And they’re virtuous enough that there will be caloric intake left for ice cream.
See this: A fountain covered in aqua tiles burbles at the center of the chic space encircled with pillow-loaded banquettes.
Eat this: Mazadar Sampler, Vegetarian Delight, saffron ice cream
Service: Informal. Owner Ida Beylee takes personalized care of her customers.
When to dine here: You’ve got a vegetarian you want to treat right—and you want a meaty kebab, too.
Tysons Corner / Greek / $$$
I will rarely tell you to just throw up your hands and order the chicken. But at Nostos, that’s exactly what you should do. Of course, with your hands in the air, you’ll be shouting “Opa!” in deference to the intense Greekness of it all.
The chicken, or kotopoulo, is an unusually fine specimen of roasted poultry, with a lemon-herb marinade that deeply imbues every stratum of meat. It leaves it full of flavor and so tender you barely need a knife—but do use one to cut through the crisp skin. The soft potatoes, baby carrots, and al dente asparagus fight for your attention, too, but you’ll be too busy dipping your crusty bread into tangy chicken juice.
It may take two to dispatch the half-bird, but don’t fill up on all the fun appetizers, including skewered meats and fish and rich flaming cheese. It’s key to keep the end goal in sight—a trio of baklavas. The star of these is the baxevanis, featuring warm apples, apricots, raisins, and walnuts between layers of phyllo and vanilla ice cream. But it’s best to taste your way through all three to decide on a personal favorite.
See this: Stark white walls are punctuated with black-and-white photos of Greek life, bringing a hominess to the upscale surroundings.
Eat this: Xifias souvlaki, kotopoulo, baxevanis
Service: This team knows the menu every which way and is always ready with a suggestion.
When to dine here: You want to get dressed up but don’t want dishes plated with tweezers.
Our Mom Eugenia
Fairfax and Great Falls / Greek / $$$
Nothing can replace a mother’s love. A mother’s cooking, well, there are plenty of other moms out there to make you a moussaka. And your mother’s isn’t as good as that of Eugenia Hobson.
Fortunately for you, she’s the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Fairfax and Great Falls. Even if she’s not the one personally pulling that casserole from the oven (and she may well be), the cook who did is following in her footsteps.
This is comfortable home cooking from a culture where that doesn’t have to mean a gut bomb. A starter like the feta psiti, a block of tangy cheese baked inside sesame-lined, honey-drizzled puff pastry, may fill you up, but you won’t feel weighed down. A vegetarian combo is even easier on the stomach, lighting up your taste buds with tomatoes and mint in stews that will make you forget about meat.
So she might not have pushed you into the world. In the culinary sense, Eugenia is your new mom.
See this: Intricate tilework makes even the floors a joy to behold at the bright Mosaic District location; hanging pots and pans give the Great Falls one a homey feel.
Eat this: Feta psiti, vegetarian platter, apple cake à la mode
Service: As warm as the waters of Mykonos. If you’re lucky, a Greek native will regale you with stories of the old country.
When to dine here: Your family wants an informal night of Hellenic cuisine.
Parc de Ville
Fairfax / French / $$$
Ever people-watched over a plate of steak frites at a bistro in the ninth arrondissement? If you have, you’ve seen chic shoppers whiz by with their bags as you dip your crisp fries into some béarnaise sauce. Whether the real thing is a memory or an out-of-the-way fantasy for you, Parc de Ville, tucked into a corner of the Mosaic District, is bound to transport you.
The food is classic. You might have eaten duck confit just like the one here 50 years ago, and will again tomorrow. Whenever you enjoy it, the meat falls apart in tender shreds beneath a shroud of crispy skin, tumbling into a sweet, sticky reduction of Banyuls vinegar. Wilted Swiss chard and crunchy-jacketed potato rösti complete a picture that goes beautifully with a glass of wine, a Kir Royale, or just a San Pellegrino.
Even if you’re celebrating nothing more than a great purchase, mark the occasion with a riz au lait. The rice pudding is swirled with salted caramel, which enhances its cinnamon flavor, and is brûléed on top. You couldn’t do better, even on Boulevard Haussmann.
See this: Blue velvet banquettes and wallpaper covered in black-and-white trees set a stylish Parisian scene across the street from Anthropologie in the Mosaic District.
Eat this: Duck confit, steak frites, riz au lait
Service: Deeply informal. On my visits this year, service was not this restaurant’s strong suit.
When to dine here: You’re shopping at Mosaic and need some hearty sustenance.
McLean / Japanese / $$
Historically, austerity has been a benchmark of Japanese cuisine. At Tachibana, you will find rolls that combine pickled plum and Japanese mint, not foie gras and truffle mayo. Looking for the latter? Go somewhere else. This warhorse has changed little since it moved from Arlington to McLean in 1996. And purists like it that way.
There are precious few Japanese-owned Japanese restaurants in NoVA. The fact that this has been one since its 1982 inception (original owner Hideo Eiji Yahashi passed away last year) speaks volumes. The menu is packed with greatest hits.
To bear witness, just order a bento box. For $18, it contains five Nipponese kitchen favorites. A few soybeans whet the palate for crackling shrimp and vegetable tempura. A salmon fillet is lightly seasoned and grilled to a uniformly crispy sear. Yakitori, made from Rubenesque chicken thighs, avoids the sugary pitfalls many other iterations endure. The tamago is striated with paper-thin layers that make the sweet omelet a particular pleasure. Egg appears in the chirashi bowl, too, a well-curated sampling of some of the best fish the restaurant has to offer. This is a destination that not only resists trends, but long outlasts them.
See this: There’s a vintage feel to the atmosphere, but the kimonos and wall hangings are timeless.
Eat this: Bento box, chirashi, ume-shiso roll
Service: Strictly business.
When to dine here: You want to keep your workday lunch efficient and light.
Falls Church / Italian / $$$
The sign out front features light bulbs spelling one of the sweetest words that can be written: “pasta.” And whether it’s ricotta cavatelli woven with pulled pork ragù, rigatoni clotted with beef Bolognese, or ravioli filled with eggplant, the noods here are worthy of note. But they are not the only reason to dine at Thompson Italian.
Married chefs Gabe and Katherine Thompson have so much more to offer than housemade pasta. Salads, for example, are worth the price of admission alone. One recent highlight: a ball of liquid-centered burrata cheese that served as the centerpiece for a collection of stone fruit and lightly charred radicchio. The creamy, sweet, and bitter ingredients combine in a thickened balsamic dressing beneath a liberal dusting of pistachio-dotted dukkah, a nutty Middle Eastern spice blend.
In Gabe’s deft hands, a hanger steak, a cut usually regarded more for its beefy flavor than pleasant texture, melts in a diner’s mouth. In contrast to pasta, it’s a low-carb dish, with roasted market and pickled peppers as sides. They’re dressed in a layer of tangy almond salsa verde.
Even if you’re cutting carbs, it’s a prerequisite to try at least one of Katherine’s desserts. A blackberry upside-down cake takes on the texture of gooey bread pudding, melting the sweet-corn gelato by its side.
Forget about pasta? It’s not an assignment I’ll give you often. And go ahead and order a plate, while you’re at it. Just don’t miss the Thompsons’ hyper-seasonal specialties on its account.
See this: Foodie-themed art is a centerpiece to the hipster-comfy dining room.
Eat this: Burrata, hanger steak, blackberry upside-down cake
Service: Decorous and efficient.
When to dine here: You’re celebrating an occasion that doesn’t call for jackets and ties. Or just la dolce vita.
Clifton / Italian / $$
Some restaurants are more about a feeling than the food. This is one of them. No doubt, you will enjoy your crispy-thin pizza at lunchtime or creamy gnocchi at night, but Trattoria Villagio is a meeting place, a spot to relax and enjoy the charming town of Clifton and all it has to offer.
Maybe you’re out to lunch with your BFF; meet them at the front trattoria area, lined in old brick that transports you to somewhere far more fun than a quick stop on a workday. Maybe you’ll indulge in a glass of wine, or a Silva Sangria. The latter is exceptionally refreshing thanks to its combo of pinot grigio, elderflower, strawberries, and grilled peaches. But you don’t need more than water with lemon to get that on-vacation feeling.
Time slows down, too, with a relaxing dinner on the patio, where you and your crew might start with an outsized tower from the raw bar. It’s not quite Tuscany, but there are moments when Clifton is even better.
See this: There’s lots to see here, from the raw bar out front to the back patio that surrounds a mighty outdoor fireplace.
Eat this: Short rib ragù, gnocchi, pizza Margherita
Service: It depends on the night; the friendly staff can get harried when it’s really busy.
When to dine here: The group you’ve assembled doesn’t want to dress up to get fine wine and Italian food in a charming setting.
Clifton / Modern American / $$$
Many restaurants have an identity so strong that a new chef does little to transform it. One might have thought that Trummer’s, with its seasonal, Austrian-inflected cuisine, was one of those. That is, until Daniel Perron made a triumphant return to the kitchen late last year.
Perron first worked at the Clifton restaurant a decade before, as chef de partie. In between, he earned serious cred, garnering Michelin recognition and rave reviews from critics at the DC restaurants where he cooked. Back at Trummer’s, the Woodbridge resident is bringing touches of his Korean heritage to the locally sourced fare.
One example is a pork loin from the Shenandoah Valley’s Autumn Olive Farms. It’s prepared with a spicy-sweet strawberry gochujang, Perron’s take on Korea’s famous hot sauce. Served with chicharrones from the same pig, it gets a wholesome appeal courtesy of purple Okinawan sweet potato, tangy Japanese-style yuzu kosho, and bok choy. Another highlight is braised short ribs in a Korean barbecue–inflected sauce, served over creamy polenta di riso.
Not everything is explicitly Asian. A fried pork terrine is Perron’s own; a fritter served in smoky broth and sweetened with lingonberries is a subtle nod to owner Stefan Trummer’s European heritage. But there is no question that the cuisine is all Perron.
See this: A beachy vibe pervades the all-white dining space upstairs, in part thanks to the oversized woven ceiling fans. Settle in for pub fare at the cozy downstairs bar.
Eat this: Crispy pork trotter and head terrine, Korean barbecue braised short ribs, Peaches & Cream
Service: Reliably friendly—even if you’re not a regular, they’ll remember your face.
When to dine here: A celebratory night that doesn’t require a jacket and tie but merits them nonetheless.
Great Falls / Afghan / $$
Dor Niaz smiles as he takes your order. He grins when he delivers the food, and when he produces the check, he shows delight to have served you. The guy is a pleasure to be around. And you will see a lot of him when you dine at Zamarod.
The ever-present owner pours his heart into every detail of the meal, from uncorking international wines to serving housemade ice creams that will leave you craving your next visit as soon as you’ve dispatched them. Simply put, Niaz is at the restaurant far more than he’s not. It is right to expect that comfort food comes along with the cozy-but-elegant ambience.
Plates are uniformly visual gems on par with the restaurant’s name, which means “emerald.” But the predominant hue is red, not green. The aushak, slippery-skinned dumplings filled with fine ribbons of scallion, are dressed in fresh, creamy yogurt; a heavy dusting of dried mint; and a crimson pool of ground-beef-and-chickpea stew. The dishes, from lightly sweet apple-filled stews like the qurme seib to meaty lamb shanks, shimmer like rubies on their white plates. And Zamarod is worth more than its weight in jewels.
See this: Afghan rugs and even a scimitar cover the chandelier-lit walls
Eat this: Aushak, qurme seib, cardamom ice cream
Service: You’ll feel like a welcome guest in a beautiful home.
When to dine here: You’re hungry for home cooking more flavorful than Mom’s ever was.