Plan ahead if you're determined to snag a sought-after reservation. Some renowned restaurants are booked weeks in advance and others do not accept advance requests. But you can get lucky at the last minute if you're flexible—and friendly. Most restaurants keep a few tables open for walk-ins and VIPs. Show up for dinner early (5:30 pm) or late (after 10 pm) and politely inquire about any last-minute vacancies or cancellations. If you're calling a few days ahead of time, ask if you can be put on a waiting list. Occasionally, an eatery may ask you to call the day before your scheduled meal to reconfirm: don't forget, or you could lose out.
Washington has less of an around-the-clock mentality than other big cities, with many big-name restaurants shutting down between lunch and dinner and closing their kitchens by 11 pm. Weekend evenings spent Downtown can also be a hassle for those seeking quick bites, because many popular chain eateries cater to office workers and shut down on Friday at 6 pm. For a midnight supper, the best bets are Dupont Circle and the U Street Corridor, while families looking for late lunches should head north from the Mall to find kitchens that stay open between mealtimes.
What to Wear
As unfair as it seems, the way you look can influence how you're treated—and where you're seated. Generally speaking, jeans and a button-down shirt will suffice at most table-service restaurants in the $–$$ range. Some pricier restaurants require jackets, and some insist on ties. In reviews, we mention dress only where men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie. But even when there's no formal dress code, we recommend wearing jackets and ties in $$$ and $$$$ restaurants. If you have doubts, call the restaurant and ask.
If you're watching your budget, be sure to ask the price of daily specials recited by the waiter or captain. The charge for specials at some restaurants is noticeably out of line with the other prices on the menu. Beware of the $10 bottle of water; ask for tap water instead. And always review your bill.
If you eat early or late you may be able to take advantage of prix-fixe deals not offered at peak hours. Most upscale restaurants offer great lunch deals with special menus at cut-rate prices designed to give customers a true taste of the place.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but many restaurants (particularly smaller ones Downtown) accept only cash. If you plan to use a credit card, it's a good idea to double-check its acceptability when making reservations or before sitting down to eat.
Tipping and Taxes
In most restaurants, tip the waiter 16%–20%. (To figure the amount quickly, just double the sales tax noted on the check—it's 10% of your bill.) Tip at least $1 per drink at the bar and $1 for each coat checked. Never tip the maître d' unless you're out to impress your guests or expect to pay another visit soon.
If you're dining with a group, make sure not to overtip: review your check to see if a gratuity has been added, as many restaurants automatically tack on an 18% tip for groups of six or more.
Dining with Kids
Though it's unusual to see children in the dining rooms of D.C.'s most elite restaurants, eating with youngsters in the nation's capital does not have to mean culinary exile. Many of the restaurants reviewed here are excellent choices for families and are marked with a symbol.
Smoking is banned in all restaurants and bars, with the exception of a few spaces that have enclosed and ventilated rooms—usually for cigar aficionados.