Here in the suburbs of DC, we’re occasionally treated to an evening when balmy temperatures bid us to dine al fresco. Many Bethesda restaurants have moved tables and chairs outside to accommodate patrons seeking a meal under the stars.
My picks for outdoor dining spots, though you’re only steps from busy traffic, you’ll feel transported by quality cooking and courteous service.
Most Romantic Streetside Dining: Mon Ami Gabi
My favorite outdoor dining is Mon Ami Gabi for a few reasons. First, the patio seating on the side near the Landmark Theatre is a quiet place to watch people stroll in and out of the theater (while avoiding car fumes, and the voyeur in me enjoys hearing people comment on their movie experience.)
The service here, whether inside or out, is almost always exceptional. Sometimes choosing to dine outside can impede the level of attentiveness—not so at Mon Ami Gabi. Some staff are assigned exclusively to patio tables.
I covet the wine here, especially the quaffable French champagnes. You can’t beat the crusty warm baguette served upon arrival that includes their signature shredded-carrot appetizer and creamy butter on the side.
The menu is smallish, because Chef Andrew Fleischauer’s kitchen focuses on making every dish perfect. Whether you’re hungry for a provincial French dish like Trout Amandine, or prefer to share a warm, hazelnut-encrusted brie cheese for your hors d’oeuvre, this romantic bistro offers savory, consistent fare that even Julia Child would approve.
I recently tried Steak Frites accompanied by a rich Bordelaise sauce—swooning over the tender, buttery-thin beef and crispy hand-cut fries. Each bite of the complexly layered sauce (shallots, peppercorn, red wine, marrow and fresh thyme) raised my appreciation for traditional French cuisine.
On the lighter side, Le Poisson, or in our case, Arctic Char (fish resembling salmon in taste and appearance) was lightly seasoned and nestled atop a choice of veggies. Choosing is difficult when faced with options like luscious pommes puree (mashed potatoes), sinful and succulent sautéed spinach, and spring-fresh brussel sprouts—just to name a few of the highlights.
If you arrive early, between 4 – 6:30 p.m., check out the Happy Hour specials including $5 appetizers like country pate and onion soup au gratin, and half-price house wines by the glass or bottle. For true ambiance, stay after dusk, when above your table, twinkling white lights turn your fellow diner’s faces aglow, and white tablecloths and red awnings render a classic European bistro vibe. Mon Ami Gabi is a little bit of French culture in our hectic suburban world–an ideal place to romance and impress that special someone.
Most Fashionable Streetside Dining:Redwood
While the food is sometimes hit or miss at Redwood, you’ll find dining al fresco very entertaining. Tables poised under Bethesda Lane’s string of white lights offer an opportunity to observe dapper pedestrians of all ages—many with really cute dogs—wandering by.
Strangely, both times that I dined here in the last two months, film crews were shooting commercials for television in this alley. But even on an ordinary evening, it’s pleasant sitting here, especially since there are no cars. The wait staff is amicable. They will joke with you, or leave you alone, whatever you prefer. The service is slow-paced, so you can hang out and sip from their wide selection of wine and beer—they have eight superior craft beers on draft, including Allagash White Ale and Dogfish Head Festina Peche.
Redwood caters to diners who like pungent, brawny flavors in generous portions. It’s a nice place to share plates. On some nights, they offer a prix fixe menu of three courses for $30. Happy hours are Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. with discounted food and beverages. On Sundays at lunch, and on some weekdays, you’re treated to live music.
My favorite dishes at Redwood are the appetizers, especially the gratin of baby artichokes. It’s very rich, made with sunchokes, fingerling potatoes and locally produced goat cheese from Pipe Dreams farm. This sultry dish arrives steaming hot in a cast iron pot. For something lighter, the roasted beets and arugula is a twist of golden and red beets, paired with goat cheese, rustic arugula leaves, shaved pistachios in a tangy citrus dressing.
For an entrée, we’ve enjoyed the Scottish salmon with Parmesan polenta and the pan-seared mahi mahi straddling velvety butternut squash risotto. Redwood’s Creekstone Farm New York strip steak stands up to any high-end steak house’s primordial preparation; it’s served with potato parsley fritters and wild mushroom ragout.
For dessert, opt for a selection of three to five artisanal cheeses, or homemade ice creams and sorbet. For cocktails, a meal, dessert or small plates, Redwood is a fine place for outdoor dining.
Most Family-Friendly Outdoor Dining: Hamburger Hamlet
Although Mamma Lucia and Uncle Julio’s win highest honors in any kid-friendly contest, sometimes you’d rather not deal with parking in downtown Bethesda with kids in tow. Parents might prefer the relatively stress-free parking at Georgetown Square on Old Georgetown Road.
Here you’ll find a slew of fast food places to eat, but only Hamburger Hamlet offers full-service dining, including some secluded patio seating that faces the shady square in the middle of the center. Kids can escape between courses and play on the steps (with supervision), but often the service is fast enough that your kid won’t go crazy. The staff also gives out crayons and games to play.
The menu is all-American food, with the namesake hamburger being the preferred dish. They do offer hearty salads like Chinese chicken, Sante Fe, cobb or Mediterranean chopped salads, along with a full range of appetizers and some tasty, spiced-up French fries.
For some time, this restaurant had lost its luster in my eyes, but a recent meal there was surprisingly tasty. The burgers were juicy and well-prepared with finger-licking toppings like shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, barbecue sauce, avocado and serrano chili pesto.
The kids’ menu is standard fare—chicken fingers, pasta, grilled cheese—but they’ve added baby cheeseburgers and mini turkey corn dogs to broaden horizons. Even the pickiest adolescent will appreciate French onion soup or roadhouse chili. The prices aren’t cheap, but the portions are generous, so you may end up with something for lunch the next day.
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.