Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine
Washington's Wine-Friendly Restaurants

by Dave McIntyre          

Have you ever sat in a restaurant staring at a wine list full of unfamiliar names,grapes or places and worried about spending so much money on a hit-or-miss prospect?

Don’t despair. If the restaurant has a sommelier, ask him or her for advice, based onwhat food you have ordered and which styles of wine you prefer. If the recommendation issignificantly more or less expensive than what you indicated as your price range, ask thesommelier to justify his selection in terms of how the wine will pair with your food.

A typical restaurant will impose a higher

markup on less expensive wines (which helpsexplain our sticker shock when we see our $10 Cabernet on a list at $30 or more). Thismeans diners tend to get a better value at the middle to higher end of the range; plus,these wines may be harder to find, or even allocated only to restaurants. Following aserver’s recommendation down the price scale from $50 to $30 may save you a little money(while making more for the restaurant), but you may have been better off with the moreexpensive, better value choice. My advice: Stay in your comfort range, but if you wantedto save money, you’d have stayed home.
Washington is Wine Town —a thriving retail market blessed with several talentedimporters and a demanding international clientele knowledgeable about winesfrom around the world. The area’s restaurants are joining in the fun, with anincreasing number taking an extra step to accommodate wine lovers with carefully chosen andinteresting selections.

With the wide variety of restaurant styles however, it is difficult and perhaps counterproductiveto rate restaurants according to the traditional idea of a wine list. No one model fits all – itmakes little sense to compare a formal French restaurant’s wine list to that of acasual brasserie, or to a restaurant specializing in Turkish mezze.

The ideal wine list is no longer a thick tome plunked in your lap for hours ofintent reading while your dining companions twiddle their thumbs in hungry frustration.To borrow a phrase, “size doesn’t matter,” meaning that a good wine list may be a single page.It should feature an interesting selection of wines by the glass or the half bottle to accommodatesingle diners or parties interested in varying their wine selection through the meal. Mostimportant, the wines should complement the food on the menu; if your dinner offers an explorationof a new cuisine, the wines ideally should be out of the ordinary. And of course, thewines should be reasonably priced.

Here are some of the Washington area’s most “wine-friendly” restaurants for big spenders andcasual diners, with brief descriptions of their selections.

Luxury lists are designed to set a wine geek’s eyes a-popping, with extensive selections oftop wines, at top prices. If you have deep pockets, an expense account, or clients to impress,these are the lists for you. Here you will typically find a larger-than-usual selectionof Champagnes, as well as brandies, or single-malt Scotch. Don’t expect to save money on theselists, though the occasional bargain can be found.

Galileo, one of the city’s top Italian restaurants, is rich in the Barolos andBarbarescos of chef Roberto Donna’s native Piedmont, with the added bonusthat many have aged enough to be ready to drink. The restaurant tops off its collection bypurchasing wines from collectors.

Kinkeads has arguably the Washington area’s most exciting winelist, carefully crafted to appeal to all palates and wallets. The main list offers acolor-coded “thermometer” describing the body and style of each wine, fromcrisp and fruity to heavy and oaky for whites, or fruity to rich for reds. Theonly thing missing is matching symbols on the menu to pair wines with entrees.A different wine region is featured each month, with Spain a recent theme.

Wine lovers rejoice! Le Relais in Great Falls offers premium wines by theglass instead of the usual suspects. The list is deepest in French and Americanwines, but the best values can be found in the shorter section from Spain.

Looking for those cult Cabernets from California? You’ll find some atMichel Richard Citronelle, along with top Bordeaux and Burgundy, and asmattering of wines from Germany and Austria.

Wine bars are scarce in the Washington area, but Bardeo in Cleveland Parkfeatures 19 wines by the glass or half-glass, along with a menu of “small plates”with featured wine recommendations. Bethesda’s Grapeseed also allows dinersto explore how different foods interact with various wine grapes and styles, whileFleming’s Steakhouse offers the area’s largest by-the-glass selection.

Others, such as the new Firefly, take special care to go beyond the usualChardonnay-Cabernet-Merlot trinity in their by-the-glass offerings and toinclude a healthy selection of half-bottles. And at Chef Geoff’s Downtown,the entire by-the-glass list is priced at $7. Besides some interesting selections,wine fiends can have fun guessing which wines have the lower markup.

You may also take flights of fancy, sampling three or four wines madefrom the same grape, area, or the same wine from different vintages. SauvignonBlanc can display widely varying characteristics when made in the Loire Valley,California, or New Zealand for example, as can Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa,Washington State or Bordeaux. Flights typically offer you smaller pours than asingle glass, but you get more for your buck with multiple wines and the fun ofcomparing them.

Restaurants that often offer flights of wines include Mendocino Grille andthe downtown Legal Sea Foods, as well as Bardeo. Flights are also in the worksat Zola, where the mostly American list peeks behind the once-Iron Curtain (theInternational Spy Museum is next door) to bring us wines from Eastern Europe.(Transylvanian Sauvignon Blanc, anyone?) Zola’s extensive by-the-glass offerings are notundercover – the bottles are in plain sight in three mouth-wateringdisplays throughout the dining room, and diners are encouraged to sample before making a choice.

Restaurants that specialize in a particular cuisine offer diners an opportunityto journey beyond the ordinary in wine as well. Such travelers’ lists includeZaytinya, where the mezze of the Eastern Mediterranean can be washeddown with wines from Greece, Turkey and Lebanon – don’t be put off by unfamiliar(and unpronounceable) winery or grape names!

Jaleo shows why Spain is now the buzzword for wine hounds sniffing outvalues; the downtown branch also offers a reserve list with some of Spain’s hard-to-find (and pay for) top wines. Café Atlantico pairs Nuevo Latino cuisinewith the wines of Chile, Argentina and Mexico (and a nice selection ofCalifornia Zinfandel for cautious travelers).

And finally, Dupont Circle’s Obelisk matches Northern Italian cuisine withan all-Italian wine selection that includes some topnotch producers on the cusp ofdiscovery. That means high quality at good value.

And that’s very wine-friendly.

Author of Dave McIntyre’s WineLine, as published on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers’ Page.comand in Mid-Atlantic Restaurant Digest. Dave McIntyre is a contributor to Wine Enthusiast,Touring & Tasting, Decanter.com, WineToday.com (New York Times Online), Sidewalk.com, TheWashington Post, and Oz Clarke Wine Guides. He is also a member of the Board of Advisersfor the Miami International Wine Fair.
These other restaurants are also noteworthy for their wine offerings:
Cashion’s Eat Place: Value selections from France and Italy at fair prices.

Chef Geoff’s & Chef Geoff’s Downtown: All by-the-glass selections are $7. “WineTime Wednesday” at both locations offer 6 flights (half-glasses) for $15.

Colvin Run Tavern: An emphasis on value and out-of-the-ordinary selections.

DC Coast: Large by-the-glass and half-bottle selections for moderate drinkers.And then of course those cocktails!

Equinox: Thoughtful selections, mostly from the New World, and one of the fewD.C. restaurants gutsy enough to offer Virginia wines.

Grapeseed: Offers wine tasting every other Tuesday, 5 to 7pm. February 11: RedBlends From Around the World; February 25: Zinfandels.

Sushi-Ko: For the adventurous diner– red Burgundy with raw fish. Yes, it works!

Vidalia: A broad list, and the city’s best selection of American Pinot Noir, oftenhard to find and expensive.

Also worth noting is the upcoming DC International Wine and Food Festival,Saturday February 22nd and Sunday February 23rd from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.For more information, call (800)343-1174.


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