Washington, D.C., offers all kinds of great deals on dining, and I'm not talking about McDonald's or Burger King. You can choose to eat at a chain or fast food restaurant if you like, but you won't find such places listed in our "best bets." No, I'd rather point you to the capital's home-grown, inexpensive eateries, to its restaurants that normally might be beyond your budget, except on vacation, when you're ready to splurge, and to special deals offered by some of Washington's best restaurants at specific times.
Some tips to keep in mind: Don't assume that you won't need a reservation at an inexpensive restaurant. Although most low-budget eateries seat diners on a casual, walk-in basis, some don't. My listings indicate whether a restaurant recommends that you make a reservation; if the listing says nothing on the subject, it means that the establishment does not accept them. For restaurants that do accept reservations, call ahead, especially for Saturday night, which books up especially fast. A number of restaurants are affiliated with an online reservation service called www.opentable.com, so if you've got Internet access, you might reserve your table on the Web.
If you prefer spontaneity and decide to wait until the last minute to make a reservation, expect to dine really early, say 5:30 or 6pm, or really late (by Washington standards, 9:30pm qualifies as late -- this is not a late-night town). Or you can sit at the bar and eat, which can be fun, and sometimes more affordable, if you're ordering from a bar menu. If you're driving (which I would not recommend), call ahead to inquire about valet parking, complimentary or otherwise -- on Washington's crowded streets, this service can be a true bonus. Be forewarned, however: when it's not complimentary, valet parking can be prohibitively expensive. Even more costly is parking lot or garage parking. Your other choices, to walk, Metro, or taxi to the restaurant, make more budget sense, and can be just as easy.
Best Spot for a Celebration: Café Atlantico, 405 8th St. NW (tel. 202/393-0812), will give you reason to celebrate even if you didn't arrive with one. The restaurant is pure fun, with charming waiters, seating on three levels, colorful wall-size paintings by Latin and Caribbean artists, fantastic cocktails, and unusual but not trendy Latin/Caribbean food. Another good choice: Kinkead's, 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/296-7700), a terrific splurge choice for a special occasion.
Best View: Les Halles, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/347-6848), whose awning-covered sidewalk in summer becomes enclosed in winter, is a fine spot for viewing the sights along Pennsylvania Avenue all year round. Or consider one of the restaurants at the Kennedy Center at the southern end of New Hampshire Ave. NW, and Rock Creek Pkwy. (tel. 202/416-8555): its Roof Terrace, Hors D'Oeuvrerie, or KC Café, where immense windows provide a sweeping panoramic view of the Potomac River and Washington landmarks.
Best for Kids: Famous Luigi's Pizzeria Restaurant, 1132 19th St. NW (tel. 202/331-7574), serves up some of the best pizza and spaghetti in town, plus the place is loud and indestructible.
Best Chinese: Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant, 619 H St. NW (tel. 202/371-8669), in the heart of Chinatown, is consistently good and a great place for Hunan, spicy Szechuan, and Cantonese specialties.
Best French: For French staples and bistro atmosphere, head to Bistrot Lepic & Wine Bar, at 1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW (tel. 202/333-0111), or Bistrot du Coin, 1738 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/234-6969).
Best Southern: At Vidalia, 1990 M St. NW (tel. 202/659-1990), chef Jeff Buben calls his cuisine "provincial American," a euphemism for fancy fare that includes cheese grits and biscuits in cream gravy.
Best Mexican: Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St. NW (tel. 202/387-0035), isn't completely Mexican (it's also Salvadoran and Cuban). But it's all delicious and well priced, and worth standing in line for, since the restaurant does not take reservations.
Best Pizza: At Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St. NW (tel. 202/223-1245), peerless chewy-crusted pies are baked in an oak-burning oven and crowned with delicious toppings; you'll find great salads and sandwiches on fresh-baked focaccia here, too. If you like thick, old-fashioned pizzas, head to Famous Luigi's Pizzeria Restaurant, 1132 19th St. NW (tel. 202/331-7574).
Best Healthy Meal: At Legal Sea Foods, 2020 K St. NW (tel. 202/496-1111), follow up a cup of light clam chowder (made without butter, cream, or flour) with an entree of grilled fresh fish and vegetables and a superb sorbet for dessert. It's guilt-free dining.
Best for a Bad Mood: At Al Tiramisu, 2014 P St. NW (tel. 202/467-4466), the waiters, the owner, the conviviality, and the Italian food gently coax that smile upon your face.
Best Spot for Romance on a Budget: Bistro Français, 3124-28 M St. NW (tel. 202/338-3830), is trés romantique, but you must ask to be seated in the more intimate, candle-lit dining room section. For something exotic, try the Bombay Club, 815 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/659-3727), where the food is ambrosial and the service royal. Here you can linger over a meal as long as you like, enjoying the mood created by the pianist's music, in a dining room that recalls the days of the British empire.
Best Breakfast: Stuff yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet at Reeves Restaurant & Bakery, 1306 G St. NW (tel. 202/628-6350), for just $6.95 daily.
Best Brunch: For something a little different (like drag queens slinking around the room), go to Perry's, in Adams-Morgan, at 1811 Columbia Rd. NW (tel. 202/234-6218), where brunch is $23. For best value, make a beeline to Old Glory Barbecue, 3139 M St. NW (tel. 202/337-3406), and pay $12 ($6.95 for kids 11 and under) for a limitless buffet of waffles, omelets cooked to your liking, muffins, biscuits with sausage gravy, fruit salad, complimentary beverages, and more. Live music is sometimes an added feature.
Best Teas: Unlike the more formal, British-style afternoon repasts, afternoon tea at Teaism, 800 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/835-2233), is a casual affair, charming and relaxed. The Asian "tea list," comprising several dozen varieties, is as lovingly composed as the wine list of the most distinguished French restaurant. The Teaism located at 400 8th St. NW (tel. 202/638-6010) also serves afternoon tea.
Best American Cuisine: The whimsically decorated Luna Grill & Diner, 1301 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/835-2280), serves creatively homey food in a hip setting at fabulous prices.
Best Italian: For traditional (and affordable) classic Italian fare, Roberto Donna's Il Radicchio, 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE (tel. 202/547-5114), does the trick.
Best Seafood: At Johnny's Half Shell, 2002 P St. NW. (tel. 202/296-2021), you simply can't go wrong choosing from the small but exacting menu of fried oysters, wild rockfish, softshell crabs, and the like, all superbly prepared. Or treat yourself to a splurge at Kinkead's 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW (tel. 202/296-7700), one of the city's best restaurants.
Best Southwestern Cuisine: It doesn't get more exciting than the Red Sage Border Café, 605 14th St. NW (tel. 202/638-4444), where hot cuisine trends meet traditional Southwestern cookery.
Best Place to Spot Your Congressperson: If you're Mall-bound, slip into the opulent House of Representatives Restaurant, Room H118, at the south end of the Capitol (tel. 202/225-6300), and grab a cup of that famous bean soup.
Best Desserts: No frou-frou desserts are served at Café Berlin, 322 Massachusetts Ave. NE (tel. 202/543-7656); these cakes and tortes and pies and strudels are the real thing -- as hearty as those house-special wursts and schnitzels.
Best Late-Night Dining: For comfortable, romantic surroundings and delicious French cuisine, try Bistro Français (see above), which serves a specially priced $20, three-course menu until 1am nightly. Up all night? Head for Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/387-1462), which stays open around the clock on weekends.
Best Outdoor Dining: Raku, 1900 Q St. NW (tel. 202/265-RAKU), occupies a prominent, excellent people-watching corner near Dupont Circle. The scene gets better when, spring through fall, Raku's windowed walls open to its sidewalk cafe.
Best Ethiopian Cuisine: Meskerem, 2434 18th St. NW (tel. 202/462-4100), is a good pick in this category, both for setting and for food.