By my third meal out with AAA Diamond inspector “Sheila,” I’ve noticed that she always claimed the seat against the wall. “That’s so I can see the entire restaurant and everything that’s going on,” she explained.
Sheila is not a spy, but I’ve joined her on a most delectable mission: dining anonymously at various restaurants in Washington, DC.
Tonight, we’re eating dinner at 1789 Restaurant & Bar in the capital’s Georgetown neighborhood. Sheila waves her hand around the room, indicating the traditional furnishings and artwork, appropriate, she says, for a restaurant housed in an early 19th-century building. She surveys our table settings—noting the silverware, the plates and the drinking glasses—and surreptitiously lifts a dish to see the maker’s marking on its underside.
When our entrées arrive—scallops for me, rabbit roulade for Sheila—she points out the appealing way the food is plated, with its varied colors and white space. The food tastes as good as it looks, and post-inspection, 1789 retains the AAA Four Diamond designation it has held since 2019.
Oysters at 1789 Restaurant; Photo courtesy of 1789 Restaurant
ON THE JOB
Tomorrow evening—after Sheila inspects a few hotels during the day—we’ll add a fourth restaurant. It’s all in a day’s work for Sheila, who spends about 100 days a year on the road to inspect more than 600 hotels and dine at some 75 restaurants. On other days, she writes detailed inspection reports as well as descriptions of hotels and restaurants that will appear in AAA’s online TourBooks, TripTiks, Trip Canvas and the AAA Mobile app.
AAA has some 40 inspectors, each with their own geographic territory, who fan out across North America and the Caribbean so that AAA members and other travelers have a guide to establishments they can feel confident in patronizing.
Most inspectors have a background in hospitality, perhaps as a restaurant manager, a housekeeping supervisor or a hotel general manager, says John Lubanski, a regional manager for the AAA Diamond Program. After several weeks of training in the office, they shadow other supervisors for another month or two before they’re ready to set out on their own, he adds. They also receive ongoing training throughout their careers.
Look for appetizingly plated foods at AAA Four Diamond venues such as Cranes Spanish Kaiseki; Photo courtesy of Cranes Spanish Kaiseki
A AAA Diamond inspector needs not only a discerning palate but also the observant eye of a detective. The inspector scores a restaurant in 49 individual categories, from the décor and the room decibel levels to the knowledge and affability of the staff; from the appeal of the plated food to the quality and flavor of the cuisine. The three most important facets of any dining establishment are the food, which is weighted most heavily, followed by service and design.
Restaurants merit a stamp of approval from AAA if they pass muster. More out-of-the-ordinary restaurants may, in addition, receive a designation of Three to Five Diamonds, which signifies an elevated level of cuisine, service and décor.
“We’re not trying to be an encyclopedia of restaurants,” Sheila explains. “We’re creating a curated list, and we try to balance the number of highly rated restaurants with interesting casual spots so there’s variety.” Venues range from amazing pizza joints to tried-and-true family restaurants to the highest-end fine dining establishments with tasting menus featuring innovative cuisine.
Chef Danny Lledo often greets customers at Xiquet; Photo by Sarah Matista/Xiquet
We eat dinner on the first of our three evenings together at Xiquet, a 24-seat Spanish Valencian restaurant in Washington, DC’s Glover Park neighborhood. With the chef’s tasting menu of 14 courses priced at $255 per person (optional wine pairings is an added $200), it’s an occasion, not a typical night out.
Each “composition,” as Xiquet terms them, is served by waiters working in military precision. Turbot with garlic purée and seared radicchio. Squab and quail with foie gras mousse molded to resemble a stone.
Well into the 3½-hour indulgence, dessert arrives—carob cake served with matcha ice cream, white chocolate ganache and caramel sauce. Who can resist?
Xiquet earns a Five Diamond designation from AAA, a distinction held by just 1 percent of AAA Diamond-designated restaurants.
Despite the indulgence of the night before, we’re back at it the following day with lunch at Le Diplomate, a AAA Three Diamond brasserie in the heart of the trendy 14th Street NW area.
To aid her memory, Sheila snaps occasional photos or jots down a few words on her phone. With cell phones and Instagram food photos omnipresent, no one is the wiser. She gives the restaurant high scores for its décor: vibrant green tile walls, white marble tabletops, red banquettes and comfy wicker chairs.We begin with gougères (a savory choux pastry mixed with cheese). Sheila opts for the tuna carpaccio appetizer as her meal, while I enjoy warm, perfectly cooked shrimp and creamy avocado slices with crisp romaine lettuce.
A selection of tapas at Cranes Spanish Kaiseki; Photo courtesy of Cranes Spanish Kaiseki
We eat our final meal at AAA Four Diamond Cranes Spanish Kaiseki, where Chef Pepe Moncayo fuses Catalan and Japanese cuisine into unique appetizing dishes.
Our servers are positive and energetic and make several spot-on suggestions for tapas and accompanying wines that might appeal to us. We dine on small plates such as eggplant confit, acorn squash and carrot tempura, stuffed dourade (also known as mahi mahi) and, Sheila’s favorite, mushroom rice. The open kitchen provides a theater-like background. With tasty food, attentive service and a pleasant atmosphere, it’s another delightful meal in the Nation’s Capital, all thanks to guidance from AAA Diamond inspectors.