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Adventerous, affordable, celebratory dinner in D.C. (Palena? Corduroy? Or...?)

I'm a MA hound and I'll be in D.C. for a conference at end of August/beginning of September. I'm charged with organizing a dinner for 6-8 people in honor of a good friend and colleague who will be winning an award that day and who has learned to let me pick the restaurants in unfamiliar cities. I don't know D.C. well at all, though I've spent some time searching the board to refine my question to you. Please help. Here are the needs/constraints/ideas:

The honoree says I can choose anything but Indian/Pakistani food. I want (above all) the food to be exciting but also for the place to feel in some way (choose one) inviting, hip, fun or somehow special but not (this is important, too) overly formal or stuffy (no jacket and tie only places). Some of my colleagues are (alas!) less willing than I am to shell out for a meal (Citronelle is out of reach, e.g., and, as a rough target, anything that required each colleague to spend over, say $60 plus tip might start getting me in trouble). Some of these folks, including the honoree, may also be less willing to travel for food than I am, so I've ruled out, say, Southeast Asian food (a love of mine) in the burbs. We'll all be staying at or right by the Omni Shoreham, and the further beyond 15 or 20 minutes we go from there, the less popular I'll be. My search of the board has given me the following list. My question to you is both what you'd recommend from this or alternatives in the same spirit.

Jaleo (I've been, loved it, and Zaytiniya, too) but my one visit was with the colleague in question, so I hesitate to do a repeat for him)
Palena (some colleagues might blanch at the price on the 3 or 4 course menus, but should be ok with the $56 for two)
Sonoma
Corduroy
PS7's: (I personally don't care about cocktails though perhaps some in the group might, but I'm more interested in opinions on the food)
Blue Duck Tavern

Any advice from local hounds would be much appreciated.

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PS7 Restaurant
777 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

Palena
3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

Sonoma Restaurant
223 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003

Blue Duck Tavern
1201 24th Street NW, Washington, DC 20037

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  1. - Corduroy = Jackets preferred
    - Palena is close to your hotel (Up one metro stop/short cab ride to Cleveland park)
    - Tabard Inn is in Dupont (there's many suggestions on this board for Dupont Circle)
    - If you want drinks afterward, there will be more options in Dupont than Cleveland park
    - go enjoy the other places on your own as they're outside the 15-20 minute popularity zone.

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    Palena
    3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

    Tabard Inn
    1739 N St NW, Washington, DC 20036

    1. I would nix PS7 it's not very special in any way.

      I like Blue Duck Tavern, note you will need to get family style sides as many of the dishes are meat only.

      Corduroy might be too formal they prefer a jacket and no shorts.

      I haven't been to Sonoma in a while, but have really enjoyed it in the past. Palena I love, but two courses in the back room may be not quite enough food, unless they are light eaters.

      I would add to your list: Dino- special in a fun intimate way, has a spectacular wine list with many reasonable bottles and very good food- check their website for upcoming specials I know they are celebrating their birthday here soon. Againn- you might have the check prices here to see if it fits the budget, they have as good cocktails, excellent food. You could check out Cafe Atlantico it's another Jose Andres joint.

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      Cafe Atlantico
      405 8th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

      PS7 Restaurant
      777 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001

      Palena
      3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

      Sonoma Restaurant
      223 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003

      Blue Duck Tavern
      1201 24th Street NW, Washington, DC 20037

      2 Replies
      1. re: ktmoomau

        I would add Proof to the list as well.

        1. re: ktmoomau

          Oyamel is yet another option from Andres.

        2. Againn has an unusual Irish / Gastropub menu with tremendous attention to detail. High quality throughout.

          www.againndc.com

          1 Reply
          1. re: Steve

            I absolutely adored Againn. The food and cocktails were great, and I really loved the design.

          2. Palena would be my choice but on the high end of your scale. The back room is where it is at, but you can order ANYTHING from the back room list while dining in the front room (where you can get great food as well, the burger, the chicken, the fry plate!). The biggest table Palena does in the back room is 6 though, so if you are beyond that, your only choice is the front cafe portion. The food at Palena is among the best in the city and is extremely seasonal and dare I say magical. And when I go during the summer, I wear nice casual pants and a great Hawaiian shirt -- Palena is not stuffy, but if someone wants to dress up, that works too.

            That said, Corduroy would be another great choice from your list.

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            Palena
            3529 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

            1. I just had an excellent dinner at Bibiana last night. I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was, as Italian isn't my favorite...but it was excellent

              also, Equinox reopened and the menu posted looks excellent

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              Bibiana
              1100 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005

              1 Reply
              1. re: Jeserf

                Bibiana has some excellent food. The artichoke is perfect and the stuffed pasta with lemon and ricotta is ethereal. Top of the line.

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                Bibiana
                1100 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005