Some 28 years ago Frenchman Yannick Cam gave Reaganites the glamour they craved. At Le Pavillon, the city's introduction to nouvelle cuisine, Cam sent out diminutive, painterly portions that became all the rage. After the restaurant closed, in 1990, the eccentric Cam bounced between kitchens before vanishing from the scene altogether. In 2004, the city's most iconic French chef made his splashy return just steps from the Mall. Le Paradou (678 Indiana Ave. NW; 202/347-6780; www.leparadou.net; dinner for two $110), his big-deal new place, has the sort of starched-shirt formality that's gone out of vogue of late. The spare, spacious dining room is among the city's most attractive, swaddled in pale blond wood and featuring a Robert Custer glass sculpture. Beneath a ceiling sparkling with tiny faux stars, beautiful dishes emphasize old-fashioned French flavors using a modern, light touch. One oversize plate frames a checkerboard of dramatically sauced girolle mushrooms under garlic-infused escargot; on another, scallops and sea bass dance round a spattered puddle of bouillabaisse-channeling bright yellow sauce.
Citronelle (3000 M St. NW; 202/625-2150; www.citronelledc.com; dinner for two $170) is by now an institution, a restaurant mentioned in the same breath as many of the country's finest. A few years after opening it in Georgetown as an outlying appendage of his Los Angeles–based Cal-French empire, chef Michel Richard ditched the West Coast to stay in D.C. full-time. The dining room, with its woozy color-shifting glass wall, is unrecognizable from my days there searing fish. But the high-wattage clientele is still the same (evidenced by the Secret Service entourage spied in the driveway). The waiters, in black suits and crisp white shirts, are as properly stiff as any at JFK's favorite French spots, but Citronelle is not your grandfather's French restaurant. Richard's food is as vivacious as ever: bracing creations like cuttlefish fashioned into "fettuccine" and showered in trout eggs and beets, or his Technicolor "oyster shooter" amusebouche—a narrow glass layered red (aspic-encased tomato confit) to white (oysters in brine) to green (cucumber gelée) to black (caviar)—are dazzling both to look at and to consume.
Neither Richard nor Andrés has a lock on creativity here. At Maestro (1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean, Va.; 703/821-1515; www.ritzcarlton.com; dinner for two $200), in the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, in the Virginia suburbs, 32-year-old Fabio Trabocchi filters his exquisite Italian food through a Felliniesque lens. Despite the steepest dinner prices in the Washington area—and its far-flung locale about 20 minutes outside the city—the restaurant is consistently packed. As if the food weren't erotic enough, the dining room's Versace opulence (along with the possibility of a room for the night) makes it ideal for a nostalgic Clintonesque dalliance. Trabocchi is a spike-haired perfectionist, equally comfortable working in a traditional idiom (superb risotto) or creating something brand-new (Kobe beef carpaccio rolled around tofu). Five- or seven-course meals can be mixed and matched from among his classical dishes ("La Tradizione") and his most outlandish ("L'Evoluzione"). Or the truly adventurous can put their entire evening in this young wizard's capable hands. Raw fish might come first, a gorgeous mosaic of caviar-slathered tuna, hamachi, salmon, and conch, with vitello tonnato expressed as a sauce. There might be lobster plumped into a pasta pouch, tortellini filled with duck confit, or loin of Virginia lamb photogenically shrouded in goat cheese mousse and pistachio crumbs.
Minibar (405 Eighth St. NW; 202/393-0812; www.cafeatlantico.com; dinner for two $170) auteur José Andrés is a force of nature, launching, it sometimes seems, a new place every week. His burgeoning empire began, naturally enough, with the small-plate food of his native Spain. In 1993 he reimagined tapas at the original Jaleo (there are now three), a restaurant gamble in a neighborhood—abutting Chinatown—that had seen better days. Since then a new sports arena and a shopping mall have replaced the pawnshops and check-cashing stores. Officially known as the Penn Quarter, the spiffed-up area might easily be billed "Andrés-town." Within a single block the chef runs three of the city's most popular restaurants: along with Jaleo, there's the Latin American–influenced Café Atlantico, which houses the three-year-old Minibar; just up the block is Zaytinya, a high-ceilinged showpiece devoted to the flavorful mezes of Turkey, Greece, and the Middle East.