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Recs for 1 dinner for a solo diner (DC)?

hohokam Jun 27, 2008 12:45 PM

Hi all:

I reviewed a few of the recent "solo diner" threads and made a preliminary attempt at sorting the recommendations into "Yes", "Maybe", and "No" categories (see list below). My "Yes" category includes places that seemed to meet most or all of my criteria, the "Maybe"s are places that looked like they might be a little too far, a little to pricey, or a little too stuffy. The "No"s are places that sound great, but aren't really what I'm looking for on this trip.

I'm going to be coming in after a long day of traveling from my home in Phoenix, so I would like to go some place where I can eat at the counter at a relaxed pace and maybe even chat with a friendly bartender or fellow patrons. A see-and-be-seen type of place is not really what I'm looking for, but I can cope with that sort of scene if the food and service provide sufficient distraction. :-)

Now I need help with further winnowing, ranking, and/or re-categorizing (e.g., turning a Maybe to a Yes; turning a Yes into a No) based on the following criteria:

-welcoming atmosphere
-reasonably close to Metro Center station (no more than 15 minutes away by Metro or taxi or foot)
-informal/laid back "West Coast" vibe--I appreciate polished service, but not to the point of stiffness
-menu featuring local/regional ingredients--seafood would be a major plus
-something other than Mexican or Cal-Med food (plenty of that at home)
-decent wine list--bonus for good dessert wine selection
-tab for app + entree(or pasta) + dessert + wine pairings (for each course) comes in at around $100 or less

Now for my list so far...

-------------------
Yes

Brasserie Beck
Central
Vinoteca
Bistro D'Oc
Firefly
Hank's Oyster Bar
Tabard Inn
Circa

-----------------
Maybe

Blue Duck Tavern-maybe too far, too much $$
Equinox-too much $$
Palena-too far? wine list not online
Vidalia--could be too much $$
Kinkead's (bar cafe)-bang for the buck looks low
Obelisk-could be too much $$ (no info on website)
Taberna del Alabardero (tapas)-bang for the buck?
Teaism-menu doesn't thrill me
Cashion's Eat Place-menu didn't grab me right away
Hook-possibly too much $$
Circle Bistro (bar)-menu doesn't thrill me
Butterfield 9-potentially too formal
Bistro Bis-enjoyed a group dinner there, but want to try something new
Jaleo-same as Bis
Acadiana-too formal?
Sonoma-looks very good, but very Californian

------------------
No

Citronelle-way too $$$$
CityZen-too $$$, too formal looking
Oyamel-too similar to what I can get at home

------------------

I look forward to getting the lowdown from the DC hounds. Thanks!

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  1. n
    nwdchound Jun 27, 2008 10:07 PM

    Wow--a lot of science and effort for one dinner--guess that's why this is called "Chowhound". You deserve some decent responses so here's a brief one that'll hopefully help a bit.

    On your "yes" list, really only two that jump off for me (have lived here just over 10 years and know the scene pretty well) relative to your criteria: Central and Tabard Inn. Tabard definitely has the kind of social but non-scene counter/bar you're looking for and very good food. Bit under the radar and a short walk to Dupont Metro. Central is very good but not sure how great for a solo. Have been 4 or 5 times and enjoy it but I'm honestly not sure if it even has a food-friendly bar. Place is a bit of a scene.

    On your maybe list, I think you're missing the plot on Palena. It's one of the city's very best and the counter is in the "cafe" section where you can order off the lower or higher priced menus. Food is outstanding, the service generally top notch w/o pretentiousness and it's across the street from the Cleveland Park metro. There are plenty of great seafood and creative but delicious options of all types but, more simply on the cafe menu, the roast chicken is unlike any you'll ever have anywhere. Likewise the award winning cheeseburger and the caesar salad which I think is the best in DC. The Chef is former White House. I'd probably put this at the top of your list. Kinkeads is more expensive but has a long, square counter and great bartenders. Of course, many would say it's the city's best seafood place and I'd have a hard time suggesting a better one. Bob Kinkead is one of 5-10 real DC institutions as chef/owner.

    One other seafood focused option not on any of your lists that probably deserves to be in the Yes category: Blacksalt. This would be a cab right probably right at the 15-20 min mark from Metro Center. It's on MacArthur a couple of miles west of Georgetown, has very good seafood and a cool, social counter.

    I'd probably steer you to Palena, Tabard or Blacksalt in that order. Can't imagine you going wrong with any of the three.

    Your no's look right and the other maybes probably all best staying there or going lower.

    Let us know what you choose and how you like it.

    4 Replies
    1. re: nwdchound
      hohokam Jun 28, 2008 10:59 AM

      Thanks so much for the help.

      I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of previous recommendations, so I tried to do what I could to help people steer me to something that would best suit me.

      I admit that by the time I got around to checking out Palena, I was running out of steam and only managed to scan their website. And, obviously, Blacksalt wasn't even on my radar. So, I really appreciate the suggestion to give these places further consideration.

      I'll certainly report back as soon I get a chance.

      Thanks again!

      1. re: hohokam
        hohokam Jun 29, 2008 07:39 AM

        Dropping in place links...

        -----
        Palena
        3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

        Tabard Inn
        1739 N St NW, Washington, DC 20036

        Black Salt Fish Market & Bar
        4883 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC 20007

        1. re: hohokam
          b
          brooklyndude Jun 29, 2008 03:18 PM

          I think Palena is probably your best bet from what you've listed. Cityzen has a lounge area where you can have a 3 course meal for 50, which is a steal. Its the same food as the main dining room but you only have 2 options for each course. FWIW I think Cityzen is the best restaurant in DC.

          1. re: brooklyndude
            hohokam Jun 30, 2008 10:39 AM

            Ah. I noticed the Cityzen "bar menu" option, but the website didn't give many details. The fact that they choose to highlight "[t]he sophisticated-chic dress code adhered to by [their] guests" makes the atmosphere at Cityzen sound a bit more formal than what I'm looking for.

            So, it sounds like we have two votes for Palena, so far.

            Thanks!

      2. d
        DCDOLL Jun 29, 2008 04:21 AM

        i didn't see Proof on your list...did i miss it? that would be a great choice. You could eat at the wine bar or at a table. it has the cool vibe you want, a great wine list (by the taste, glass or quartelle) good new american food, great service and it's in Penn Quarter which is walkable from Metro center or one stop on the red line. They do have seafood and other dishes as well.
        My fave is Obelisk but i don't know if a single diner would be comfortable there. There is no bar to sit at and it's really small & intimate; feels like a dinner party at a wealthy friend's house. And at 65 pp it might bust your 100 limit. But Proof would work very nicely.
        happy dining.

        1 Reply
        1. re: DCDOLL
          hohokam Jun 29, 2008 07:21 AM

          No. You didn't miss it. For whatever reason, I didn't see Proof in the solo diner threads I reviewed--maybe *I* missed it. :-)

          At any rate, it does look like a great solo dining venue, and it is practically right around the corner from where I will be staying. Even if I don't end up dining there, I could definitely see myself popping in for an after-dinner glass of something.

          Thanks for bringing this ultra-convenient option to my attention!

          -----
          Proof
          775 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

        2. hohokam Jun 30, 2008 10:57 AM

          Oops. I meant to ask about norms of dress in my previous post, but I got distracted by a work task. ;-)

          Would it be inappropriate for me to wear jeans to any of the places mentioned so far? If so, what is generally acceptable attire for men at these places? I ask because one goal for this trip is to pack as few clothes as possible.

          1 Reply
          1. re: hohokam
            Dennis S Jun 30, 2008 03:35 PM

            I'd vote for Hanks, and you can wear jeans there. Gives you some great walking around before or after, with U and Adams Morgan to the North, and DuPont to the West. To respond to an earlier post on this thread, I don't think Black Salt is good for a solo diner, but the food is good enough to go anyway!

            Oh, but I don't see Cashion's or Johny's Half Shell - I'd put both of those on your yes list, and would actually put Johny's in front of Hanks now that I think about it.

          2. ktmoomau Jun 30, 2008 04:04 PM

            On your criteria I vote for: Central, Hook, Hank's or Palena

            All these are laid back enough that you could wear jeans. They all have very good food.

            Hook has excellent locally sourced and/or sustainable seafood, which I think is very creative and very good. It has a nice wine list as I remember (we often order bottles, but I think their by the glass was nice too). It definitely has some of the most memorable seafood in the city in my opinion. It isn't necessarily your traditional seafood dishes, which I like. The bar can be a little busy though sometimes depending on the night, weekends generally tend to be really busy. I think you could do this solo in your budget. You would have to cab it though.

            Hank's is very laid back, I go to the one in Virginia, but I imagine the vibe is similar in DC. It might be the closest thing vibe wise to what you describe you want. The seafood ranges from traditional to non. The sides are very good (most dishes don't come with sides fyi so plan on ordering one) I really enjoy their fries and their mac and cheese is really good. They don't have dessert, but do bring you out some chocolate. I don't think the one in Old Town has much of a bar, but I bet the DC location does. Although their wine list is probably the weakest of all those listed. I think you might really enjoy this one.

            Central just has amazing food. Period. And a very large bar that is very comfortable that you don't feel squeezed into, the bartenders are very nice and knowledgable. They have an excellent wine list. I eat things there and am just really happy. And it would definitely make your budget.

            Palena- although it can be busy and hard to get into the cafe, if you are just one it is easier and the food is incredible. You would have to metro or cab as it isn't in your area, but the gnocchi alone is worth the cab ride. The bar staff is really nice and it is just fun. It would be the type of place the bartenders would talk to you and just be very friendly. A friend and I had a great conversation with a bartender up there who turned out to be one of her neighbors.

            Caveat- you will not find West Coast vibe anywhere. DC just doesn't do that. Palena is warm and comforting in the way your favorite jewel box neighborhood restaurant should, Hook is more clean and trendy, Central will be very clean modern bustling, Hank's is East Coast casual.

            And in case you didn't see the thread Butterfield 9 is now closed.

            Blue Duck I think is really best for their meats not their seafood (which is ok, but...), but their bar is beautiful and big and spacious. I don't know if you can eat there, but I bet you could. You have to buy sides their too and they run big, so it may be better for a group. If you want traditional East Coast seafood that is Kinkead's, but it is rather formal stuffy feeling.

            Teaism isn't anywhere as good as the other places you have listed.

            Taberna del Aberderro is very formal in my mind...

            Vidalia has an excellent bar, with great wine selection, the problem is I don't think the food is worth the money.

            Firefly is ok, but you have much better choices on your list.

            I haven't been to Proof yet, but it is on MY list.

            1. hohokam Jul 1, 2008 08:29 AM

              Thanks all for the most recent recommendations. I'll be flying in this evening, so I decided to add some place links to help me get oriented.

              -----
              Central Michel Richard
              1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20004

              Hank's Oyster Bar - Dupont Circle
              1624 Q St NW Ste Lowr, Washington, DC 20009

              Johnny's Half Shell
              400 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20001

              Cashion's Eat Place
              1819 Columbia Road NW, Washington, DC 20009

              Hook
              3241 M Street NW, Washington, DC 20007

              6 Replies
              1. re: hohokam
                n
                nwdchound Jul 10, 2008 08:27 PM

                How'd you do? Did you make it to Palena? Do tell.

                1. re: nwdchound
                  hohokam Jul 11, 2008 04:18 AM

                  Apologies for the late report.

                  I did make it to Palena, and I quite enjoyed the food. I opted for 3 courses + dessert which I washed down with a cocktail and 3 glasses of wine (urp).

                  I started with a dish they were calling a "porchetta" of rabbit and chard. I'm still not sure how the porchetta was assembled, but the serving appeared to be a slice from a cylinder of meat and greens. Any resemblance to a turkey roll ended there. The flavors were subtle and, for lack of a better word, clean--the ingredients were given the chance to shine and shine they did.

                  Next up were the gnocchi. It's no wonder this is considered the signature dish at Palena. When the bartender asked me how it was, all I could say was "like a dream". When I later described the dish to my partner, she wondered if I had somehow managed to bring some back in my suitcase. I assured her that next time we make it to DC, I would let her have her very own bowl of the gnocchi. There's no way I'll be sharing mine.

                  My next course was grilled loin of pork (labeled as Berkshire and/or milk-fed on the menu--I can't recall now) served with an assortment of gently cooked cherry-type tomatoes and a delicate tomato-flavored broth. Simply delicious. Here too, the preparation allowed the ingredients to take center stage. The gnocchi were the stars of the show, but the pork was definitely a strong supporting character.

                  Finally, dessert. I went with the cannoli (cannolo?) with almonds and apricots they were offering. What came out of the kitchen was a bit of a surprise. The cannolo was not a ricotta-filled tube of pastry, but rather squares of pastry layered with ricotta--kind of like a stacked enchilada vs. a rolled enchilada. Kind of. I admit that it took me a few bites to warm up to this dish, not because of the shape, but rather because of the rather assertive (and unexpected) use of orange in flavoring the dish. But once I got over the shock, I found the creaminess of the ricotta, the sweetness of the cooked apricots, and the zing of the orange balanced each other nicely, and the expected textural contrasts (crisp pastry sheets, luscious ricotta filling) were there too. The whole almonds scattered atop the cannolo and across the plate were fine, but I would have preferred smaller pieces (halves or slivers).

                  My cocktail, essentially a margarita by another name (which escapes me now), was very good, but I probably could have gone with a more interesting option. My first wine (a 2006 sablet blanc) was a little too passive for my taste. I kept hoping that letting it warm in the glass would allow it to come alive, but alas, it never really did for me. The next glass was the 2006 Ridge "Three Valleys" Sonoma County zinfandel blend. I liked this wine a lot. Tart berry fruit up front balanced by soft tannins and noticeable acidity through the middle and finish. Overall, medium bodied and a very nice accompaniment to the pork, I thought. The bartender comped me a glass of late harvest sauvignon blanc, which I enjoyed, but given all of the great dessert wines out there, I don't think I'll be seeking this one out.

                  The only disappointment of the evening was the lack of energy around the bar. I can't fault the restaurant for this, after all, I doubt many places in DC were buzzing on the Tuesday before the Fourth of July. If I have a choice next time I'm in town, I'll be sure to try it later in the week.

                  and now for something completely different...

                  The following day, in a quest for grits, I ended up at the Florida Avenue Grill. I loved the friendly neighborhood feel of the place. And for what it was, the meal was pretty good. On a whim, I blindly ordered a half smoke to go with my eggs (and grits and biscuits) only to discover later that this is a highly DC-specific item. I won't say it was the finest sausage I've ever sunk my teeth into, but its flavor did far exceed its wiener-ish appearance. I left with my grits itch scratched and my belly full for less than $10--not bad for DC.

                  On my way out of town, I tried to score an early (like senior citizen early) dinner at Proof, but I discovered that they didn't open until 5:30. While casting about for similar options, I ran across mentions of Vinoteca, which typically opens at 4:30. I say "typically" because on that day, due to problems with their AC system, they delayed opening until around 5:00. After taking in the sights up and down U Street, I returned at the appointed time and took a table outside (apparently, the inside seating area was still off limits). I ordered a glass of rosé (2007 Domaine de la Courtade "L' Alycastre" Cotes du Provence--perfect for a warm afternoon) and their duck confit salad from the "Starters" portion of their menu. When it became apparent to my server that my food was not progressing very quickly and that my drinking was, he alerted me to delay and asked if I would like something else. I thought he meant would I like a dish that might be ready more quickly, but no, he was offering a nosh to take the edge off of my wait. So, I suggested a charcuterie sampler. He soon returned with a few slices each of duck prosciutto and sopressatta, a little chunk of Cypress Grove's "Midnight Moon" aged goat cheese (fantastic cheese IMO), a few dried figs and a date. A perfect little snack.

                  I ordered a glass of the 2005 Verget du Sud "Endes". Rhone Petit Syrah to go with my salad. To further make up for the delay, the chef included an extra generous portion of duck with my salad. So, where I was expecting to see a smallish salad topped with a handful of shredded duck sat an entire duck thigh (WOW) leaning against a pile of greens topped with a coddled egg and a scattering of fresh figs. The duck was excellent. In fact, all of the parts of the salad were great except for the dressing, which I found a bit too bracing. I would like to see the chef switch to a milder, more rounded vinegar or maybe just dial back the amount of vinegar used. That aside, I greatly appreciated the efforts of the restaurant to put things right even when they weren't really going that wrong.

                  Thanks so much to you all for your thoughtful advice and apologies for the delay in reporting back.

                  I hope to be able to take advantage of your other recommendations next time I'm in town.

                  1. re: hohokam
                    hohokam Jul 11, 2008 04:28 AM

                    Doggone it. I forgot to add the place links...

                    -----
                    Florida Avenue Grill
                    1100 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC 20009

                    Vinoteca
                    1940 11th street NW, Washington, DC 20001

                    1. re: hohokam
                      n
                      nwdchound Jul 11, 2008 08:24 PM

                      Oh--and forgot to add a thought also on your take on the Palena dessert. This was very interesting because it's consistent with a theory I've had for awhile. The restaurant used to be co-owned by two former White House chefs. One had a pastry background and did all the desserts, which were every bit the equal to the fabulous food. When she left the business after several years, the chef became sole owner and took over desserts also. They're hit and miss. Sometimes, an attempt to be creative goes a bit overboard (like yours sounds like). Other times they're great. Having followed the place for years, the experience of the transition really illustrated how different backgrounds and experience in the culinary arts (pastry, sous, head chef, ethnic, etc.) matter. She was magical at pastry as he is with food.

                    2. re: hohokam
                      e
                      Elyssa Jul 11, 2008 05:13 AM

                      Wow! Great review...thanks for reporting back :)

                      1. re: hohokam
                        n
                        nwdchound Jul 11, 2008 08:19 PM

                        wow--thanks for the report indeed. I felt badly reading it, thinking you'd just let us know if you liked the place and a few lines. But I know many will benefit from the great stuff you wrote.

                        Very interesting your take on Palena--and glad you seemed to have really enjoyed it. I live in the 'hood and we go there all the time. Never though of the gnocchi as their signature disk but we love it and order it often also. They're actually probably most famous for two of the simpler options on their cafe menu: cheeseburger and roast chicken. Both are among (if not the) best you'll ever have anywhere. The chicken in particular is a bit of a mystery as the chef has never come totally clean on how it's prepared: some combination of brining, cast-iron pan searing and roasting...along with great sourcing from a regional farm of course. Also, for others who'll see this: best caesar salad in DC hands down. The dressing is made to order of course; with just the right combination of tang and salt. roughly chopped pieces of medium boiled egg, fresh anchovies, always perfectly green, crisp romaine and reggiano.

                        Thanks also for the takes on Florida Ave Grill--haven't been there. And, Vinoteca--it has gotten a bit of mixed reviews since opening but my experience there was like yours so nice to have a validating benchmark.

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