Pierre L’Enfant had his native Paris in mind when the founding fathers charged him with designing a capital city in the New World. His vision remains not only in the radiating main streets and dramatic traffic circles but also in the green spaces and sightlines that such a city plan allows.
Thanks to L’Enfant, Washingtonians, like their Parisian contemporaries, look forward all winter to the “cafe society” of sidewalk dining. Tables appear beside grand avenues (like Pennsylvania with the legendary Occidental) and in sight of the U.S. Capitol (on the front terrace of good-times Art and Soul). But this city has the Potomac River too, and restaurants near it take advantage of the breezes and the views. At Georgetown’s Washington Harbour with its circular plaza and fountain, diners gaze out from cool quarters or claim seats outdoors with a panorama from Key Bridge and Roosevelt Island to Memorial Bridge and the Kennedy Center.
Popular spots there are Sequoia with terrace tables day and night, Fiola Mare, the new outpost for Italian by Beard-winner Fabio Trabocchi, plus Nick’s Riverside Grill and Tony & Joe’s, whose open-air bars buzz at the river side of the plaza. But some alfresco seats also set up amid the urban hustle of 14th Street, Penn Quarter and McPherson Square.
M cafebar has brought out memories of Florence with its tables and chairs. But inside, with a center-stage wine bar, the vibe goes Cinecitta (i.e. Roman filmdom) thanks to movie star albums and portrait-murals of Marcello and Sophia. Somehow Hollywood factors too—in multiple hyper-color Marilyns and in cocktails like the “Frank Sinatra” with rosemary-infused bourbon and angostura or the “Ginger Rogers” with vodka, elderflower, grapefruit, lemon and, yes, ginger syrup.
Nourishing all this dolce vita are the dishes of Jose Guerra and exec chef Roberto Minnetti, top toque at sister operation Sette Osteria by Dupont Circle, and the exceptional pastries and breads of new-from-Lyons Francis Chanal. Credit the warmth to good service, Tuscan red walls, the Sunday Bellini brunch and certainly manager Mehdi Zorgani. Born to Tunisian parents and raised in France, an alum of Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants, he knows the wondrous variations of “Mediterranean.”
Highlights of a meal: tuna tartar with avocado and jalapeño; gnocchi laced with gorgonzola fondue, spinach and candied walnuts; fork-tender filet mignon sparked by capers and peppercorns in a port reduction; Mediterranean branzino with a bouquet of slender-cut seasonal vegetables. And sweet finishes: poached pear or the almond fondant cake with chocolate mousse and lemon sorbet topped with raspberries and a shimmer of gold leaf.
Oyamel, a Tex-Mex outpost of the José Andrés empire, installs outdoor seats for 16 (dogs welcome), just enough to recreate a scene from that other Distrito Federal—Mexico City. Oyamel has thrived on its Penn Quarter corner since 2007 but now responds to a late-night crowd (thank you, Verizon Center and nearby theaters) with extended hours and a new menu.
Chef Colin King knows what the night owls crave: cold and hot antojitos like guacamole with Serrano peppers, ceviche with salsa pequín, Mexican soup with pork and chilies or potato fries in mole poblano sauce. Tacos matter: baby pig with cilantro, mahi mahi with cabbage or Yucatan-style pork. Expect margaritas and Dos Equis lager and amber anytime, but note that, in regular hours, a summer drinks menu has 24 pages (such a list that readers should earn academic credits.) Colorful concoctions include the Blood Orange Pequin of el jimadaor blanco, triple sec and lime.
TORO TORO reminds that restaurateur Richard Sandoval excels at fusion. For some time his Zengo in Penn Quarter has happily married Asian and Latin cuisines. And now he brings that romance to the south side of McPherson Square, having opened this glam spot early in the year with a flashy party that focused on its bar and downstairs DJ lounge. The sidewalk tables seat 40 here, putting summer sunlight on the artful cooking of chef Stephen Hartzell. Consider ceviche nikkei, the lomo saltado empanada or the duck carnitas with tomato jam. The spectacular La Bomba for two arrives in a chocolate bowl, its ingredients poured out on a plastic sheet. Drinks matter, of course, from prickly pear chilcano to the Carnaval of rye, cherry liquor, Lillet Blanc and orange bitters. The day-to-night action here signals that Rio café life might co-exist with the D.C. hustle after all.