September-October 2021 | Food & Drink

Neighborhood favorites

Eight restaurants where the good food and friendly vibes keep bringing locals back

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Bartender Francis Jeffrey (left) with customer Tony Cauterucci at Sal’s Italian Kitchen in Cabin John. Photo by Deb Lindsey

A neighborhood restaurant is community. It’s an owner saying hello at the door in one moment, then bussing a table or running food the next. It’s a Tanqueray and tonic hitting the bar as a regular pulls up a stool. It’s a gift card donated to support the high school swim team. The food—solid, but not necessarily revelatory—focuses more on the guests than the chef and doesn’t break the bank. Like a friend who found a hairstyle that suited them long ago and stuck with it, the decor can sometimes use an update, but even so, one thing’s for sure: Whether you enter with a walker or pushing a stroller, go there on a date or eat alone at the bar, you’ll be back next week—perhaps to one of the eight local restaurants we highlight here.

Sal’s Italian Kitchen bartender Francis Jeffrey with diner Nancy Magill. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Sal’s Italian Kitchen | Cabin John

It’s a Tuesday evening in June at Sal’s Italian Kitchen in Cabin John and a server dropping off food at a table spots two regulars on the restaurant’s MacArthur Plaza patio. Her face lights up. “Hey, guys! Where’ve you been?” she asks. Later, the three engage in animated chitchat, showing each other cellphone pics. Diners around the restaurant seem to know each other, too, many of them waving goodbye or hello and fist-bumping on the way in or out. “That happens at all three of our restaurants,” says Stephanie Salvatore, who, with her husband, Damian (he’s the executive chef), owns Sal’s, Wild Tomato a few doors down, and Persimmon in Chevy Chase. She sees parallels with a certain TV watering hole “where everybody knows your name.” “There are reasons why there are places like Cheers,” she says. “I don’t know what the magical ingredient is. Damian is a regular guy, a really good person, and so are the people who work for us, and people are drawn to that.” They’re also drawn to Damian’s Bolognese sauce, which guests buy by the quart, superlative chicken piccata, and Sicilian-style roasted cauliflower with cherry pepper and garlic chili oil.

Sal’s owners Stephanie and Damian Salvatore. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Sal’s seats 60 inside and 12 outside. Stephanie admits the decor—wood banquettes, cement floors, shelving fashioned with metal pipes—is basic, the result of a cash shortage in 2016, when they replaced Indigo House, their Asian fusion concept that lasted 14 months, with Sal’s.

The restaurant’s menu includes cioppino (fresh seafood stew) with crostini. Photo by Deb Lindsey

The Salvatores live in Garrett Park, but many of Stephanie’s family members moved from her native New Jersey and have lived in Cabin John for more than 30 years. She loves the neighborhood. “When the pandemic hit, the community said, ‘Not today! You’re not going to close on our watch!’ and they rallied and supported us. It showed such kindness.” Sal’s doesn’t take reservations because, Stephanie says, it keeps things more casual. “We’re a ‘let’s just walk on over, you do you’ kind of place.”

Sal’s Italian Kitchen, 7945 MacArthur Blvd., Cabin John, 240-802-2370, salsitaliankitchen.net


CAVA Mezze | Rockville

Three friends—Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis—grow up together in Montgomery County and wind up in the restaurant business, the first two as servers, the third as a chef. They decide to strike out on their own and, just before Thanksgiving in 2006, open a Greek small plates restaurant called CAVA Mezze in Rockville’s Traville Village Center.
Now, there are three other locations of CAVA Mezze (Olney, D.C. and Clarendon) and 130 outlets nationwide of CAVA, the restaurant’s fast-casual iteration, but the partners know that the heart of their empire beats from its first location.

“Not the sexiest spot, but the landlord was willing to take a chance on us,” Moshovitis says. “The neighborhood was really undeveloped back then. But what we didn’t know was that the neighborhood across the street—The Willows [of Potomac]—was huge, and the people there were starving for something new.” The place soon took off, with guests gobbling up tzatziki, kitschy saganaki (kefalograviera cheese set aflame tableside), grilled lamb chops and dishes Moshovitis’ mother, Angeliki, makes to this day for the restaurant: spanakopita and baklava. (Don’t miss the watermelon salad with blackberries and feta cheese.)

A mural of the three co-founders adorns one wall of a fairly nondescript interior that hasn’t changed much over the years, except for white paint on some formerly black walls. The restaurant has 55 seats inside, including 10 at the bar, and 40 outside. Moshovitis is the executive chef, but brothers Ramon and Juan Rivas have been the chefs de cuisine since day one.

One of CAVA Mezze’s first customers was a widower named Dr. Fred Sanford, a resident of The Willows and a retired Navy physician who is still active at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Dr. Fred is like our dad,” Moshovitis says. “He’s been to our weddings, to both of my children’s christenings and to some of our other team members’ life events. At Christmas, he gives the whole staff a bonus.” Sanford regarded CAVA Mezze from the beginning as a sort of neighborhood pub where he could eat alone or with neighbors that would show up. “The food is wonderful, and the quality hasn’t varied over the years. I just turned 80, and I plan on going there for many more years,” he says.

CAVA Mezze, 9713 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville, 301-309-9090, cavamezze.com


The Daily Dish incorporates fresh, local produce in its dishes, such as this peach salad with goat cheese, arugula, shaved red radishes, toasted pecans, chamomile vinaigrette and balsamic reduction. Photo by Deb Lindsey

The Daily Dish | Silver Spring

The Rev. John Mudd, a retired Catholic priest, is such a fixture at his favorite neighborhood restaurant that owner-chef Jerry Hollinger and staff refer to him as the mayor of The Daily Dish. “I tell everyone it’s my country club. The clubhouse is perfect, but they haven’t built the tennis courts, swimming pool or golf course yet,” jokes Mudd, who lives in Rock Creek Gardens, across Washington Avenue from the Rock Creek Shopping Center where The Daily Dish has operated since 2009. “I live by myself and have made a lot of friends there over the years. I’ve even [performed] weddings of people I met there. It’s just a fun place, almost like family for me.” He notes that the pizzas are good, the hamburgers terrific. “I don’t think I ever had a bad meal there.”

When Hollinger, who lives in Silver Spring’s Woodside neighborhood, took over the Red Dog Cafe and turned it into The Daily Dish, he started offering more daily specials, using more fresh produce and improving service. He got a liquor license and put in a 10-seat bar that has become a hub for regulars. It took several years to get established, but now the restaurant is a mainstay. It was named Favorite Gathering Place of the Year at the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s 2018 RAMMY awards.

Diners at brunch on the patio. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Chef José Rivas has helmed The Daily Dish’s kitchen for eight years. This June, his specials—always a good bet—included ultratender osso buco, and shrimp and salmon pappardelle with asparagus and peas. Hollinger had purchased the veggies on his weekly trip to Amish produce auctions in southeastern Pennsylvania. The menu always includes seasonal fish and seafood, such as soft-shell crabs, rockfish and halibut.

The narrow restaurant seats 50 indoors. A glass garage door in the front opens to a patio, where, after the onset of the pandemic, capacity doubled from 25 to 50. The restaurant features local artwork, and you can catch performances by local jazz musicians twice a month on Sundays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The Daily Dish, 8301 Grubb Road, Silver Spring, 301-588-6300, thedailydishrestaurant.com


Pacci’s Trattoria | Silver Spring

For North Potomac resident Spiro Gioldasis, who opened Pacci’s Trattoria in Forest Glen in 2012, the formula for a perfect neighborhood restaurant is pasta, Neapolitan-style pizzas baked in a wood-burning oven, and a loyal, kid-friendly staff.

Pacci’s seats 75 in a series of small rooms and 55 on a large patio. When indoor seating was prohibited during the pandemic, Gioldasis spruced up the place by painting the interior and adding lots of pictures from Italy (Sophia Loren figures prominently).

For Pacci’s regular Joe Petrucci, having a neighborhood restaurant is personal. He grew up in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania where all his favorite neighborhood places in his teenage years were replaced by big-box restaurants. Olive Garden’s arrival delighted townspeople but “disgusted” Petrucci, he says, because it replaced a beloved joint called Jimmy’s Lunch.

Petrucci had met Gioldasis through friends, and he, his wife, Meghan, and their two children, now 17 and 19, started frequenting the Pacci’s on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring when it opened in 2011. (It closed in 2018.) “When Spiro said he was going to open the trattoria [in Forest Glen], we were thrilled because we can walk there. We average maybe 80 trips a year there now,” Petrucci says. “Our kids have gotten to grow up having a neighborhood place like [Meghan and I] did. We always see people from the neighborhood there. We go with other neighborhood families on Sunday nights a couple of times a month and call it ‘Family Dinner.’ ” While other diners rave about the Margherita pizza, pappardelle bresaola and chicken marsala, Petrucci is devoted to a grilled pork chop special mounded with cherry tomatoes sauteed in butter with garlic, onions and herbs. “I’ve probably had 300 of those over the years,” he says.

Pacci’s Trattoria, 6 Post Office Road, Silver Spring, 301-588-0867, paccistrattoria.com


Buck’s Fishing & Camping | Upper Northwest D.C.

“Well, come on in” is painted on the glass entrance doors of Buck’s Fishing & Camping, an imperative I’ve been heeding ever since the restaurant opened in Upper Northwest D.C. in 2003. That’s not quite my neighborhood, but the charming 70-seat dining room with red walls, giant white Japanese lanterns, elaborate sprays of flora, and tables bedecked in red-checkered cloths calls me back over and over again. An added lure is the parking lot behind the strip of businesses (which includes the Politics and Prose bookstore, often a post-meal stop), as is the 20-seat patio that fronts Connecticut Avenue.

I’ve attended or hosted countless birthday celebrations and dinners with friends at Buck’s, often at the communal table running down its center, but mostly it remains a frequent Friday date night destination for my spouse and me, ensconced at the bar facing artist Lucy Hogg’s enormous painting of cherubs hovering above a naked Venus.

Chef James Rexroad helms the kitchen at Buck’s, which relies heavily on seasonal, locally produced ingredients. I love many dishes on the quintessentially American menu—the fish and chips, the roast chicken, the tower of ethereal onion rings—but usually order the wedge salad rife with creamy horseradish dressing and bacon, followed by a 16-ounce, wood-grilled prime New York strip—the best steak in town and, at $39, the biggest bargain, too. Owner James Alefantis is loath to raise the price. “I said all those years ago that we can’t go above $40. Now, people come for it. We make a little on it, but it’s a loss leader,” he says. The restaurant’s sole dessert, a square of buttermilk chocolate cake topped with warm chocolate sauce and unsweetened whipped cream, is divine.

General manager Siiri Saloma and server Nour eddine Bouzerda, who’ve worked at Buck’s as long as I can recall, make visits there extra special. “They know everybody,” Alefantis says. “Siiri knows who can sit next to whom and who got the restaurant in the divorce.”

Buck’s Fishing & Camping, 5031 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-364-0777, bucksfishingandcamping.com


Vasili’s Kitchen serves Greek food, including lamb chops with oven roasted potatoes, tzatziki, chermoula (herb sauce) and Greek coleslaw. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Vasili’s Kitchen Fresh Mediterranean | Gaithersburg

In 2001, Kentlands residents Julie and Vasilis “Bill” Hristopoulos opened Vasilis Mediterranean Grill on Main Street, a 1,500-square-foot restaurant with 50 seats that served simple Greek fare. In 2016, the mom-and-pop operation moved four blocks away and rebranded as a more upscale version, Vasili’s Kitchen Fresh Mediterranean, a 4,200-square-foot restaurant that accommodates 186, including 20 in the bar area and 80 on the patio. Katiria Morales is the restaurant’s chef. D.C. firm HapstakDemetriou+ designed the farmhouse industrial chic space, complete with Edison bulbs, reclaimed wood, a wood-burning oven, and a bar with glass shelves suspended from the ceiling to hold bottles of liquor.

The patio at Vasili’s Kitchen in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Dona Allen, a Kentlands resident for 15 years, goes to Vasili’s Kitchen two or three times a week. “I walk in the neighborhood all the time and had my eye on this place from the moment they moved the first timber. [My husband and I] couldn’t wait to go in. I think we helped open the door on the first day,” she says. Allen loves the beet salad, grilled lamb chops, branzino and the grilled talagani, a Greek sheep’s milk cheese. “It’s all soft and gooey and going right to your waistline, but it’s delicious!”

Angelo Xenakis (left), the general manager at Vasili’s Kitchen, and Bill Hristopoulos, the owner, at the bar. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Allen considers the staff and managing partners to be like family, but reserves her highest praise for general manager Angelo Xenakis. “There is not one aspect of management that Angelo does not participate in, from repairs to kitchen duty to developing new menu items that customers often get to sample,” she says. “My husband passed away in April [2020] in the middle of COVID. There were no churches, no way to have a funeral. Angelo said, ‘Why not have it here at the restaurant?’ ” The service was held there on Sept. 1, 2020, when indoor seating capacity was at 50%. “I’d have never thought to have a funeral in a restaurant,” Allen says. “Angelo has an extraordinary understanding of people.”

Vasili’s Kitchen Fresh Mediterranean, 705 Center Point Way, Gaithersburg, 301-977-1011, vasiliskitchen.com


Above: The bar at Fontina Grille in Rockville’s King Farm neighborhood. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Fontina Grille | Rockville

In the span of a few minutes on a bustling Saturday night, Fontina Grille’s majority owner, Ali Abduljabbar, dressed in a black T-shirt like the bussers, greets and seats guests, fixes a party’s wobbly table leg, delivers food to patio diners and laughs with regulars at the bar.

Right: The Italian fare includes crab and salmon rose—a linguini dish with crabmeat, salmon, spinach and rose cream. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Abduljabbar grew up in Derwood, earned a Bachelor of Science in information systems from the University of Maryland in 2003 and went into IT and finance. “I used to see cornfields in King Farm. When they built the development [in the late 1990s], I knew a restaurant would do very well there,” he says. When Fontina Grille, which had opened a week before 9/11, became available in 2008, he bought it. Five years ago, he made manager Jad Malaeb a managing partner and co-owner.

Rockville resident Ali Abduljabbar bought Fontina Grille in 2008. Photo Deb Lindsey

Coming into the restaurant business with so little experience, Abduljabbar, who lives in Rockville, knew that establishing relationships in the neighborhood early on was crucial to the survival of his business. King Farm resident Deann O’Brien, who works in business development for M&T Bank, has been a regular at Fontina Grille since it opened. Recently, she celebrated her mother’s 84th birthday there. “The bartenders, Jad, Ali know my mother. She feels special there. My daughter lives in the neighborhood and brings my 20-month-old granddaughter to my house in her stroller and we walk to the restaurant—no car seat to deal with. It’s fun for my husband to go to the bar alone when I have to be at events at night for my job. He made a lot of friends that way. When I have a client lunch, my first place to take them is to Fontina. It is our Cheers,” O’Brien says.

The restaurant’s 180 seats include 50 in the large bar area. “Most of my staff has been with me for more than 10 years, the kitchen staff from day one. Many start as bussers and go into manager positions. I’m very blessed in that sense,” Abduljabbar says. Bestselling dishes, prepared by chef Orbin Rodriguez, include penne a la vodka, eggplant parmigiana, seafood in a tomato cream sauce, and New York-style brick oven pizza.

Fontina Grille, 801 Pleasant Drive, Rockville, 301-947-5400, fontinagrille.com


Gringos & Mariachis | Potomac

On her brother’s recommendation in 2015, Potomac resident Rachel James, a teacher at St. Raphael School in Rockville, discovered Bethesda’s hip Mexican restaurant Gringos & Mariachis. “He told me I had to have the duck tacos. Even though I don’t eat duck, I tried them anyway and they were amazing. And the margaritas were life-changing,” she says. So when the restaurant opened a location in 2017 in Park Potomac—“walking distance on a nice day” from her Regency Estates home—she was elated. Since then, she and her husband, Brian, a financial analyst, have gone there two or three times a week, whether for a Friday date night or for dinner or noshes between soccer games with their three kids. She especially likes that the restaurant, with space for 100 diners inside and 50 outside, has big windows and garage doors that are opened when weather permits. “Even if you’re indoors, you’re still outdoors with the breeze coming through,” she says. Another plus: low staff turnover. “It’s nice to see the same faces over and over. The owners [Marc Miranian and Roberto and Riccardo Pietrobono] kept so many people working during the pandemic. It makes you think they take care of their staff.”

Day of the Dead-themed decor, including many murals by Mexican street artists, and a bustling bar scene contribute to Gringos & Mariachis’ cool vibe. Servers Billy Moore and Javier Melendez put on a show by lining up as many as eight plates of tacos, guacamole, ceviche and other specialties on each arm from hand to neck. And don’t pass up one of the 10 flavors of margaritas, James says. “I feel really lucky to have this in our neighborhood. There’s not a lot going on in the 2-0-8-5-4.”

Gringos & Mariachis, 12435 Park Potomac Ave., Potomac, 301-339-8855, gringosandmariachis.com

David Hagedorn is a cookbook author and the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine and Arlington Magazine.