FULL DECADENCE: A burger to remember at Vermilion in Old Town. Photograph by Rey Lopez.
Comfort food is the most personal of culinary categories—a cheese-laden slab of lasagna or steaming bowl of ramen could give one person the warm-and-cozies while making another flip the menu page. These nine dishes are what have sustained this food critic through some cold and gray days.
Pimiento-Cheese Deviled Eggs
Harvey’s | 513 W. Broad St., Falls Church
I’ve had deviled eggs in so many variations this year—chopped into salad, piped with a three-inch tower of yolk, crammed with crab or lobster. What makes chef/owner Thomas Harvey’s traditional quartet, laced with Duke’s mayo and spicy mustard, so special? A “hidden flavor bomb”—his words—of housemade pimiento cheese. But it’s also his dedication to the tiniest details. The eggs are topped with pieces of sugared bacon from a Virginia farm where the pigs are fattened with ice cream.
Paulie Cicero Sandwich
The Cracked Eggery | 3420 Connecticut Ave., NW | 1921 Eighth St., NW
There’s nothing wrong with a plain old bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich, but go for its Goodfellas-inspired cousin at this pair of all-day breakfast spots. A thick slather of ricotta and a drizzle of spicy honey give the sandwich ample sweetness, but it’s balanced with tangy sun-dried-tomato pesto, a handful of peppery arugula, a fried egg, and chopped prosciutto. “We hate when you take a bite of prosciutto and pull the entire piece out of a sandwich,” says cofounder Mike Tabb.
Vermilion | 1120 King St., NW
Smash burgers are great, don’t get me wrong. But the now-dominant style—skinny, crispy-edged patties, usually served with American cheese, special sauce, and a squishy bun—is about the sum more than the parts. So it’s refreshing to have a burger that’s all about the beef. You’ll find just that on the lunch and brunch menus at this freshly spiffed-up Old Town restaurant, which reopened in July after a two-year pandemic closure. Dry-aged rib eye and flank steak, from Maryland’s Roseda Farm, are ground in-house, grilled over charcoal, then blanketed with Grayson, the nutty washed-rind cheese from Virginia. Mustardy aïoli and a few sprigs of fresh tarragon from the rooftop garden finish it off.
Honeymoon Chicken | 4201 Georgia Ave., NW | 4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda
These pull-apart dinner rolls, which are stashed in the “sides” section of the menu, are the star offering at this Petworth fried-chicken shop (and its Bethesda sibling inside the all-carryout Ensemble Kitchen). They arrive hot and pillowy, glistening with honey butter and shards of Maldon salt, and sprinkled with chives. You’ll get one or two with every order of fried chicken. Just go ahead and get a half dozen, then thank me later.
Mr. Bake at Le Fantome | 4501 Woodberry St., Riverdale Park
Kareem Queeman—a.k.a. Mr. Bake—stays faithful to his Aunt Janet’s heirloom recipe for this ultra-airy banana pudding. (The trick: He mixes freshly whipped cream into the vanilla-pudding base.) You’ll find it at his stand inside the new Le Fantome food hall. And I’m hardly the only superfan—the pudding won Queeman his first-ever cooking competition back in high school.
Bar Ivy | 3033 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
Jonathan Till is equal parts forager and chef, and you’ll often find him scouring Virginia forests for ingredients. And so the aïoli served with these crunchy orbs might be flavored with black garlic or pawpaw or whatever else is growing around. The fritters themselves, filled with silken mashed potato, lemon zest, chives, dandelion greens, and brandade (salt cod), are so good I’d eat them with pretty much anything. Salt cod, a New England staple that you don’t see as much down here, is typically soaked and boiled in milk. Till goes the dairy-free route, using water instead, and manages to sacrifice nothing in flavor.
Tigerella | 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW (inside Western Market)
What happens when a kitchen of fermentation geeks gets their hands on a bunch of vintage Pizza Hut pans? This bready, almost focaccia-like personal-size pizza arrayed with pickled onions, pattypan squash, giardiniera, fermented mustard seeds, and a jolt of spicy honey. It sounds like a lot—and it is. But everything is mellowed by a garlicky cream sauce, and really, few things are better than the crunch of that burnished-cheese crust.
Daru | 1451 Maryland Ave., NE
Sure, there are more exciting things on the menu than butter chicken at this mod-Indian attention-getter near the H Street corridor. The spiced-up cocktails, for one. Or the fiery duck kebabs. But we’re talking comfort food here, and chef Suresh Sundas is currently putting out the area’s best rendition of America’s favorite Indian entrée. The sunset-orange sauce is lush, creamy, and a little bit sweet. But what makes Sundas’s plum-tomato-based version stand out is the chicken itself. The juicy bird is marinated overnight in Kashmiri chili paste, yogurt, and mustard oil, then plated atop—not submerged in—the sauce so it retains a character all its own.
Budino de Riso (Rice Pudding)
L’Ardente | 200 Massachusetts Ave., NW
The inspo for one of the loveliest desserts in the city right now? 7-Eleven. When pastry chef Manabu Inoue was growing up in Tokyo, he’d regularly detour to the convenience store for an afterschool snack of rice pudding. Now, decades later, he’s turned his nostalgia into a menu fixture at this glittery Italian dining room. The pudding itself is conjured from coconut milk and enriched with mascarpone. It’s then topped with a shattering pane of torched sugar and accented with sour-cherry compote, orange segments, and mint. It tastes more creamsicle and crème brûlée than convenience-store snack.
This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Washingtonian.