A Friday night at Mussel Bar.
Photo credit: Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

Maybe: The Capital Grille

The people: Owned by Darden, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. In addition to The Capital Grille, the firm runs 1,800 Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 restaurants in North America. It employs about 180,000 people and serves 400 million meals each year, with annual sales of more than $7 billion, according to the Darden website.

The place: Ultra-handsome, with all the accoutrements of a he-man steakhouse—dark wood, burgundy banquettes, animal heads on the wall.

The food: Above average, but not by much. The sirloin steak was just a nice piece of meat; the swordfish, just a nice piece of fish. The Caesar salad was way underdressed, while the creamed spinach, heavily cloaked in nutmeg, had the opposite problem. But the biggest disappointment was the coconut cream pie. Buried beneath a Capitol rotunda-like dome of whipped cream was a barely-there layer of coconut cream. The best part of the meal was the coconut cookie that came with it.

The bottom line: Stunning setting outshines the food.

5310 Wisconsin Ave. Chevy Chase. 301-718-7812, www.capitalgrille.com. $$$$

Go: Cava Mezze Grille

The people: This is the latest concept from Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis—longtime friends and the sons of Greek immigrants—who run the successful sit-down Cava restaurants in Rockville and on Capitol Hill, have a catering business, and sell their packaged dips and spreads in a growing number of supermarkets. (Next up for the ambitious trio: a Cava in Clarendon, Va., and a joint venture with Mamma Lucia in Park Potomac in Potomac.)

The place: One of several new eco-chic eateries in the area, with green building materials, exposed ceilings, reclaimed wood, separated trash bins, etc. The logo and staff T-shirts are sharp, but the counter help could use a little coaching.   

The food: By now, you’ve probably heard this place described as a Greek version of Chipotle—a comparison that says it all. Instead of a burrito, you select fillings for a pita, salad or rice bowl, anchored with lamb, loukaniko (sausage) or falafel, and topped with feta, hummus or tzatziki. (I’m partial to the rice bowls, which are easier to eat than the pitas.)

Moshovitis, the chef of the trio, says everything goes together on his menu of meats, dips, spreads and salads, no matter what selections you make. (Kind of like Chico’s clothing.) It helps that the components taste terrific on their own, whether it’s the falafel made with whole chickpeas, the tender lamb, lemony hummus, “Crazy Feta,” eggplant and red pepper dip, cabbage salad and so on. The food tastes healthy, and doesn’t leave you feeling too full. I really like this place.

The bottom line: High quality for the price; fast food at its finest.

4832 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-1772, www.cavagrill.com. $

Don’t bother: Fire Station 1 Restaurant & Brewing Co.

The people: Jeremy Gruber, a former Montgomery County fire captain, rescued this historic Silver Spring fire station, which closed in 2006 after more than 90 years. Gruber, who was with the county for 25 years, was actually assigned to the station at various points throughout his career; then he turned his workplace into a restaurant.

The place: It took a lot of time, energy and money to redo this space, and it shows. Much of the original building is still intact: the façade, the wood rafters and the glazed brick walls, with the former hose tower now housing the pizza oven. There’s seating on two levels, and a long bar with lights above it that change colors.

The food: Heavy versions of standard American pub fare. The calamari and onion rings were encased in a fried fortress.The burger was coarse and cooked beyond what was requested; the ribs were meaty but tough; and the french fry wedges had that dry, flaky consistency that can come from freezer burn. The three-alarm chili, which tasted like something out of a can, only rang one alarm for me. A crab cake sandwich and lobster BLT were just so-so. As of now, the restaurant has its beer brewed by Red Brick Station in White Marsh, Md. It’s one of the high points here. Oh, how I wish the food was better!

The bottom line: A good place for kids who’ll enjoy the firehouse trappings, or for sports bar fans, with food just a ladder rung above chain fare.

8131 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-585-1370, www.firestation-1.com. $$

Go: Food, Wine & Co.

The people: Francis Namin, who formerly owned Bethesda’s Centro Italian Grill and currently operates three Don Pollo restaurants in Maryland, has gone through a slew of staff since opening his latest, largest venture, an American bistro in the former Uno Chicago Grill space. Michael Harr, the third executive chef, was wearing the top toque at press time.

The place: Comfortable but sophisticated, this is one of Bethesda’s most stunning new spaces. It’s loud and lively on Saturday nights, with lots of action at both the booze bar and the raw bar, but other times it can be refreshingly sedate.

The food: With three executive chefs in six months—and gaps in between—the food has had its ups and downs. Nevertheless, there are always dishes that stand out—you just never know which ones they’ll be. On a recent visit, the red curry Penn Cove mussels were terrific. The mollusks, from Washington state, were white and plump, and the sauce was vibrant with toasted coconut, curry and cilantro leaves. (A bowl of mussels on a previous visit wasn’t nearly as good.) Other dishes to order again include the fried artichoke appetizer and a hamburger (a grilled rib eye previously sampled was also repeat-worthy). But on my no-fly list are the bland, roasted parsnip soup; the crispy-skinned rockfish, a mishmash with its braised fennel, citrus sauce and roasted almond pesto; the soupy mandarin passion crisp; and the dry, oddly rectangular piece of key lime cheesecake.

The bottom line: A welcome oasis from the crowds and parking headaches at Bethesda Row, with a promising new chef.

7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-8008, www.foodwineandco.com. $$

Don’t bother: Kabob Bazaar

The people: Opened by Bruce Sarvghadi, who has owned Kabob Bazaar in Arlington for about 17 years.

The place: Formerly occupied by Javan, another Persian restaurant, the space was renovated without really changing its feel. Dimly lit, with dark tables and brick walls.

The food: “It’s not as good as Moby Dick,” was the first thing out of my kids’ mouths after they launched into their chicken and lamb kabobs. Indeed, the kabobs and the kubideh (ground sirloin) lacked the juicy, char-grilled taste of those at the venerable restaurant south on Wisconsin Avenue. Kabob Bazaar’s skewers seemed to have been left too long on the grill, as the meats lacked moisture and punch. Charred and smoky-black around the edges, the onions and peppers were the best part.

The bottom line: Average Persian restaurant replaces the average one before it.  

 7710 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-5814, www.kabobbazaar.com. $

Don’t bother: K Town Bistro

The people: Gonzalo Barba, formerly the longtime captain at the Watergate Hotel restaurant, has opened a place in the culinary wasteland of Kensington.

The place: Housed in the short-lived K-Town Grill, the restaurant has been updated with local artwork and sunny yellow walls. The service is friendly and well-meaning.

The food: Clunky continental dishes that are not inexpensive—a full dinner for two can cost $100. Sauces are the main problem here; the scallops were set in a gluey, salty lobster sauce, and the duck à l’orange had lovely slices of slightly pink breast meat, but its sauce was wan and uninspiring. The fried oysters fared better; lying atop a bed of avocado mousse, they were crispy as promised. And then there’s the “Airline Chicken.” If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.

The bottom line: Nice try, but not likely to put Kensington on the dining destination map.

3784 Howard Ave., Kensington, 301-933-1211, www.ktownbistro.com. $$

Go: Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro

The people: This is the fourth Matchbox from friends Mark Neal, Ty Neal, Drew Kim and Perry Smith. Two are downtown, one is in Palm Springs, Calif., plus they own Ted’s Bulletin and DC-3, also downtown.

The place: A real wow, with seating for more than 400, 25-foot ceilings, two bars, two outdoor patios, two brick ovens, a private party room, a mezzanine level, a fireplace and an outdoor fire pit. Of course, the tables are embedded with matchboxes, each with a different theme.

The food: Who eats lunch at 3:30? The place was still packed at that time, some two months after opening. Let’s hope the early crowds abate, as nobody should have to wait two hours to eat a pizza, even though this is great pizza. Matchbox makes one of the more interesting vegetarian pies around, with cremini mushrooms, Spanish onions, roasted poblano peppers, roasted garlic, mozzarella, fresh herbs and fingerling potato crisps. (And yes, those potato chips work.)

Aside from the crackly, smoky and thin-crusted pizza, the restaurant’s other signature dish is its sliders. I opted for the mini trio, which consisted of two of those baby burgers (amazing), plus two pan-seared scallops (excellent) and two mini-crab cakes (good). A place called Matchbox pizza is probably not the place to order an entrée, and the rockfish with its parsley and pine-nut risotto, roasted red peppers and whole grain mustard sauce was a little indelicate, but definitely better than expected. (Note to kitchen: Get rid of that amoeba-shaped crab patty on top of the fish.)

The bottom line: A giant leap from the Ruby Tuesday-type restaurants of Rockville Pike.

1699 Rockville Pike (in Congressional Plaza), Rockville, 301-816-0369, www.matchboxrockville.com. $$

Go: Mussel Bar

The people: Kensington resident and big-name chef Robert Wiedmaier has opened his first suburban Maryland restaurant. The area’s king of Belgian cuisine also owns Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck downtown, and BRABO, BRABO Tasting Room and The Butcher’s Block, A Market by RW, in Alexandria.

The place: A loud, trendy, no-frills beer hall, Mussel Bar has been packed since it opened last summer, so go at off times if you want to hear your dining partner. 

The food: When the restaurant first opened, chef de cuisine Robert Gadsby was at the helm; he left in January. I enjoyed the food when Gadsby was there, and revisited it both when an interim chef was in charge, and also after Matt Hagan was appointed as the new chef de cuisine. I’d say the place has remained pretty consistent, with a few ups and downs. At one recent lunch, the Classic mussel dish had a lovely broth (the strongest feature of this place), but after tasting the Penn Cove mussels at Food, Wine & Co., I’d say that those mollusks are superior in size, sweetness and meatiness to the Prince Edward Island shellfish used at Mussel Bar. I had liked the savory tarts in the past, particularly the one with wild mushrooms, but subsequently had two that weren’t so great, including the Mediterranean, which badly needed a few shakes of salt. Desserts have been surprisingly good, and the kitchen makes a top-notch Reuben special with house-made corned beef.

The bottom line: An Old World Belgian roadhouse on Woodmont Avenue. There’s nothing else like it in Bethesda.    

7262 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-215-7817, www.musselbar.com. $$