When it’s time to celebrate a special occasion, most of the better restaurants in the area are only too happy to offer up a Tasting Menu.  Designed by the chef and choreographed from start to finish, these multi-course culinary adventures have become de rigeur for celebratory dining.  And because they show off the skills of the chef and the best of what’s in the kitchen, they tend to be meals to remember.

Unfortunately, those meals come with the kind of price tag that makes them impossible for most of us to do with any regularity.  Sure, you can order off the a la carte menu and save some cash, but there are some real deals out there that allow even the most dedicated of bargain hunters to enjoy the cuisine at a few of the highest-rated restaurants in the area.  You just need to know where to look.

The Inn at Little WashingtonBoxed Lunches
Yes, that Inn at Little Washington.  For more than thirty years, Chef Patrick O’Connell’s cuisine has drawn guests to “little” Washington more than an hour away from the District.  The setting and the service don’t hurt, of course, but this is still the Holy Grail for many DC foodies.  The cost of dinner at the Inn begins at $148 per person (Sunday through Thursday) and tops out at $178 on Saturday nights.  Add in the cost of wine and a room at the Inn so you don’t have to drive back after your two-to-three hour meal concludes, and you’re looking at a significant investment.

This past weekend, while on a road trip through northern Virginia that turned up an impressive winery (Gray Ghost) and a charming downtown worth further exploration (Culpeper), we discovered the Inn at Little Washington’s great big secret: they offer an $18 boxed lunch that’s packed with enough food for two people!

What you get for the money – and a pair of additional money-saving dining options – after the jump.

Inside the box were: a pair of country ham biscuits that were perfectly moist and deliciously salty, a slaw that was light with just a hint of mustard and vinegar, a potato salad that immediately recalled summer cookouts, a bag of locally-made Route 11 potato chips, a bottle of water and our choice of a chocolate chip or salted oatmeal raisin cookie (we chose both by purchasing a second cookie).  The lunches are available on a first come, first served basis on weekends and by special order during the week.

There was nothing about the menu or the food itself that was revolutionary…quite the opposite, in fact.  It was the simple, nearly flawless execution of some time-tested favorite dishes that impressed us.  Everything just seemed to have a deeper flavor than comparable dishes served elsewhere.  Maybe it was the mystique of the Inn (we did eat our lunch in the gardens just a few feet from Chef O’Connell’s kitchen).  But whatever the reason, we couldn’t get over our good fortune to be able to enjoy the cuisine of the Inn at Little Washington without having to take out a loan.

The Inn at Little Washington
Middle and Main Streets
Washington, VA
The Inn at Little Washington on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Eve – Lickity Split Lunch
By now it’s pretty common knowledge that Chef Cathal Armstrong takes good care of the lunch crowd at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria.  Stop in between 11:30 AM and 4 PM Monday through Friday, and you can get a two-course lunch for $13.50.  Take your picks from a menu that includes cocktails and draft beer, daily special soups and salads, a range of entrees and even desserts.

A word to the wise: find a friend who can help you tackle a broader swath of the menu…you’re going to want bites of whatever your guest ordered.  When we were last there, we were blown away by the papri chat, a dish inspired by Indian flavors and featuring a savory blend of garbanzo beans and potato with yogurt and spices.  The Irish BLT, with its thick slice of slab bacon, was another favorite.  The birthday cake (consumed without irony on this particular occasion) hit those classic notes of sugary sweetness with light, spongy cake.

With three tasting menu options ranging from $110 to $150 per person in the Tasting Room, Restaurant Eve’s Lickity Split Lunches remain an economical alternative.  And the options on the deal rival those available just about anywhere I’ve tried in the DC metro area.  To change up the routine a bit, feel free to stop by the Majestic on King Street (one of the Armstrongs’ other properties) and take advantage of a similar offer in their bar area.

Restaurant Eve
110 South Pitt St.
Alexandria, VA

Palena – Palena Cafe

Palena may only be half the splurge that Eve and the Inn at Little Washington are (a four course tasting menu with dessert will only set you back $76), but it’s still a bit of welcome relief to know that they’ve got a more budget-friendly option for exploring their menu as well.  When you enter the restaurant, you’re already in what is known as Palena Cafe.  No “Monkfish ‘Milanese'” or similarly high profile (and high cost) dishes from the restaurant’s menu here, just simple food well-prepared.

There are two dishes on this menu that far outpace the rest in terms of popularity: the Palena cheeseburger and the roast chicken.  The cheeseburger sneaks a few high-end flourishes into the mix, to remind you why Frank Ruta was one of Washington’s first well-known chef/restaurateurs.  He tops the patty with a deliciously earthy truffled cheese and a little bit of garlicky mayonnaise, and he serves it with seasonal pickles.  The roast chicken is pretty much just that…but it’s brined in a top-secret blend of spices and served with a perfectly uniform, crispy brown skin.  At $12 and $15, respectively, they fit into just about any dining out budget – and they’ve both got loyal followers who would gladly eat them lunch and dinner seven days a week if it were possible.

Unlike at the Inn and Eve, though, Palena Cafe is only open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10.  That may be bad news for those who are looking to wake up their lunch hour with one of these perfected classics.  But it gives you a chance to taste former White House Chef Frank Ruta’s handiwork when you’re waiting to see a show at the Uptown, and it certainly provides a more economical and laid-back alternative to the more formal dining room experience in the back.

Palena & Palena Cafe
3529 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC
Palena on Urbanspoon