Cocktails in hand, we are escorted to an interior window at the open kitchen, where the chef hands us our aperitiu to enjoy as he describes Xiquet’s signature cooking style. Here at this 24-seat Spanish Valencian restaurant in Washington, DC’s Glover Park neighborhood, every hot dish, even the rice, is cooked over a wood fire, which lends a full, smoky flavor.
Next, the host brings us to an elegantly set table paired with two padded leather chairs, where she outlines our upcoming experience: a chef’s tasting menu of 14 courses (at $255 per person with optional $200 wine pairings, it’s an occasion, not a typical Saturday night out).
Steak frites numbers among the French offerings at Le Diplomate. Photo by James C.Jackson/Le Diplomate
I am dining with “Sheila,” a AAA Diamond inspector with a background in the hospitality field who’s been on the job with AAA for three decades. We’re here anonymously (hence, the pseudonym), the standard practice for AAA restaurant inspectors, who typically dine at some 75 restaurants each year. They score each dining establishment in three primary areas: food, which is weighted most heavily, followed by service and décor.
In 2022, Xiquet added to its numerous accolades AAA’s coveted Five Diamond designation, a distinction held by just 1 percent of restaurants inspected by AAA, making it the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant in DC.
The Valencian cuisine at Xiquet leans heavily toward seafood, such as this turbot with seared radicchio and smoked trout roe. Photo by Sarah Maista/Xiquet
THE FIVE DIAMOND EXPERIENCE
Our first course at Xiquet is a delightful mélange of flavors and consistencies: a thick scallop nestled alongside blood orange segments, paired with caviar and nyora peppers, with sea beans to add a touch of brine.
The meal continues, each “composition,” as Xiquet terms them, served to Sheila and me by waiters working in military precision. Turbot with garlic purée and seared radicchio. Squab and quail with foie mousse molded to resemble a stone.
Cranes’ menu of small plates includes popular fare such as potatoes brava. Photo courtesy of Cranes
Through the meal, Sheila points out the niceties that contribute to the restaurant’s Diamond designation: the imaginative cuisine, the cards delivered before each course detailing the succulence to come, and the distinctive utensils for each course, including a tapas spoon. “You don’t see tapas spoons in many places,” she notes. “It’s a sign of an elevated dining experience.”
Well into the three-and-a-half-hour indulgence, we confess to each other that we can’t eat another bite. But when dessert arrives—carob cake served with matcha ice cream, white chocolate ganache and caramel sauce—well, who could resist? The evening wraps up on the restaurant’s mezzanine-level lounge with after-dinner drinks, coffee and cookies. And, then we’re sent off, but not without a goodie bag of two dark chocolate and almond turrones and the restaurant’s standard thank-you card.
French-style café Le Diplomate in DC’s 14th Street corridor is a favorite for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Photo by James C Jackson
Sheila and I dine at four DC-area restaurants over the course of three days. In between meals, she also checks out a few hotels that are on the to-be-inspected list. AAA has 35 inspectors, each with their own geographic territory, who rate dining and lodging establishments throughout the US, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
A AAA restaurant inspector needs not only a discerning palate but also the observant eye of a detective. The first hurdle for a restaurant, of course, is cleanliness; without that, a restaurant will never receive AAA Approval. Beyond that is where it gets interesting. The inspector scores the restaurant in 49 individual categories, from the decor and the decibel level in the dining room to the knowledge and affability of the staff, and from the appeal of the plated food to the quality and flavor of the cuisine.
“I always eat with my back to the wall so that I can see the entire restaurant and everything that’s going on,” Sheila explains as we take our seats for a meal.
“Is that a chip on your plate?” she asks. I look at the underside of the plate’s rim. Indeed, it is.
“That’s an appealing presentation,” she says, nodding toward a neighboring diner’s appetizer. “At the Four and Five Diamond level, you’ll see beautifully plated foods appealing to the senses and perfect for an Instagram shot. These days, you’ll notice a trend toward more courses, unique presentation and seating that allows guests to peer into the kitchen.”
Cranes’ shishito peppers with sesame sauce and sesame seeds. Photo courtesy of Cranes
THREE, FOUR OR FIVE DIAMONDS?
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 of restaurants, and we try to balance the number of highly rated restaurants with interesting casual spots so there’s variety.”
One afternoon, we lunch at Le Diplomate, a AAA Three Diamond brassiere in the heart of the trendy greater 14th Street NW area and the “place in DC where you’re most likely to see a politician,” according to Sheila.
Sheila gives the restaurant high scores for its décor of vibrant green tile walls, white marble tabletops, red banquettes and comfy wicker chairs. Le Diplomate is a busy place, and the tables are close together, but we can still converse easily.
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 crispy romaine lettuce.
The service at Le Diplomate is prompt and polite but not as over the top as the attention that marked our meal at Xiquet. Here, lunch is pleasant and tasty—and merits a return—but it’s not an occasion, and it doesn’t have that hefty price tag.
Our meals at two AAA Four Diamond restaurants are as different from each other as our experiences at Xiquet and Le Diplomate.
As we are ushered into the dining room at 1789 Restaurant & Bar in Georgetown, I note the hushed atmosphere and traditional furnishings well-suited to the early 19th-century building the restaurant occupies. (The name 1789 refers to the year nearby Georgetown University was founded.) It’s an event sort of restaurant, Sheila tells me, a place where diners celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and graduations.
The decor at 1789 Restaurant tends toward the traditional, as befits its early 19th-century building. Photo courtesy of 1798 restaurant
The plating is noteworthy, and we are presented with varied dishware and utensils for each course. But the food here, while quite good (Sheila calls the dinner rolls “little pillows of heaven”), is less imaginative than the tasting menu at Five Diamond Xiquet. Think rockfish, duck breast and rack of lamb instead of sweet paprika eel with potato souffle.
We eat our final meal at Cranes Spanish Kaiseki, where Chef Pepe Moncayo fuses Spanish Catalan and Japanese cuisine into unique appetizing dishes. Rather than a chef’s tasting, guests choose their own experience by selecting tapas from an extensive menu.
Our servers are positive and energetic and make several spot-on suggestions for dishes and accompanying wines that might appeal to us. We dine on small plates such as eggplant confit, acorn squash and carrot tempura, stuffed dorade (also known as mahi mahi) and Sheila’s favorite, mushroom rice. The open kitchen provides a theater-like show in the background. It’s another excellent meal in the Nation’s Capital.
Chef Danny Lledó greets diners at his AAA Five Diamond restaurant Xiquet. Photo by Sarah Matista/Xiquet
THE DINING ADVENTURE CONTINUES
Next up on my dining agenda? My younger daughter loves Thai food, so I’m thinking that when I visit her in Atlanta, we’ll eat at Nan Thai Fine Dining, designated Four Diamonds by AAA. Closer to home, I can select among six Four Diamond restaurants and one Five Diamond in Philadelphia. And, next time I’m in Cincinnati, I may try the French and Italian fare at Four Diamond Boca.