Wednesday, May 14, 2008

DC Highlight: Palena Cafe

I lived in DC a few years ago and still remember how hard it was to find good restaurants. There were decent places, but the real gems were few and far between - and generally really pricey. Restaurant Week rarely generated much to look forward to. But I discovered a few cool places on a recent trip. Maybe I wasn't originally looking in the right places, or maybe it's a testament to how the city's changing. Either way, I thought I'd share one of the dining highlights of my visit.

Tucked into the Cleveland Park netherlands of DC, Palena Cafe is worth a trip up the metro and towards the Zoo. Go for dinner with friends, dress low key and brace yourself for simple and tasty classic fare. The Cafe doesn't take reservations, unlike the slightly more upscale dining room in the back. It's helped change opinions about the DC dining scene.

But the menu is worth a wait - ordinaries like burgers and pasta or roast chicken take on a slightly magical taste with help from the little elves back in the kitchen. Make sure you order the fries - and expect to relish the crispy, if a touch unhealthy, bites. The place even has an "only-in-DC" story - owners Frank Ruta and Anne Amernick met while cooking in the White House.

Palena Cafe's specialties are its burger and roast chicken. It's elegant and refined, but casual - sneakers and jeans are welcome in the environs of leather stuffed bar stools and real silverware Beware that the chicken takes 45 minutes and plan to sample the worthwhile appetizers while you wait. Wait staff service was not a highlight of our experience, but that might be because we're spoiled here in San Francisco. The prices are also reasonable - most plates are within the $10-15 range. So sample as much as you can!