Photo courtesy Zest Bistro

This weekend, CHAMPS (Capitol Hill’s Chamber of Commerce) held their second annual “Hilly” awards honoring local businesses on the Hill and H Street, NE.  A few days earlier, I had back-to-back conversations about Barracks Row and the changes it has seen in the past decade.  The combination made me realize just how many new restaurants I’ve been visiting on 8th Street in the past few months.

Of the contenders, the one I’ve found myself drawn to most often is Zest Bistro. The decor is clean and bright.  The food delivers consistently.  But it’s the service that makes me most comfortable suggesting Zest for a working lunch over and over.

Zest is located at the far south of Barracks Row, literally across the street from the Marine Corps barracks.  As such, it’s a bit removed from the recent explosion of new establishments closer to the Metro and Eastern Market.  It’s well situated to appeal to crowds coming from Nationals Stadium after a game, but you’ve got to be seeking it out if you’re coming from the north.  And you should.

What sets Zest apart (besides geography) after the jump.

Zest is the work of neighborhood resident Amanda Briggs, and her energy and enthusiasm seem to have permeated every aspect of the restaurant.  There’s something about Zest’s service that makes it feel simultaneously effortless and especially attentive.  Servers are quick to fill a water glass, but they don’t ask how you’re enjoying everything seconds after dropping off your plates.  Recommendations are offered candidly, making me feel like I’m getting an opinion and not a sales pitch.  It’s an impressive level of service at a restaurant whose clientele tends toward neighbors, business lunches and Marines from the barracks.

Good service is great, but it would be wasted if the food didn’t match up.  The standout across my various visits has been a sandwich of roasted leg of lamb, feta and caramelized onions served on grilled flatbread.  The pomegranate “barbecue” sauce raised a red flag the first time I saw it on the menu, but thankfully I overcame my initial hesitation.  The sweetness of the pomegranate is cut nicely by an acidic, vinegary bite, and the combination adds a welcome tang to the spices of the lamb.  Braised beef short ribs are fall-apart tender and the cheddar grits they’re served over are suitably decadent.  It’s a big appetizer, though not overwhelming.

I had to try the “muffaletta” with smoked turkey twice to appreciate the sandwich for what it is.  The first time, I let that name fool me into thinking I would be biting into something akin to the delicious sandwiches I found throughout New Orleans.  I was expecting something sharp and piquant, with a thick but chewy bread.  Instead, I got a smoked turkey sandwich with melted provolone, arugula, and nicoise olives with their deep, earthy brine.  The second time, I went in with no such illusions and I found the sandwich to be quite tasty in its own regard.  But that misleading name doesn’t do it any favors.

Sandwiches are served with either house salad tossed with a vinaigrette or thin, crispy french fries, and a lunch special allows you to pair either oven-roasted tomato soup or a seasonal alternative with one of a handful of dishes.

Inside, Zest Bistro offers an aesthetic of light woods and exposed brick.  It’s bright and airy with a surprisingly modern-looking bar toward the front and an inviting open kitchen at the rear.  As far as I’m concerned, this is pure “American Bistro” vibe.

I’ve never had to wait for a table, but I have yet to find the place empty, either.  Zest seems to have found their niche at the southern end of Barracks Row, and I’m glad to know they’re there when lunch meetings call.

Zest Bistro
735 8th St., SE
Washington, DC
Zest Bistro on Urbanspoon