It's a Date
What’s your ideal spot for a romantic night out? We asked local food and drink experts to kiss and tell.
You don’t necessarily need tablecloths, fancy champagne and candlelight to keep the love alive. At least not according to the handful of area restaurateurs and food and wine retailers we reached out to for date night suggestions. Their take? When it comes to ambience, it’s more about the personality of the place than getting the royal treatment. And the sex appeal is often in the food. Here are 10 of their favorite places to enjoy dinner for two.
The Birchmere, in Del Ray
In April, owner Gary Oelze marked 48 years of shows at this dinner-theater-style music venue, known for staging headliners such as B.B. King, Aimee Mann and Lyle Lovett. The artists have grown more diverse over the years, and so has the menu. “No one wants just fried food and beer anymore,” says Oelze, whose fare now includes flatbreads, shrimp and grits, and crab cake sandwiches.
Doors open at 6 p.m., after which guests line up to be seated and the kitchen staff hustles to serve everyone in the hour and a half before showtime. The homey space feels like a large, comfortable living room with great acoustics.
Oelze says he’s seen more than a few patrons form lifetime friendships over buffalo wings and crabby pretzels. He has also attended several weddings of music-lovers who first met at the iconic concert hall.
Recommended by Wendy Buckley, owner, Screwtop Wine Bar and Grateful Red Wine Shop in Clarendon: “My husband, David, and I love the Birchmere for live music and comedy acts,” says Buckley, an Ashton Heights resident, who, in recent months, has been to the music venue to see Robert Earl Keen and Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. “I can vouch that the chicken tenders are fresh and fried right then with a crispy panko-style coating. But don’t order anything you are ashamed of eating in front of strangers…like chicken wings. Chances are, if it’s just the two of you, you’ll end up sitting intimately close with some people you don’t know.”
Evo Bistro, in McLean
Evo Bistro is normally subdued, except for Wednesday nights when bottles of wine drop to half price and locals pack the place. For guests who want alone time, general manager Jerry Keating suggests coming in on a Monday, when bottles are also discounted, but the dining room is quieter.
Or, skip the bottle and take a tasting tour. The restaurant’s self-serve Enomatic wine-serving machine allows customers to sample more than 50 vintages by the glass, making it an oenophile’s paradise.
“We’re not stuffy,” Keating says. “There is a level of romance that comes from sharing wine and exploring small dishes.”
Recommended by Nick Langman, owner, Clarendon Ballroom; and co-owner, Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon: “I enjoy the grilled artichokes with Serrano ham,” says Langman, who lives in McLean, “and the lomo saltado, sautéed beef tenderloin.”
Green Pig Bistro, in Clarendon
Great food destinations make great date destinations, contends Austin Holmes, the manager at Green Pig Bistro. This relative newcomer to Clarendon is both.
Meats figure prominently on the nose-to-tail menu (chefs Scot Harlan and Will Sullivan are known for their innovative takes on rustic French cooking), but it’s the desserts that ultimately bring couples closer, Holmes says. Sweets that are sized for sharing include the milk chocolate tapioca pudding, and the pie for two, featuring seasonal ingredients.
Most tables in the dining room—a space personalized with reclaimed wood, colorful ceramics, antique kitchen utensils and wallpaper made from cookbook pages—are designed for pairs, although couples looking for a little extra privacy and elbow room can request a corner banquette to be set for two.
Recommended by Don Roden, owner, The Organic Butcher in McLean: “We like Green Pig Bistro because they often feature cuts of pork, beef and game that you wouldn’t normally see on a dinner menu. And they’re good cuts,” says Roden, whose butcher shop follows a similar mantra. “Not to mention they source local whenever possible, which is an added plus. I like the pork chop with sweet potato, kale and apples; and the trout with white beans, broccolini and red pepper.”
Pizzeria Orso, in Falls Church City
“I get a lot of first-daters,” says Will Artley, who heads the kitchen at this convivial eatery in the heart of Falls Church. The chef’s table, an interactive area in front of the wood-burning pizza oven, is a popular spot for couples, where the cooking provides live entertainment.
Orso is more than just a pizza place (although the pies are divine). The menu also includes vegan and macrobiotic options for diners with dietary restrictions, and there are plenty of decadent dishes for those who want to live it up (think BLT gnocchi with truffle cream, and a dessert list with suggested wine pairings). The appetizers are designed for sharing, which “naturally sparks conversation,” says Artley, who previously served as executive chef at Evening Star Café in Alexandria.
And if the date goes really well (wink, wink), you can come back the next morning for brunch.
Recommended by Jason Andelman, founder of Artisan Confections in Clarendon: “They have excellent pizzas and small plates,” says Andelman, a master chocolatier who lives in Dominion Hills. “Try the Brussels chips with shaved Grana Padano, meatballs on polenta, and oven-roasted olives.”
Bangkok Golden, in Seven Corners
Tucked into a strip mall, this modest hideaway has minimal art and paper napkins. But the austere interior is a stark contrast to the dazzling flavors and heavenly aromas that emanate from the kitchen. Chef Seng Luangrath offers two menus at Bangkok Golden: Thai and Lao.
Given that Lao cuisine is often a new adventure for many couples, the staff is accustomed to fielding inquiries about the best way to eat certain dishes, particularly those made with crispy and sticky rice. Luangrath’s advice? Try using your hands. That’s how the meals are traditionally meant to be eaten, and doing so adds a new element of sensuality to your night out.
Recommended by Tom Madrecki, owner, Chez Le Commis in Clarendon: “The Lao menu offers one of the most dynamic, interesting and varied dining experiences in D.C.,” says Madrecki, who has trained in the kitchens of Noma in Copenhagen and Le Chateaubriand in Paris, and now runs a supper club out of his Clarendon home. “Try the larb ped, a minced duck dish, and nam khao, a crispy rice salad.”
Galaxy Hut, in Clarendon
“We aim to provide a laid-back alternative to your typical bar,” says owner and Falls Church resident Lary Hoffman. Regulars here appreciate the vegetarian-friendly menu, he adds, and the “lack of Top-40 background music, flat-screen TVs or children.”
Galaxy Hut boasts an extensive microbrew list, making it a destination for hop-heads. The snug, bohemian space also displays local art, and hosts live music, sound-system takeovers and karaoke during the week. If you’re looking for a little quiet, order your grilled cheese—the kitchen offers seven different variations on the theme, or you can customize your own—and grab a seat on the small patio outside.
“If your idea of a romantic night out is drinking good beer in dim lighting and listening to Steve Reich and Slayer whilst sharing ‘tot-chos’ [tater tot nachos] with vegan chili, Galaxy Hut is the only choice,” Hoffman says.
Recommended by Liz Bird, partner and owner of Vin de Chez, a pop-up wine bar in the District, who also pitches in at Chez Le Commis in Clarendon: “I like the tater tots, and craft beers such as Lancaster Strawberry Wheat and Blue Point Winter Ale,” says Bird, a Rosslyn resident. “The menu changes all the time, though, and they frequently sell out of certain beers. That’s half the fun—that they have a wide and ever-changing selection.”
Assaggi Osteria, in McLean
Co-owner Giovanni Cesaratto is all about setting the mood in this gracious, Old World trattoria, where classic Italian dishes remind visitors to sit back and enjoy la dolce vita. Tables for two have place settings at right angles, making them perfect for tête-à-têtes. “It’s easier to hold hands and play footsies that way,” Cesaratto says.
For couples, he recommends the assaggi di mozzarella, which features Buffalo mozzarella, burrata flown in from Puglia and sheep’s milk ricotta, served with fire-roasted peppers and a house-made green tomato marmalade. Another hot dish: deep-fried green olives, which are cured and marinated in-house, then stuffed with veal.
Recommended by Nick Langman, owner, Clarendon Ballroom; and co-owner, Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon: “For me, it would be the burrata with warm chestnut and crispy prosciutto. Or their seasonal tagliatelle.”
Fuego Cocina y Tequileria, in Clarendo
The dining room on the second level of this blazing newcomer (it opened a year and a half ago) is as sensual as the food. Booths are softly illuminated by pendant lights, and accent walls are painted an orangey-red. See if you can’t grab one of the fireside tables, or one by the expansive windows that look out over Clarendon, suggests Gus DiMillo, one of the owners of Fuego’s parent company, Passion Food Hospitality.
Chef Alfredo Solis’ menu includes an extensive list of botanas (snacks) designed for divvying, and the tacos—with fillers ranging from roasted goat to fried tilapia—come two to an order, with a trio of salsas.
And from the bar? The house carries more than 120 tequilas to put a little fire in your belly. “Margaritas can open a lot of doors on a date,” DiMillo says. “A few of those can make everyone forget their nerves, relax and have a good time.”
Recommended by Carolina Garcia, owner, LeoNora Bakery in Clarendon: “You can’t go wrong with any of the ceviches and a delicious margarita!” says Garcia, an Arlington resident who learned to make baguettes and French pastries under the tutelage of award-winning boulanger Arnaud Delmontel in Paris.
Bonchon, in Lyon Park
Bonchon is one sexy chicken joint. GrizForm Design Architects, which also designed the interiors of Estadio, Fiola and Doi Moi in the District, is the talent behind the sleek vibe in this Korean chain, known for its addictive and fiery poultry.
The Arlington outpost, located in the Shops at Pershing, opened last summer and quickly gained street cred as a go-to spot for local chefs and other food service professionals—a nod that gives co-owner Tom An great pride. The space is regularly packed with couples licking their fingers over spicy wings and drumsticks, and there’s usually a line of people waiting at the bar for takeout. Chicken is the big draw here, of course, although the menu also includes Korean standbys such as pork buns, bulgogi and kimchee. Bonus: Unlike nearby Clarendon, the area has plenty of parking.
Recommended by Falls Church residents Anastasiya Laufenberg and Enzo Algarme, co-owners of Pupatella in Bluemont:
Bamian Afghan Cuisine, in Bailey’s Crossroads
Step inside and you’ll forget that Leesburg Pike is right outside the door. Glass chandeliers, dark wood and Afghan art set a romantic note in this spacious dining room, where tables in private alcoves are ideal for quiet dinners. “We offer reasonable prices, good portions and great food that’s vegetarian friendly, with plenty of options for folks with allergies to gluten and nuts,” says manager Reza Faizi. He suggests starting things off by splitting a couple of appetizers, such as ausha (scallion-filled steamed dumplings) and bouranee baunjaun (stir-fried eggplant with homemade yogurt).
The restaurant has hosted a number of weddings in its seven years, Faizi adds, and those couples come back year after year to celebrate their anniversaries.
Jessica Strelitz is a Falls Church-based food, wine and spirits writer whose favorite local date spots include Thai Curry in Ballston, Ray’s the Steaks in Courthouse and Present in Falls Church.