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Friday, December 27, 2013

The DCWD Restaurant Power Rankings, January 2014

I've said it time and time again: I love lists. I mean, each entry here starts with a roundup of how each restaurant stacks up in terms of quantifiable buzz: appearances on Washingtonian's annual list or Tom Sietsema's Dining Guide. What I also thought to myself was, plenty of friends ask me where to take X and Y out for a night on the town; a power rankings chart would be just the ticket.

We've done things like this before, attempting to shoehorn our admittedly-arbitrary ratings system into some cohesive ranking list. But this time, we're going to keep a running list of the best 100 restaurants we've eaten at, updating it every so often as we eat out more and more. The conceit is simple: you have one meal in the DC metro area to impress someone and the best two-top at every restaurant is open. Where do you go?

We'll also keep the metrics simple: quality of the food; suitability of the restaurant for a date/nice dinner; price; and other intangible measures like changes in the kitchen. What we won't count: style of cuisine (French doesn't get more points than Italian, for instance) or location (up to a certain point; if it's out in the middle of nowhere, that's not helpful) or ability to get a reservation (still, we'll make a note of each of those factors on our rankings). So, when we compare two very different eateries like say, Big Bear Cafe and Le Diplomate, we're considering the totality of the experience from the food you eat, the crowd you'll encounter, and the check you'll pay. We also separated out places that were a little more self-service (so non-meal-providing coffee shops, any place that sells things over a countertop). They're separated into tiers so we can talk about them in chunks, but not every restaurant in every tier is the same: sometimes there's a disappointing place that still has good food (just not at those high hype levels) among a list of neighborhood stars.

First though, a separate list for restaurants that are on our radar as next-up, wish-list restaurants so you can see what place we'd go to if we could, whether it's a brand new opening or an established DC vet.

20 Restaurants We're Excited About 

1. Bluejacket
2. Iron Gate
3. Rose's Luxury
4. Table
5. Mandalay
6. Eat the Rich
7. Et Voila!
8. Del Campo - a little bit of a cheat, since we sent Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC and Official Friend of DCWD HR Intern in our stead.
9. Red Hen - okay, definitely a cheat, since Official Wife of DCWD Texas has already eaten here; she just didn't bring me along. If we had included it in this ranking, it would have easily made the Top 20.
10. Daikaya - Texas has a good habit of not bringing me to dinners.
11. Maketto at Hanoi House
12. Restaurant Eve
13. Water and Wall
14. Thally
15. Piola
16. Ambar
17. Makoto
18. Unum
19. Seasonal Pantry
20. Liberty Tavern

And next, honorable mention to a bunch of those countertop/coffee shop types that are awesome but not enough of a restaurant to make the power rankings:

10 Non-Sitdown Restaurants We Love

1. Harold Black
2. Golden, Brown, and Delicious (GBD)
3. Red Apron Butchery
4. Buzz Bakery
5. Fast Gourmet
6. Taylor Gourmet
7. Northside Social
8. Amsterdam Falafel
9. Ray's Hell Burger
10. Good Stuff Eatery

And without further ado, the power rankings:

The DCWD Restaurant Power Rankings

The Money-Is-No-Object Class
1. Komi
2. Minibar

Let's be honest. These two meals were by far the most revelatory in my DC life. However, they belong in a different level of existence than the vast majority of the rest of the list owing to their high price point and the relative difficulty that it takes to get a reservation. Komi gets the slight nod ahead of minibar, due to the fact that since our meal, the Jose Andres spot has shifted locations, added seats, and increased its price.

The Rest of the Very Best

3. Proof
4. Toki Underground
5. Blue Duck Tavern
6. Rasika
7. Inn at Little Washington
8. Birch and Barley
9. Fiola
10. Volt

This section is topped by two of our favorite restaurants, both of which head the list by virtue of providing the best bang for your buck when it comes to five-star-level food (Birch and Barley makes the Top 10 for the same reason). The rest of the list reads like a murderer's row of most people's DC restaurant bucket list, and for good reason: some of my life's most memorable bites (black cod and palak chaat; gazpacho with stracciatella and lobster; sweetbreads and foie; scallops with shishito peppers) come from this list.

The Vastly Underrated
11. Rappahannock Oyster Bar
12. Society Fair
13. Trummer's on Main
14. Comet Ping Pong
15. Mintwood Place
16. Thai X-ing
17. Palena
18. Tallula
19. Vermilion

If the prior tier was full of restaurants that comprise the agreed best-of-the-best, then this group is of places that slip under the radar of many. Some (Palena, Mintwood Place) are already well-heralded but are even better than their plaudits. (Tallula, Vermilion) are cozy darlings beyond the District. Some (Trummer's) are even further out in the middle of nowhere. Some (Society Fair, Rappahannock, Thai X-ing, Comet Ping Pong) are restaurants that don't fall neatly into the white table fold, but bring something else fun to the table - like ping pong tables while you wait for a seat, or front row seats to a cooking demo.

If You Order The Right Thing, There Are Incredible Meals To Be Had
20. 2941
21. Marcel's
22. Estadio
23. Little Serow
24. Bar Pilar
25. Cork
26. The Source
27. Equinox
28. Posto
29. Corduroy
30. Ghibellina
31. Zaytinya
32. Smith Commons
33. Graffiato
34. Jaleo
35. Granville Moore's
36. Maple Ave

This group rounds out what I would call basically dud less. They're a mix of high praise restaurants with some personal favorite thrown in for good measure. For me, these places provide either the consistency or vibe that the latter restaurants promise but don't always provide.

Brilliant, But With Flaws
37. Brasserie Beck
38. Rogue 24
39. Kapnos
40. Casa Luca
41. ChurchKey
42. Ted's Bulletin
43. Lyon Hall
44. Izakaya Seki
45. Rasika West End
46. Bistro Bis
47. 701
48. Elisir
49. BLT Steak
50. Bourbon Steak
51. Etto
52. Four Sisters
53. Big Bear Café
54. Meridian Pint
55. Seventh Hill Pizza
56. Medium Rare

This group is the most diverse: neighborhood spots, pizza joints, steak frites and mussel bars, steakhouses. They all bring something awesome to the table but were just inconsistent enough to merit a downgrade.

Highly Rated Restaurants That Are Good, But Maybe Not as Great You Want Them To Be
57. Le Diplomate
58. Obelisk
59. Oval Room
60. Art and Soul
61. CityZen
62. Poste
63. Bearnaise
64. BlackSalt
65. Central Michel Richard
66. Doi Moi
67. Pearl Dive Oyster Palace
68. Ripple
69. J&G Steakhouse
70. Kramerbooks/Afterwords
71. Vidalia
72. Range
73. The Pig
74. 2 Amys
75. Sushi-Ko
76. 1789
77. Hank's Oyster Bar
78. Oyamel

I wanted to love a lot of these places. Most of them suffer from outrageous levels of hype, are priced too high for the actual enjoyment the food brings, or are so busy as to detract from the experience. For the most part, they provide good sometimes great food (or in one case, desserts) but they almost all can fit into the sentence, "oh yeah _____ is good but have you tried _____? It's like a better, cheaper version of that."

Hidden Gems

79. Tabard Inn
80. Nava Thai Noodle
81. Pho 75
82. Café Saint Ex
83. Hill Country
84. Masala Art
85. Vinoteca
86. Smoke and Barrel
87. Mussel Bar
88. Right Proper Brewing Company
89. Satellite Room
90. Taan Noodles
91. Eventide
92. The Brixton
93. Sushi Taro
94. Garden District
95. Hanoi House
96. Cedar
97. Tosca
98. Westend Bistro
99. Dukem
100. Bibiana

And finally, a group of mostly neighborhood stars that probably deserve more plaudits than they get, for a variety of reasons.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Our DC Food Wedding

People say it often when you're wedding planning, though nobody ever pays attention to it until you're halfway through: at the end of the day, your wedding matters most to two people, and it should be about the love between those two people. For now-Official Wife of DCWD Texas and me, perhaps the largest driving factor for the aesthetic of our wedding was that we wanted to make sure it "felt like us." And, given this blog's very existence, it should come as no surprise that that meant the food and drink was a heavy part of that.

DC is our home, and we love it for all its charms and flaws. So naturally, we wanted to celebrate the many things about DC food that we love. Many, many things about our wedding were homegrown DC (with the flowers, very literally), and we wanted to use this little platform to share some stories about the DC vendors we used along the way that not only made our big day special, but also brought a little District flavor to this DC couple's reception.

The Booze

Small admission: Texas for a while worked at Union Market (occasionally still does). So, we were more than a little familiar with Cordial Fine Wine and Spirits, the small shop that sits in the back of the market. If you've ever passed by, you've likely taken part in a tasting (or ten), and can attest to the fine selection and keen palates of the people who work there. Peter and Pedro helped us narrow down the beer and wine for our dinner, as well as some whiskey and gin for our signature cocktails. To say these pairings and recommendations were awesome would be an understatement: we settled on a Boomsma gin for Texas's play on a classic Fitzgerald cocktail, while I went with a Temptation Bourbon Whiskey for a modified punch-in-a-bucket recipe. Sheepishly, we have to admit that despite our affection for Virginia wines, Green Hat Gin, and the burgeoning DC brewery scene, cost dictated a few more non-local selections: a Pietra Majella Cabernet Sauvignon, a Santa Luz Chardonnay, and an at-least-Virginia-based Legend pilsener and brown ale.

As for non-alcoholic beverages, sweet and unsweet tea as well as lemonade came courtesy of the Bad to the Bone Smokehouse in Gainesville.

The Food

For a while, we struggled with what exactly the advice of "make it you" meant, as we tasted a handful of caterers recommended to us by friends and colleagues (a few of them quite good). Still, we couldn't shake the feeling that they lacked... personality. That, despite how well these chicken breasts on bed of steamed vegetables are cooked, that they're still just variations of every other wedding you've been to (no offense to those weddings, they are lovely). And that's when it clicked: we needed to make it special to us. So we combined the two cuisines that meant the most to us: Texas barbecue and Vietnamese cuisine. We'd serve some of the lighter Asian fare for passed appetizers and hunker down for BBQ at dinnertime when the fall temperatures dropped.

For me, the choices were easy: poll a few VSA (Vietnamese Student Association) contacts, find the best Eden restaurant, select a few everyone-friendly dishes, go. Luckily for us, the concept of the wedding surcharge hasn't hit Eden Center; we paid a pittance for the round of goi cuon, cha gio, bo la lot, and chao tom we received (read: summer rolls, spring rolls, beef in grape leaves, grilled shrimp on sugarcane). The wide recommendation was Huong Binh, a bakery/deli combo which doubled as a wedding paraphernalia rental spot and did not disappoint.

For dinner, it all ended up pointing back to Hill Country. We scoured the Northern Virginia landscape for a suitable Texas-style barbecue joint (considering our reception site in NoVA), but nothing matched how delicious Hill Country was. I mean, Texas post oak is shipped in specifically to smoke their meat. We went with two meats - brisket (both moist and lean) and smoked turkey (Hill Country was so wonderful to work with that they allowed us to drop off our own locally raised raw turkeys purchased from Union Market's own Harvey's Butchery). For the three sides we chose sweet potato bourbon mash; green bean casserole; and mac and cheese - with a helping of cornbread on the side. They were even good enough to provide a requested vegetarian option - a veggie casserole.

Hill Country was superlative in every way. The moist brisket was amazing, the sweet potatoes sharp and piercing, the green beans and mac and cheese creamy and indulgent. What's more, they were incredible to work with, flexible, friendly, and very much in the background - which is exactly what you want in a wedding. Best of all, much like the other vendors we used, they were almost preposterously inexpensive, especially when compared to the prices of other wedding-centric caterers. We can't recommend them enough.

The one non-DC thing that came at dinnertime was the barbecue sauce: Anderson's BBQ sauce, the bride's favorite, hand carried to the wedding by the Dallas contingent.

The Cake

For years, Texas and I have frequented the 14th and U Farmers' Market, so we're well acquainted with Jenna Huntsberger of Whisked. Still, it wasn't until a few people recommended her as a potential dessert maker for our wedding that we connected those dots.

We decided we wanted to be a little atraditional; I like cake as much as the next guy, but I'm more of a pie guy. So that's how we split it: a smallish chai spice cake with a cream cheese filling and buttercream frosting outside; and a mixed series of pies, including pumpkin, a pear frangipane, and a salted caramel apple.

If you've never had a Whisked baked good, you're missing out. They're flavorful while being balanced. Seriously, that chai spice cake haunts my dreams. We've had more than one guest tell us how much they loved all the pies.


All and all, we got incredibly lucky with all the vendors we used for our wedding, and the personal touches they helped us bring to our wedding really made the day special.  This is a day Texas and I will remember for a lifetime, and thanks to these great food and beverage vendors, those memories will be delicious!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Waterfront Market

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Alexandria

The Setup

Occupying a gold mine of a space, largely unused for the past decade, The Waterfront Market is at the forefront of a campaign to go #backtothewaterfront. With only the Chart House as space outdoor dining competition, The Waterfront fills a bigger void in the area: grab and go beyond the Starbucks offerings around the corner. We previewed an impressive variety of menu items, including setting-appropriate offerings like ceviche, tartare, and crabcakes, as well as some surprises like super fresh, light-on-the-rice sushi rolls.

With plans and space to bring the community in as a functioning market with a large dry goods selection, and soon a happy hour spot and  brunch, The Waterfront Market will make the waterfront space more approachable and affordable. It sounds like the next few years will usher in exciting new developments with Potomac views!

The Vibe

Filled with industrial steel and repurposed factory parts, the space is very open, clean, and sleek. The space, when empty, lends itself to receptions and cocktails parties. Word on the street is that they've already booked a wedding...

The Food

With such a wide variety planned, the menu so far is delicious. We'll see if the newly opened market ends up leaning to specific tastes. We're excited to watch it develop! 

The Verdict

The Waterfront Market will fill a long vacant niche in Old Town, with the location and the services planned, especially for the neighboring boating community.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

First Look: Right Proper Brewing Company

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Shaw/U Street

The Setup

One of the many spaces coming into the newly built Progression Place by the Howard Theater is the Right Proper Brewing Company. Feeling restless on a Friday night, Official Wife of DCWD Texas and I met up with Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Shawn.

The Vibe

The first thing Texas says when we are seated is, "it's interesting that even though it's a new building, they've kept all the spaces like long rowhouses." In fact, the space's rectangular shape leads to an interesting build-out: an already skinny space in the back is split in two by several wrought iron gates separating a few tables from the extended bar area. The effect makes everything seem a bit crowded as bar patrons, wait staff, and people just trying to get to the bathroom all jockey for space as they squeeze by your table. Even on this first Friday service, the bar is abuzz.

Still, there are some nice touches amidst the typical exposed brick/exposed ceiling post-industrial feel. A few curious murals (wrestling pandas, foxes with laser beams) and a lot of abstract art, and some cute touches (crates, and obviously growlers as vases) dot the room. Most importantly, the service is fantastic: the hostess is friendly and accommodating, and our two servers this evening are engaging and knowledgeable. It's exactly what you expect out of a new brewery on the edge of Shaw and the U Street Corridor: loud and crowded, but decidedly cool.

The Food

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the price point: all of the Right Proper drafts - even the limited run ones - sit between $4 for 12oz and $6 for 20oz (which for this city counts as a steal). As a group, we sample nearly all the brews - though a few had run out by the time we get there - with Texas favoring the Raised by Wolves (a Pale Ale) the best amongst the ones we taste. Be warned: while tasty, the booze runs a little thin, though.

The food menu at Right Proper runs safely in the fried comfort food range, with options that feel like a combination of The Pig, Eatonville, and Oohs and Aahs. In Round 1, Texas and I split a baked mac and cheese, a green chili spoonbread, and the fried oysters. The mac and cheese is serviceable but unmemorable, thick elbow macaroni with a fair helping of cheddary cheese. The spoonbread is mild disappointment, coming flat on a plate and tasting exactly the same as cornbread; the taste is nice and complete when you get a bite of chili, but is otherwise pretty meh. The winner is the fried oysters, a grit-free bite with a surprisingly enjoyable batter that blends nicely with its corn relish and lemongrass tartar sauce.

When Sam and Shawn join us for Round 2, we add fried chicken parts, hand cut fries, and fried sweet onions to our damage this evening. The chicken parts (heart, liver, kidneys) continue the theme of great batter, though the fries and onions steal the show, with a steady amount of salt and both thin enough to remain crisp and munchable.

The Verdict

Inexpensive enough to be a regular place; a little loud for a first date or a tenth date, but definitely the kind of place for a familiar dinner (or a blind date).

Food Rating: *** 1/2
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
(out of 5) ($25-$50 for two)