Futoshi “Tao” Takazato got his first gig working at a sushi restaurant when he was 24 years old. From the start, he was mesmerized by how fish could be transformed into a colorful, delicious piece of art. It took Tao six months of practicing and learning before he’d make sushi for a customer; it took him five years to actually feel comfortable doing it. Eventually, Tao graduated to head chef. Rather than marking the occasion by etching an oven mitt into his driver's license, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant, and Maneki Neko was born.
Translated, Maneki Neko means “beckoning cat.” In Japan, a waving cat is a symbol of good fortune. In fact, the image is often propped up in the windows of businesses as a way to welcome customers inside. A similarly welcoming atmosphere pervades Maneki Neko, with staff members reaching a first-name basis with regular customers and customers who bring in notarized copies of their birth certificates. Niceties aside, it’s the cooking that turns first-time guests into regular visitors. Tao and his staff specialize in sushi, but they also craft other traditional Japanese dishes. They create savory pancakes called okonomiyaki and sauté pork with noodles to form the Okinawa Soba entree.
It's rare to hear the words "gourmet" and "kid-friendly" in the same sentence, but that is exactly what Pie-tanza strives to be. Indeed, adults and kids can both enjoy the novelty of sitting at the counter that surrounds Ed McKee and Karen Waltman's open kitchen and watching as chefs hand-stretch Neapolitan-style dough, slather it with chunky tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, and slide it into the 600-degree wood-burning oven. It's the oven that makes these pizzas so authentic, producing the crispy, chewy, bubbly thin crust that is the hallmark of a true Neapolitan-style pie. Familiar enough for younger diners, the pies can also be made a little more refined, thanks to grownup-friendly gourmet toppings such as rosemary chicken and fresh basil, or tri-colored peppers and kalamata olives. The restaurant’s other authentic Italian eats include hearty baked pastas and sandwiches, which feature hot toasted sub rolls or fine leather wallets stuffed with slow-cooked meatballs, roast turkey, or prime rib and cheddar cheese. Of course, no Italian meal would be complete without dessert, so diners should save room for mini chocolate-dipped cannoli or a java-chip brownie sundae topped with crushed dark-chocolate-covered espresso beans.
Since 1950—when it was still known as simply Frozen Custard—staff members at Frozen Dairy Bar and Boardwalk Pizza have applied themselves to the daily task of mixing five custard flavors. In addition to pleasing generations of adoring customers, this dedication earned them a mention in The Washington Post in 2009. Richer than regular ice cream because of its higher butterfat content, slower production times, and well-maintained trust fund, their custard comes in classic vanilla and chocolate as well as a rotating flavor of the day that has, in the past, included mango with diced fresh mango and coconut-and-peanut-butter-fudge swirl packed with pieces of brownie.
In 2007, the owners added New York style pizza to the menu, continuing the tradition of making their menu items fresh each day with hand-tossed dough made from scratch, crowned with fresh toppings, and baked to order in a stone pizza oven. The specialty pies such as Popeye’s favorite—adorned with spinach, roasted red peppers, and eggplant—join fellow Italian specialties such as sub sandwiches served on toasted bread and pasta entrees including baked ziti.
Chefs use grass-fed beef, cage-free chicken, and steroid-free pulled pork that hail from sustainable sources to craft a bounty of tortilla-wrapped treats that take their names from the likes of Caddyshack, Fletch, and Seinfeld. It's this dual mindset of serious food and irreverent attitude that tinges every one of the eatery's southwestern morsels, from the Art Vandalay burrito to the John Coctostan quesadilla. As the kitchen staff crafts their daily batch of guacamole to join the lineup of six zesty salsas, diners choose from a list of more than 20 ingredients to fill out the entree that will soon be conjured before their eyes. Because dishes are made to order, each finds easy customization for vegetarian, gluten free, and low-calorie diets, and the absence of microwaves, trans-fats, and MSG keep eats wholesome. Meanwhile, a complimentary accompaniment of chips and salsa turns portions into full meals faster than an industry-grade blow-up ray.
Ethiopian owner Meaza Zemedu's Meaza Restaurant, which has been featured in such press outlets as the Washingtonian and the Washington Post, was born of humble roots. Zemedu started her business by supplying local Ethiopian stores with her home-baked injera bread, a crepelike staple of Ethiopian cuisine. Demand for the tangy bread grew, allowing her to open her majestic restaurant, which welcomes guests to dine on traditional Ethiopian fare. Northern Virginia Magazine heaped praise upon the menu, including the doro wat stew?the national dish of Ethiopia?which includes chicken, red pepper, garlic, and hard-boiled eggs. Many of Meaza?s dishes are flavored with purified, spiced Ethiopian butter, from the ye beg kikil?lamb stew in spicy sauce?to the kifto?ground beef traditionally served raw or rare and mixed with cardamom and a mitmita spice blend. The chefs still bake Zemedu's injera from teff grain as an ubiquitous side and utensil alongside the fare.
The complex Ethiopian spice blends enchant guests throughout the 7,000-square-foot space?which comprises a dining room, grocery store, and banquet hall?as they admire portraits of Ethiopian emperors painted on lambskins along one wall. Throughout three elevated tiers, white and red cloths coat each table and patrons recline into patterned cushioned chairs. Sweeping bands of color swirl and draw eyes toward the ceiling, enhancing the dining room?s air of spaciousness.
You might momentarily forget your hunger when you step into Curry Mantra's striking, newly expanded dining room, where vivid Indian artwork speckles the warm orange and yellow walls. Your appetite is reawakened, however, when you peer into the large kitchen window and catch sight of juicy morsels of lamb, salmon, and chicken waiting to be cooked in tandoori ovens. When discussing his decision to install a kitchen window with a food critic Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post, owner Asad Sheikh explained, "I want my customers to see what's going on in the tandoor." He's proud of the work that goes on in his kitchen, which earned Curry Mantra a spot on Northern Virginia magazine's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2011 and 2012, and Washingtonian Magazine's Best of Fairfax 2013. His chefs pull culinary inspiration from all four corners of India, folding lamb, chicken, and seafood into a wide variety of flavorful curries and fiery vindaloos. To craft their goat biryani rice dish, the chefs use a generations-old recipe passed down to Sheikh from his grandmother, peppering aromatic basmati rice and tender goat meat with saffron and nuts.
Silverware clinks against glass tabletops in the dining room, where diners sip on glasses of wine and creamy mango lassi. Come lunchtime, a buffet table will stretch across the room, lined with silver trays of freshly made dishes. On the weekends, the eatery hosts live music, as traditional flutists and drummers play classical Indian music and the theme from Three's Company upon request.