8 New Restaurants That Opened During the Pandemic
They're worth a visit, and our dining critic has a few suggestions about what to order.
Early in the pandemic, some predicted independent restaurants might disappear forever. Those apocalyptic forecasts failed to consider the key ingredients of resilience, innovation and, in certain cases, leases that were signed pre-Covid. Kitchens stayed open, takeout got creative, and a surprising number of new restaurants popped up in spite of it all, like spring crocuses. Here are eight that opened in the past year.
After some searching, chef Matt Hill found his dream piece of real estate in Arlington Heights. Back in the 1950s, the historic building was occupied by Mr. W’s, a chocolate factory and candy and ice cream shop. Now the airy, 4,650-square-foot space is home to Ruthie’s All-Day, which Hill co-owns with general manager and beverage director Todd Salvadore. It’s a laid-back spot that pairs smart cocktails and creative cooking with plenty of parking.
Ruthie’s, which opened in October, is named after Hill’s paternal grandmother in North Carolina. As a nod to that provenance, the menu centers on the Southern concept of a “meat and three,” prompting hungry diners to choose a protein and three sides.
Hill, previously the culinary director for The Liberty Tavern Group and the Best of Arlington 2021 winner for “Best Chef,” cooks on an Argentinian-style grill and a wood-burning smoker. For all his concept’s homeyness, this isn’t home cooking. The Rohan duck breast, for example, involves a four-step process—brining, smoking, pan-searing and chargrilling—that yields subtly smoked, rosy slices of meat with crisped skin. Tender octopus is slow-braised in olive oil, chargrilled and served with black-eyed pea hummus, kale and smoked chili aioli. Hill’s brisket, the restaurant’s runaway best-seller, is smoked low and slow for 12 to 14 hours, then wrapped and rested to set the peppery bark.
Side dishes excel—especially collard greens with smoked tomatoes and fried rice flavored with kimchi and chicken livers. Don’t overlook the nicely curated beer and cocktail programs (try “A Day on the Green” made with gin, yellow Chartreuse, cucumber and lemon) or the fact that you can order breakfast every weekday morning. Weekend brunch brings an even wider assortment of breakfast-y fare, including biscuits with pork sausage gravy and fried eggs.
Hill’s wife, Jeanne Choi (they live with their two boys in Donaldson Run), helped design the sunny, light-filled restaurant, which seats 144 inside and 70 outside with a vibe that’s both nostalgic and fresh. Vintage touches like cane-patterned wallpaper and schoolhouse pendant lights are juxtaposed with modern fixtures such as a satellite chandelier in the front entry and a gleaming, subway-tiled semi-open kitchen. //Ruthie’s All-Day, 3411 Fifth St. S., Arlington (Arlington Heights)
The fried-chicken sandwich craze was already well underway when the pandemic sent it into overdrive. Customers wanted takeout-friendly comfort food and chefs like Rock Harper were happy to oblige. Queen Mother’s Fried Chicken shares a kitchen and casual dining space with The Café by La Cocina VA, just off Columbia Pike.
Harper, who grew up mostly in Alexandria, named his enterprise after his mom, Carole. “My mother is a queen,” he says. “[Queen Mother’s] is a tribute to her, and to all Black women.” It’s also a tribute to a food that finds its origins in African American culture.
Upon ordering the Classic sandwich, dressed with “mother sauce” (Japanese Kewpie mayo, ketchup, lemon juice) and dill pickles, I find that the brioche bun can’t contain its enormous, 8-ounce chicken breast any more than my pre-pandemic T-shirt covers my new belly. Every delectable bite reflects Harper’s culinary bona fides. The Hell’s Kitchen reality show winner (Season 3) previously served as executive chef at B. Smith’s restaurant in D.C. and has long-standing ties to DC Central Kitchen.
Queen Mother’s cage-free, antibiotic-free chicken is brined, butterflied, dredged and deep-fried in duck fat and canola oil to craggy, crunchy perfection. In addition to the Classic, the menu offers three other iterations: Nashville hot; Virginia honey butter; and spicy mambo. Sides include coleslaw and waffle fries.
Harper started Queen Mother’s in D.C. in August as part of another restaurateur’s ghost kitchen concept, then moved the operation to Arlington in December. “I wanted to do it my way and fully control it, to serve fried chicken and smiles, build community, reach back to Black culture and lean into the stories—the fun ones and the tough ones,” he says. Smile received. Smile returned. //Queen Mother’s (at The Café by La Cocina VA), 918 S. Lincoln St., Arlington
“American Chinese by a Chinese American” declares Lucky Danger’s cheeky packaging. My takeout bag is filled with a magical assortment of paper containers, each clearly labeled with what’s inside—crab Rangoon, duck-fried rice, pork dumplings, omelet with dried radish, chicken lo mein, kung pao chicken, mapo tofu and salt-and-pepper shrimp.
That most of the offerings come in small or large portions means you can sample many of them without breaking the bank.
Lucky Danger began as a pop-up concept in the District, the brainchild of Taiwanese American chefs Tim Ma and Andrew Chiou. Both are Southern-born (Ma is from Arkansas; Chiou, from Texas) and both previously owned full-service restaurants in the D.C. area. “My entire generation, we were born in the States but don’t speak Chinese or know much about our Chinese heritage,” says Ma. “This concept is a way to get in touch with our roots.”
When Federal Realty approached the chefs about bringing Lucky Danger to Westpost (formerly Pentagon Row) as a carryout business, they decided to make the concept more permanent. “It was a 1,200-square-foot space in the back [near the Harris Teeter], not near the pretty ice rink,” Ma says, which frankly made it perfect for their needs. “It has parking in front and a driveway for pickup and delivery.” At press time, the Arlington location was set to open in April.
It’s been a learning process, Ma says. Tinkering with quintessential Chinese American dishes can backfire. “We put real lump crabmeat in the crab Rangoon, but people complained about the funny flavor,” he confesses. “So now we use imitation crabmeat in the cream cheese filling. The lesson: Stop being cheffy!”
Still, the delicate, crunchy coating on the salt-and-pepper shrimp, which is served with sauteed onions and jalapenos for a kick of heat, indicates a level of professional skill. So does the duck-fried rice made with tea-smoked duck breast and confit leg meat.
The menu’s sleeper, a wok-fried Taiwanese omelet, is a dish Chiou grew up with. “It’s all about texture and balance,” he explains. “Dried radish adds crunch and salt, and barely sauteed onions add sweetness.” Cheffy or not, it’s a winner. //Lucky Danger, 1101 S. Joyce St., Arlington (Westpost)
The trophies on display are the first indication that your barbecue is in good hands. Smokecraft pitmaster and owner Andrew Darneille was working in management at Georgetown’s erstwhile Old Glory restaurant when he began entering barbecue competitions in 2016. He eventually turned his hobby into a profession, racking up more than 70 awards.
Wanting to put his years of front-of-the-house experience (and a University of Maryland MBA) to use, he signed a lease in Clarendon in May 2019. The timing could not have been worse. Construction on the new space began in December of that year, but Covid delays forced Darneille to postpone the launch until July of 2020. Because he wasn’t open before the pandemic, he didn’t qualify for any government assistance.
Once the doors opened, though, he made up for lost time. Smokecraft was voted “Best New Restaurant” by Arlington Magazine readers in the Best of Arlington 2021 awards. The 3,500-square-foot space is a stunner with plenty of natural light, a 35-foot bar and a rustic palette of wood, brick, granite and steel. It offers seating for 100 inside and 30 outside (at full capacity), with plans to nearly double the number of patio seats.
Darneille uses two Southern Pride gas smokers and seven types of wood, depending on what’s cooking (cherry for ribs; hickory and cherry for pork shoulder and brisket, for example). Every dish on the menu—including desserts—is hit with fire or smoke. “My goal is to treat smoke like salt and pepper,” he explains. “It’s a seasoning, but never overpowering.”
That nuanced ingredient is evident in his cubes of tender Duroc pork belly, tossed in a chipotle-cocoa rub, smoked over cherrywood and finished with apple glaze. And in an enormous gyro sandwich packed with cherrywood-smoked lamb and pecan wood-smoked feta cheese. A vegetarian dish treats smoked spaghetti squash like pasta, tossing the savory strands with goat cheese, peppers, spinach and tomatoes. Even a Key lime pie made with crème de coco, pineapple juice and dark rum is kissed with applewood smoke as it sets. //Smokecraft Modern Barbecue, 1051 N. Highland St., Arlington (Clarendon)