9 Restaurants With Serious Ambiance
Atmosphere is an important part of the dining experience. And these places have it.
Looking for a night to remember? A day date that leaves you feeling blissfully satisfied? It’s not just about the food or the bar program. Here are some local eateries where the overall vibe is pretty awesome.
At Scot Harlan’s Clarendon gastropub, the walls are papered with vintage cookbook pages, and the chef’s personal collection of rainbow crockery is on display in the dining room. The carefully edited menu emphasizes nose-to-tail cooking, with creative dishes that feature more unusual cuts of meat. Think Provence meets the American South.
Owner Greta Hsu recently gutted the interior of her Thai restaurant in Ballston and gave it a makeover—with a split personality. Feeling serene? Head to the bright and ethereal “heaven” side of the dining room, where you can cocoon yourself in a hanging chair or sway on a porch swing against a wall of green grass. (Okay, it’s fake turf, but it still feels soothing.) In more of a devilish mood? Sidle up to the red-lit bar or settle in next to one of the gas fireplaces on the “hell” side and order something stiff, along with a plate of Jungle curry—extra spicy.
The Shirlington outpost of this D.C. chainlet is part café and part intellectual salon, featuring a built-in bookstore, poetry slams, film screenings and other events designed to foster political and cultural discourse. The dining room includes a commemorative montage of heroes and clips from the Civil Rights movement, and a larger-than-life wall mural depicting the Langston Hughes poem “Dreams.”
The Crystal City location of Jose Andres’ popular tapas restaurant brings a touch of the dramatic with high ceilings, Spanish mosaic tiles, wrought iron railings and plenty of Flamenco red. All that, plus a bonanza of dishes designed for sharing make it a lively spot for large parties. There’s even a private dining area that seats 60 at three massive banquet tables.
So what if the weather is getting colder? This beloved spot in Falls Church City will transport you to warmer climes with its beach-themed décor, live music, coastal dishes (fish tacos, coconut shrimp, fried alligator) and ever-popular lubricants like margaritas and mai-tais. Bonus: The State Theatre, conveniently located across the street, is the place to go for tribute band concerts.
This subterranean addendum to Ambar in Clarendon (its entrance is right next door) feels like an underground speak-easy or supper club. Intimate and eclectic, it’s outfitted with reclaimed window panes, bare-bulb fixtures, exposed brick and a hodgepodge of portraits and still-life paintings in gilded frames. Go for breakfast (try a grain bowl or one of the cleverly different egg dishes) or head over after dark when the space turns into a sultry cocktail bar with a deejay.
When Tammy Disayawathana opened the first Sisters Thai in Fairfax, she subtitled it “The Living Room Café” and introduced a dining room that feels like you’re hanging out in your cool friend’s shabby-chic flat. The restaurant’s second incarnation in the Mosaic District is just as homey, with throw pillows, funky chandeliers, an old-fashioned coffee counter and a wall of books, which diners are welcome to peruse while they wait.
To ensure that their Spanish restaurant in Ballston would be a bright spot in more ways than one, co-proprietor Javier Candon and his wife, Christiana, chose a color scheme reminiscent of the coastal towns in their native Spain. Photos of family and friends line one wall, and the furnishings include reclaimed tables, painted garage-sale finds, a baby grand piano for late-night sing-alongs and one glam touch: the restaurant’s name, spelled out in electric marquee letters. The whole space feels personal and it is, with hospitality to match. If you don’t try one of Candon’s house-made infused brandies after dinner, you’re missing out.
This rustic watering hole in Shirlington Village feels like the inside of a cabin and counts moonshine (13 types!) among the spirits on its beverage menu. It’s a cozy spot for a pre-theater dinner—Signature Theater is a block away—or for a decadent brunch on a lazy Sunday with dishes such as Bananas Foster French toast, duck hash and short-rib Benedict.