Monday, December 26, 2016
Best Restaurants and Bars of 2016
Another year comes to a close at the end of the week. Like other recent years, it was a very busy time for new restaurants in D.C. (Eater D.C. counted 102 openings in the fall alone). I made an effort to get to many of the ones I thought sounded most interesting, but of course, there were still quite a few I haven't visited yet. I also like to mix in older restaurants which, after all, can do new and interesting things all the time, even if they've been open for years.
It wasn't a big year for me travel-wise, and I found myself less interested in writing about the places we visited while away from home. I really meant to do a round-up of places we ate in Southern California, but just didn't get around to it. So, I'll make up for that right now, briefly, by sharing the highlights: 1) Norah in West Hollywood is fabulous--delicious food, good service and an inviting space, 2) Breakfast in L.A.'s retro diners is the best way to start the day with a Southern-California frame of mind (Mel's Drive-In and NORMS in West Hollywood were both good, and the old-Hollywood charm of Fred 62 is perfect before a morning hike in Griffith Park), 3) The Good Lion cocktail bar in Santa Barbara has a very friendly staff shaking/stirring some really excellent drinks, and 4) I didn't expect much from Long Beach, but was pleasantly surprised by great whiskey-focused bar, The Blind Donkey.
So, here then are my favorites of the year (restaurants are in D.C. unless noted):
Best Starter/Small Dish: Leeks Dijonnaise, Convivial. It's easy to turn leeks into soup; harder to serve them in larger form without ending up with a squishy, stringy texture. Convivial treats the allum just right in this delicious, nicely textured opener. Runners up: wood-grilled carrots with yogurt at Buck's Fishing and Camping, bhel puri (puffed rice, fruit, and mint grain salad) at Bindaas.
Best Pasta: Sfoglina. The just-opened fourth D.C. restaurant from chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife Maria has quickly proven itself to be an excellent spot for a top-quality bowl of pasta. Whether you go for a short-rib filled agnolotti or a deeply mushroomy corzetti, you're in for a treat. Runner-up: Corn Ravioli at Tail Up Goat.
Best Pizza: All-Purpose. D.C. has been blessed with an abundance of delicious pizza in recent years (see "Survivor of the Year" below for another good one). The opening of All-Purpose this year has really upped the game with its wonderfully flavorful crust and perfectly balanced toppings. Pepperoni pizza hasn't been this exciting since the '80s. Runner up: Farmers and Distillers, which also serves a good pepperoni pizza with whole-grain crust and flavorful red sauce.
Best Tacos: Mayahuel (NYC). Here's a wonderful secret about New York's top mezcal-loving cocktail bar, Mayahuel: The food is also amazing. While we liked everything we ate at Mayahuel--and the smoky salsa is a particular standout--the spicy, flavorful tacos were just incredible. Can't wait to go back for more. Runners up: Empellón Taqueria (NYC), Espita Mezcaleria.
Best Entree (That Isn't One of the Above): Autumn Olive Oil Pork, The Dabney. Perhaps the best pork dish I've ever had, this tender, flavorful dish was a highlight among an evening of standouts. Runner up: Coq au Vin Fried Chicken at Convivial.
Best Dessert: Key Lime Pie, Convivial. Tart and sweet achieve perfect balance in Convivial's key lime pie, a dish as beautifully composed as it is tasty, topped smartly with slices of fresh kiwi. Runners up: Churros with chocolate at Mayahuel (NYC); Sorghum Custard at The Dabney, 15-Layer Carrot Cake at The Source.
Best Fast-Casual Newcomer: Shouk. If eating "vegan" is still a turnoff to you, then fine, skip Shouk. That just means I'll have a shorter wait for what has become one of my favorite lunch spots, serving insanely delicious pitas and bowls stuffed with spiced, roasted vegetables. Although I haven't tried it yet, I hear their new burger is a knockout.
Best Cocktail: The Six Shooter, Mayahuel (NYC). Mayahuel has many, many good cocktails, as I've written about last year, including the Dijahbone, last year's cocktail of the year. Well, The Six Shooter, a bracing and dark combination of rum, mezcal and quite a few modifiers, may just be the cocktail of the decade. We love this so much, I tried my hand at approximating it. Runners up: Always Betz on Black at The NoMad (NYC), Smiling Rabbit at Espita Mezcaleria.
Best Service: Tail Up Goat. I have a lot of pleasant memories from our dinner at Tail Up Goat, but what I remember most was the excellent service. Despite the very busy Saturday evening we were there, the service from everyone was friendly but not overly so, prompt but not rushed and marked by genuine affection for the food and their work. I can't stand being in a busy restaurant that feels like they want to rush you through to seat the next billing as quickly as possible--I didn't feel that way at all here. Runners up: Mayahuel, The Dabney, All-Purpose.
Best Overall Experience: The Dabney. Today we may use microwaves, gas burners and sous vide machines, but cooking started with simple, smoky fire. That The Dabney cooks everything over (or near) a massive open fire pit makes its food kissed with smoke and char in delightful ways that still deliver texture and flavor. The homey decor and friendly service enhance an experience that I look forward to repeating next year. Runners up: Mayahuel (NYC), All-Purpose, Convivial.
Restaurant I'm Sorry to See Go: Kangaroo Boxing Club. This delightful Columbia Heights restaurant saved my night this summer after a lousy experience at a nearby bar. They completely turned my evening around with delicious barbecue and friendly service. Sorry to hear it's closing. Also closed this year: Espuma (Rehoboth Beach).
Survivor of the Year: Comet Ping-Pong. Consider this an extra-honorable mention for one of our favorite neighborhood hangouts that has weathered with patience and grace unthinkably cruel attacks based on groundless conspiracy nonsense. That the attacks spilled over into the rest of the neighborhood and turned violent hasn't stopped the neighborhood from voicing its support for this and other nearby great establishments.